Review: Twisted Melodies at Baltimore Center Stage

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission

In my everyday life, there are a lot of experiences where I’ll hear a tune on the radio or on TV and know the tune back and forth, upside down, right side up, and sideways, but… I’ll have no idea who the artist is. Thus is the case with Donny Hathaway, for me. Though he’s a big name and had a brilliant career in the R&B genre and wrote a lot of tunes I know, I didn’t really know who he was or his story. Baltimore Center Stage’s newest production, Twisted Melodies, Written and Starring Kelvin Roston, Jr., Directed by Derrick Sanders, with Set Design by Courtney O’Neill changes that and gives me a glimpse into the short life of this prolific singer-songwriter with stories of his past and present and all the angels and demons that came along with it.

As a musician, Donny Hathaway’s style usually falls under the American Jazz, Gospel, R&B, and Soul.He was a singer-songwriter, arranger and pianist, as well, with a career spanning the late 60s until his death in the 1979. In that short time, he wrote, arranged, performed, or collaborated on many hit songs such as “The Ghetto,” “This Christmas,” “Someday We’ll Be Free,” “A Song for You,” “For All We Know,” “Where is the Love,” and “The Closer I Get to You,” the latter two, popular collaborations with Roberta Flack. Hathaway and Flack were honored with a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals in 1973 for “Where is the Love.” All in all, a short, but very successful career. However, plaguing him throughout his life was his bout with Paranoid Schizophrenia and it was reported he did not take his medication regularly to control the symptoms. On January 13, 1979, while working on another project with Roberta Flack, Hathaway’s body was found on the sidewalk under window of his 15th floor room at the luxury hotel, Essex House in New York City and his death was ruled a suicide.

Set up in the Main Stage at Baltimore Center Stage, the Twisted Melodies Set Design by Courtney O’Neill is simple, but elegant, representing an upscale New York City hotel room in the 1970s with some well-placed, appropriate set pieces. The space is not cluttered and allows Royston to navigate the stage without trouble. However, the simple design we see is just the tip of the iceberg. Along with an absolutely superb Projection Design by Mike Tutaj, the set comes alive and is a character all its own. Both Set Design and Projection turn this one-man production into a spectacle, but in a great way. The set seems to morph right before your eyes and you’re left wondering if you’re really seeing what you’re seeing, just as a Paranoid Schizophrenic would (A damn door disappears!!! Or was it there in the first place? Hmm.). The sometimes-frenzied, sometimes-slow room altering projections and amazing Lighting Design by Alan C. Edwards toy with your visual senses and work in tandem with an impeccable Sound Design by Christopher M. LaPorte that affects your auditory senses and has you reeling in a slight confusion and agitation in your own seat and completely immerses you in the action onstage. The work of O’Neill, Tutaj, Edwards, and LaPorte gives the audience the tools to actually what it is like to think and feel like Donny Hathaway. Major kudos goes to this technical team for and extraordinary job.

Derrick Sanders takes on directing duties and under his guidance, this production is 90 minutes of enthralling, engaging theatre. I imagine it’s challenging to direct  a one-man show but to direct the author of the piece being performed, as well? I only imagine that challenge expands. However, everything seems to run smoothly and Sanders keeps the action moving. The blocking and character work in collaboration with the technical aspects make for a powerful production of heavy emotion, sight, and sound that all fit perfectly together.

Kelvin Roston, Jr., who wrote Twisted Melodies and performs the role of Donny Hathaway is superb in this role that I can see him playing for years to come, should he so choose. He completely embodies Hathaway and is a stellar musician as well, playing the piano effortlessly as his fingers glided across the keys. Vocally, Roston is a powerhouse and his performance of the familiar songs is worth the ticket price, alone. For as good as his musical performance is, I don’t consider this a musical, but a play with music, instead. And when it comes to character work and acting, Roston is absolutely on point. His storytelling is top notch and his performance is strong, confident, and authentic. He really understands Donny Hathaway and all of his struggles and this knowledge shines through in his performance. Carrying a full production solo is a feat in itself and Roston does it flawlessly, with deep emotion and it makes for an outstanding performance.

