Pinch me! Is this real? I got a one-way ticket into Loserville— the musical! Now appearing on the Jack B. Kussmaul Theater at Frederick Community College with The Fredericktowne Players, Loserville, the incredibly underrated and fabulously feel-good musical all about communication is under the superb direction of Matthew Bannister with Musical Direction by Matthew Dohm and Choreography by Laurie Newton. The tagline’s not wrong— think Grease meets The Big Bang Theory— but it’s so much more than that. Filled with heart, raging rocker musical numbers, and a strikingly innovative retooling of the otherwise thin libretto (Book, Music, & Lyrics: Elliot Davis & James Bourne), this rarely produced musical will have your heart thumping along with each rip-roaring rock song and have you laughing until it hurts (because puns destroy souls, people) with every Sci-Fi-Star-Wars joke you can imagine.
While the set is virtually non-existent, Scenic Designer Tyler Baust invites you into the depths of the Sci-Fi imagination and does so with great success. There are two moving units (cleverly swooped in and out of place by a run crew— led by Stage Manager Aimee Penn— that are masked in “Arch Systems” tech company-threads) that elevate the performance, both figuratively and literally. Baust’s interlocking staircase units are multi-purpose functioning scenery in this production (not to mention the elevated scaffolding-adjacent platform built for the live band) that allows the performers to do their thing so that the audience can focus on the sheer genius that’s erupting out of each song, dance, and sentimental scene.
Working in tandem with Baust’s deceptively simple set design, Lighting Designer Lindsey McCormick uses light, colors, and the absence thereof to really home in on some of the more mesmeric moments in Loserville. While much of the show revolves around the futuristic notion of “computers that can communicate” (it’s set in the early 1970’s…) and no one actually goes into space or the future (or do they???) McCormick uses finesse and polish to accentuate her lighting plot choices. During “Sick” a trio-quartet split number, there are some shocking lighting effects that augment the overall drastic and dramatic tone of the song. McCormick also does a fine job of balancing out the “rock concert” atmosphere in her lighting; the starry gobos and constellation gobos featured during scenes in the planetarium are particularly “far-out.”
Out of this world costumes are coming to the stage by way of Costume Designer Stephanie Hyder. Not only does Hyder get the joy of recreating 70’s couture, with all of its vibrant colors, printed and patterned bell-bottoms, and outrageously hip styles, but she unleashes her imagination on the ‘DorksUnited Convention’ scene at the top of Act II. (The Sci-Fi Convention…but let’s be honest.) Hyder pulls out all the stops for this scene and there’s everything you could hope for from your basic Trekkie uniforms to creatures with suction-cupped tentacles, glittery platform moon boots, and shiny, tinfoil flying saucer dress. Hyder takes her costuming of the cast one step further, making sure to meticulously outfit each character in multiple costumes that fit their persona. The Dork-King extraordinaire— Francis Wier— wears everything you can think of, including the most outrageously fabulous flag-print twill pants you can imagine.
With a live pit ensconced center stage (not unlike some of the Broadway Center Stage events a la The Kennedy Center), the musical pulse is alive and thriving in this production. Musical Director Matthew Dohm (who dips his toes into the performing cast at the top of second act and does so with sensational vigor), leads the pit through his keyboard on stage. The band features Jasiu Mich and Luis “Matty” Montes on guitars, Chip Racster on bass, and Tyler Golsen on drums. Dohm’s work with the powerful ensemble is equal parts impressive as they have sublimely blended harmonies and forceful sound that overcomes all of the microphone shortcomings of the Frederick Community College sound system.
70’s inspired choreography has found its wheelhouse in the imagination of Choreographer Laurie Newton. Having moves that appropriately represent the decade in which the show is set is one thing; transforming those moves to match them music (which comes from a rock band several decades in the future) and still looks clean, aligned, polished, and composed? All hail Queen of Choreography Laurie Newton. The floor spins in “Slacker” inspire this feeling of extra-terrestrial fun and the indefatigable enthusiasm which Newton ensures appears in each of the dance routines is a felicitous infection that spreads to the rest of the performance elements throughout the production.
