Featured Post

Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Classic ‘Funny Girl’ Triumphs at the Hippodrome

Katerina McCrimmon as Fanny Brice and
Stephen Mark Lukas as Nick Arnstein

Ah, it’s so refreshing to enjoy good old-time theatre. And with the classic Funny Girl, whose revival is touring the U.S., we are fortunate to have a splendid production making a visit at Baltimore Hippodrome’s Theatre.

Under the direction of Michael Mayer, the outstanding performances, fantastic scenery, rich period costumes, brilliant illumination and wonderful music offer an old-time theatrical feel and charm representing the 1920’s but with a modern glow.

Funny Girl is a loose biographical portrayal of dynamic entertainer Fanny Brice in the nascent days of musical theatre during the early 20th century. It chronicles her start in show business and how she defied the estimation from family and friends that she is not sufficiently beautiful to appear on stage.

But feisty Fanny, from Henry Street in New York’s lower east side, would have none of that. She knew she has the talent—singing, comedy, dancing—and through sheer determination, ambition and a little help from her eventual husband, professional gambler Nick Arnstein, she ultimately became a star in the famous Ziegfeld Follies.

Fanny’s marriage with Arnstein, which produced a daughter, had its ups and downs like many marriages. But their careers, especially his frequent “business” trips and ensuing legal troubles, kept getting in the way and sadly could not endure the challenges that they faced despite their professed love for one another.

The first act frenetically describes how Fanny overcame the doubters and began her rise to stardom.
The second act, somewhat slower and sadder, examines the complexities of her marriage to Arnstein and how it affected her own values and the marriage’s impact on her mother, friends and associates.

Funny Girl whose score was by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, and book by Isobel Lennart opened on Broadway in 1964 and launched the career of superstar Barbra Streisand in the title role. The show received eight Tony nominations for that year but had the misfortune of going up against musical juggernaut Hello, Dolly! and didn’t take home a statue. Nonetheless, Funny Girl appealed to audiences all over and a film version was introduced in 1968 with Streisand as the lead with Omar Sharif.

Nearly six decades later, the show was revived in 2022, and Harvey Fierstein (Kinky Boots, Newsies) modified the book for the Broadway revival.

"...an old-time theatrical feel and charm representing the 1920’s but with a modern glow."

Styne’s score is solid with two songs that are indisputable classics: “People” whereby Fanny Brice expresses her loneliness and desire to live a normal life and “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” an inspiring anthem to independence.

Both of these numbers as well as a host of others are performed by an emerging charismatic star, Katerina McCrimmon, who is commanding in the lead role. One should never compare anyone to a superstar like Streisand. It just cannot and should not be done. Streisand’s simply untouchable.

However, Ms. McCrimmon’s zesty performance, her immaculate vocals and endearing personality conjures up unavoidable memories of Streisand. Diminutive in stature, I can only marvel how Ms. McCrimmon’s voice can hold up during the 140-minute show. Not only is she involved in most of the musical numbers with many of them strenuous, but her dialogue also requires a good deal of shouting or “hollering” as Fanny’s mother (Eileen T’Kaye substituting for popular singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester on the night this show was reviewed) puts it.

Perhaps there was a bit too much shouting as her voice becomes shrill at times. But Fanny Brice was known to have a booming voice. She was Ethel Merman before there ever was an Ethel Merman, so it was realistic.

Ms. McCrimmon’s mezzo-soprano vocals are pure and powerful. Aside from the two iconic songs mentioned previously, she shines in “Who Are You Now?”and “I’m the Greatest Star” among other solos as well as in duets with Stephen Mark Lukas who plays Nick Arnstein, such as “I Want To Be Seen With You”.

Besides her vocal prowess, Ms. McCrimmon’s comedic dialogue and quips bring much joy to the production. Her acting skills are on full display whereby she has those funny moments but can also be convincingly tender during her exchanges with Arnstein. I have no doubt you will hear more about the ultra-talented Katerina McCrimmon in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Hello gorgeous! As Nick Arnstein, Stephen Mark Lukas convincingly plays the role of the suave, sophisticated gambler and schemer. Possessing a muscular baritone voice that matches his muscular pecs, which he flashes all too briefly early in the second act, he shines in duets with Ms. McCrimmon in “I Want To Be Seen With You” and “You Are Woman, I Am Man”.  Mr. Lukas also sings proficiently in the ballad “You’re a Funny Girl.”

It was a pity to have missed Melissa Manchester for this performance, but her stand-in, Eileen T’Kaye as Mrs. Brice is fantastic. Quick-witted, strong and supportive, Fanny’s mother is a hoot. Their exchanges are priceless and perfectly timed, and both actors appear to relish their roles with their onstage chemistry being very strong. Ms. T’Kaye sings well in a group number “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty” and in a duet with Ms. McCrimmon in the reprise of “I’m The Greatest Star” and with Izaiah Montaque Harris who plays Fanny’s good friend Eddie Ryan in “Who Taught Hr Everything She Knows?”.

