Review: Lysistrata Jones at Red Branch Theatre Company

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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Running Time: Approx. 1 hour and 45 minutes with one 15-minute intermission

411 BCE. That’s when Aristophones’ comedy Lysistrata was first performed in Athens, Greece. That’s a hell of a long time ago but classics are timeless and that’s why they’re performed still today. Though they don’t need to be updated and modernized, it’s always fun to see what happens when they are and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but it’s interesting to see what each era does with them. Red Branch Theatre Company has taken a chance on a modernized classic with their latest production of Lysistrata Jones with Music & Lyrics by Lewis Flinn and Book by Douglas Carter Beane, Directed by Stephanie Lynn Williams with Music Direction by Dustin Merrell and Choreography by Brandon Glass, and it’s worked out nicely for them.

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Hailey Ibberson, Patrick J. Campbell, Victoria Meyers, Tiara Whaley, and Angeleaza Anderson. Credit: Bruce F. Press Photography

Lysistrata Jones has taken the story of Lysistrata and taken it out of Ancient Greece to modern day Athens University where the basketball team isn’t really trying that hard when the title character enters the scene and simply wants them to try harder; to want something, and until they do, the girls decide, with the coaxing of Lystrata… no funny business in the bedroom! This leads to an age-old battle of the sexes that involves no funny business in the bedroom and seeking advice from the Madame of the local brothel with some self-realizations along the way.

Scenic Design by Bill Brown is simple, unit gymnasium set which is wise considering the ample but intimate space at Red Branch. His use of bright colors and movable stairs to help create individual settings is both clever and practical making for smooth, easy transitions between scenes, keeping the flow of the piece moving nicely.

Stefany Thomas’ Costume Design is authentic and gives each character his or her own style and helps bring out each character’s personality and charm.

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The ladies of Lysistrata Jones led by Lysistrata Jones herself (Hailey Ibberson). Credit: Bruce F. Press Photography

Brandon Glass’ Choreography is top-notch in this high energy, up-tempo piece. The cast looks like their having a great time and Glass’ choreography is fun to watch. The ensemble numbers are tight and well-rehearsed and he seems to know his actors and matches his choreography to enhance the abilities of this cast. Glass is to be commended for his current and varied choreography in this production.

Music Direction by Dustin Merrell is superb and he brings this exciting and energetic score off the page and onto the stage. With songs that stick to the brain like “No More Givin’ It Up,” “You Go Your Way,” and “The Writing on the Wall,” Merrell is working with a contemporary style with (at times) a heavy hip-hop influence but he and his cast pull it off nicely. The band, though a bit muted because of the space, is tight and well-rehearsed and gives a praiseworthy performance.

Director Stephanie Lynn Williams takes the helm of this production and has given us a delightful evening of theatre. She has a good comprehension of the material and though it’s been twisted and re-imagined, the story still holds tight. It’s a show full of fluff, but Williams seems to have taken it seriously enough not to just throw it away. She’s taken the time to bring the gender-based issues and message of self-realization out of the fluff. She keeps the action moving and the transitions smooth which help keep the pacing consistent. Casting is excellent and, overall, Williams has a splendid final product.

Patrick J. Campbell, center, leads the team in Lysistrata Jones at Red Branch Theatre Company. Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.

Patrick J. Campbell, center, leads the team in Lysistrata Jones at Red Branch Theatre Company. Credit: Bruce F. Press Photography

The entire ensemble of this piece is spot on. They are dedicated and are working hard to give 100% but are all having a blast up on the stage. The “boys” Cinesias (Andrew Overton), Tyllis (Jason Quackebush), ‘Uardo (Diego Esmolo), and Harold (Elad Ness) all have great chemistry and embody their very different characters. A standout is Overton as the “play-a” Cinesias who has his character down pat and is hilarious as the young man who can’t seem to figure out who or what he is.

Taylor Witt takes on the role of Xander, the social-conscious semi-activist who isn’t a member of the team but crosses paths with our heroine and teaches her not to give up and to keep moving forward. He gives an authentic performance and his featured number “Hold On” is a catchy number that he performs well.

Every team needs a leader and this one is led by Mick, played by Patrick J Campbell, who gives a good but somewhat subdued and mechanical performance. Vocally, Campbell is a standout with a gentle but strong styling as in his featured number “When She Smiles.”

