Pippin at Church Hill Theatre: a Review by Peter Heck

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Cast members – Church Hill Theatre’s production of “Pippin: His Life and Times” Photo by Jane Jewell

Pippin, now playing at Church Hill Theater, is the story of a young prince in his quest to find a meaningful life – a timeless story that resonates as clearly now as it did in its original 1972 Broadway production.

Directed by Sylvia Maloney, the musical deploys a large cast of singers and dancers in a high-energy spectacle that revolves around a troupe of performers who tell Prince Pippin’s story. The music and lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz, with a book by Roger Hirson.

The original Broadway production, partially financed by Motown records, was highly successful, running on Broadway for almost five years.  It opened in October of 1972 and closed, after 1,944 performances, in June of 1977. Most Broadway shows open and close within a year.  More successful ones can run a few years.  At almost five years, Pippin, as of February 2018, is the 34h longest-running show in the entire history of Broadway. That’s pretty impressive.  Directed by the internationally famous director and choreographer Bob Fosse, Pippin won five Tony awards – two for Fosse, as director and choreographer, one for Ben Vereen as leading actor, and for Tony Walton (scenic design) and Jules Fisher (lighting design). It also won four Drama Desk awards – two for Fosse, one for Walton, and one for Patricia Ziprodt (costume design). And unusually enough, a 2013 Broadway revival took another load of awards – including a Tony for Patina Miller in the same role as Vereen – the only time the award has gone to a man and woman actor playing the same role.

Church Hill Theatre’s production of “Pippin: His Life and Times”      Photo by Steve Atkinson

The plot is centered on the title character, Pippin, the son and heir of Emperor Charlemagne, the French ruler who created the Holy Roman Empire by conquering much of western Europe. But beyond the characters’ names, the historical element is largely irrelevant, giving an essentially mythological plot a perfunctory grounding in the world of the Middle Ages. The story sets up a prototypical generational conflict, with the king neglecting his bookish son, and the son rebelling against what he sees as his father’s outmoded,  ways. The entire story is presented as a performance by the strolling players who make up the ensemble – taking the parts of soldiers, peasants, courtiers, and others needed to fill in the subsidiary roles of the play.  It’s an example of the classic technique of  “a play within a play.”

Ater finishing his education at the University of Padua, Prince Pippin visits his father’s court and decides to take his place as a warrior, emulating his younger half-brother Lewis. But he shows no aptitude for strategy or leadership, and after his first battle and discovering that he dislikes killing, he flees to his grandmother’s court. Renouncing the life of a soldier, Pippin turns to a life of leisure and pleasure–wine, women, and song!  But that ultimately proves unfulfilling, too. When the leading player suggests that he rebel against his father’s autocratic ways, he enthusiastically takes on that role – only to learn that overthrowing the government doesn’t necessarily lead to replacing it with something better. The young prince continues to search, eventually coming to a recognition that the road to happiness doesn’t necessarily require extraordinary accomplishments.

Maloney has brought together a cast including both CHT regulars and some young newcomers, particularly in the ensemble where it seems as if half the players are sophomores at Queen Anne’s County High School! The energy of the production gets a definite boost from all the young people on stage.

Leading the “youth brigade” is Mackenzie Campbell, who is outstanding as the Leading Player – a sort of ringmaster who conducts the entire performance. Singing, dancing, or simply standing at one side of the stage, she is a dominant presence. She has a number of credits with the Tred Avon Players and the Avalon Theater, but this is her CHT debut. Hard to believe she is only 17 years old; if she stays active in theater, it’s easy to foresee a bright future for her.

Mark Wiening as Pippin in Church Hill Theatre’s production of “Pippin: His Life and Times” — Photo by Steve Atkinson

Mark Wiening, who has appeared regularly both at CHT and at the Garfield Center, brings a strong singing voice and solid acting chops to the role of Pippin. A good performance in a role that demands a wide range of emotions and no small amount of physical schtick.

