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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

A look back at my work with the LGBTQ community. I first became active in the gay rights movement in 1980 when I launched my LGBTQ jo...

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Prom at the Hippodrome Will Give You a Night to Remember

Photo: Deen Van Meer
If the producers and creative team of The Prom wanted to find a setting for homophobia in small town America, they found the right place in Edgewater, Indiana—that’s Mike Pence’s Indiana in case you forgot. And if they wanted to poke fun at Broadway performers and divas, they hit the mark with The Prom currently on its first national tour and making a brief stop at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theater.

Directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Casey Nicholaw, The Prom is a dazzling, colorful, extremely well-staged production that adroitly combines romance and gay acceptance with comedy. It tugs at your heartstrings while offering up an abundance of laughs making this one of the funniest musicals I’ve ever seen.

The performances by the energetic and talented cast are fabulous. Their vocals are magnificent as almost everybody has a turn to showcase those skills. Nicholaw’s potent choreography is executed to perfection by all, particularly the Ensemble in several amazing production numbers. One of these is the spectacular, get-on-your-feet show stopping finale “It’s Time to Dance.”

With music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin and a book by Bob Martin and Beguelin, the 2018 musical is based on an original concept by Jack Viertel. Sklar’s score is melodic and lively, if not spectacular, and Beguelin’s lyrics are witty and tender.

A film adaptation produced and directed by Ryan Murphy (Glee) and featuring Meryl Streep, James Corden and Nicole Kidman among others, was released on Netflix in December 2020. Despite the high-powered cast, I prefer the stage version over the film, and the production at the Hippodrome supports that belief.

As I mentioned earlier, part of The Prom’s charm is that it is unafraid to lampoon Broadway performers and the industry as a whole. “Straight people like Broadway, too” is one of the many clever lines crafted by Martin and Beguelin that land a punch. They also do a number on Edgewater, Indiana. If this town had a Chamber of Commerce, I doubt they would buy a block of tickets to see The Prom.

"The performances by the energetic and talented cast are fabulous."

Four eccentric narcissistic Broadway has-beens seek to resurrect their flagging careers by gaining attention if they can latch on to a cause. They found one on social media of all places where Emma, a lesbian high school student in Edgewater, Indiana, was having trouble with the local PTA who opposed her attending the event with her girlfriend. As a result of the controversy, the scheduled prom was cancelled incurring the wrath of the other students that led to the bullying of Emma.

The performers—Dee Dee Allen, Barry Glickman, Trent Oliver and Angie Dickinson—burst into a PTA meeting with signs in support for the bewildered Emma and the stunned head of the PTA, Mrs. Greene. Unbeknownst to her, Emma’s closeted girlfriend is Mrs. Greene’s daughter Alyssa, a situation which provides much of the drama.

With the help of the school’s principal Mr. Hawkins, the Broadway do-gooders attempt to change the hearts and minds of the conservative townsfolk leading to a happy conclusion. The zaniness that ensues does not obliterate the serious issues of acceptance and inclusion, not to mention bullying, that form the core of the storyline. The ability to blend these concepts effectively is why The Prom is so entertaining and heartwarming.

Kaden Kearney shines brightly as the shy Emma. Her chemistry with her girlfriend Alyssa (Kalen West) is evident onstage with both demonstrating fine acting skills and melodic vocals. Ms. Kearney’s standout performance with her mezzo-soprano voice is in “Just Breathe” after she was bullied by other students.  She also excels in the duets with Ms. West in “Dance with You” and “You Happened” and in the emotional “Unruly Heart” with the Ensemble.

The two actors who were slammed by critics for being too narcissistic following their performance in the fictional show “Eleanor” that kicks off The Prom are Barry Glickman (Patrick Wetzel) and Dee Dee Allen (Courtney Balan).  This shellacking in the press and the closing of “Eleanor” after just one performance motivate them to find a cause célèbre as a means of professional rehabilitation. These two generate the most laughs though there are plenty of others to enjoy.

Mr. Wetzel’s self-absorbed but kind-hearted Barry is filled with flamboyance and camp. “I’m as gay as a bucket of wigs,” he states. And for good measure, he emphatically declares he’s Jewish. A funny role in which he brings it home, Mr. Wetzel demonstrates his versatile acting abilities as he displays his paternal instincts by tenderly getting Emma ready for the prom while he admits he never had the opportunity himself to attend one. It’s a touching scene.

He excels in the moving “Barry is Going to Prom” and does a great job in the first act finale “Tonight Belongs to You.” This is an outstanding high-octane production number that displays the exceptional dancing abilities by the cast and Mr. Nicholaw’s meticulous choreography. (A special nod goes to Ensemble member Braden Allen King for his well-executed two handsprings in which he gracefully flipped across the width of the stage.)

Kaden Kearney (l.) and Kalyn West
Photo: Deen Van Meer

Then there is Ms. Balan’s hilarious portrayal of Dee Dee. There was no shortage of lines that try to convince anyone who’s listening, especially herself, that whatever she does, it’s for others, not just for Dee Dee. This is exemplified in the solo “The Lady’s Improving.” She plays the diva role to the hilt and delights with her facial expressions and body language in addition to her words.

Another pretentious actor making the trip to Indiana is Trent Oliver played very well by Bud Weber. Trent is Julliard-trained and makes sure everyone, and I mean everyone, is aware of it. He is currently on a non-equity tour with the cast of Godspell. That must have helped his understanding of Christianity as Trent performs my favorite number in the show, “Love Thy Neighbor.” That song is intended to convince the Edgewater students that the Bible contains many principles in which they are violating, such as tattoos or pre-marital sex in response to their condemnation of homosexuality.

Emily Borromeo plays Angie as the fourth Broadway performer making the trip. Her role is not as dominant as the other three actors on the mission, but Ms. Borromeo’s rendition of “Zazz” with Ms. Kearney’s Emma is one of the show’s highlights. In that song, she explains jazz to Emma and her memories of Bob Fosse while she had performed in Chicago. Ms. Borromeo’s vocals and silky smooth dance moves are superb.

As the principal Mr. Hawkins, Sinclair Mitchell effectively provides the lone support for Emma’s quest to attend the prom until the Broadway actors plus an agent (Sheldon Saperstein played by Shavey Brown) swing into town. Mr. Mitchell’s acting props are evident as he displays his empathy for Emma.

The principal happens to be a fan of Dee Dee and they grow close from their dinner dates at Applebee’s only to realize that Dee Dee is in it for herself. She won him back with “The Lady’s Improving.” Mr. Mitchell also excels in his solo “We Look to You.”