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Taylor Witt, Hailey Ibberson, and Angeleaza Anderson. Credit: Bruce F. Press Photography

The “girls,” as it were, is made of an entertaining and able group consisting of Cleonice (Tiara Whaley), Myrrhine (Victoria Meyers), and Lamptio (Angeleaza Anderson) are everything you want in a cheerleading clique but maybe a little nicer. Each of these characters are different from the next and these ladies have taken these roles and make them their own. Meyers is a believable “good girl” but lets it all out in “Don’t Judge a Book,” her featured duet with Andrew Overton. Whaley takes a commendable turn as the Latina and, though it’s obvious that Spanish is not her native language (at least that’s what it sounded like), she is dedicated to her character and has great chemistry with her fellow actors. Angeleaza Anderson is funny and authentic as the “ditzy” one of the crew. Her vocalization for the character is on point and she gives a confident performance with a good stage presence.

Hailey Ibberson as the title character Lysistrata Jones, the new girl who swoops in to change everything, is absolutely charming. She has a strong presence and gives a committed, confident, and energetic performance and seems to have a good grasp of this character and her tribulations. Ibberson gives a wonderful vocal performance and shines in her featured numbers such as “Change the World” and the poignant “Where Am I Now.”

Patrick J. Campbell, Hailey Ibberson and Taylor Washington. Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.

Patrick J. Campbell, Hailey Ibberson and Taylor Washington. Credit: Bruce F. Press Photography

Taylor Washington as Hetaira and Alex Levenson as Robin are definite highlights of this production. Washington takes on double duty with the character of Hetaira playing both a narrator of sorts as well as the Madame of a brothel. She not only embodies these characters wholly, her vocal stylings on her featured numbers such as “I Don’t Think So” and “Writing on the Wall” are stellar. She takes these songs and makes them her own with her booming voice and she is simply a joy to hear and watch. At the same time, Alex Levenson portrays her character, the level-headed, astute student, with great authenticity and seemingly effortlessly. There are many points in the show I completely forgot she is reading from a script because of her natural and smooth performance. Kudos to both of these actors for a job well done.

Final thought… Though light and airy, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed Lysistrata Jones. It is an upbeat and current piece with a great score, catchy songs, a good script, and high-energy choreography that fits nicely in this summer time slot. The ensemble is dedicated and able and the chemistry is within the entire cast is clear. The classic tale of Lysistrata is broken down but not necessarily dumbed down and this production at Red Branch Theatre Company keeps the audience entertained and engaged.

This is what I thought of Red Branch Theatre Company’s production of Lysistrata Jones… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Lysistrata Jones will play through August 26 at Red Branch Theatre Company, 9130-I Red Branch Road, Columbia, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.

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Review: Bonnie & Clyde at Monumental Theatre Company

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

The infamous Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow me their fate on a back road made of dirt in Bienville Parish, Louisiana on May 23, 1934 but their deeds and notoriety have lived on since. Their dastardly actions were plastered on the newspapers of the time but, until recently, little was known about the love story between these two outlaws. Though a cautionary love story, this makes for good fodder for a musical theatre piece and Monumental Theatre Company‘s latest offering, Bonnie & Clyde with Music by Frank Wildhorn, Lyrics by Don Black, and Book by Ivan Menchell and Direction by Ryan Maxwell, Music Direction by Paige Rammelkamp, and Choreography by Melrose Pyne takes us back to the dusty Depression of the 1930s and sheds light on this fascinating and poignant story.

Walking into the small space, I’m immediately taking back to the 1930s dust bowl with a minimal but authentic Set Design by Jessica Cancino. As it is a unit set, the locations are implied with simple but thoughtful set pieces that tell me exactly where I am in the scenes with no confusion. Her clever use of silhouettes keeps the piece interesting and adds great value to the production. Overall, Cancino is to be commended for her use of the space and intelligent design.

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Rachel Barlaam as Bonnie and Russell Silber as Clyde. Credit: RJ Pavel

Like the Set Design, Ethan Henry’s Costume Design fits the piece perfectly. The earth toned color palet keeps everything authentic and it’s a very well thought-out costume plot. The wardrobe for Bonnie Parker is sexy, but not overly sexy and the plain floral print dresses for the ladies work quite well and are coordinated nicely. The gentlemen, with their suspenders, tank-tops, and high waist pants add a realness to the production and the pinstriped suits are spot on. Overall, the Costume Design adds to the piece rather than deflects from it and makes for a great looking production.

Choreography by Melrose Pyne is polished and together and her ensemble keeps it tight. This production hit it out of the ballpark in the gospel inspired number “God’s Arms Are Always Open” and, well, give me a good gospel song and my toes are a-tappin’! Melrose knows the cast and their abilities and matches her choreography to bring out the best in them. Major kudos go out to Pyne for this engaging and entertaining choreography.

