Review: The Secret Garden at Memorial Players

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission

Some may be privy to, but many may not know about this little gem of a theatre company in the middle of Botlon Hill called Memorial Players and it’s a company that everyone should know about. Admission is free and you get a hell of show with a packed house and community support out the wazoo! It’s heartwarming to see and enjoyable to experience and you should make time to get down and check these folks and see what community theatre is all about.

Their latest offering, The Secret Garden, with Book & Lyrics by Marsha Norman, Music by Lucy Simon, and based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Directed by Bill Kamberger, with Music Direction by Gregory Salorie-Robinson and Tim Viets is a production worthy of the packed house it assembles just about every night.

Charlie Roberts, Gabe Viets, Ruby Webb, and Lauren Lowell. Credit: David Hornbeck

The Secret Garden, in a nutshell, tells the story of Mary Lennox, a young girl orphaned by a cholera outbreak in India when she is ten years old and she is sent to Yorkshire (The Moors) in England to live with her unhappy Uncle Archibald Craven and his curmudgeon brother, Dr. Neville Craven, as well as her seemingly sickly cousin, Collin. All the while, her late Aunt Lily Craven is never far away and watches over the household in spirit. Though they start off with a rocky relationship, Mary and Collin grow quite fond of each other and Mary discovers her aunt’s beloved but neglected “secret garden” which she, with the help of a gardener, Dickon, a chambermaid, Martha, and Collin, brings back to life. She blossoms into a happy child bringing happiness and love back into the house as well as to her cousin and uncle.

Jennifer Viets, Stephen M Deininger, and Ruby Webb. https://twitter.com/BackstageBmore

Set Design by John Seeley is simple, yet very appropriate for the space with which he is working. He cleverly uses levels to distinguish specific locations and rolling flats to change settings and it works beautifully and seamlessly. Along with a brilliant Costume Design by Rosslyn D. Kooser, one is transported to Victorian England and to this manor house and gardens.

Lighting Design by Charles Danforth, III is creative and exciting using light and shadows to insinuate the settings of each scene just enough that the audience has a better idea of where everything is taking place. The minimal projections add value to this piece and the splashes of color and specials used enhance the piece rather than hinder it and makes for smooth transitions.

I’ve got to mention that the voices in this production are AH-MA-ZING! The ensemble, as a whole, is on point and on key for every number and all are giving 100% to the score. Music Direction by Gregory Salorie-Robinson and Tim Viets knocks it out of the ballpark and this piece is well-rehearsed and well presented, musically.

Stephen M Deininger as Archibald Craven. Credit: David Hornbeck.

I wouldn’t do this production justice if I didn’t mention the absolutely outstanding orchestra for this production. This orchestra is so spot on, if one were to close one’s eyes, one would think they are listening to a polished, mastered recording of this music. This orchestra, conducted by Tim Viets, is to be commended and praised for their work on this piece. As a matter of fact, they did such a stellar job, I’d like to list them, if I may:

Keyboard I – Diana Barbour; Keyboard II – Patty DeLisle; Flute/Piccolo – Mari Hill; Oboe/English Horn – Mary Haaser; Clarinet/Bass Clarinet – David Dimmock; Trumpet – Kate Gorman; Trombone – Rob White; French Horn – Rich Roberts; Violins – Michael Vaughn and Ji Hee Cha; Violas – Hyejin Kim and Zoe Hartenbaum; Cello – Cindy Rosenberg and Najette Abouelhadi; Bass – Alec West; Percussion – Brendan Betyn; Conductor – Tim Viets

Major props all around to the orchestra of this production of The Secret Garden!

This piece is well-known and has been produced regularly since it’s Broadway run and sometimes it’s difficult to find a new and fresh way to present something so familiar but Director Bill Kamberger had a vision and it was executed marvelously. He blends the traditional with the new and presents this piece in a fresh and innovative way. He seems to really comprehend the piece and the message it sends and under his guidance, this cast tells this story and presents the message of being open to new experiences and the love of others and learning how to return it, as well. Kudos to Kamberger for a job well done.

Moving into the performance aspect of The Secret Garden, it’s worth noting that every single person involved in this performance gives his or her all. The dedication and commitment are clear and everyone looks to be having a blast up on stage, which, in turn, lets the audience to enjoy the production all the more. Though only a few are mentioned in this review, every performer in this piece is to be commended for their work and dedication.