Much of the drama in The Prom stems from Mrs. Greene, the PTA president and mother of Alyssa. Played proficiently by Ashanti J’Aria, Mrs. Greene is a tough, controlling mother who, like most conservative small town residents, is not a fan of homosexuality. For that reason, Alyssa had such difficulty coming out—until the end.

Aside from the splendid direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw, the rest of the technical crew has done an outstanding job in making The Prom a sparkling spectacle. Conductor Chris Gurr and the orchestra deliver Mr. Skkar’s score beautifully and support the musical numbers effectively without overwhelming the vocals.

Scott Pask’s scenic design enhances the visual enjoyment. Scene changes are made swiftly mainly through the use of revolving backdrops that transform settings from the school corridor to the gym to a motel room to a bedroom to an Applebee’s and other venues.

Natasha Katz’s bright and colorful lighting design also adds to the visuals as do the costumes designed by Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman.

The story of a young lesbian’s quest for love and acceptance is of paramount importance. The laugh lines and the comedic characters lighten the mood, but the main theme must not be overlooked.

It should be noted that the inspiration for the musical originated not from any circumstance in Indiana but from a real-life controversy that occurred in Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi in 2010.

The Prom was nominated for seven Tony Awards in 2019 but had the bad luck of going head-to-head against Hadestown. The Prom did, however, win the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical.

With excellent music, an important storyline and a brilliantly staged musical featuring a talented cast, you should get your dancing shoes on and be taken to The Prom. It will be a night to remember.

Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes.

The Prom plays through January 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 here.




Monday, January 10, 2022

‘Dance of the 41’ Recounts Historic Mexican Scandal

Steamy history streaming on Netflix
Alfonso Herrera (L.) and Emiliano Zurita


In early 20th century Mexico, the husband of the President’s daughter skipped out almost every night to engage in a clandestine gay affair with a lawyer. One would think that in itself would have been a societal scandal.  Indeed, the focus of Dance of the 41, a splendidly photographed and acted drama currently streaming on Netflix, was the steady and certain deterioration of that nascent marriage.

But to Mexican society back then, which was marked by a deep schism between the elite upper crust of the citizenry and the impoverished, the true scandal that is part of Mexico’s history emerged: a discreet gay ball where nearly half of the all-male participants wore women’s garb.

Directed by David Pablos, written by Monika Revilla and produced by Pablo Cruz and El Estudio, the 2020 film, dubbed in English, was based on a true story. Ignacio de la Torre y Mier, a politician (played commandingly by Alfonso Herrera), was appointed to Congress by Mexico’s president Porfirio Diaz (Fernando Becerril). The only condition of this appointment was that Ignacio make his daughter Amada Diaz (Mabel Cadena) happy.

 It didn’t work.

Ignacio encountered Evaristo “Eva” Rivas (Emiliano Zurita) at the building where he works, and it was instant magnetism. Both sporting classic handlebar moustaches carry out their attraction secretly in steamy trysts.  As this relationship tightens, the marriage between Ignacio and Amada unravels. Sex between the husband and wife was rare, strictly physical and devoid of any emotion or romance.

Amada becomes increasingly suspicious of Ignacio’s “late dinners” with friends as he typically doesn’t return to their palatial estate until early the next morning. Later she discovered love letters to Ignacio from Eva and demanded he provide her with a child or she will reveal everything.

But it’s not just the dalliances with Evaristo that occupies Ignacio’s time. Apparently known to the underground gay community of Mexico City prior to his marrying the president’s daughter, Ignacio was invited to become a member of a secret gay private club complete with a brief initiation ritual in the spacious house of one its members. Ignacio soon brought Evaristo to the festivities thereby becoming its 42nd member.

The members, displaying various levels of flamboyance and camp, engaged in orgies that took place in and around half dozen bathtubs, sing-alongs, drag cabaret performances and the like while booze flowed freely. On November 17, 1901, the annual ball took place from which the title of this film was derived.

SPOILER  

Rumors swirled around society concerning Ignacio’s behavior. Bodyguards were assigned to him, and he was being followed. During this ball, armed police raided the party. According to a contemporary press report:

On Sunday night, at a house on the fourth block of Calle la Paz, the police burst into a dance attended by 41 unaccompanied men wearing women’s clothes. Among those individuals were some of the dandies seen every day on Calle Plateros. They were wearing elegant ladies’ dresses, wigs, false breasts, earrings, embroidered slippers, and their faces were painted with highlighted eyes and rosy cheeks.

The film accurately portrayed the incident.

Though there was nothing illegal about men dressing up as women, the 42 men were arrested for violating the principles of morality and to appease an already distressed society. There were no trials; the punishment was meted out by Governor Ramon Corral—a fact that was not included in the film. 

Only 41 were officially counted.  As the security chief recognized Ignacio, he was allowed to escape to

spare embarrassment to the government. Others, including Evaristo, were beaten and forced to sweep the streets in their women’s attire. They were eventually sent to work for the military doing menial tasks.

Throughout the decades, the number 41 was considered taboo. 

“At one point the Army left the number out of battalions, hotel and hospital rooms didn’t use it and some even skipped their 41st  birthday altogether," reports history. com. "While the number was etched into society as derogatory, 41 is now considered a badge of courage and a symbol of strength for queer Mexicans.”

One might consider the "Dance of the 41" Mexico’s Stonewall, although any liberation for LGBTQ+ Mexicans did not occur until over a century later.

Dance of the 41 is highly recommended. The accurate depiction of historical events makes it worthwhile, and the cinematography, direction and acting talents displayed enhance its excellence.

Friday, January 07, 2022

January 6 Denial

Immediately following the catastrophic attacks on September 11, 2001, the country rallied behind President George W. Bush. Perhaps for the final time, the U.S. was united behind a cause. Anyone who was not all-in was accused of not loving America and siding with the terrorists.

In 2004, Bush ran on and won re-election primarily on stoking fears of terrorism and relentlessly pointing back to 9/11. That fateful day continued to be invoked even during the 2008 presidential primaries when then candidate Joe Biden characterized a Republican hopeful, the former “America’s Mayor” Rudy Giuliani, as saying nothing more than a subject, a verb and 9/11.

Some 20 years later, another form of terrorism struck the U.S. but this time it was domestic terrorism.  On January 6, 2021, American democracy was attacked. The terrorists were not brown-skinned foreign Muslims who hijacked four planes and killed thousands of people including first responders. Instead, they were mostly white supremacists and violent extremists, key components of the former and defeated president Donald Trump’s base.

Thousands were frothing from the words of Trump and other incendiary speakers on the Ellipse before the U.S. Capitol was stormed, desecrated and under siege while lawmakers were attempting to carry out their constitutional duty of certifying the election that was held in November.

Perpetuating the big lie, which he continues to this day that somehow the election was stolen from him, he egged on the supposedly peaceful assembly who happened to carry police shields, bats, bear spray, flag poles and other weapons just for kicks, to march to the Capitol.

“We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” Trump said. His obvious incitement of the riot earned him a record-setting second impeachment with the most votes to convict ever. But it was not enough to meet the high bar in the Constitution.

At least five died during the riot and insurrection that ensued with hundreds injured or psychologically damaged. Our Capitol, the citadel of democracy, was defaced, shattered and turned into a public toilet. Hundreds sought out lawmakers to do God knows what. Had it not been for the bravery of the undermanned Capitol Police a whole different storyline would have been written. Democracy prevailed that day and night, but only by a hair.

But as the black eye on democracy marked its one-year anniversary, it is clear Republicans don’t seem or want to acknowledge the seriousness of the event. Over the course of the year, attempts were made to whitewash it, create conspiracy theories that the FBI or antifa were behind it, the rioters were patriots or even tourists.

Lindsey Graham who had decried Trump’s role in the riots the night of the horror show, now feels the Democrats are politicizing the event. (Remember 9/11, Lindsey, when Bush and later your buddy McCain made hay over that day.) Mitch McConnell did the same thing.

The cowardly Kevin McCarthy after assigning responsibility for the riots to Trump went down to Mar-a-Lago to beg for forgiveness in an attempt not to resurrect Trump’s career, but his own.

Equally spineless Marco Rubio claimed that the Democrats are trying to portray all Republicans as insurrectionists. Yet, he accuses Democrats of being looters.

Other than Liz Cheney (and her father), no other Republican representatives took part for a moment of silence in the Capitol to commemorate the somber day. Nor did they show up for a prayer vigil later.

Republicans are clearly in denial. They are fully aware that by being tethered to Trump and his biggest of all lies, this could have political fallout as the next cycle begins. Images of the insurrection will or should play in all political ads not to blame Republicans for January 6 but to blame their enabling of Trump, failing to convict him in the face of overwhelming evidence, supporting the big lie, denying the significance of 1/6, refusing to certify the election and attempting to suppress the vote in future elections.

January 6 was not a good look for the GOP. They know it and are doing the darndest to minimize it. Even Ted Cruz was forced to publicly and pathetically apologize to Tucker Carlson, of all people, for having a brief and rare truthful moment when he characterized January 6 as a “violent terrorist attack.”

And never mind their opposition to a bipartisan commission and their minimizing the role of the House Select committee. 

President Biden delivered a powerful speech calling out Trump for his role in the insurrection. Finally, he put the illusion of bipartisanship to rest and swung hard. It was most needed and overdue.

Republicans are still living in fear of Trump and his base. Our country was the victim of domestic terrorism, and the Trump loyalists can’t bring themselves to admit it. 

Imagine how they would have reacted if Democrats minimized or shrugged off 9/11 in the same manner.



Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Do You Recall the Most Famous Snowflake of All?

We have now officially hit winter and our minds drift past the holidays and imagine snowflakes on the horizon. I can’t help but thinking of how the word snowflake crept into our political discourse particularly over the past five years.

Trump supporters have consistently derided liberals as snowflakes. They use the word as a pejorative description, sort of name-calling, but I venture to guess many of them do not know the meaning of pejorative.

As Dana Schwartz wrote on GQ.com several years ago, “There is not a single political point a liberal can make on the Internet for which ‘You triggered, snowflake?’ cannot be the comeback. It’s [sic] purpose is dismissing liberalism as something effeminate, and also infantile, an outgrowth of the lessons you were taught in kindergarten. ‘Sharing is caring’? Communism. ‘Feelings are good’? Facts over feelings. ‘Everyone is special and unique’? Shut up, snowflake.”

I interpret snowflake to mean weak, insecure, feelings hurt easily by criticism, can dish it out but can’t take it, cowardly—in other words, melts like a snowflake. Using that concept, only one person stands out to be the most famous snowflake of all, and that is former president Donald Trump.

We know that Trump cannot accept criticism or enjoys being made fun of (he’s not alone in that).  But he, more than most, stews about it for unusually lengthy periods of time or he will lash out immediately when such criticism is leveled at him or if he’s a brunt of a joke. 

Remember when President Obama gave Trump the what-for during the president’s monologue ten years ago at the White House Correspondents Dinner?

“I know that he’s taken some flack lately,” Obama said of Trump who was present. “But no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald.”  Obama went on further to mock Trump’s birther efforts.

Trump sat there motionless at his table as the camera trained on him. It’s impossible to feel heat off an image on TV but this may have been the breakthrough. Trump was seething as the rest of the audience of politicians, journalists and celebrities merrily laughed at the barb.

Trump hates that stuff—being scoffed at and such. He showed it at press conferences, rallies, even overseas on official business. And don’t get me started on the criticism of his appearance. The vanity-driven narcissist does not take that well. Thin (and orange) skinned for sure, but a definite snowflake.

Then there is Trump’s cowardice. He laments at the fact henever received a Purple Heart but clearly doesn’t understand that to do so, you must have sustained a wound in combat serving in our armed forces. That could not have happened with Trump because on five occasions he successfully received draft deferments based on bone spurs that rendered him unfit for military duty.  But he still longs for that medal.

When there were demonstrators near the White House following the murder of George Floyd, Trump was reportedly taken to a bunker in the mansion. He denied that, of course; it would make him look weak, which he is. He earned the moniker “bunker boy” at the time.

On January 6, 2021, during his speech that incited the violent insurrection, he implored his faithful to march to the Capitol and fight like hell or there won’t be a country anymore. He pledged to join them but instead exited stage right and headed back to his bunker, er the White House to gleefully watch Trump flags and poles being deployed to smack police and smash windows and doors of the people’s house.

But the most important and most dangerous reason he is the king of the snowflakes is his incapability to accept defeat.  Whether or not Trump truly believes his baseless big lie about the 2020 election being “stolen” and in which two-thirds of those identified as Republican go along, this snowflake cannot admit he lost. 

It is amazing he hasn’t come to grips with defeat before given his multiple failed marriages, numerous lawsuits, embarrassing bankruptcies including casinos that dent the illusionary armor of his being a great businessman, the takedown of the sham Trump University and on and on.