I’m told that Ms. Manchester will be appearing in subsequent performances.

As the aforementioned singer-dancer Eddie, Mr. Harris excels as the supportive and loyal friend of Fanny. However, his tap-dancing skills are of show-stopping quality. He puts those formidable moves on display at various points in the show and are breathtaking under the tap choreography of Ayodele Casel.

Other notable performers include Walter Coppage as the authoritative, no-nonsense Florenz Ziegfeld; Christine Bunuan as Mrs. Strakosh who is Mrs. Brice’s pushy and comedic friend; Hannah Shankman as Mrs. Meeker; and David Foley, Jr. as the gruff producer Tom Keeney. The remainder of the talented cast and ensemble ably support the lead performers through vocals and dancing.

Scenic Designer David Zinn created an excellent set for the production. The use of varied lighting combinations (designed by Kevin Adams for the proscenium stage) amplifies the visuals. Scenes change flawlessly and efficiently behind a drop-down curtain that include the backstage at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York to an elegant restaurant in Baltimore to an apartment among other locales.  The staging is well-coordinated and smooth.

Period costumes designed by Susan Hilferty are colorful and eye-catching and add authenticity to the musical’s timeframe.

The sound designed by Brian Ronan and Cody Spencer is well balanced, and the orchestra led by Elaine Davidson ably brings the wonderful score to life.

All the elements come together beautifully in this triumphant production. There will be laughter and there will be tears, and you will witness the emergence of a budding star in this classic in which tickets remain available.

To paraphrase the song, people who will get to see Funny Girl are the luckiest people in the world.

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

Funny Girl runs through October 29 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

Photos: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Saturday, October 07, 2023

‘SpongeBob’ is Awash in Optimism at Silhouette Stages

f there was any question that the setting of The SpongeBob Musical now playing at Silhouette Stages takes place in a town called Bikini Bottom deep below the sea, here are some clues. The names of some of the characters include Sheldon Plankton, Squidward Q. Tentacles, Perch Perkins, Mr. Krabs, Larry the Lobster, and SpongeBob. Add those names to the sea-themed set designed by Bill Pond and the projections led by Todd Hochkeppel, the audience is called upon to imagine this undersea town and the goofy characters that inhabit it.

Under the polished direction of Debbie Mobley and Robyn Yakaitis, the exuberant and talented cast entertains with explosive energy and helps deliver a message of optimism, inclusion and coming together as a community in this eye-pleasing, colorful, fantasy romp. Powerful vocals, precise dancing and well-delivered comedic lines highlight the show that employs a large array of props and set pieces, which are becoming the norm at recent Silhouette Stages productions.

The SpongeBob Musical is an adaptation of Nickelodeon’s long-running animated children’s sitcom SpongeBob SquarePants created by Stephen Hillenberg. It features a book by Kyle Jarrow, with an eclectic array of original songs by Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alexander Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady A, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants and T.I., and songs by David Bowie, Tom Kenny and Andy Paley. Each song in the musical is composed by a different artist.

Additional lyrics are by Jonathan Coulton, with other music by Tom Kitt. The musical production was conceived by Tina Landau and received 12 Tony Award nominations in 2018 including Best Musical.

"...the exuberant and talented cast entertains with explosive energy..."

The zany, campy story centers on an impending eruption from nearby Mount Humongous that threatens to decimate the town and its colorful inhabitants within 48 hours. A perennially sunny and optimistic pineapple-dwelling sea sponge named SpongeBob (played zestfully by Matt Wetzel) sets out to save the town and prove he is not “just a simple sponge” as he was accused of being by miserly Mr. Krabs (Robert Howard), manager of the Krusty Krab restaurant.

With his BFF Patrick Star (Geraden Ward) and Sandy (Summer Moore)—a land mammal squirrel with scientific knowledge and who had been marginalized by the townsfolk in tow—SpongeBob attempts to climb Mount Humongous to intervene and prevent the seemingly inevitable eruption.

They endeavor to overcome their own lack of self-esteem and confidence as well as a pair of
antagonists, Sheldon Plankton (Adam Goldsmith) and his wife Karen (Jessica Long ) who want to thwart the effort. In the rather predictable conclusion, all works out despite the obstacles.

When I saw Sondheim on Sondheim recently at Silhouette Stages, I was impressed by Matt Wetzel who

Matt Wetzel

performed well in the show. But his tour de force as the title character in SpongeBob has taken him to a new level.

Though diminutive in stature, Mr. Wetzel has a big voice—and not just a big voice but a strong one. Throughout the production, I was worried that because of the many songs he participates in and the shouting he is called upon in the dialogue that his voice wouldn’t hold up. Happily, it remained robust through the end.

He literally bursts on the stage with energy that only Mount Humongous could hold. His role is physical with a lot of dancing and movements all over while his acting skills excel in portraying the cheery, carefree character.  He even tosses in a well-executed cartwheel for good measure.

Mr. Wetzel performs in many of the show’s songs with other members of the cast and stands out in the solos “Bikini Bottom Day” and the excellent “(Just a) Simple Sponge.” He is also wonderful in the snappy group number “Best Day Ever.”

As SpongeBob’s best friend Patrick, Geraden Ward brings their own set of talents to the fore. Geraden is also a competent vocalist as evident in the duet “BFF” and the outstanding group number “Super Sea-Star Savior” with a bunch of sardines, no less, which has a revival feel.

Patrick, a starfish, is kind of dim-witted. Yet, some of the Bikini Bottom residents including those sardines clad in pink and green costumes think Patrick is a genius and made him a guru of some sort, which threatened the BFF status with SpongeBob. Spoiler alert: they do reconcile and join forces to conquer Mt. Humongous. Geraden adeptly portrays that comedic character.

As the denigrated scientist-squirrel Sandy, Summer Moore is excellent. She came up with the invention, “the eruption interrupter” that was counted on to stem the eruption and eventual doom. Her lovely singing voice is on display in “Hero Is My Middle Name” with Mr. Wetzel and Mr. Ward and the duet “Chop to the Top” with Mr. Wetzel.

Seth Fallon as Squidward and his sea anemone chorus line

Seth Fallon deliciously plays the 4-legged octopus (yes, there are 4 legs) Squidward Q. Tentacles—my favorite name in the show. Constantly reminded of being a loser, Squidward is determined to overcome the label.

Mr. Fallon excels in the song “I’m Not a Loser,” a superb tap-dancing number with the company. Tap dancing is quite a skill to possess; dancing with 4 legs is definitely a challenge and Mr. Fallon pulls it off splendidly. In addition, his facial expressions and flamboyant demeanor throughout are worth the price of admission.

Robert Howard plays greedy Mr. Krabs, the manager of the Krusty Krab, with flair. Mr. Howard performs well with Leah Freeman who plays the role of Mr. Krabs’ daughter Pearl in the duet “Daddy Knows Best.”

Other notable members of the amazing cast include Adam Goldsmith and Jessica Long as the villains Sheldon Plankton and Karen, respectively; Don Lampasone as the comedic Patchy the Pirate;  Mica Weiss as campy Perch Perkins who performed as a newscaster counting down the time of the impending volcano eruption; Debbi Watts as the Mayor of Bikini Bottom who loves to create a multitude of task forces to analyze problems; Nick Yarnevich as Larry the Lobster; John Sheldon as Old Man Jenkins who demands that these creatures get off his lawn; and Forest Roca as Gary.

The Electric Skates is comprised of Shaelyn Betances, Kelsey McDaniel and Samantha Sheldon. The remainder of the Ensemble include Angela Cava, Katelyn Dixon, Bethany Jani, Al Norman, Tori Worth and Angie Townsend.

Music Director Mari Hill and the six-piece orchestra do a fine job with the score. Tori Worth’s choreography is spot-on with the tap-dancing number “I’m Not a Loser” as a standout. The cast execute the moves proficiently.

Mica Weiss designed the eclectic, colorful costumes. Since SpongeBob Square Pants is a cartoon, the imaginatively created costumes are suitably bright with pastels splashed all over them. Many of the costumes are intricate and eye-popping and add much to the spectacle. There are lots of pinks and greens as well as aqua shades and yellow. And yes, SpongeBob had little square patterns on his pants.

TJ Lukacsina’s lighting design adds much to the optics, and sound designers Ethan Hogarty and Alex Porter keep the performers audible without being overwhelmed by the orchestration.

The SpongeBob Musical is a solid show throughout highlighted by an outstanding lead performer Matt Wetzel and a talented cast and crew. Under Debbie Mobley and Robyn Yakaitis’ direction, the production moves smoothly and meticulously and brings all the elements together in a cohesive manner.

You may be up to your gills in sea and fish references, but it’s a lot of fun. Adults will enjoy the quality of the entertainment, the music and the messaging contained therein; children will absolutely love it and swallow it—hook, line and sinker.  

Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

The SpongeBob Musical plays on weekends through October 22 at the Slayton House Theatre, 10400 Cross Fox Ln, Columbia, MD 21044. For tickets, call 410-730-3987 visit online

Photos: Stasia Steuart Photography