Review: Harry Connick Jr.’s The Happy Elf at Red Branch Theatre Company

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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Running Time: 90 minutes with one 10-minute intermission

Tis the season for joy and merry making and the latest offering from Red Branch Theatre Company, Harry Connick Jr.’s The Happy Elf with Music & Lyrics by Harry Connick, Jr. and Book by Lauren Gunderson & Andrew Fishman, with Direction by Laura Greffen, Music Direction by Dustin Merrell, Choreography by Rick Westerkamp, Scenic Design by Gary Grabau, Costume Design by Andrew Malone, and Lighting Design by Stephanie Lynn Williams and Amy Williamson has all this and more. Grab the kids, nieces, nephews, or any young person in your life and check out this fun story of never giving up and discovering one of the true meanings of Christmas.

The cast of Harry Connick Jr.'s The Happy Elf. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

The cast of Harry Connick Jr.’s The Happy Elf. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Scenic Design by Gary Grabau is simple yet innovative for this production and the clever use of levels keeps the set interesting as well as the use of revolving flats to create the various settings and getting the cast on and off quickly and quietly. The painted scenes of the North Pole with snow covered hillsides and Evergreen trees are cute and serve their purpose but might be a little plain for such a fun show. However, overall, the scenic design is bright and very fitting for this piece. It’s worth mentioning the inventive, working conveyer belts in Santa’s workshop add great value to this production making for a well-thought out set.

To set the mood, Lighting Design by Stephanie Lynn Williams and Amy Williamson use the lighting wisely to show contrast between the bright and busy North Pole to the downtrodden and dark Bluesville. Lighting is appropriate and does not take away from the production but blends in making for smooth transitions and gives the correct cues to what feeling each scene has.

The cast of Harry Connick, Jr.'s The Happy Elf. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

The cast of Harry Connick, Jr.’s The Happy Elf. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Veteran Costume Designer Andrew Malone never disappoints and this production is no different. Malone hits the nail on the head with this fanciful wardrobe for elves and dear old Santa Clause and citizens of Bluesville alike. Each elf costume is individual and adds to the characters and all the costumes are traditional, yet they all have a contemporary flair and Mr. Malone is to commended for his work on this production.

The cast of Harry Connick, Jr.'s The Happy Elf. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

The cast of Harry Connick, Jr.’s The Happy Elf. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

As this is a show with music by the incomparable Harry Connick, Jr., it goes without saying there is a lot of music and it is, after all, a musical. So, with lots of music comes lots of dancing and Choreographer Rick Westerkamp has taken on this challenge with ease and has this ensemble dancing and gliding across the stage in each number accompanied by this fun and jazzy score. The choreography is well thought-out and is a great match for Connicks music.

Speaking of Connick’s music, Music Direction by Dustin Merrell is superb. Though there is no live orchestra, the consolation prize is hearing the smooth, jazzy recorded voice of Harry Connick, Jr. himself tell the story of The Happy Elf in between the scenes. Merrell has a strong vocal ensemble and has them sounding fantastic in each number. These aren’t the old fashioned Christmas Pageant songs you’ll hear throughout the season, but new jazzy holiday show tunes and Merrell has the cast singing in harmony that rings throughout the theatre.

The Cast of Harry Connick, Jr.'s The Happy Elf. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

The Cast of Harry Connick, Jr.’s The Happy Elf. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Harry Connick, Jr.’s The Happy Elf is certainly a children’s show, meaning it is a show for children and directing this type of show can be tricky. However, Director Laura Greffen has taken on this challenge and has produced an unqualified success. Her vision is apparent and she understands the humor geared for a young audience, but also understands that parents and adults may be in the audience, as well, and she finds a happy medium to entertain everyone. She keeps the action moving and precise to stay within the 90 minutes, including the intermission and that’s perfect for any children’s show. Overall, Greffen gives us a well put-together and smooth running production.

Moving into the performance aspect of this production, Todd Hochkoppel takes on the role of Mayor and though his is confident and comfortable in this role, his performance fell a little flat for me. However, that’s not to say he didn’t do a good job, because he certainly, like all of the ensemble, gave 100% to his character and understood what his character was about making for a good performance in general.

Adeline K. Sutter takes on the role of an unconventional, modern, slinkier Mrs. Clause that we’re used to, but she pulls it off nicely. Likened more to an old time gangster moll, her acting chops weren’t stretched completely as her only expression was one of irritation and contempt, but she pulled them off very nicely. Sutter takes on double duty and portrays Coppa, an agent in “Gnomeland Security” and a nemesis of our hero, Eubie the Elf. Her talents are much better portrayed in this role and her performance is strong and entertaining.

Santa, the big man himself, is played masterfully by Dean Allen Davis and I’ve got to say, he’s a pretty spot on Santa Clause with a big, resonating speaking voice that booms throughout the theatre. However, his singing voice isn’t as strong, but he still makes a good showing as the joyful old man that has a tummy like a bowlful of jelly.

Dean Allen Davis, Adeline K. Sutter, and Seth Fallon. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Dean Allen Davis, Adeline K. Sutter, and Seth Fallon. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Seth Fallon takes on the role of Norbert, the curmudgeon head honcho Elf in the North Pole who isn’t a big fan of our hero and is by the book and waiting for our hero to falter. Fallon does a fantastic job as the stuffy, sour elf trying to ruin everything the hero is trying to accomplish and he makes the role his own. As good a job he does with the character, he does carry around an “assistant” that is a hand puppet and I’m still scratching my head as to the purpose of said puppet other than children always appreciate a funny looking puppet because it did not seem to move the story forward or have any importance at all. Regardless, Fallong gives a strong, confident performance.

Katie Ganem. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Katie Ganem. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Molly and Curtis, the bad kids from Bluesville are played by Katie Ganem and Sarah Luckadoo, respectively. These two characters, mainly Molly, are the two kids Eubie the Elf is supposed to help see the light and the true meaning of Christmas. Both Ganen and Luckadoo do outstanding jobs portraying bratty kids running amuck in the town, causing trouble and not caring much about anything and Ganen as Molly, gets the point across that she is a neglected child, probably just acting out to get attention. Luckadoo is perfect as the “sidekick” and willing participant in the brattiness going on. The two actors have a great chemistry with each other and the rest of the cast making for wonderful performances.

Megan Henderson takes on the role of Gilda, the sweet, shy elf who has a thing for our hero, Eubie, and Courtney Branch tackles the role of Hamm, the mechanic elf, who spends more time under a sleigh than inside of it. Both of these actresses were confident and comfortable in their respective roles and gave strong performances. Megan Anderson gives off an air of feminine cuteness that the character requires while she tries to get the attentions of Eubie and, most of the time failing, but for no fault of her own. On the other end of the spectrum, Courtney Branch, as Hamm, is very likeable and believable as the more tom-boyish character that just wants to help her friends. Both actors seem to understand the individuality of their characters and plays them accordingly making them a joy to watch.

Cheryl Campo. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Cheryl Campo. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

A definite highlight of this production is Cheryl Campo who plays Gurt, the wife of the Mayor of Bluesville. Aside from being very expressive and totally giving 100% to her role, this lady has a set of pipes on her! Though her solo number is a bit short, it’s easy to hear the strong vocals and they certainly shine through in the ensemble numbers, as well. Campo commands the stage quite well and is an absolute joy to watch. I look forward to seeing more from her in the future.

Justin Moe. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Justin Moe. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Finally, we get to our hero, Eubie the Happy Elf, played skillfully by Justin Moe. Simply going on looks, I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing this role other than Justin Moe but, look aside, he had me sold from the start. He was able to keep the energy up the entire 90 minutes and is absolutely believable as this character, giving his all and taking the role seriously enough to bring the audience into the story. He obviously understands his character’s objective and each choice he makes moves his character toward that goal of making sure Christmas is enjoyed by everyone, even a dark, salty town like Bluesville. Moe is a pleasure to watch with his strong vocal performance, and assured performance that makes him a distinct standout in this production.