But when it comes to elections where he has twice lost the popular vote, the snowflake melts in the sunlight.




‘A Christmas Story, The Musical’ Delivers a Welcome Gift at the Hippodrome

You may not always get what want for a Christmas present, but I could assure you if someone gave you a gift that allows you to attend A Christmas Story, The Musical currently playing at the Hippodrome Theater, you would be jumping for joy. Hurry, though, as the show is in Baltimore for only three more performances before Santa makes his rounds. 

This lavish production under the solid direction of Matt Lenz is a sparkling snow globe full of enchantment, sweetness, brilliant color, eye-watering humor, pleasing songs and an abundance of talent to make your Christmas season bright.  It couldn’t come at a better time.

Based on the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, the musical adaptation, which premiered on Broadway in 2012, received several Tony Awards, Drama Desk and Outer Circle nominations.  The duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Tony Award winning Dear Evan Hansen and Oscar winning film La La Land) crafted the music and lyrics, and the book was penned by Joseph Robinette based on the writings of radio humorist Jean Shepherd as well as the film.

The story of young Ralphie Parker’s determined quest to receive the only gift he wants—an official Red Ryder® Carbine-Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle—is as endearing as it is comical. (Ralphie is played by Blake Burnham for this performance.)  The zany saga is packed with mishaps, disappointments, and fulfillment during December 1940 in Hohman, Indiana. 

Through dialogue and lyrics contained in the musical, the picture of a simpler time, not necessarily better, but definitely simpler, comes across loud and clear from the action that takes place.  The central family of the show—the Parkers—is traditional by those standards with the patriarchal father, a stay-at-home mother and two small kids.

Old-time messages like don’t run while holding scissors; never use a cuss word; a BB gun will shoot your eye out; the notorious triple-dog-dare is the ultimate attempt to coerce someone to do something involuntarily; and teachers imploring students to mind their punctuation, conjugation and stay within the margins flow throughout the story.

You have this tawdry lady’s leg lamp that was won by Ralphie’s father in a contest, “a major award,” which the old man covets but his wife deplores.  You have bullies who if they push the right buttons can be beaten up themselves. There are flying lug nuts and a wayward cuss word that results in a bar of soap snack.  You have neighbors’ hounds running amok through the Parkers’ house and devouring their Christmas turkey. 

"...as good as the adult leads are, the kids steal the show ."

There is a cranky and increasingly intoxicated Santa who frightens the children more than giving them Christmas joy.  A down-to-earth teacher breaks out of character to perform a stunning dance number in a glitzy red gown. You have a tongue freezing on a flagpole incident resulting from the dreaded triple-dog-dare.  Then there is the Christmas carol-singing Chinese restaurant waiter, just for good measure. 

Regardless of who Ralphie encounters to lobby for this special rifle, whether it is his mother (Briana Gantsweg); his old man (Sam Hartley); his teacher Miss Shields, (Sierra Wells); even Santa (Hank Von Kolnitz), Ralphie is told one thing, “You’ll shoot your eye out.”

Performing the role for a seventh year with a hiatus due to Covid, Chris Carsten does a truly splendid job as the voice of Jean Shepherd, narrating the often-hilarious story in the first person as a grown-up Ralphie with an onstage, non-intrusive presence throughout the production.  He recalls and shares the younger Ralphie’s thoughts as the boy navigates through each caper.

As the central character, bespectacled Ralphie performs proficiently with his acting and comedic skills, strong vocals and dancing.  He is particularly adept in one of the show’s best numbers, “Ralphie to the Rescue!” whereby he imagines he’s a cowboy using his rifle to thwart bank robbers and assorted other scoundrels.

Photo: Gary Emord Netzley

The remainder of his family unit is also appealing with its Midwestern charm.  Sam Hartley as The Old Man is spot-on.  The father is strict with his children and cursing is verboten (except when he does it).  A hardworking man who struggles with the house’s furnace and his Olds, while attempting to dodge his neighbor’s hounds, he found solace in winning that lady’s leg lamp.  Gruff as he may be at times, you still root for him, thanks to the performance of Mr. Hartley.

His best songs are “The Genius on Cleveland Street,” a duet with Ms. Gantsweg and “A Major Award,” a phenomenal dance number that evolves into a clever can-can with he and the ensemble dancing with lady legs lamps with the shades seeming like skirts.  

Ms. Gantsweg as Ralphie’s sweet mother is the perfect counterpart for her husband.  She is the sensible one of the two and protective of her children. Her performance of “What a Mother Does” and “Just Like That” are tender, made even better by her lovely clear soprano voice.

 Nicholas Reed adorably plays Ralphie’s timid younger brother Randy who is averse to eating unless he mimics a pig at a trough.  But talented Nicholas is quite the hoofer as he along with Miss Shields (Sierra Wells) and other youngsters in the ensemble are flawless tap dancers in “You’ll Shoot You’re Eyes Out.” 

This is one of several terrific production numbers choreographed by Warren Carlyle for Broadway and then reset by Jason A. Sparks for the tour.  Other quality dance numbers include the aforementioned “Ralphie to the Rescue!” and the imaginative “A Major Award.” The songs are performed with precision under the musical supervision of Andrew Smithson.

Photo: Gary Emord Netzley

The remainder of the cast performs exceptionally in support of the leads. They play the roles of neighbors, shoppers, parents, students, townspeople, elves and others. I’m telling you, as good as the adult leads are, the kids steal the show. They are filled with energy and talent and enthusiasm and joy.

All are costumed magnificently by Elizabeth Hope Clancy from period attire to brilliant elves costumes. And let’s not forget that pink bunny costume Ralphie was sent to him by his aunt.     

Walt Spangler designed an outstanding set that was adapted by Michael Carnahan.  The principal set is a cut-out of the two-level Parker house that moves back and forth to accommodate scene changes. The living room and kitchen are downstairs while the bedrooms are on the second floor.  The exterior of the house is appropriately lined with Christmas lights.  Another spectacular set is the snow globe effect that serves as a background to several scenes.

Working in conjunction with the sets is the fantastic lighting design by Charlie Morrison.  His use of bold hues that frequently change for emphasis and effect produces a gorgeous palette of color throughout the production. Bright red and green lights in various scenes make for a visual delight.

In addition, much credit should go to sound designer Don Hanna as all dialogue were audible and clear and the orchestration balanced so as not to overwhelm the vocalists.