The role of Charlemagne is played by Bob Chauncey, who brings an appropriately regal bearing to the part. At the same time, he brings out the character’s comic side as a typically distracted father who has little time to talk to his son or understand his concerns.

Fastrada (Lori Armstrong) encourages her son Lewis (Bryce Sullivan) to show his warlike qualities in Church Hill Theatre’s production of “Pippin: His Life and Times” — Photo by Jane Jewell

 

Lori Armstrong is outstanding as Fastrada, Lewis’s scheming mother. She brings a good singing voice and a deliciously wicked persona to the role. Armstrong is returning to the stage after directing many student productions in her role as a Theater Arts teacher at Kent County Middle School. Let’s hope a taste of the spotlight encourages her to take part in more local productions.

Debra Ebersole is well cast as Berthe. Pippin’s grandmother. Her solo number, “No Time at All,” is one of the highlights of the first act; a nice performance by one of the long-time stalwarts of CHT musical productions.

Debbie Ebersole as Pippin’s grandmother & Mackenzie Campbell as The Leading Player in Church Hill Theatre’s production of “Pippin: His Life and Times”      Photo by Steve Atkinson

Pippin’s love interest, the widow Catherine, is played by Becca Van Aken, another CHT regular. The character is central to the play’s ultimate resolution, and Van Aken gives her a solid reality that makes the prince’s relationship with her seem natural and credible.

Bruce Sullivan a recent Queen Anne’s High School graduate, plays Lewis, Pippin’s half-brother – a more athletic and warlike (and considerably less intellectual) prince. And Cullen Williams, a Queen Anne’s freshman, does a good job as Theo, Catherine’s son.

Fastrada tells Pippin her motto: “Spread a Little Sunshine” — Photo by Steve Atkinson

The costumes are an integral part of this production – kudos to Tina Johnson, Erma Johnson and Liz Clarke for the spectacular look of the players. Interestingly, while most of the other characters are elaborately costumed, Pippin himself is dressed very plainly – a subtle way to emphasize his “Everyman” status, despite his official position as a prince and heir to the throne.

The choreography is also outstanding, thanks to Calvin Moore. Whether it’s a slow-motion battle scene (almost a “soft shoe” performance) or a formal dance at the emperor’s court, the swirl of motion is almost constant, and the cast does it without a misstep.

Despite the participation of Motown Records – several of whose stars recorded songs from the show – Pippin doesn’t feature particularly memorable music. Other than the main character’s signature song, “Corner of the Sky,” most of the songs are vehicles for clever words rather than melodies the audience is likely to find themselves humming the morning after seeing the show. On the whole, the CHT cast does a good job of making the songs work within the context of the play, and the orchestra, led by Ray Remesch, accompanies them in idiomatic style. Remeshch’s smooth work on guitar was notable at several spots in the performance.

Theo and Pippin pray for a duck – Church Hill Theatre’s production of “Pippin: His Life and Times” — Photo by Steve Atkinson

As Maloney notes in her director’s notes, it is easy to see the play as an echo of the doubts and dissatisfactions of the early 1970s, a time of political turmoil and social experimentation. The young prince’s search for meaning in his life is, of course, a quest that almost every generation finds itself embarking on. With its energetic young cast and a sprinkling of canny veterans, the CHT production should have a natural appeal to the young — and to those who remember what it was like to be young at a time when the world seemed full of possibilities and challenges.

Pippin runs through June 24, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students. Reservations are strongly recommended; call the theater at 410-556-6003 or visit www.churchhilltheatre.org to get your advance tickets.

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Mid-Shore Arts: Tara Helen O’Connor and the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival

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Sometimes it’s easy to take for granted some of the most remarkable institutions within one’s community. That is periodically the case with the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival which is now entering its 33rd year of bringing some of the best classical music performers to Talbot County.

Year after year, the Festival spends countless hours to make sure that it has locked in some of the most sought-after musicians and soloists in the world for its annual program for the great benefit of Mid-Shore and the Mid-Atlantic music aficionados.

