Monday, November 25, 2013

'Into the Woods' You Should Go

Photo: Ken Stanek Photography
I was a little skeptical that the intimate, in-the-round stage at the Spotlighters Theatre would be able to do justice to the action-packed musical production Into the Woods. Failing to learn from the past, I always had those misplaced reservations when Spotlighters ambitiously tackles a grand splashy musical only to discover the creative team and performers manage to pull it off and then some.  The same trepidation I had for Into the Woods going in, with 17 cast members wearing over 100 costumes, singing over three dozen songs, numerous scene changes and the like, was put to rest quickly as Director Fuzz Roark with a fine ensemble and crew delivered a delightful and thoroughly entertaining production.
Into the Woods, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, is a multiple Tony Award winner. The show opened on Broadway in 1987 and ran for 765 performances. Sondheim had won eight Tony awards in his prolific career–more than any other composer.

As kids we all remember those fairy tales where the characters lived happily ever after. With the Spotlighters’ presentation of Into the Woods, we get to enjoy four such fairy tales—“Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Rapunzel.” Their plots are interwoven and linked with the original story of the Baker and his Wife in this magical, entertaining, and sometimes dark musical that confronts real issues found in adulthood, not necessarily childhood.

For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Charming Little 'Miracle at Toby's

Photos: Kirstine Christiansen

Right on cue for the holidays, Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia is presenting Miracle on 34th Street—not the black and white classic Christmas  movie from 1947 shown every December on television but a live, sweet musical adaptation in living color.  Miracle on 34th Street, whose book, music and lyrics were penned by Meredith Willson of The Music Man and The Unsinkable Molly Brown fame, debuted on Broadway in 1963 under the title Here’s Love.
No one will confuse the music in Miracle with the richness of the score in The Music Man or even recent productions at Toby’s, such as Les Mis and Fiddler as few of the numbers in this one are memorable, save for “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas,” a holiday favorite.  But the strength of Miracle on 34th Street and the reason people should buy tickets the sooner the better rests with its charming and tender family-oriented storyline and the outstanding performances by the cast as well as the work of creative team under the guidance of Director Shawn Kettering and Musical Director Douglas Lawler.

The holiday atmospherics are certainly in place: Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins constructed a nice Christmas-themed set with trees all around on walls and other fine touches added to the ambience.  He employs several small video screens on the side of the theater to show black and white footage of a Thanksgiving parade to coincide with the live action of the show-opening parade on stage.  It worked well. The sleigh on wheels that Santa occupies is gorgeous.  And it wouldn’t be a Christmas show without snow.
Set in New York City before and after Thanksgiving in the late 1940s, the story focuses on a white-bearded man named Kris Kringle (played superbly by Robert Biedermann125) who claims to be the real Santa Claus.  He brings about a genuine “Miracle on 34th Street,” spreading good cheer and good will among men throughout New York City, encouraging camaraderie between the arch-rival department stores Macy’s and Gimbel’s, and convincing a divorced, cynical single mother, Doris Walker (Heather Marie Beck), her daughter Susan Walker (played on the night the show was reviewed by the too-cute-for-words Ella Boodin) that Santa Claus is no myth.

Skeptics saw otherwise, and poor Kris Kringle had to appear before a stern Judge (very well played by David Bosley-Reynolds) at a hearing in New York State Supreme Court to determine if he should be committed.
As these events unfold, Doris finds her neighbor Fred Gaily (Jeffrey Shankle) an ex-Marine and inexperienced lawyer who develops a father-daughter bond with Susan, falls for Doris and eventually represents Kris Kringle at the hearing, leading to a lovely conclusion.
Mr. Shankle clearly brought his “A-game” to this production.  In terrific tuneful voice, he performs “My Wish,” with Ms. Beck and is simply stellar in his solo “Look, Little Girl.”  The veteran actor portrays his role flawlessly and with ease, turning in a wonderful performance.

Garnering the best ovation of the night was young Ella Boodin as Susan who alternates with Sadie Herman during the run.  Never missing a line, never missing a cue, never missing a note or a step, adorable Ella,(who played young Cosette in Toby’s presentation of Les Misérables, showed the audience that she definitely has a bright future in musical theatre.

