Review: Fiddler on the Roof at Third Wall Productions

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one 15-minute intermission

Tradition is what keeps things together for some people but there are folks who thrive on change. Tradition and Change certainly make strange bedfellows and Third Wall Production‘s lates offering, the classic Fiddler on the Roof, Directed by Lance Bankerd, with Music Direction by Edward Berlett, Choreography by Kali Baklor, Set Design by Jordan Hollett and Costume Design by Sally Kahn, takes us back to the early part of the 20th century and gives us the tale of a poor, Russian milkman struggling with and trying to balance his traditions and radical, new ideas of a new era.

I have to admit, I had serious reservations when I walked into the theatre and realized Director Lance Bankerd is putting Fiddler on the Roof – a big show – in an intimate space and in the round! Well, as soon as the first number started, though it was a bit tight with such a massive cast, it actually worked and it worked quite well!

Set Designer Jordan Hollett manages to give the audience a full musical theatre experience with set pieces and backdrops rather than full sets and it seems less tedious and just as effective. The story is told with benches and tables with a few “fancy” pieces such as a spinning bed and required wedding canopy. Kudos toe Hollett for his inventive design and intelligent use of space. Also worth mentioning is the painting of the large backdrops by Artists Ann Pallank, Amy Rudai, and Emma Hawthorn, adding great value to the space and the production as a whole.

Sally Kahn’s Costume Design is on point and her choices for this ensemble fir the bill of a poor Eastern European village in the early 20th century. Her attention to detail is commendable as this piece is not only somewhat of a period piece but also a cultural piece dealing with rules and restrictions of the Jewish religion that Kahn seems to understand and wardrobes her actors as such.

Kali Baklor takes on double-duty as both Choreographer and tacking the whirlwind role of Fruma-Sarah, the dead wife of the town butcher. Balkor’s choreography work is impressive and befitting for the piece and her ensemble. The space is intimate so there isn’t a ton of room for her large cast, but she uses what space she does have wisely with minimal but interesting and entertaining choreography. Along with keeping the cast in step, her take on the loud, obnoxious Fruma-Sarah is high-energy, confident and quite admirable.

Music Director Edward Berlett has this ensemble sounding beautiful in each number and his work with actors in the featured numbers is apparent as they run smoothly and sound splendid. I do regret the orchestra has no recognition in the program because they sound absolutely phenomenal. Taking up almost a third of the space, they were not overwhelming and blended in nicely with the ensemble making for a very pleasant sound. Featured musician, violinist Jonathan Goram is a gem in this impressive orchestra as he didn’t falter once during his solos making for an sensational performance. Kudos to the pit orchestra for a job well done and, hopefully, you’ll all get an insert in the program before the production is over!

Direction by Lance Bankerd is innovative and well-thought out, presenting this traditional musical in an nontraditional space. The space is tight, and the attempt of audience immersion from some of the cast is a little much, but some people enjoy that sort of thing and, overall, it was a joyous experience. There are a few curious casting choices, in appearance only, such as some characters who are younger than others actually looking older, but, all in all, it’s a very well put-together production. Fiddler on the Roof is A LOT of show and Bankerd has managed to keep the action moving and his cast kept the pace nicely. Major kudos to Lance Bankerd on a superb job with this piece.

Emma Hawthorn takes a turn as Yente, the matchmaker and pulls off the part nicely. This role is more of a comic relief and has a lot of the funny lines, but Hawthorn’s timing is a bit off on some of the jokes that could have been gold. Overall, however, she gives a fine performance and she understands the important role (after all, there’s an entire song in her honor!). She leads the attempt to bring the audience into the action with asides and interactions and seems successful in her attempts.

Michelle Hosier tackles the supernatural role of Grandma Tzeitel, who Tevye claims comes to him in a dream and she is delightful. She has a beautiful, strong soprano that is featured in “The Dream” and she’s comfortable and confident in the role.

Michael Zellhofer takes on the role of Lazar Wolf and his performance is top notch. He has a strong stage presence and makes this role his own and plays it confidently with a balance of drama and brilliant comedic timing.

