Review: Two Trains Running at Spotlighters Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

August Wilson is a master in telling the everyday, slice-of-life stories of the average African-American community and his Pittsburg Cycle, a 10-play cycle of stories (mostly) out of Pittsburg, gives insight to the African-American experience during whole of the 20th century with one play touching on one decade in the century. With the recent popularity and critical acclaim for the film version of Fences, Wilson’s work has been brought to the forefront or, at least, has made a resurgence, which is warranted. Spotlighters Theatre’s latest offering, Two Trains Running, Directed by Fuzz Roark, with Set Design by Alan S. Zemla and Costumes by House of Bankard, touches on the late 1960s experience with authenticity and truthfulness that can only be found in a small neighborhood café with their regular crowd. This production is a great start to an exciting new season.

 

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Set Design by Alan S. Zemla for Two Trains Running at Spotlighters Theatre. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

With the intimate space at Spotlighters Theatre, some productions can be more difficult than others and sometimes a big show can feel stuffed into the space however, with the Set Design for this production of Two Trains Running, Alan S. Zemla has outdone himself. He used his space wisely, even with the four troublesome pillars holding the place up! Impressively, he used as much space as needed, but it did not feel cramped in any way. One corner for a counter, one corner for a window table and a jukebox, and one corner for the main entrance and front window while using the main stage for the main dining room worked out perfectly for this piece. It was an open design but not so open that the intimacy was lost. His choice of colors is spot with pinks and blues, which I imagine are remnants of an earlier era of bobbysocks and Elvis Presley that stuck around until the late 60s. Overall, the design is impressive, smart, and simple, working with the space and not against it. Kudos for a job well done.

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Linae Bullock and Troy Jennings. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Costumes by House of Bankard never disappoint and it’s the same for this production. Each era definitely has its own style and anytime a piece is hitting the cusp of a decade or era, it can be tricky. The late 1960s were flashy (paving the road for the outlandish 70s), but when you walked through a regular, blue-collar neighborhood, you didn’t see the avant garde fashions that were in the streets of New York City or Paris or Milan, but… just regular every day folks and House of Bankard does an admirable job with the wardrobes for these actors. You could see the differences in these characters by appearance alone and each costume fit each character beautifully from a café waitress, to the stylish proprietor of the café, to an elderly working-man, to the rich under-taker across the street. All costuming is appropriate and feels natural adding great value to the production.

Direction by Fuzz Roark is impeccable in this production. Roark really seems to have a great comprehension of this story and the characters and, though there is no major conflict or purpose, most days don’t and Roark guides these apt actors through a day as if we were actually sitting in the café with them, give the entire production an overall authenticity. Roark is experienced working in the round and the action was fluid. It’s a lengthy play, but it doesn’t feel lengthy because of the spot on pacing and, with the intimate space helping, the immersive feeling as if you are sitting at the table right next to these characters.

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Timothy Eric Andrews as West. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Moving into the performance aspect of this piece, it’s worth noting that every single actor in this small ensemble gives 100% effort and entirely embodies his or her character. Major kudos to the entire ensemble of this production of Two Trains Running.

Timothy Eric Andrews takes on the role of West, the very rich owner of the funeral home who seems to want what’s best for the neighborhood, but doesn’t hide the fact that whatever he does can benefit him, as well. Andrews has a very good look for this part and is confident in his role, if not more soft-spoken that I like, at times, but his character mannerisms are a good fit for this character.

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Linae Bullock and Aaron Hancock. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Taking on the role of mentally challenged Hambone, who is obsessed with getting his ham (which was payment for painting a fence a decade before) from the grocer across the street from the café, is played by Aaron Hancock who does a bang up job with this character. Totally believable and brave, Hancock treats this character delicately and gives a strong, authentic performance that makes you want to take him in his arms and protect him.

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Troy Jennings as Sterling Johnson. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Taking on the role of the young, kind of mixed up and searching ex-con, Sterling Johnson, is Troy Jennings, who gives an admirable performance. Though his performance is a bit too technical and stiff instead of fluid and natural, he still gives a confident, precise performance, and gives his all for this character. Sterling Johnson isn’t someone you know you can trust… at first, then he grows on you and this is exactly how Jennings played this character and it worked nicely. His chemistry with the rest of the cast is very good and jovial but when it comes to his scenes with Linae Bullock, who plays Risa is, things seem a bit scripted, but still believable and the two work well together.

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Linae Bullock as Rissa. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Linae Bullock is a standout in this production as Risa, the lone female character and only employee at the café. Her natural motion and delivery of her dialogue had me believing she was this character from the first time she walked on stage. The character is jaded, but underneath the hard exterior, she has big heart and wants to be loved and Bullock presented this near perfectly.

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Mack Leamon as Wolf. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Wolf, the neighborhood “numbers guy,” who is actually a likeable person, regardless of his not-so-legal choice of profession, is played by Mack Leamon who does a brilliant job with the role. He plays the character low-key, as required by one running on the outskirts of the law, and with a heart for the neighborhood and its inhabitants. Leamon doesn’t overplay the light conflict between Wolf and Sterling (whether it be because of Rissa or a change in the rules of the numbers game) making it believable.

