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Thursday, February 22, 2024

‘Peter Pan’ Lets Your Imagination Take Flight at the Hippodrome

Spoiler alert: Peter Pan is not a true story. In fact, it is one of the most make believe-fantasies to ever grace the stage. With its sparkling production, technical excellence and a talented, multi-cultural young cast, Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre is the venue for the national tour launch of this re-imagined and newly adapted musical version of the classic story.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit my first encounter with Peter Pan was, as a little kid, watching the fairy tale on my family’s black and white console TV (it was televised in color, however) back when there were only four known planets. My recollection of that experience besides the fun songs and exciting story was my confusion as to why the character Peter Pan was played by a woman, Mary Martin.

Ms. Martin also starred in the 1954 Broadway production and received a Tony Award for her performance as Peter. She was succeeded in revivals by Sandy Duncan and Cathy Rigby as well as other women on a number of tours. Alas, my parents were unable to offer clarity to a situation where gender roles had been so clearly defined back then and why Ms. Martin played Peter.

However, this dazzling touring production debuts a bright and talented young man Nolan Almeida, 17, as Peter Pan. He handles the physically demanding role with aplomb and tons of enthusiasm. The charismatic Mr. Almeida is an excellent vocalist, dances proficiently including tap dancing with gracefulness not ordinarily seen in a teenager and excels in the superb flying sequences with somersault flips.

The musical is based on J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play Peter Pan and his 1911 novelization of it, Peter and Wendy, whose main storyline depicts Peter Pan as a boy who never wants to grow up. The music is mostly by Moose Charlap, with additional music by Jule Styne, and most of the lyrics were written by Carolyn Leigh, with additional lyrics by the potent duo Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

The additional book was penned by Tony Award winning playwright Larissa FastHorse, who,
importantly, scrubbed the original material of the offensive stereotypical portrayal of Indigenous people and women. She is the first Native American female playwright whose work had been produced on Broadway. With her influence, several characters including Tiger Lily are played by Indigenous peoples in the production.

Still, under the direction of Emmy Award winner Lonny Price and choreography by Lorin Lotarro, Peter Pan stays true to the widely familiar story and pleasing music. Familiar favorites, such as “I Gotta Crow,” "Neverland,” “I’m Flying,” which is an incredibly striking and well-choreographed aerial number with sterling special effects, the iconic “I Won’t Grow Up,” the main theme of the story, “Hook’s Tango,” the moving “When I Went Home,” and the gentle “Tender Shepherd” highlight the musical. The excellent orchestra was conducted by Jonathan Marro for this reviewed performance.

For those not familiar, Peter Pan along with his mischievous fairy sidekick Tinker Bell enters the bedroom of Wendy, Michael and John Darling in search of his lost shadow. Wendy helps to sew it back on him, and the smaller boys awaken to the visitor’s presence. He tells of Neverland, an island where he is from and where there are “Lost Boys” who are in need of stories to hear and also in need of a mother.

Peter demonstrates his flying prowess and immediately teaches the children how to fly as long as they think lovely thoughts. A sprinkle of fairy dust dropped on them by Peter completes the task. With absolutely jaw-dropping technical effects, brilliant projections, imaginative lighting and theatre magic, Peter and the Darling children embark on an adventurous journey to Neverland. There they encounter a tribe of Indigenous people representing cultures from around the world led by Tiger Lily. The “Lost Boys” are there, of course, and there is also the evil Captain Hook and his pirate crew.

Amid sword fights, flying sequences, and clever maneuvering, Peter Pan and the Darling children, team up with Tiger Lily and her tribe to eventually vanquish Captain Hook.

Through these adventures, the Darling children are taught valuable lessons and appear to grow up. But Peter is loath to growing up. However, years down the road, Wendy’s young daughter Jane will join Peter in a trek back to Neverland.

As mentioned before, Nolan Almeida soars as Peter Pan, literally and figuratively. Perfectly cast for the role, Mr. Almeida showcases is abundance of talent in dancing, singing and acting. His vocals shine in such varied numbers as “I Gotta Crow,” “Neverland,” the sensational group number with the Darling children “I’m Flying” as well as “When I Went Home.” Unquestionably, Mr. Almeida has a bright future in theatre. His present isn’t so bad either.