But given their consistent track record, it sometimes is lost how remarkable the organizers have succeeded in not only ensuring that these world-class performers are present but are encouraged to come back time and time again through the hospitality of local host families and the great beauty of the Eastern Shore itself.

One of those great performers is Tara Helen O’Connor who many critics now consider to be one of the best flutists performing today.

For sixteen years Tara has made the trip from New York City down to Easton not only for the enjoyment of performing in the intimate venues arranged by the Festival but also so she can once again reunite with her host family, in this case, Charlie and Carolyn Thornton, who have become part of Tara’s extended family.

The Spy talked to Tara before her recent performance about her love of her instrument, her approach to performance, and her love of the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival.

This video is approximately four minutes in length. Additional video provided by Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. For more information and ticket sales for the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival please go here

Spy Eye: Obama for President in Chestertown

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In the remaining months of 2008, I was still infrequently commuting between California and a small second home in Chestertown. While I had decided to permanently move back to the Eastern Shore, I was still wrapping up a thirty-year career in the Bay Area and would not be a legal voter in Maryland until the following year.

That was the primary reason I wasn’t entirely up-to-date on the hyperlocal presidential politics of Chestertown. The national drama of having an African-American running for president was compelling enough without the outside chance that Obama might win Kent County that year.

So when I made a trip back that early fall, it was not only the sight of hundreds of Obama lawn signs but what it said about Chestertown and why so many love it so much.

This video is approximately three minutes in length

Mid-Shore Arts: A Chat with Singer Barbara Parker

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Barbara Parker has always been a singer-songwriter, but it wasn’t until thirteen years ago that a friend handed her a mic at a party, and after she sang one of her songs asked, “Why aren’t you doing this for a larger audience?” And so she did, starting with Open Mic Nights at the Garfield, to various gigs, and the recording of her first CD. But it was the collaboration with jazz pianist, Joe Holt to whom she credits her current success.

They met two years ago when Parker would come to see him perform. Even before being officially introduced, she knew she wanted to work with him. “I told him: I want to do another project, and I want you to produce it. Joe builds around my music, and makes my music complete.” Holt interrupts, “My role here is one of support. This is a duo, but it’s a duo with a structure on facilitating what Barbara does.”

Barbara Parker and Joe Holt. Photo by Sherrie von Sternberg

Listening to them finish each other’s sentences, is a clear indication of their relationship. Parker and Holt seem to have the perfect partnership of lyricist and musical arranger, allowing both of them to do what they love while encouraging each other’s talents. “I have limited skills musically, and he’s got endless skills musically,” says Parker. “That’s the gift he gives me. He makes me sound really, really good.” “I can only do that,” he retorts, “if there is something there to begin with. Barbara is a complicated person, as any artist is. There’s both complexity and paradox in her life.”

Nowhere is this complexity more evident than in what she sings about. As with many songwriters, Parker is inspired by what goes on around her. “I love to write when driving. You should see the music that comes with that! Thank God for cell phones. I have currently 159 voice memos all of which are snippets of songs that come to me.”

Some of these snippets become songs, and some of these songs become audience favorites. One is Blackbird, written in homage to Robin Williams. “When I heard he died that morning, I sat down and wrote the song in less than 15 minutes.” Another song, Sanctuary, came to her after a phone call from a friend who was feeling sad. Her Dragon of the Chesapeake is relatable locally (and deals with her bridge phobia).

Explains Holt, “That’s how it works when a songwriter is not ‘formulaic.’ It’s like opening up a spigot.” Parker laughs, “I’m like a bucket that has a hole in it; luckily Joe is there with a pan. I’ll give him a melody, and I’ll give him a lyric, and he’ll say, ‘let’s switch the timing up just a little bit,’ or he’ll say, ‘this should be a tango.’ ”

Her ability to accept various styles and suggestions from Holt is another reason they work so well together. “I’m influenced by so much, and I really have no specific musical preference. I listen to everything from classical to jazz to easy listening to pop to rock to country, and when a song comes to me, in the amazing way that it does—this bolt out of the blue, it can be any of the styles. From my standpoint I’m a storyteller, I’m a singer-songwriter.” Holt agrees, “She’s stylistically diverse. Her songs are as much country and as much pop rock as much tango. All while being accompanied by a jazz pianist!”