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Tyrell Martin as Holloway. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Next, probably my favorite character and a highlight in this piece is Holloway, the down-home, common sense elderly regular who always has an anecdote or story for every situation, is played Tyrell Martin.  The only slight flaw is that Martin may be too young for this role. Appearance-wise, this may have been more successful in a bigger space, but in the intimate surroundings of Spotlighters, it just didn’t read as well as it should have. HOWEVER, that’s not to say Martin’s performance wasn’t spectacular, because it most certainly was! He has a good grasp of this character and his purpose and pulls it off beautifully. Aside from looking too young for the part, he even has the mannerisms and gestures of an elderly gentleman down pat. He fully embodies this role and makes me feel like he’s the good-natured uncle who you visit for a spell, just sitting on the stoop, talking about everything under the sun and watching the world go by.

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Louis B. Murray as Memphis Lee. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Rounding out the small ensemble and a standout in this piece is Louis B. Murray who tackles the role of Memphis Lee, the proprietor of the small Pittsburg café, in which this piece takes place, known simply as Memphis Lee’s. Murray, who has experience with August Wilson works, is superb as the non-nonsense, old-timer who doesn’t seem to understand the generation of outspoken activists. Murray understands where this character is coming from and gives a confident, natural performance. He delivers August Wilson’s words with passion and intensity, when needed, as well as with a tenderness that is seeping just under the surface in this character. He, too, is someone to whom everyone can relate… like an older uncle or family friend who you don’t mind spending an hour or two with each week, just talking and learning. His chemistry with the rest of the ensemble is on point, as well, making for a strong, thoughtful performance.

Final thought… Two Trains Running is a poignant, relatable look at the African-American experience in America, told masterfully with a thoughtful script, good directing, and exquisite performances. The chemistry in the cast is strong and every actor has a good comprehension of what their characters are all about and how they fit in the story. As part of a 10-play cycle, this work stands alone and really puts you in the moment. Though there’s no major conflict, this piece works nicely as a “slice of life” piece where the audience is witness to every day goings on in a small café in Pittsburg and, because of the dialogue and situations, it’s still enthralling. This production is a great addition to the theatre season and you should get your tickets now!

This is what I thought of Spotlighters Theatre production of Two Trains Running… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Two Trains Running will play through October 8 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.

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Review: She Kills Monsters at Spotlighters Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission

Stephen Edwards, Danielle Shorts, Lanoree Blake, Rachel Verhaaren, and Amanda Harris. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Have you ever role-played with a Dungeon Master? Acted out your fantasies with a group of people in in a dimly lit basement? Sounds kinda kinky, no? Well, I’m talking about Dungeons and Dragons or D&D for those in the know. If you don’t know a damned thing about D&D, don’t feel bad, I didn’t either and never even had an inkling to dabble in it. However, I have had friends that have taken the leap and started campaigns with like minded folks and have had a blast and made some great friends. It’s almost like it’s own culture and if you do want to get an idea of what this game and culture are all about, head on down to see Spotlighters Theatre‘s latest offering, She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen, Directed by Stephanie Miller, with Set Design by Alan Zemla, and Costume Design by Lanoree Blake. With a well thought-out script and a cast who has a great comprehension of the material, She Kills Monsters is one of the best productions running at the moment.

Andrea Bush, Amanda Harris, and Danielle Shorts. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

She Kills Monsters follows the story of Agnes, an average 20-something in the mid-90s, as she struggles with the loss of her entire family in a car crash, including her younger sister Tilly, who she realizes she never really knew. Through the popular role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, and with the help of Chuck, a sort of expert of the game, Agnes navigates through a fantasy world created by sister to discover who she was and, in the midst of it all, discovers things about herself. Throw in a band of fanciful allies, an uncertain relationship with an average boyfriend, a sassy best friend, and evil cheerleaders, you have an entertaining and thoughtful story to which everyone can relate in one way or another.

The story is, in a word, brilliant. It’s funny, poignant, and well thought-out and the short scenes lend itself to good pacing. The audience is enthralled and all-in from the start creating an electrified energy throughout the small theatre. The script cleverly guides the audience into rooting for these characters and before you know it, you’re invested, which is what a good script is supposed to do.

Set Design by Alan Zemla. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Set Design by Alan Zemla is minimal, as expected for the intimate space, but that’s not to say it’s boring because that it is not. Zemla uses his space wisely and utilizes the corners of the theatre that almost gives an immersive feel to the entire production. Zemla knows his space and makes it work beautifully for this production.

Lanoree Blake’s Costume Design is spot on as this story takes place in the 90s and, at first glance, I knew exactly what time period I was in. Her attention to detail took me back to a time when Nirvana ruled the airwaves and flannel was high fashion. Her design for the fantasy world, New Landia, are also impressive and fitting for each character that is created. Kudos to Blake for her work on this production.

Rachel Verhaaren as Agnes. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

I wouldn’t do this production justice without mentioning the exquisite Sound Design by Stephanie Miller, who happens to take the helm of this production as Director, as well. The carefully chosen music for this production is on point and fits it perfectly. Mostly themes from video games, it the design has a nostalgic feel that puts the audience at ease (those who are old enough to remember these sounds from the 90s that are ingrained in our psyche).

Miller also has an exquisite understanding of this story and crafts the story in a way that’s easy to follow, even if you aren’t familiar with the nuances of the game. Her casting is superb and her vision is apparent. She guides this cast seamlessly through the complex but relatable story and the very short scenes run at a great pace but aren’t choppy helping the entire production run smoothly.