Hawa Kamara is making her professional debut in playing the part of Wendy Darling. Her acting skills are excellent with her timing, use of facial expressions and body language. Mature and caring, Wendy is as likeable as one can be, and Ms. Kamara’s performance, especially her exchanges with Peter at the outset, brings that to the fore.

On the night this performance was reviewed, William Foon and Reed Epley were wonderful as John and Michael Darling, respectively. They, too, sing and dance well and can handle a sword when called upon.

The villain is Captain Hook, and that role is adeptly played by Cody Garcia. Evil and sadistic, Captain Hook can be seen as comical by adults but frightening by children. Cody (who also plays Mr. Darling) has that stereotypical pirate look of being tall, slender, mustachioed and swashbuckling.  Cody carries it off perfectly with the right amount of flair, and sings well in “Hook’s Tango,” “Hook’s Tarantella” and Hook’s Waltz.”

Captain Hook’s flamboyant devoted sidekick Smee, played deliciously by Kurt Perry, provides much of the comedy in the show with his campy rejoinders. Mr. Perry hits it out of the park.

As the generous but commanding Tiger Lily, Raye Zaragoza turns in a splendid performance. Her strong vocals are on display in the group number “Friends Forever,” which features glorious dancing from the entire Company including a fast-paced tap segment to close out the first act.

The remainder of the cast including the Pirates, Lost Boys and the Tribe all contribute to this fantastic production.

[a]"sparkling production, technical excellence and a talented, multi-cultural young cast..."

Anna Louizos’ brilliantly designed set adds much beauty to the production. The scenes at Neverland with its lush flora that serve as a hideout for the “Lost Boys” are gorgeous.

David Bengali’s projections are eye-popping and nothing short of spectacular. The “I’m Flying” number midway through the first act is breathtaking and is alone worth the price of admission. And a spotlight should shine on Paul Kieve for the creative “Tinker Bell” design, which is exceptional.

Amith Chandrashaker is on point with his rich and effective lighting design. Kai Harada should get applause not only for the quality of the sound but the impressive sound effects throughout the production.

The astonishing fight scenes are directed by Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet with music and dance arrangements by David Dabbon.

And Sarafina Bush’s stunning costume design makes it a lot easier to imagine what went on in Neverland.

Peter Pan is a high-flying musical that melds a wealth of talent, a solid score and creativity. I, for one, never wanted to grow up and didn’t. This is a must-see show for all ages whether you have grown up or not.

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

Peter Pan runs through February 25 the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

Photos: Matthew Murphy

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ is Sure-fire Hilarity at the Hippodrome

Rob McClure as Daniel Hillard/Mrs. Doubtfire

Right on the heels of a shockingly disappointing loss by the hometown football team, the Ravens, the North America touring production of Mrs. Doubtfire has rolled into Baltimore to bring some needed cheer while we lick our wounds. The musical now playing at the iconic Hippodrome Theatre is a heartwarming, tender story but with high octane comedy that is sure to keep you cracking up.

Four-time Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks adroitly directs this zany, well-staged musical with precision, which is based on the 1993 film Mrs. Doubtfire that starred Robin Williams. Lorin Latarro deftly handles the lively choreography, and Ethan Popp is the music supervisor.

The central plot consists of a divorced man with no custody of his children because he is unemployed and lives with his brother. He transforms into a female Scottish nanny named Mrs. Doubtfire in an effort to be close to his children. How he navigates this ruse is the core of the laugh-a-minute tale.

With some shows the plot is a vessel to carry the music, which is common among jukebox musicals, such as Mamma Mia!, Jagged Little Pill, Rock of Ages and many others. In Mrs. Doubtfire, the music by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick (the Tony Award nominated team behind Something Rotten!) is the vehicle to move the story along, and it’s well done. The book was penned by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell.

The music in Mrs. Doubtfire will not likely appear on many folks’ playlists; however, the score with its eclectic styles and comedic lyrics perform a key function and service the story pleasingly. Some of the numbers are extraordinary with their lyrics and the manner in how they are performed.

“Easy Peasy” is a standout well-choreographed spectacle that brings laughter and joy with its zany antics. “Welcome to La Rosa” is another where everything in the plot unravels—literally. And that is followed up by the equally funny “He Lied to Me.”