Parker is also creatively diverse. Successful as a professional painter, her artwork was selected five years ago by the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival for use on the Festival’s publicity materials and poster. She is also a photographer and writer. “Creativity is creativity,” she says. “It’s all about relating a message in an emotional kind of way that doesn’t destroy you.”

Asked what her challenge is as a performer, Parker admits she hopes to “keep producing fresh material, that is not like something else I’ve done. I hear it differently in my head, but with my limited musical knowledge, I can’t make it happen. Having Joe as a resource has been such a gift. I am so grateful. Every day I have the opportunity to create something new and how great is that?”

Barbara Parker will be joined by Joe Holt Thursday, June 7th at the Oxford Community Center. Show starts at 7PM and tickets are $15. For more information please go here. For additional show dates, check out her website.

Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.

Mid-Shore Authors: ​Anke Van Wagenberg on the Weenix Impact on Dutch Paintings

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You would think that Anke Van Wagenberg’s day job would be a serious impediment for doing any form of serious extracurricular writing. As the senior curator of the Academy Art Museum, Van Wagenberg is in charge of the dozens of art programs and exhibitions the AAM produces every year, but also is responsible for the the cataloging and conservation of the museum’s 1,500 objects in their collection. Not an easy gig.

That might be one of the reasons it has taken Anke fourteen years to complete a massive two-volume survey of the complete works of the artist Jan Baptist Weenix and his son, Jan Weenix, entitled Painting for Princes: Dutch Art by Jan Baptist Weenix & Jan Weenix.

The father, who died young at 39 years old, and his son, produced over 500 paintings during their collective lifetime which Van Wagenberg has dutifully documented as part of her own ongoing scholarship in Dutch paintings.

The results of this extraordinary undertaking is finally in print which will add significantly to the art world’s knowledge of these sometimes forgotten Dutch Masters, whose work compares well with contemporaries of the time, including the likes of Rembrandt and Rubin.

The Spy caught up with Anke a few days ago to talk about both father and son and their lasting impact on Western art as she prepares for a series of lectures on the Weenex books before returning for many more years of research on the drawings these two men produced during their lifetimes.

This video is approximately two minutes in length. Anke Van Wagenberg will launch the book’s publication as a Kittredge-Wilson lecturer at the Academy Art Museum at 6pm on Friday May 18. For more information please go here

 

Eastern Shore Wind Ensemble presents “Cityscapes” May 20

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The Eastern Shore Wind Ensemble takes its audience to cities near and far in its final concert of the season, “Cityscapes.” Music Director Dr. Keith A. Wharton will conduct this free concert, beginning at 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 20, at Emmanuel Episcopal Church at Cross and High streets, Chestertown. The church is handicapped-accessible, via the ramp and automatic doors on the courthouse-green side of the building.

The concert features medleys that celebrate two American cities in particular: “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)” by Fred Fisher and “A Salute to New York (Give My Regards to Broadway; Forty-Second Street; The Sidewalks of New York; New York, New York)” arranged by Jack Bullock.

The spirit of American cities and towns is conveyed in “Quad City Stomp” by Michael Sweeney, “River City” by Jacob de Haan, “Bridgeview” by Ed Huckeby, “Delmar Celebration” by John Edmondson, and “Nightflight (Scenes of a City from Above)” by James Swearingen.

Lastly, European cities are represented by “Un Petit Cafe a Paris” by Jeremy Bell and the Finale from “The Pines of Rome” by Ottorino Respighi.

The Eastern Shore Wind Ensemble is an all-ages community concert band. It was formed in 2001 to offer area wind and percussion musicians the opportunity to continue or return to the pleasures of playing quality music in a large ensemble. New members are always welcome, without audition or fee.

Rehearsals for next season will begin in September. Each rehearsal starts promptly at 7:00 p.m. and runs until 8:30 p.m. in the Washington College band room in Gibson Center for the Arts. For further information, call 410-778-2829, send a message to ESWEemail@yahoo.com, or look at facebook.com/EasternShoreWindEnsemble. The ensemble is partially supported by a grant from the Kent County Arts Council.

Chasing Sophie: The Search for the Real Sophie Kerr

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There are quite a few things that Washington College can hang its hat on with great pride. The easiest one, of course, is the fact that George Washington willingly allowed his name to be used in the creation of the country’s 10th oldest college. That’s pretty good stuff but it does not diminish the other remarkable legacies of this 238-year-old school, and the prime example is the Denton born writer Sophie Kerr.

A native of the Mid-Shore who eventually found her way to hosting literary salons at her Murray Hill townhouse in New York in the first half of the 20th Century, Kerr became one of the most proficient writers of her time. When she passed away in 1965, she had completed over 80 novels, hundreds of magazine articles, and a number of highly sought after cookbooks. She also left enough money in her will to allow Washington College to offer each year the largest literary prize for an undergraduate in the country ($66,000 last year) and an equally significant amount to create what is now an impressive creative writing program at the school.

Another thing she left to the two institutions she had developed a strong kinship with, namely Columbia University, where she donated most of her letters and manuscripts, and Washington College, who was the recipient of her journal-like daybooks, poems, and other personal correspondence.

But even with this extraordinary collection of primary resource material, the real Sophie Kerr remains somewhat of a mystery to both scholars and the general public. The writer took extraordinary steps during her life to keep a large wall between her and her professional writing, but that also held true even with her letters.

The forever private nature of Kerr was a common interest that united three unique partners in a quest to chase down the real Sophie. WC’s professor Elizabeth O’Connor, whose lifetime scholarship had dug deep into American women writers during Sophie’s era, was eager to fill in some important gaps of knowledge. Her student, Brooke Schultz, found in Sophie the a perfect subject for the Friends of the Miller Library to award her a Thornton Fellowship to research her work for a senior thesis. And, finally, Heather Calloway, the College archivist, who had been tasked with making sense of Miller Library’s Kerr collection, also wanted to know more about Kerr’s history on the Eastern Shore as well as in New York.

Over the last year, these women set out to find the real Sophie Kerr as a unique team project which started with a meticulous review of WC’s holdings and ended with spending three days at Columbia’s archive to immerse themselves in the author’s complete body of work.

Some of the results of this work can be found in Brooke’s thesis, but, as the Spy found out in our interview with all three (appropriately in the Sophie Kerr Room at Miller Library), this intensive research project has only just begun to uncover this progressive writer’s unique personality and literary agenda.

This video is approximately three minutes in length. For more information about Sophie Kerr and Washington College please go here.

“Sweeney Todd” at the Garfield — a Review by Peter Heck

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Anyone who enjoys the theater should make it a point to see Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, currently playing at the Garfield Center for the Arts.

Directed by Shelagh Grasso, with musical direction by Julie Lawrence, Sweeney Todd is an intense, sometimes overwhelming, story of murder, cannibalism, injustice – and love.  With a touch of humor. That’s a tall order and the Garfield production comes through.

Originally a 1973 play by Christopher Bond, Sweeney Todd takes its material from the Victorian “penny dreadfuls”– one of which introduced the murderous barber Todd in a serialized thriller, “The String of Pearls” in the late 1840s. It was so popular that it was turned into a play even before its final installment, and numerous spin-offs followed. Bond added a level of psychological sophistication to the Victorian original, and the London production of the play inspired Sondheim to adapt it as a musical in 1979.

The sailor Anthony rescued and befriended barber Sweeney Todd.      Photo by Carmen Grasso

The original Broadway production featured Len Cariou in the title role and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime, with Hal Prince directing. It ran for 557 performances before going on a national tour. It won an astounding eight Tony Awards, and followed up with nine Drama Desk awards – including best musical, best male and female actors, best director, and best score. Not surprisingly, it has been revived numerous times, with a 2007 film adaptation starring Johnny Depp.

The plot revolves around a London barber banished to the penal colonies of Australia on trumped-up charges by a crooked judge who had designs on the barber’s wife. Now fifteen years later, the barber has returned to England, accompanied by a young sailor, Anthony Hope, who rescued him at sea. After telling Anthony a version of his tale, Todd goes to a meat pie shop on Fleet Street, where the proprietress, Mrs. Lovett complains about how hard it is to find meat. He asks her about her upstairs apartment, which he reveals that he himself used to rent under his former name before he was arrested. She tells him, in turn, that his wife committed suicide and that the crooked judge adopted his then-infant daughter Johanna.

Mrs. Lovett agrees to rent him the apartment and promises to keep his secret. She also gives him back his old set of razors which she has kept all these years, so he can go back into business as a barber again. But Todd has sworn revenge on the judge, and that decision shapes everything else that happens.

Meanwhile, Anthony has seen a beautiful young woman singing out of her window, and falls instantly in love with her. Her name, he learns, is Johanna – then the judge and his beadle chase him away, threatening bodily harm if he returns. Unwittingly, he has fallen in love with Todd’s daughter.

Back on Fleet Street. Todd wins a shaving contest against an Italian barber, Pirelli, allowing him to call himself the best barber in London. The judge’s beadle, impressed, makes an appointment to come back for a shave – which Todd sees as a chance for revenge on one of the men who framed him. When Anthony then appears and tells of his love for Johanna, Todd promises Anthony he can use his shop as a meeting place for their elopement.

But before that can happen, Pirelli and his assistant Tobias appear and Pirelli asks for a shave. Mrs. Lovett takes Tobias downstairs for a meat pie, and Pirelli reveals that he knows who Todd is and tries to blackmail him. So Todd slits his throat and Mrs. Lovett makes Tobias an assistant, pretending that Pirelli has been called away on business. And she sees the need to dispose of the body as an opportunity – after all, she still needs meat for her pie business!

From there, the plot moves inevitably toward its conclusion – a dark and bloody apocalypse in the great tradition of the “penny dreadful.” Needless to say, this is not a play for young children – perhaps not for anyone disturbed by the sight of stage blood, or who thought Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” was too gross. However, it’s important to note that while the plot has numerous on-stage murders, there is really not a lot of blatant on-stage gore. But there’s no excuse for anyone else to miss this production – one of the most powerful in the local theater in recent years.

Grasso has assembled a top-notch cast, with many who are making their first local appearance.

Christopher Wallace, who directed CHT’s recent production of Witness for the Prosecution, plays the title role. He does a nice job walking the fine line between Todd as a victim of injustice and as a monster – both aspects of which come to the fore at different times. A memorable performance in a difficult role.

Jane Copple, who has a long string of credits in Church Hill Theatre musicals, is a good fit for the role of Mrs. Lovett. Her voice is one of the best in the cast, and she conveys the comic aspects of the character well.

Max Hagan, who has a theater degree from Sewanee, gets to show off a nice voice as Anthony Hope. One of the most sympathetic characters in this generally dark play, he could be seen as the moral center of the play.

Thwarted lovers Anthony and Johanna in “Sweeney Todd” at Garfield Theatre        Photo by Carmen Grasso

Natalie Lane, who previously appeared in the Garfield production of My Fair Lady, plays Tobias, the young boy who becomes an apprentice to Mrs. Lovett in the pie shop. Her voice is excellent and she is convincing as a London street urchin.

Matt Folker is cast as Judge Terpin, the main villain of the piece, and Nic Carter plays Beadle Bamford, his unsavory henchman. Both do fine jobs of embodying the entrenched evil that ends up creating a serial murderer, the “demon barber of Fleet Street.”

Jane Copple as Mrs. Lovett, Christopher Wallace as Sweeney Todd, and Melissa McGlynn as the Beggar Woman/Lucy in “Sweeney Todd”, a 2018 production at Garfield Theatre.      Photo by Carmen Grasso

Melissa McGlynn plays a beggar woman who turns out to have a more significant role in the plot than first appears. A solid performance from one of our local theatrical stars.

