Sunday, February 10, 2019

Hitting the Right Notes More Than ‘Once’ at Olney

Malinda Kathleen Reese as Girl and Gregory Maheu as Guy

As the patrons file into the Olney Theatre Center’s Mainstage, they are greeted by an impromptu, high-tempo mini-concert performed on stage by a group of musicians playing and singing a few Irish folk songs and some pop tunes thrown into the mix. Their wardrobe and spoken accents leave no doubt about the setting for what was about to unfold.

Once, a quirky romantic musical by Irish film director, producer and screenwriter John Carney, is making its Residential Regional Premiere at the Olney Theatre Center. The musical, which opened on Broadway in 2012 following a brief stint at the New York Theater Workshop, was based on the 2006 low-budget indie film that was also written (and directed) by Carney. Once received 11 Tony Award nominations and corralled eight statues in 2012 including Best Musical. #hocoarts

Marcia Milgrom Dodge, Tony Award Nominee for the 2009 revival of Ragtime on Broadway, makes her Olney Theatre Center debut as Director and Choreographer. Her direction and staging of this musical is impeccable. The production is paced superbly with precise timing, and a talented cast and crew deliver in splendid fashion. 
    
Once is an unconventional show in that actors comprise the orchestra, play multiple instruments, and are onstage through most of the production.  There are two leads in the show, and the other cast members appear in scenes and then return to the sides or rear of the stage so they can resume their instrumental work.

Even Olney’s talented resident maestro, Helen Hayes Award winner Christopher Youstra, who serves as Musical Director for the production, emerges from his familiar locale in the orchestra pit to participate in the onstage action, playing the accordion among other instruments, joining in a dance, and has a bit of a speaking part as Emcee.  He appears to be enjoying this different facet of his repertoire.

It is indeed a challenge to find accomplished musicians who concurrently possess solid acting skills, yet their performances demonstrate that the folks at Olney responsible for casting were quite successful in meeting that challenge.

John Sygar (Andrej), Carlos Castillo (Svec), Daven Ralston (Reza),
Malinda Kathleen Reese (Girl), Somaya Litmon (Ivanka)
, and Emily Mikesell (Baruska)
As was the case with the film with the same odd name, the musical Once features music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The book for the musical was written by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, which contains a good dose of romantic sentimentality with comedic moments popping up throughout. 

There are peppy folk-rock numbers in the show but overall, the score is ballad-heavy. The Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly” plus others like “If You Want Me,” “Leaving,” “Say It to Me Now,” “Gold,” “Sleeping” and “When Your Mind is Made Up” are quite enjoyable in their tenderness. Generally, the melodies are sweet and the lyrics are quite touching in support of a sweet and touching story.

Guy, a contemporary Dublin street musician (played wonderfully by Gregory Maheu) is ready to throw in the towel on his music as the songs he wrote were directed towards a girlfriend who left him to move to New York.  The reason for the breakup is never divulged, but he continues to brood about it.

He encounters a Czech immigrant, referred to as Girl (played expertly by Malinda Kathleen Reese) who heard his guitar playing and singing and immediately becomes curious about him.  If that chance meeting wasn’t enough of a coincidence, you have the fact that Guy’s day job is a Hoover vacuum cleaner repairman and Girl’s Hoover that “doesn’t suck” is in need of repair.

Guy creates a barrier whereby Girl doesn’t get too close. But they open up to each other as the budding friendship ensues. She recognizes the beauty and scope of his talent and encourages him to not let his recent breakup prevent him from realizing his true potential.

Girl ultimately convinces Guy to share his music and she gets behind the piano.  It is clear both have musical gifts and they make each other’s music better.

She implores Guy to keep writing his music, make an album and go to America to win back his ex-girlfriend and return to his original love. It is during their quest to finish this album that Girl and Guy become closer and begin to fall in love with each other. However, Girl’s estranged husband wants to reconcile, and out of duty towards her young daughter, she wants to give it a chance.

Gregory Maheu as Guy and the ensemble of Once
As the guitar-playing musical talent Guy, sturdy and handsome Gregory Maheu is commanding and graceful on stage and portrays the brooding young man effectively while maintaining an Irish accent throughout.  Mr. Maheu’s guitar-playing abilities and baritone vocals are impressive and strong and are showcased in such songs as “Leaving,” “Say It to Me Now” and “Gold.”

His lines are perfect set-ups for the more comedic Girl character in the person of Malinda Kathleen Reese. With a Czech accent in tow, she is a loveable forceful firecracker but exhibits a vulnerability and resists the temptation to fall physically for Guy. Ms. Reese’s comic timing is spot-on in many exchanges, and her vocal prowess is on display in the duet with Mr. Maheu in “Falling Slowly.” The onstage chemistry between the two leads is outstanding as is the hilarious repartee. These are key factors in the production’s success.