Nik Alexander, Aaron Kaburick, Romelda Teron Benjamin
and Rob McClure

Rob McClure reprises his Tony-nominated Broadway role as Daniel Hillard, the out-of-work impressionist in San Francisco who loses custody of his three children after a messy divorce from his wife Miranda (played superbly by Maggie Lakis who happens to be Mr. McClure’s real wife). As stated previously, Daniel transforms into a Scottish nanny named Mrs. Doubtfire, who is hired by Miranda unaware of the true identity. This takes place after Daniel uses his voice impression skills, in a hilarious sequence, to sabotage Miranda’s efforts to find a regular nanny. Mrs. Doubtfire is anything but regular.

No one would expect an actor to replicate the comic genius of the late, great Robin Williams. But Mr. McClure comes darn close. In a tour-de-force, Mr. McClure is exceptional in a  physically demanding and strenuous role that includes well over a dozen costume changes in rapid fashion that must be accomplished on a dime to keep up with the fast pace of the show.

In possessing  natural comedic gifts, Mr. McClure scores big in every scene. Yet, his acting abilities come to the fore when he longs to be with his children and is desperate to do so. His ability to convey tenderness in these scenes while performing slapstick comedy in others is a tribute to his talent. Everybody roots for him.

"... a heartwarming, tender story but with high octane comedy that is sure to keep you cracking up."

Oh, by the way, he can sing well, too, as he is featured in over half the show's numbers. The moving solo “I Want to Be There” where Daniel fights for custody of his children in front of a judge is beautifully delivered. In another style, the comedic “Make Me a Woman” with his brother and his brother’s husband is beyond hilarious. Mr. McClure also excels while in the Mrs. Doubtfire character in the insanely funny “Easy Peasy”—a group number with the talented Ensemble where he desperately tries to brandish his cooking skills. There are many others. And yes, he can dance real well, even tap. What can’t he do?

For her part, Maggie Lakis as the strong-willed and business-savvy mother Miranda Hillard, performs well. Miranda clearly has no more interest in reconciling with Daniel and tries everything to keep him away from the children only to be infiltrated by Mrs. Doubtfire whom she adores especially because of the influence she has on her kids. Her one solo “Let Go” that showcases a powerful alto voice is glorious. In the end, after the jolting discovery that Mrs. Doubtfire was actually her husband, she comes to the realization that things are better when Daniel is around the children. It leads to an emotional conclusion. 

Giselle Gutierrez as Lydia Hillard, the oldest daughter and on the cusp of young adulthood, and for the reviewed performance Cody Braverman as her brother Christopher and Emerson Mae Chan as the youngest sister Natalie are bona fide scene stealers. Their acting skills are spot-on though Christopher performs most of the comedic lines and does so with aplomb. He alternates with Bernard Rimmele while Emerson alternates with Kennedy Pitney.

The three kids perform in the hilarious number “What the Hell”—yes they do, and Ms. Gutierrez shines in the emotional duet near show’s end with Mr. McClure in “Just Pretend.”

Now recall that the movie was released in 1993 and this musical production had made adjustments to modernize. The use of smart phones, internet and Siri are among the technical updates to the show’s plot.

What’s not updated is that the creative team retained the stereotypical gay characters for the musical. Indeed, sensibilities and attitudes have changed regarding LGBTQ+ individuals over the years.  One of the characters is Daniel’s flamboyant brother Frank (played by Aaron Kaburick) who is a make-up artist, no less and his even more flamboyant husband Andre (played by Nik Alexander).

Though their antics are over-the-top and at times cringe-worthy, they are fabulous and provide many comical moments during the course of the show. Advice: Don’t ever say anything negative about Donna Summer in front of Andre!

The couple assists Daniel with the prosthetics and wardrobe needed to pull off the Mrs. Doubtfire persona. And musically, the trio is outstanding in the funny “Make Me a Woman.”

Leo Roberts and Rob McClure
Also performing splendidly is Romelda Teron Benjamin as Wanda Sellner, the stern, all-business court liaison overseeing the progress made by Daniel to get a job, earn enough money and provide suitable housing for the children in advance of the court’s review of the custody ruling. In this process, the exchanges between her and Daniel, Frank and Andre are side-splitting funny. She also displays a powerful soprano. In the end, Daniel does find a job using his impression skills to land a TV kids show gig and manages to find a nice abode.