Tina James as Vera. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

As characters in the real world, Miles, the doting but average boyfriend played by Peter Daly, and Vera, the sassy best friend played by Tina James, keep Agnes as grounded as possible. James does a commendable job as Vera, portraying her as a strong-willed, sarcastic, but caring friend and her deadpan style humor, though scripted at times, works quite well for the character and adds to the character. Daly does a fine job in his portrayal but, in the intimate space, I got the feeling he was uncomfortable making a connection with his cast mates as his eyes dart all over the place, rarely making eye contact while having a dialogue with anyone and it’s somewhat of a distraction to his performance. Otherwise, he seems to understand his character quite well and is committed to his role.

Michael Crook and Peter Daly. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Michael Crook tackles the role of the very helpful, over-zealous Chuck, the resident expert of Dungeons & Dragons, and it’s as if Crook was born for this role. At times, he’s a little too much and over the top, but that very well could be the intimate space making his gesturing and voice bigger than intended. I imagine in a larger space, he’s on point. He does, however, embody a teen-aged boy excited about playing make-believe and he gives an impressive performance.

In a supporting but extremely humorous role, Sam Cure takes on the character of Steve, a fellow player of D&D who pops up in the middle of various fights Tilly’s group gets into only to be struck down, quickly, every time. Again, Cure has little stage time, but what he does have tickles the funny bone and his portrayal almost has you rooting for him.

Danielle Shorts and Amanda Harris. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Amanda Harris as Kaliope and Danielle Shorts as Lilith are stunning in their roles as members and femme fatales (but good guys) of Tilly’s rag-tag New Landia campaign. Shorts has her character down-pat and gives a confident performance with a good command of the stage while Harris’ character is more subdued but her portrayal is equally as commendable and she looks comfortable in the role. Both of these actors have great chemistry with each other making for splendid performances.

Zoe Lunga and Claire Iverson. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Taking on the villainous roles in this production, Zoe Lunga and Claire Iverson take on the roles of Evil Gabbi and Evil Tina, respectively, and they play these evil cheerleaders to the hilt. Both actresses give believable performances and I can imagine both of these bully characters roaming the halls of any high school in the country today. Along with the ultimate mean girls is Andrea Bush who takes on the role of Farrah, the smack-talking, rough-around-the-edges fairy guard who is trying to thwart our unlikely heroes. Bush is absolutely hilarious as this dirty-mouthed fairy and gives a superb, no-holds-barred performance.

Lanoree Blake as Tilly. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

A couple of definite highlights of this production are Lanoree Blake as Tilly and Rachel Verhaaren as Agnes. Both actors have great chemistry and seem to have a great comprehension of the characters. Lanoree completely embodies her character of a teen-aged “outsider” who has found comfort and a chosen family in this game and world she has created. Her portrayal of Tilly, giving her a rough exterior but a fragile soul, is top notch and makes for some very poignant scenes. Verhaaren gives an authentic performance as an older sister and has great chemistry with her cast mates. Her yearning and strife are well portrayed and you feel for this character from the get and are happy to go on this journey with her. Kudos to superb performances for both of these actors.

Stephen Edwards as Orcus. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

The standout of this production, mainly for his acting chops and comfort on stage is the funny and confident Stephen Edwards who takes on the role of Orcus, an evil soul-snatcher who has pretty much given up and called it quits on the evil business and joins our heroes on their quest to recover Tilly’s soul (more so because he’s the one that lost it and is forced to help). Edwards is a natural on stage and so comfortable in this role, he puts the audience at ease. His performance seems effortless as he throws out one-liners (many of which refer to the 90s and are dear to my heart) and, even though his character is evil, or was at one time, Edwards plays the role in such a way that he is absolutely likable. From his delivery of his lines to his movement about the stage he gives a near flawless performance that is not to be missed and I hope to see more from this actor in the future.

Rachel Verhaaren as Agnes. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Final thought… She Kills Monsters at Spotlighters Theatre is a fun, thoughtful piece that you do not want to miss this season. The story is deep and poignant with an important message of not only self-discovery but discovery and acceptance of those closest to you. With a brilliant, raw script and dedicated performances from a cast who gives 100%, this production of She Kills Monsters is a highlight of the season and a great way to end out for Spotlighters to end out their 55th season. Do yourself a favor and get your tickets now!

This is what I thought of Spotlighters Theatre’s production of She Kills Monsters… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

She Kills Monsters will play through June 18 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-752-1225 or purchase them online.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

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Review: The Wiz at Spotlighters Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission

Approaching the Wizard. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

The Wizard of Oz holds a special place in many hearts the world over and rarely is a re-imagining or re-telling of a beloved story ever just as successful as the original but The Wiz, with Lyrics & Music by Charlie Smalls and Book by William F. Brown (which, incidentally had its FIRST showing here in Baltimore at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre) most definitely falls into the category of successes. Spotlighters Theatre has opened their production of The Wiz, Directed by Tracie M. Jiggetts, with Music Direction by Brandon Booth, Choreography by Traci M. Jiggetts, Timoth David Copney, and Aliyah Caldwell and it’s a joyous, entertaining sight to behold.

Ease on Down the Road. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Set Design by Alan S. Zemla is smart and simple considering the intimate space of Spotlighters, however, Zemla makes simple work nicely for this piece. Almost every inch of the theatre is used with each back corner dressed up as Dorothy’s Baltimore home (that’s right, Baltimore, not Kansas), The Emerald City Gate, and, in Act II, Evillene’s throne. The stages cleverly stays pretty clear throughout the production with set pieces and dressings insinuating the setting of each scene quite effectively.

