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Articles by Jim Reiter

The formula for the chemistry of commitment

     I Do! I Do! has been done over and over in community theaters, repertory theaters, dinner theaters and church basements since it closed on Broadway in 1968. One reason is that its two-person cast and simple single set of a four-poster bed make it far easier and less expensive to mount than the typical big-cast-and-chorus musical, thus very attractive to those looking to bring in an audience at relatively little cost.
    That’s not the only reason. The material was lightweight even for the 1960s, and the score produced only one recognizable hit. Yet both bring so much humor and empathy that anyone who is, has been or will be married can identify with Agnes and Michael Snow. It is their union the show follows for some 50 years from the honeymoon night all the way through to the sale of the house they lived in, loved in, argued in, raised kids in and sang to each other in for all those decades. It was written to begin in 1895 and end in 1945.
    Infinity’s production, tightly directed by Tina Marie Casamento and starring Daniella Dalli and Craig Laurie, takes a more modern setting, starting in the late 1950s and ending in the current day. The story is timeless enough that the change is barely noticeable.
    On Broadway, I Do! I Do! was a hit because the personalities and chemistry of stars Mary Martin and Robert Preston raised the level of the material. Infinity’s production is likely to be very popular for the same reason. Both Dalli and Laurie have personality plus, and their vocal chemistry elevates a score that was never one of Broadway’s more popular. Together, they turn the show’s hit, “My Cup Runneth Over,” a pop smash for big-baritone-voiced Ed Ames, into a more real-life paean to growing old together.
    The chemistry between Dalli and Laurie doesn’t stop with their vocals. As wide-eyed young love dims with the passing of the years — and the giggling embarrassment of the honeymoon night gives way to the inevitable vocal sparring of two people wondering years later whether they are where and with whom they want to be — both of these New York actors display an empathy for their characters and each other that remains strong throughout the rises and falls of a long marriage. That arc — from love to frustration to anger to cheating to loneliness and back — is one we’ve all seen on stage and film time and time again. Still, these actors know how to deliver a vocal quip and a physical take in ways that make it all seem fresh. Through it all, they never lose sight of the depth of feeling that must anchor each of these moments, just as it anchors the ups and downs of any long-term relationship.
    Dalli takes Agnes through the decades with a charming and knowing subtlety, gradually aging in body and blooming in attitude but never varying from the personality that makes her the anchor of this production. Her beautiful, rich soprano is the perfect vehicle to carry the emotional ups and downs of Agnes’ songs.
    Laurie is more of a character actor than a leading man à la Robert Preston, so we get a Michael who is a bit broader than one might expect. Laurie pulls it off because of that chemistry with Dalli, because he connects with the audience in a way many actors can’t and because, through it all, he never loses touch with that aforementioned depth.
    Music director David Libby keeps it simple, with pianist Paul Campbell playing a single keyboard in accompaniment because, frankly, that’s all two people singing a nice, relatively simple score really need. A single live keyboard played well is almost always more emotionally satisfying and effective than a recorded and digitized orchestra.
    That simple set with the four-poster bed? Turns out it’s not so simple. Being a professional theater company, Infinity knows how to get the most out of a set, and does so with this one. What appears to be just a big headboard, for example, turns into everything from the altar of a church to a quilt of lights mimicking Agnes’ and Michael’s raised voices in the same ritual married couples everywhere have engaged in since time began: talking past each other from opposite sides of the house.
    It is this, and so much more of ourselves, our parents and our married friends, that we recognize in I Do! I Do! The play is a salute to the institution of marriage, and Infinity carries on the tradition delightfully.


Scenic designer Paul Tate DePoo III; Sound designer Wes Shippee; Stage manager Geoffrey Weiss; Costume designer Tristan Raines; Lighting designer Jimmy Lawlor.

About 2 hours and 15 minutes including intermission. Runs through August 3: Thursdays at 2pm and 7pm; Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 2pm; added performances on Wednesday, July 23 at 7pm and Friday, August 1 at 8pm. Advance tickets $35, $40 at the door (seniors $34/$29): call 877-501-8499 or visit www.infinitytheatrecompany.com

That was pretty cool!

Rock musical and Andrew Jackson make a logical theatrical fit when you think about it: arrows cutting people down in mid-sentence; the scandal of marrying a married woman; a “people’s president” who strengthens the power of his office — yet sparks the creation of the Democratic party while crafting his image to get what he wants. There’s a lot of stage-worthy material to be mined from the life of our seventh president, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson reaches deep. What emerges is a loud, profane, politically incorrect, funny and raucous show that offers daunting challenges to any company daring to stage it.
    The Theatre at Anne Arundel Community College surmounts most of those challenges, offering a lively and enjoyable production overall. One big plus: A talented and tight rock combo nestled upstage. They adeptly accompany screaming rock and quiet ballads. I’d love to credit them but, curiously, their names do not appear in the program. 
    As Andrew Jackson, Vincent Capuano plays at both ends of the hit-and-miss spectrum. He has a commanding stage presence, a good voice and knows his subject, both as history and as written by the playwrights. But he misses a few of the screamin’ rock ‘n’ roll high notes early on, though his voice warmed up as the show progressed.
    In Act II of this second night of the run, he carried a script. There are a lot of legitimate reasons that can happen — usually an actor has taken on a role late in production after another actor leaves. No explanation was offered, so there will be no judgment here. But those paying $20 a ticket may have done some judging. To his credit, Capuano didn’t seem to miss a beat. Here’s hoping the break between weekends eliminates the on-stage book because Capuano’s talent deserves to be unleashed in this role.
    Jennie Woods excels as Rachel Jackson, Andrew’s wife. Her comic timing is sharp, and she is equally adept at drama. Her pleasant voice is perfectly matched to her songs, which is another way of saying she is so talented she makes them her own. Rachel grounds her rock star husband. Woods likewise gives substance to this production, adding heart to the zaniness.
    The rest of the cast commits to each role, often playing several. They have a blast doing it, yet director Dr. Lars Tatom’s guidance has set clear parameters so that they resist the temptation to go too far in a very over-the-top show. That makes it a lot easier for the audience to go along for the ride.
    What isn’t easy on the audience is, too often, the sound. By definition, a rock musical is going to be loud, and there are times when the college sound system and acoustics, clearly not built for such volume, erupt into painful distortion. When the entire chorus gets going, with all those body mikes fighting for radio frequency, the din often drowns the words. 
    When’s the last time you went to a rock concert and heard all the words? Still had fun, didn’t you?
    That’s how to approach Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. It’s a fun show, performed by a talented cast. Like any rock concert it has its hits and misses. But you walk out, ears ringing, saying that was pretty cool.

Director and producer: Lars Tatom. Music director: Aaron Smith. Choreographer: Tommy Parlon. Stage manager: Brittany Adams.

Playing April 17-19, ThFSa 8pm at Kauffman Theatre, Anne Arundel Community College, Arnold. $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410 777-2457; boxoffice@aacc.edu.

See it, and Shakespeare lives

Shakespeare’s plays are still being performed 400 years after they were created because they were brilliantly written but also because their themes are timeless.
    Not every theater company that takes on Shakespeare can live up to the Bard’s talent and intent, moving beyond the page to vitalize his characters, prose and situations. But when Shakespeare is done well, his stories jump off the page and into our consciousness, demanding our attention and forcing us not just to understand but also to feel what his characters are feeling, and why.
    So it is with Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet. Beautifully realized, stylistically and brilliantly transposed into the current day, this Hamlet is a tour de force, a masterwork for the company. Director and set and sound designer Sally Boyett, the company’s producing artistic director, has earned a reputation for her economical yet transformative use of the Bowie Playhouse stage. This production furthers that reputation. From the huge gilded frames that hang from a dark sky to the sacrifice of a few house seats in favor of a platform that thrusts the actors almost halfway into the audience, this is an impressively aesthetic production.
    Boyett’s haunting and ethereal sound and Paul Collins’ often eerie lighting accompany our journey through Hamlet’s madness and his thirst for revenge. Maggie Cason’s costumes, mostly muted grays but with a touch of blood-red seemingly everywhere, remind us that madness, revenge and betrayal are not only to be found in Shakespeare’s time.
    Of course, none of this matters if the acting and direction do not achieve the same standards, and here both are surpassing. Every one of our community theater actors and directors would benefit from attending at least one of Annapolis Shakespeare’s productions, especially this one, because the dedication and commitment to character, to dialect, to pacing and to clarity are unsurpassed.
    Manu Kumasi’s Hamlet is stellar, the fire and humor coming not just from the staccato delivery of his lines but blasting from his every pore. His physicality seems to envelop the theater, especially when he ascends to the end of that aforementioned platform and with sheer passion imposes his world onto ours, his fiery eyes just feet away from ours, boring directly into us and gripping us with his madness.
    Likewise, Audrey Bertaux brings us an Ophelia whose own tragic fall into madness could have been over the top in less capable hands. Instead, we are drawn into the character’s decline and feel pity for the way Hamlet projects his anger toward his mother onto her.
    Nafeesa Monroe as Gertrude and Paul Edward Hope as Claudius lead the rest of the company, several of whom very effectively play multiple roles. From Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Horatio to Polonius and all the rest you read about in school, this is Shakespeare at his best, flying off the pages and brought to life in a production whose superlative whole is far greater than the sum of its very excellent parts.

Producer: Kristen Clippard. Stage manager: Monica Jones. Dialect coach: Nancy Krebs.
Playing thru April 13. Th 7pm, F 8pm, Sa 2pm & 8pm, Su 3pm at the Bowie Playhouse, White Marsh Park Park. $24/$20: 410-415-3513; www.annapolisshakespeare.org.

The playwrights did it.

The theater darkens. Ominous, deep, suspenseful music oozes around us. Shadows rise. A hooded figure attacks. Bowie Community Theater’s latest, Dark Passages, begins.
    A good whodunit requires tight writing, staging and pacing, all to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
    In this modern take on the murder suspense mystery, the cast works hard to rise above a script that gives us little more than we’ve already seen in movies, plays and episodes of Castle.
    Playwrights Shannon Michael Dow, Jan Henson Dow and Robert Schroeder have put together a script that is sometimes funny, sometimes involving. But its constant and obvious efforts to keep us guessing about whodunit ironically sap the play of the suspense that ought to be at its core.
    Are we on the edge of our seats? No. Are we curious? Yes, about whodunit of course, but also about why a script set in the present day of voice mail and texts relies on an early-1990s’ era cassette tape telephone answering machine as a plot point. Or why the choice was made to hang a working clock on the wall to remind us of the real time — around 8:30pm, for example, when the program tells us the scene we’re watching is set on “a weekday afternoon.”
    Quibbles aside, Bowie Community Theater’s production provides us an entertaining evening, with some compelling characters and some clever, two-level staging that allows the action to flow effectively.
    Set in an upstate New York college town, the mystery begins when several young women go missing. We are introduced to Sandy (Chrisshall Daniel), a graduate assistant to professor Mark (Pat Reynolds). Sandy is first to be taken away, in the dark of her apartment by a black-hooded intruder. Mark’s girlfriend Bret (Amanda Magoffin) moves into the vacated apartment run by creepy landlord Harold (Scott Beadle). Across the hall is neighbor Eric (Matt Leyendecker), whose loud banging is explained away as him working on his art, though the box he moves it in is roughly the size of a coffin.
    We also meet oversexed Gillian (Lenora Spahn), a friend of Bret’s just back from Europe and looking at males like a dog in heat. Will she be next? Will Bret? Detective Russell (James McDaniel) is there to investigate. Or is he?
    Meanwhile, Bret and Mark are having their problems. It turns out the professor was having an affair with the missing Sandy. Eric rejects Gillian’s advances. More ominous music, another attack … another woman goes missing. The plot turns again. 
    Whodunit is revealed at the end, of course, after several more twists. The likeable cast has turned in a solid performance. We rise, not from the edge of our seats but from deep within, that ominous music serenading us as we exit, wondering how this talented group might have fared with a script that asks more of them and us.

Directed by John Nunemaker. Producer: Taylor Kidd. Stage manager: Bernadette Arvidson. Sound designer: Dan Caughran. Set designer: Gerard Williams. Lighting designer: Garrett Hyde.

Playing thru March 16. FSa 8pm, Su 2pm at White Marsh Playhouse, Bowie. $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 301-805-0219; www.bctheatre.com.

Bad Dates is a good night out

In theater terms, when an actor talks directly to the audience, it’s known as breaking the fourth wall. When Janet Luby does it in Bay Theatre Company’s latest, she’s not so much breaking a wall as she is opening a door. Through that door we join her as she shares her life, her attempts at love and a lot of laughs.
    Bad Dates is a one-woman show written by playwright, screenwriter and novelist Theresa Rebeck about Haley Walker, a 40-something single mom and restaurant manager in New York who is jumping back into the dating pool. Her first love, besides her unseen 13-year-old daughter Vera, seems to be shoes, as the four closets filled with them in the nicely rendered set attest. Keeping up a constant chatter as she models several pairs and several outfits, Luby engages us stream-of-consciousness about Haley’s failed marriage, her job, her daughter, her shoes and her frustrating, funny and sometimes heartbreaking dates.
    Luby has a knack for this type of theater, having been so effective a couple of years ago in Becky’s New Car as the bored and tempted wife who seeks understanding from the audience. Her charm, timing and physicality keep things moving through the 90-minute performance (plus a 15-minute intermission), even rising above the script’s brief but uncharacteristic dip into the maudlin after a particularly promising beau proves a no-show. Luby is such a strong actress that we also get evocative and quite funny caricatures of the other people who inhabit her life, from the gay law professor to the bug guy to the Romanian Mafioso who owns her restaurant. A one-woman show, yes, with so many personalities.
    As director Richard Pilcher puts it in his program notes, Bad Dates is not a chick play. It’s funny, it rings true and it certainly comes from a woman’s point of view. But in Luby’s capable hands, it’s a story that both sexes will enjoy. If my car is any indication, it will also generate quite the drive-home conversation.

Set designer: Ken Sheats. Costumer: Maggie Masson. Lighting designer/state manager: Eric Lund. Props: JoAnn and Mike Gidos. Sound design: Natalie Pilcher.
Thru Jan. 26. FSa 7:30pm; Su 2 pm at Chesapeake Arts Center, Brooklyn Park: $24+ $4 surcharge; rsvp: www.chesapeakearts.org.

Come to feel, think and applaud

Many theater companies are neither willing nor able to move from a bubbly musical directly into a disturbing death-row drama based on real life. Colonial Players is the exception, following November’s Annie with Coyote on a Fence.
    Coyote on a Fence is what Colonial calls an “arc” show, more challenging than usual and typically appealing to a smaller arc of patrons. Opening night proved that this production is deserving of larger, not smaller, audiences.
    Bruce Graham’s play focuses on long-time death row inmate John Brennan, the middle-aged editor of the prison newspaper who writes obituaries of each inmate put to death. Brennan is a fervent but deluded believer in his own innocence. Most on death row say they, too, are innocent.
    Except Bobby Reyburn. A late-20s, anti-Semite racist who gets the cell next to Brennan after burning down an African American church and killing 37 people, Reyburn says he was called to his work by God and was spoon-fed hate by a trusted uncle.
    The interplay between Bobby, who welcomes his execution, and John, who has exhausted every legal avenue on the way to his, demands two actors who not only commit to their characters but are consistent in their interpretations even as their characters hit sharply emotional highs and lows. Thom Sinn as John and Eddie Hall as Bobby meet that demand. A lesser actor might have allowed the histrionic Bobby to become a caricature, but Hall, under the capable direction of Colonial veteran Edd Miller, never does so. He and Sinn together take the audience on a journey that makes us care about them despite their violent pasts.
    Prison guard Shawna (an earthy Kecia Campbell) keeps a close eye on things. But outside the prison, she meets an unseen reporter in a series of monologues. Among her topics are how she feels safer on the inside among convicted killers than in the real world. Shawna’s final monologue is a heartbreaker.
    Another reporter works his way into Brennan’s confidence. Nicely underplayed by Jeff Sprague, Sam Fried’s condescension and conflict over the death penalty are no match for Brennan’s passion.
    Miller is one of the few directors who successfully uses Colonial’s in-the-round space. His set design puts all the action on the floor in front of us, avoiding the annoying neck craning too often required to watch scenes in the theater’s corners. The two cells abut, with an outside recreation area marked by a stark wire fence and a small area representing Shawna’s bar.
    Adding to the stark aura is Carl Andreasen’s and Theresa Riffle’s haunting sound design, a near-constant drone of background voices occasionally interrupted by the scream of an inmate or the physical shock and loud finality of a metal prison door trapping us all.
    Frank Florentine’s tight lighting evokes the sterility of the place, from harsh lights dimming upon an execution to the eerie green illuminating the empty cell of the newly executed.
    Coyote is the 14th show Miller has directed at Colonial. His Going to St. Ives was awarded best play and best director in the coveted Washington Area Theater Community Awards in 2012. Coyote on a Fence is likely to attract the same consideration.
    Warning: Save the pre-show cocktails for post. The play runs one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission.

Playing thru Jan. 25 ThFSa 8pm & Su Jan. 19, 2 & 7:30pm at 108 East St., Annapolis. $20 w/discounts: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.

A show of fun and fashion delights kids and the adults who bring them

Infinity Theatre — which has gained a solid reputation for bringing New York talent to the Annapolis stage — gives young audiences as well as adults a taste of professional theater.
    Infinity’s production of The Emperor’s New Clothes is a delight; you know it’s a winner when the parents and grandparents cheer and clap as enthusiastically as the kids they’ve accompanied.
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Farewell, Dignity Players

Less is more.    
    For nine years, Dignity Players proved it. The focus of this unique volunteer theater company was not on complex sets, colorful costumes, tricky lighting and sound effects. It couldn’t be, because for Dignity those things didn’t exist. All that existed was the small, bare stage at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis.
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