Not quite as young as Ella but always excellent is Toby’s mainstay Lawrence B. Munsey as R.H. Macy, the owner of the department store. Commanding on stage and with his strong baritone, Mr. Munsey excels in “That Man Over There”—a highlight number during the courtroom scene, which in itself, is a highlight in the show. 
Mr. Munsey’s propensity to master his role in a Toby’s musical is consistent and reliable, but he also takes on other duties, such as costume designer and did so in Miracle.   Authentic 1940’s suits and dresses as well as Santa outfits were donned by the cast lending a realistic visual to this enchanting production. 

As Doris, Heather Marie Beck was suitably cast and delivered a pretty solid performance.  Her vocals were good in such numbers as “You Don’t Know” and “Love, Come Take Me Again.”

Veteran performer Robert John Biedermann 125 excels as Kris Kringle.  He adroitly exhibits the sweetness and kindness that all children believe Santa to be.  Everybody rooted for him.
Other notable cast members are Darren McDonnell as Marvin Shellhammer and Will Emory as Mr. Sawyer.  Also David James, David Little and Nick Lehan performed very well.

In fact, the entire ensemble including some little children chipped in with proficient singing, dancing and acting.  The number “Here’s Love” brought out some dexterous footwork under the direction of choreographer Mark Minnick.
It is noteworthy that the charm of the production is representative in many of the elements that are true to the time period—from costumes to props including a 1940’s telephone.  On the other hand, there was no attempt to scrub the sexist language in the dialogue and song lyrics, such as the term “little girl” as conveyed to an adult woman.  Some in the audience were taken aback.

The myriad scene changes had to be executed swiftly especially in the in-the-round venue of Toby’s.  Most of the time it works but on occasion there is some overlapping between scenes, which could be a bit distracting.  But that is a minor quibble.
As stated earlier, the music does not leave one humming exiting the theater.  But the vocalists who performed them and Douglas Lawler’s six-piece orchestra (Mr. Lawler rotates with Pamela Wilt) backing them up does justice to the rather bland melodies.

Miracle on 34th Street is highly recommended.  Strong performances and attractive visuals plus a mighty charming story (and a great buffet) make this a seasonal must-see, which will be enjoyed by the young and the young at heart.
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.
Miracle on 34th Street runs through January 5, 2014 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 410-730-8311or visiting online.

Monday, November 18, 2013

‘The King and I’ at Olney is Worth Getting to Know, etc., etc., etc.

Photos: Stan Barough
The classic musical Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I concludes the Olney Theatre Center’s memorable 75th season, and under the direction of Mark Waldrop, this rendition is clearly worth seeing. Based on the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Lan, the original production opened on Broadway in 1951 and spawned countless revivals, national tours plus a hit movie, garnering bushels full of awards and accolades along the journey.  It is arguably one of the most popular musicals of all time.  
Set in 1862 Siam (the former name of Thailand), The King and I tells the true moving account of a young English widow Anna Leonowens and her son Louis who travel to tutor the King’s many children and tries to open their eyes to a world beyond Siam. While there, she encounters an unfamiliar world full of majestic beauty, but seemingly stifled by Old World traditions.  

Anna finds the King to be rigid beyond imagination, authoritative, and demanding that all his subjects including his multiple wives and children kowtow to him so that their heads must not rise above his even if it means they lay face down on the floor to bow.  He also reflects 19th century attitudes towards women to the point where he cannot bring himself to obtain advice from them.
As the King (based on the actual King Mongkut) eventually decides how to bring his country into a new age and resist the charge that he is a barbarian, a reputation that provokes English leaders to consider taking over Siam as a protectorate, he and Anna begin to see beyond traditions and prejudices into what makes people special and what makes a man a true king.

Embedded within the production is the play “Small House of Uncle Thomas” that is performed to impress the visiting representative from the British government who visits Siam to evaluate the situation.  With its strong anti-slavery message, the play, fittingly narrated by the Burmese slave Tuptim (played by Yoonjeong Seong), is presented in a Siamese ballet-inspired dance that is performed beautifully onstage. 
The thrust of the production, however, centers on the up and down relationship that is forming between Anna (Eileen Ward) and the King (Paulo Montalban), and that’s where The King and I flourishes. 

I can’t help but connect this storyline to another Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece: The Sound of Music, produced eight years later.  It contained similar themes, in that a woman invited by an authoritative father to take care of his adorable brood, became disrespected by the despotic master of the house and then grows closer to him with a changing world as a backdrop and a brilliant score to tell the story.  As in the case of The Sound of Music, The King and I is immortal.
A stunningly vivid mounting of this musical at Olney is amplified by outstanding acting and vocals, Broadway-caliber sets and costumes and flawless orchestration.  Directed by Mark Waldrop who helmed such excellent productions at Olney as Annie, The Sound of Music, and Little Shop of Horrors, the leads and ensemble charm you to pieces while one memorable song after another from the lush Rodgers and Hammerstein score keeps you humming.

In this production, Paolo Montalban stars as the King of Siam. While he is best known for playing the Prince in the ABC/Disney TV movie, Cinderella, Mr. Montalban’s credits also include other Broadway productions, such as the role of Lun Tha in the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of The King and I as well as various television and movie roles.
Here he is as much king of the stage as the king he portrayed.  Demonstrating a powerful, authoritative speaking voice throughout, he masterfully galvanized the plot.  His clenched fists resting on his hips and his darting paces and movements onstage, Mr. Montalban is a commanding force and is reminiscent of the iconic poses that made Yul Brynner so endearing to audiences.

Eileen Ward as Anna is equally brilliant as the King’s foil. Exhibiting a wide range of emotions throughout, from tranquility and kindness to resignation to determination to utter anger then ultimately love, Ms. Ward was the perfect complement to Mr. Montalban’s King.
Paolo Montalban (as The King) and Eileen Ward (as Anna) 
As strong as her acting is, Ms. Ward’s musical performances soar even higher.  Demonstrating a potent soprano voice, she performs those classic songs in the score with the ease that can only emanate from a talented vocalist.  “I Whistle a Happy Tune”, “Hello Young Lovers”, and the very popular song “Getting to Know You”, the latter sung to the cute children, were delivered beautifully.  And, of course, the magnificent upbeat number “Shall We Dance?” in the second act with both Ms. Ward and Mr. Montalban gliding around the palace’s big room is undeniably memorable.

Angry that the King broke his promise to allow Anna and her son Louis (played by Henry Niepoetter in this reviewed performance) to live in their own house rather than in the palace, Ms. Ward effectively displays the appropriate amount of vexation in “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You”—still hitting each note perfectly while enraged.  That’s no small trick.
Another standout is YoonJeong Seong as Tuptim who is a slave brought from nearby Burma to be one of the King’s junior wives.  Petite as she may be, she commands a big soprano voice demonstrated in “My Lord and Master” and “I Have Dreamed”—a duet with her secret love, Lun Tha, played effectively by Eymard Cabling.  But Ms. Seong’s heart-wrenching duet with Mr. Cabling in “We Kiss in a Shadow” is guaranteed to dampen your eyes a bit.  Their love, secretive and pure, sadly does not end well.

The remainder of the cast and ensemble are exemplary.  Notably among them are Alan Ariano as The Kralahome who is the King’s Prime Ministrer, Ron Heneghan playing the dual roles of Captain Orton and Sir Edward, Janine Sunday as Lady Thiang, the King’s chief wife and who excels in the song “Something Wonderful” and young Josiah Segui who plays Prince Chulalongkorn, the heir to the throne.  Also, the graceful Rumi Oyama who plays Eliza in the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet is excellent.
Overall, the performers deserve the highest of marks for their acting, singing and dancing (choreographed expertly by Tara Jeanne Vallee) as does the outstanding nine-piece orchestra led by conductor Jenny Cartney.

Although at times the sound during dialogues appeared to be uneven from the mic’d performers, (and that I hope that this minor problem will be resolved as the show progresses through its run), the creative team is stellar.
Veteran scenic designer James Fouchard did a masterful job in creating a gorgeous palatial set, complete with arches and columns to add depth, marble-like tile floors and oriental screens for scene changes.  The lighting effects, designed by Dan Covey, amplify the elegant staging.

And among the show’s highlights are the dazzling costumes designed by Kendra Rai, making her Olney debut.  The cast and ensemble were fitted in staggeringly colorful and detailed period Southeast Asian attire, adding to the magnificent visual aspects of the production. 
The King and I at Olney is an outstanding iteration of this iconic musical, and the theatre’s 75th season is punctuated by a triumphant production.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

The King and I plays through December 29 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, MD 20832.  To purchase tickets, click here or call 301-924-3400.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Cheap Shot at Gansler

Letter Published in Nov. 15, 2013 Baltimore Sun

Susan L. Burke’s letter that links Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler to enabling the culture leading to the horrible proliferation of rapes and sexual assaults  in our society is a cheap shot if I ever saw one (“Gansler’s comments reflect ‘boys will be boys’ culture, Nov. 12). 
Moreover she also besmirched the reputation of the Landon school solely because convicted murder George Huguely had attended it and a few morons maintained a “fantasy sex league”.  And by extension because Gansler’s son attended that school,  she implied he should be associated with those rotten apples.

It is outrageous that an attorney such as Ms. Burke, who understandably feels compassion towards the victims she represents and animus towards the assailants, would paint with such broad strokes on a “guilt by association” canvas.

I have  viewed a video from the point in that much-publicized party when Mr. Gansler entered the room.  From my perspective there was no definitive evidence of underage drinking going on at that particular instance; all I can determine was a bunch of kids dancing and having a good time.  It certainly wasn’t “blatant” as Ms. Burke states.

Granted ,some of those present acknowledged that drinking did occur prior to Mr. Gansler’s entrance.  But there were at least two adult chaperones present prior to Mr. Gansler’s arrival, so it would be their responsibility to exercise adult authority if such offenses occurred in front of them. 

Ms. Burke is correct in that there is a “boys will be boys” culture.  It is quite evident when parents of pre-teens and teens resist stronger measures that would curtail, if not eliminate, bullying in schools.
As we have observed, bullying whether in person, in social media or by text, has led to tragic consequences.  Don’t blame that on Mr. Gansler, too; in fact, he has made concerted efforts to stop bullying.

Steve Charing
Ckarkvissle, Md.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

One Year after Question 6: Revisiting, Not Revising History

Almost a year after Maryland voters upheld the law allowing same-sex marriage, there was the expected amount of celebrating at the recent back-slapping, self-congratulatory love-fest called the Equality Maryland 25th Anniversary Brunch. That victory at the ballot box deservedly was the centerpiece.
Equality Maryland’s executive director, Carrie Evans, gave a speech using a curious “House of Cards” theme in thanking virtually everybody who had been involved with the organization over the past quarter century and in the process made some interesting comments.  Evans thanked the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) for not pulling funding from the campaign in 2012 and declared that “without HRC we would not have won,” suggesting that HRC was merely a funder. 

There are two elements in play.  First, the pulled funding comment was a not-so-subtle swipe at Freedom to Marry, who had contributed needed dollars to the other statewide battles for marriage equality but had bypassed Maryland in the early stages.  The organization’s founder and director Evan Wolfson told me that it was a myth that they pulled funding from the cause.  “We never pulled out,” he emphasized.  “We never jumped in.” 
The reason was their belief that under the leadership of the campaign (Marylanders for Marriage Equality), he did not think Maryland would be successful at the ballot box and instead provided resources to the other states.  They later chipped in, however, with some $200,000 as the Maryland campaign’s end neared and confidence grew.

The other aspect of Evans’ comment about HRC’s role requires more examination.  During the festivities, the focus was rightfully about Equality Maryland but gave the impression Equality Maryland led the battle.  At one time, yes.
In celebrating its achievements, Equality Maryland should have really been rejoicing over the fact they are living to fight another day.  Shortly after the debacle in the General Assembly in 2011 where a plausible victory on marriage equality was deep-sixed in the House of Delegates from insufficient support, Equality Maryland imploded.  Its financial foundation was cracking, leaving the organization in near ruin.  The controversial, less-than-elegant dismissal of the executive director, the abrupt departure of its fundraising director, and a major shake-up of the board, left the organization in shambles in terms of finances and confidence—a dark point in their history that was conspicuously absent from Evans’ remarks. 