Costume Design by Fuzz Roark is nothing short of stellar. The Wiz is a tricky one, but Roark has stepped up to the plate and hit a homerun. Word has it, he was practically sewing just until the the lights when up on opening night but his hard work has paid off. The attention to detail (especially the colorful and creative Munchkin costumes) and the overall design add great value to this piece. Working along side Roark were Karen Eske, who constructed The Wiz costume, Cheryl Robinson, who constructed the Addaperle and Glinda costumes, and Sarah Watson, who constructed the Evillene costume and all were spot on and grand, absolutely befitting of each character.

Tornado Dancers. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Choreography by Tracie M. Jiggetts, Timoth David Copney, and Aliyah Caldwell is a highlight of this production. This team seems to have understood the varying abilities of their cast, which is important in this area, and they’ve managed to come up with innovative and original choreography that fits well with the piece and moves it along nicely. Aliyah Caldwell (Lead Dancer), Stephanie Crockett (Dancer #2) , and Kimani Lee (Dancer #3) are exquisite and fluid as the Tornado, poppies, and Oz Ballet Dancers and give superb performances.

Renata Hammond and Amber Hooper. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Music Director Brandon Booth does a fine job with this piece as a whole. His work with the cast has produced a nice balance and brilliant performances from the entire ensemble. Working with music that is familiar is a challenge, but Booth, along with his actors and outstanding pit orchestra consisting of himself on Keyboard, Greg Bell on Bass Guitar, and William Georg on Percussion and 2nd Keyboard, has breathed new, fresh life into this already beautiful piece.

Timoth David Copney as The Wiz. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Taking the helm of this production, Director Tracie M. Jiggetts has created this alternate Oz in a small but adequate space beautifully. Aside from a lackluster death for the Wicked Witch of the West, which not soley the fault of Jiggetts as she certainly has limitations in the space, and curious omissions probably because of space and time constraints, she has a clear vision, moving Dorothy Gale to Baltimore and out of Kansas and giving gracious nods to the surrounding areas (even mentioning Dundalk, Ritchie Highway, and ArtScape), and her casting is extraordinary. Let me take a moment to discuss pacing, as well. According to the Spotlighters website, this show is supposed to run 2 hours and 45 minutes but, Jiggetts has managed to keep this piece moving and the pacing is on point! She manages to tell the entire story in 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission and that, my friends, is uber impressive for a show of this stature, so the cuts are absolutely forgiven.

Phoenix Averiyire, Neves R. Jones, and Sofia Raquel Esme D’Ambrosi. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Moving into the performance aspect of this production, I wouldn’t be doing any favors with this reivew if I didn’t mention Phoenix Averiyire, Neves R. Jones, and Sofia Raquel Esme D’Ambrosi as the Munchkins. Cuteness overload! These three very young actresses were spot on in their performances and held there own against their adult counterparts. For child actors, they are flawless and throw just enough shade to be adorable and not flippant. These young ladies are definitely a highlight of this production.

Darlene Harris takes on the role of Aunt Em and, unfortunately, must have been having some vocal issues for this particular performance as she spoke through her number “The Feeling We Once Had,” and the backup vocals were kept in, making it sound a bit awkward, but… Harris acts the hell out of the number, not losing the poignancy of the piece. I hope she feels better for the rest of the run because I have a feeling she wails this number. As The Wiz himself, Timoth David Copney works it and embodies The Wiz entirely with great comedic timing and a good grasp of the character. Vocally, he gives a great, confident performance in numbers such as “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard” and the gospel inspired “Y’all Got It!” Elaine Foster tackles the role of Glinda and this casting is superb. She brings the grace that is required for this character and, vocally, she handles her song “A Rested body is a Rested Mind” exceptionally with a delicate, but strong tone. DDm as Evillene is a powerhouse with instant command of the stage. DDm gives a strong, commendable performance vocally and in character. Rounding out the cast of characters other than the main four friends, Renata Hammond takes on the role of Addaperle and she is most certainly another highlight in this production. Her comedic timing is near perfect and her confident performance shows she’s comfortable in the role. Becasue of her portrayal, you will instantly like this character and her vocal performance is just as impressive as she belts out her number “He’s the Wiz.”

Amber Hooper as Dorothy Gale. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Amber Hooper as Dorothy Gale, the young lady whisked off to Oz with the help of a tornado. Sometimes it’s difficult to portray such an iconic character and Hooper does a fine job exuding the innocence and naivete of this young girl. She looks the part and seems to understand not only the character but the re-imagining of the character, as well. She’s comfortable on stage but seems to blend in, getting lost in the shuffle as the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion join the journey. Vocally, she gives an admirable performance with a strong hint of classical training and she manages the material nicely.

Justin Johnson as The Scarecrow. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Justin Johnson as Scarecrow gives an outstanding performanc, making the part his own and bringing an lovable ignorance with a hidden intelligence, as is required for the character and making him a joy to watch. His choices are brilliant such as his nerdy laugh that got me every time. His comedic timing is down pat and his movement as the Scarecrow is spot on and Johnson makes the character likable from the get. Vocally, Johnson gives a fantastic performance with a smooth, but resonating tone that works well, especially with his main number “I Was Born the Day Before Yesterday,” and his movement in the number keeps it upbeat and entertaining to watch.