Shannon Whitaker is well cast as Johanna, Sweeney’s daughter. She displays a beautiful singing voice in her featured number, “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.”

Zack Schagg, Howard Messick, Zac Ryan and Kendall Davis round out the list of characters with speaking parts, and all do good jobs. Likewise the chorus – which includes a large number of familiar on-stage faces – is an impressive presence, acting, as Grasso said after the opening night performance, almost as a Greek chorus, telling the story in operatic style. There is a wonderful “madhouse” scene in which Anthony goes to rescue Johanna from the lunatic asylum.  The lunatics–in particular, Marcia Gilliam–are delightfully mad. And then there is the “more pie” scene where the local townspeople wipe their lips and swing their mugs of ale while calling for “more pie”.  All in song!

The set, designed and built by Carmen Grasso, is astonishing in its own right. The main piece, sitting at center stage, swivels around to show two different fronts – one Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, the other a generic street scene. On a second level, it shows Todd’s barbershop – including a chute down which he drops the victims of his butchery so the “meat” can be used for pies.  A very clever and useful feature!  And this is just the centerpiece – there are levels upon levels all around it, with chorus members lurking to observe and add their voices where the score calls for it. There’s even scaffolding out in the audience, behind the orchestra pit. Be sure to look all around you as the play goes on – there’s a lot happening!

“Sweeney Todd” performance at Garfield Theatre          Photo by Carmen Grasso

The costuming convincingly recreates the look of 1840s London working and middle class.  In the early scenes, both Lovett and Todd’s clothes are worn and not of the highest fashion.  But as the “pie” shop prospers, both characters sport a posher look, with Todd in a good-quality suit and Mrs. Lovett wearing a fashionable dress with a beautiful–and obviously expensive–embroidered shawl. Johanna, the barber’s daughter, looked lovely in a white gown and long flowing tresses.  A great wig!  Good job by costume designer Barbi Bedell and her crew.

In fact, despite the complexity of the choreography and blocking and the large number of characters onstage at any given time, the play feels very tight. Grasso has done an impressive job bringing everything together into a unified whole. This only adds to her already high ranking among directors in the local theater community.  A special mention should also go to choreographer and assistant director Greg Minahan.  Minahan comes to the Garfield with an impressive list of credits that include singing, dancing and choreography on Broadway in such productions as CATS and Peter Pan.  Locally, Minihan has acted and directed for both Shore Shakespeare and Church Hill Theatre.

A couple of quibbles. The dialogue was sometimes hard to understand – especially with characters singing in Cockney accents. Occasionally, lyrics were covered up by the orchestra – especially in some chorus pieces. This may improve as the cast settles in. And the lighting seemed dimmer in spots than it might have been.  There were also a few opening-night glitches such as when actors moved out of their spotlights.  But nothing that really detracted from the enjoyment of the production.

“Sweeney Todd” performance at Garfield Theatre      Photo by Carmen Grasso

Sondheim’s music is complex and challenging.  Some songs are gentle and sweet, expressing themes of love and loyalty, such as the duet “Not While I’m Around” between Mrs. Lovett and Tobias.  But Sondheim also uses dissonance–sometimes high-volume dissonance–to convey the more shocking emotional elements of the story.  This is, after all, a story of murder and mayhem! And the music reflects that.  Those who are more attuned to the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe may want to adjust their expectations accordingly.   I myself lean more toward Gershwin and Porter but found the music in  Sweeny Todd to be both powerful and dramatically effective.

There’s plenty of energy, and the orchestra seemed to be very tight. The quality of the singers’ voices is universally high. There were a couple of points where two singers in a duet appeared to be in different keys – but without having the score right there, it was hard to tell if this was intentional or not. Again it was not enough to detract from the overall excellence of the music.  Of course, given the theme of the show, it is consistent for the music–though quite lyrical at times–to also be uncomfortable at other points.  Kudos to Julie Lawrence who brought it all together.

