“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is a Stunning Production — Review by Peter Heck

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“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” cast: on sofa – Brianna Johnson as Honey and Lyle Pinder as Nick, standing Brad Chaires as George, & Jen Friedman as Martha  — Photo by Jane Jewell

Edward Albee’s groundbreaking play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, currently playing at the Garfield Center in Chestertown, brings some of the strongest performances in recent years to the local stage. Directed by Gil Rambach, the play – as Rambach noted before the opening night performance – is challenging, even uncomfortable for audiences. But nobody who enjoys the theater should miss this production. Simply put, it’s electrifying.

Albee’s play had its Broadway debut in 1962, and it won both the Tony Award and the Drama Critics’ Award as best play. It was selected for the 1963 Pulitzer Prize by the award’s drama jury, but the award’s advisory board reportedly overruled the selection because of the play’s use of profanity and its sexual themes, both unusual at the time. No Pulitzer was given for drama that year.

The original cast included Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, Melinda Dillon, and George Grizzard, with Allen Schneider as director. The production at Billy Rose Theatre in New York ran for 664 performances, after which it opened in London. It has been revived numerous times – with Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara in 1976, and with Mike Nichols and Elaine May in a 1980 production in New London. A 1994 London production starred David Suchet and Diana Rigg — that’s one I would love to have seen.

George (Brad Chaires) confronts his wife Martha (Jen Friedman) with Nick (Lyle Pinder) in the background in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” — Photo by Jane Jewell

However, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is probably best known from the 1966 film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, with George Segal and Sandy Dennis as the younger couple. Directed by Mike Nichols, it was nominated for 13 Academy Awards – every category for which it was eligible – one of only two films ever to do so. It ended up winning five, including Taylor as best actress and Dennis as supporting actress. And, in a sign of the changing times, the script retained much of the provocative language of the stage version. The days of film censorship were over.  This is definitely adult fare – so keep the kiddies at home, except perhaps for very mature teenagers.   But definitely go yourself.  It’s a drama, not a comedy, though there are some ironic chuckles and laugh lines.  Be prepared for an intense evening of drama at its best.

The play explores the complex and embattled relationship of a middle-aged married couple, George and Martha. After a faculty party at the small New England college where George teaches, Martha invites a younger faculty couple, Nick and Honey, to their home. George instantly takes umbrage at her having issued the invitation without consulting him, and the ensuing argument carries on throughout the night and into the next morning, drawing in the younger couple who stay in spite of the raging emotions. In the course of it, much is revealed about the lives and relationships of both couples, though the real explosions take place between George and Martha.

Put that baldly, it sounds as if the play is about nothing much, and in a sense it is. But in another sense, it’s about everything: ambition and failure, love and hate, reality and illusions, innocence and experience – life itself. Albee packs these themes into the interaction of four characters in one tense evening, fueled by way too much to drink and unrestrained libido. A significant portion of the dialogue is delivered at the top of the actors’ voices – it must require incredible vocal stamina for them to keep from burning out after the first act. In a show that runs close to three hours, that’s a lot to ask – but on opening night, the actors delivered.

Director Rambach, who has a long directing career in New Jersey before moving to the Shore, is also a playwright. He said after the performance we saw that he has directed Virginia Woolf once before in the mid-’90s, but his accumulated experience since then has given him a fresh perspective on the play. For this production, he has put together an outstanding cast.

Jen Friedman as Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” — Photo by Jeff Weber

In the Garfield production of the play, Jen Friedman takes the role of Martha – the Elizabeth Taylor role. Well regarded for her strong comic roles – most recently as Gorgeous Tettlebaum in The Sisters Rosenzsweig at Church Hill – in this play she delivers a powerful, over-the-top performance as a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, lashing out at everything and everyone around her yet sometimes her own vulnerability shows and the audience feels sympathy – and perhaps even identification–with her. Friedman’s character covers an incredible range of emotions, and she makes them all believable. Regular theater-goers have had plenty of opportunities to see her versatility, but this role may be her most impressive yet.

Garfield regular Bradley Chaires plays George, and his energy in the role is a match for Friedman’s. He makes good use of his physical bulk to dominate the stage, even looming over and shoving around the 6’1” actor who plays Nick. He also conveys the character’s mean streak even when he’s not the main focus of a scene, as when he sits and reads a book while Martha makes passes at the younger professor. A strong performance by an actor who has become a valuable featured player at the Garfield.

Brianna Johnson as Honey and Lyle Pinder as Nick in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” — Photo by Jeff Weber

Brianna Johnson, who has worked both onstage and behind the scenes at the Garfield and Church Hill Theatre, is quietly brilliant as Honey. The mousy young faculty wife is in one sense a secondary character, far less flamboyant that George or Martha or even her husband. But every time I looked at her, her expression and posture delivered an unmistakable message about how the character felt and responded to what was going on around her. Only 21 years old, Johnson shows uncanny stage presence in this role; let’s hope we see a lot more of her on local stages.

Nick is played by Chestertown native Lyle Pinder, making his Garfield debut after garnering numerous theater and TV and film credits in New York. His experience is easy to see, as he gives the character a combination of arrogance and unexpected vulnerability. An excellent job.

The set, representing George and Martha’s living room, is nicely done, with lots of books on view and ‘60s-looking furniture. And the costumes are right for the period, thanks to Connie Fallon, who also did the set decoration.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is playing through Feb. 24, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $20 general admission; $15 for seniors or military personnel; and $10 for students.   Reservations can be made on the Garfield website, or by calling the theater at 410-810-2060.

Brad Chaires

  Jen Friedman

Brianna Johnson

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lyle Pinder

Director and Crew for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” –

Brad Chaires as George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” — Photo by Jeff Weber

Brad Chaires and Jen Friedman as George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf — Photo by Jeff Weber

 

It’s drinks for everyone in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” – Photo by Jeff Weber

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Church Hill Theatre’s “Watch On The Rhine” – a Review by Peter Heck

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The cast of “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine, currently playing at Church Hill Theatre, is a political drama with a comic edge set in 1940, when World War II was just gathering momentum in Europe but before America became directly involved. Directed by Mary James, it is at the same time an effective historical drama and a prescient look at today’s world.

Hellman, who had already made a mark with the stage and film success of The Little Foxes, wrote Watch on the Rhine in 1940, and it opened on Broadway in April 1941 – just ten months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the USA into the war. The play ran for 378 performances, winning the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award as best play. In 1942, she went to Washington for a special birthday performance for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom she met and spoke to about the need to oppose Hitler – a main theme of the play.

L-R Jane Copple as Fanny Farrelly, Will Robinson as Count Teck De Brancovis, Lisa Wojehowski as Joshua Muller, Darlene Greer as Sara Muller, Calla McClusky as Babette Muller, Connor Christopher as Bodo Muller, and Sheila Austrian as Anise  in “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

The next year, the play was adapted for Hollywood by Dashiell Hammett, Hellman’s life-long romantic partner. The film version starred Bette Davis and Paul Lukas, who along with George Coulouris reprised their roles in the Broadway production. Jack Warner of Warner Brothers studios paid $150,000 for the rights to the play, reportedly because he felt it would boost patriotic feeling now that the U.S. was in the war. Davis and Lukas also took part in a radio broadcast of the play in 1944.