Shae Henry as The Tin Man. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Next, we meet Shae Henry as Tin Man and he handles this role with a tranquil feel. He is lovable and gives a bang-up performance as the poor man searching for a heart. He has great chemistry with his cast mates, and his character is consistent throughout the production. Vocally, Henry gives an pleasing performance and shines in his number “Slide Some Oil to Me.”

J. Purnell Hargrove as The Lion. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

J. Purnell Hargrove as Lion is the absolute standout in this production. He grasps not only the character but the humor, as well, giving an exemplary performance that has the entire audience belly laughing as soon as he hits the stage. He’s confident and milks this character for every laugh without becoming annoying, which is quite a feat. Vocally, Hargrove is strong and really sells his numbers such as “Mean Ol’ Lion” and his duet with Hooper, “Be a Lion.” He’s certainly one to watch in this particular production.

Final thought… The Wiz at Spotlighters Theatre is a fun, entertaining, and well put-together production that should not be missed this season. Though it is in an intimate space and limitations, Spotlighters still manages to give us a big show with all the bells and whistles expected from this show. The added humor and nods to our humble city of Baltimore engages the audience and adds a nice personal touch. Superb pacing, great casting, fantastic costumes, brilliant choreography, terrific performances, and familiar tunes take this production to the hilt and make for a very enjoyable evening of theatre. Get your tickets now! You won’t be disappointed with this one!

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

The Wiz will play through April 30 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-752-1225 or them online.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

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Follow Backstage Baltimore on Twitter (@backstagebmore) and Instagram  (backstagebaltimore)

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

Review: The Women at Spotlighters Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 2 hours and 50 minuts with one 15-minute intermission

Kellie Podsednik and Michele Guyton. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Times change and gender roles aren’t so black and white anymore. Though equality may not be 100% today, the stereotypes of men and women have blurred and aside from child birth and those pesky hormones, estrogen and testosterone (which both exist in both sexes, mind you), I like to think men and women are on a pretty level playing field. Of course, I’m saying this as someone of the male persuasion (with many female tendencies, if you catch my drift). Spotlighters Theatre’s latest offering, The Women by Clare Booth Luce, Directed by Fuzz Roark, with Set Design by Alan Zemla, and Costume Design by Andrew Malone, Amy Weimer, and Darcy Elliott 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. As advertised, this is a play is called The Women… and it’s all about the men!

Briefly, The Women is a comedy of manners and a 1930s commentary about the high class lives and power plays of wealthy socialites of Manhattan and the gossip that guides and ruins relationships, namely for women. Most of the discussions are about the men with which these women are involved and though the men are important to the plot, they strictly talked about but never seen.

The Women was written and first produced in 1936 and later adapted into an uber successful film in 1939 starring some of the top actresses of the day including Norma Sheer, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Crawford. It was also adapted and updated in 2008, but we’ll pretend that never happened.

Kellie Podsednik as Crystal Allen. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Anyone who’s tread the boards of the Spotlighters stage or sat in the audience can see right off the challenges it presents being an intimate space as well as in the round, but Alan Zemla’s Set Design is spot on for this production. Practically each scene is a different setting and the use of set pieces is the most effective and innovative way to present each scene. Zemla’s attention to detail is impeccable and the pieces used in this production are befitting and does not hinder the story whatsoever but moves it along nicely. The scene changes could move a bit faster, with some going as long as 2 to 3 minutes long (a century in production time), but the 4-person stage crew does a stupendous job moving the large, but absolutely appropriate set pieces on and off stage cautiously in the small space. Kudos to Alan Zemla for a job well done.

The wardrobe for this piece is a beast but Costume Design by Andrew Malone, Amy Weimer, and Darcy Elliot is on point. Every stitch these ladies wear is appropriate, to period, and authentic. Set in the days of art deco, the gowns provided to these actresses are superb and all of the actresses look comfortable in what they are wearing. Most of the ensemble members seem to have at least 3 costumes a piece, so I can only imagine the hours this Costume Design team put into this production, but it paid off. They were able to present the glamour these society ladies exuded as well as the conservatism of the 1930s through casual wear and business attire. Overall, Malone, Weimer, and Elliott knocked it out of the ballpark with their design and added great value to this production.

Andrea Bush as Nancy Blake. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Baltimore theatre veteran and Spotlighters Theatre Managing Artistic Director Fuzz Roark takes the helm as Director of this piece and for a man directing all these ladies, he does an outstanding job. Aside from the long scene changes, Roark keeps the action moving along and though the piece runs almost 3 hours, it’s not because of any dragging on the stage, it’s just a lot of show, that Roark has managed to present at a good pace and with authenticity. His casting is impeccable and, above all, his vision is clear, and he seems to have a strong comprehension of the material and the era in which this piece is set allowing him to present an impressive production that is a joy to watch.

Kellie Podsednik as Crystal Allen. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

There are definitely some actresses who are stronger than others and there is a wide range of ability on the stage. However, all the members of this ensemble work well together and off of each other having a tremendous chemistry. Within this abundant cast, there were quite a few highlights.

Ilene Chalmers is charming and motherly as Mrs. Morehead, the conservative, wise mother of poor Mary Haines and though her role doesn’t require as much stage time as others, she gives a strong performance and delivers her lines confidently. Another “supporting” role is that of Jane, the loyal maid, played by Christina Holmes. Holmes gives an outstanding performance adding an Irish accent that is near flawless and she makes this character her own and one to watch.