Sweeney Todd, as noted above, is an intense, gripping theatrical experience, and Grasso’s production pulls no punches.  Note that it is a long show, running just under three hours.  The local theater community deserves high marks for bringing this show to the Garfield and bringing to it such an effective performance. Go see it.

Sweeney Todd runs at the Garfield through May 13, with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sundays. For reservations, call 410-810-2960 or visit boxoffice@garfieldcenter.org.

The local beggar and mad woman confronts Anthony.  Sweeney Todd at the Garfield Theatre. Photo by Carmen Grasso

Another victim of the Demon Barber meets his fate in “Sweeney Todd” at Garfield Theatre.      Photo by Carmen Grasso

Mrs. Lovett and her assistant Tobias in “Sweeney Todd” at Garfield Theatre.     Photo by Carmen Grasso

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Vibraphonist Chuck Redd brings his “New York All-Stars” to Easton

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At just 23 years old, Bebop darling Veronica Swift is rapidly gaining recognition as one of today’s best young jazz singers.

And she’s got the accolades (and awards!) to prove it, including a second-place win at the prestigious 2015 Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition and stage credits, like a solo performance at NYC’s Tribeca Performing Arts Center in 2016, followed by a headlining spot at the Telluride Jazz Festival.

Catch Swift

“She’s really taken off,” says Al Sikes, Chesapeake Music’s Jazz Committee Chairman (and producer of the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival).

From swingin’ to soulful, Swift’s flawless vocals naturally demonstrate her passion for, and innate understanding of, jazz standards—a talent that translates into mesmerizing performances.

Catch Swift on her rise to the top, when she shares the stage with renowned jazz vibraphonist Chuck Redd on Saturday, May 12th. The show, Jazz Impressions of Wonderful Melodies, takes place at 8 p.m. at the Academy Art Museum in Easton.

The performance promises to be one of Jazz on the Chesapeake’s most interesting and lively shows yet. In addition to Swift’s guest appearance, Jazz Impressions will feature some of New York’s best talent—aptly dubbed for this performance the “New York All-Stars”—pianist Larry Fuller, saxophonist Will Anderson, and bassist David Wong.

A familiar face to fans of the annual Monty Alexander Jazz Festival, Redd is a seasoned performer on the vibraphone and drums. In addition to his musical finesse, Redd is the mastermind behind many of the makeshift ensembles that grace Easton’s jazz scene, often at the behest of Sikes.

Chuck Redd

According to Sikes, Redd’s ability to seamlessly integrate musicians, who sometimes have little experience playing together, is impressive.

“I tell him I’ve got an open date, we’ll discuss themes, and he’ll pull it together,” he says. “Chuck’s never failed.”

Yet, how do a handful of musicians who’ve barely met produce such a wonderful and seemingly well-rehearsed performance?

“They have a language they share that transcends the technical explanation,” says Sikes, adding that familiarity with the Great American Songbook is key.

Along with jazz fundamentals, another essential element that provides these musicians the ability to perform together with little practice time is jazz’ improvisational nature, explains Sikes.

Still, it remains a marvel to witness on any occasion.

Unlike other Jazz on the Chesapeake concerts, Sikes approached Redd with the suggestion of adding Swift to his “All-Star” lineup.

Sikes first saw Swift perform more than a decade ago, when the then 10-year-old joined her parents—her father, the late bebop pianist Hod O’Brien, and mother, vocalist Stephanie Nakasian—on stage in Western Maryland.

Last summer, he caught a performance of hers in New York, which demonstrated Swift’s mastery of traditional swing and left Sikes determined to bring her to Easton.

And while Redd and Swift have yet to share the stage, Sikes isn’t nervous. If anything, he knows it’ll give to a more exciting, fiery performance.

“The band will swing and the vocalist will soar,” he says. “What a wonderful combination.”

Presented by Jazz on the Chesapeake, a program of Chesapeake Music, Jazz Impressions of Wonderful Melodies will begin at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 12th, at the Academy Arts Museum in Easton. General admission tickets are $40. To purchase, call 410-819-0380 or visit Jazzonthechesapeake.com.