Though the orchestra is small, Music Direction by Paige Rammelkamp is near perfect. Her cast was in harmony and on point and the orchestra (consisting of Paige Rammelkamp on Keyboards, Theresa Arnold on Bass, Jess Bauer on Violin, Jack Cohen/Doug Elliott on Trombone, Marque Nelson on Percussion, Rick Peralta on Guitar, and Justin Baughman on Reeds) sounded like a damn recording! They are well rehearsed and give a brilliant performance.

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Rachel Barlaam as Bonnie and Russell Silber as Clyde. Credit: RJ Pavel

Telling a biographical story on stage is quite a feat but Ryan Maxwell takes the helm of this production and his direction makes for an easy to follow, charming evening of theatre. He keeps his cast moving and the action running smoothly, using his intimate space wisely. Even when the story slows down in Act II, Maxwell keeps it interesting with his blocking and seems to have a strong grasp of this story and what these characters are going through. His casting couldn’t be better and he seems to have pulled the best performance out of each of them. His understanding of minimalism is apparent and choosing a more implied approach rather than spectacle is a wise one.

Moving on to the performance aspect of Bonnie & Clyde, it’s worth mentioning this is a strong ensemble. Though only a few performances are mentioned in this review, every single actor in this ensemble is to be commended for his or her work and for the foundation they give to the entire production, such as the Salon Girls in “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail.”

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Russell Silber as Clyde, Rachel Barlaam as Bonnie and Morgan Scott as Ted. Credit: RJ Pavel

Jonathan M. Rizzardi takes on the role of Preacher and though he seems a little stiff (which may be a character choice), his vocal work is fantastic. He’s the featured singer on the aforementioned “God’s Arms Are Always Open” and he is no joke in this number. Hitting notes that are sometimes up in the rafters, he brings this number home. Another featured role, Ted Hinton is tackled by Morgan Scott and he seems to embody this down-home boy character making him a likable character even though he is written as somewhat of a nemesis to our main characters. Both actors do well by their characters and add to the story.

Young Bonnie and Clyde are played by Hailey Ibberson and Camryn Shegogue, respectively and they make these parts their own. Vocally, both give confident, seemingly effortless performances.

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Rachel Barlaam as Bonnie. Credit: RJ Pavel

Taking on the title roles of this piece are Russell Silber as Clyde Barrow and Rachel Barlaam as Bonnie Parker and both are well fitted in their roles. Both are absolute able actors but that’s not to say there were a few minor issues such as chemistry. Though the chemistry is good between Silber and Barlaam, it does seem to come and go and there are few awkward kisses (passionate kisses, mind you) that seem to be more scripted than natural. Vocally, both actors are quite adroit, especially Barlaam with a clear, strong voice that resonates throughout the theatre but at times the performances from both seemed a little lackluster for these two outlaw characters. However, these two do share some great moments such as in the numbers “How ‘Bout a Dance” and “Bonnie”.

Definite highlights of this production of Bonnie & Clyde are and Jana Bernard as Blanch Barrow and Benjamin Stoll as Buck Barrow. These two, together and individually, are powerhouses. Their chemistry seems effortless and their performances are near flawless. Benjamin Stoll embodies the character of Buck Barrow, the conflicted brother of Clyde who finds himself always having to choose between his wife and his brother, and his portrayal of him his completely believable. Vocally, Stoll is phenomenal with a smooth, clear baritone that I could listen to for days and days and shines in the numbers such as “When I Drive” and “Raise a Little Hell (Reprise)”. Jana Bernard, as the confident, opinionated, independent Blanche Barrow, steals every scene she’s in, without really trying, and her portrayal of Blanche Barrow is not only uber-authentic but damn funny. Her presence on stage is strong and she is nothing less than a joy to watch. Her vocal talents are superb and she commands the stage, especially in her featured number, the hilarious “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail”Bernard takes this role and chews it up and makes it her own. Did I mention their chemistry? Totally believable and they work well off each other. Keep an eye on these two in this production.

Final thought… Bonnie & Clyde, a beautifully tragic and cautionary tale, though not so successful on Broadway, is a bonafide hit at Monumental Theatre Company. It is well thought-out, precise and a delight to experience. The ensemble is top-notch, with a few solid standout performances, and the orchestra is spot on. The director and entire ensemble have a strong comprehension on the characters they are playing and the story they are telling making an outing down to Alexandria, Virginia well worth it. Whether you’re familiar with the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow or not, you won’t want to miss this production so… run and get your tickets now!

This is what I thought of Monumental Theatre Company’s production of Bonnie & Clyde… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Bonnie & Clyde will play through July 30 at Monumental Theatre Company, Ainsle Arts Center, 3900 West Braddock Road, Alexandria, VA. For tickets, purchase them at the door or purchase them online.

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