Michele Guyton as Mary Haines. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Nancy Blake, the witty, single and brassy author and world traveler of the group of ladies this story follows is played by Andrea Bush and she is on point with this character. She has a definite command of the stage and digs her teeth into this character, giving her a rough-around-the-edges persona that actually makes her very likable. This character doesn’t mince her words and Bush embraces this giving a very enjoyable, humorous performance.

Kellie Podsednik tackles the role of Crystal Allen, the other woman who frankly doesn’t give a damn and knows how to play the game of infidelity and social climbing. From the moment she stepped on stage, I wanted to scratch this woman’s eyes out so, with that said, Podsednik played this role superbly. She had just enough smugness and confidence that one has to almost respect her even though she is a homewrecker. Crystal Allen is a high-toned woman, but Podsednik may have taken her vocalization or accent a bit too far, almost sounding straight up British, but other than that minor detail, her performance is realistic and outstanding.

Suzanne Young as Countess de Lage. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

The role of Mary Haines, or Mrs. Stephen Haines, a gentle, level-headed socialite housewife and the character around whom this story mainly revolves is tackled by Michele Guyton who brings a certain grace and dignity to this character. Her choices work very well for this character and she gives a balanced and confident performance and, at times, seems to glide effortlessly across the stage adding to her brilliant performance.

A certain highlight of this piece is Suzanne Young who takes on the role of Countess de Lage, the very rich, care-free, love lorn lady who has been married several times. Young is an absolute hoot in this role summoning up belly laughs from the audience nearly every time she’s on stage. She understands the comedy and her timing is just about perfect. She plays off the other actresses beautifully and delivers her lines naturally and boldy. I’m lookig forward to seeing more from this extremely talented actress.

Melanie Bishop and Michele Guyton. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Melanie Bishop portrays Sylvia Fowler, the sharp-tongued, gossipy, friend you love to hate and she plays it with gusto making her bona fide standout in this production. Having last seen Bishop in Spotlighters production of The Game’s Afoot playing a similar character in a similar time, she couldn’t have been cast better. She understands this type of character in and out and brings an authenticity that is second to none. I’d love to see her play another type of character because her acting chops are on point, but I thoroughly enjoy watching her play this type of role. Bishop’s comprehension, her comfort on the stage, and her strong stage presence makes for a superior execution of this nasty, loud-mouthed character.

Final thought… The Women at Spotlighters Theatre is a witty, brash, and honest play taking the point of view of women of the 1930s and though socially outdated, with certain ideas of how men and women should behave in relationships (namely marriage), it is still a piece ahead of its time. It portrays strong women and gives a humorous, true, and intelligent insight into their ideas of men. Spotlighters Theatre’s production is well thought-out, entertaining production with an more than able ensemble of strong actresses that should be added to your list of shows to see this season.

This is what I thought of Spotlighters Theatre‘s production of The Women… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

The Women will play through March 19 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. For Tickets, call the box office at 410-752-1225 or purchase them online.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

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Review: Three Penny Opera at Spotlighters Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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Running Time: 3 hours with one 15 minute intermission

Connor Moore As the Street Singer. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography

Connor Moore As the Street Singer. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography

I’m both a musical theatre fan and an opera fan, with emphasis on the former, but I certainly appreciate a good opera now and then. Of course, both genres’ main element is music but the production is a bit different. Spotlighters Theatre‘s latest offering, Three Penny Opera Adapted by Bertolt Brecht and Music by Kurt Weill (adapted from a translation of Jonathan Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera by Elizabeth Hauptmann) merges both of these genres to give us a three hour journey where our heroes fight for social and economic justices to which today’s audiences can relate. This production is Directed, Edited, Adapted, and Newly Translated by Michael Blum, with Music Direction by Erica Rome, and Choreography by Melissa McGinley.

The story begins with the familiar Ballad of Mack the Knife, beautifully performed by Connor Moore (though, be forewarned, it’s much different from the jazzy Bobby Darrin version we’re used to), then goes on to tell the story of Macheath (a.k.a. Mack the Knife) the most notorious criminal in all of England. Macheath marries Polly Peachum (Allison Hicks) much to the dismay of her parents (Frank Mancino and Kay-Megan Washington), who happen to be wealthy and in charge of all the beggars in London but there’s not much to be done since Tiger Brown, the High Sheriff of London is a very good boyhood friend of Macheath. Mr. Peachum, with his clout, threatens Tiger Brown, leading to the arrest of Macheath who manage to escape (a couple of times) with the help of some prostitutes, which leads to an abrupt ending a la deus ex machina (but you’ll have to see it to see if it’s happy or sad).

Steve Quintillian and Robert Wall. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography

Steve Quintillian and Robert Wall. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography

Although this piece runs just about as long as an average opera, the pacing and tempo is very good so, it’s not that the cast is dragging their feet, it’s just A LOT of show. Blum skillfully punches out each scene smoothly without much downtime and keeps the action moving along nicely.

Spotlighters Theatre’s space being as intimate as it is, the Set Design by Alan Zemla is fitting for this piece utilizing set pieces rather than a unit set, which is clever, and using space off the stage wisely, as well.

Going along with the production aspect of this piece, Costume Design by Amy Weimer and Darcy Elliot was well thought-out and befitting with variety and authenticity.