David and Sara, brother and sister reunited in “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Steve Atkinson

The play takes place in an elegant residence in the Washington suburbs, where socialite Fanny Farrelly and her son David, a lawyer, are awaiting the arrival of Fanny’s daughter Sara and her family.  At first, it seems that the play is about classic family struggles, childhood tensions that have evolved into strained relations between parents and adult children, Slowly it becomes clear that there is much more going on. The play touches on several serious themes –how marriages rarely turn out to be what the happy couples expect, what war does to people, how it changes them,  the compromises they make just to get by and stay alive, how even children are involved and must grow up quickly.

Fanny has been semi-estranged from her daughter whom she hasn’t seen or spoken to in twenty years, though there have been occasional letters. Fanny is excited about Sara’s return from Europe although it quickly becomes clear that she is also the type of mother who controls everything – planning and controlling everyone’s lives down to the last detail, although in a humorous and gracious way.

Sara’s husband Kurt Muller is an engineer of German birth, who has spent much of his life fighting against the rise of fascism. The Mullers are accompanied by their three children, Joshua, Babette, and Bodo. Also staying at the Farrellys’ home are a Romanian aristocrat, Count Teck de Brancovis, and his wife Marthe, who was a childhood friend of Sara’s. Also present is Anise, the family’s long-time maid.

Fanny (Jane Copple) meets her granddaughter Babette (Calla McCluskey) in “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

Almost from the moment of the Mullers’ arrival, the Count is curious about Kurt’s origins, his occupation, everything about him. It’s immediately evident he has some agenda for asking all the questions, which Kurt generally evades. Our suspicions of the Count increases as we learn he has been playing high-stakes poker – despite being apparently short of funds himself – with a group of German diplomats in Washington. It becomes clear that Kurt has escaped Europe because the Nazis are looking for him, and that he continues to work against them even in America.

Fanny is oblivious to all this, talking about the gossip in her social circle and treating Sara like a child. As Sara re-bonds with her old friend Marthe, she learns that life with the Count is nothing like what Marte expected when they married. Meanwhile, it becomes clear that the Count not only has fascist sympathies but that he is ready to use whatever he learns from or about Kurt to his own advantage. And that inevitably leads to trouble.  And a surprising climax to the play.

Director Mary James and set designer Temple Worth for “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

Mary James, who has extensive directing credits with the St. Martin’s Community Theater and the Colonial Players in Annapolis, makes her CHT directing debut with this production. She has assembled a strong cast – a tricky proposition given how close to the holiday season the performance was scheduled – and the resulting play is well worth their efforts.

Jane Copple, a veteran of many performances at CHT and other regional theaters, takes the role of Fanny Farrelly, the mother. She is in her element in this role, lording it over a household where far more than what her character understands is going on. Copple does a nice job of making the character sympathetic, showing both her “lady of the manor” side and her genuine concern for her daughter and grandchildren who, in her opinion, have been irresponsibly traipsing around an increasingly dangerous Europe.  Copple, who has an excellent singing voice, is more frequently seen in musicals.  It’s nice to see her in a straight dramatic role.

Jane Copple as Fanny Farrelly in “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

Howard Messick, another regular on the local theater circuit, is cast as David Farrelly, and he does a fine job with the character – a bit of a mama’s boy who shows some real strength when called on to respond to a crisis.  He treats his mother with both deference and a bit of eye-rolling.

Bob McGrory plays Kurt Muller, the anti-fascist refugee. He deploys a convincing accent – possibly as a result of spending time in Germany in his younger days – and gives the character a good balance between the sympathetic family man and the tough freedom fighter.

Will Robinson plays the villain, Count De Brancovis, with an effective blend of menace and aristocratic disdain. Robinson is quite tall and makes good use of his height and physical presence to tower over and physically intimidate other characters, especially his wife and the other men in the house, all while playing the amiable guest. Robinson is frequently cast in comic roles, and it’s good to see him stretching beyond his normal range.

Genevieve Croker does a good job with the role of Marte, the Count’s long-suffering wife.  Marte has come to realize that she is stuck in a dead-end marriage that is not going to get any better.  She has struck up a friendship with David that is slowly moving from long talks and shared confidences to a budding romance.  A nice job.

Darlene Greer plays Sara Muller, the daughter returning home to a mother who doesn’t quite understand the life her grown-up daughter has chosen.  Sara is happy to be back home again, especially to see her brother David who she was always very close to.  But she is also determined not to let her mother take over her life again.  In many ways, Sara’s experience of trying to raise a family in war-torn Europe has made her a much more realistic and mature person than her wealthy socialite mother.  Greer brings just the right amount of practicality, warmth and a surprising resilience to her character.

Sheila Austrian is well cast as Anise, the maid, who seems to be somewhere between a valued family friend and a servant, speaking her mind sometimes and meekly following orders other times.  It’s a hard line to walk and Austrian does it very well.  Anise immediately starts taking care of the grandchildren and is delighted to see Sara again, who she helped to raise from babyhood.

Family reunion- Fanny, David, and Sara in “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

Lisa Wojehowski, Connor Christopher and Calla McCloskey play the three Muller children, Joshua, Bodo, and Babette. All three do an excellent job and create separate personalities for their characters.  Babette twirls around in her pretty dress but she is also mature for her age.  Bodo is a bit of a scholar and is always dropping pearls of knowledge into the conversation.  Special kudos go to Lisa Wojehowski who convincingly takes on the role of  Joshua, the oldest son, who has had to take on responsibilities beyond his young age.

The play is structured in three acts, with an intermission after the first. It ran just under two hours on opening night. At first, it feels very much like a drawing-room comedy, with Fanny’s social pretensions and dithering about picking up her daughter’s family at the station. But the political plotline, which to my ears had a very contemporary ring despite its origins in the 1940s, soon brings a more serious focus to the proceedings. Hellman’s handling of the theme hits home by her linking of the fight against fascism to the lives of believable flesh-and-blood characters, who at one point assert that surely America would not reject refugees from war and violence.  As it happened, America in the 1930s and ’40s did both, taking in many refugees but also denying many others, turning away entire boatloads of European refugees from World War II.  The play clearly shows how history moves in its eternal cycles, surprising each generation as the same things happen again, just a little bit differently.

The set, designed by Temple Worth from a concept by James, is marvelous – as we have come to expect from Church Hill Theatre. The costumes are also outstanding – especially Copple’s elegant dresses – thanks to Tina Johnson and Debra Ebersole. The performance was also solid; perhaps the only weakness was that a couple of the characters’ voices sometimes failed to carry to the back of the auditorium. Sit up close if you want to follow all the dialogue.

Watch on the Rhine runs through February 3, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission; CHT members get a $5 discount, and student tickets are $10. Call the theater at 410-556-6003 or visit the theater website for reservations.