Final though… Harry Connick Jr.’s The Happy Elf at Red Branch Theatre Company is a fun, feel-good holiday story that is a good break from the hustle and bustle of this season and it’s perfect for the family as a whole. The kids will adore it and the story is endearing for adults as well, reminding us what Christmas is all about. Take a break from the aforementioned hustle and bustle and take a trip down to Red Branch Theatre Company to join in on their merry making!

That’s what I thought about Harry Connick Jr.’s The Happy Elf, playing at Red Branch Theatre Company… what did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Harry Connick Jr.’s The Happy Elf will play through December 18 at Red Branch Theatre Company, 9130-I Red Branch Road, Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 220-6517 or purchase them online.

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Review: Heathers: The Musical at Red Branch Theatre Company

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

Get crucial, already! Not to put a limit on an audience, but if you are a child of the 80s and even 90s (though you may be older or younger), you are probably familiar with Heathers, the iconic dark comedy 1989 film starring ever-emo Wynonna Ryder and Christian Slater. If you are not familiar with this film stop whatever you are doing (after you read this article) and find this film somewhere! It needs to be on someone’s list of “movies to see before you die”! In the meantime, the current offering from our friends at Red Branch Theatre Company is Heathers: The Musical, Directed by Amelia Acosta Powell, with Music Direction by John C. Henderson, Choreography by Brandon Glass, Set Design by Cliff Hannon, Lighting Design by Lynn Joslin, and Costume Design by Cierra Coan. If you’re looking for some nostalgia and want to be transported back to that radically awesome year of 1989, Red Branch Theatre Company is the place to be for the next couple of weekends!

(l-r) Megan Bunn as Heather Duke, Tiara Whaley as Heather Chandler, Geocel Batista as Heather McNamara - "Candy Store" Credit: Bruce F. Press Photography

(l-r) Megan Bunn as Heather Duke, Tiara Whaley as Heather Chandler, Geocel Batista as Heather McNamara – “Candy Store” Credit: Bruce F. Press Photography

Anyone who’s been to high school knows them they go by different names and have different styles but every school has a group of Heathers – The most popular, powerful kids in school that every loves, hates, or loves to hate. On the surface their lives are perfect, their clothes are perfect, their hair is perfect, and their time in high school is perfect… but is it? Heathers: The Musical takes musical, funny, dark a peek into high school popularity, being an outcast, self-confidence or lack of, and just being a teenager trying to navigate through all of it and, in this case, there’s a body count!

Walking into Red Branch, I could tell the audience was energized and excited as a buzz of excitement filled the air and there were even a few dedicated patrons who dressed the parts in the Heathers colors of red, yellow, and green. I was quite impressed with the intimate theatre that seats about 120 folks, give or take a patron, and the simple, yet very appropriate set by Cliff Hannon. The very blue unit set is simple, yet complex as there are no permanent set pieces cluttering the stage but the various levels work nicely with the action that goes on in the production. Various and clever entrances and exits on both sides of the stage keep the movement very fluid and interesting with characters popping in and out all over the stage. Hannon manages to create an exciting unit set without filling his stage up with too many distractions and still be very pleasing to the eye. As any of the Heathers would say, “It’s very!”

To complement the set design, Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin does an outstanding job creating the perfect tone, adding value to the performance with just the right amount of color, brightness, and darkness. As this piece is a dark comedy, lighting is very important and can make or break each scene but Joslin’s light design is well thought-out and manages to set the proper mood for each scene and moves the action along pleasantly.

Taylor Witt as Kurt Kelly and Tendo Nsubuga as Ram Sweeney lead the ensemble in "Big Fun" Credit: Bruce F. Press Photography

Taylor Witt as Kurt Kelly and Tendo Nsubuga as Ram Sweeney lead the ensemble in “Big Fun” Credit: Bruce F. Press Photography

I can only imagine that costuming a period 1980s piece can be a challenge and quite fun at the same time and Costume Design by Cierra Coan is absolutely spot on and very well thought-out! Her challenge was the fact that the style of this piece was late 80s with the early 90s sneaking in but the colorful, tucked in long sleeve shirts on the guys to the women blazers that are more shoulder pads than anything else take the audience back to a 1989 high school hallway and it is glorious. Coan gives each actor his or her own “look” and, since one of the themes of this piece is “fitting in” giving the piece authenticity and nostalgia adding great production value.