Rachel Verhaaren, Andrea Bush, Evangeline Ridgeway, and Kay-Megan Washington. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography

Rachel Verhaaren, Andrea Bush, Evangeline Ridgeway, and Kay-Megan Washington. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography

Overall, this is a well put-together production with a tight ensemble but the story gets somewhat lost in the translation by Director Michael Blum. According to Blum’s bio, he has a background in opera, and it seems as though that’s how he approached this production rather than a play with music or a musical theatre piece. The program states the setting of this piece is supposed to be Baltimore in 2017 and London, 1838 (as seen through the eyes of Brecht in Berlin, 1928) – did ya get all that? Blum manages to portray the latter adequately, but the only hint of Baltimore 2017 comes in to play during two instances where the cast dresses up like modern day beggars but, unless I missed it, I didn’t get the feel of modern day Baltimore at all in this piece. However, minor curious direction choices aside, his casting is full of superb vocalists and most are indeed top notch such as Kay-Megan Washington, Allison Hicks, and Amber Hooper – all vocal powerhouses. Music Director Erica Rome is to be commended for her work with this ensemble as they are on point, musically, and Choreography by Melissa McGinley is charming and appropriate, adding value to the production.

Robert Wall. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography

Robert Wall. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography

A couple of highlights in this production are Evangeline Ridgeway as Jenny Diver and Robert Wall as Tiger Brown, High Sheriff of London. Both a very accomplished vocalists and each portrays his or her respective character with confidence and ease with a strong presence on the stage.

Steve Quintillian takes on the role of our “hero,” Macheath, and though his overall performance falls a little flat as, vocally, he may not be as strong as his counterparts, he gives a good showing as the suave con man, King of Criminals and he is dedicated to his role.

Allison Hicks. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography

Allison Hicks. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography

The entire ensemble gives an admirable, dedicated performance (especially ensemble standout Andrea Bush, who carries her smaller role naturally and confidently), moving the piece along smoothly and really rounding out this production beautifully.

Final thought… Three Penny Opera is definitely a bit of an acquired taste but definitely worth checking out because of the incredibly immense vocal talent in this production. The translation may make the sordid story of criminals, con men, crooked cops, and even a little love a bit jumbled, but, overall, it’s a well-performed, charming piece with an absolutely dedicated ensemble. Whether your an opera fan or an old fashioned musical theatre fan, you’ll find a familiar joy in this production.

This is what I thought of Spotlight Theatre’s production of Three Penny Opera.

What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Three Penny Opera will play through February 5 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. For Tickets, call the box office at 410-752-1225 or purchase them online.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

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Review: The Game’s Afoot at Spotlighters Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

When one thinks of the holidays, rarely does one think of a murder-mystery, but Spotlighters Theatre latest offering, Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot, Directed by Fuzz Roark with Danny Romeo, along with Set Design by Alan Zemla, Lighting Deisign by Al Ramer, and Costume Design by Andrew Malone is a joyful whodunit that is sure to be a pleasing break from the hustle and bustle of this holiday season.

The Cast of The Game's Afoot at Spotlighters Theatre. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

The Cast of The Game’s Afoot at Spotlighters Theatre. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

Set in 1936, this zany story unfolds at the large estate of William Gillette, a famous actor who is known for portraying that well known sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. The problem is, Gillette fancies himself a real life detective and when murder comes to his home, he and his guests (and cast mates from his latest production) work to figure out who the culprit is. Throw in a sharp tongued theatre reviewer and a local constable, the investigation develops with humorous results.

Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

Set Design by Alan Zemla is impressive with an attention to detail. Spotlighters is somewhat unique in the fact that practically the entire theatre is used in their sets and this production is no different. It’s already theatre in the round and every corner is utilized, including a large trimmed Christmas tree, a small closet, an entrance/exit to the stage, and… get this… a secret room, which is absolutely ingenious. Taking a moment with the secret room, the door is evening seemingly automatic with the pull of an ornamented rope. Zemla’s detail with the stone work and shiny marble floor is superb and adds value to the production and sets the mood for the piece. Major kudos to Alan Zemla on his brilliant design.

Lighting Design by Al Ramer is appropriate and well planned out, adding to the value of the production. Murder-mysteries rely on precisely timed blackouts and Ramer’s design is on point, adding suspense to the scenes. Spotlighters is a small space but Ramer manages to light it accordingly with a well thought out design.

Melanie Bishop, Ilene Chalmers, and Thom Eric Sinn. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

Melanie Bishop, Ilene Chalmers, and Thom Eric Sinn. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

Costume Design by Andrew Malone is impeccable and he nails the period of the piece, which is the mid-1930s (and one of my favorite eras). Mens fashion hasn’t changed much through the years and a suit is always the norm, but Malone fits his male actors nicely and they seem comfortable as they move about the stage. The ladies fashions are quite a different story. Malone completely captures the essence of the 1936 upper class with flowing, yet form fitting gowns that ooze elegance. All the characters look their part and the period and gives an authenticity to the entire piece. Overall, Malone’s design is stunning and intelligent and is a joy to experience.