Charlie Roberts as Dickon and Ruby Webb as Mary Lennox. Credit: David Hornbeck

Charlie Roberts takes on the role of the likable, inspiring gardener, Dickon, who helps young Mary Lennox bring the secret garden back to life. Roberts seemed to be playing this role cautiously and subdued, but he still gives a good showing. This character has a very distinct accent and Roberts does an admirable job with it, but I lost most of what he’s saying because the accent seems to be getting in the way. From the third row, it was difficult to hear him, as well, as he doesn’t project as much as I’d like and he’s using a delicate sounding voice that seems higher than his regular speaking voice for this role, which could be a directorial choice, but it somewhat hinders his performance. That being said, I’m not saying Roberts does a bad job because he certainly does not. He’s very comfortable on stage and gives a strong, physical, confident performance and seems to understand his character quite well.

Gabe Viets as Collin Craven and Ruby Webb as Mary Lennox. Credit: David Hornbeck

Ruby Webb as Mary Lennox and Gabe Viets as Collin Craven are two young actors who are going places, should they choose. Webb gives an admirable performance as they young, unhappy girl who grows to realize all is not horrible in the world and people can be good and caring and her delicate voice fits the character and music she performs. Gabe Viets is spectacular as the impertinent, spoiled Collin Craven who grows to be compassionate and loving. He gives a very authentic, natural performance that is spot on. I’m looking forward to seeing this young man in the future as he refines his craft. The two young actors have great chemistry and give delightful performances.

Stephen M Deininger as Archibald Craven and E. Lee Nicol as Dr. Neville Craven. Credit: David Hornbeck

Stephen M. Deininger as Archibald Craven and E. Lee Nicol as Dr. Neville Craven are impeccable choices for these roles and they work well with and off of each other. Deininger hits the ground running with this role. Though at points he seems a bit melodramatic and could pull back a bit, his commitment to this character and the emotion he exudes is on point. He has a strong, clear voice that resonates throughout the theatre (sanctuary) in songs such as “A Bit of Earth” and “Where in the World.” Adding to the feels this piece gives, Nicol, as Dr. Neville Craven, shows off his impeccable acting chops as he navigates through the story as a curmudgeon brother who might have done something different with his life had it not been for the choices his brother has made. Both together are a powerhouse and one of the most familiar songs, the poignant “Lily’s Eyes,” is beautifully performed by these actors both in acting and vocally.

Among this able and talented cast, a few highlights are noticeable such as Lauren Lowell as Martha, Nancy Kelso as Mrs. Medlock, and Jennifer Viets as Lily Craven.

As Mrs. Medlock, the stern, rigid housekeeper of a large house in The Moors of England, Nancy Kelso’s performance is second to none. A perfect look and top notch acting make for a natural, authentic performance where Kelso completely embodies this character. Though this character has no solo or featured vocal numbers, her performance is still strong and confident making this a character to be remembered. Kudos to Kelso on an outstanding performance in a musical without having a featured or solo number of which to speak (or sing)!

Lauren Lowell as Martha and Ruby Webb as Mary Lennox. Credit: David Hornbeck

Lauren Lowell as the chambermaid, Martha had me smiling from the moment she stepped onto the stage. The way she portrays this character just makes her likable from the get and she keeps it up throughout the production. Her lovely performances of “A Fine White Horse” and “Hold On” just make her more likeable and she has a good grasp on this character. Her accent work is pretty good, as well, making for a well-rounded, enjoyable performance.

Stephen M Deininger and Jennifer Viets. Credit: David Hornbeck

Jennifer Viets has a great look for this role and sings the hell out of it. This character doesn’t have many lines, but with a clear, booming, and superb soprano that rings throughout the theatre, she portrays a spirit of a loving wife and mother and her performance is just about flawless.

Final thought… The Secret Garden at Memorial Players is truly a production made possible by the community with so many folks lending a helping hand. This production of this classic story is full of strong, beautiful voices, able, committed actors, and a top notch orchestra making for pleasant evening of theatre that’s fit for the entire family. Whether your familiar with this piece or seeing it for the first time, you’ll walk away understanding that friendships and relationships can happen anytime, anywhere, as long as you’re open to receive and give back. It’s a well-rehearsed, well put-together production and, if that weren’t enough, it’s FREE ADMISSION so, do yourself a favor and get a seat for this show!

This is what I thought of Memorial Players’ production of The Secret Garden… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

The Secret Garden will play through May 14 at Memorial Players at Memorial Episcopal Church, 1407 Bolton Street, Baltimore, MD 21217. For more information, call 410-669-0220, ext. 13 or log on to memorialplayers.org.

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Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Heritage Players

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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Running Time: 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission

It’s been repeated through the ages – being a kid isn’t easy! If you can remember (and most of us can), the world is a completely different place for a kid and Heritage Players latest offering The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Directed by Ryan Geiger, with Music Direction by TJ Lukacsina and Robin Trenner and Choreography by Jose Reyes Teneza, takes us right back to that crazy time when changes in body, mind, and viewpoints were happening and every day was a struggle… then the bastards throw something like a spelling bee in the mix to pit us against each other!