 A Christmas Story, The Musical is a production that runs on all cylinders.  It has all the elements needed to bring holiday cheer and pure enjoyment with its talented cast and crew under masterful direction.  Oh, and the loveable (not to The Old man) hounds?  They’re real!

So, the question you may ask, what’s so great about a show about a kid desiring a BB-gun for Christmas?  The answer: everything.  Don’t miss this one.

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

A Christmas Story, The Musical runs through December 23 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit here or visit the Hippodrome Box Office located at 12 N Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.

Saturday, December 04, 2021

HoCo LGBTQ+ Activists and Allies Hit Back at Censorship, Hate

Photo: Bob Ford
A diverse crowd of 100 to 200 folks gathered at the Columbia Lakefront on December 4 to attend a rally to push back against censorship in the county’s public schools as well as homophobia and transphobia emanating from a group of conservative parents.

The rally called “We ARE the People” was organized in response to the comments and actions by members of a Maryland-based conservative group “We the People 2” that among other things are anti-masks, anti-vaccinations and are opposed to teaching racial history in the schools. They also oppose two books that are in Howard County Public Schools library shelves: “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy.”

Speakers at a We the People 2 rally last month at an Elkridge, Md. warehouse condemned the books, which contain LGBTQ+ characters, as sexually explicit. The group later filed police reports against the Board of Education alleging the books constitute pornography with “graphic sexual content and materials being used and disseminated in public schools,” according to the group’s press release.  A flier announcing this action used the loaded terminology, “We must not allow our children to be abused and victimized.”

Among the speakers at the Elkridge rally was Republican Gordana Schifanelli who is running for Maryland Lt. Governor on the ticket with Daniel Cox. Another speaker, George Johnson, a teacher from Baltimore City, was heard on a video of the event saying, “We’re doing God’s work because Marxism, homosexuality and transgenderism is the devil.”

In response, the pro-LGBTQ+ rally in Columbia announced the following:

We are taking a stance against hate in the community as we raise our voices in support of equity in our schools. Attacks on teachers and school staff have prompted us to stand united and drown out the noise.

In addition, We ARE the People states:

We stand for LGBTQ+ students and educational professionals

Teaching accurate history to our students

Supporting equitable practices in our schools

Providing students with relevant LGBTQ+ media through their school libraries

The two-hour rally, which was attended by several county council members, featured speakers representing a wide swath of community, educational, religious and political organizations. They included: Community Allies of Rainbow Youth (CARY), Black Lives Activists of Columbia (BLAC), Absolutely Dragulous, Howard County Schools, PFLAG-Columbia/Howard County,  IndivisibleHoCoMd, Columbia Democratic Club, Howard Progressive Project, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia (UUCC), HoCo Pride, Progressive Democrats of Howard County, and the Columbia United Christian Church.

Many of the speakers denounced the censorship of materials that are needed by many LGBTQ+ students. Genderqueer and non-binary students, they point out, are most vulnerable and need affirming literature to help with their development and self-acceptance. The speakers also decried hate speech, which has surfaced again, as well as the opposition to teaching history as it relates to race.

Others argued that the community must not sit back and take it from extremist groups.

“You are all defenders,” said Cynthia Fikes, President of the Columbia Democratic Club in a fiery speech. “But to succeed a strong defense also needs a strong offense.”

The two books in question were recently the center of controversy in the Fairfax County (VA) school system. The books were removed in September from the shelves of the high schools pending a comprehensive review following opposition from a parent at a school board meeting. It should be noted that both books were previous winners of the American Library Association’s Alex Awards, which each year recognize “ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.”  

The Board established two committees consisting of parents, staff and students to assess the content of the books and make recommendations to the assistant superintendant of instructional services who would make the final determination.

One committee found that “Lawn Boy” includes themes that “are affirming for students” with marginalized identities. “There is no pedophilia in the book,” the committee added. The other committee found that “Gender Queer” depicts “difficulties non-binary and asexual individuals may face.” The committee concluded that “the book neither depicts nor describes pedophilia.” The books were restored to the shelves.

“As this backlash against LGTBQ+ literature demonstrates, we must be ready to stand up and defend the progress we have made,” said Jennifer Mallo, member of the Howard County Board of Education expressing her own point of view. “We must ensure our elected officials understand and share our values and will fight for our marginalized students.”

The enthusiastic crowd was clearly pleased with the event.

“Today’s rally was meant to inspire our community to take action,” said Chris Hefty, who was the lead organizer of the rally and the emcee. “Action that protects our youth. Action that protects our educators and admins. This action comes in the form of advocacy, communication with elected officials so they know your voice, and through well informed voting to ensure those who represent us are those we know will support us. We shared a message of love, acceptance, and warmth.”

Hefty adds, “The unity we facilitated through this rally was a sight to behold. As the lead organizer I couldn’t have been more pleased! In the future we will be sure to better meet the needs of all our community members. We thank all those in our community for their support and feedback and look forward to accomplishing great things together moving forward.”

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

'Tootsie' Rolls Into the Hippodrome with Laughs Galore


I
t’s a good bet that you have already seen the 1982 Oscar winning film Tootsie starring Dustin Hoffman in the theater or on cable. After all, it grossed north of $177 million and that is when the prices of movie tickets were still in the single digits.

Well, like so many instances in recent years, a musical was created based on a film, and Tootsie, originally appearing in Chicago, made it to Broadway in 2019 and captured two Tony Awards among its 11 nominations for its efforts. Tootsie is not just a musical; it is a comedy musical with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and a book by Robert Horn, God bless him!  The lyrics are punchy and clever, but I find the music with the exception of a few of songs is not all that memorable. Denis Jones’ choreography, though, is memorable and impeccable.177 million and that is when the prices of movie tickets were still in the single digits.

Now on tour, Tootsie has made its way to Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theater for a brief time, and like the movie it is pure joy. While the contours of the plot remain intact with some characters added and subtracted and the show within the show has changed from a soap opera to a musical, the stage version is more hilarious.

The satirizing of musical theatre is evident throughout Tootsie. You know that when the opening number on the song list is called “Opening Number” you’re in for a funny ride. Laughter is guaranteed with almost every character contributing; you will need to pace yourself as the comedy is constant and unrelenting.

The most significant difference with this musical is that the lead character, unlike the film, must sing as well as act. Drew Becker, playing the dual roles of Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels, is magnificent on many levels and hits the grueling challenge of playing both roles out of the park.  

As a refresher if you had seen the film version and if not, here is what happens. Michael Dorsey is a talented actor who has struggled getting parts because of self-inflicted wounds derived from his arrogant personality and temper tantrums that render him radioactive to producers, directors, other performers and agents alike.