Fanny Farrelly and her son David Farrelly greet son-in-law Kurt Muller whom they have not seen for 20 years. – “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

The Count De Brancovis (Will Robinson) confronts his wife Marte (Genevieve Croker) in “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

David Farrelly (Howard Mesick) with Babette (Calla McClusky), Joshua, (Lisa Wojehowski), and Bodo (Connor Christopher) in “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

Anise knows her lady Fanny well – “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Steve Atkinson

Marte and Teck in “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Steve Atkinson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Babette, Joshua, David, Bodo, and Kurt in “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Steve Atkinson

 

 

 

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Boogie Woogie and a Message: Daryl Davis at Sumner Hall

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Daryl Davis

The Sumner Hall concert series, “African American Legacy & Heritage in Jazz, Blues & Gospel,” continues with a performance by pianist Daryl Davis, one of the modern masters of boogie-woogie piano. The concert, “Daryl Davis Offers Boogie Woogie and a Message,” is at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8.

Davis has performed and recorded with a veritable “Who’s Who” of musicians in the blues, rock, and popular fields, including Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and many others. He has been a frequent performer at the Mainstay in Rock Hall, especially at Rock Hall Fallfest. So he was one of the first performers sought by Tom McHugh, who assembled the talent for the Sumner Hall series, which features performers covering historically important styles of blues, gospel and jazz music.

In addition to his musical career, over the years Davis has gained recognition for a project in which he seeks out and enters into dialogue with members of the Ku Klux Klan. The idea came to him in 1983, when a white patron in a bar where he was playing complimented him on his renditions of Jerry Lee Lewis tunes. He told the man, who turned out to be a KKK member, that Lewis’s style was patterned on African-American blues and gospel music, and in the course of the conversation, the man gave him the contact information for several KKK members.

Davis went on to meet a number of Klansmen, including the Grand Dragon of the Maryland Klan, who arrived at the interview with an armed guard. Eventually Davis convinced the man to give up his Klan membership, as a token of which he gave Davis his Klan robes. Over the years, Davis says he has been directly responsible for between 40 and 60 members leaving the Klan, and indirectly responsible for as many as 200.

He told of his experiences in his 1998 book, Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan. Davis has frequently lectured on his experiences with Klan members, and was the subject of a 2016 film on PBS, Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America. Davis has said that his success rests in part on his religious faith and partly on his belief that hatred is the result of ignorance. Getting to know someone well makes it harder to hate them.

As part of the Sumner Hall series, McHugh asked all the performers to answer audience questions about the music or anything else. In Davis’s case, this will undoubtedly include his encounters with the Klan as well as his extensive musical career.

Davis plays at Sumner Hall at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8. Some tickets, at $20 each, are still available. To make a reservation, visit the Sumner Hall website (https://aalhconcertseries.eventbrite.com)

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Tiny Tim’s Christmas Carol a Holiday Delight at Garfield Center

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The cast of Tiny Tim’s Christmas Carol at the Garfield Center 2018 – Photo by Peter Heck

The holiday season wouldn’t be complete without Charles Dickens’ tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim – one of the classic Christmas stories. This year, the Garfield Center is offering an adaption of the tale for young audiences, “Tiny Tim’s Christmas Carol,” and for good measure, the show’s second week coincides with Chestertown’s “Dickens of a Christmas” festival.

The story is set in London in 1834, a decade before the story was first published. Tiny Tim Cratchit, whose father works for the miser Scrooge, is trying to find a way to get his father a day off for Christmas. But Scrooge, who sneers at anything that doesn’t contribute to his bottom line, tells Crachett to be at work at 9 o’clock sharp on Christmas day – there’s money to be made, and that’s an end to it. Desperate, Tim and his young friend Charlotte enlist several street vendors to impersonate ghosts to scare Scrooge into recognizing the spirit of Christmas and giving his employee the holiday off. As the play continues, we watch the plan unfold – and just at the critical moment, a real Christmas miracle takes place.

Jim Landskroener as Scrooge – Photo by Peter Heck

Director Bonnie Hill has brought together a good cross-section of local acting talent, including several younger actors, for this production. Garfield veteran (and board member) Jim Landskroener – last seen as Groucho Marx in “Animal Crackers” – has the prize role of Scrooge, and Dickens would be proud of his portrayal. Whether he is rejecting a request for charitable contributions for the poor — “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” — or cowering before the ghosts called up to reform the miser’s ways, Landskroener is spot-on. 

Tiny Tim and Charlotte devise a plan to make Scrooge give Bob Cratchit a day off for Christmas – Photo by Peter Heck

John Crook plays Tiny Tim, who also acts as the narrator of the play, while Raven Miller takes the role of Charlotte, Tim’s young friend. They are on-stage pretty much the entire time, and they make the most of their stage time, whether they’re in the middle of the action or hiding just outside Scrooge’s view while their plans are going forward. They also serve as intermediaries for younger audience members, giving them an understandable hook to involve them in the main action of converting Scrooge from a holiday-hating miser to a participant in the spirit of the season. Both do excellent jobs.

The three vendors are played by Jane Jewell, David Ryan and Bryan Zajchowski – each of whom takes on several additional roles within the play. Jewell, whose last local appearance was in the role of Aunt Rhoda in Earl Lewin’s “Hitched,” is cast as a puppet vendor, the Ghost of Christmas Past and Tiny Tim’s mother, Mrs. Cratchit. Ryan is a pie-seller, Scrooge’s old employer Fezziwig, and the ghosts of Marley and Christmas Present. And Zajchowski plays a bookseller, Mrs. Fezziwig, andTiny Tim’s father, Bob Cratchit. All handle the multiple roles well, and their costume changes are done smoothly enough that the play doesn’t slow down. Zajchowski is especially funny when he portrays the cheerful Mrs. Fezziwig with a high, squeaky voice and dancing in a red evening dress. Good jobs by three versatile character actors.

Robbie Spray does a good job in several minor roles, including Scrooge’s nephew Fred, a gravedigger, and Mr. Stevens, a gentleman who solicits Scrooge for a charitable donation. He also ghosts the voice of Christmas Future, played onstage by a life-sized flying puppet manipulated by Steve Atkinson.  Atkinson also has multiple responsibilities as stage manager and playing a small role as Mr. Hollyfoot, a gentleman who collaborates with Mr. Stevens in collecting for charity and is appalled by Scrooge’s callousness and complete lack of Christmas spirit or any sympathy for the poor and underprivileged.

The three street vendors: David Ryan as the pie-seller, Bryan Zajchowski as the book-seller, and Jane Jewell as the puppet-seller – Photo by Peter Heck

Alden Swanson plays a young girl and a Christmas turkey.   Caleb Ford takes the part of the young boy who tells Scrooge it’s Christmas morning and runs to get and deliver the turkey.  Swanson and Ford join Kathy Jones, Cornelia Fallon, and Michelle Genovese as Christmas carolers, assisted by the rest of the cast at several points. The songs are traditional Christmas favorites of the era including “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “The Holly and the Ivy” – it’s nice to hear something besides today’s commercial seasonal fare. Julie Lawrence is musical director.

The costumes are period-appropriate and very eye-catching as well. Kudos to costume chair Juanita Wieczorek and her crew Connie Fallon, Tina Johnson, and Jen Emley. Several of the costumes, including the four gentlemen’s frock coats and most of the carolers’ outfits, were hand-made for this production by Connie Fallon and other costume committee members.  They will also be used in the Dickens Weekend activities. The set gives the feeling of the era while being flexible enough to allow reasonably quick scene changes. Earl Lewin designed and Beverly Smith painted the sets.  Jennifer Kafka Smith made the wonderful Victorian-period puppets.

Scrooge, played by Jim Landskroener, is awakened by the Ghost of Christmas Present (David Ryan) – Photo by Peter Heck

The play as a whole takes just under an hour, so it’s unlikely to strain the patience of young theater-goers, who are pretty much the natural audience for this adaptation of Dickens’ tale. And while this version of Dickens’ novella has been adapted and streamlined for younger viewers, there’s enough left of the original text, particularly in Scrooge’s lines, to serve as an effective introduction to the story for those younger audince members.  Scrooge still says “If they would rather die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population” and “Bah, humbug”. 

This production is definitely a play for the whole family – it might be a good idea to come the first weekend, before the Dickens festival brings in the large out-of-town audience. 

Scrooge (Jim Landskroener) in his nightgown is thrilled to be told by a boy (Caleb Ford) that it is still Christmas day – Photo by Peter Heck

Tiny Tim’s Christmas Carol” runs from Nov. 30 to Dec. 9, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. General admission is $20. Tickets for seniors and military personnel are $15, and tickets for students are $10. Get a special $5 off on opening night if you wear your Garfield Center t-shirt! Call the Garfield box office at 410-810-2060 or visit Eventbrite to reserve tickets.

The puppet-seller (Jane Jewell), disguised as the Ghost of Christmas Past, arrives to scare Scrooge (Jim Landskroener). – Photo by Peter Heck

John Crook as Tiny Tim – Photo by Peter Heck

David Ryan as the pie-seller – Photo by Peter Heck

A gravedigger (Robbie Spray) gives Scrooge a glimpse of what lies ahead – Photo by Peter Heck

The Cratchit family dinner: Mrs. Cratchit (Jane Jewell), Emily (Raven Miller), Mr. Cratchit (Bryan Zajchowski), Tiny Tim (John Crook) – Photo by Peter Heck

Mid-Shore Music: Capital Ringers to Present Holiday Concert at Christ Church Easton 

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On Sunday, December 2 at 4 pm the Christ Church Concert Series will present the Capital Ringers in a holiday concert for all ages.  The group, comprised of fifteen ringers, six octaves of handbells, five octaves of English Whitechapel Bells, and five and a half octaves of handchimes totaling 201 individual bells, is the largest of its kind on the Delmarva Peninsula.  

Founded in 2004 by director Linda Simms, the Capital Ringers known for their superb and engaging musicianship, but also for their showmanship utilizing the added resources of multimedia effects and percussion.  This season, the ensemble will present music for the entire family including repertoire from Trans-Siberian Orchestra (“Wizards in Winter” and “Christmas Eve-Sarajevo”, as well as “The Little Drummer Boy”, “Jolly Old St. Nicholas”, and many more.  A remarkably versatile ensemble, the group is known regionally for its vast repertoire including rock n’ roll, jazz, patriotic, sacred, and current top forty tunes, in addition to traditional holiday favorites.

As the holiday season is soon to begin, plan now to see and hear this one of a kind handbell ensemble you will not want to miss!  Christ Church is located at 111 S. Harrison Street in downtown Easton. Doors will open at 3:30 pm, and a freewill offering will be received.  This concert is partially underwritten by the Talbot County Arts Council with funding provided by the Maryland State Arts Council.

 

Earl Lewin’s “Hitched” at Church Hill – Spy Review by Peter Heck

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Let the Party Begin! The cast of playwright Earl Lewin’s “Hitched” – Front row – Amy Moredock, Howard Mesick, Jane Jewell, Christine Kinlock, Chris, Rogers, Back row – Charles Moore, Peggy Chiras, Steve Hazzard  — Photo by Peter Heck

Funny things happen at weddings. Everybody who’s been to a few has their share of stories to tell. With family members getting together – sometimes for the first time in years – and a gang of strangers suddenly becoming part of the family, people may react oddly. They also retell family stories, recall fond memories, and all too often rekindle old grudges. Add a few drinks and a sometimes forced party atmosphere, and who knows what might happen?

Playwright Earl Lewin has taken some of those moments – many of them based on events in his own family – and woven them together in his new play, Hitched, opening this weekend at Church Hill Theatre.

Playwright/director Earl Lewin rehearsing “Hitched”  – Photo by Jane Jewell

Local theater-goers know Lewin’s work well. He’s written and produced quite a few local plays, many of them light mysteries with a comic feel. More recently, he’s focused on family dramas, such as St. George’s Blues, set in a bar and blues club just a few miles up the road, and last year’s Orlando Rising, a tense drama focused on events around the Kennedy assassination. With Hitched, his comic side is again on display but in the context of delicate family issues.

The central plot point revolves around Bruce, a gay college professor who’s decided to come out to his mother – the only family member who hasn’t figured it out already – at the wedding. His partner Spike, a New York lawyer, has come with him to his family home in Arizona, meeting the family for the first time. In addition to Millie, Bruce’s mother, the family includes his divorced father Spencer, who’s spent the time since the breakup as a missionary in third-world countries; his free-spirited uncle Harry, who’s brought his much-younger most recent wife; his aunt Rhoda, who tells it like it is, no matter who might take offense; and Harry’s sophisticated cousin Brenda, who lives in New York. With the mix of generations and disparate lifestyles, most of them staying in the same house, the stage is set for wild misunderstandings and sometimes wilder shenanigans.

Out in the desert, the family group meets up with a mysterious stranger. — Photo by Jane Jewell

Add to the plot a side trip to a tourist trap out in the Arizona desert, with unexpected complications. And to complete the hilarity, the only available date for the wedding reception hall is Halloween! But it’s not all laughs. There are more serious themes, in addition to Bruce trying to come out to his loving but clueless mother – both Spencer and Harry are facing health issues that have implications beyond the immediate events of the plot.  The comic scenes make a nice balance with the more serious moments.

Bruce (Howard Mesick) and his partner Spike (Charles Moore) find themselves stuck in the middle of family dramas in “Hitched” by Earl Lewin at Chruch Hill Theatre. – Photo by Jane Jewell

Lewin, who directs his own play, has assembled a cast of excellent players from the local community. Howard Mesick takes the role of Bruce, the gay son.  Mesick, who is frequently cast in character roles–often as the comic or the villain–shows another facet of his acting ability here as he brings depth and sensitivity to the role of a serious, intellectual young man who just wants to be open with his mother about his lifestyle.

Peggy Dixon Chiras plays Millie, Bruce’s mother. Chiras has been in numerous other plays, most recently Lewin’s St. George’s Blues at Church Hill Theatre. She does a fine job portraying the sweet but clueless character – a winning performance.

Steve Hazzard is cast as Harry, Millie’s happy-go-lucky brother. Hazzard also was one of the leads in St. George’s Blues.  Hazzard does a great job of conveying the character’s cheerful outlook on life, as well as his more complex side as he gives sage advice to his nephew Bruce all the while struggling with his own problems.

Chris Rogers, who has numerous credits with Shore Shakespeare and Church Hill Theatre, plays Millie’s ex-husband Spencer, who is Bruce’s father. A former airline pilot who has spent the last several years as a missionary teacher in third-world countries, he finds it difficult to see Bruce’s homosexuality as anything but a sin. Rogers takes a difficult character and finds his sympathetic side – an excellent job.

Aunt Rhoda complains – yet again. (Jane Jewell, Chris Rogers, Peggy Chiras) – Photo by Steve Atkinson

Jane Jewell, who has filled several memorable comic roles at both CHT and the Garfield, gets a juicy character part as Rhoda, Bruce’s outspoken aunt. While something of a curmudgeon, Rhoda turns out to have a surprising fun side – which Jewell brings out in fine style.

Harry’s young wife Penny is played by Christine Kinlock, familiar from both CHT and Shore Shakespeare.  Kinlock brings out both the character’s tough side as well as her tender side as Penny has to walk a difficult line at the wedding where she has to be gracious while the first wife dances with Harry and the snobbish bride blatantly ignores her. A fine job.

Spike blows a kiss to Aunt Rhoda. (Amy Moredock, Charles Moore, and Howard Mesick) in “Hitched” by Earl Lewin at Church Hill Theatre — Photo by Steve Atkinson

Charles Michael Moore takes the role of Spike. Bruce’s partner. Slightly more self-confident than Bruce, he has a nice stock of sarcastic quips – which Moore gives a sharp yet cheerful edge.  Spike is adamant that Bruce tell his mother but he is also understanding that won’t be easy–especially in this family!  “Tell her in the desert. No one will hear her scream,” he says half seriously.  Moore brings definite panache to the character, making Spike both believable and sympathetic.

Cousin Brenda, the New York sophisticate, is played by Amy Moredock, one of the regulars in BC productions.  Brenda is perhaps the most easy-going and open-minded one in the family.  She is clearly at ease with both Aunt Rhoda and Spike; she likes and gets along with both of Harry’s wives.  Moredock brings warmth and vitality to the role.

Michele Christopher gives an excellent portrayal of Linda, Harry’s first wife and the mother of his son, Jim.   Linda put up with Harry’s drinking and partying for years before finally divorcing him.  Now at the wedding, she is in the awkward situation of being in the same room with her ex-husband and his young new wife, the latest in a string of successors.   Linda maintains her poise while delivering verbal zingers.  A good job.  Christopher is more frequently behind the scenes as a stage manager.  Hopefully, we’ll see her more often on stage in an acting role.

Tom Dorman, another BC regular, plays Grimm, who meets family members during their desert excursion. The character is at the same time folksy and slightly menacing, and Dorman makes the juxtaposition work nicely, especially as he pointedly discusses the dangers of being alone in the desert along with vegetarianism and the importance of meat in a healthy diet.

Cast in cameo roles are Eddie Dorman (a cab driver), Troy Strootman (the groom), and Maya McGrory (the bride). Dorman is the image of the impatient, luggage-laden taxi driver. McGrory is bride-beautiful in her white wedding gown and Strootman is convincing as the indignant bridegroom.

At the wedding “Hitched” (Steve Hazzard, Christine Kinlock, Amy Moredock) Photo by Peter Heck

Hitched runs the emotional gamut, from poignant revelations to hilarious comedy.   The desert scene and the wedding banquet scene are especially funny, providing contrast and comic relief to the more serious moments as the family members struggle with jealousy, denial, taboos, and the eternal questions of life, love and the inevitability of death.

Peggy Chiris as Millie and Chris Rogers as Spencer in “Hitched” at Church Hill Theatre — Photo by Jane Jewell

The script benefits from the fine cast of actors, each of whom brings their character to life onstage — many of us will recognize the prototypes of these characters among our own friends and family. It seems every family has an Uncle Harry and an Aunt Rhoda. Some of the themes and language may not be appropriate for very y0ung audiences, but everyone else will find something that hits their funny bone — or leads to reflection. Hitched will be playing through Oct. 7. Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. For information, call the theater office at 410-556 6003. All tickets are $15 (cash or check only) and may be picked up at the box office prior to performances. Reservations are suggested.

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Animal Crackers – A Laugh Riot at the Garfield

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Horatius Jamison, secretary, and Captain Spaulding, the African explorer, with Hives the butler and Mrs. Rittenhouse, the hostess. Landskroener is picture-perfect as Groucho Marx, voice, mustache and all.  (Ian Ellison, Jim Landskoener, Brad Chaires, Diane Landskroener)     Photo by Jane Jewell

Fans of the Marx Brothers–and of vintage comedy in general–have a treat waiting for them at the Garfield Center. The musical version of Animal Crackers – directed by Jennifer Kafka Smith – is one of the funniest shows to appear on the local stage in recent memory.

Animal Crackers began as a 1928 Broadway musical with a book by George S. Kaufmann and Morrie Ryskind, starring the Marx Brothers and Margaret Dumont, Groucho’s long-time comic foil. It was the brothers’ second Broadway hit, running for 191 performances. It was also the brothers’ last stage show since the advent of talking pictures made it possible to transfer their fast-talking brand of comedy to film. The play has been revived several times, starting in 1982, with various changes – notably the substitution of some better-known songs for those in the original musical and the removal of material that today’s audiences are likely to find objectionable. The Garfield’s production is based on a 2009 version produced at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

The musical became the Marx Brothers’ second film in 1930, with most of the principals from the stage show reprising their roles. Lilian Roth took the role of Arabella, the romantic lead. The movie, which is probably the best-known version of the show, was shot in Astoria, New York, where Paramount Pictures had an East Coast studio. And with the film censorship of the Hayes Code still four years in the future, the film was much racier than later Hollywood productions – giving the Marx Brothers a chance to show off their zany brand of humor, including a fair quota of double-entendres. And while several characters and some subplots from the stage version were cut, the movie retained many of the best tunes from the stage show, including “Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” which later became Groucho Marx’s TV theme song.   And in case you were wondering, “schnorrer” is a Yiddish word meaning moocher or con artist.

The cast of Animal Crackers in a dance choreographed by Kimberly Stevens.    Photo by Jane Jewell

The plot involves a large party given by Mrs. Rittenhouse, a Long Island society matron. The party features the appearance of Captain Spalding, an African explorer and international celebrity, and the first American exhibition of a famous French painting. Mrs. Rittenhouse is anxious for her daughter, Arabella, to meet a suitable husband. She also wants to reestablish her place in society, which has been eroding since the death of her husband. Guests arrive, including a rich New York businessman, Roscoe W. Chandler, and Mrs. Whitehead, a social rival.

At last Captain Spalding (Groucho’s character) arrives, followed by an Italian musician, Ravelli (Chico’s character) and the Professor (Harpo). And much hilarity ensues, including chases, wisecracks, slapstick, double-talk, puns, songs and dances – and oh yes, a couple of love stories and a plot to steal the painting. None of it makes much sense – really, did you expect it to? – and this production makes no attempt to tie it all together. It’s just one heck of a lot of fun.  Enjoy the ride and forget about the destination.

Capt. Spaulding and Ravelli examine the forged painting as the two lovers look on, Photo by Jane Jewell

With so little story, the play depends heavily on the casting, and the local theater community has risen to the occasion. Jim Landskroener takes the role of Captain Spalding, complete with a painted-on Groucho mustache, and he gives a brilliant performance. Whether he’s reeling off a string of nonsense, mugging at the audience, dancing, or delivering a patter song, he’s a thoroughly believable Groucho, right down to the accent. This role is the key to the whole production, and it’s right on target.

Kirby Powell is hilarious as the Professor, the Harpo Marx character. It’s a role that calls for a wide repertory of physical schtick, and Powell does it with verve – all without saying a single word.   In grand Harpo style, the Professor toots his little hand-held, squeeze-bulb horn and chases women up and down stairs.  And it wouldn’t be Harpo if he didn’t play the harp at least once.  This performance really has to be seen to be believed.

The Marx Brothers live at the Garfield!     Photo by Jane Jewell

Ravelli, the con man/musician of the play, is played by Zac Ryan. His character, originally played by Chico Marx, is a variation on an age-old comic theme, the conniving servant who lives by his wits. Ryan does a great job with the character, including the Italian accent and the physical schtick for some of his bits with the Professor. Very nicely done.

Diane Landskroener, a fine comic actress in her own right, has a juicy role as Mrs. Rittenhouse. A stereotypical social climber, this character gives the actress plenty of opportunity to mock the upper classes and their pretensions. And as a foil to Groucho’s absurdities, Mrs. Rittenhouse has a full platter of double-takes, sputtering outrage, and shocked decorum to deploy – and Landskroener does it all in fine style.

Another key role is Hives, the butler – well played by Brad Chaires, who deploys a formidable deadpan while trying to preserve decorum and delivering straight lines. And when he steps out of the role, it’s even funnier. A good bit of casting!

There are two romantic subplots, featuring Dan Guidice and Gretchen Sachse, and Natalie Lane and Bee Betley. The young lovers get to deliver some of the better songs in the show, including “Three Little Words” (Lane and Betley) and “Watching the Clouds Go By” (Guidice and Sachse).  All four have good voices that are showcased nicely by their duets and ensemble numbers.

Betley plays Wally Winston, the intrepid reporter cum gossip columnist who wants to get the scoop on the various celebrities and big-wigs at the party, with an eye to getting a raise and a promotion.  He teams up with Arabella (Natalie Lane), Mrs. Rittenhouse’s flapper daughter who is looking both for a fiancé and a way to raise her family’s social profile.  Wally, handsome and charming, is the perfect candidate for both!  Unfortunately, one of the scandalous tidbits about the various famous guests that she whispers to Wally instead of earning him a bonus puts his job in jeopardy.  But it seems that this romance of opportunity might even survive poverty and obscurity.

On the other hand, true love is the name of the game for Wally’s photographer colleague, Mary Stewart, played by Gretchen Saches.  She is secretly engaged to the struggling artist John Parker played by Dan Guidice.  Together they plot to substitute his painting for the famous painting on display at the party.  Of course, their plot goes astray in the most hilarious way.

The cast of Animal Crackers at the Garfield.      Photo by Jane Jewell

Mike Heffron is convincing as millionaire Roscoe Chandler, and Julie Lawrence displays a nice French accent as Madame Doucet, an art impresario. Mallory Westlund does a good job as Mrs. Whitehead, Mrs. Rittenhouse’s social rival, conniving convincingly with Grace (Brianna Johnson) to bring down Mrs. Rittenhouse. And Ian Ellison, as Horatius Jamison, Spaulding’s secretary, is one of the few characters who manages to fluster Groucho – in a role originally played by Zeppo Marx.

M.G. Brosius, Brooke Ezzo, and Robin Wood contribute solidly, singing and dancing in the ensemble and doing the occasional bit of stage business without a hitch.

Barbi Bedell outdoes herself with the costumes for this production – all period-perfect and all visually stunning. Likewise, the set, designed by Kafka Smith and built by Jim Landskroener, is both striking and functional. The grand double staircase completes the image of a mansion and the provides a perfect setting both for chase scenes and ensemble song and dance numbers.  Michelle Sensenig provides flawless piano accompaniment–with some help from Chico Marx. A couple of the singers/actors were hard to hear, even from the front of the auditorium; and there were occasional pitch problems with a few of the musical numbers but these problems do not spoil the overall performance.

Choreographer Kimberly Stevens deserves special mention for the energetic dance scenes in which the entire ensemble stepped and twirled in the Charleston and other authentic dances of the era.

The social-climbing Mrs. Rittenhouse (Diane Landskroener) greets her rivals Mrs. Whitehead (Mallory Westlund ) and Grace Carpenter (Brianna Johnson). Photo by Jane Jewell

Kafka Smith said she has been a Marx Brothers fan for as long as she can remember, with Animal Crackers a particular favorite. It shows in this production — everyone involved is obviously having fun, and the fun is contagious. She studied old Marx brothers films in order to flawlessly reproduce the various signature bits of “business” that the Marx brothers were known for.  You will love the bit with the cardboard table.

The show would be a good introduction to the theater for young playgoers; the raunchier bits of the movie version have been edited out, while the antics are fully intact – if anything, they’re funnier seen live on stage. This really is one of the funniest shows you’re likely to see any time soon, a laugh riot from start to finish.  Both kids and adults will love the slapstick while older teens and adults will appreciate the outrageous puns and the not-so-subtle mockery of social pretensions.  This show is hilarious. Go see it!

Animal Crackers runs through Sept. 30, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission; $15 for seniors and military personnel; and $10 for students. For reservations, call 410-810-2060 or visit www.garfieldcenter.org.

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Church Hill’s Sisters Rosensweig a Winner

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Two sisters, Pfeni and Sara, relive childhood games. (Colleen Minahan and Melissa McGlynn)      Photo by Steve Atkinson

Theater lovers – do not miss Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig, now playing at Church Hill Theatre.

The play was originally produced in Seattle in 1992, then moved to New York’s off-Broadway Mitzi Newhouse Theater at the end of the year, and after 149 performances, reopened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, where it ran for an additional 549 performances. It was nominated in practically every possible category of the major awards, winning in many.  It was a Tony Award nomination as best play of 1993, and won the Outer Critics Circle Award as best play that same year.

Directed by Daniel Sullivan, the New York production featured Jane Alexander, Madeline Kahn and Christine Estabrook in the three title roles. Kahn won the Outer Critics Circle and Tony awards as best actress, and the Drama Desk award as best featured actress, while Alexander took the Drama Desk award for best actress. And Sullivan was recognized as best director by the Outer Critics Circle. The play also brought Wasserman the William Inge Award for Distinguished Achievement in American Theater.

