Saturday, January 14, 2017

Winning 'Mamma Mia!' Takes it All at the Hippodrome

Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia
Everyone loves a beautiful white wedding especially when it takes place on a lovely sun-splashed Greek Island. It’s even more special if the bride is walked down the aisle with her proud father.  

Getting to the latter forms the plot of the popular jukebox musical Mamma Mia! which is making an all-too-brief return to Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre as part of its “final” farewell tour.

Under the direction of Phyllida Lloyd, a remarkably exuberant and talented cast brings the house down with outstanding musical performances, spot-on comedy, and solid acting when called upon during the show’s dramatic moments.  A wide variety of attire including spandex and  wet suits and brightly colored costumes at the end of the show adorn the energetic cast.  Those young, lithe men in the ensemble who were shirtless at times, well that was good costuming, too.   #hocoarts 

The set is simple with two basic structures that are turned around for scene changes.  It is enhanced, however, by the backdrop consisting of mainly blue horizontal lines denoting the merger of the sea and sky, which is further amplified by Howard Harrison’s hue-laden lighting design.  Together with the costumes, the production is lavishly colorful.

Based on the songs of the successful 70’s pop rock group ABBA that were composed by former band members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, British playwright Catherine Johnson managed to tie together seemingly unrelated songs to craft a story line around them that works.

Twenty year-old Sophie Sheridan (played superbly by Lizzie Markson), dreams of a perfect wedding where she marries her beau Sky (Dustin Harris Smith). She also wants her father to walk her down the aisle.  But who’s her daddy?  She never knew who her father was as she was raised only by her mother, Donna Sheridan (Betsy Padamonsky). 

Cashelle Butler, Betsy Padamonsky and Sarah Smith
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia
Donna owns a taverna on a Greek island and at one time was the lead singer of a pop trio Donna and the Dynamos along with Tanya (Cashelle Butler) and Rosie (Sarah Smith).

Sophie sneakily peruses her mother’s diary entries and determines the possibilities based on steamy episodes that took place just prior to her birth: Sam (Shai Yammanee), an architect; Bill (Marc Cornes), a travel writer; and Harry, a British banker (Andrew Tebo). Unbeknownst to her mother, she secretly invites all to her wedding feeling she will know who that man is. 

Much of the story is centered on how the three men interact with Sophie and how they explain their presence to Donna as well as the mother-daughter relationship that evolves over this two-day period.  But how that transpires up until the actual wedding and its surprising twist at the end (surprising only if you haven’t seen Mamma Mia! before) becomes the plot that is coaxed along by the music.

That music and the performances are a joy to behold.  Kevin Casey’s five-piece band is robust but at times too much so to allow some vocals to pierce through.

Not all of the ABBA catalog is on display; for instance, the popular “Fernando” is not performed.  Yet, many favorites like “Dancing Queen,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Take a Chance on Me” (my favorite) and “The Winner Takes it All,” and, of course, the title song, "Mamma Mia,"  help make the production soar.

Anthony Van Lasst’s choreography is precise with an abundance of energy.  The dancing in “Money, Money, Money” and “Voulez-Vous” are two good examples of that.  However, “Dancing Queen,” performed by Ms. Padamonsky, Ms. Butler and Ms. Smith, is a bona fide show stopper.

I am reluctant to say that Sarah Smith steals the show since all the leads and ensemble are so talented.  But let’s just say, she borrows it and forgets to return it.  

The bubbly Ms. Smith sparkles as Rosie, an unmarried free-wheeling soul, with an incredible command of physical comedy.  The moment she is onstage, a smile is triggered followed by a healthy dose of laughter as she meanders about.  In the comedic “Take a Chance on Me,” a duet with Marc Cornes, Ms. Smith kills it and not just by her antics but also her superb vocals.

Another member of the Donna and the Dynamos trio, Cashelle Butler, who plays the thrice-married Tanya, also demonstrates her comedic skills and lovely singing voice.  Her vocal chops are on full display in “Money, Money, Money,” “Chiquitta,” “Super Trouper” as well as “Dancing Queen.”

As Sophie, Lizzie Markson showcases a fine soprano voice as well as strong acting prowess.  “The Name of the Game,” “Under Attack’ and “I Have a Dream” are all well-performed.  Her dramatic interactions with Ms. Padamonsky as her mother Donna and Dustin Harris Smith as Sky are superbly played by all the actors, especially in scenes where there are notable confrontations.

Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia
Ms. Padamonsky is sterling as Donna.  She is a commanding force onstage with her acting skills and gorgeous soprano voice.  As part of the trio in “Dancing Queen” Ms. Padamonsky excels.  She also delivers in “One of Us,” “SOS, a duet with Mr. Yammanee, “The Winner Takes it All,” and “Our Last Summer,” a duet with Mr. Tebo.

Mr. Tebo as Harry, Mr. Yammanee as Sam and Mr. Cornes as Bill act and sing very effectively. They each present plausible explanations on how they could be Sophie’s real dad, and combined with Donna’s uncertainty, muddies the waters keeping the audience in suspense. 

There are Donna’s two workers at the taverna.  One is Pepper, played by Austin Michael, who makes an unsuccessful attempt to woo Tanya.  Their number together “Does Your Mother Know” is hilarious.

The other is Eddie played by hunky and handsome Max Ehrlich.  All I can say is “Mamma Mia!”

The eight longest running show both on Broadway and London’s West End, Mamma Mia has been played everywhere on earth and perhaps two other planets.  If that weren’t enough, there is a popular film version with the same name.   Oddly, the musical never captured a Tony Award though it received five nominations in 2002.   That factoid is shrugged off by the 60 million who have seen the show worldwide.

The touring company is blowing through Baltimore faster than you can say “Mamma Mia.”  So quickly get your ticket and take a chance on this excellent production with its lively familiar music.  Surely, you will be dancing at your seats.


Running time: Two hours and 40 minutes.

Mamma Mia! runs through January 15 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Trump Supporters: The Joke’s on You


We are inching towards the National embarrassment of inaugurating as the 45th President of the United States the least popular, least respected, least informed and least qualified person to ever hold that position.  The voters and supporters of Donald J. Trump need to know that his promises which suckered them into voting for him resulting in an Electoral College victory yet losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million will fall short.
He will not “lock her up.” He will not “build a big and beautiful wall.”  He will not ban Muslims from entering the U.S.  He will not deport millions of undocumented immigrants. Gays will not submit to “conversion therapy.” (Sorry, Mr. Pence.)

He will not fix the inner cities.  He will not create jobs; rather, there will likely be massive job losses as a recession becomes a real possibility.  He will not give the middle class a substantial tax cut; that will be reserved for the billionaire class.  He and Congress may repeal Obamacare alright but will not replace it with anything meaningful, and that will cost millions of citizens their health insurance.

Trump will not “drain the swamp” as he and his adult offspring are the swamp with their unlimited conflicts of interests and foreign entanglements.  And you can be certain he will never release his tax returns though he had promised to do so.  Not happening.
Trump will not make America safe.  He eschews intelligence briefings and shrugs off the nearly irrefutable evidence presented by our intelligence community that Russia interfered with our election via cyber intrusions. 

As commander-in-chief he does not know any more than the generals as he had asserted.  His knowledge of military operations and strategy is as dismal as his unpatriotic multiple attempts to avoid military service.  He doesn’t know the meaning of the Purple Heart or the purpose of nuclear weapons.
Russia got their long-desired puppet.  They must have been downing vodka shots all over the Kremlin upon news of the election.  Compliment Mr. Trump—say he’s a great leader, a smart man, etc.—and Russia can continue to implement its expansionist desires unimpeded by the U.S.

All this plus a Republican-controlled Congress that will tamper with Medicare, Social Security and the Veterans Administration, not to mention de-funding Planned Parenthood and other pillars of liberalism.  Watch what happens then.
Trump supporters will indeed be disappointed…you will have been snookered…just like the many hundreds of contractors who were stiffed by Trump after they built his ubiquitous structures.

Don’t worry, in four years, you will have the chance to undo the damage you had wrought, if we live so long.

A ‘Guide’ to Pure Fun at the Hippodrome


Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella Hallward, Kevin Massey as Monty
Navarro and Kristen Hahn as Phoebe D'Ysquith Photo: Joan Marcus
There are different ways to climb the social ladder.  There are different ways to rise above others to get rich.  But killing your competition?  Eight of them, in fact? That’s a whole different matter.
In the musical comedy, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, making a brief visit to the Hippodrome to close out 2016, we get to see just that.  Darko Tresnjak, known for his work in Shakespearean plays, holds nothing back in directing this hilarious Edwardian farce.  The production is aided by sturdy performances surrounding a cleverly crafted plot and score.  #hocoarts

A brilliantly detailed Victorian-style stage within a stage designed by Alexander Dodge serves as the set for the vast majority of the action.  Exceptionally creative and colorful projection imagery in the rear includes smoke drifting out of factory smokestacks in 1907 England, clouds floating by and other similar devices that enhance the real time feel during the numerous scene changes.  
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder won a host of honors highlighted by four Tony Awards in 2014 including Best Musical. It features a book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak.  It is based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman, which also was the basis for the 1949 British film Kind Hearts and Coronets that starred Alec Guinness.

With tongue firmly in the cheek, the audience learns from the outset that the show could be uncomfortable if they have a “weaker constitution,” and if so, they should go.  Indeed, there is a serial killer on the loose, but with the exception of a couple of killings, there isn’t much gore, so don’t take the bait.  Stick through it and enjoy this witty laugh-a-thon.
Monty Navarro, a poor Englishman, (played wonderfully by Kevin Massey) just learned from a woman named Miss Shingle (Mary VanArsdel) that his recently deceased washerwoman mother was actually a member of the aristocratic D’Ysquith family.  She had been banished, however, when she defied the family wishes and eloped with a Castilian and worse, a musician (also deceased). 

Mom never told her son about his true ancestry, but Miss Shingle informs him that he is ninth in line to inherit the earldom of Highhurst and encourages him to take his rightful place in the family.  Oh, the possibilities!
Realizing his dream for success is only eight bodies away, Monty proceeds to off all those ahead of him in the line of succession in various and sundry ways.  The methods he uses are bizarre and creative and seem to fit the personality or livelihood of the victims to a tee.  For example, a “bulging” bodybuilder Major Lord Bartholomew D’Ysquith perished when Monty allowed an over-weighted barbell to fall hard on the unsuspecting soul’s neck.  Guess what rolled to the gym floor?

A flamboyant Henry D’Ysquith who was married but is clearly enamored by men is also a beekeeper.  Monty sprays a lavender perfume on Henry’s beekeeping clothes knowing that it attracts bees—so many, in fact, that the victim dies from a thousand stings. Special effects comically show the swarm chasing Henry until his demise.
There are more, of course, including the most gruesome of all—the fall from a bell tower by Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith—but it’s best to just leave you with these teasers.

John Rapson and Kevin Massey in "Better With a Man"
Photo: Joan Marcus
Monty writes all this in his journal while in jail two years later after he is arrested for the murder of one of the victims, which ironically was the one death for which Monty was not responsible. 
During the ensuing carnage, Monty had fallen in love with Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams), a social climbing, self-centered beautiful woman.  He also encounters a more down-to-earth but equally pretty Phoebe D’Ysquith (Kristen Hahn) who is not above him in the line of succession. He is faced with a difficult choice.

A twist at the end is better left unmentioned here.
The musical is unique in that all of the D’Ysquith victims are played by a single actor, John Rapson, who delivers a magnificent tour-de-force performance. Some fourteen costume changes are needed for Mr. Rapson alone.  Not only does he cleverly take on the essence of each ill-fated character—male and female—but he deftly uses a variety of dialects and personalities to portray them.    

His muscular baritone voice shines in several fun songs like “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” “Poison in My Pocket,” “Better With a Man” (an outright hilarious duet with Mr. Massey), and “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun.”
As the anti-hero Monty, Kevin Massey demonstrates his sensitivity and vulnerabilities quite proficiently.  On stage for just about the entire production, Mr. Massey remains strong throughout with his acting skills and super tenor voice.  That talent is evident in such numbers as “You’re a D’Ysquith,” “Foolish to Think” and “Stop! Wait! What?!” 

However, the show-stopping number “I’ve Decided to Marry You”—a zany, high energy song with Mr. Massey, Krisitn Hahn as Phoebe and Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella—is a dandy and brought down the house.
Ms. Hahn’s beautiful soprano highlights the diet with Mr. Massey in “Inside Out.” For her part, Ms. Williams’ soprano scores in “I Don’t Know What I’d Do” and “Poor Monty.”

The remainder of the company, the technical crew as well as the orchestra under the direction of Lawrence Goldberg support the leads quite ably. 
A special nod goes to Linda Cho for the outstanding period costumes, especially the richly colorful floor-length gowns worn by the ladies.  The eye-opening workout costume worn by the bodybuilder Major Lord Bartholomew had the audience laughing so hard.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is a lavish, well-directed, immensely funny production that deserves the accolades it had received on Broadway.  The touring company does the show justice and more and should not be missed.
Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder runs through January 1 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

Monday, December 12, 2016

We’re All in This Together


Alt-Right Stephen Bannon and Alt-Right Pres. Elect Donald Trump
I woke up this morning hoping last night was just a horrible nightmare. I realize it wasn't and the nightmare is just beginning. As I gathered myself I decided as of today, I am an African-American, a Latino, a Muslim, an immigrant, a disabled American, a woman, and remain a Jew, a gay man, and a journalist. God help us all.
This was my first Facebook post the morning after the election.  The impossible just occurred; the people of the United States elected Donald J. Trump to be their president despite receiving nearly 3 million less votes than Hillary Clinton.

Full disclosure: I am a lifelong Democrat.  Through the years I had become more and more disappointed when a Republican is elected President. I have gained knowledge over my lifetime and recognize the consequences what a Republican president would mean for our country.  However, with this election, I’m not simply disappointed. I am terrified!
The groups of people I cited in that Facebook post should also be scared.  Trump managed to demonstrate his hostility to these groups in one fashion or another.  Whether it was a tweet (where an anti-Semitic re-tweet was fired off) or campaign demagoguery where women, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, blacks and the disabled were mocked or degraded, we, the targets of Trumpian bigotry and ignorance, should be frightened.

It’s not just the rhetoric that causes alarm.  The neo-Nazis, the KKK and other white supremacists who reside in this country see the Trump victory as the opening they have long craved.  Mr. Trump is now their champion, and he has not disavowed their support in any sincere, full-throated manner.  All we saw was a Kellyanne Conway-crafted half-hearted denunciation.  As Trump himself would tweet, “Sad.”
As a gay man, I am watching the appointments in his administration surface, and it’s like a death by a thousand cuts as each is revealed.  It started with Trump’s pick for Vice President, Mike Pence.  Of all the people in the country, he chose arguably the most virulently anti-LGBT elected official. 

Then the anti-Semitic, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim Stephen Bannon, formerly head of alt-right Breitbart.com, was selected to be Trump’s chief strategist.  Other homophobes were offered cabinet positions like Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos and Ben Carson. 
True, he promised on “60 Minutes” not to roll back hard-fought LGBT rights. But his promises amount to nothing.  Remember his pledge to release his tax returns after the election?  Recall the numerous zigzags he navigated when it comes to policy?

I’m not saying this administration is tantamount to the rise of Nazism in 1930’s Germany but it has conjured up that comparison whereas in past elections, there has never been the slightest hint, no matter who won.  It’s out there now, and for a reason.  This is a scary group and getting worse by the day.
Since the election, there has been a surge in hate crimes, hate bias incidents and bullying in schools.  The Southern Poverty Law Center has attributed these incidents to words emanating from Donald Trump that have given comfort to those who hate all of us who have been disparaged.

