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: Heathers: The Musical at Red Branch Theatre Company

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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