They receive solid support from other performers, such as Dave Stishan as Billy who provides a comedic turn as well as Emily Mikesell as Baruska who is Girl’s mother, and Nick DePinto as Bank Manager.

Rounding out the talented cast are John Sygar as Adrej, Carlos Castillo as Švec, Katie Chambers as Ex-Girlfriend, Craig MacDonald as Da who is Guy’s father and owns the vacuum repair shop, Daven Ralston as Réza, and Brian Reisman as Eamon.  Girl’s daughter, Ivanka, is played in-rotation by Kyleigh Fuller and Somaya Litmon.

Scenic Designer Michael Schweikardt’s set, while not elaborate, is artistic and functional. The backdrop is abstract and aesthetically pleasing. A couple of lamp posts are shown to denote the street scene and chairs are off to the sides from where the musicians play.  Several large set pieces like a piano, a bed and a large wooden bar are used with the latter two being elevated from under the stage.

This setting is amplified by the warm glow from Colin K. Bills’ lighting and the exceptional sound designed by Matt Rowe. Frank Labovitz attired the cast neatly in costumes that are emblematic of  the working class neighborhood of Dublin.

Once is a different type of musical from what we’re accustomed and is highly recommended. It features a tender romantic story of looking back at what has been, how to bounce back from despair and to try anew while beautiful songs fill the theater.

Not splashy and bold as many musicals are, but Once is a performance-driven production executed by a wonderfully talented cast, a skilled technical crew, and helmed so ably by a total pro. The issue is you may not want to see the show just once.

Running time. Two hours with an intermission.

Advisory: Once contains profanity and is not suitable for young children.

Once runs through March 10 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting online

Photos: Stan Barouh

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Curtain Up! Light the Lights! Gypsy Comes Up Roses at Toby’s

Cathy Mundy belting out "Everything's Coming
Up Roses"
  

Oh, how I well remember vaudeville back in the 1920’s! Those singers, dancers, magicians, comedians, minstrels, trained animals, male and female impersonators—you name it.  I had so much fun.

With the iconic musical Gypsy, now playing at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, I can relive those memories of vaudeville with its eventual decline and the rise of burlesque. The Toby’s production of this sterling musical under the co-direction of Helen Hayes Award winners Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick will provide even better memories.  #hocoarts 

Gypsy is a 1959 musical with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim making his Broadway debut, and a book by Arthur Laurents. It is loosely based on the 1957 memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous striptease artist, her sister June who ultimately became the actress June Havoc and her mother, Rose, who is the focus.

Its songs are phenomenal with many becoming standards, such as “Let Me Entertain You,” “Some People,” “Small World,” “You’ll Never Get Away From Me,” “Together Wherever We Go,” “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” “Rose’s Turn,” and my favorite “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

The original Broadway production received eight Tony Award nominations in 1960 yet failed to cash in on the big prize. However, subsequent revivals did capture Tony’s in 1975, 1990 and 2008.

On top of the skilled musical performances and proficient acting in the Toby’s production of Gypsy you can add in the brilliantly colorful and varied costumes designed by Janine Sunday, the meticulous choreography by Mark Minnick, the solid music direction by Ross Scott Rawlings and the six-piece orchestra, the perfectly balanced sound design by Mark Smedley, and the creative lighting designed by Lynn Joslin. The overall staging of this production is excellent with numerous set pieces moving smoothly on and off the in-the-round stage with precision.

MaryKate Brouillet soars as Louise
Toby’s features an accomplished cast who demonstrate skill, poise, energy and loads of talent. And among them is a bona fide star, Cathy Mundy, playing the lead role of Rose, an archetypical aggressive and brash stage mother.

The story centers on thrice-married Rose pushing her two daughters, June and Louise, at all costs to perform on stage and become stars.  Rose, whose parents as well as her previous husbands had left her, lives vicariously through her daughters and is like a wrecking ball in dealing with promoters, agents and other performers during the declining years of vaudeville.

Baby June is the chosen one to become the star. Onstage she is a precocious blonde cutie-pie while her older sister Louise is shyer and more subdued as she takes the back seat to June. When they get a little older they tire of their mother’s hounding as well as show business, and eventually June runs off to marry a young man in one of the acts her mother created.  Despondent over this development, Rose’s only hope for stardom for her children remains with Louise who can’t see herself as an entertainer.

All the while Rose finds a love interest in Herbie, an agent who has tried to get the acts booked anywhere he can and tries to put up with Rose’s antics.

In a fortuitous development Rose pushes Louise to fill in as a striptease performer in a Wichita burlesque house after one of the strippers was arrested.  Under the advice from her co-strippers she finds a gimmick for her act and the rest, they say, is history. Louise transforms into the famous Gypsy Rose Lee and eschews further involvement from her mother. Rose contemplates what all has happened and acknowledges she did this all for herself.