Tom Piccin and Ilene Chalmer. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

Tom Piccin and Ilene Chalmer. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

Direction by veteran Fuzz Roark with Danny Romeo is very good and they give us a charming and entertaining piece. Their vision is strong and through clever blocking in the round and with the talents of the cast, the story is easy to follow throughout. Roark and Romeo keep the action and their actors moving naturally to make sure the entire audience gets attention and doesn’t miss out on any of the story being told. The character work is brilliant and with the guidance of Roark and Romeo, they are fleshed out and authentic. The twist at the end is a bit abrupt and a tad bit confusing, but it is surprising, as intended and you’ll have to check it out to find out what it is! In general, Roark and Romeo did a splendid job with this piece and kept it funny, entertaining, and suspenseful, making for an veritable murder-mystery for the holidays.

Suzanne Hoxsey as Inspector Harriet Goring. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

Suzanne Hoxsey as Inspector Harriet Goring. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

Moving into the performance aspect of The Game’s Afoot, Suzanne Hoxsey takes on the role of Inspector Harriet Goring, the local constable assigned to check out a mysterious call made to the police station earlier in the evening. The character of Inspector Harriet Goring is supposed to be the “straight-man,” as it were, taking things seriously and trying to solve the mystery. Through this seriousness, the comedy shines through but, frankly, Hoxsey’s performance falls flat for me. She seems as though she’s trying too hard for the laugh but the timing is off and somewhat monotone, cautious delivery loses the comedy. That being said, Hoxsey gives 100% to her performance which is very admirable. She’s dedicated to the role and sticks with it with confidence and a command of the stage.

Kellie Podsednik, Ilene Chalmers, and Andrew Wilkin. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

Kellie Podsednik, Ilene Chalmers, and Andrew Wilkin. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

Andrew Wilkin tackles the role of Simon Brigh, the younger actor who exudes a certain sleaziness but you can’t figure out just why because he seems like a gentleman but there’s just something about him. Wilken plays that aspect of the role beautifully and he looks the part and plays it confidently but his representation of this character seems to be all in contorted facial expressions. At times, in his intense scenes, he comes off more as a scary deranged clown rather than an upset and angry young actor. His character goes from one end of the spectrum to the other, between a suave demeanor to an angry desperation and both are a bit over the top with no in between. Now, this is not to say his performance is bad, because it is not. He commands the stage easily and his voice resonates throughout the small theatre. He, too, gives 100% to his character and makes choices to allow his character to be easily understood.

Tom Piccin as Felix Geisel does an admirable job as the loyal, laid back best friend and gives a strong performance with very good comedic timing and an urgency that drives his character’s actions. He understands his character and plays him with ease while having great chemistry with his fellow cast mates making for a very enjoyable performance.

Kellie Podsednik as Aggie Wheeler. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

Kellie Podsednik as Aggie Wheeler. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

The role of Aggie Wheeler, the young, impressionable actress is taken on by Kellie Podsednik and her take on this character is thoughtful and entertaining. There may be more to this character than meets the eye and Podsednik plays the role with a natural, innocent air that works well and actually makes her a likable character. Podsednik is comfortable on stage and gives a strong performance that is confident and enjoyable.

Ilene Chalmers takes on the role of Madge Geisel, an old friend who is just as loyal as her husband, Felix. Chalmers plays this role with gusto and gives her all to this character and her dedication pays off as her portrayal is authentic and natural. Madge Geisel is more than an innocent bystander and she likes to get into the heart of the action and Chalmers plays this beautifully. She has a strong command of the stage and is a joy to watch.

Thom Eric Sinn. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

Thom Eric Sinn. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

Thom Eric Sinn plays William Gillette, the leading man who is famous for playing Sherlock Holmes and actually considers himself a brilliant detective and who has gathered these poor souls to his home on Christmas Eve. Sinn has a very strong stage presence and fits nicely into this character. His voice resonates throughout the theatre and he is natural and comfortable in this role. He has great comedic timing and does well with the farce, though his urgency does seem a bit forced at times. Overall, Sinn gives a very strong and entertaining performance.

Penny Nichols as Martha Gillette. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

Penny Nichols as Martha Gillette. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

Martha Gillette, the doting, elderly mother of William Gillette, is played by Penny Nichols and she is beyond charming in this role. At first glance, I didn’t buy the fact that Nichols is playing Sinns mother as she looks entirely too young for the role, but her portrayal of the character just emphasizes her acting skills and she played this part to the hilt. After a few moments, she is totally believable as the mother of Sinn’s character, regardless of looking younger than her character is supposed to be. She has beautiful comedic timing and her asides as she leaves the stage are just as funny as her onstage lines. She is a joy to watch and I hope to see more of her work in the future.

Melanie Bishop as Daria Chase. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

Melanie Bishop as Daria Chase. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography/shealynjaephotography.com

Melanie Bishop as Daria Chase, the cut-throat, acidic theatre reviewer who seems to know the secrets of all the other guests and isn’t afraid to share them, is an absolute highlight of his production giving an outstanding performance. She has the fast talking, quit witted character down pat even using a Katherine Hepburn-esque voice that absolutely fits this character making her more authentic. Her confidence and comfort on stage makes for a superb performance that is not to be missed.

Final thought… The Game’s Afoot at Spotlighters Theatre is a bona fide murder-mystery that will have you laughing and scratching your head, wondering “whodunit?” The performances are strong and the story is entertaining and original making for a fun night of theatre in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. Take a break from the craziness and check out this show!

This is what I thought of Spotlighters Theatre production of The Game’s Afoot. What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

The Game’s Afoot will play through December 18 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. For Tickets, call the box office at 410-752-1225 or purchase them online.