BWW Reviews: THE UNDERSTUDY At Everyman Theatre is a SMASH!

By: Sep. 05, 2014
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There are many roles in a play. Some actors play the role of a "swing", an "understudy" or a "stand-by". What are they? A "stand-by" must learn the role of a leading player, must be at the theater (or nearby) at the start of the play and be ready to go on a moment's notice. A "swing" is an actor who must know many different roles in the ensemble, must learn the various parts of the music and choreography, and be able to play any part at a moment's notice. Then there is the "understudy". Normally, the "understudy" is in the ensemble, but also learns the part of another actor and must be able to go on when necessary. However, in the production of Theresa Rebeck's THE UNDERSTUDY, here the "understudy" is NOT in the play but must be at the theater to take the place of an actor who cannot go on either at the start of the play or during the play. Often, actors are notified in advance they will be going on and they get an opportunity to rehearse the role during a "put-in" rehearsal with the cast which is usually the day before or the day of their first performance.

I had never heard of a "put-in" until my daughter was both a "swing" and an "understudy" on Broadway. You will also hear, maybe for the first time, about a "put-in" rehearsal during the beginning of THE UNDERSTUDY which has just opened the season for the Everyman Theatre.

And what a great way to begin the 2014-15 theater season. Artistic Director Vince Lancisi has selected a funny and sometimes hysterical play to begin the season. Lancisi selected Joseph W. Ritsch to direct his first play at Everyman and he has done such a masterful job I'm sure he will be back for more. (Ritsch is also the Co-Producing Artistic Director of Rep Stage and he'll be directing David Ives' play VENUS IN FUR there October 1-19, 2014.)

Ritsch has worked with two thirds of THE UNDERSTUDY cast before. He was Associate Director and Choreographer of the Everyman's production of THE BEAUX' STRATAGEM with the immensely talented Clinton Brandhagen and Danny Gavigan. While Brandhagen has been a member of the Everyman's Resident Acting Company, this was Gavigan's initial role as member of the Company. What a way to begin. The other third of the cast is the incredibly talented Beth Hylton, also a member of the Company.

Thankfully, these three wonderful actors get a chance to shine thanks to the wonderful writing of playwright Theresa Rebeck. For some inexplicable reason, her television credits were not included in the program. Rebeck is best known for creating the NBC musical series "Smash" and has written for some of my favorite shows such as "Brooklyn Bridge", "LA Law", "NYPD Blue", and "Law and Order". She has a knack for comedy. Her play reminded me a little of the histrionics in NOISES OFF, another play that deals with backstage.

I'm sure many of my readers have been disappointed to hear that an understudy would be appearing in a show where you were hoping to see the talented lead. My first exposure to an understudy that I can recall was when I was so disappointed that I would see an understudy instead of Anthony Newley in THE ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT THE SMELL OF THE CROWD. Another example was when I saw the original Broadway cast of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and an understudy took the role of Bernadette Peters.

Rebeck pokes fun at the Broadway use of movie stars on Broadway. But we are all guilty of this. I paid dearly to see Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman in A STEADY RAIN and Jackman again in THE BOY FROM OZ. And I will also remember seeing the great Billy Crystal in 700 SUNDAYS.

The play opens with only a "ghostlight" on stage. For the first time ever, the audience sees the actual rear wall of the Everyman Theatre with its huge garage door. You then hear a gunshot piercing the empty theater where the play takes place. The gun is a prop and actor Harry (Clinton Brandhagen) is arriving for his "put-in" rehearsal where he will be playing the understudy to movie actor Jake (Danny Gavigan) who is also an understudy to the lead of the recently discovered play by Franz Kafka. Thus, maybe the play should be called THE UNDERSTUDIES. As it turns out, Harry auditioned for a film that Jake got which has just grosseed $67 million during its opening week-end. Harry says that's he's not bitter. "I'm not bitter. OK, I am a little bitter but that doesn't change the facts." For Jake is also an understudy to a significantly bigger movie star who gets $22 million per picture while Jake only makes $2.3 million per picture. The play is packing in audiences due to the big movie star. So, the setting is Harry, a talented actor, has to learn his part as an understudy to a "talent-free" movie star. He repeats a big line in the film that Jake delivers, "Get out of the truck!" The way he does it is hysterical. Brandhagan has a real way with comedy.

When Jake first arrives on stage, he believes an intruder is in the theater. When he questions Harry about why he is there, he insists to see his Equity Card. When Harry can't find it and mentions maybe someone stole it, Jake comments, "Who would steal an Equity card...maybe a SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card, but not an Equity card. When Jake accuses Harry of not knowing much about Kafka, Harry responds, "I'm been to a pub crawl in Prague."

Roxanne is the stage manager (Hylton) and what a role she has. She has no idea who the actor is that is coming to the rehearsal. (Harry had changed his Equity name.) When she realizes it's Harry, her former fiancé who six years ago had left her two weeks before their wedding, well, she's not a happy camper.

To make things worse, Roxanne has to deal with Lauren in the lighting booth who is so stoned, she mixes up sets, music and light cues. This adds to the humor. Director Ritsch has the actors use the aisles throughout the theatre and it works.

The play is both funny and poignant.

I won't tell you what happens when the lead movie star decides to leave the play. Does the play go on with both understudies? You'll have to attend to find out.

Wait until you see the great ending where Ritsch has the cast dance which he choreographed and he even includes the "Macarena". The audience loved it.

The play is greatly enhanced by the terrific scene designed by Daniel Ettinger, great lighting by Jay A. Herzog, effective sound and music by Neil McFadden and costumes by Kathleen Geldard.

The intermission-less play runs 90 minutes and flies by.

On Saturday, September 6 at 5 p.m., there will be a panel discussion about understudies called "Waiting in the Wings" featuring Rebecca Lachance, Kyle Prue, and Joe Smelser. It is hosted by Marc Steiner. All tickets are $15. It is recorded and is available the following week on WEAA 88.9 FM on "The Marc Steiner Show".

THE UNDERSTUDY continues until September 28. For tickets, call 410-752-2208 or visit

Next up at Everyman is GROUNDED October 15 to NOVEMBER 16 starring Megan Anderson.

Memorial for Baltimore Actress Tana Hicken Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. at Everyman Theatre.

One of Baltimore's greatest artists, Tana Hicken, passed away on August 17. She was an amazing actress and I recall her many roles at Center Stage with Terry O'Quinn. They were a delight to watch together. She also appeared at Everyman Theatre, Arena Stage, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Studio Theatre, Theatre J, and the Roundhouse Theatre.

She was such a delight and she will be sorely missed.

There will be a memorial on Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Everyman Theatre in Baltimore and on Sept. 29 at the Studio Theatre in DC at 7 p.m.


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