At an audition for a musical “Juliet’s Curse,” that was subsequently changed to “Juliet’s Nurse” – a sure-fire flop and the sequel to "Romeo and Juliet"—prior to its mounting on Broadway, Michael observes a string of women being turned down for the role of Nurse. He gets an idea that if he dresses like a woman named Dorothy Michaels, the baggage stemming from his volatile reputation would not be known and his talent alone can land him the role.

Disguised as a woman, Dorothy convinces the producer at the audition that she is right for the role and gets the part. Along the way, Dorothy befriends her co-star who becomes Michael’s romantic interest only to hurt her, sets aside his anxious ex-girlfriend Sandy, baffles his roommate Jeff and creates havoc during this impersonation.

Dorothy (remember it is Michael in disguise) tries to stand up to the sexism that is often displayed on the set. As an example, the director condescendingly uses cringe-worthy nicknames, such as “honey,” “precious” and yes, “tootsie.” Dorothy reminds him that she has a name and spells that out. And there are arguments made concerning the inequality of pay experienced by women. Moreover, acknowledging gender fluididity, a point is made by the director that people are free to be whoever they want.

Unfortunately, the male characters are the ones speaking about feminism with the female characters not given the chance to decry sexism, and there is a degree of using for comedic effect the possibility that one of the characters may be lesbian —notions I find problematic in the book.

As previously mentioned, Drew Becker shines in the dual roles. So convincing is he that I truly believed his Act One rendition of “I Won’t Let You Down” as Dorothy, one of the show’s best numbers, was actually sung by a woman. His ability to hit the high register with such clarity and consistency is truly amazing. As Michael, Mr. Becker displays a pitch perfect tenor voice in “Whaddya Do” for example. His performance with the Ensemble in the production number “Unstoppable” that concludes the first act is a show stopper.

Onstage for virtually the entire show, Mr. Becker is fluid in changing from one character to another often in frenetic moments. Yet, it his ability to work so proficiently with other cast members in the many comedic spots that add more luster to his performance.   

For instance, the chemistry and repartee between Michael/Dorothy and his roommate Jeff Slater, a struggling writer, could be the makings of a sitcom. Jared David Michael Grant plays that role with unbridled enthusiasm and is a natural scene stealer. Incredibly funny facial expressions and voice inflections in addition to his precise comedic timing make Mr. Grant a standout. The duet with Michael, “Jeff Sums It Up” is truly hilarious.

 “Juliet’s Nurse’s” star Julie Nichols is one of the few relatively non-comedic roles. Ashley Alexandra displays her vocal and acting skills with sensitivity in portraying the character. She becomes the love interest of Michael/Dorothy. A somewhat lonely soul at the crossroads of her life, Julie finds that Dorothy fills a void she has been missing only to learn of the deception and betrayal at the hands of Dorothy.  Ms. Alexandra has a lovely soprano voice, which becomes apparent when she performs “Who Are You.”

Payton Reilly as Sandy Lester, an actress who failed to land the role in “Juliet’s Curse,” is another comic standout.  The ex-girlfriend of Michael, Sandy is neurotic and self-pitying and pessimistic about any outcome. Her big and only number is “What’s Gonna Happen,” which lampoons her being overemotional, is so big that it is reprised two more times. It may seem like overkill but it is placed at the right moments.

"...the comedy is constant and unrelenting "

Then there is dimwit reality star winner of “Race to Bachelor Island” Max Van Horn who is cast as Romeo’s brother in “Juliet’s Nurse.” played perfectly by Lukas James Miller, Max has two propensities: he butchers words and exposes his well-muscled upper torso. Instead of saying Romeo, he says Rome-O. Instead of a plague on both your houses, he says plaque. That gives you an idea.

He is a purely comical character with his superficiality and goofy conceit, and Mr. Miller plays it supremely. He can sing too. His performance of the ballad “This Thing” where he proclaims his love for Dorothy by displaying a tattoo of her face on his chest showcases a smooth tenor voice.

Adam Du Plessis is uproariously funny as the director and choreographer of “Juliet’s Nurse” Ron Carlisle. The character is arrogant and irritating for sure but his performance in the production number “I’m Alive” as choreographer is one of the show’s highlights.

Excellent performances are turned in by Steve Brustien as the gruff and impatient agent Stan Fields and Kathy Halenda as Rita Marshall, the producer of “Juliet’s Nurse” who was from the outset impressed by Dorothy’s talent. Ms. Halenda performs well in the production number “The Most Important Night Of My Life.”

The Ensemble is also wonderful with their smooth precise dancing and backing the leads with fine singing throughout.

Christine Peters designed the functional set that include large blocks that slide out along the stage and unfold to reveal the various scenes. The smooth transition of the scenes makes for superb staging of the production.

Costume Designer William Ivey Long did a fine job with the contemporary garb as well as the Renaissance attire for the performers in "Juliet's Nurse." Also, the costumes for the Ensemble look great.

Lighting Designer Donald Holder illuminated the stage with colorful combinations that enhance the quality of the production. While Brian Ronan’s sound design was fine in most cases, the mic’s seem to have a bit of an issue in the second act where the orchestration overwhelmed the singers in spots. Hopefully, that will be remedied.

We can all use a good laugh, and with a strikingly talented cast, Tootsie at the Hippodrome delivers in a big way. Note the theater is not responsible if you pull something while laughing. Hurry and order tickets. 

Running time. Two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: The show contains profanity and is not recommended for young children.

TOOTSIE runs through December 5 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit Ticketmaster.

Photo Credit: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Below is a video that provides a flavor of the show.


Monday, November 29, 2021

An Electric 'Hedwig' Rocks Olney

Mason Alexander Park stars as Hedwig
From the moment Hedwig ran down the aisle from the rear of the theater to the stage clad in black knee-high boots and stockings, black fishnet hose with runs in them, tight denim (very) shorts, elbow length red leather gloves, a glittery top, abundant makeup and a huge blond wig after initially being concealed by a silver box, rocking to the explosive song, “Tear Me Down,” I knew that I would be in for quite a ride. And based on the opening night audience’s raucous reaction, they realized it, too.

The Olney Theatre Center’s presentation of Hedwig and the Angry Inch showcases all the elements of solid musical theatre and does so with jaw-dropping magnificence. The glam rock musical, a winner of four Tony Awards in 2016 with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask and a book by John Cameron Mitchell whose own lived experiences inspired much of the story, is a display of a wide spectrum of emotions, high energy, great songs and exceptional talent. The show is a rock concert, comedy, drag show, confessional and revival all rolled into one. The music was influenced by the likes of Iggy Pop, Sex Pistols and David Bowie.