Following the successful initiative by marriage equality opponents to have the law voted on by referendum during the 2012 election, Equality Maryland was in no position, despite a new executive director and board in place, to carry out the fight that had been heretofore unsuccessful in every state where the voters were given the chance to decide on the issue.
In need of a victory of its own to tout and assessing the weakness in Equality Maryland at the time, HRC, with its ample resources, fundraising apparatus and personnel, seized the reins to lead the referendum battle, which eventually was termed “Question 6”.  It had already begun by assuming control of the lobbying efforts during the year’s legislative session.

To broaden its appeal, HRC formed a “coalition” of partners that consisted of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, Equality Maryland, the ACLU of Maryland, and various unions, clergy, and other progressive organizations.  Equality Maryland was only one of these “partnering” organizations, not the one driving the campaign.
Although critics have characterized the lesser members of the coalition as “window dressing”, they did have roles to fill and Equality Maryland made significant contributions.  Most importantly, Equality Maryland raised a good chunk of money using their brand, damaged as it was, and donated to the campaign.  Moreover, they helped recruit volunteers for the field operations.

But make no mistake, it was HRC’s show under the banner of Marylanders for Marriage Equality.  Even with the larger, richer organization at the helm, it was no smooth ride.  An insider with the campaign confided that Governor O’Malley, the chief lobbyist during the General Assembly to get the bill passed in both houses and a noteworthy fundraiser throughout, was “not happy” with the way the campaign was being run.  And he was particularly miffed that fundraising targets were not being met according to pre-determined timelines. Later, Delegate Maggie McIntosh was reported to have stepped in to handle decision-making in the organization.
Undeniably, Marylanders for Marriage Equality got off to a rocky start.  In April 2012, they brought in a political strategist, Josh Levin, to be the campaign manager.  But field operations were slow to develop, TV spots were not aired early on, and many activists were getting antsy over the delays. 

The announcements by President Obama and the national NAACP as well as other prominent officials in support of marriage equality gave the campaign a needed shot in the arm.  Outstanding television advertising ultimately was effective in combating the lies created by the opposition that had been so successful in California and other states.
A bit of luck also played in the Question 6 supporters’ favor.  Political observers believed that the decisive money edge to marriage equality proponents can be attributed to the Church of the Latter Day Saints’ desire not to get deeply involved that year as they had previously in California and Maine and become a focus of controversy during the Mormon Mitt Romney’s run for president.  In addition, much of the available TV advertising space was blocked largely by the moneyed casino interests on both sides of the issue, thus preventing the scare tactics from gaining traction.

All things considered, the victory a year ago was a team effort that was led by HRC through the auspices of Marylanders for Marriage Equality though no one entity deserves sole credit.  Everyone involved from donors to volunteers to the LGBT caucus in the legislature to the leadership of the Governor to the voters themselves should share in the historic victory.  And the rainbow gods, providing some good fortune, smiled on us as well.

Monday, November 11, 2013

'Breaking the Code' at the Kossiakoff Center (APL)

Cast of Breaking the Code
It is so fitting that a play about the British cryptanalyst and trailblazing mathematician, Alan Turing,  who shortened World War II by breaking Hitler’s U-boat Enigma codes and is considered the “father of the computer” would be performed on the campus of the science-oriented Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).   

Also fitting is that Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore and based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, is being presented by APL Allies in the Workplace—an APL employee group that advocates for a non-discriminatory and diverse working environment, specifically for issues of importance to LGBT community and supporters.  For as much as Turing was a favorite of Winston Churchill because of his mathematical genius in heroically helping Britain during World War II, he was a homosexual—and unashamedly so—during a point in time when such behavior was deemed illegal.

For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

UPDATE: The Queen pardons Turing