Welcome to Shakesville

Before MTV, American Idol, and CMT, there was a show on television called American Bandstand.  Although most patrons of the evening are too young to remember it (including me), it is what put Dick Clark on the map.  Clark would introduce the home viewing audiences to new and hip bands and was immortalized with his microphone, suit, and coifed hair.  The riff of this is taken to heart here. Baltimore Rock Opera Society, AKA BROS, is back with their first kid-friendly production “Welcome to Shakesville.”  A furry, funny, mash up of 60s pop and psychedelic musings.  The storyline mimics an American Bandstand-esque show but merges into the strange when a portal opens to another dimension.

The basic premise of the show is that a new band, Jimmy Graves and the Sonic Waves are being featured on the Mickey Moon show.  They make their debut, but their African-American female songwriter isn’t welcome on the stage front.  After a heated stand off, a magical flute and two castanets come through a portal from Shakesville.  They were drawn to Betty’s grooves and need her help because Shakesville is out of tune.  All the furry characters in Shakesville are instruments brought to life.  But the plot is more sinister as the Deputy Mayor is harvesting musical talent and stealing it from her townspeople.  In the end good triumphs, the evil Deputy Mayor is taken off her throne, and love wins the day with Betty finally included in the musical performances.

The backdrop of the 1960s was evident from the costuming to the slang and wholesome moves.  The music however is a bit more modern with a heavy focus on the guitar twangs of a country acoustic named Wynona, and a bit of metal flavor per the BROS experience. Also in typical BROS fashion there are WAY too many people in the program to try and name them all here, so know it was a group effort and no part was intentionally ignored.

Jacquan Knox as the lead Betty is who seals the deal this evening.  She is amazing.  She can sing, and sing, and sing for days.  She harmonizes with everyone and every instrument on that stage.  She has a voice that dreams are made of.  Her rocking outfits, ability to converse calmly with puppets, and pipes to die for and what makes this show a success.

Jimmy, the lead of Jimmy Graves and the Sonic Waves, is played by Matthew Casella.  His adorable antics were only in the beginning and end, even though he was the front man for the band.  The irony (although I get it) is that his band was pantomiming playing instruments for the Mickey Moon Show, but I know that Casella can actually play (I’ve heard him!).

The three Lunettes, bee-hived silver and gold clad women who croon and dance for Mickey Moon’s show, are incorporated in as other characters as the production continues.  Lunette 1 is Melissa LaMartina who is reimagined later as Elena and Janie.  Lunette 2 is Emily Classen who ends up with a major role as the country acoustic guitar Wynona who guides Betty through Shakesville.  And Lunette 3 is Caitlin Weaver, who comes back as the Deputy Mayor (villain) of Shakesville who is a Juke box I think?  It was like a basketball game at Dave and Busters with scaffolding and shiny fabrics and light up things, and I don’t even know what I am watching anymore. Excuse me while I go get another Kolsch- beer brewed exclusively for this by Brewer’s Art (hooray!  And tasty!).

The three main puppets were the Special Agents who came to our world to retrieve Betty and bring her to Shakesville to assist them with getting their groove back.  The flute was manned by Derek Cooper, and the two Castanets were Michael Paradiso and Emma Hawthorn.  These three were comical and appealing to the younger audience.  The puppets are great- well made and designed with real personality, even if “right castanet” reminded me of Mush Mouth from Fat Albert due to his lack of eyes per purple hat.  They were funny and did an excellent job, I just felt like it was missing something.  The whole thing seemed slow in parts.  And it was 2+ hours long, which is rough for a kids show.  Some of the jokes were flat, and I think that’s because typically, BROS would have taken them a step further, but restrained due to their audience.  It was a decent story and premise, but honestly if it was re-geared for adults, it might leap from dry lols to absolute hilarity.

The other members of Jimmy Graves band were caricatures.  David Carrington was the drummer Ralph, who constantly acts like he’s going to, well, ralph.  Skip is Mike Hall, the semi-stoned bassist who is too cool for his own good.  And Kenneth, the guitarist, J Alexander Pilon who is the clean cut member of the group.  Hall & Carrington revive roles as guitars in Shakesville working as “greasers” for the deputy mayor.  It reminded me a bit of Wizard of Oz, the way all the characters in Shakesville have real world counterparts.  I was waiting for Betty or Jimmy to say at the end “and you were there too.”  BROS might have missed a mark there.

The puppets are something to see!  All of them are instruments brought to life in extremely creative ways.  The lead puppets designer is Tatiana Nya Ford, and she does a lovely job of creating the world, making them seem human in their mannerisms and movements, and maintaining the shape and use of an instrument- no small feat!  There is a team of puppet fabricators, puppet crew, and more in the program!  Kudos to all!

The set was lovely, and of course, in BROS fashion, the full band hidden somewhere in that space- in the back?  Behind the stage?  I never saw them!  This time around they are going by “the Far Outs,” and they do an excellent job of keeping it all together without overpowering the singers. Costumes are credited to Kitt Crescenzo, who kept it shiny and fun, even if it was a bit busy at times.  The puppet people in mermaid leggings were a bit confusing but extremely whimsical and enjoyable.

I just think the focus of this production was two-fold, the kids in the audience, and the music.  And although there are some great songs- there are a ton of songs.  Some of the plot gets lost in the muddle down of 16 original songs! I think a good plot/song balance might be better, and I’d be curious to see how this pans out as a juvenile show.  I went to Opening night, a Friday that did not begin until 8:10, and went past 10 p.m.  That isn’t a time frame for children.

SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?  Fan of 60s music and puppets?  This is your show!  Knox is an immensely gifted songstress, and Casella and others are fun to watch romp around in a make believe world.  The songs and timing can drag a little, but there is a “fun zone” downstairs for friends who can’t sit through it all (nice touch).  BROS is exploring new territory here, but I think I like the classic beer-crushing metal in your face shit from a previous era.  Go and see for yourself.  (I)

Running time about two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission.  Running through June 16th at Mt. Zion Church of the City of Baltimore.

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