Tuesday, June 13, 2017

What Morici misses about Trump and the GOP

Letter to the Baltimore Sun

Three things are striking from Peter Morici’s commentary :

 First, he never mentioned Russia once throughout your piece as if that cloud suddenly disappeared.  The Russian meddling in our election and Trump’s at best indifference to it or at worst involvement in it will detrimentally affect the GOP more than the Republican’s sabotaging of Obamacare or the other issues he cited.

Second, his lecturing the Democratic minority leaders for not legitimizing the Trump presidency is laughable.  Where has he been the previous eight years when Republican leaders (and the GOP Congressional caucus) not only not legitimizing President Obama in ways too numerous and too sickening to list here, they literally deprived him of his Constitutional right to nominate a Supreme Court justice.

Third, he mentioned Betsy DeVos and “sound ideas” in the same sentence.

Steve Charing

Published letter here.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Don’t Call Yourself Patriotic if…

As we reflect on this Memorial Day on those servicemen and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice in defending our country and its freedoms, we should understand that they were the true patriots.  Others are also patriotic, even if they didn’t fight in our wars or serve our country.  They honor our heroes by displaying the American flag and other gestures to show their pride in our nation.

We all have our own definition of patriotism.    For me, in essence, patriotism is a desire to keep our country strong, honor the Constitution, and to treat all of our citizens equally and fairly for the greater good. 

Unfortunately, there are many Americans who equate patriotism with an alt-right nationalistic mindset.  Patriotism shouldn’t espouse exclusivity and discrimination. Patriotism doesn’t promote hatred and violence against our own citizens and neighbors. When one supports ideas and actions that hurt our country, don’t call yourself patriotic.

Don’t call yourself patriotic if you are OK with the draft-evading presidential candidate, now commander-in-chief, for treating the Purple Heart like it was some souvenir trinket and lamenting the fact he didn’t have one.

Don’t call yourself patriotic if you treasure the 2nd Amendment as  the most sacred part of our Constitution but eschew the tenets of the 1st Amendment, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to peaceably assemble in protest, and yes, freedom of the press.

Don’t call yourself patriotic if you agree with a president that wants to ban people from entering our country based on their religion.

Don’t call yourself patriotic if you vehemently criticize one president for bowing to the leader of a tyrannical regime that chops off the heads and hands of its people and represses women, but are silent when the current president does so.

Don’t call yourself patriotic if you support the president when he chastises our strong European allies on the world’s stage but congratulates the leader of the Philippines for doing a “great job” in his condoning the murder of over 2,500 people during the country’s “war on drugs.”

Don’t call yourself patriotic if you shrug off the undeniable fact that our number one adversary, Russia, interfered with our elections and the president has yet to be persuaded by that conclusion reached by all of our Intel agencies.

Don’t call yourself patriotic if you are not bothered by the president’s meeting with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister in the Oval Office, whereby he divulged classified information and that only the Russian state press was permitted to observe while the American media was locked out.

Don’t call yourself patriotic if you are unconcerned that the president impeded, if not obstructed, the investigation of Russian ties to our election by firing the man who was spearheading the investigation and admitting that the “Russian thing” was the motive.

Don’t call yourself patriotic if you are not disturbed by the president’s son-in-law, who is woefully inexperienced in government (as is the president), who allegedly attempted to set up a secretive back channel communication line with the Kremlin even though the current administration was not in power in order to purportedly skirt U.S. intelligence surveillance.

Don’t call yourself patriotic if you couldn’t care less or even applaud the president praising a U.S. Congressman-elect for assaulting a reporter doing his job but is silent on the heroic deaths of two veterans (and a third victim) at the hands of white racist extremists.

Don’t call yourself patriotic if it doesn’t bother you that the president and the U.S, House of Representatives produced a health care proposal that will leave 23 million Americans including a large chunk of the president’s supporters without health care.

Don’t call yourself patriotic if you allow the president to roll back regulations that protect the country’s air and water from polluters.

Don’t call yourself patriotic if you think for one minute the president has nothing to hide by refusing to share his tax returns with the American people.

Don’t call yourself patriotic if you believe the president is putting America’s interests first and not his own family and his business interests.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Baltimore School to be Honored by GLSEN

Roland Park Elementary/Middle School’s GSA wins national recognition

Roland Park Elementary/Middle School  Photo courtesy of Live Baltimore
Baltimore’s Roland Park Elementary/Middle School will be honored along with three other awardees by GLSEN at the 2017 GLSEN Respect Awards – New York to be held at Cipriani 42nd Street on May 15.  Dr. Jill Biden will deliver the evening’s opening remarks.   

Roland Park Elementary/Middle School is being recognized for the work being done by the diverse student-run Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) to ensure that every student of Roland Park Elementary/Middle School has the best school experience possible, with a mission of providing a safe and inclusive space for all genders and sexual orientations.

According to GLSEN, the leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe and affirming schools for all students, GSA members at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School “have led advocacy efforts both within their school’s walls and in their community. They have created positive environments in their classrooms by confronting hostility and prejudice against the LGBTQ community.

“Together they created a project called ‘Dear Mx’ in order to educate their school on LGTBQ issues, offering a way for their peers to anonymously ask questions. Their work has also led to a ‘GSA Edition’ in their weekly aired Student News, giving a platform and a voice to LGTBQ people and history, and raising awareness around multiple issues.