And this is before Mr. Trump has even taken power.
Those of us in the marginalized minorities above must band together and form a powerful coalition to be on the alert and fight back.  While some of these groups have had a history of rivalry and at times been enemies, with potentially dangerous situations facing us, now’s the time to coalesce.

For example, the New York Times recently ran a story depicting how Muslims and Jews are banding together in the wake of this threat.

Mr. Trump’s Achilles heel is his narcissism. We need to protest, demonstrate and pressure Congress and the media to keep an eye on him.  Show him that he’s not adulated like at his rallies.   

We’re all in this together.

Friday, December 09, 2016

A Spirited 'Christmas Carol' Appears at Toby’s



David Bosley-Reynolds as Scrooge (Jeri Tidwell Photography)
The holidays couldn’t arrive soon enough for many folks, and the spirit of Christmas in more ways than one is alive and well at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia.  Charles Dickens’ beloved classic 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, with its familiar characters featuring Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, Jacob Marley and various ghosts of Christmases—past, present and future—is presented with high energy in Toby’s in-the-round venue for what is an entertaining musical production.   #hocoarts
A Christmas Carol, The Musical with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and book by Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens was a fixture each holiday season at the Paramount Theatre in New York’s Madison Square Garden from 1994 to 2003.  Menken is an eight-time Oscar-winning composer of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid#hocoarts
David James (who also plays Crachit) directs A Christmas Carol, The Musical at Toby’s with a skillful touch and a keen attention to detail.  The two-time Helen Hayes winner helms a lively, well-paced production, managing a large cast blending Toby’s veterans with new performers through the musical numbers, special effects, tons of props and a plethora of costume changes. 

Many of the characters’ good attributes as well as shortcomings in A Christmas Carol related in some manner to Dickens’ own life’s experiences that included struggling to make ends meet and witnessing his father hauled off to debtor’s prison while he was a young lad in London.  The imaginative story centers on the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge (played strongly by David Bosley-Reynolds) and his Christmas Eve to Christmas Day evolution from when he began as a mean, arrogant and friendless soul to one that ended up as a caring, generous human being embodying the true meaning of the Christmas holiday spirit.
Speaking of spirit or in this case spirits, the extraordinary transformation in Scrooge’s personality was accomplished through the supernatural nocturnal visits from three ghosts: one representing Christmas Past (Heather Beck), one from Christmas Present (Darren McDonnell) and one from Christmas Future (Mackenzie Newbury).  Through song and dialogue, these ghosts call out Scrooge’s failures, the effects of his actions, and the consequences that could occur in the future.

Several of the songs stand out and are performed well under the musical direction by Pamela Witt and the six-piece orchestra.  Among them: “A Place Called Home,” “You Mean More to Me” (a tender ballad performed sweetly by Mr. James as Cratchit and Lucas Bromberg as Tiny Tim), “Link By Link” (a superbly executed production number), “The Lights of Long Ago,” Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball” (a stirring production number), “Abundance and Charity” (another excellent production number), “Christmas Together,” and the Finale.  
Scrooge on Christmas Day (Jeri Tidwell Photography)
The lyrics work well with the dialogue and actions on stage to propel the story.  For those wonderful production numbers, credit Laurie Newton for the impeccable, high-energy choreography.

Splendid vocals added to the joy.  As Marley, Andrew Horn’s tenor voice excels in “Link By Link.”  MaryKate Brouillet who plays Emily, Scrooge’s one-time love, displays a lovely soprano in the reprise of “A Place Called Home.” Her duet partner AJ Whittenberger playing the young Scrooge, also delivers well in that song and both display warm onstage chemistry.   
Mr. Bosley-Reynolds as Scrooge uses his commanding voice well, particularly in “Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today” late in the second act. 

The entire talented company makes this production a winner.  It’s too large a cast to name everybody, but other notable performers include Jeffrey Shankle, Darren McDonnell, Tina DeSimone, Justin Calhoun and Chris Rudy.    #hocoarts
David A. Hopkins’ imaginative set design is exceptional. Many clever props and furnishings are used onstage and create the needed ambiance for 19th century London.  Street oil lamps, vendor carts, wagons, bank teller windows, an oversized turkey, and a dancing skeleton add to the joy. 

A clock on a façade provides a terrific effect of the ghosts' faces projected on it when the ghost of Marley warns Scrooge of the three visitors he should expect overnight.
And oh, that fog!  The fog machines are in full throttle, and it appears that the action is taking place in the marshes of Dickens’ Great Expectations!

Coleen M. Foley handles the lighting expertly, and with the light cast on that fog it presents an eeriness key to the atmospherics.  Ms. Foley also conveys the right effects for the appearances of the ghosts. 
As good as this show is I must heap effusive praise on the extraordinary costuming designed by Lawrence B. Munsey.  He meticulously put together a wide variety of 19th century Victorian costumes for the large cast with many attired for multiple roles. 

Toby’s stunning, well-staged production of A Christmas Carol, The Musical is enjoyable theatre, and it sends the right message as to how the “spirit’ of Christmas and the holiday season in general ought to be.  You should catch this classic to liven up the season and enjoy Toby’s scrumptious buffet as well.
Running Time: Two hours with an intermission.