The part of Rose is a demanding one with belt vocals a necessity. It is a strenuous role not only for the singing performances but also for the acting, and she appears onstage in a vast majority of the scenes.  

Some of the previous stars who performed this role on Broadway over the years include Ethel  Merman, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone.  I am not saying that Cathy Mundy is comparable to these Broadway superstars, but she is darn close. Her acting is top-notch; full of passion and conviction and portrays the loud, single-minded stage mother to the hilt.  She is called upon to navigate the complex character of Rose who is forceful and unbridled but at the same time one can detect a vulnerability from lacking something important in her life.

Cathy Mundy as the incomparable Rose
Ms. Mundy’s powerful vocals are also outstanding, especially in the beautiful ballad “Small World” as part of a duet with David Bosley-Reynolds as Herbie and in another duet “You’ll Never Get Away From Me.” She brought the house down with her rendition of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” that concludes the first act. Ms. Mundy also scores high marks in such numbers as “Some People” and in “Rose’s Turn,” an emotional introspection of her life with all the highs and the many lows. 

To their credit, Ms. Orenstein and Mr. Minnick allow Ms. Mundy to unleash the full potency of her character.  In short, if there is no other reason to see this production, see it for the tour de force performance by Ms. Mundy.

Yet, the rest of the talented cast provides additional reasons to see Gypsy at Toby’s. Lovely MaryKate Brouillet soars as Louise in terms of both acting and vocal skills.  Her rendition of “Little Lamb” is touching as she contemplates her being pushed aside by her mother in favor of June and the loneliness she is experiencing on her birthday with her pet lamb. Her “Gypsy Strip Routine” number is also performed well and is a pivotal part of the plot.

Tina Marie DeSimone, Elizabeth Rayca and Heather Beck perform
"You Gotta Get a Gimmick"
As kind hearted and patient Herbie who was poised to marry Rose, David Bosley-Reynolds remains reserved most of the time (especially in comparison to the hyper Rose) but demonstrates his exasperation towards the end as he leaves Rose still seeking a wife in his life. In addition to the aforementioned duets with Ms. Mundy, he also demonstrates his smooth baritone voice in the bouncy “Together Wherever We Go” with Ms. Mundy and Ms. Brouillet.

There isn’t as much dancing in this production as in some other Toby’s offerings, but what is performed is done so very proficiently under the guiding hand of Mark Minnick.  For example, the young children and Baby June morph seamlessly into adolescents as the older dancers replace the young ones in the dance number “Dainty June and Her Farmboys.”

Louisa Tringali, delightfully playing the role of Dainty June, the older version of Baby June, dances skillfully in the group number “Broadway” along with those Farmboys—a group in the act that Rose created. The Farmboys are played enthusiastically by Shiloh Orr, Justin Calhoun, AJ Whittenberger and James Mernin.

In one of the show’s highlights for me is Shiloh Orr’s showcasing his dancing skills in “All I Need is the Girl” whereby as the character Tulsa he informs Louise of his plan to break away from the Farmboys and form his own dance act.  In this number Orr sings and gracefully glides around the stage while holding a broom employing various dance techniques and steps with an emphasis on tap. It’s a nice demonstration of artistry.
Louisa Tringali and her "boys"--Shiloh Orr, James Mernin,
AJ Whittenberger and Justin Calhoun
Another outstanding scene involves Louise getting advice from three veteran strippers in the song “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” Tina Marie DeSimone, Elizabeth Rayce and an “electric” Heather Beck elicit a huge ovation with tons of laughs during this number.

Other cast members who perform notably include Jeffrey Shankle, Russell Sunday, Robert Biedermann, David James, Coby Kay Callahan, Maggie Dransfield, Amanda Kaplan and Santina Maiolatesi. Oh, and a bark-out to Dudley Foley, a pooch who appears in the early part of the show.

As far as the young children in the cast are concerned, on the evening this performance was reviewed, Nina Brothers as Baby June and Maddie Ellinghaus as Baby Louise performed admirably as did the child’s ensemble consisting of Cooper Trump, Jackson Smith, Hannah Dash.

Gypsy is a must-see show, which offers the complete package: a wonderful score and lyrics and a compelling dramatic storyline with an infusion of comedy that weaves in the music to form a gorgeous tapestry of entertainment.  A talented cast and crew do justice to this iconic musical and you will enjoy Toby’s famously delicious buffet as well.

Toby’s superb production of Gypsy will most certainly entertain you and you’ll have a real good time.

Running time. Two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission.

Gypsy runs through March 17 at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311 or visiting online .

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography