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November 14, 2012

Women front and center at Fells Point area theaters

Fells Point community theater companies have women squarely in the spotlight these days.

At the Vagabond Players, the focus is on a mother’s struggles with mental illness. At Fells Point Corner Theatre, the close scrutiny involves a group of women recalling their lives — and their clothes. Both ventures yield rewards.

“Next to Normal,” the pathbreaking Broadway musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey that earned a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize a couple years ago, presents formidable challenges. The topic, for a start. Even with dollops of light and dark humor, this is still an unflinching examination of an unhinged mind.

If you can find a cast capable of bringing out the drama strongly, you have to make sure the actors can also sing up a storm, since this mostly-sung show is built on something like three dozen rock (more or less) songs.

The Vagabond production, smoothly directed by Eric J. Potter and efficiently designed by Maurice G. “Moe” Conn, features ...

a particularly persuasive performance by Shannon Wollman in the central role of Diana.

She does not force or exaggerate anything. She makes Diana seem quite the Everywoman, as ordinary and non-threatening as the person next to you in line at the grocery story. When flashes from the illness leap out, they are all the more startling.

Woolman is a confident, unassuming singer, with enough power for the rawest moments and even more affecting when pulling inward.

Darren McDonnell makes a theatrically telling Dan, Diana’s long-suffering husband, and he can he shape the music eloquently. Unfortunately, he has trouble controlling his tone when he pumps up the volume; the sound is pretty jarring.

As Diana’s daughter Nathalie, Julia Capizzi encounters vocal strain in the big moments as well, but she nails the character’s heart- and fear-concealing cynicism.

In the role of Gabe, the son Diana can’t shake from her mind, Chris Jehnert shows considerable promise. Although his voice loses steadiness when pushed, his singing otherwise reveals an effective naturalness that matches his nicely layered portrayal.

Tom Burns does dynamic work as a couple of Diana’s doctors. Jim Baxter, as the nerdy stoner Henry (“the MacGyver of pot”), brings a sure, subtle singing voice to the proceedings. His acting, though, could use a boost.

Musical director Douglas Lawler gives the Vagabonds’ production a firm foundation.

The women in “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” the comic play by the late Nora Ephron and her sister Delia Ephron at Fells Point Corner Theatre, may be mentally healthier than Diana, but they are hardly devoid of issues. Their mantra could be: If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.

Based on incidents from the authors’ lives and those of their friends, the 2009 play is basically five women talking about women’s issues, sort of a theatricalized expansion of “The View.”

They cover any number of topics — breasts, butts, shoes, purses, closets, wedding gowns, Madonna. There are particularly animated discussions of clothes their mothers wouldn’t let them wear or, worse, expected them to wear. A lot of humor punctuates the dialogue — a diatribe about purses is priceless.

But things turn serious and often quite touching on a dime, as when a cancer survivor talks of having her reconstructed breast tattooed, or when two lesbians describe their wedding and how their families reacted.

Although the work wouldn’t be the worse for trimming, it generally holds together.

The cast in this production, directed fluidly by Steve Goldklang, serves the material well. The actresses, all sporting black outfits (there will never really be a new black), mesh easily. Anne Shoemaker and Kate McKenna make especially vibrant and deftly nuanced contributions, but Beverly Shannon and Andrea Bush are not far behind.

And if Helenmary Ball doesn’t always have her lines down pat, she captures the been-there-worn-that zen of Gingy, the oldest and wisest of the bunch.

"Next to Normal" runs through Nov. 25. "Love, Loss and What I Wore" runs through Dec. 9

PHOTOS: 'Next to Normal' (Darren McDonnel and Shannon Wollman) by Tom Lauer; 'Love, Loss...' (l to r: Kate McKenna, Beverly Shannon, Andrea Bush, Anne Shoemaker, Helenmary Ball) by Ken Staneck


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:15 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens


Saw Next to Normal and I don't agree with your assessments of the voices of either the Father or the daughter.The night I saw them, both were in extraordinary form and had no trouble controlling the tone or sounded strained. In fact we found them to be just the opposite. McDonnell's voice was particularly outstanding . You did them a disservice with your review and perhaps you should go back a second time if you can even get a seat. Fortunately the performance we attended was sold out. Maybe no one listens to the whiny voice of the reviewer.

I have not yet begun to whine. TS

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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