Built around three Jewish-American sisters whose lives have gone in dramatically different directions, the play is set in the oldest sister Sara’s London home, where she is about to celebrate her 54th birthday. A banking executive, she is in many ways the most successful of the trio. Visiting to join in the celebration are her two sisters, one a travel journalist, Pfeni, whose home is wherever there’s a good story.  The third sister, Gorgeous, is a suburban Boston housewife who’s become a star giving advice on a local talk radio. They are joined by various friends and boyfriends, each of whom embodies a different aspect of their lives. As the celebration moves along, it becomes clear that Merv, a friend of one of Pfeni’s boyfriends, has fallen for Sara.

There are plenty of laughs to be had throughout the evening, but at bottom this is a play with a very serious focus. Wasserstein described her play’s subject as “being Jewish,” and there is a large element of that onstage – notably with Gorgeous, the most devout of the trio, who has come to London with her rabbi and a group of women from their synagogue. But the others are also keenly aware of their heritage – even the atheistic Pfeni describes herself at one point as “the wandering Jew.” And the plot, rather than a series of “dramatic” events, is basically a story of self-definition and discovery – as all the main characters go through some sort of epiphany during the course of the play. All three sisters have rebelled in different ways against their mother and their traditional upbringing.  Sara’s teenage daughter Tess is carrying on the tradition, resisting her mother’s plans for her and trying to chart her own path.

Director Shelagh Grasso has brought together a strong cast, with no weak performances. This is especially true of the three lead roles, the sisters for whom the play is named. The sisters clearly love one another despite their very different personalities and different choices in life; one of the play’s most affecting scenes is when the three sit together on Sara’s couch, drinking wine and enjoying a rare chance to just be together.

Colleen Minahan, who appeared last year with Shore Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, is outstanding in the role of Sara, who on the surface is the most successful and fulfilled of the sisters. She speaks with a British accent and considers America to be in serious decline. Minahan gives the character–who at first seems distant and even snobbish–an element of tenderness that comes out as we follow her relationship with her family and others in her life.

Pfeni, the free-spirit sister, dances with her boyfriend, Geoffrey. (Melissa McGlynn and John Schratweiser)         Photo by Steve Atkinson

Melissa McGlynn, well known to Garfield Center audiences, plays Pfeni, the peripatetic journalist just in from Bombay and on her way to who knows where? McGlynn does a good job of conveying her character’s high-energy, unconventional lifestyle. She arrives at Sara’s home with a half-dozen shopping bags that Pfeni uses instead of luggage. And when later, the character reveals a more conventional inner core, McGlynn conveys that change convincingly. An excellent performance by one of the stars of the local theater community.

Jen Friedman is perfectly cast as Dr. Gorgeous Teitelbaum – the role could have been written for her. Yet as funny as the character can be, Friedman doesn’t let us forget that Gorgeous is real, with problems and desires that go beyond the easy laughs to make her a sympathetic human being. A wonderful performance with absolutely fabulous fashions!  Gorgeous wears hot pink and longs to own a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes.

Jen Friedman is Dr. Gorgeous who gives fashion and relationship advice on a radio talk show. She knows how to accessorize!      Photo by Steve Atkinson

John Haas gives an engaging performance as Merv, the New York furrier who falls for Sara. Successfully carrying on the business that his father and grandfather established, he can joke about the new era when some customers object to real animal fur — and how he has adapted to this with “artificial animal skin” coats. Hass effectively projects the character’s openness and honesty — and his vulnerability as a recent widower.  Haas portrays both Merv’s warmth and strength as a man who knows who he is and is comfortable in his own skin.

John Schratweiser of Kent County Arts Council is hilarious as Geoffrey, a bisexual London theater producer. Returning to the local stage after several years working on the western shore, Schratweiser brings a facility both with physical schtick and polished delivery of lines to the part. It’s good to see him back on the boards – let’s hope this is the first of many new roles for him.

Bob Chauncey takes the role of Nick, a supercilious Englishman who looks somewhat askance at the sisters’ American roots. According to the director, he came on board for the play with minimal rehearsal – it certainly doesn’t show. A very nice performance in a small part.

The whole family comes together for the birthday party. (Jen Friedman, Nick Carter, Shannon Whitaker, Colleen Minahan, and Melissa McGlynn) Photo by Steve Atkinson

Tess, Sara’s daughter, is played by Shannon Whitaker. Tess is getting ready for her first year of college, to be spent at a proper British university – but she has a strong streak of social activism, and wants to go to Lithuania to take part in that country’s break away from the collapsing Soviet Union. Whitaker is convincing as a rebellious teenager who comes to realize there’s more to her life than rebellion.

Nick Carter plays Tess’s working-class boyfriend Tom, who is dedicated to the cause of Lithuanian freedom. A good job in a part that’s full of one-liners, and an especially nice job with the character’s accent.

The set, representing Sara’s living room, was designed by Grasso and her husband Carmen. Carmen Grasso and Tom Rhodes built the set. As we’ve come to expect of CHT sets, it’s absolutely spectacular, with its elegant ten-foot tall white pillars conveying the essence of Sara’s posh lifestyle.

Costumes are very well done.  The characters wear basically what one would expect the characters to be wearing some 25 years ago in London – ranging from Geoffrey’s dance in his underwear to Nick’s correct formal evening wear and Tom’s scruffy t-shirt and jeans, topped off by a Mohawk hair-cut.  The three sisters’ personalities are shown in their fashion choices–with Sara appearing in expensive business dress, elegant silk robes and white tennis togs while free-spirit Pfeni wears casual, flowing, almost-hippie attire.  And Gorgeous is gorgeous in bright colors with scarves and jewelry to match.  Kudos to the costume crew.

Bob Chauncey is Nick, the millionaire businessman. Photo by Steve Atkinson

Grasso has brought out strong performances from the entire cast, and the play is a wonderful testimony to the strength of the local theater community. Adult situations and language may make this production inappropriate for the very youngest theatergoers, but everyone else should make it a point to see it.

The Sisters Rosensweig continues through Sept. 23, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 apiece for the general public, $15 for CHT members and $10 for students. Call 410-556-6003 or visit churchhilltheatre.org to make reservations.

Tred Avon’s Little Shop of Horrors — A Must-See!

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Florist Mushnik (Bill Gross) and his adopted son Seymour (Mike Sousa) sing of their new-found success. – Photo by Jane Jewell

Little Shop of Horrors, performed by the Tred Avon Players, is now playing at Oxford Community Center. Based on an unabashedly schlocky black-and-white horror film by the legendary Roger Corman, the musical takes us to the Skid Row Florist shop, where a low-paid assistant makes a strange new plant flourish – with unexpected results.

Directed by Marcia Gilliam, the Tred Avon production does a first-class job with the show’s musical score, which draws heavily on the sound and ambiance of 1950s’ rock ‘n’ roll. With a strong cast and toe-tapping music, Gilliam and the TAP gang have put on a delightful show, well worth a trip to Oxford for playgoers all across the Shore.