A riveting tragicomic story line brought to life by the outstanding score and a tour de force performance by standout Mason Alexander Park, a non-binary actor and a Helen Hayes Award winner from the role they played as the Emcee in Olney’s production of Cabaret in 2019, Hedwig delivers big time. This should be no surprise as Director Johanna Mckeon had helmed the national touring production of Hedwig and Park had also played the role on tour. Experience counts.

We learn through monologues and songs the central character was born male, Hansel Schmidt, in Communist East Berlin. As a condition for marrying his GI boyfriend to ultimately flee the Iron Curtain, Hansel undergoes gender reassignment surgery to join him in America. The operation, sadly, is botched, and the renamed Hedwig is left with an “angry inch” of flesh between her legs. Her husband eventually leaves her and she winds up in a Kansas trailer park penniless.

Hedwig pursues her dream as a rock star and eventually bonds with band mate Tommy Gnosis. He, too, betrays her and runs off with the songs they had collaborated on, and he goes on to become a bigger name, a bigger star, much to Hedwig’s chagrin. She tries to persevere despite the obstacles that had been thrown her way. The climactic ending is theatre at its best.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is mounted at the Olney Center’s 1938 Original Theater. With a creative set designed by Jacob A. Climer (who also designed the punk-like costumes), Hedwig’s rock’s identity is portrayed in a locale to simulate a club with all its grunginess and idiosyncrasies and an onstage four-piece, two singer band, “The Angry Inch” that is perennially moving from one rundown venue to another.  

The set features a hodgepodge of odd objects like a bunch of desk lamps, plastic Christmas figurines, statuettes, wigs, trunks, speakers and even a Menorah to signal the beginning of Chanukah.  There’s a loosely hung curtain with the show title on it, and behind it a projection screen that is used throughout each song under the projection design by Patrick Lord and the spectacular lighting design by Max Doolittle (whose name strikes me as an oxymoron) including strobe lighting, spotlights and stage fog replicating the intense atmosphere of a rock concert.

With that backdrop Park as Hedwig takes over. Moving about the stage from one corner to another, laying on the floor, sitting on a speaker, belting out the songs, Park tells the story.

"Charismatic and ubertalented, Park alone could bring the house down."

Hedwig banters with the audience, offers jokes with some of them improvised and confesses her tragedies with a chip on her shoulder and revenge on her mind. As she moves to the side of the theater to open a door, we hear the sound of Tommy’s concert in a nearby venue. The music and fog drifting in the theater from that concert with Tommy’s voice speaking the usual clichés to his audience angers Hedwig more, and rightfully so. Kudos goes to Sound Designer Matt Rowe for that effect.

The infusion of local connections is an amusing touch as that concert where Tommy is performing, says Hedwig, happens to be at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in nearby Columbia. Md. And contemporary subjects are brought into the show like a reference to the Proud Boys.

As compelling and entertaining those monologues are, the performances of the songs alone are worth the price of admission. Park has an outstanding tenor voice and can belt out the rock songs with vigor and clarity and can effectively emote Hedwig’s plight in the softer numbers.

“Tear Me Down,” “The Origin of Love,” “Sugar Daddy,” ‘Angry Inch,” “Wig in a Box,” “Wicked Little Town,” “The Long Grift,” “Hedwig’s Lament,” “Exquisite Corpse” and “Midnight Radio” all tell Hedwig’s story.

Some of these numbers feature the singing of Helen Hayes Award nominated Chani Wereley. She plays Hedwig’s current husband and back-up singer in the band, Yitzhak, a Jewish drag queen from Croatia.  He is embittered by often being on the receiving end of verbal abuse by Hedwig.   

Ms. Werely’s vocal range is astounding by demonstrating her mezzo-soprano voice in singing a bit of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and showing off a deep, gruff masculine voice when speaking.

The other Angry Inch band members onstage who do an excellent job with the punk rock music are Manny Arciniega, Jaime Ibacache, Jason Wilson and Helen Hayes Award winning Music Director Christopher Youstra who I suspect was once a headbanger back in the day.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch breaks ground with a genderqueer central character but the story effectively focuses on Hedwig’s journey to find her other half, her soul mate. Hedwig’s life has been scarred not only by the surgical mishap but by the men she encountered along the way: her father who abandoned her, the GI who dumped her for another man, the former collaborator Tommy who stole her music and left her in the ashes.

All that is history, traumatic as it may be.  But to be accepted by others and to find that other half, she must first learn to accept herself. That is her task, and we all see ourselves rooting for her because in some fashion we all must accept ourselves.

Mason Alexander Park turns in an utterly brilliant performance as Hedwig with their singing prowess, spot-on comedic timing and acting skills. Charismatic and ubertalented, Park alone could bring the house down.  Under the show’s expert direction, and the talents from the rest of the cast and musicians as well as the superb technical crew this astounding electric production soars to great heights and should not be missed.

Running time. One hour and 35 minutes with no intermission.

Advisory: The show contains profanity, sexual situations, partial nudity and references to drugs and is not suitable for young children.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs through January 2, 2022 at the1938 Original Theater of the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting here.



Mason Alexander Park as Hedwig and Chani Wereley as
as Yitzhak rocking out a number

Photos: Stan Barough

Friday, November 12, 2021

Toby’s ‘White Christmas’ Returns to the Good Ole Days

With troubled times like these, no one could be blamed for longing for a simpler, genteel era. This welcome diversion can be currently found at Toby’s Dinner Theatre with its completely entertaining production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.

Under the precise direction of Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick, stunning choreography by Christen Svingos, able musical direction by Ross Scott Rawlings, a lovely and familiar score, an abundantly talented cast and great visuals, this production of White Christmas  is a dazzling nostalgic escape to the good ole days.

The musical stage production is based on the 1954 movie of the same title that starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as well as Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. The popular music and straight-forward lyrics were composed by Irving Berlin with the book penned by David Ives and Paul Blake. 

White Christmas has been both praised and criticized for its simplicity. But I like simple as long as there is talent, and Toby’s production has that. To be sure, there are a few slow spots during the show, but that is overcome readily by the performances.

Mounting any musical on the tight stage of Toby’s and in the round no less is a daunting challenge. But just like so many other musicals in Toby’s long and distinguished history, this production of White Christmas meets that bar and then some.