“In their community, the Roland Park GSA has worked actively with the GLSEN Baltimore Chapter as well as partner organization PFLAG. Serving as a model for other GSAs across the country, their group testified at a school board meeting to advocate for clearer district policy and guidance around LGBTQ issues.

“From pushing for all gender bathrooms to working towards intersectionality alongside other student groups such as The Diversity Club, the Roland Park Elementary/Middle School GSA continuously demonstrates how important our shared vision of inclusivity is.”

Jabari Lyles, executive director of the Baltimore chapter of GLSEN, explains it was not easy to get this group started at Roland Park.

“Initially, around the year 2009, Baltimore City Public Schools hesitated to allow a middle school to start a GSA,” Lyles said. “Through our advocacy, we urged the board to allow Roland Park to start their group. Fast forward to today, and this group has won this incredible award. The GSA at Roland Park Elementary/Middle is a model for GSAs everywhere. Their hard work, dedication and success show anything is possible when students are motivated, staff are invested, and safe space is created.”
Members of the GSA   Photo: Kimberly Mooney/WYPR

According to a May 5 interview on WYPR’s radio show “On the Record,” eight members of the Roland Park Elementary/Middle School GSA, the principal Nicholas D’Ambrosio, and the GSA’s faculty advisor Kimberly Mooney will be traveling to New York to receive the recognition.

“I was not expecting this recognition as we were up against a lot of high schools,” Mooney said in the interview.  “Getting this proves that kids of any age can accomplish anything whatever they put their minds to and they are making a difference. It shows schools across the country what a small group of committed kids can really do to change the culture of the school and the environment in which kids are trying to learn.”

The other awardees to be recognized by GLSEN are Ryan Pedlow, Founder of Two Creeks Capital, who will receive the Visionary Award; Ann Clark, Superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, will receive GLSEN’s Educator of the Year Award; and First Data will receive the Corporate Ally Award.

“Now more than ever it is crucial to support those pushing to create safe and inclusive spaces for LGBTQ youth,” said Dr. Eliza Byard, GLSEN’s Executive Director, in a statement.

“I am proud to advocate for LGBTQ students’ lives by recognizing this year’s honorees, each of whom are playing an important role of fighting for justice by ensuring that LGBTQ youth have equal opportunities and the support to reach their full academic potential,” she said.

The GLSEN Respect Awards, introduced in 2004 and held annually in Los Angeles and New York, showcase the work of students, educators, individuals, and corporations who serve as exemplary role models and have made a significant impact on the lives of LGBTQ youth.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

There's Nothing 'Rotten' at the Hippodrome-Not Even Eggs

Cast of 'Something Rotten Photo: Jeremy Daniel
Without question, Shakespeare is an acquired taste.  Many love his works; others not so much.  But how many actually HATE Shakespeare?  Well, in the hilarious musical Something Rotten! there is certainly one: Nick Bottom.  He is a struggling playwright with an underachieving acting troupe who has nothing but disdain for the ultra-successful Will Shakespeare in late 16th century England. And that’s just the beginning.  #hocoarts

Something Rotten! continuing its national tour by stopping by the Hippodrome for an all-too-brief run, delivers countless “you’re killing me” moments from end to end.  That is, if you find the likes of puritanical oppression and the black plague humorous.  Comedic moments are highlighted by well-placed double entendres and a not-too-subtle stream of gaiety, or should I say gayness, running through the production.

The Tony Award winning production irreverently takes on other Broadway musicals like no other, even more so than The Producers, The Book of Mormon, and Shrek to name a few. In fact, there are no less than forty references to Broadway musicals in Something Rotten!

Magnificently directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Casey Nicholaw, Something Rotten! features music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick and a book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell.

Contributing to the show’s excellence are the stellar sets designed by Scott Pack, the brilliant period costuming including exaggerated codpieces worn by the men and even omelet costumes (where else would you see those?) designed by Gregg Barnes, the hue-rich lighting design by Jeff Croiter, the effective sound design by Peter Hylenski, and the fine orchestra conducted by Brian P. Kennedy.

Its music is catchy for sure but the lyrics are stunningly clever.  Most successful Broadway musicals have a show-stopping number that is elicits ovations from audiences. Something Rotten! boasts two such epochal moments.  

The elaborate number “A Musical” is performed halfway through the first act.  Its high-energy tap dancing and kick line choreography and fabulous lyrics, which include clever references to a bevy of Broadway musicals, such as Rent, South Pacific, and A Chorus Line, drew a thunderous extended ovation on opening night.  Also bringing down the house was the second act “Make an Omelette” that contains similar ingredients. 

Moreover, a solid musical may present one or two scene-stealers during the course of the show. Something Rotten! delivers a multitude, which accounts for the prodigious amount of laughter-producing lines.

The insanely funny story centers on the aforementioned Nick Bottom (played superbly by Rob McClure and his younger na├»ve brother Nigel Bottom (Josh Grisetti) who barely can make ends meet.  Nick more than Nigel is so jealous of Shakespeare (Adam Pascal) that he is desperate to write a successful play for a change.  (All three of these actors are reprising their Broadway roles.)

Finding a soothsayer, Thomas Nostradamus (Daniel Beeman), the nephew of THE Nostradamus, Nick is told that the wave of the future is a musical, whereby the actors break out into song and dance in the middle of their dialogue. What a concept! 