A Christmas Carol, The Musical plays through January 8 at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets can be purchased by calling the Box Office at 410-7390-8311, 1-800-88-TOBYS (8-6297) or online .

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

A Christmas Story, The Musical Sparkles at the Hippodrome


Photo: Gary Emord Netzley
People don’t always get what they really want for a Christmas present, but I can assure you if someone gave you a gift that allows you to attend A Christmas Story, The Musical currently playing at the Hippodrome Theater, you would be jumping for joy.  This lavish production under the solid direction of Matt Lenz is a sparkling snow globe full of enchantment, sweetness, brilliant color, eye-watering humor, pleasing songs and an abundance of talent to make your Christmas season bright.  It couldn’t come at a better time.   #hocoarts
Based on the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, the musical adaptation, which premiered on Broadway in 2012, received several TONY®, Drama Desk and Outer Circle nominations.  The duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul crafted the music and lyrics, and the book was penned by Joseph Robinette based on the writings of radio humorist Jean Shepherd as well as the film.

The story of young Ralphie Parker’s determined quest to receive the only gift he wants—an official Red Ryder® Carbine-Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle—is as endearing as it is comical. (Ralphie is played by Austin Molinaro for this performance.)  The zany saga is packed with mishaps, disappointments, and fulfillment during December 1940 in Hohman, Indiana. 
You have this tawdry lady’s leg lamp that was won by Ralphie’s father in a contest, which the old man covets but his wife deplores.  You have bullies who if they push the right buttons can be beaten up themselves. There are flying lug nuts and a wayward cuss word that results in a bar of soap snack.  You have neighbors’ hounds running amok through the Parkers’ house and devouring their Christmas turkey. 

There is a cranky and increasingly intoxicated Santa who frightens the children more than giving them Christmas joy.  A down-to-earth teacher breaks out of character to perform a stunning dance number in a glitzy red gown. You have a tongue freezing on a flagpole incident resulting from the dreaded triple-dog-dare.  Then there was the Christmas carol-singing Chinese restaurant waiter, just for good measure. 
Regardless of who Ralphie encounters to lobby for this special rifle, whether it is his mother (Susannah Jones); his old man (Christopher Swan); Miss Shields, his teacher (Angelica Richie); even Santa (Andrew Berlin), Ralphie is told one thing, “You’ll shoot you’re eye out.”

Chris Carsten does a truly splendid job as the voice of Jean Shepherd, narrating the often hilarious story in the first person as a grown-up Ralphie with an onstage, non-intrusive presence throughout the production.  He recalls and shares the younger Ralphie’s thoughts as the boy navigates through each caper.
As the central character, bespectacled Ralphie, Austin Molinaro performs proficiently with his acting and comedic skills, vocals and dancing.  He is particularly adept in one of the show’s best numbers, “Ralphie to the Rescue!” whereby he imagines he’s a cowboy using his rifle to thwart bank robbers and other assorted scoundrels.

The remainder of his family unit is also appealing with its Midwestern charm.  Christopher Swan as The Old Man is spot-on.  The father is strict with his children and cursing is verboten (except when he does it).  A hardworking man who struggles with the house’s furnace and his Olds, he found solace in winning that lady’s leg lamp.  Gruff as he may be at times, you still root for him, thanks to the performance of Mr. Swan.
His best songs are “The Genius on Cleveland Street,” a duet with Susannah Jones and “A Major Award,” a phenomenal dance number that evolves into a clever can-can with he and the ensemble dancing with lady legs lamps with the shades seeming like skirts.   

Ms. Jones as Ralphie’s sweet mother is the perfect counterpart for her husband.  She is the sensible one of the two and protective of her children.  Ms. Jones’ rendition of “What a Mother Does” is moving.
Arick Brooks adorably plays Ralphie’s timid younger brother who is averse to eating unless he mimics a pig at a trough.  But talented Arick is quite the hoofer as he along with Angelica Richie (Miss Shields) and other youngsters in the ensemble are flawless tap dancers in “You’ll Shoot You’re Eyes Out.” 

This is one of several terrific production numbers choreographed Warren Carlyle and then reset by Jason Sparks for the tour.  Other quality dance numbers include the aforementioned “Ralphie to the Rescue!” and the imaginative “A Major Award.”
The remainder of the cast performs very well in support of the leads playing the roles of neighbors, shoppers, parents, students, townspeople, elves and others.  All are costumed magnificently by Lisa Zinni. 

The songs are performed with precision under the musical supervision of Logan Medland.  

Michael Carnahan designed an outstanding set.  The principal one is a cut-out of the two-level Parker house that moves back and forth to accommodate scene changes. The living room and kitchen are downstairs while the bedrooms are on the second floor.  The exterior of the house is appropriately lined with Christmas lights.  Another spectacular set is the snow globe effect that serves as a background to several scenes.
Working in conjunction with the sets is the fantastic lighting design by Charlie Morrison.  His use of bold hues that frequently change for emphasis and effect produces a gorgeous palette of color throughout the production.

In addition, much credit should go to sound designer Ed Chapman as all dialogue were audible and clear and the orchestration balanced so as not to overwhelm the vocalists.
A Christmas Story, The Musical is a production that runs on all cylinders.  It has all the elements needed to bring holiday cheer and pure enjoyment with its talented cast and crew under masterful direction.  Oh, and the loveable hounds?  They’re real!