Leo Roberts plays Stuart Dunmore, Miranda’s brand-new love interest almost immediately following the divorce. Good-looking and muscular, Mr. Roberts portrays the rich British character well as he is the chief rival to Daniel. Whether by design or not, there is no chemistry between him and the children. Mr. Roberts also has a solid tenor singing voice.

The remainder of the talented cast and Ensemble supports the leads exceptionally particularly in vocals and dancing.

Though the set is not intricate or highly technical, it is attractive and services the plot effectively. Scenic Designer David Korins makes use of dropdown curtains and screens for scene changes with images of San Francisco in the background.  Costume Designer Catherine Zuber is very creative in outfitting the cast in colorful garb and, of course, the costumes for Mrs. Doubtfire. Phillip S. Rosenberg’s brilliant lighting design adds to the visual excellence of the show.

Truthfully, going in, I had my doubts about Mrs. Doubtfire and its conversion from screen to stage as a musical. No more doubts. It’s a perfect blend of love and laughs, and it’s fantastic.

Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Mrs. Doubtfire runs through February 4 the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit Ticketmaster or the Hippodrome Theatre online.

Photos: Joan Marcus

The 2024-2025 season recently announced:

Friday, January 26, 2024

5-6-7-8 'A Chorus Line' at Toby’s Will Surely Captivate

It may have been 1975 with the birth years of the dancers auditioning for a fictional Broadway musical ranging from 1942 to 1955, but the competition for such chosen roles by these show dancers is as fierce today as it was then.  An abundance of talented performers; needed jobs; few openings are available. That hasn’t changed over the years. 

Toby’s Dinner Theatre triumphs with its entertaining re-creation of the classic hit musical A Chorus Line, which humanizes these seemingly anonymous dancers. Each brings a story of struggle or dreams, of triumphs or failures, of family support or abandonment.

I was curious to see how Toby’s in-the-round configuration could adapt to a linear production, such as this. Under the imaginative direction of Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick, who has been nominated for two more such awards for his work last year with Something Rotten! and Escape to Margaritaville along with choreographer Vincent Musgrave making his Toby’s choreography debut, the production team met the daunting challenge.

Rather than stringing the auditioning dancers in a single line across the stage as depicted in other productions, the performers are clustered at the stage’s three entrances as well as forming double lines across the stage. It’s very effective.

A Chorus Line features music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban, a book by James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante and originally choreographed by Michael Bennett.  In doing so, Mr. Minnick helms a tight production on a mostly bare stage that boasts a diverse array of talented dancers, singers and actors that perform some of the best-known songs on Broadway.

Paul played by Brian Dauglash

Songs, such as “I Hope I Get It;” “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love,” a brilliantly staged production number; “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three;” the gorgeous ballad “What I Did for Love;” and “One,” a singular sensation of a song, highlight the catalog. Honestly, you will have a hard time getting that song out of your head.

The eight-piece orchestra under the musical direction of conductor Ross Scott Rawlings (Nathan Scavilla conducts in other performances) provides sturdy melodic support for the singers and dancers. Lynn Joslin’s superb lighting design vividly amplifies the dramatic sequences with Mark Smedley’s sound design enabling the musical performances and dialogue to be clearly audible.

The original version of A Chorus Line ran for 6,137 performances and is the sixth longest-running Broadway show ever.  It spawned numerous touring productions and revivals, captured 12 Tony Award nominations and won 9 of them, in addition to the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. 

The musical is dance-heavy, and chorographer Musgrave and the performers are clearly up to the task. A variety of precisely arranged moves are deployed making excellent use of the stage. They include lifts and tap dancing among others, which are on display in solo and group numbers.

The quality of the music, dancing and dialogue (largely monologue) makes the show endearing and timeless and explains its enormous popularity.  Each of the 17 dancers is called upon to not only flaunt their moves individually and in groups in a strenuous audition but are also asked (um, told) to describe their life’s experiences to the authoritative director and choreographer, Zach (played commandingly by Jeffrey Shankle).

Mr. Shankle mostly sits above one of the theater’s balconies to simulate being in the rear of a theater’s auditorium. Zach’s assistant Larry, played well by Andrew Gordon, is a standout dancer when he joins in group numbers.

