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April 4 - 20, 2008
Zombie Prom
Reviewed April 5 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:40 - one intermission
A bright, tuneful and genuinely funny musical comedy
 

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Lots of people have a good time during this up-tempo spoof of teenage horror movies that were the rage during the drive-in movie era. The people in the audience have a great time, in part because it is clear that the people on stage are having a ball. The cast of ten delivers this confection as if they really love the material and want the audience to fall under its spell as well. With a simple (but effective) set, efficient lighting and a costume design that is as witty and clever as the script, the entire package delivers a short, highly charged evening. The leads are Kelly Garland, making her theater debut, and Kyle VanZandt who doesn't seem to have a bashful bone in his body. So often in community theater there is a certain reticence, a reluctance to really let go. Not so with VanZandt. He throws himself into the role. He has a good, but not well trained voice, and belts out his big notes. Some of the time, however, it is the energy and sincerity of the delivery that makes them so much fun, not any strict conformance with the key structure. Garland holds the stage comfortably and delivers her songs with style. Together, they make an appealing couple, and it is refreshing to see a musical about teenagers in love played by people who look like teenagers rather than twenty-somethings trying to pass as youngsters.

Storyline: In the age of black leather jackets and poodle skirts, the students at Enrico Fermi High are excited about the upcoming prom ("an evening of miracles and molecules") when pretty Toffee and handsome Jonny (who spells his name without the traditional "h") fall in love. Her parents and the school principal insist they break up and Jonny kills himself by throwing himself into the main waste treatment silo of the Francis Gary Powers Nuclear Plant. He comes back to life, however, as a teenage nuclear zombie and wants to take up with Toffee again and pursue his diploma. When the school principal bans him from the prom, the rights of the undead become a hot political issue.

Before Dana P. Rowe and John Dempsey wrote the musicals The Fix and The Witches of Eastwick, they collaborated on this musical spoof. The score isn't "sung through" in the manner of  the Les MisÚrables / The Phantom of the Opera mega-musicals that often trudge through minimally melodic recitative. It is, however, almost all singing. What is more, almost all of the story and most of the character development is delivered in song. The key here may be the fact that both book and lyrics are by the same man, John Dempsey, and he clearly is comfortable telling his story in the kind of rhymed couplets that Dana Rowe can set to infectious tunes. He certainly isn't afraid to reach for a wild pun or stretch to set up a great sight gag with a descriptive lyric. Both collaborators have turned out material that is a great deal of fun.

Because so much of the story is told through the score, the rhythm and pace of the entire production is dictated by what Dempsey and Rowe wrote, leaving the director little choice but to have his cast go with their flow. First, however, the director needs to attract a talented cast and then he has to get them to trust their material and feel comfortable giving it a full-out delivery. Director Jason Wilson has done just that, and with the help of inventive work by choreographer Elizabeth Fette, who gives the cast moves that use their skills without exceeding their abilities, the troupe performs with pizzazz.

Rick Robertson throws himself into the role of a gossip reporter with so much conviction that he seems like a role model for the younger cast members. Of course, with the raspberry shirt and orange tie under a silver suit that Margo Harvey provided, anyone would stand out. Kristen Zwobot doesn't quite get all the mileage out of the role of the dictatorial school principal, but she carries her part of the plot along without a dip in the energy of the production. All six of the supporting ensemble are good as well. Music director Michael Tan gets everyone to concentrate on their enunciation so all the material Dempsey implants in his lyrics can be understood and appreciated.

Music by Dana P. Rowe. Book and Lyrics by John Dempsey. Directed by Jason Wilson. Choreography by Elizabeth Feete. Musical direction by Michael Tan. Design: Jared Davis (set) Margo Harvey (costumes) Alex Zavistovich (makeup) Michelle Harmon (properties) Lauren Kolstad (lights) Denise Bailey (photography). Cast: Sara Collison, Kelly Garland, Andrew Lamb, Chris Marino, Dan McQuay, Erica Reinsch, Rick Robertson, Robin Samek, Kyle VanZandt, Kristen Zwobot.

 

'Little Princess' is a royal success

Special to The Sun
Originally published April 27, 2007
With its production of A Little Princess at Chesapeake Arts Center Studio Theatre, Merely Players continues its tradition of bringing together intergenerational casts and behind-the-scenes youths and parents to provide high-quality theater.

The show, which I believe is new to our area, is based on the children's story by Frances Hodgson Burnett. John Vreeke adapted A Little Princess for the stage with music by Will Severin and George David Weiss.
 
 
Burnett, who also wrote Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Lost Prince and The Secret Garden, was adept at adding romance to her characters' difficult lives to create uplifting stories.

The title character of this musical is Sara Crewe, who moves from the privileged status of having her own private quarters provided by her military father at a prestigious all-girls boarding school to sharing an attic room with other maids after her father is killed in the war.

"Sara's story has relevance today wherever children are displaced or orphaned," director Beverly van Joolen says. "Like Sara, children in Iraq, America and the United Kingdom are suffering horrendous losses, and their numbers are growing every day."

Sara survives by believing in dreams, finding enchantment and mystery through the Indian valet who moves in next door and encourages her to believe in magic and the power of love.

In this Merely Players production, every detail gets attention, including having young cast members charmingly dressed in Victorian costumes greet arriving theatergoers.

Van Joolen has assembled a 44-member cast, including only a few adults. These young people are well-rehearsed and deliver polished performances. In the leading role of Sara Crewe, Christina Bartone, 13, is believable, and she sings well. Bronwyn van Joolen as Ermengarde, Addie Binstock as Becky and Caroline Nyce as Lavinia also are top-notch.

Among the adults, Michelle Harmon, who plays Indian valet Ram Dass, has an arresting stage presence and one of the best singing voices on stage. Mason Holloway is convincing as Sara's father, Captain Crewe. Michelle Studnicky is excellent as mean Miss Minchin, and Victoria Dawn Raddin is impressive throughout and especially so in her rebellious scene as Miss Amelia. Vince van Joolen adds warmth and deep-felt emotion as Mr. Carrisford, who becomes Sara's benefactor.

Studio Theatre's small stage space is used well, with impressive sets brimming with talented, young people. Children arrive and depart through the aisles, becoming even closer to bring the audience into the action.

Everything about this performance - light and sound, choreography and costumes - is first-rate and worthy of its near-capacity audience on opening night.
 

ATTN: PAST & FUTURE - CAST or CREW MEMBERS:  If you have any reviews from shows you've done with Merely Players from any publication - please forward the review or the web address for uploading here to:  Reviews

RUBY GRIFFITH'S AWARD PROGRAM - Narnia, 2005:

    "Beverly Hill van Joolen assembled a very big cast to stage this ambitious production of Narnia, and it would seem that she had worked in close collaboration with both the Musical Director (Ken Kimbly)and the Choreographer (Christy Stouffer).  Her casting of the principal characters was very good, particularly the four children, Aslan, and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver.  They basically carried the show with support from some of the lesser characters.  Lines were well rehearsed and the British accents were well done, particularly the children, Aslan, and Mrs. Beaver.   . . .  Overall, and with the help of many stage effects, presumably under the guiding hand of Andy Mueller, the technical director, a magical show did ensue and it was fun."

 . . ". The fight scene was very well  staged and reflected the presence of a fight director (Eric Eaton) on the production staff."

 "   The small orchestra ensemble consisting of just five players sounded very professional and complemented the action on the stage beautifully.  The musicians all played well and were very competently led by Music Director, Ken Kimble with his synthesizer."

    "Kudos to the (stage) management. (Rebecca Binstock & Kathy McCrory)."

    "The lghting (Tim Grieb) of the set prior to the o pening of the show added interest and entertainment . . ."

  "  The program (Alex Banos) had a very attractive cover design depicting the Lion, the Witch  and the Wardrobe."

   " All four of the children deserve great praise, Lindsay Espinosa (Susan), K. Strawley (Peter), Henry Pazaryna (Edmund), and Bronwyn van Joolen ( Lucy)."

   "Outstanding amongst the rest of the cast was Anna Deal as Mrs. Beaver, her accent never wavered and she was always in character.  There was a wonderful performance by Vincent van Joolen in the regal role of Aslan.  Perhaps Matt Wetzel was the most talented member of the cast.  He seemed to thrive of stage  . . .  Dylan Roche was an . . . intimidating Fenris Ulf as Sara Collison was an appealing Tumnus.   Mention should also be made of Forest Deal as Professor Digory Kirke, and Dickens Warfield giver her all as Mrs. Macready."

   "The large chorus sounded good and was well rehearsed.  "A Field of Flowers" (Susan and Lucy),  "To Make the World Right Again" (Aslan & Ensemble),  and "You Can't Imagine" (Tumnus) were the highlights of the big numbers, and the Beavers delighted with "Wot a Bit A' Spring Can Do."