Nostradamus, who apparently did not have all his wires connected properly, looked into the future and predicted the next great play would be “Omelette,” instead of Shakespeare’s greatest hit that sounds similar.  Mr. Beeman is rip-roaring funny in this sequence and is one of the show’s scene stealers.

Shakespeare, meanwhile, displaying surprising insecurity, is worried that the Bottom Brothers are stealing his work.  The ensuing madness, dominated by eggs, needless to say, comprises the rest of the plot.

Perfectly cast as Nick Bottom, Rob McClure puts on an amazing performance not only by his comedic prowess but also his singing and dancing. Full of energy, Mr. McClure frantically tries to compete with Shakespeare and has the audience rooting for this underdog.  He sets the tone right in “God, I Hate Shakespeare.”

Adam Pascal does well as the conceited, gloating, swaggering, Billy Idol-like Shakespeare fresh off his hit play “Romeo and Juliet.” He is the rock star of his time; men and women alike adore him, except, of course, Nick Bottom.  He delivers the numbers “Will Power” and “Hard to Be the Bard” with gusto.

As Nigel, Josh Grisetti, looks up to Shakespeare though he tries to work with his brother on producing the musical.  However, his love interest, a Puritan named Portia (Autumn Hurlbert), convinces Nigel, a poet, that he should write from his heart. Somehow, co-writing “Omelette” doesn’t feel right to him.   

Showcasing a smooth tenor voice, Mr. Grisetti clicks in duets with Ms. Hurlbert, the ballad “We See the Light,” and with Mr. McClure, “To Thine Own Self.”
Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Another of the show’s scene stealers is Maggie Lakis who plays Bea, Nick’s wife (Mr. McClure’s real-life wife). Realizing her husband’s struggles and a desire for a better life, Bea wants to help out any way she can.  That includes acting as a part of Nick’s acting troupe though it is illegal for a woman to appear on stage.  She even takes on physical jobs for men disguising herself as a man. Ms. Lakis delivers splendidly in “Right Hand Man.”

As the strict father of Portia, Brother Jeremiah (Scott Cote) seems to be the father of all Puritans.  Bible clinging, intolerant, set in his beliefs, Brother Jeremiah has a habit of slip-of-the-tongue oops moments revealing that perhaps he’s hiding something.  If so, he’s not hiding it too well.  Mr. Cote deliciously plays this role to the hilt.

Another deft performance is turned in by Jeff Brooks as Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, who cannot legally invest in the musical.  Dropping Yiddish words during the dialogue, Mr. Brooks is such a mensch.

Nick Rashad Burroughs as the Minstrel who opens up each act with “Welcome to the Renaissance” does a fine job in setting the tone for the show.

The remainder of the cast provides superb support for the leads with their energetic, precise dancing and strong vocals.

Something Rotten! is a gorgeous spectacle in every respect.  The wonderful music, hilarious lyrics, zany story, well-placed satire and an amazingly talented cast and crew make this a must-see show.  As the tour advances around the country, I wish all the performers well and to break an egg.

Advisory: This show contains sexual innuendo and may not be suitable for children.

Running time. Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

Something Rotten! Plays through April 23 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.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

It's No Illusion: 'The Magic Play' Cuts it at Olney

Jon Hudson Odom (L.) as The Diver and
Brett Schneider as The Magician Photo: Stan Barouh
British author Terry Pratchett once wrote, “It’s still magic even if you know how it’s done.”  In The Magic Play that is currently inhabiting the Mainstage at the Olney Theatre Center in a rolling world premiere, the audience is kept in the dark as to how each trick is accomplished; the results are what matter in what is perceived as magic.

In reality, illusion is not magic.  Card tricks are not magic. Sleight-of-hand is not magic. They just seem that way, especially if we don’t know how the tricks are executed. And to be sure, everybody wants to know!  

More importantly, relationships can’t be forged through magic, whether they are romantic or familial, nor can they be magically repaired when broken or destroyed. 

Playwright Andrew Hinderaker, who had previously won a Helen Hayes Award for his superlative play Colossal, which appeared at Olney two years ago, lays out all these cards on the table with his latest work, The Magic Play.  

There are clear similarities between the two.  In each of these unconventional dramas, Mr. Hinderaker blends real-time spectacle with a plot line that includes a gay relationship and father relationship.    

Additionally, Mr. Hinderaker wrote the role of Mike in Colossal specifically for actor Michael Patrick Thornton, who had suffered a spinal stroke that left him paralyzed from the neck down.  The role of The Magician in The Magic Play”was also written for a specific performer; in this case it was for talented actor-magician Brett Schneider.

Skillfully directed by Halena Kays, Mr. Schneider, as The Magician in The Magic Play’s three-person cast, performs an assortment of mainly card tricks that produce a number of wow moments for the audience. For most of these, Mr. Schneider meanders through the apprehensive crowd to select “volunteers” to assist in the tricks onstage. 

Nothing that would cause any embarrassment to the assistant ensues.  However, this device makes each performance unique and improvisational.  

