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

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
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 or