Never for once imagining they would be required to reveal their inner secrets, confessions and self-doubts to the director, much less to their fellow competitors, to vie for the limited number of openings (4 boys and 4 girls), the dancers opened their souls with remarkable candor.  I mean, how many performers attend an audition and admit they can’t sing?  One did here.

"Toby’s Dinner Theatre triumphs with its entertaining re-creation of the classic hit musical A Chorus Line..."

Talking straight ahead to Zach and responding to his questions bellowed from a microphone, these dancers tell their stories amidst a series of musical numbers including a montage.  Though some of the soliloquies slow the pace down in spots, they are mostly fun and unique and an integral part of the show. 

There are too many to name here, but these are some examples. Don, the married man who worked in a strip club (Brandon Bedore); Connie (Kiana King), a petite older Asian-American who still believes in eternal youth; Greg (Ariel Messeca), an impish Jewish gay man who describes his first experience with a woman; Sheila (Jessica Barraclough), a sassy, aging and sexy dancer who describes her unhappy childhood; and Mark (Angelo Harrington II), the youngest at age 20 who hilariously told his priest he thought he had gonorrhea when instead it was...

Paul (Brian Dauglash) presented one of the more emotional stories.  The Puerto Rican tells of his earlier experiences growing up gay and his involvement in a drag act. He was forced to drop out of school, and when his parents learned of his orientation, his relating their reaction was a particularly poignant part of the show.  Paul breaks down and Zach goes on stage to comfort him.  Mr. Daughlash is exceptional in sharing Paul’s experience.

Then there is Diana (Leela Dawson), also Puerto Rican who delivers the knockout number “Nothing” and later the classic “What I Did for Love.”  The latter follows a mishap to Paul, who injured a knee during a tap dance number, and the other dancers on the line experienced the sudden horror that their career could also end in a flash.  Few had alternative plans. 

Cassie played by Lydia Gifford

Cassie, one of the significant characters in the production, is played convincingly by Lydia Gifford.  She and director Zach once had a romantic relationship, and when Zach became more involved with theatre than with her, they split.  Zach believes that Cassie, who was once a successful solo dancer, is a feature-caliber performer, not merely a member of the chorus. But Cassie wants to be a part of the chorus and respects all those trying to make it.  

Ms. Gifford also elegantly performs a solo dance (“The Music and the Mirror”) as an angled mirror presents images of her dancing smoothly around the stage in a variety of moves donned in a sleek red dress.

Val, a fun character played by Alexis Krey Bedore, does a splendid job as a potty-mouthed dancer who needed plastic surgery to “enhance” her looks to get dancing jobs.  Her rendition of “Dance: 10; Looks: Three” is performed admirably.

The ensemble, in the meantime, learn the steps and lyrics to “One,” arguably the most iconic of the show’s numbers.  The final eight chosen dancers are announced, and those failing to make the cut exit the stage deflated. 

For the show’s finale all the dancers, including those cut, are decked out in glistening gold formal costumes (designed by Kansas City Costumes and coordinated by Janine Sunday) blending as a singular mass, absent individual identity, wonderfully performing the catchy reprise of “One.”   

Rounding out the talented cast are in alphabetical order: Dereck Atwater (Frank), Quadry Brown (Richie), Justin Calhoun (Butch), Aria Renee Curameng (Vicki), Emily Flack (Maggie), Nicky Kaider (Mike), Amanda Kaplan Landstrom (Kristine), Ryan Sellers (Al), Adam Shank (Roy), David Singletoen (Bobby), Patricia “Pep” Targete (Bebe), Danielle Tuomey (Trish), and Julia Williams (Judy).

Toby's production of A Chorus Line features a very diverse, attractive and talented bunch of dancers, singers and actors. They powerfully and gracefully glide and swerve in precise movements and none deserve to be cut.  But in the end, somebody has to go.  

Through this show, which was inspired by a number of stories from actual dancers, we’re taken back almost five decades. Indeed, some of the topics, such as homosexuality and breast implants were groundbreaking back in the day.  But truth be told, aside from the costumes, hairstyles, and cultural references of yore, it is all so contemporary and a must-see.

Advisory: The show contains adult themes and language and is not recommended for young children.

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

A Chorus Line runs through March 10, 2024, 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.

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography

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Wednesday, December 06, 2023

‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ est Splendide at the Hippodrome

When the doors to the auditorium open up at the historic Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore for this production, you are transported to the Montmartre Quarter of Paris, France in 1899 and more specifically to the notorious Moulin Rouge cabaret club, the birthplace of the French can-can. In its opulent, vivid red splendor, the Moulin Rouge with its famous red windmill on the roof represents a bit of raunch and a bit of gaudy decadence with a French accent. Boundaries and restraint are words with no meaning here.

Naughty, racy, uninhibited, and sexiness are embodied in the twirling pastel petticoats of the high-kicking can-can dancers. This is the Moulin Rouge. It’s a place ‘where all your dreams come true.” And those dreams mean love in all its forms. From scenery that depicts large, three-dimensional, decorated heart-shaped Valentine’s Day candy boxes to scenery where “L’amour” is written across a screen, there is no doubt that love is the central theme. And at its core, this is a love story.

Behind a translucent curtain, as the audience files into this free-spirit environment, performers are seen moving about sensuously in slow motion, seducing one and all to a web of fantasy and no-limits. And when the curtain suddenly rises and the chorus opens the show with the vigorous “Lady Marmalade,” the seduction is complete.

Making a national tour stop in Baltimore that exceeds the length of the normal Hippodrome Broadway series run, Moulin Rouge! The Musical sets a high bar in theatrical creativity and pure beauty.

The show officially opened on Broadway July 25, 2019 and is still going strong. At the Covid-delayed 74th Tony Awards in September 2021, Moulin Rouge! The Musical garnered 10 Tony Awards including Best Musical from the 14 nominations. Other competitors included Jagged Little Pill and Tina—both eventual touring productions having played at the Hippodrome.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical with a book by John Logan is based on the 2001 film Moulin Rouge! This is a jukebox musical that deserves to be on the top shelf in that genre. Dozens of pop songs—some snippets and some fuller length depending on the rights bestowed upon the producers—are offered.

Just as the stage is a kaleidoscope of brilliant hues augmented by artistic scenery, imaginative lighting and over-the-top (in a good way) costuming, the music during this masterpiece is an eclectic brew of songs spanning decades and styles. Most are recognizable: from Madonna and Beyonce to Rick Astley and Whitney Houston, from Lady Gaga and Elton John to Tina Turner and Adele, the catalogue is limitless. Many of the songs had been added since the film version increasing texture to the emotions conveyed in the plot.

The musical is structured so that each main scene provides a track to move the story along, and each track contains a bunch of these songs. When the audience recognizes a number, even if it only a line or two, there is giggling throughout because of how the lyrics fit into the scene depicted. This offers a lighter touch to what is a more dramatic and serious storyline.

Set in the Montmartre Quarter of Paris, France, at the turn of the 20th century. The plot centers on Christian, a young American composer who moved to Paris to find himself and his capabilities. But before that could happen, he and his two Bohemian pals, the famous artist Toulouse-Lautrec and Argentinean dancer Santiago who are attempting to write music for a play, encounter Satine, the beautiful star of the Moulin Rouge cabaret club.

Despite its opulence on the surface, the Moulin Rouge is in financial trouble. Harold Zidler, the club’s director, believes that the only way to alleviate the pressure is to have the wealthy Duke of Monroth invest in the Moulin Rouge. And for that to happen, he implores Satine to provide the Duke the needed company to make him happy so that he may have a woman of his own.

Mistaking Christian for the Duke, Satine falls for the American instead, and he falls deeply for her, and the fateful triangle begins. Much of the ensuing drama occurs when the Duke with his dangerous past regarding women, fights to keep Satine for himself and tries to elevate her to his class of wealth. Who says, you can’t buy me love?

For her part, Satine, who is seriously ill from consumption (what was then tuberculosis), sacrifices her own happiness and love for Christian in order to save the Moulin Rouge and her friends’ jobs. All of this leads to an inevitably sad ending despite the jovial music and comedic moments throughout.

Tony Award and Golden Globe winning director Alex Timbers deftly keeps the show on point balancing the jubilant performances and atmospherics with the heart-tugging love story.

Veteran theatre and TV performer Robert Petkoff is superb as the caring and exuberant Harold Zidler. Drawing upon his cache of acting and comedic talents as well as a crystal clear commanding voice in both dialogue and song, Mr. Zidler handles the role with flair and the right amount of campiness.  

Substituting for Christian Douglas, the character Christian was played by Preston Taylor on the night this performance was reviewed.  He played the role tenderly and with convincing emotion. An outstanding vocalist, he appears in much of the music selections. Mr. Taylor's on-stage chemistry with Gabrielle McClinton as Satine is excellent, and everybody roots for the love-struck couple despite the odds.

"Moulin Rouge! The Musical sets a high bar in theatrical creativity and pure beauty."

Lovely Ms. McClinton excels as the talented Satine caught in a love triangle with no hopeful outcome given that Satine is slowly dying from an incurable disease.  She demonstrates beautiful vocals as evidenced with her duets with Mr. Taylor, which blend their voices perfectly.

As the wealthy Duke of Monroth, Andrew Brewer adeptly plays the villain role to the hilt. Showcasing a muscular voice in speaking and singing, Mr. Brewer is spot-on portraying the cruel and sneaky character.

Nick Rashad Burroughs as Toulouse-Lautrec and Danny Burgos as Santiago, the two Bohemian buddies and advisers of Christian, are effective in delivering comedic relief moments. Both sing and dance very well, and Mr. Burgos shines during the “Backstage Romance” track..

Rounding out the cast are Sarah Bowden as Nini, one of the dancers at the Moulin Rouge who had always been jealous of Satine; Nicci Claspell as Arabia and Harper Miles as La Choicolat who are other dancers at the club; Kamal Lado as Pierre and Max Heitmann as Baby Doll.

In addition, the Ensemble does and excellent job of portraying the other quirky characters and sing and dance with precision.

As good as the performances are, the technical team members are co-stars without exception. Brilliant scenic design by Derek McLane adds superb backdrops to the action using a variety of methods including drop-down scenery. These colorful sets are enhanced by the hue-rich lighting design by Justin Townsend. Catherine Zuber attired the cast in brilliantly colorful and lavish period costumes. Peter Hylenski’s sound design is flawless. Notably, all of these professionals received Tony Awards for their work in Moulin Rouge! The Musical.

An additional round of applause goes to the Musical Director Andrew Graham and the talented musicians in the orchestra.

Truth, beauty, freedom and love are the mantra of the Bohemians. In this production, you get some of each, but especially love. This splashy, well-performed spectacle is an experience that should not be missed.  

Be sure not to rush out of the theatre at curtain call, however, as the performers put on an electric, dance-dominated mini-show following their bows.

Oui, tout est permis au Moulin Rouge.

Running time. Two hours and 35 minutes with an intermission.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical runs through December 17 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

Photos: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade


Wednesday, November 22, 2023

A ‘Miracle’ Returns to Toby’s with Holiday Cheer

Robert Biedermann 125 as Kris Kringle

When I think of miracles a couple of

 things immediately pop into my head. “Do you believe in miracles?” shouted sportscaster Al Michaels at the conclusion of the U.S men’s hockey team upsetting the heavily favored Soviet squad during the 1980 Winter Olympics. The other is Miracle on 34th Street, a sweet musical that is now ushering in the holiday season at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia.

During these tense times, it is a delight to escape to the warm, comfortable in-the-round theatre venue known as Toby’s and to enjoy not only a luscious buffet but also to spend a couple of hours experiencing a miracle. In bringing back Miracle on 34th Street for the third time in ten years, Toby’s is offering as a dose of holiday cheer comfort food for the palette and comfort food for the eyes and ears.

Most of the energetic and talented cast members are reprising their original roles (except for the children), not to mention the fact that Director Shawn Kettering and Choreographer Mark Minnick as well as some of the proficient technical crew also return. Therefore, they should all be well-rehearsed, and clearly they are.

Miracle on 34th Street—not the black and white classic Christmas movie from 1947 presented every December on television but a live musical adaptation—plays neatly on Toby’s in-the-round stage.  The 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 compare the melodies in Miracle on 34th Street with the rich score in The Music Man or come close to the hefty scores of many other successful Broadway musicals. Indeed, few of the numbers in this one are memorable, save for the popular 1951 tune “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”  Moreover, the first act contains a few slow moments and some quirky songs like “Plastic Alligator.” Fortunately, the drama, tempo and pacing pick up noticeably in the second act with the courtroom scene being most enjoyable.

