Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 23, 2024

At first there was skepticism. Really, a musical, Witness? And a student-written one at that? Could they really pull it off? Think about it: a play about a game show with a domineering host and crazy antics. Potentially not boring. But a play about a game show with a domineering host with crazy antics that happens to be a musical. Come on. That's a no brainer.

With Win or Die: The Most Prolific Game Show in History, student playwright Caity Stuhan indulges her audience with the proper balance of cliché and originality. Her script is well-written and well-acted by the Witness performing group.

Senior Mitch Frank directed the performances splendidly, allowing his actors to balance the script's use of satire and comedy with a correct amount of lightheartedness. Characters who may seem to be commonly written, such as the too-smart for her own good girl, the unlucky dork and a pigeon-holed Mexican, are given more complexity.

The curtain is falling on Chip McBingo (junior Alex Neville) as his days as the chauvinistic, racist, demanding host of the longest-running game show in history are nearing their end. As host, McBingo dictates the course that his game show will take, and the three contestants have no choice but to try their best to remain in the game.

Neville was wonderfully creepy, able to switch from the too-cheery host to the glowering miserable human effortlessly. Mastering the role's vocal parts, Neville clearly enjoyed his time onstage, making him a pleasure (if not somewhat unnerving) to watch.

Particularly adept at his tongue-twisting monologues, Neville is able to quickly and efficiently draw the audience into the world of the game show, where contestants may win a prize or lose their lives at his say-so. Especially interesting is the clear distinction that Neville is able to bring to McBingo's on-air and off-air personas, terrorizing the stage manager (Suzanne Gold) with clear malice one moment and pushing products on-camera the next.

The first contestant, Donna, (Rebecca McGivney) sets the tone early, using her lovely voice to detail the character's life (neurosurgeon from Hopkins) and quirks (an almost obsessive love for her cat). McGivney's shining moment comes later in the play with her doo-wop inspired solo, "Steppin' Out."

Stuhan's writing talent shines brightest with her song lyrics. Lines describing Donna's need to learn lessons beyond "chemistry and brain science" are entertaining on their own, with the audience's amusement heightened due to her trio of male back-up dancers. McGivney is able to infuse her character with enough vivacity that the audience is able to overlook the sometimes prose-like quality of her lines.

While generally the script's dialogue is very strong, it occasionally lapsed into monologues that seemed too much like excerpts from a short story rather than a speech.

Poor Peter St. Clair (Jack Berger) just couldn't catch a break. He woos his audience with the tale of how, in addition to catching his fiancée in bed with the gardener, his dog ran away, and one immediately feels for him. And if that wasn't enough, the scene in which Peter comes in first during the "Physical Challenge," securing his first taste of victory in a long time, he hears from McBingo that it is actually the contestant who comes in last who wins. It is nearly heartbreaking.

Berger's greatest strength in his character is his ability to physically define his character against the others in the play. With the slightest move of his eyebrows or hanging of his head, Berger brings Peter to life in such an endearing way that it is hard not to root for the underdog.

The final contestant is Pedro Santa Clara (senior Paxson Trautman), who bears an eerie resemblance to Peter; both are dressed in khakis, a blue shirt and a belt. But while Peter is down on his luck, Pedro's doing great.

Trautman is the comic relief; whenever a scene is progressing too slowly, Pedro is able to serve as the non-sequitor. Having Trautman portray a very stereotypical version of a Mexican (at one point he sits in his sombrero and pulls out a burrito).

Stuhan takes a risk in possibly alienating her audience. But luckily both Trautman's skill and Stuhan's script are able to redeem Pedro from impropriety.

Particularly of great interest is Pedro's scene with the Camera Man (Tony Chiarito), who is also of Hispanic descent. The scene - heightened by the knowledge that McBingo is on a rampage throughout the TV studio - has the potential to develop into a brawl. The audience, in fact, is waiting for it, given Stuhan having caved to her audience's expectations in the past. But very smartly, she avoids the temptation and allows these two male characters a rare moment of tenderness.

Opening the play with a delightful song and bit of cheer by the janitor (senior Dave Haldane) Win or Die hints early that laughs will be in no short supply.

While Haldane's singing voice isn't the strongest, he is able to carry the tune strongly enough that the audience's enjoyment is not diminished.

Somewhat confusing, however, is the fact that in the opening scene, Haldane is the janitor, while in the show's second half, he is wearing the same clothing while he calls the shots as the TV station's owner.

As the owner, Haldane is thoroughly amusing, caricaturing the ratings-hungry owner thoroughly; the moment where he laughs and rubs his hands together was reminiscent of a ringmaster of a nightmarish circus - which is exactly what the play transitions into during the second half.

Perhaps Stuhan's best move as a writer is the almost-Grecian chorus of "Tech Geeks" (Christen Cromwell, Vanna Dela Cruz and Rob Keleher) who supply any scene that they enter with comic grace.

The three "Geeks" sing and dance their way through the story, providing an amusing diversion in the way of short commercial snippets when the play's larger narrative arc begins to drag towards the middle.

While their presence is welcome, the "Tech Geeks" sometimes seem more like an excuse to have someone rearrange props than an actual plot device.

Win or Die may not be the next Our Town, but it certainly is amusing to watch. This musical is filled to the brim with both comedic relief and touching sympathy from many characters. The audience not only will laugh out loud, but will enjoy coming out to see the spectacle that Stuhan has created in her world.

Win or Die: The Most Prolific Game Show in History, written by Caity Stuhan and directed by Mitch Frank, is playing on Feb. 8 and 9 at the Smirnow Theater at 8 p.m. and Feb. 10 at 2 p.m.

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