History portrayed thrillingly

The Baltimore Sun

Dignity Players' current production of Vanishing Point introduces us to three of the 20th century's most fascinating female adventurers and achievers: Amelia Earhart, Aimee Semple McPherson and Agatha Christie.

With book and lyrics by Liv Cummins and composer Rob Hartmann, and from a concept by Scott Keys, Dignity's East Coast premiere production of this unusual musical continues this season's theme celebrating the strength and accomplishments of women.

Vanishing Point opened last weekend at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, where it will continue through Sunday. On opening night, director Mickey Handwerger expressed his delight at working again with author Cummins and composer Hartmann, who he said were present.

This original musical has a score of 25 songs defining these risk-taking historical figures, who are linked by their mysterious disappearances. It proved an ambitious undertaking for Handwerger, musical director Mark Hildebrand and the three-woman cast, who not only created identifiable portraits but also played other characters who touched the main characters' lives.

Born in 1890, Agatha Christie wrote more than 80 novels to become history's best-selling author. Christie, a Briton, was known as a recluse when she married Royal Flying Corps Col. Archibald Christie in 1914. They had a daughter, Rosalind, and were divorced in 1928.

Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days in December 1926. When she was found staying at a hotel under the name of her husband's mistress, she claimed to have suffered a nervous breakdown and amnesia caused by her mother's death and husband's infidelity. Until her death at age 85 in 1976, she never again mentioned this unexplained 11-day absence.

Also born in 1890, Aimee Semple McPherson was a charismatic evangelist who practiced faith healing, toured the country by car and promoted her religion on radio broadcasts. She founded the Foursquare Gospel Church, a movement that claims more than 5 million members worldwide.

McPherson also vanished in 1926, while swimming in the ocean. She reappeared in the desert near Douglas, Ariz., three weeks later, explaining that she had been kidnapped. She was investigated and was charged briefly with obstruction of justice, but she never wavered from her original story. McPherson died in 1944 of an overdose of sedatives.

Amelia Earhart was born in 1897 in Kansas and became the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic. Promoted by her publisher husband George Putnam, she was known as "Lady Lindy" and set several flight records for speed and distance. In July 1937, she vanished near the end of a planned round-the-world-flight.

In the Dignity Players' production, Earhart is played by Sheri Kuznicki, who delivers a spectacular performance in this demanding role, in which she creates a multidimensional portrait of Earhart and is required to sing several difficult songs. Always a reliable actress and singer, Kuznicki reaches new heights here, especially when singing one of the show's best numbers, "Vanity and Gravity," and in her emotionally restrained scenes with her husband, played by Wendy Baird, who is also cast as Aimee Semple McPherson.

Baird summons impressive charisma to flesh out her flamboyant character, a dynamic evangelist who exudes a warm sensuality. Baird also does full justice to her every song to complete her vital characterization.

As the more enigmatic Christie, Margaret Allman offers a subdued, layered portrayal. A strong actress, Allman is more than adequate vocally, although her songs are less demanding than those of the other two main characters.

Kuznicki, Baird and Allman sing their stories individually and as a trio, displaying impressive vocal harmony. They exhibit fine rapport in their ensemble transgender roles, switching characters with fluidity.

Pianist Joe Gems serves as accompanist, while providing musical continuity throughout the performance.

Vanishing Point is an ambitious undertaking that sometimes seemed still a work in progress. The show would benefit from some tightening and shortening of several musical numbers. The songs have clever lyrics but often sound alike and lack tunefulness. As in opera, each character is defined by songs, which might be enhanced by inserting a leitmotif to further the melodic distinction. McPherson might be given a strain of gospel music, for instance, Earhart some classic soaring jazz and Christie a theme reminiscent of British composer Edward Elgar.

Performances will continue Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis off Route 50 and Bestgate Road. Prices range from $5 to $20 per ticket.

Reservations can be made at dignityplayers.org.

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