The staging is magnificent, efficiently using all levels and floor space. By dint of the creative and functional scenic design by David A. Hopkins and the gorgeous lighting design by Lynn Joslin, the show plays large and makes the viewing that much more pleasurable.

Though set in the 1950’s the music and choreography seem timeless and upbeat. It didn’t hurt that the first number was that Christmastime standard “Happy Holiday”—popularized by Bing Crosby and Andy Williams—that has you humming from the get-go.

The show opens up, however, not in the 1950’s but 1944 where Bob Wallace and Phil Davis (played by Toby’s dynamic duo of Jeffrey Shankle and David James, respectively), then two GI’s, were singing and dancing to cheer up the troops stuck in war-shattered Europe on Christmas Eve. It is here the title song “White Christmas” first appears in the show.

The next scene takes place 10 years later at the Ed Sullivan Show where the fellas continued what appeared to be a successful song and dance act and perform “Happy Holiday/Let Yourself Go,” which features solid choreography.

From there the guys—skirt-chasing Phil and his more cautious buddy Bob—pursue the Haynes sisters, another singing duo. Judy Haynes, played by Alicia Osborn, and Phil hit it off early on despite Phil’s wandering eyes. Betty Haines (Janine Sunday) and Bob struggle to connect.

They travel by train to the Columbia Inn in Vermont owned by the guys’ former Army commander who has fallen on bad luck, General Henry Waverly (played by Robert Biedermann).  The gals were on their way to perform in a Christmas show. Bob thought they were heading to Miami resulting in some funny moments.

We’ll leave it there as the familiar 1954-type theme boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back provides one of the key threads in the show’s plot as does the ensuing zaniness. Also, how the General’s old troops helped save the day provides the show with an emotional uplift.

"a snow globe filled with artistry" 

Popular standards, such as “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” “I Love a Piano” and “How Deep is the Ocean” are filled with joy and nostalgia. The Finale had the entire company (and audience) singing “White Christmas.” Then as an encore number, they all perform “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” as snowflakes drifted down from the ceiling. Beautiful.

Jeffrey Shankle as Bob is fabulous as usual. He showcases his brilliant, pitch-perfect tenor voice and solid acting chops, which he carries out with flair. Mr. Shankle is the featured singer in many of the show’s numbers with “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” “Sisters,” “How Deep is the Ocean” and “The Old Man” being highlights. And when he and the superb Ensemble perform “Blue Skies” with its spin moves and kicks to close out the first act, it is a high point in the show.

Another Toby’s veteran is David James reprising his role from 10 years ago. The two-time Helen Hayes winner plays Phil beautifully with fine singing and dancing performances, and he adroitly throws in his well-timed, clever lines. In a duet with Alicia Osborn as Judy in “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” Mr. James shines brightly.

Both Janine Sunday (also reprising her role) and Alicia Osborn as the Haynes sisters are terrific and play off the male leads with precision. As the strong-willed and independent Betty, Ms. Sunday is on top of her game. As the charming and lovely Judy, Ms. Osborn is ideal for the role.

Vocally, one couldn’t ask for better. For instance, Ms. Sunday’s duet with Mr. Shankle in the reprise of “How Deep is the Ocean” is stunning.

Jane C. Boyle, as Martha the inn’s outspoken concierge, is sensational (again). Returning to her role she performed 10 years ago at Toby’s, Ms. Boyle never misses a beat.  Possessing comedic timing and powerful stage presence, Ms. Boyle provides the show an added punch. Her rendition of “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” really hits the mark. It is a pure delight to see Ms. Boyle back on the Toby’s stage.

Another standout is veteran actor Robert Biedermann who plays General Henry Waverly to a tee. Kind and lovable the General had fallen under hard economic times with his inn. Mr. Biedermann conveys this situation movingly so that the audience finds it easy to is root for him.

Then there is young Susie, the General’s devoted granddaughter played on the night this performance was reviewed by Nina Brothers. (Anna Jachero and Ava Rose LaManna play the role in other performances.)

In this performance, Nina sparkled playing the feisty, lovable youngster who had her moment in the spotlight with a gorgeous rendition of the reprise of “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.” The song is intended to convince the Christmas show’s organizers at the inn that she can perform.

Other notable performances are turned in by DeCarlo Raspberry as the boisterous and spirited TV Announcer and Christmas Show Director; and Justin Calhoun as Ralph Sheldrake, the former Army buddy of Bob and Phil and now executive fresh off his leading role in Godspell.

Rounding out the talented, up-tempo cast and Ensemble are: Patricia Targete, Alexis Krey, Amanda Kaplan, Rachel Kemp Whittenberger, Shawn Kettring, Brook Urquhart, Quadry Brown, Brandon Bedore, Amanda Kaplan, and last but definitely not least AJ Whittenberger.

Music Director Ross Scott Rawlings as well as the accomplished six-piece orchestra brought life to Berlin’s magical score. (Nathan Scavilla assumes the role at other performances.)

The Ensemble hoofed it up skillfully with lots of energy and graceful movement to the tuneful songs. Credit Choreographer Christen Svingos for effectively designing the playbook, allowing the dancers to show off their talents on a tight stage.

“Happy Holiday/Let Yourself Go” featuring Mr. Shankle, Mr. James and the Ensemble is a treat. Mr. James and Ms. Osborn are graceful in the lovely number with the fitting title, “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing.” But the show stopper is the rousing second act opener “I Love a Piano” that features a scintillating display of tap dancing talent by the Ensemble, reflecting extraordinary choreography by Ms. Svingos.  

As mentioned previously, Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins employs clever scenery and set pieces to add heft to the production. Such varied scenes include the inn, a train ride, a ballroom, a TV studio among others. The best is the lobby of the inn with a front desk, a neatly decorated staircase leading to the inn’s rooms, and an A-frame ceiling that helps provide that traditional inn look.

In addition to her leading role in the show, Janine Sunday is also the Costume Designer. With well over a hundred pieces of wardrobe employed that ranged from period formal gowns to Army uniforms and much in between, the costumes are a significant element in the show’s visual appeal.

And Mark Smedley’s solid sound design helps make the performances that much better.

This is a special show for a special time of year, and a good one for the entire family. With a high-energy, talented cast performing Irving Berlin music and a skillful crew, White Christmas at Toby’s is a snow globe filled with artistry that brings out the best in musical theatre and is the present you may be looking for.  

Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes.

White Christmas runs through January 9 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the Box Office 410-730-8311 or visiting here.

Alicia Osborn, David James and Ensemble
in blockbuster number "I Love a Piano"


Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography