Review: Lookingglass Alice at Baltimore Center Stage

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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Running Time: Approx. 90 minutes with no intermission

Curiouser and curiouser… those are the words that come to mind when I think about the traditional, albeit twisted and psychedelic tale of a little girl named Alice and her adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. It’s a dream-like story that can sometimes be convoluted and hard to follow, but there’s a certain appeal it has that has helped it survive many re-births since it’s original publishing in 1865. Whether it receives the Disney treatment in the 1951 animated feature, Alice in Wonderland, or the Tim Burton treatment in his 2010 film, Alice in Wonderland, it has never been a story I go out of my way to read or see presented on stage or film… until now. Baltimore Center Stage’s latest offering, Lookingglass Alice, an adaptation of the stories of Lewis Carroll by David Catlin, Directed by Jeremy B. Cohen, with Music Direction by Jose C. Simbulan and Choreography by Rennie Harris gives this timeless story a fresh, modern re-boot with fun music and fast-paced staging that pulls it out of the Victorian age and places it right into the hands of 21st century.

Media Gallery_1200x__Technically, this production is top-notch. Set Design by Tim Mackabee and Light and Sound Design by Rui Rita and Lindsay Jones, respectively, pull this production together in an awe-inspiring mix that tingles all the senses. Mackabee is wise to use a minimal, unit set that is quite appropriate and does not interfere with, but enhances the telling of the story, providing levels and though-out set pieces to keep the production interesting. Working in tandem with Mackabee’s design is the well thought-out and attention grabbing light show that sets the mood of each scene beautifully and gives a nightclub feel in well-placed points of the production, keeping the audience engaged and interested.

Media Gallery_1200x__10Lindsay Jones’ sound design is nothing but superb. Every effect is placed perfectly and carefully making the experience that much more enjoyable. Not only is he responsible for Sound Design but he also wears the hats of Composer of original music and Musical Arranger taking the well-chosen songs and fitting them into the piece perfectly to help move the story along and give it depth. Major kudos to Jones for his impeccable work on this piece.

Rennie Harris’ Choreography is inspiring and full of energy making this piece engaging and engrossing with a mix of hip-hop and lyrical moves fill the stage and show off the ensemble’s individual abilities. Also, working together with Harris’ fabulous choreography, Jose C. Simbulan’s Music Direction is on point as this cast is flawless in the delivery of the songs included in this piece. Both choreography and vocal performances make for a delightful and intriguing two hours of theatre.

Jeremy B. Cohen takes the helm of this production of Lookingglass Alice and his direction is spot on with focused, precise staging that gets actors on and off efficiently and transitions between the scenes, which are more like vignettes, are flawless. The pacing is near perfect with every moment used wisely. Cohen’s comprehension of this piece is quite apparent as his refreshing vision of this aged story with an updated, intelligent script is presented with a delicate balance of new and old.

Media Gallery_1200x__7Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, all of the actors in this small ensemble take on many, varied roles but it’s worth mentioning the extremely able ensemble members Jessica Bennet and Sensei Silab. Bennet and Silab are committed and it’s easy to see they give 100% to their various roles. Both of these actors have a definite grasp on the complex choreography and musical arrangements and they add great value to this production as a whole.

Garrett Turner, who takes on the roles of White rabbit, White Night, and March Hare is a delight to watch as he embodies these very different characters with ease. As the White Night, he has fantastic comedic timing and he is  comfortable in his well-placed interactions with the audience. His ability to switch on and off between characters is impressive

Media Gallery_1200x__9Christopher Ramirez takes on the roles of Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and the White Queen, among others and his performance is commendable. He understands his characters and shines as the caring  Mr. Dodgson who gets on the level of a young girl and tries to explain the world to her in terms she might understand. He is hilarious as the White Queen, throwing shade that RuPaul himself would be proud of, but also balances out by playing the character seriously and not over the top, exuding a compassion and caring that is required of the role. Vocally, Ramirez does a bang-up job with a smooth, booming baritone voice and shines in featured numbers such as in Milo Green’s “Afraid of Everything.”

David Darrow is a highlight in this production as he tackles the roles of Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter, and Humpty Dumpty, among others. The characters are diverse and Darrow portrays each character effortlessly. Not only does he have admirable dramatic chops, this multi-talented performer provides much of the live music in this piece with a guitar and adds great value with a clear bari-tenor voice in numbers such as Jonathan Coulton’s “I Crush Everything,” and Ruth Berthe’s “Golden.” Whether he’s effectively portraying the Cheshire Cat, slinking across the stage, or giving a frantic performance as the high-energy Mad Hatter, or a comical, nerdy take on Humpty Dumpty, Darrow is certainly one to watch in this production.

Media Gallery_1200x__6Markita Prescott takes on the titular role of Alice in this production and gives an absolutely authentic and natural performance, embodying this young girl as she navigates through Wonderland searching for a way to become a queen. Prescott has great chemistry with her fellow ensemble members and really seems to have a great comprehension of her character. She plays Alice with the innocence of a child but the sass of a girl who can take care of herself and the curiosity of a person coming of age. Vocally, Prescott is superb with a strong voice that resonates throughout the theatre in numbers like the driving Emile Sande song “Breathing Underwater” and a more subdued, delicate sound that she uses in the poignant “Golden.” Overall, Prescott gives a strong, confident performance that pulls the piece together.

Media Gallery_1200x__2The definite standout in this production, hands down, is Patrice Covington as the Red Queen. Though she gives great turns in roles such as the Dormouse and Tweedle Dee, she shines brighly and intensely as the Red Queen. She steals the show during her featured number, the high-energy, upbeat Demi Lovoto tune “Confident”and that’s exactly what she exudes in her performance. The balance of elegance and diva-ness she brings to the role is on point and makes for an authentic portrayal of a tyrannical queen. Covington’s vocal performance is powerful and seemingly effortless as she wails her number with confidence, as the song suggests, and her own flare of showmanship that is second to none. I’ll be following this actresses career and am looking forward to seeing her onstage in the future.

Final thought…Lookingglass Alice is a modern, funky, and refreshing look at a very old, familiar story. The performances of this small ensemble playing various roles are focused and engaging, breathing new life and ideas into the well-known piece. The music that has been added and the arrangements of those songs give the impression that these tunes were written for this piece because they fit so well and help progress the story line. Overall, it’s a fun show to experience and whether you’re familiar with little Alice and her adventures in Wonderland or a newbie to her journeys, you will not be disappointed with this production and it’s energy. Get your tickets now as this is not one production you want to miss this season.

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

Lookingglass Alice will play through December 31 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: 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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