So the question you may ask, what’s so great about a show about a kid desiring a BB-gun for Christmas?  The answer: everything.  Don’t miss this one.
Running time. Two hours and twenty-five minutes with an intermission.

A Christmas Story, The Musical runs through December 11 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Strong Acting Highlights The Zero Hour at Iron Crow


Rebecca Tucker (L.) as Rebecca and Rena Marie as O
Photo: Rob Clatterbuck
“Imagine having to take the 7 train to the ballpark, looking like you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing.” 
These stereotypical, hateful comments were made by ex-Major League Baseball pitcher John Rocker in 1999, which undermined his career following his suspension.   #hocoarts
Yes, the infamous 7 train a.k.a. the Flushing Line in NYC that extends from Flushing, Queens to western Manhattan. (A personal note: I used to ride that line daily for years and found the passengers to be as normal as any New Yorkers.)

What Rocker didn’t imagine encountering on this subway train were World War II-era Nazis, and neither did I, or at least I didn’t think so.  In The Zero Hour, a compelling 2010 work by Madeleine George, which debuts in Iron Crow Theatre’s first ever SecondStage season, Nazis, including those on the train, play a significant role in the play’s subplot.

In keeping with Iron Crow’s tradition of presenting offbeat plays with a darker hue tinged with sexuality that extend beyond the norms, The Zero Hour under the meticulous direction of Ann Turiano, is a provocative examination of relationships that is carried out by brilliant actors.  George manages to blur reality with mind games (and I do mean blur) and how these concepts intersect using emotionally-charged drama with the appropriate amount of humor throughoutt.
The story centers on two women in a relationship living in a rundown walkup in Queens just near the elevated section of the 7 train.  Rebecca, played exceptionally by Rebecca Tucker, a late-twenties Jewish femme, is writing a textbook on the Holocaust for seventh graders—an effort that spills into her personal life and psyche. 


Rebecca Tucker (L.) as Rebecca and Rena Marie as O
Photo: Rob Clatterbuck
Her lover O, superbly portrayed by Rena Marie, is a slightly younger butch woman who is unemployed and is destined to remain so if she has anything to do with it.  They seem to have little in common except for having mother issues.
Rebecca carps on O’s lack of a job; O rails against Rebecca’s insistence on remaining in the closet particularly when it comes to her mother who supposedly is unaware of the relationship.  Rebecca doesn’t quite accept the fact she is actually a lesbian despite the torrid sex between the two.   
O’s mother recently died but never approved of her O’s choices.  The strains in their fragile relationship begin to take its toll as the play progresses and ends with an unusual twist that leaves more questions than answers.

Both actors play multiple characters: Ms. Marie, in addition to her role of O, effectively plays a therapist and three different Nazis on the train employing different outfits and accents; Ms. Tucker plays both mothers (one appearing as a figment of the imagination).
As intended by the playwright, the actors change into the other characters in full visibility to the audience by removing then replacing articles of clothing, hats, footwear and adjustments made to hair-dos. They perform these tasks frenetically and with precision but would do well to eliminate the exchanges in shoes, for example, to shorten the delays between scenes. 

This process causes the play to be choppy at times as the audience anxiously anticipates the next scene to begin while leaving the actors occasionally out of breath as they initiate the subsequent dialogue. One cannot fault the actors involved, however; that’s how The Zero Hour was written.  
Aside from that quibble, the performances under Ms. Turiano’s direction by the two principal actors make this a top-notch theatrical experience.  Ms. Tucker is spot-on as the neurotic and conflicted Rebecca.  Where there is temptation to overact, Ms. Tucker refrains from doing so but exudes sufficient exasperation to be believable.  In addition to the interactions with O and the Nazis on the train, she does very well delivering several monologues that recite the lessons of the Holocaust in her textbook.


Nick Fruit (L.) as Doug and Rebecca Tucker as Rebecca
Photo: Rob Clatterbuck
For her part, Ms. Marie realistically carries out her role of the unemployed, rather irresponsible butch lesbian trying desperately to make things work in the relationship.  The chemistry between the two is dynamic evolving into genuinely portrayed confrontations.  Her other side roles are also performed well demonstrating her acting versatility.

A third actor, Nick Fruit, joins the performance near the end.  He plays Doug, a guy on the prowl at a local bar whose pray happens to be Rebecca who is there following a difficult day. Could Doug be yet another Nazi?

Mr. Fruit is wonderful in conveying this charming guy who, unfortunately for him, barked up the wrong tree. Yet, one cannot help but root for him. It is here whereby Rebecca finally acknowledged she was a lesbian—an identity she has struggled to admit heretofore.
This turned out to be among my favorite scenes with the witty repartee exchanged between the two as totally enjoyable.  The encounters with the Nazi train passengers rank high as well.

Director Turiano, who is assisted by Panna Adorjáni, brings all the elements together in this thought-provoking work.  Excellent lighting design by Chris Flint who doubled as the set designer enhances the mood and scene changes effectively.
The sound design team consisting of Alex Duncker, Philip Rodgers and Iron Crow Artistic Director Sean Elias does well in providing sound effects, such as a dripping leak from the ceiling of the apartment into a bucket to the sounds of that 7 train nearby.
Unfortunately, The Zero Hour has a short run at Iron Crow so you must hurry if you wish to see an interesting play performed by an extraordinary cast.

Running time. One hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Contains sexual situations and profanity and is not recommended for children under age 18.