The Corman film, which was produced on a budget of $28,000 in 1960, mixed the story of a man-eating plant with a generous helping of dark comedy and satire. With a cast of B-film stalwarts including Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, and Mel Welles – and a very minor part by Jack Nicholson – the film was reportedly shot in only two days, using a left-over set from Corman’s previous horror-comedy, “A Bucket of Blood.” It gradually gained a cult following, with late-night TV showings helping to build its popularity.

“Feed me!” demands the plant Audrey Two – voiced by Kathy Jones.  Note the feet of Audrey’s latest victim as he slides down the plant’s carnivorous maw!        – photo by Jane Jewell

Little Shop of Horrors, the musical, was created in 1982 by composer Alan Menken and script-writer Howard Ashman. Originally an off-off-Broadway production, it moved to the Orpheum Theater where it ran for five years, ending up as the highest-grossing off-Broadway musical to date. However, because it did not appear on Broadway, it was ineligible for the Tony Awards. It finally appeared on Broadway in 2003, in a million-dollar production that ran for 372 regular performances. The musical has also been made into a film in its own right, directed by Frank Oz (of “Muppet Show” fame) in 1986. Bill Murray and Steve Martin play minor roles in the film.

The plot, which is somewhat changed from the Corman film, introduces the Skid Row Florist shop, a failing business in the worst part of town. Mr. Mushnik, the shop’s owner, is ready to close his doors for good when Seymour, his geeky assistant, says he has an interesting new plant that might attract customers. Mushnik is skeptical, but no sooner does Seymour put the plant by the window than a customer comes in and spends $100 on a bouquet of roses.

Down on Skid Row — 2018 Little Shop of Horrors production by the Tred Avon Players – Photo by Jane Jewell

Mushnik decides the business isn’t washed up after all, and with the strange plant in the window, the shop takes off.  Seymour names the plant Audrey Two, after the shop’s other employee, for whom he has a secret crush.  But there’s a downside to everything, as Seymour learns when he accidentally spills a few drops of blood from a fresh cut into Audrey Two’s “mouth.” The plant has a craving for food – human flesh and blood, to be exact – and that discovery propels the rest of the plot. Seymour must keep the plant, which has grown to enormous size, fed – and it will only accept fresh food.

We won’t give away all the twists and turns – which range from gruesome to outright comic. The play has an infectious momentum, helped along by a likable set of songs that draw on the music of the era in which it’s set. The production also has a fair amount of fun with the social milieu of the late ‘50s, as in the song “Someplace That’s Green,” where Seymour and Audrey pine for a suburban lifestyle straight out of the TV sitcoms of the day.

The TAP production’s strong cast presents Mike Sousa as Seymour, the florist’s assistant. Sousa, who has several other credits at TAP, does a good job of portraying the earnest protagonist as well as a good job with the musical numbers. A nice performance in the key role.

Shelby Swann plays Audrey, Seymour’s love interest, and she brings a strong singing voice to the role, along with a nice New York accent to bring out the character. Most of her work at TAP has been backstage, but judging by her performance here, she should be encouraged to take more onstage roles.

Reminiscent of the Supremes, the Little Shop of Horrors trio of “girl singers” does a fabulous job both of telling the story and setting the mood. – photo by Jane Jewell

The trio of Crystal, Chiffon, and Ronette, played by Rachel Elaina, Beth Anne Langrell, and Erinne Lewis, respectively, are near the heart of the play.  The trio’s names play on the names of popular “girl groups” of the early ‘60s, and that’s a good hint of the nature of their musical contribution. All have fabulous voices and they authentically re-create the music and mood of the ’60s. But in addition to delivering some of the most infectious tunes in the show, they act as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the action and delivering narrative hooks as necessary.  Lewis also created the choreography for the show – a good complement to the overall effect.  They have all the right moves as they shimmy and shake, stepping in time to the music – just like all the popular girl groups of the ’60s.  And their costumes are perfect.  They may live on Skid Row but they are always in style.

Ricky Vitanovec gets the role of the play’s villain, dentist Orin Scrivello – Audrey’s sadistic boyfriend. He makes the most of the role, all but chewing on the scenery – a nice piece of casting.  He is a natural comic and his “death by laughing gas” scene is hilarious. Viranoves also plays several other small roles including the various agents who try to get Seymour to sign contracts with them.   Vitanovec, who has appeared in a number of roles in Shore theaters, teaches theater at Easton High School.

The mad dentist (Ricky Vitanovec) enjoys his work.  Seymour (Mike Sousa) is not so sure. 2018 Little Shop of Horrors production by the Tred Avon Players – Photo by Jane Jewell

Bill Gross, who played the role of Oscar Madison in TAP’s The Odd Couple last summer, takes the role of Mr. Mushnik, the gruff owner of the flower shop. He gives a polish to the likeable curmudgeon who gleefully collects the money as Audrey Two brings in the customers.

Kathy Jones, in heavy makeup and wearing a crown of leaves, voices Audrey Two, the cannibalistic plant, with an appropriately sinister air. An excellent job by one of the regulars at Church Hill and the Garfield.  Her maniacal laughter at the climax of the play is awesome — and chill-inducing

The band for the show is led by pianist Ellen Barry Grunden, who does a great job of recapturing the doo-wop and ‘50s rock feel of the musical numbers. Ray Remesch on guitar and Jon Jacobs on bass add to the mix.

Costumes – including the deliciously period-perfect matching outfits of the trio – are by that fabulous costumer Barbi Bedell. Gilliam and Tom Lemm share the credit for puppet design and construction, and the set was designed by Lawrie Jessup and constructed with help from Lemm.

As already noted, this is a thoroughly enjoyable performance with great music and great acting – kudos to Gilliam and everyone involved.

Little Shop of Horrors runs through August 26, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $20 for adults and $10 for students. Oxford Community Center is at 200 Oxford Road, Oxford, MD.  If you come to one of the Sunday matinees, you’ll have the opportunity to take part in the “talk-back” with the actors after the show, meet all four of the Audrey Two plant puppets and their puppeteers, and get a backstage tour.

For reservations or other information, call 410-266-0061 or visit the TAP website.

Photo Gallery by Jane Jewell (with the help of that amazing camera, the iPhone 5)

Mushnik’s Skid Row Florist Shop is very busy since Audrey Two arrived – 2018 Little Shop of Horrors production by the Tred Avon Players – Photo by Jane Jewell

The trio of Crystal, Chiffon, and Ronette, played by Rachel Elaina, Beth Anne Langrell, and Erinne Lewis, in “Little Shop of Horrors” – Photo by Jane Jewell

Everyone wants a piece of Seymour and the exotic Audrey Two — 2018 Little Shop of Horrors production by the Tred Avon Players – Photo by Jane Jewell

Mushnik & Seymour celebrate their success and their new father-son relationship – 2018 Little Shop of Horrors production by the Tred Avon Players – Photo by Jane Jewell

Audrey &  Seymour – oh yes, and Audrey Two — 2018 Little Shop of Horrors production by the Tred Avon Players – Photo by Jane Jewell

“Somewhere That’s Green” 2018 Little Shop of Horrors production by the Tred Avon Players – Photo by Jane Jewell

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