Adding to the enjoyment, Projections Designer John “Smooch” Medina allows the audience to view The Magician’s illusionary movement of the cards that are on a table by the use of a close-up live feed projected on a screen above the stage.  And Jesse Belsky’s deft lighting design produces the appropriate atmospherics.  (There are other technical marvels in the presentation that I will discuss later.)  #hocoarts

While The Magician is in complete control of his performance in front of an audience and his ability to mesmerize it with astounding trickery, he finds out that the ability to control a relationship does not work, and the deception inherent to magic performances that bleed into his personal life proves to be damaging like a collapsing house of cards.

The Magician had undergone a painful break-up with his boyfriend, The Diver, played convincingly by Helen Hayes Award winning, athletic-looking actor Jon Hudson Odom.  He is seen practicing his dives from a platform, sans taking the actual plunge, for a shot at the Olympics thanks to a clever set designed by Lizzie Bracken.  The interactions with The Diver are manifestations of The Magician’s memories. 

Brett Schneider  Photo: Stan Baouh
Though only hints of their relationship transpire during the play, it illustrates how even The Magician’s memories are controlled.  Because The Magician is so invested in his work and the deception that is a major component of it, The Diver could simply not trust him, especially when he had lied about visiting his father, played authentically by Olney veteran Harry A. Winter.

Father, an over-the-hill magician in his own right living in Reno, had abandoned his son when he was a youngster.  He had taught his son the tricks of the trade so to speak, but the younger one blossomed into an accomplished artist.  The Magician’s attempt to acquire the paternal love he had lacked provides solid dramatic moments.

In an odd twist late in the second act, The Magician asks the audience to reverse the earlier admonition to turn phones off and instead, turn them back on.  He urges the patrons to text to a specific number their request for any kind of magic trick they would like to see performed.

Another assistant is selected at random.  She writes on a card what she would like to see magically happen. The atmosphere turns political as she scribes, “The cheeto must disappear” to an approving but muted crowd reaction.  

Within minutes, the requested texts are hand-written not only on the playing cards but also projected on the screen.  There were similar such requests as well as others like “saw a person in half” and “make the deck disappear” causing this segment to be refreshingly unpredictable theatre.

Mr. Schneider is a superbly skillful magician.  His showmanship and charming demeanor seduce audience members to believe what he wants them to believe. That’s what magic performances are all about.   

On top of that, Mr. Schneider is a proficient actor.  He exhibits strong chemistry with the other fine actors, Mr. Odom, who had also performed in Colossal, and Mr. Winter, during their dramatic and emotional exchanges.

There is no illusion that The Magic Play is pure entertainment.  The personal foibles of a magician are usually not observed by the public.  This weaving of the showmanship with the human element is carried out competently by an excellent script, a talented director, cast and technical crew. It is highly recommended.

Running Time. Two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: This play contains profanity and is not recommended for children.

The Magic Play runs through May 7 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting online

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Even Now

Barry Manilow’s decision late in his life to come out was his alone to make.

Social media was bursting with sarcasm when People released an interview  with pop singer-songwriter, musician and producer Barry Manilow in which he officially revealed he was gay. 

“Shocking!” and “I never saw this coming!” were some of the more common jabs.

Of course, it wasn’t news that he was gay; it was news that he finally admitted it.  The story had broken two years ago that he married his long-time partner and manager Gary Keiff.  That revelation merely confirmed that he was gay.  For decades people suspected Manilow was gay, and it probably didn’t matter to most of his fans.

He launched his career at New York’s Continental Baths as the accompanist for Bette Midler who performed to enthusiastic, mostly gay fans.  This took place in 1971, and it would have been rather rare if a straight man entertained in such a venue.

(I actually knew Manilow was gay as far back as 1977 when a member of his touring band told me.  His secret was safe with me as I respected his privacy and I, too, was in the closet.)

Fans didn’t see Manilow through the lens of being straight or gay.  They saw an engaging, personable artist, whose Adult Contemporary songs—mostly ballads—were laced with saccharine and the melodies quite hummable. 

In fact, Manilow had 47 top 40 singles and 12 reached number one.  The Latin-style “Copacabana” was arguably the most famous of all his hits.

“I thought I would be disappointing [my fans] if they knew I was gay,” he explained to People. “So I never did anything.”

He counted females as a large portion of his fan base and he figured that coming out would hurt him professionally.  But through his five decades in the spotlight, Manilow was never considered a heartthrob in the way Elvis or McCartney was during the height of their careers.  

Moreover, superstar artist Sir Elton John, is similarly not heartthrob material (unless wigs, glitter-laced suits and oversized glasses appeal to many) yet his coming out did little to tamp down his popularity and commercial success.

Additionally, open lesbians k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge have enjoyed lucrative careers as did openly gay Michael Stipe, the front man for R.E.M., who says he’s a better person for coming out.  And there are others.   

Good music, good talent and good artistry seem to transcend sexual orientation because it simply does not and should not matter. Entertainment value is what makes an artist popular, and it seems that those who are disappointed regarding an artist’s sexual orientation would have a negligible impact.
Aside from professional risks that Manilow may have considered in deciding not to come out, he simply could have been one of many older gays who still harbor fears about going public.

“Manilow was born in 1943. Someone born in that year has witnessed the McCarthy-era Lavender scare, police raids on gay bars, the Stonewall riots, the HIV/AIDS crisis and its accompanying stigma, the strong anti-gay currents of the 1990s, the heyday of anti-LGBT conversion therapy, and much, much more,” writes Samantha Allen in The Daily Beast.