I was hesitant when, a few years back, I’d heard that one of my favorite films was being made into a musical. I’d listened to a few tunes from this piece but I couldn’t imagine my Heathers (and Veronica) singing and dancing their way through their days in the halls of Westerburg High. However, Music Director John C. Henderson had them doing just that… with gusto! Many individual voices in this production are phenomenal but as a cast they are hands down awesome! The harmonies are on point, the diction is superb, the balance is just right, and the power from the ensemble numbers feels like a cast full of Ethel Mermans onstage! The vocal abilities of this cast as a whole is worth the ticket price alone! Kudos to Henderson’s ability to pull this cast together, vocally, for a brilliant performance.

Vivian Cook as Veronica Sawyer and Hasani Allen as J.D. - "Our Love is God" Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Vivian Cook as Veronica Sawyer and Hasani Allen as J.D. – “Our Love is God” Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Along with song, you’ve got to have dance and it’s just another aspect of this production that was a joy to watch. Choreographer Brandon Glass’s choreography was absolutely entertaining to watch and was appropriate for the space. His stylish and complex dances made the cast look great and it looks as though the cast is having a blast performing the choreography, which is always good when the audience can see the joy in the faces of the cast. The dancing was tight and precise and each number was a pleasure to watch.

Director Amelia Acosta Powell is to be commended for her work with Heathers: The Musical. Her casting choices are magnificent and it’s great to see the diversity of the cast and how it works so very well for this piece. She uses her space very wisely with fluid and purposeful blocking, using the entire theatre with entrances and exits from the side and back of the theatre as well as the entrances and exits onstage. She seems to have understood the 1989 film and its themes of teenaged angst, the need to belong, self-confidence, and coming-of-age and transferred it beautifully to the stage in this production. Her minimal use of props and portable set pieces worked nicely, keeping the stage free of clutter but still helping tell the story. Her directing choices were near perfect and I’m looking forward to seeing more from Ms. Powell.

Hands down, the highlight of this production is the entire cast. It’d be difficult to pick out one individual performer to single out because the entire ensemble is phenomenal. Each group number such as “Beautiful,” “Big Fun,” and “Shine a Light” spotlighted the talent in this cast and how well they all worked together as a whole. I found myself excited for the next group number after one was over. Definite props to the Director, Music Director, and Choreographer for molding this cast into a cohesive unit that entertained and look like they are giving 100% to every aspect of this production.

The titular roles of the very different Heathers are played exquisitely by Tiara Whaley (Heather Chandler, the Queen Bee of Westerburg), Geocel Batista (Heather MacNamara, the follower but arguably the nicest of the Heathers), and Megan Bunn (Heather Duke, the possible 2nd in command and waiting for her chance to take over). These young ladies take these characters and hit the ground running, making them their own. They’re body language, tone, and look bring the Heathers to life brilliantly and they are an absolute joy to watch individually and as a trio.

Tiara Whaley, as Heather Chandler takes no prisoners and oozes the popularity that everyone envied in high school. Her numbers such as “Candy Store” and “Very” are energized and, though she seems to reach for her high notes, at times, are powerhouse performances.

Geocel Batista, as Heather MacNamara, is a delight to watch throughout the production as she doesn’t lose character once. The joy in her face is apparent throughout each number and her understanding of the character and how she would react to situations is clear, such as the poignancy that comes through in her solo “Lifeboat,” and she is an asset to any number she is in with her vocal and dance abilities.

Megan Bunn as the ever faithful yet cunning character of Heather Duke has the most prevalent change in the show and she pulls it off flawlessly. That change is precise and clear but seamless. She too is a powerhouse and rounds out the trio of Heathers brilliantly.