The Zero Hour’s remaining performances December 4 (2 p.m. and 7 p.m.) at the Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit online. http://www.ironcrowtheatre.org/zerohour/

Monday, October 24, 2016

Trump's Real Opponent


Finally, the presidential campaign is nearing its conclusion.  We now can glide to November 8 with only a few questions remaining. By what margin will Hillary Clinton triumph? Can she turn a red state or two blue?  Will the obstructionist Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell become an obstructionist Minority Leader?  Will we ever see Paul Ryan grow a spine?  Will his House flip from Clinton’s coattails?  Will Donald Trump ever concede?  #hocopolitics
The last question is the most telling and symbolizes the person the Republican nominee truly is. Trump refused to declare to the world during the final debate on October 19 that he would automatically accept the will of the people.  He will keep us in suspense, he says. 

Trump has vowed to “make America great again” countless times but he is ready to eschew a centuries-old tradition of conceding a loss in a presidential election and leaving a big question mark on a fundamental tenet of our democracy.  He is also undermining our democracy when he claims without any evidence that the election is rigged.
A concession would be a sign of grace and sportsmanship that had been exemplified by Al Gore.  The Democratic hopeful in 2000 had a reason to be bitter but did the right thing anyway.

Trump cannot likely bring himself to concede because to do so would be an admission that, um, he lost.  Only he (in his own mind) knows how to win; losing is an anathema to him.  “Donald Trump, loser.”  It contradicts the image he tries so hard to project.
Many have said this race was Hillary’s to lose.  She has the experience, the money, the historic nature of being the first woman president, and the apparatus to win a national election. 

I say it was Trump’s to lose, and he will have fulfilled that beautifully.
There has been considerable desire for change in this country.  Trump was the vessel to effect that change.  Those who were down on their luck economically, maintain racial distrust, held a concern that illegal immigrants were stealing jobs, and other grievances, did not favor a third term of the Obama Administration that would be perceived with a Clinton presidency. 

Trump romped over his primary opponents partly as a result of all the free media he received, hoping to catch a moment that records his penchant for outlandish rhetoric. 
He also squashed them because they were all afraid of his insults and they didn’t take him seriously until it was too late.  They wasted their time on the debate stage trashing Obama and Clinton but the one obstacle in their path to nomination, Trump, was hardly attacked with gusto.

Voters saw a man with a message of populist nationalism, a chest-thumping visage who condemned political correctness.  He would say things that other politicians wouldn’t dare to utter but were of the same mindset as Trump.  He had the courage to do so; they didn’t.  And then there’s that unyielding rabid hatred of Hillary.
Trump would shake up Washington and restore pride to our country.  He would close our borders and defeat terrorism.  It was an effective message and one that had a chance to catch on more broadly than with just the disgruntled core of his supporters who were mostly white, rural and non-college educated.  Trump claimed, amusingly, he was one of them—gritty, pro-gun, working class—except a million times richer.

On the other hand, Hillary Clinton possesses a resume like no other: a former First Lady whose husband actually produced a budget surplus and kept us out of wars, a two-term U.S. Senator who worked effectively across the aisle, and Secretary of State.  Not insignificantly, she endured a tough primary from Bernie Sanders whose socialist stances forced Clinton to the left in order to keep the peace.
But she had a reputation—an unwelcome one—whereby Clinton had been cast as untrustworthy at best and a criminal at worst from her own actions as well as decades-old propaganda spewed by the extreme right who would never let facts get in the way of their conspiracy theories. 

Courtesy: Jum Urquhartt/Reuters
Hillary has her liabilities, and she has been able to slither out of trouble when the rocks were falling from the cliffs. There was her use of a personal server while Secretary of State and its missing emails, an FBI investigation that did not lead to a criminal indictment but castigated her for being “extremely careless” with her emails, awkward WikiLeaks email disclosures, and a barrage of baseless charges promulgated by Trump Nation and in particular the right-wing Alt-Right, whose leader Stephen Bannon of Breitbart.com fame, eventually oversaw the Trump campaign and its messaging.   
The race between Trump and Clinton—two of the most disliked presidential candidates in history—was underway in full force to the consternation of the country’s voters. Trump was the hero of this disgruntled segment of the GOP regardless of his crass, egotistical personality and his scant knowledge of policy. Clinton was laden by her baggage and was indeed vulnerable despite her strengths.  But as it has turned out, the contest was really between Trump and Trump.

Any non-lunatic Republican—Kasich, Bush or Rubio, for instance, would have defeated Clinton fairly easily given her controversial past and the historical desire on the part of the voters to change the controlling party following two terms in the White House.  But Hillary was carrying a horseshoe in her pocket; she drew Donald J. Trump as her opponent. 
Barring some form of miracle, it is clear that Trump will lose, and he will not be vanquished by Clinton; he will have defeated himself.  While Hillary was under water in the positives-negatives ratio, Trump was even worse.  Never before had two presidential candidates vied for the office with such high negative perceptions from the populace.

There is no need to rehash the myriad well-documented miscues—unforced errors and self-inflicted wounds by Trump—that had undermined his effort to win the election.  Any of these individually could have been detrimental but as an accumulation, they were fatal. 
The key turning point in the campaign that broke open a tight race was undoubtedly his 11 year-old tape recording from Access Hollywood whereby he lewdly bragged about his exploits with women based on his stardom.  His incredulous denial during the second debate that he actually engaged in such activity spawned over 10 women to step forward and chronicle a disturbing pattern of unwanted advances and sexual assault.  This amounts to criminal behavior, but it was Trump who threatened to send Clinton to jail if he was to be elected even though there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing on her part.