“So no matter how accepting 2017 might be—and even that clause has to come with qualifiers about lingering cultural homophobia—they might still be extremely reticent to come out.

When LGBT people come out, the more visibility the community achieves.  More neighbors, family members, co-workers, and friends will then know an LGBT person and more likely will be an ally in the never-ending quest for equality.  #hocoarts

But there are risks in coming out: alienation from friends and family members, loss of job, rejection by religious institutions, being bullied, violence, to name a few.

Coming out as LGBT is a personal decision that must be taken seriously after extensive evaluation of the risks and rewards.  One must reach that comfort level that only he or she experiences before making such a monumental judgment.

Barry Manilow thought the time was right.  Even now.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

‘Edith’ Hits the Mark at Iron Crow

Photo: Rob Clatterbuck
“What’s the matter with kids today?”  That was the question famously posed by Paul Lynde in the classic 60’s musical Bye Bye Birdie.  In Iron Crow’s presentation of Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, the question could easily be reversed: what’s the matter with adults?

That question is answered in an engaging play written by A. Rey Pamatmat.  Well directed by Sean Elias and Assistant Directed by Robert Corona, Edith hits the mark thanks to strong acting by the three-person cast who are young adults portraying adolescents. All are making their Iron Crow Theatre debuts. 
 Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them tells the story of a 12 year-old girl Edith, played by Pimmie Juntranggur and her 16 year-old brother Kenny (Mohammad R. Suaidi) who are left to virtually fend for themselves in a middle America farmhouse during say, the 1990’s.  

For the full review, visit MD Theatre Guide

Friday, March 31, 2017

An Enchanting 'Beauty and the Beast' at Toby’s

Nicki Elledge at Belle and Russell Sunday as Beast
Photo: jeri Tidwell Photography
It is clear we’re in the midst of Beauty and the Beast Season.  The long-anticipated live-action remake of Disney’s animated film opened a couple of weeks ago.  

Currently, Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, is serving up the vaunted musical version.

And what a job they do!  Even with Toby’s already high bar of consistently churning out quality musical theatre productions over the years, this mounting of Beauty and the Beast soars to a new level.

Directed and choreographed by Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick, the production clearly reflects his meticulous attention to details as well as his keen awareness of the in-the-round stage that is a hallmark of Toby’s.  It is an enchanting spectacle of superb music performed by a talented company demonstrating strong vocals and dazzling, high tempo dancing.  #hocoarts

Combine that with brilliant, extravagant period costumes designed by Lawrence B. Munsey, the imaginative set, set pieces, and props by David A. Hopkins, Lynn Joslin’s lighting design and the precise staging, Beauty and the Beast is far more beauty than beast.

Several hundred costume pieces are employed including colorful 18th century gowns, dresses with hoopskirts, as well as attire for wolves and the beast himself.  Prosthetics and other devices are used to outfit the enchanted objects—clock, tea pot, candelabra, etc.  There are great challenges in designing such costumes but Mr. Munsey succeeds spectacularly, which fortifies the aesthetics of the show.

The musical, which opened on Broadway in 1994 was based on Oscar-nominated Disney’s 1991 animated feature film with the same name. It became the tenth longest ever running musical on Broadway.

Beauty and the Beast featured the Oscar-winning score with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman, with additional songs composed by Alan Menken and lyrics by Tim Rice. The book was written by Linda Woolverton.

Photo Jeri Tidwell Photography
Show-stopping production numbers that highlight the singing and dancing talents of the ensemble are audience pleasers to be sure.  The rich score is ably presented by Ross Scott Rawlings and his six-piece orchestra.  Yet, it is the fairy tale itself that sweeps you away on an emotional and romantic journey. 

The story of a spoiled prince who had been transformed by an enchantress  into a boorish, hot-tempered, unsightly creature (Russell Sunday) until he can find love and return to his human form before petals fall off from an eternal rose given by the enchantress and a beautiful woman Belle (played by Nicki Elledge) from a provincial town is tender and endearing.  This relationship has the audience rooting hard for both. 

Also pushing hard for the couple to fall in love are various servants in the prince’s castle who were converted into enchanted household objects when the spell was cast on the prince.  They, too, have a stake in the spell being removed so they can return to being humans.

Simultaneously, the town’s egomaniacal, bicep-flexing, bully, Gaston (David Jennings), rejected by Belle to be his wife, strives to make her change her mind. 

Exquisite as Belle, Ms. Elledge, making her Toby’s debut in stunning fashion, shines throughout.  Considered “weird” by the townsfolk because of her passion for books, Belle is strong-minded, and her eventual attraction to the beast that requires his becoming more gentlemanly for starters is tearful in its sweetness.    Ms. Elledge showcases her lovely soprano voice in such the ballads “Belle,” “Home” and “Change in Me.”

For his part, Mr. Sunday as the Beast is also excellent.  He is called upon to be mean, gruff and demanding. Yet, he competently softens his demeanor as his love for Belle grows, demonstrating his acting gifts.  Mr. Sunday’s pleasant baritone is evident in the emotional numbers “How Long Must This Go On?” and “If I Can’t Love Her.”

David Jennings romps through his role as the superior, perfect-looking God’s gift to women, Gaston.  His character, though an antagonist, provides most of the comic relief throughout because of his over-the-top self-centeredness and swagger with the amusing help from Lefou, Gaston’s goofy, ever-fawning sycophant, played deliciously by Jeffrey Shankle.  Mr. Jenning’s commanding baritone in “Me,” “Gaston” and “The Mob Song” is on display.

As mentioned earlier, because of the spell, the Prince’s-then Beast’s staff had been turned into such objects as a teapot, Mrs. Potts played by Lynn Sharp-Spears.  Her rendition of the title song in the second act was performed sweetly. 

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Other characters in this group include Cogsworth, the head of the castle and who converted into a mantle clock (David James); Babette, the enchanted feather duster (Elizabeth Rayca); the suave Lumiere, the maitre d’ of the castle and enchanted candelabra (Jeremy Scott Blaustein); former opera diva Madame de la Grande Bouche, the enchanted wardrobe (Jane C. Boyle); and young Chip, the teacup and son of Mrs. Potts (Nathan Pham).  All perform brilliantly in their mostly comic roles as foils to the Beast.

Also, turning in a solid performance is the always reliable Robert John Biedermann 125 as Maurice, Belle’s inventor-father thought to be crazy by Gaston and the townsfolk.

Production numbers, such as “Gaston,” “Be Our Guest,” and “Human Again” involving the ensemble are extraordinary in their execution of Mr. Minnick’s choreography.  Precise throughout, these numbers are simply sensational. 

AJ Whittenberger, a member of the ensemble, is dazzling in his acrobatics as a carpet in “Be Our Guest.”  If this was gymnastics, he would have garnered a sterling 9.5 in the floor exercise.
Rounding out the energetic, talented ensemble are Justin Calhoun, Andrew Horn, MaryKate Brouillet, Coby Kay Callahan, Samantha McEwen Deininger, Rachel Kemp, Julia Lancione, Kyle Louviere, RJ Pavel, and DeCarlo Raspberry.

...this mounting of Beauty and the Beast soars to a new level.

With the talent overflowing and the technical crew’s skill,  Toby’s presentation of Beauty and the Best excels in all facets from direction to staging to performances.

This production proves why the musical has received such worldwide popularity. No matter our age, we can all enjoy a good fairy tale with a happy ending to brighten our lives. 

Running time. Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

Beauty and the Beast runs through June 11 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311 or visiting tobysdinnertheatre.com.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Where’s the Flamethrower?

Dems need a leader to step up to harness the anti-Trump fervor.

As President Donald Trump continues to offer evidence on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis as to why he is not fit to be president and commander-in-chief, with few exceptions, Democratic officials are perplexingly standing on the sidelines.  This window of opportunity should be seized by leaders who can galvanize the incredible energy stemming from the grass roots’ opposition to the president.   #hocopolitics

The ordinary citizens—mostly disappointed supporters of Hillary Clinton—have established a movement mainly through the use of social media to drive Trump out of office.  They are hoping this can be accomplished either through making it so uncomfortable for him that he would resign, hoping Congress would activate the impeachment process for such offenses as failure to divest from his businesses among other violations, or perhaps his connection to Russia and their efforts to disrupt and influence our democratic election process may be too much for Trump to withstand. 

Any of these possesses a low probability of achievement in having Trump “repealed and replaced” (not that Vice President Pence is a great bargain).  However, if handled properly, it could set up a favorable political environment for Democrats in 2018 and 2020.

What the Democrats need is a flamethrower in the way that Newt Gingrich was early in President Bill Clinton’s first term.  It worked.  Even if Gingrich’s personal popularity waned, Republicans gained 54 seats in the House of Representatives and 8 seats in the Senate during the 1994 midterms—a phenomenon known as the Gingrich Revolution.

Whether it be Trump’s attachment to the new health care bill, the unusually harsh (even for Republicans) budget proposal, the bizarre libelous accusation about President Obama’s “wire tapping” (in quotes) Trump and/or associates or most recently Trump’s ill-advised humiliation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Democratic officials have responded with a measured tone.

That is not sufficient.

Why not the outrage that these episodes and countless more during Trump’s first two nightmarish months warrant?  The only blowback seems to have come from Twitter accounts or Facebook pages that push for impeachment or resistance and from our friends at MSNBC. 

During normal times, statesmanlike responses from Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi would be justified, if not welcome.  These aren’t normal times and a more fiery approach is required.
A local elected official, noting the palpable anger among Democrats, advised a gathering of Democratic partisans to pace themselves since it is so early in Trump’s term.  I disagree given the circumstances.  We must not take our foot off the gas pedal and instead, keep the pressure on. 

The “tea party” didn’t pace themselves.  They attacked Obama at every turn, and that helped wrest control of the House, the Senate and now the White House.

Earlier in Trump’s tenure there were numerous street demonstrations.  The Woman’s March was historic and had a great impact.  We need more of the same, and public officials need to get in front and lead these protests.

We also need a leader, a voice, to take this broad energy and funnel it through public platforms to make the case to all Americans.  This is one time when demagoguery is not only desirable but also essential. 

Politeness must be set aside until our country is back on the sensible path.  No need to take the high road; it only gets you to the exit ramp.  Of course, this goes against the notion of encouraging civil
Will Rep. Tim Ryan lead the anti-Trump movement?
discourse in our politics.  But these are dangerous times with an erratic, thin-skinned, unstable and dangerous president. 