Vivian Cook as Veronic Sawyer (foreground) "Beautiful" Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Vivian Cook as Veronic Sawyer (foreground) “Beautiful” Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Veronica, the hesitant, yet thankful “geek” who managed to become a part of the Heathers is played by Vivian Cook and she tackles this role without a flaw or hesitation. From the moment she steps on stage in the opening number “Beautiful” she commands the stage and is very comfortable taking the reins of this production. Her character is spot on with the familiar film rendition but she also makes it her own bringing a refreshing look to Veronica. Cook is an accomplished vocalist and the numbers in which she takes the lead makes one stand up and take notice. Her comfort on stage is apparent especially with the very risqué and PG-13 (at least) number “Dead Girl Walking” which is captivating. Cook carries this production, with the help of the brilliant ensemble, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for her in the future.

(l-r) Vivian Cook as Veronica Sawyer, Hasani Allen as J.D. - "Freeze Your Brain" Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

(l-r) Vivian Cook as Veronica Sawyer, Hasani Allen as J.D. – “Freeze Your Brain” Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Side by side with Cook is Hasani Allen, who plays JD, the twisted, Jesse James-esque, brooding teenaged love interest of Veronica, plays the role confidently and intensely with a pronounced command of the stage and he’s hard not to watch when he’s on. Like Vivian Cook, he too plays his character very similar to the Christian Slater version of JD, but with his own flair that brings a freshness to the role that’s fun to watch. He is passion is crystal clear in his portrayal of his extreme character and adds depth to already flawless performance. His vocal numbers such as “Prom or Hell” and “Meant to be Yours” has him reaching for the higher notes, but his intensity in his performance certainly makes up for one or two missed notes. Overall, his performance is superb.

Tendo Nsubuga, Tiara Whaley, and Taylor Witt (left cluster), Amy Williamson as Martha and Vivian Cook as Veronica Sawyer. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Tendo Nsubuga, Tiara Whaley, and Taylor Witt (left cluster), Amy Williamson as Martha and Vivian Cook as Veronica Sawyer. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Amy Williamson, as the ultimate outcast Martha Dunstock (a.k.a. Martha Dumptruck) gives an emotional, heartfelt performance in her number “Kindergarten Boyfriend”, as she reminisces of times past when everyone were friends. Taylor Witt as Kurt and Tendo Nsubuga as Ram, the bumbling, uber-jock football players bring a perfect comedic timing to their characters and a male teenage honesty with their fun and unashamed number “Blue.”

Rounding out a couple of the featured adult characters are Amanda Spellman, who plays Ms. Fleming, the hippie teacher hailing from Berkley and Wil Lewis, III, who takes on the role of Ram’s Dad. Spellman is hilarious as the whispy seemingly flaky teacher trying to bring everyone together to share their feelings and she shines taking the lead in the ensemble number “Shine a Light”. As one of the few adult characters in this piece, Spellman is a standout. Wil Lewis, III, too is a highlight as one of the adult characters as Ram’s Dad, explaining how he loves his son no matter what in the uplifting, funny “My Dead Gay Son.”

Vivian Cook as Veronica Sawyer and Hasani Allen as J.D. "Our Love is God" Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Vivian Cook as Veronica Sawyer and Hasani Allen as J.D. “Our Love is God” Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Final thought… Heathers: The Musical is a fun well-produced show with a dedicated and talented ensemble. If you are familiar with the original film, you will not be disappointed and if you are not familiar with it, you will be delighted to learn about what the kids at Westerburg High School are up to. The music is upbeat and fresh and the message of acceptance and the consequences for intolerance is timeless. You don’t want to miss this production of Heathers: The Musical!

This is what I thought of this production of Heathers: The Musical.… what do you think?

Heathers:The Musical will play through August 27, Friday-Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm, and select Saturdays at 2pm at Drama Learning Center, 9130-I Red Branch Road, Columbia, MD 21045. For tickets, call 410-997-9352 or purchase them online.