The ensemble is chock full of talent; so many impressive movers and shakers who are singing in harmony and rhythm with an excellent sense of pitch, so many vivacious and lively dancers who really amp up the energy of each of the bigger group numbers, its hard to find fault with anything happening in this production. Ensemblists of note include Adelaide King, whose unyieldingly natural smile and bright presence illuminates each ensemble number, and Tori Shemer, who all but jump-attacks Michael Dork in an overzealous out of risqué nerd-flirtations during the second act. Both King and Shemer are noteworthy dancers, whose execution of the more complex routines are fully articulated and flawlessly timed. Comic shout-out to Marina (Sierra Prell) and Ivanka (Alexandra Gude) the foreign exchange students in desperate need of the English learning. Prell and Gude are good at the funny-making and need no help when it comes to delivering bad Star Wars inspired puns.
Director Matthew Bannister has clearly pumped his cast full of rocket fuel; the energy levels for each of the big rocker numbers are off the charts. But he also brings a strong hand of balance to the production, making sure that even the most minute of sub-plots (like the C+ romance plot between two supporting characters receives its due) has an appropriate amount of natural focus. The force is strong with Bannister. Emotionally loaded, each of the talented performers in his cast— be they principle or ensemble— brings something incredible to the stage, resulting in a powerfully impressive and all-round feel good musical. Approaching the book from a storytelling standpoint, Bannister fills in gaps of the libretto with creativity, ingenuity, and earnest compassion.
In a show entitled Loserville, where the Geek patrol is as nerdy and undesirable as it is in present day, there has to be a series of stereotypical dumb jocks and babes. And this production is packed to the max with them. There’s the dippy doodle, Elaine Friend (Charlotte Cooper) who lives up to the stereotypical label of dumb blonde, dripping her ignorance out of every face hole that makes noise in a hilarious manner. Wayne (Zephyr Handerson-Copeland) and Huey (Kody Ball) are textbook lunkheads, proper flunkies and cronies of the smarmy, self-obsessed Eddie Arch. Both Handerson-Copeland and Ball have hilarious moments among themselves, much like Cooper, when interacting with pretty much anything that moves around them as they play up the epitome of those 70’s archetypes.
Featuring into the aforementioned C+ romantic side-plot, the mousy popular girl with a deep nerdy secret, Samantha Powden comes to vibrant life in the hands of actress Sanchi Pandey. With just one small vocal solo, “Brains and Looks Reprise” Pandey gives it her emotional all and really has the audience pulling for her in such a fashion that we almost wish Davis and Bourne hadn’t relegated the Samantha Powden character so far down the importance-pipeline. She has a serene sound, earnest and true, and unearths a heartbreaking sentiment that every girl everywhere who doesn’t fit in has felt when it comes to wishing that they were just a little bit smarter or prettier or thinner or less dorky.
Playing the polar opposite of that spectrum is the vapidly narcissistic Leia Dawkins (Summer Grove.) All flash and little substance, the Leia Dawkins character is basically a shimmery reflecting pool for the even larger ego of Eddie Arch (James Downing.) But Grove manages to deliver some serious attitude, albeit overloaded with vain attempts to better her social positioning at the beginning of the show. When she adds her emotionally wounded vocality to “Sick” as the third part of the then-trio-building-to-quartet number, its harrowing, haunting and a little bit twisted. Serving as the revolting, and ungodly incarnation of everything that was wrong with the big-time schmoozy high-school dumb-jock of the 70’s (and let’s be honest…of the modern era as well), James Downing gives everybody the slightly unsettling giggly creeps with his performance as Eddie Arch. Truly the repugnant “Cool Kid” who chews up geeks and spits them out for breakfast, Downing masterfully embodies this bullying presence. And his vocal chops are on point with the extremely high caliber of talent featured int his production. His portion of “Brains and Looks” as well as “Slacker” make you love the performer, even if you’re busy loathing the character.
Dorks consolidate! Nerds coalesce! Geeks gather! And epitomizing the core of the central Geek squad are Francis Wier (Justin Patterson), Marvin Camden (Noah Haren) and Lucas Lloyd (Alyx Greer.) Noah Haren and Justin Patterson are in an exclusive micro-competition for third-best geektastic nerd in this performance. It’s impossible to say who’s better as they’re both uniquely dorky in their own right. The mannerisms are superb, their speech patterns and patois are meticulously delivered to replicate nerd culture. Patterson and Haren are glorious vocal additions to the production, particularly during the pick-me-up supportive ballad, “Don’t Let ‘Em Bring You Down.” The pair have ripe comic timing, deliver their characters with an undeniably brilliant flare, and will have you 100% on team-NERD if you weren’t already there before you snagged your one-way ticket into Loserville.
Alyx Greer, as the conflicted Lucas Lloyd, gives an impressively mercurial performance in the role of Michael Dork’s best friend. The bombastic roller coaster of emotions and human needs that Greer achieves and displays to the audience is nothing short of impressive. With a strong, rock-driven voice, solos like “Holly I’m The One” fully articulate the depth and complexity of the Lucas Lloyd character. In lesser skilled hands, Lucas Lloyd could be dismissed as the comedic catalyst that forces certain elements of the plot forward, but because Greer brings an abundance of emotions to the character’s presentation, Lucas Lloyd feels like an integral part of the narrative from the word go (even if the character’s initial entrance will have the audience groaning at just how dorktastic Lucas is!) Greer’s reprise of this number reads almost like Jesus Christ Superstar’s “Damned For All Time” but meno mosso a la a 70’s slow burn.
Speaking of 70’s slow burns, there is a wicked smolder of fury and emotions conflagrating beneath “Long Run”, the late-in-the-game hybrid torch-ballad delivered by Holly Madison (Delaney White.) With unbelievable vocal control, impressive vocal prowess, and not a note out of place, White owns the girl-power element of this male-dominated show. She’s brains, beauty, and bombastic pizzazz all rolled up into one performance. Her portion of “Brains and Looks” is the initial introduction to her belting power and pitch control, which endears the audience to the Holly character immediately. Her duets shared with Michael Dork are precious and almost sickeningly sweet if they weren’t so earnest and simplistically honest. The way she commands a presence, especially when igniting tempestuous ferocity into “Sick”, is breathtaking. Her portion of that trio-building-to-quartet number is jaw-dropping. (“Sick” in this production features Holly, Lucas, Leia, and eventually Michael Dork.) White is a powerhouse performance triple threat and deserves loads of recognition for her accomplishments in this production.
Dorky in ever sense of the word, Michael Dork (Jake Schwartz) is Loserville’s central protagonist, the narrative pinnacle around which the moon of computer communication and other geeks orbit. Schwartz embodiment and embracing of this totally Geektastic, Nerdriffic, and Adorkable character is so intense that it’s cool (the one thing that all the geeks want to be!) Schwartz lives inside the skin of Michael Dork so that they are one in the same; every panicked facial expression of fear, vexation, and or frustration lives dynamically not only on his face but across his entire body language palette. And his vocals are a vital asset to this production. The levels of emotion that swell through even the less-emotionally-complex numbers like “Little Things” show the versatility and depth that Schwartz brings to the role. Ringleader of the Dorks, Schwartz’ Michael Dork is the earth, creating a gravitational pull of everything else in the show around him (in an unobtrusive and not egomaniacal-a-la-Eddie-Arch sort of way.) Vocal erupting during “Genius” and during “Ticket Outta Loserville” and its reprise, Schwartz takes many opportunities to deliver sensational sounds combined with phenomenal body language and a highly nuanced sense of who Michael Dork is at his core.
You are not alone— though you will be if you don’t get your tickets to see Loserville in its limited two-weekend run!
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Loserville plays through February 9, 2020 with The Fredericktowne Players in the Jack B. Kussmaul Theater at Frederick Community College— 7932 Opossumtown Pike in Frederick, MD. For tickets call (240) 315-3855 or purchase them online.