Democrats need a fresh face to take this on.  Who will emerge?  Will it be Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the popular bastion of progressive principles?  Will it be Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, a relatively new figure, a centrist who appeals to working class Democrats?  His loss to Nancy Pelosi for House Minority Leader was a shame; the Dems needed to reboot after the debacles of 2014 and 2016.  It also could be Sen. Corey Booker, Sen. Al Franken, Gavin Newsom or someone nobody heard of or a combination of any of the above.

Regardless, the Democrats need a leader to harness this energy before it’s too late.  We need a flamethrower.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Presiding Over the Divided States of America

During the rally at Nashville, Tenn. Wednesday night, President Donald Trump continued to live out his weird and troubling fantasy that he is still campaigning.  He high-tailed out of Washington earlier in the day in an attempt to escape mounting troubling news for his presidency and himself.   Trump made a stop in Michigan and then went on to Nashville to seek the therapy he craves: adulation from his supporters.

What is noteworthy is that although he ventured to friendly terrain in Nashville, his appearance in the relatively small arena had many empty seats.  The days of filling up huge stadiums may be over for the president.

In discussing another legal defeat on his Muslim ban at the hands of the U.S. District Court in Hawaii, he managed to take yet another swipe at his defeated foe, Hillary Clinton.

Trump said, “[The judge’s decision] is, in the opinion of many, an unprecedented judicial overreach. The law and the Constitution give the president the power to suspend immigration, when he or she – fortunately, it will not be Hillary she.”

Immediately thereafter, the Trump supporters joined in the all-too-familiar chant of “lock her up” as they so often did on the campaign trail.  And the president did nothing to squelch it; instead, he strutted around much like a boxer would as his opponent is left lying on the ring while the referee is counting to ten.

What Trump has failed to grasp or accept is that the majority of voters did not vote for him.  Taking potshots at Mrs. Clinton is not helping build any kind of support.  In fact, it motivates the resistance further.  #hocopolitics

This lame and cheap shot directed towards her divides the country even more.  Ironically, he lamented this division later during his speech that he read off the teleprompter.

Remember Mr. Trump, you are not in campaign mode; you are president of all the people in the U.S. not just your supporters as well as the leader of the free world.  Try acting like one. You are making the Divided States of America even more divided. And it’s on you.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

How Obama Can Unify Dems: Sue Trump

Courtesy of slate.com
The recent election for DNC Chair exposed a continued divide between establishment Democrats and progressives.  In an attempt to bring the factions together, Mr. Perez asked Rep. Ellison to be his deputy.  However, such a chasm, should it remain, will do little to alter the Democrats’ minority power in most state governments and the federal branches. #hocopolitics

Rallying against President Trump could be cathartic if not unifying. Would that alone be sufficient to win back the Senate, or House, or some of the governors’ mansions in 2017 or 2018?  The answer is no.

Aside from enunciating a rationale to unseat Republicans based on policy and connecting better with voters overall, the Democrats need to set aside their habitual in-fighting, get fired up emotionally, and increase voter turnout—something they historically have not done too well—in off-year elections. 
A catalyst for that to take place could lie in the actions taken by former President Barack Obama who remains the de facto leader of the Democratic Party and still commands enormous popularity.   

President Trump handed the Democrats a gift last Saturday when he launched a tweet storm charging without evidence that as president, Barack Obama had the phones tapped at Trump Tower prior to the election.  One tweet wasn’t enough; four were fired off saying essentially the same thing. 

Mr. Trump was said to have enjoyed how the media were consumed by these tweets rather than focusing on the increasingly sobering connections between Trump and his people have had with Russian officials.  Days later, Trump did not back down from the phone tapping charges and his aides have struggled to answer the barrage of demands for proof of these allegations.

Assuming the charges are not supportable by facts, it is quite possible that President Obama has been defamed.  Stating without equivocation that the former president engaged in a felonious act could cause damage to Mr. Obama’s reputation and degrade his ability to secure a financially beneficial post-president career. 

What Mr. Obama should do is sue Mr. Trump for libel and force the current president to back up the charges with proof.  Mr. Trump brags about the many lawsuits he has engaged in though they have largely not been successful.  He threatens everybody who gets in his way with a lawsuit (recall the women during the campaign who accused him of sexual assault).

 “[Trump is] basically stating that Mr. Obama committed crimes, and to state that somebody has committed a crime when it’s false is clearly defamatory,” said Benjamin Zipursky, who teaches defamation law at Fordham University Law School in New York.

“The question is: Is there enough evidence of serious reckless disregard to send that case to a jury?” Zipursky added. “I don't know what a court would decide on that, but there is some evidence of recklessness.”

A lawsuit for say, $50 million, could and should serve notice to the self-proclaimed billionaire that the amount of lies that Mr. Trump delivers with mind-boggling regularity would have consequences.
It would be a steep climb on several fronts.  Presidents are generally shielded from private lawsuits, but Mr. Trump’s tweet storm can be argued it was not part of the president’s official duties. 

Moreover, Mr. Obama has shown that he doesn’t have a combative temperament to launch such legal action nor would he be inclined to add more division to an already divided country.

That said, there have been reports that Mr. Obama was livid after learning of the tweets.  Keep in mind that despite the fact Mr. Trump accused Mr. Obama of not being a U.S. citizen and, therefore, disqualified from being president and calling him weak and incompetent during the recent campaign, Mr. Obama bent over backwards to help smooth the transition to the new administration.  This expression of gratitude from Mr. Trump in the form of wild, baseless accusations could be enough to piss him off to at least consider a lawsuit.

And think how Democrats would raucously cheer the former president on in such a quest.  It might even unite the Party.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Tuneful ‘Bodyguard’ Delivers at the Hippodrome

Deborah Cox stars in 'The Bodyguard' Photo: Joan Marcus
Let’s have a show of hands…who does NOT enjoy music that had been performed by Whitney Houston?  Nobody.  Just what I thought.

The Bodyguard, a musical adaptation of the Oscar-nominated 1992 film that featured Houston and Kevin Costner, has made a stop at the Hippodrome Theatre on its national tour to provide Whitney Houston fans a fulfillment of the craving to hear those many pop hits primarily from the 1980s and 1990s.  And even if you were reluctant to raise your hand and are not particularly a fan of hers, you would likely enjoy the show anyway. #hocoarts

Written by Alexander Dinelaris, the musical version opened in London’s West End in 2012 just ten months after Houston’s untimely death and captured several awards. The Bodyguard, which has not appeared on Broadway, modernizes the story from the movie and includes additional songs.  Mr. Dinelaris’ storyline is captivating with its dramatic highs and lows.   

The Bodyguard features such classics as “So Emotional,” “One Moment in Time,” “Saving All My Love,” “Run to You,” “I’m Every Woman,” “Greatest Show of All,” “I Have Nothing,” “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (my personal favorite) and one of the biggest selling songs of all time, “ I Will Always Love You.”  In all, Houston sold an estimated 170 to 200 million records worldwide.

The story offers a mix of romance, mystery, violence, tragedy, devotion, well-placed comedy and a shocking climax. It revolves around superstar performer Rachel Marron with six Grammys and other awards in tow and her relationship with her newly hired bodyguard Frank Farmer, a former Secret Service agent who is charged to protect her from a mysterious sinister stalker.  

At first she resists Farmer’s absolute control of her movements and schedule including where she can eat.  But eventually such friction gives way to attraction and they both fall in love.  Adding to the mix is Rachel’s sister Nicki, a dive bar singer, who lives in the shadow of Rachel and who also develops feelings for Farmer.

The songs are very neatly woven through the story and are beautifully performed by multi-platinum R&B/pop recording artist and film/TV actress Deborah Cox as Rachel and Jasmin Richardson as Nikki Marron. 

Both gorgeous leading women excel in their interpretations of the familiar Houston numbers as solos or in duets or production numbers.  They do those Houston ballads justice with their sultry, silky and soulful vocals.  And each demonstrates strong acting skills especially in the tender, romantic moments.

TV performer Judson Mills does a fine job as the mainly serious and seemingly unemotional bodyguard Frank Farmer.  The funniest scene takes place in a karaoke bar where Farmer attempts to sing “I Will Always Love You” only to have a disguised Rachel perform “I Have Nothing” to an adoring crowd who took selfies.  Ms. Cox’s rendition is a show stopper.

Adorable Douglas Baldeo (alternates with Kevelin B. Jones III) is endearing as Rachel’s young son Fletcher.  He is an important ingredient in the plot, and please stick around at the show’s end and check out his performance during the Encore.  Wow!

As The Stalker, hunky Jorge Paniagua doesn’t have much of a speaking role but his menacing presence is felt throughout.  He gives a chilling performance as the show’s villain.  So effective is he as this heavy, Mr. Paniagua received boos from the audience at curtain call on the night this show was reviewed.  This odd phenomenon was not based on the quality of the performance but the role he plays.  Kudos to Mr. Paniagua.

Other notable performers include Alex Corrado as Tony Scibelli, Rachel’s personal security guard, Jarid Faubel as FBI agent Ray Court, Charles Gray as manager Bill Devaney, and Jonathan Hadley as publicist Sy Spector.

Photo: Joan Marcus
The talented and attractive ensemble adds to the entertainment with several production numbers that are choreographed deftly by Karen Bruce.  Matthew Smedal ably conducts the seven-piece orchestra that succeeds in not drowning out the stellar vocalists.

Thea Sharrock directs The Bodyguard with a skilled touch in presenting a smoothly run production. The opening explosive number gets your attention with a loud burst of sound and bright lights. Thankfully, no heart attacks were reported.  If you attend the show, be prepared.

Scene changes move fluidly throughout. Tim Hartley’s mobile set is extraordinary with its multiple locales that include Rachel’s mansion, a log cabin, bars and even the Oscars stage.  The impressive and aesthetically pleasing set piece, consisting largely of flexible panels that contract to focus on one or two actors and individual performances, is innovative and functional.  Mr. Hartley also designed the costumes highlighted by the stunning glittery gown worn by Ms. Cox near the show’s end.

Paul Hardt’s lighting design is at times exhilarating especially during concert-like performances that feature light shows.  However, the dramatic scenes could use some additional wattage to illuminate the stage more.  Duncan McLean's excellent video design added extra texture to the set.

The Bodyguard is a well-directed and performed presentation of Whitney Houston’s most popular songs.  It’s more than a concert with an edge-of-your-seat plot to surround the music.  Ms. Cox and Ms. Richardson are stellar vocalists and capture the essence of Whitney’s charisma.  It is definitely worth a visit.

Running time. Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

The Bodyguard runs through March 5 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.