Likeability is crucial to win any political campaign; both candidates are far from likeable.  But Trump had failed to come close.
For starters he attacked the family of a Muslim casualty of the war in Iraq.  He mocked a disabled journalist.  He calls inner cities “hell.”  He wants to ban Muslims from entering the country. He refers to Mexicans as rapists and criminals and condemned a federal judge for being unfair to him based on his Mexican heritage.  He used anti-Semitic imagery on a tweet.  He stiffed contractors.  He employed undocumented immigrants for his construction projects though he assailed such people for entering the country.

He degraded women even before the tape surfaced.  He won’t reveal his tax returns though now we have learned he hasn’t paid Federal income taxes for some 18 years. He boasts of his business acumen but lost nearly a billion dollars—on casinos no less.  He treats nuclear weapons as toys and is ignorant of the purpose of the Purple Heart.
Trump’s personality doesn’t help matters. He is a pathologically narcissistic buffoon with a wafer-thin grasp of policy and what it takes to govern.  A con artist who lies about everything though his campaign paints Clinton as the liar in the race.  Everything is about him, and this self-centered ego was getting old.

He could have won this race had he been somewhat conventional.  Instead, he has scared voters including many Republicans because of his temperament and the harshness and misplacement of his attacks.  The Clinton campaign has exploited this effectively.
In the final analysis, Clinton will have not sent Trump to defeat.  Trump did.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

'FRENZY' Takes on Gay Domestic Violence/Abuse



With his novel entitled Nothing Can Tear Us Apart—FRENZY! (gay/ethnic) that is now available, gay/SGL journalist, motivational speaker and author Wyatt O’Brian Evans paints a striking and realistic portrait of Intimate Partner Violence/Abuse (IPV/A), commonly referred to as domestic violence/abuse in the LGBTQ community.   In many instances, IPV/A is stigmatized and “swept under the rug.”  And it occurs much more than is reported: for example, statistics show that each year, over 500,000 gay/SGL men are battered.
Mr. Evans has researched and written extensively about this issue for print and on line media outlets including Huffington Post Queer Voices, The Rainbow Times, Baltimore Gay Life, Wyattevans.com and Baltimore OUTloud.  Himself an IPV/A survivor, Mr. Evans conducts seminars and workshops on this issue.  

“Nothing Can Tear Us Apart—FRENZY!” is the story of Wesley and Antonio:  two masculine, openly gay/SGL men of color who must confront serious and daunting challenges and obstacles to their monogamous relationship.  Intimate Partner Violence and Abuse is the overarching theme of “FRENZY!” 
Because IPV/A tends to be a taboo subject in the LGBTQ community, the author felt that “Nothing Can Tear Us Apart—FRENZY!” would break through more as a novel--as opposed to a work of nonfiction.  “As fiction, the issue is more palatable, and not such a ‘bitter pill to swallow’,” states Evans.   

The themes addressed in Nothing Can Tear Us Apart—FRENZY!” certainly are universal; therefore the novel strongly resonates with the reader.  Both men and women—be they lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual or transgender—can fully identify with and relate to the journey of the novel’s two protagonists.
According to Mr. Cyrus Webb, host of the internationally popular “Conversations LIVE!” radio program, “Nothing Can Tear Us Apart—FRENZY!” is “deeply engaging and keeps your attention from the first chapter.  This is one of those books you can read and though the main characters are two men, you can see it fitting any situation where love is at the heart of the matter.”

And according to Rev. Sandy Rodgers, author, educator and national radio personality (“Life, Love, Wellness: The Sandy Rodgers Show”), “‘Nothing Can Tear Us Apart – FRENZY!’ is a delectable read. The story deals with so many relevant current day issues of child abuse/violence, unresolved emotional traumas and the solid love in a relationship between two people.
 “The gripping dialogue kept me spellbound in the explicitly-narrated scenes. It was hot, steamy, sexy and mesmerizing while dealing with the pains of childhood abuse and bullying. Unresolved issues will always creep its ugly head back into our adult lives as clearly illustrated by the character of Wesley/Walker. 

 “Intimate Partner Violence and (IPV/A) is alive and well in all segments of society, and every human is affected in some way--either directly or indirectly.  ‘FRENZY!’ deals with this communal issue in a raw yet provocative style. It grabs your attention and maintains it throughout the entire manuscript. Well- written, the story pulls you in like quicksand and never lets you get away. You are caught, hook line and sinker. Masterfully detailed and beautifully written. You get to know each character intimately: I felt like I was present as the story unfolded!   I was totally entwined in the happenings, literally living every word and unable to abandon the work until the end.

 “Wyatt, thank you so much for taking on the task of dealing with such an important topic, adding ‘real life’ to it, and also showing us the beauty of true LOVE between two people. My deepest admiration.”

The release date for “Nothing Can Tear Us Apart—FRENZY!” was October 1.  The book can be purchased online.

 Mr. Evans is available for interviews and appearances.  For booking presentations, media appearances, interviews, and/or book signings, contact: bookings@wyattevans.com .