Final thought… Twisted Melodies at Baltimore Center Stage is a look into the mind of a genius fighting a mental illness and fighting hard with his art and every fiber of his being. The mix of multi-media and the natural, raw, and multi-talents of Kelvin Roston, Jr. immerse the audience in the story of this musical genius name Donny Hathaway and engages the audience so well, one feels as he or she is in the shoes of this poor man. If you haven’t gotten your tickets to this spectacular production yet… do it now! This is not a production you want to miss this season.

This is what I thought of Baltimore Center Stage’s production of Twisted Melodies… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Twisted Melodies will play through April 16 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. For Tickets, call the box office at 410-332-0033 or purchase them online.

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Review: Los Otros at Everyman Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission

When people who come from different walks of life collide, directly or indirectly, one wonders how the two came together. What journey did they take to place one in the other’s life? Everyman Theatre’s latest offering, the premiere of Los Otros, with Book & Lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh and Music by Michael John LaChiusa, Direction by Noah Himmelstein, and Music Direction by Jon Kalbfleisch gives us a glimpse into that journey and of the steps two characters take through life to cross each other’s path. I’d like to, if I may, give major kudos to Everyman Theatre, as well, for stepping out of their “comfort zone” of strictly plays and producing not only a musical but a brand new, commissioned musical, at that!

Judy McLane and Philip Hernandez. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Los Otros revolves around Lillian, a white woman, and Carlos, a Hispanic man, who both live in California and is told in a series of vignettes composed of their memories, reflections, and discoveries about themselves and the world around them between the years of 1938 and 1995. According to Everyman Theatre, “Inspiring, energetic and emotionally charged, this semi-autobiographical work captures a universal story of interconnectedness, love, risk and revelation through the lens of two people’s lives.”

Director Noah Himmelstein, Composer Michael John LaChiusa, Writer/Lyricist Ellen Fizhugh. Credit: Kirstin Pagan

The story of Los Otros itself is engaging and I feel for these characters and am genuinely interested in their lives and the stories they tell. The book by Ellen Fitzhugh is authentic and raw with simple storytelling that makes this piece so charming. For spanning so many years, it’s organized and easy to follow and the ending is certainly fitting and satisfying. Michael John LaChiusa’s music leaps off the page and is absolutely appropriate for this piece. I appreciate the hints of different styles representing different eras and though some of the melodies seem a little elementary, overall, the score is pleasing and well thought-out.

For as good as the music and book are, Lyrics, also by Fitzhugh, though good, in general, could use a little more editing. At points it seems Fitzhugh is trying too hard for a rhyme and over-telling the story through song. A couple of the pieces, such as “Arturo,” which is a still a good song, had many parts that sound more like a recitative that can be been spoken rather than trying to throw it into a song. That being said, Music & Lyrics, aside from a few minor, specific criticisms that may smooth out over time, work very well together for this piece as a whole.

Judy McLane. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Once again, Everyman Theatre has no disappointed with their beautiful set. Set Design by Daniel Ettinger is simple and minimal, yet elegant and appropriate for a production of compiled vignettes. Each character has his or her own main space on either side of the stage with shared space in the center. The use of sliding lattice and slight levels makes the setting interesting without taking away from the action of the piece. This is yet another fantastic set design from Daniel Ettinger.

Philip Hernandez and Judy McLane. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Lighting and Sound Design by Nancy Schertler and Ken Travis, respectively, also adds to this piece and does not distract from it. Both work in tandem to set the mood of each vignette and brings the audience into the piece subtly guiding the emotion of the action onstage.

David Burdick’s Costume Design is minimal, as it should be for a piece such as this, and each character is costumed befittingly with an wardrobe that is simple, but versatile enough add a piece or take away a piece to represent the different eras of the five decade timeline.