Taking on the roles of eldest daughter Tzeitel and her unintended beau, Motel, the tailor are Lauren DeSha and Daniel Plante. From the moment DeSha steps onto the stage, she is a joy to watch. She gives a natural, comfortable performance, both in the portrayal of her character and vocally, and she has great chemistry with her fellow cast mates, espeically with Plante, her character’s love interest. The two give a believable performance and though Plante may not give the strongest vocal performance, but he is certainly giving 100% effort making for a commendable and confident performance.

Next up, Mea C. Holloway tackles the role of Hodel, the second eldest daughter and Joe Weinhoffer as portrays her counterpart, Perchik, the Student from Kiev. Aside from looking a bit older than the actress playing her older sister, Holloway gives a brilliant performance, vocally, but her portrayal of Hodel, though admirable, fell just a little flat. Weinhoffer’s interpretation of Perchik is spot on and his confidence and charisma shines through in his performance. Though he sounds a bit scripted, at times, his a clear, smooth, resonating voice fits the character near perfectly.

Alex Clasing who plays Chava, the third eldest daughter, is a definite standout in this production and her performance is a pleasure to watch. Vocally, she has a strong, clear voice that makes one take notice, even in the group numbers like “Matchmaker” and her acting chops are on point. Clasing portrays Chava naturally and authenticly and works easily with her cast mates. Her performance is one to watch in this piece and I’m looking forward to seeing more from this young actor.

Jenifer Grundy-Hollett as Golde is a treat and she gives this role 100%. Her comedic timing is spot on and she really grasps her character, making wise choices and making Golde a realistic mother and wife.  Her lovely soprano shines through, vocally, especially in numbers like “Do You Love Me?” and “Sunrise, Sunset.” She does play the part with a heavy hint of New York City in both accent and attitude but she still pulls the part off authentically and works well with all her cast mates.

Baltimore theatre veteran Roger Schulman as Tevye is the highlight of this production and he leads this ensemble with ease. Tevye is a traditional, yet jovial character and Schulman embodies these attributes superbly. His performance of Tevye’s signature “If I Were a Rich Man” is a joy to watch and Schulman refreshingly makes it his own. His overall delivery is natural and he makes the audience feel welcome and at home. He presents the subtle transition of his character seamlessly but with certainty and his presentation of Tevye’s evolution and growth is what knocks this performance out of the ball park.

Final thought…Fiddler on the Roof is usually a show that people love or hate. Rarely is there an in between but this production at Third Wall Productions is a creative, innovative presentation of this classic Broadway show. I had my reservations with it being in-the-round, at first, but this production did not disappoint. The intimate space was a bit cramped for the large cast and the attempt of audience immersion was a bit much, but overall, Third Wall Productions can chalk this one up as a bona fide success. The gifted ensemble and orchestra is a joy to watch and hear and the outstanding performances of these talented players should not be missed.

This is what I thought of Third Wall Productions’ production of Fiddler on the Roof… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Fiddler on the Roof will play through February 26 at Third Wall Productions, 5801 Harford Road, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 443-838-4064 or purchase them online.

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Review: Trust at Fells Point Corner Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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Running Time: 1 hours and 50 minutes with one 15-minute intermission

The 90s was a hell of a decade and I would do it all over again, if I could! Amidst the Gulf War, Rodney King Riots, and presidential sex-scandals, there were some pretty cool times, as well, such as The Berlin Wall coming down, the ending of the Cold War with the U.S.S.R. and… the World Wide Web! Fells Point Corner Theatre‘s production of Trust by Steven Dietz, Directed by Michael Byrne Zemarel, with Music Direction by Kristen Cooley, Set Design by Bush Greenbeck, and Lighting Design by Chris Allen takes the audience back to a bygone era where relationships and sex were just “a thing,” Chris Hardwick was hosting Singled Out on MTV and not talking about zombies, and Nirvana dominated the airwaves.

The Cast of Trust. Credit: Chris Hartlove

The Cast of Trust. Credit: Chris Hartlove

In a nutshell, Trust is steamy, raw tale about Cody and Becca, a young engaged couple, and Cody has recently hit it big in the music industry and has graced the cover of the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine. However, Cody also has the hots for an older faded and jaded star, Leah, who may or may not have a thing for him, too. Gretchen knew Leah back before she was big and had the hots for her, but never told her. Low and behold, Gretchen, who happens to be a dressmaker, is making Becca’s wedding dress may or may not have the hots for Becca and Becca might possibly have similar feelings in return. Enter the young Holly, another outspoken friend of Gretchen’s who adores Cody, the rising star, while Roy, a DJ, has his motor running for Holly. Welcome to love in the 90s.

Bush Greenbeck’s minimal, clean set design works well with this piece and his clever use of a revolving stage takes the audience seamlessly from one location to another and adds a bit of variety to the piece, which, in authentic 90s fashion, is quite black. To counter this dark tone, Greenbeck adds splashes of color and prints to break up the monotony and it keeps the set visually appealing.

To complement Greenbeck’s design, Lighting Design by Chris Allen sets the mood of the piece very nicely. He uses the levels in his lighting to portray locations such as living rooms, bars, and hotel rooms and his subtle changes and splashes of color are effective and moving the piece along smoothly.

Michael Byrne Zemarel, Laura Malkus, and David Shoemaker. Credit: Chris Hartlove

Michael Byrne Zemarel, Laura Malkus, and David Shoemaker. Credit: Chris Hartlove

According to Music Director Kristen Cooley, Trust is written as a straight play with no music, but it was the decision of Director Michael Byrne Zemarel to add this element, making it a play with music and it was indeed a creatively wise choice. The music that was added beautifully complimented the action in the piece and Cooley lucked out with actors who are instrumentalists as well, including Mark Scharf, who is credited only as The Musician. I’m assuming Scharf’s character was added in, as well, and he does an excellent job providing accompaniment with his acoustic guitar throughout the piece. I like the fact that the song choices aren’t just the top hits of the decade but some B-side songs were utilized as well, which is refreshing. Overall, Cooley’s song choices (in collaboration with Zemeral, I’m sure) are smart and befitting and her work with the cast shines through in their tight harmonies and strong vocal performances.

Michael Byrne Zemarel takes on double duty as a performer and director in this piece. On his directing, he does a superb job with this piece. As previously discussed, his decision to add the element of music is brilliant. It adds so much value to this piece and the decision of using live, acoustic guitar accompaniment makes it all the better. He was not afraid to push the boundaries in this piece that’s not only filled with relationship drama but also has a touch of simulated sex and nudity that may or may not be for shock value. Whether or not the sex stuff is or is not for shock value, it works and pulls the piece together.   His portrayal of Roy is realistic and, through is mannerisms, he really captures the essence of a man longing or love in the grunge age.

Rachel Roth as Gretchen. Credit: Chris Hartlove

Rachel Roth as Gretchen. Credit: Chris Hartlove

Overall, this ensemble worked superbly together with excellent chemistry. It is obvious they are comfortable with each other as they play off each other naturally and with confidence.

Casey Dutt portrayal of Holly, the sharp tongued, opinionated young friend is strong and entertaining. She portrays well a character who simply says what’s on her mind and doesn’t mean any harm, but does, in fact, cross the line sometimes.

David Shoemaker as Cody. Credit: Chris Hartlove

David Shoemaker as Cody. Credit: Chris Hartlove

David Shoemaker tackles the role of Cody, the rising star, trying to navigate through the newfound fame and all that goes with it. He definitely looked the part of a young rock star with the wispy hair and chiseled physique (and what a physique it is). He gives a confident performance and absolutely understands the humility of his character and aside from some of the decisions this character takes, he is quite likable. He is an outstanding musician both on his guitar and vocally with a soothing bass that resonates throughout the theatre. That being said, I would have like a little more enthusiasm whereas Shoemaker plays this role rather subtly to the point where it was almost hard to understand what he was saying or doing. However, a lot of the 90s was chill so, he would have probably fit right in.

Laura Malkus as Leah. Credit: Chris Hartlove

Laura Malkus as Leah. Credit: Chris Hartlove

Gretchen and Leah played by Rachel Roth and Laura Malkus, respectively, are definite highlights in this production. Roth plays her character, Gretchen, with just the right amount of angst and bitterness balanced out with a tenderness from the pain her character has experienced. In a character that seems to be cut from the same cloth, Malkus plays the jaded Leah with the skepticism that perfectly matches a fading star who was probably promised the world and given very little. It’s worth noting that Malkus gives an impressive, strong vocal performance with a clear, even-textured tone that made me take notice from the very first note.

Valerie Dowdle as Becca. Credit: Chris Hartlove

Valerie Dowdle as Becca. Credit: Chris Hartlove

Among her gifted cast mates, Valerie Dowdle as Becca is the standout in this piece. Her portrayal of her character is absolutely authentic and enthralling and she gives strong, confident performance. She fully embodies this character, making it her own. Dowdle understands Becca and the turmoil she is experiencing and balances this character beautifully with levels of intensity and reserve that keep Becca interesting for the audience. Kudos to Dowdle for a superb job and I’m very much looking forward to seeing more from this actress.

Final thought…Trust at Fells Point Corner Theatre is a fearless, unabashed, and gritty look at love and lost love in the 90s as well as the intertwining passions and all the male and female assumptions that go along with it. Adding the heartfelt, guitar driven music of the decade, this production looks past the flannel, choker necklaces, Doc Martins, and everything “grunge” to the human outlook on the difficulties of not only being in a relationship, but holding on to one, which is a timeless story and relevant to today’s audiences. Though the attire is correct and the music fits, being a kid/teen of the 90s, it might not have as much of a nostalgic feel as I would like, it still represents the decade nicely. This relevant, intelligent, and in-your-face production with all its twists and turns, chance meetings, and 90s nostalgic music will have you enthralled every step of the way and should be high on your list of things to see in Baltimore theatre this season.

This is what I thought of Fells Point Corner Theatre’s production of Trust… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Trust will play through March 19 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 South Ann Street, Baltimore, MD. For more information, go to fpct.org or purchase tickets online.

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Review: Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations at Everyman Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one 15-minute intermission

We are introduced to Charles Dickens at a very early age, especially around the holidays and, namely, Christmas, with his crazy-popular A Christmas Carol (which, incidentally, is the “scary ghost stories” in that Christmas standard “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,”… in case you’ve always been wondering) but that is not his only work. Many schools also use his novels in standard curriculum and, as an English major in college, I was yet again exposed to his labors and I’ve got to admit, right here and right now… I was not and am not a fan of Mr. Dickens or his writing, but I do appreciate his stories, which helps… a little.

The Cast of GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

The Cast of GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

However, that being said, the latest offering at Everyman Theatre, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, Adapted by Gale Childs Daly, Directed by Tazewell Thompson, with Set Design by Yu-Hsuan Chen, Lighting Design by Stephen Quandt, Sound Design by Fabian Obispo, and Costume Design by David Burdick has absolutely given me a reason to be a fan and thoroughly enjoy the work of Charles Dickens. Regardless of your familiarity with this tale, you won’t be disappointed with Everyman Theatre’s production.

In a nutshell, Great Expectations (the novel) is a self-narrated coming-of-age story an (abused) orphan named Pip, and his life journey from poverty to wealth, the people with whom he meets and parts ways, some good, some bad, and some in-between, love, lost love, and his inevitable self-realization and humbling.

The Cast of GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

The Cast of GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

As I have stated in previous reviews for Everyman Theatre, they never disappoint when it comes to Set Design and Yu-Hsuan Chen pulled out all the stops for this production. Chen’s use of the space is spectacular, giving the actors ample space to move around to keep the action interesting and the attention to detail is second to none. The set alone sets the mood for this piece and the artistry of this faded, derelict setting is superb. Kudos to Yu-Hsuan for a job well done.

The Cast of GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

The Cast of GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Lighting Design by Stephen Quandt and Sound Design by Fabian Obispo worked nicely in tandem to create a subtle but effective visual and auditory sensory presentation to move the story along, giving the audience perspective of time and space while not confusing the plot and situations therein.

Pulling together the production side of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is David Burdick’s excellent Costume Design. Designing for a period piece can be challenging but Burdick really has a grasp on the Dickens era and his design is spot on and authentic, adding great value to the production as a whole.

(l to r) Drew Kopas, Elizabeth Anne Jernigan, and Franchelle Stewart Dorn.  Credit: ClintonBPhotography

(l to r) Drew Kopas, Elizabeth Anne Jernigan, and Franchelle Stewart Dorn. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Taking an old classic and making it new for new audiences is tough, especially when it comes to Charles Dickens stories or anything in stuffy, staunch Dickens/Victorian era, really, but Tazewell Thompson takes the reigns and masterfully weaves this for a 21st century audience without really changing the setting or the story, but giving it a fresh look by getting back to basics of story-telling. Thompson gives us a mix of broken-fourth-wall story-telling and re-enactment that meshes perfectly to tell this story in a way that is easy to follow and understand. I will admit, at first, it took a moment to get into the rhythm of this mix but once you are settled in and connect with these storytellers, the story unfolds effortlessly. More importantly, Thompson seems to really understand these characters and their objectives, moving them smoothly through the story.  Working with Gale Childs Daly’s able adaptation, Thompson gives us an entertaining, accessible piece that makes for a genuinely enjoyable evening of theatre.

(l to r) Drew Kopas and Franchelle Stewart Dorn. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

(l to r) Drew Kopas and Franchelle Stewart Dorn. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

The ensemble work in this piece is outstanding and all of these actors work well with each other and play various roles to tell this tale. Gerrad Alex Taylor and Elizabeth Anne Jernigan, listed as Narrator #2 and Narrator #4 in the program, respectively, also take on the very important roles of Pips friends such as Herbert, Pip’s ever faithful friend and confidant (played by Taylor) and Estelle, Pip’s love interest and main inspiration for acquiring a higher status in life (played by Jernigan). Taylor’s portrayal of Herbert makes him a very likable character and Jernigan plays Estelle with a coldness and bitterness befitting of the character and her presentation of the character’s change is authentic and heartwarming. Both of these actors are very comfortable with their characters and give admirable performances.

Drew Kopas as Pip is charming as he takes his character from boyhood to adulthood. It is easy to connect with this character from the start and Kopas keeps that connection with the audience throughout the entire production. His subtle voice and manner change as Pip grows and journeys through life is quite impressive giving the feel of this young man growing up right before our eyes. Taking on the main character of this piece, Kopas gives an outstanding and intelligent performance that is to be commended.

(l to r) Gerrad Alex Taylor and Brit Herring. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

(l to r) Gerrad Alex Taylor and Brit Herring. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Brit Herring as Joe is absolutely heart-warming. In the program, he is listed simply as Narrator #5 but, like his cohorts, he tackles multiple roles in this piece but his portrayal as Joe, Pip’s warm and loving brother-in-law, is stellar. His ability to switch between completely different characters and keep them separate makes his performance a joy to watch.

Among the talented and dedicated ensemble, Bruce Randolph Nelson and Franchelle Stewart Dorn are definite highlights.

Bruce R. Nelson and Drew Kopas. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Bruce R. Nelson and Drew Kopas. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Bruce Randolph Nelson (an Everyman Theatre Resident Company Member) is listed as Narrator #1 but also takes on the role of Magwitch, a raw, crude convict who happens to run into a very young and helpful Pip and he absolutely nails this character both in physicality and vocality. He also gives a brilliant performance in the role of Uncle Pumblechook, who has a part in moving Pip along during his journey. Unlike the sloth-like, slow, heavy character described in the novel, Nelson makes the choice to take this character in another humorous and flamboyant direction that is making for an undoubtedly successful performance.

Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Miss Havisham. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Miss Havisham. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Franchelle Stewart Dorn is credited as Narrator #3 but takes on the very important roles of Mrs. Joe, Pip’s much older sister, and Miss Havisham, the bitter, jilted, and wealthy old lady who lives in the very large house down the street. Dorn is an absolute pleasure to watch. As Mrs. Joe, she’s forceful, crude, and loud, as the character requires and as Miss Havisham, she oozes bitterness and contempt, but Dorn manages to get the audience to pity this character she embodies. It’s worth noting, I could listen to this woman talk for hours. Dorn’s voice is smooth and booming as it resonates through the entire theatre and every word is crystal clear allowing for an impressive and superb performance.

Final thought…Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations at Everyman Theatre is a brand new take on an old classic. It’s refreshing, entertaining, and accessible that it opens up to a new generation that may have otherwise let it sit on the bookshelf to collect dust. This adaptation handles the many subplots and twists beautifully with a perfect blend of old-fashioned story-telling and re-enactment while the production itself is well thought-out and the impeccable casting of a very capable ensemble make this a show you want to check out. Whether you’re familiar with Charles Dickens’ work or not and whether you’re a fan or not, this production will introduce you to this story either again or for the first time with a fresh and energizing telling.

This is what I thought of Everyman Theatre’s production of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations will play through March 5 at Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD. For Tickets, call the box office at 410-752-2208 or purchase them online.

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