Chip Tolentino (Charlie Roberts) at the mic as the rest of the cast looks on. Credit: Heritage Players

Chip Tolentino (Charlie Roberts) at the mic as the rest of the cast looks on. Credit: Heritage Players

Walking into the Rice Auditorium at Spring Grove is a treat! It’s bright, neat, and clean and it’s a space that lends itself nicely to community theatre! Ryan Geiger, who takes on double duty as Director and Set Designer uses the traditional setting (a school gymnasium) for this production and, liking traditional theatre as I do, I thought it worked very nicely. It was a minimal set but Geiger’s attention to detail is on point and large printouts of a scoreboard and sports banners are clever and give the set a neat, precise look. This is a unit set show with movable set pieces and every piece had a purpose and helped tell the story.

Lighting Design by TJ Lukacsina and Sound Design by Stuart Kazanow is appropriate and sets the mood for this quirky piece. Notably, there is a very neat effect concerning the Taj Mahal that is very clever and quite effective.

Sound is always a challenge for small theatres depending on the space and what the space is originally intended for. Kazanow’s Sound Design for this production is good, but seems a bit muted, slowing down the action onstage. Again, this could be because of venue and, overall, Lighting and Sound are respectable.

William Barfee explains his "Magic Foot" as the rest of the cast joins in. Credit: Heritage Players

William Barfee explains his “Magic Foot” as the rest of the cast joins in. Credit: Heritage Players

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is an eccentric kind of show where there’s a lot of music but it doesn’t call for a ton of choreography. However, Choreography by Jose Reyes Teneza fits in nicely. There are only a few big group numbers including “Magic Foot” and “Pandemonium” but the choreography is creative and tight and the cast seems to be having a great time with it.

Music Direction by TJ Lukacsina and Robin Trenner is impressive with great solo numbers and harmonic ensemble numbers that are on point and well-rehearsed. For being a fun, breezy show, Spelling Bee does, in fact, have some complex harmonies, but these were handled beautifully under the direction of Lukascsina and Trenner.

Going along with Music Direction, the orchestra is worth mentioning, giving a commendable performance with Robin Trenner on Piano, Ellie Whittenberger on Synthesizer, David Booth on Reeds, Ina O’Ryan and Juliana Torres on Cello, and Mykel Allison on Drums.

The spellers take center stage. Credit: Heritage Players

The spellers take center stage. Credit: Heritage Players

Taking on double duty as both a character in the production and Costume Designer, Stephen Foreman hit the nail on the head with these costumes. The costume design follows the original Broadway production’s scheme, for the most part, and his eye for detail is impressive. All of this actors seems comfortable in their wardrobe and the well though-out, meticulous costumes definitely add great value to this production.

Being a first time director has its own set of challenges but being a first time director for a musical is something entirely different. However, Director Ryan Geiger does a fantastic job with this piece, understanding its humor and its poignancy in a very balanced production. His casting is superb and his vision is clear, seeing life through the eyes of some very anxious, over-achieving kids in competition with each other and trying to discover themselves in the process. Kudos to Geiger for a job well done on his inaugural production as a director.

The cast. Credit: Heritage Players

The cast. Credit: Heritage Players

Moving into the performance aspect of this piece, I have to say the ensemble, as a whole, is outstanding. Audience participation is the name of the game for this show and the ensemble works with the participants brilliantly. The seemingly random audience members who are asked to participate in the bee seem to have a great time with this ensemble and the ensemble assures each audience member is at ease during the performance. The chemistry is crystal clear, the harmonies are flawless, and the dancing is tight and concise. Every one of these actors is giving 100% and seem to be having a blast onstage, which, in turn, brightens the mood of the audience.

Marcy Parks (Kristi Dixon) explains her many talents, backed up by the girls. Credit: Heritage Players

Marcy Parks (Kristi Dixon) explains her many talents, backed up by the girls. Credit: Heritage Players

Kirsti Dixon’s Macy Park is staunch and uptight, as the character calls and her number was upbeat and energetic. Though Dixon may have slight issues with the higher register of her number, “I Speak Six Languages,” her character is near perfect and she gives a strong, confident performance.

Matt Scheer tackles the role of Mitch Mahoney, the rough and tough, ex-con Comfort Counselor who’s job it is to give the kids a hug and juice box when they’ve been eliminated. Scheer plays the role as more of an 80s metal-head throwback rather than the original gruff, leather jacket and chains wearing character. Still, this character works nicely and he’s comfortable in the part and has a strong, booming voice for his number “Prayer for the Comfort Counselor” that is a fitting finale for the first act.

Logainne Schwartzandgrubinierre (Libby Burgess) tries to describe her strife as her dads discuss behind her. Credit: Heritage Players

Logainne Schwartzandgrubinierre (Libby Burgess) tries to describe her strife as her dads discuss behind her. Credit: Heritage Players

Logainne Schwartzangrubenierre, played by Libby Burgess, is an over-over-achiever pushed by parents who want what’s best for her, but might not see the burden it puts on her young, frail shoulders. Burgess tackles this role beautifully and her character is strong. The anxiousness and nervousness come out in her performance and she seems to really understand this poor kid. She’s comfortable on stage and has great chemistry with Zach Roth and Richard Greenslit, who play her two fathers.

Charlie Roberts takes on the role of Chip Tolentino, the “alpha male” of the group and the winner of last year’s Spelling Bee. Roberts certainly looks the part in his clean cut Boy Scouts uniform but his portrayal of Tolentino falls a bit flat. Overall, he did a fine job with his performance, choreography, and songs, but I want his character to be a little more forceful and less delicate. His featured numbers “Pandemonium” and “Chip’s Lament” was performed nicely, but may have been a little too high for his register. However, he’s confident and comfortable onstage and gives a commendable performance.

William Barfee, the obnoxious, know-it-all, and probably the keenest speller in the Bee, is played by Stephen Foreman who does a good job pulling this character together. His comedic timing is very good, though some of the jokes could be milked just a tad bit more as he tends to skim by them at times and, dare I say it, he could be just a bit more obnoxious as it’s what’s funny about this character. His number, “Magic Foot” is performed well and confidently and he seems comfortable and his look is spot on for this role.

Kristen Zwobot as Olive Ostrovsky. Credit: Heritage Players

Kristen Zwobot as Olive Ostrovsky. Credit: Heritage Players

Kristen Zwobot as Olive Ostrovsky is definitely reaching in for her inner child for this role. She’s believable in the role and captures the awkwardness of a young girl with separated parents who may be too smart for her own good. She seems to get this character and doesn’t play her with pity but with compassion. Her numbers, “My Friend the Dictionary” and “The I Love You Song” (a trio with Rachel Weir and Matt Scheer), are touching and she performs them well with a strong, confident voice.

Zach Roth as Leaf Coneybear. Credit: Heritage Players

Zach Roth as Leaf Coneybear. Credit: Heritage Players

Among the “child” characters, Zach Roth as Leaf Coneybear is definitely a highlight. His character is different from the other characters in that he’s really in it for the fun, not the competition. His innocence and naiveté makes you feel for him and root for him and he pulls the character off with ease. He’s comfortable in the role and his comedic timing is top-notch. He keeps his character interesting and makes a connection with the audience. Kudos to Roth for an admirable performance.

Rachel Weir portrays Rona Lisa Peretti, one of the three adult characters in this show and one of the moderators of the Bee as well as a former winner. Weir is also a highlight in this production in this role as she embodies this character heart and soul. It isn’t hard to believe this woman is a adamant fan of spelling and of spelling bees and that, deep down, she does care for this kids and wants them to succeed because she had been in their shoes at one time. Weir has an absolutely beautiful voice that resonates throughout the auditorium in songs such as her “Favorite Moment” songs throughout the production explaining how the bee actually works. She acts this character flawlessly and has a strong confident presence making her a joy to watch.

Richard Greenslit as Douglas Panch is the standout in this production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. As Douglas Panch, Greenslit has impeccable comedic timing and doesn’t take his character too seriously making for a phenomenal performance. He had me at stitches with his delivery of some of the definitions and sentences for some of the words in the bee. His chemistry with his cast mates is excellent and he seems to have a grasp on the purpose of this character which makes him quite believable in this role. He’s comfortable with a very strong stage presence and gives a performance that knocks it out of the park.

Matt Scheer as Mitch Mahoney and the Cast. Credit: Heritage Players

Matt Scheer as Mitch Mahoney and the Cast. Credit: Heritage Players

Final thought… The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Heritage Players is an entertaining and funny show to which mostly everyone can relate. We’ve all had that crazy time in life where changes were happening and things we don’t find so important today were life or death situations. It’s easy to relate to these characters and see a little of ourselves in each of them. If you want a fun show to check out, get your tickets now!

This is what I thought of Heritage Players production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will play through November 20 at The Heritage Players, Rice Auditorium at Spring Grove Hospital Center, 55 Wade Avenue, Catonsville, MD. For Tickets, email heritageplayerslive@gmail.com or purchase them online.