Music Direction is tackled by Jon Kalbfleisch and I would imagine that taking the musical reigns of a brand new piece can be challenging, even daunting, but if it is, Kalbfleisch does an exquisite job. Under his direction, the vocal performances and orchestra were well-rehearsed, giving us a superb final product.

Philip Hernandez. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Everyman Theatre’s new Associate Artistic Director, Noah Himmelstein, takes the reigns of this production and not only took on Direction of this new and re-imagined piece, but also had a hand in development. His vision is unpretentious, but innovative and effective. His vision is evident and he handles the material nicely and makes it relevant for today’s social and cross-cultured environment. The story is told clearly and the characters are precise making for an enjoyable and enlightening evening of theatre.

Both Judy McLane and Philip Hernandez, both experienced, veteran actors of stage and screen do an impeccable job bringing these characters to life and embodying them completely. Their performances are absolutely engaging and their storytelling is top notch. The connection between these two characters is gradual and clear and both McLane and Hernandez follow this connection at and equal pace impressively reaching the climax seamlessly and simultaneously.

Philip Hernandez. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Philip Hernandez takes on the role of Carlos, who goes on a journey of sexual identity, defining and finding love, and honoring culture and Hernandez plays it near flawlessly. He has a strong, confident presence and seems to really understand his character. Vocally, he gives an admirable performance with a clear voice that resonates beautifully throughout the theatre. Though, at times, the performance seemed a bit (just a bit) forced, his gradual change in demeanor during his storytelling of his childhood through adulthood is seamless and one is brought into an immersed in the story rather than just sitting on the outside listening making for a commendable and impressive performance.

Judy McLane. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Judy McLane as Lillian is an absolute joy to watch. She gives an outstanding, natural performance with an exceptional ability to tell a story. McLane presents the authenticity of her character tastefully but with a raw, unabashed undertone throughout the entire production. Life has thrown some curve balls at Lillian and McLane portrays it near perfectly. Her vocal performance is outstanding and strong even while smoothly (and brilliantly) acting her way through her songs. Overall, she gives a solid and remarkable performance.

Final thought… Los Otros at Everyman Theatre is basically a poignant coming-of-age tale spanning many decades and two different cultures. The simple storytelling is what makes this piece work so well and the music is fresh with hints of each decade it represents though the lyrics are a bit hokey and elementary, at times, while at other times, too much. The script is light as the concentration is on the music, but it is engaging and commanding. The journey these characters take us on is mixed with sadness, happiness, smooth sailing, and bumps in the road, but the ending of this story is worth the traveling. It’s always a pleasure and a privilege great to see new and re-imagined works at our larger small theatres in Baltimore and Everyman Theatre is to be commended for their work with this piece. This is definitely a production worthy of your time and consideration!

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

Los Otros will play through April 23 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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Review: The White Snake at Baltimore Center Stage

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 2 hours one 15-minute intermission

Old fairy tales and fables usually make for good fodder for stage productions, usually for what one would call “children shows” but they’re taking it up a notch down at Baltimore Center Stage with their latest offering, The White Snake, by Mary Zimmerman, Directed by Natsu Onoda Power, giving us an adult, modern version of an ancient Chinese fable of life and loss.

The White Snake is based on a Chinese fable and is about a spirit serpent who transforms herself into a lovely maiden and ventures from her mountain home into human civilization. She is accompanied by a fellow spirit, Green Snake, who poses as her sassy handmaiden. White Snake soon falls in love with the poor but upright Xu Xian and starts a life with him, only to have her past haunt her.

The story itself is a good story with a good message of “life is short, live it to the fullest” but the adaptation by Mary Zimmerman fell flat for me. Trying to update an ancient tale is always challenging but sometime the simplest route is the way to go, however, in this adaptation, it felt as though Zimmerman was trying too hard to bring this tale into the 21st century. Let me be clear, the ensemble, the musicians, the designs, and everything else about this production are stellar; it’s just the adaptation that doesn’t ring my bell. The spectacle of the production keeps it interesting but with all the modernization Zimmerman doesn’t leave much to the imagination and wants to spell out every little detail of the story making much of it feel a bit over-told with a large host of narrators describing every… little… thing. Through it all, and thanks to the ensemble, the pacing is good and stays just under the 2-hour mark.

Baltimore Center Stage recently went through a hefty face lift and it’s absolutely gorgeous. The White Snake is presented in the Head Theatre, on the upper levels and though it’s a large space, it’s more intimate than it looks and is a perfect space for this piece. Scenic Design by Hana S. Kim is minimal, but stimulating, using tall curved bamboo shoots and creating different levels with platforms. The settings are more represented rather than using intricate and specific set pieces but the design works nicely and the actors maneuver the set easily. Adding to the set, Kim also designed the beautiful projections used in this piece adding a fanciful feel to the story-telling and to the piece as a whole.

Light and Sound Design by Rui Rita and Alex Hawthorn, respectively, add great value to this piece, creating mood changes and helping with pacing from calm moments to the more frantic, garish scenes.

Nicole Wee’s Costume Design for The White Snake is authentic, yet practical and modern. Since the setting is described as “A long time ago, and yesterday.” It is challenging to create a costume plot to fit both times but Wee has managed to give representations of the times with basic costumes and by adding and taking away pieces. The actors act as puppeteers, as well, navigating through the story with snake tales and, at times, full snake puppets, but the Costume Design is comfortable and completely appropriate.

Though I wouldn’t classify The White Snake as a musical but more like a play with music, Music Direction by Jeff Song is creative, contemporary, and innovative. From what I understand, the music for this production was created from scratch, having been created, in collaboration, during the rehearsal process. With its Western and contemporary, yet authentic sound to tell an ancient Chinese fable, the music is original, appropriate, and fluid. It adds to the piece rather than distracting from it and the score blends into the production, moving the story along nicely. Kudos to Song for his diligent and inventive work.

Director Natsu Onoda Power has taken this piece and presents it in an exciting and through-provoking manner staying true to the story but bringing it to a current audience. The fluidity of the show is superb and it moves along seamlessly. Her casting is impressively diverse and her vision is clear making sense out of a hectic script and confusing adaptation.

To comment on the performance aspect of this piece, the entire ensemble did a fantastic job bringing this story to life on the stage. It is a true ensemble piece where everyone plays an important part and participates in just about every moment of the production.
As Fa Hai, the power-hungry head monk who is trying to recapture The White Snake, Peter Van Wager has a great command of the stage and a very strong presence but seems out of place. His tone and movement don’t seem to match those of his fellow cast members; not to say they are bad, because they are not, just… different. Overall, however, he gives a commendable performance.

Aimé Donna Kelly takes on the title role as The White Snake seems a bit subdued throughout most of the production. Her gentle demeanor works for much of her character, but there are particular scenes where I would like to see a little more enthusiasm and desperation. Aside from that minor detail, Kelly gives a comfortable, confident performance and makes the character her own.

Joe Ngo as Xu Xian, the kind, lovelorn, uncertain pharmacist assistant who The White Snake takes a shine to and ultimately wants to spent the rest of her life with is a definite highlight with a complete understanding of his character who is unsure, in love, hunted by a feeling of doubt, and in love all at the same time. His comedic timing is absolutely impeccable and this mixed with his authentic and clear representation of all the other emotions of his character make for a strong, assured performance that is a pleasant experience.

Eileen Rivera as The Green Snake, the sassy, loyal, somewhat quick-tempered, but humble friend of title character is the certain standout in this production of The White Snake. Rivera takes this character and runs with it, making it her own, but exuding the devotion her character has to The White Snake. She is confident and comfortable in her role with on point comedic timing and she understands her character’s purpose to help her friend who is in love and prone to making some curious decisions, but sticking by her either way. Rivera gives a near flawless performance and is a joy to watch.

Final thought… The White Snake at Baltimore Center Stage is a frenetic, modern retelling of a simple fable of the fleetingness of life and the anguish of losing something or someone. Though the adaptation is a bit of a pill to swallow, it’s a spectacle, definitely, with projections, puppets, elaborate dances, and music and not one scene goes by without a collective gasp from the audience. Everything is big, but it works impeccably for this production while keeping everything interesting and engaging and is absolutely worth checking out while enjoying the new digs at Baltimore Center Stage.

This is what I thought of Baltimore Center Stage’s production of The White Snake… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

The White Snake will play through March 26 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. For Tickets, call the box office at 410-332-0033 or purchase them online.

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New Backstage Banter for The Last Five Years at StillPointe Theatre

Click here to check out the Backstage Banter for The Last Five Years at StillPointe Theatre!

“…The Last Five Years is a show that needs to go to the top of your list of shows to see this season.”

StillPointe Theatre

Review: The Last Five Years at Stillpointe Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes with no intermission

Disclaimer: This production of The Last Five Years at Stillpointe Theatre is presented with two casts. I was only able to experience one cast and will be reviewing the cast I saw – Cast B, I believe (though my program stated I was seeing Cast A), consisting of Danny Bertaux as Jamie and Jessica Bennett as Cathy.

Jessica Bennet & Danny Bertaux as Cathy & Jamie. Credit: Rob Clatterbuck

Baltimore has some pretty awesome theatre going on right now in intimate and larger theatre across this charming city, but in this particular go-round, Stillpointe Theatre‘s latest offering, The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown, Directed by Darius K. McKeiver, with Music Direction by Ben Shaver, Set Design by Ryan Haase, Costume Design by Heather Jackson, and Lighting Design by Adrienne Gieszl is superlative and is definitely a bit of theatre you do not want to miss.

The Last Five Years is about a five-year relationship between Jamie, a young, brilliant author and Cathy, an actress waiting for her break. It tells the story in an interesting way messing with the chronology as Cathy tells the story from end to beginning and Jamie’s story is from beginning to end. The two characters don’t interact much except for a song representing their wedding smack dab in the middle when the timelines actually intersect.

Jessica Bennet & Danny Bertaux as Cathy & Jamie. Credit: Rob Clatterbuck

After seeing a couple of shows at Stillpointe Theatre, I’m impressed with their unique space. It’s intimate, but it works for their purposes and Set Design by Ryan Haase has not disappointed yet. He really knows this space and his design is exceptional for this production. He uses what space he has wisely and his modern and minimalist approach adds great value to this piece. Blending nicely with Adrienne Gieszl’s subtle but intelligent Lighting Design, the set is a character of its own. There are two upper levels on either side add variety (and a place for actors to change wardrobe, if need be). Most of the space is taken up by the orchestra, and a few chairs and an old upright piano accompany the actors, along with a few odds and end along the perimeter of the stage, but that’s all this piece needs and Haase doesn’t overdo it with clutter. Once again, major kudos goes to Ryan Haase who has given us another innovative, creative, and modern design to tell a story.

Jessica Bennet & Danny Bertaux play Cathy & Jamie. Credit: Rob Clatterbuck

Keeping with the modern/present day setting, Costume Design by Heather Jackson is smart and appropriate and does not hinder the action but helps it along. Both actors look comfortable in their wardrobe and each costume is fitting of whichever scene it accompanies. Some may think it can’t be difficult to costume a present-day piece, but, it’s a little harder than you think. There are many points to consider such as what is going on in the scene or what kind of personality does the character have? Jackson seems to understand her characters and has worked nicely with her actors to give an excellent Costume Design.

Please indulge me and let me take a moment to dote over Music Direction by Ben Shaver and the exceptional orchestra for this beautiful piece. Shave just got it. He had his cast sounding on point throughout the entire piece and his orchestra, whom he conducted as well, was just a superb. He understands this music and he got the maximum performance out of his actors. The orchestra, consisting of Ben Shaver on Piano, Trevor Shipley on Guitar, Cody Raum on Bass (standup bass, mind you), Livy Amouruso on Violin, and the dashing Steven Bainbridge on Cello fills the space with Jason Robert Brown’s music and are impeccably balanced with the actors, not drowning them out, but not holding back, either. They are well rehearsed and didn’t miss one single cue that I caught, anyway. It is an absolute pleasure to hear these folks in action.

Danny Bertaux as Jamie and Jessica Bennet as Cathy. Credit: Rob Clatterbuck

Director Darius K. McKeiver does an outstanding job in telling this story. It’s clear he understands the material and he keeps it relatable and simple for the audience while still keeping the complexity of the situation apparent. His casting choices are creative and non-traditional using an interracial cast (and an all female cast) which is refreshing for a piece like this which is usually cast with a Caucasian man and woman, not to say that wouldn’t have been just as effective, but non-traditional casting is usually a pleasant surprise and it definitely worked for this piece. McKeiver keeps the action moving and the pace of this piece is flawless. There isn’t an intermission, but I didn’t even notice because the piece moved along so nicely. McKeiver has a good grasp on these characters and his guidance for this well-thought out and well put-together production is excellent.

Danny Bertaux & Jessica Bennet as Jamie & Cathy. Credit: Rob Clatterbuck

As Jamie, Danny Bertaux knocks it out of the ballpark with this one. He grasps the character nicely and comprehends his objectives and runs with it. Bertaux has such a big presence on the stage, he seems to overdo it at first, but the space is intimate, so it just seems that way so he balances out his performance as the piece progresses. The role of Jamie has its challenges, but Bertaux meets every one of them confidently and gives a stellar performance. Vocally, he is a powerhouse, filling the entire space with a rich tone and impressive range and it’s a joy to watch and listen to him in this production.

Jessica Bennet & Danny Bertaux as Cathy & Jamie. Credit: Rob Clatterbuck

Taking on the role of Cathy, Jessica Bennett is exquisite. I was enthralled from the first beautiful note that came out of this woman’s mouth. She’s comfortable in this role and has a great command of the stage. She gives a strong, stand out vocal performance and her interpretation of each song is authentic and exudes emotion without going too far. I could feel Bennet’s pain or happiness in each of her numbers and she brings me into her performance, embodying this character of Cathy. It is a privilege to experience her solid performance.

Understanding the nature of this piece, Bertaux and Bennet actually don’t have much close interaction aside from a song or two in the middle of this piece. That being said, they both do such a fantastic job with their character and the material, I can feel their connection every moment from beginning to end, which is a feat as the characters are on different timelines and have a lot of solo work. The superb handling of this piece is a credit to these two actors.

Final thought… It is not my intention to over pander to this production but a good production is a good production and The Last Five Years is a show that needs to go to the top of your list of shows to see this season. It’s some of the best theatre happening in Baltimore at the moment and it’s a poignant, emotion-filled piece that is presented beautifully with an insanely talented cast and a superb orchestra to back them up. It is a minimal but complete and immersive production that is easy to relate and connect with and will touch you deeply. Get your tickets while they last.

This is what I thought of Stillpointe Theatre’s production of The Last Five Years… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

The Last Five Years will play through March 25 at Stillpointe Theatre, 1825 N. Charles Street, Baltimore, MD. For information or tickets log on to stillpointetheatre.com or purchase them here.

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New Backstage Banter for Lucky Stiff at Silhouette Stages

Click here to check out the Backstage Banter for Lucky Stiff at Silhouette Stages!

“Lucky Stiff is a fun, fast-paced farce that is sure to tickle your funny bone and have your toes tapping. The material from Ahrens & Flaherty is catchy and easy to listen to and the production is well-thought out and put-together.”

Silhouette Stages

New Backstage Banter for The Women at Spotlighters Theatre

Click here to check out the Backstage Banter for The Women at Spotlighters Theatre!

“The Women… takes us back to a bygone era where women were expected to tend to home an children while men were expected to provide and, if a husband strayed, it was all good and no questions were asked as long as the wife kept lifestyle to which she was accustomed.”

Spotlighters Theatre