The strength of Miracle on 34th Street and the reason people should buy tickets the sooner the better rests with its endearing storyline and the outstanding performances. Every role is perfectly cast, and that lends to the sheen of the production.

"...Toby’s is offering as a dose of holiday cheer comfort food for the palette and comfort food for the eyes and ears."

The work of the creative team excels under the deft guidance of Mr. Kettering, the imaginative choreography of Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick, and the musical direction of Ross Scott Rawlings with Nathan Scavilla conducting the six-piece orchestra on the reviewed performance. 

Set in New York City before and after Thanksgiving in the late 1940s, the story focuses on a white-bearded, avuncular man named Kris Kringle (played convincingly by Robert Biedermann 125) 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. He encourages camaraderie between the arch-rival department stores Macy’s and Gimbel’s, and persuades a divorced, cynical single mother, Doris Walker (Heather Marie Beck), her daughter Susan Walker (played on the night the show was reviewed by young Hazel Vogel who alternates with Audrey Wolff) that Santa Claus is no myth.

Skeptics saw otherwise, and poor Kris Kringle had to appear before a stern Judge (superbly played by David Bosley-Reynolds) at a hearing in New York State Supreme Court to determine if he should be committed to the Bellevue Hospital, known for housing mentally ill patients.

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.

Holiday atmospherics are in place. Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins constructed the set, which features a few streetlamps on the stage, the entrance to an apartment on a balcony, Christmas trees, garland, Christmas lights and views of the New York City apartment buildings and other images displayed on panels surrounding the walls of the theater. 

However, what makes the visuals even more appealing is the seemingly limitless number of set pieces and props employed throughout the show, which add texture to the scenery. The sleigh on wheels that Santa occupies, for example, is gorgeous, and it wouldn’t be a Christmas show without a little snow.  Lynn Joslin’s effective lighting design is critical to the myriad seamless scene changes. 

Mark Smedley’s sound design helped the performers effectively ring in the holiday season.

Sarah King designed the authentic 1940’s suits and dresses as well as Santa outfits and other novelty garb, such as clowns and police uniforms, thereby lending a realistic feel to this enchanting production.

The cast of Miracle on 34th Street

Mr. Minnick’s detailed choreography is most effective especially when there is a large group on the stage as in such numbers as “Plastic Alligator,” “That Man Over There” and “My State, My Kansas,” whereby he makes full use of the limited space by devising innovative dance steps, plenty of motion and ensuring the dancers are in sync rhythmically.

Jeffrey Shankle, as he often does, delivers a sparkling, near-flawless performance.  In tuneful voice, he sings “My Wish,” with Hazel and is simply stellar in his solo “Look, Little Girl.” The title and lyrics are cringe-worthy, but the show was set in the 1940’s after all.

Coming off an eight-months run in the national tour of Les Misérables, Hazel Vogel as Susan shines. Never missing a line, never missing a cue, never missing a note or a step, Hazel demonstrates can't-miss potential in musical theatre.

Jordan B. Stocksdale plays R.H. Macy, the strict owner of the department store bearing his name. Commanding on stage and with his strong baritone, Mr. Stocksdale stands out in “That Man Over There”—a highlight number during the courtroom scene, which in itself, is a highlight in the show. 

As Doris, Heather Marie Beck is well cast and delivers a solid performance.  The part requires proficient acting skills, and Ms. Beck delivers on that front particularly in her confrontations with the characters Susan and Fred.  She showcases her sturdy vocals in such numbers as “You Don’t Know” and “Love, Come Take Me Again” and the warm duet with Hazel, “Arm in Arm.”

Veteran performer Robert John Biedermann 125 plays Kris Kringle well.  He adroitly conveys the sweetness and kindness that all children believe Santa to be. His performance of "Here's Love" is touching. Everybody roots for him.

David Bosley-Reynolds hits the mark as Judge Martin Group particularly in that fun courtroom scene and the Governor, delivering well-timed comedic lines.

Another notable cast member is the always entertaining David James as Marvin Shellhammer whose facial expressions and comedic rejoinders are in the “don’t-miss” category.

Shane Lowry as Mr. Sawyer also exhibits comedic skills, and Justin Calhoun is especially strong as the prosecutor Thomas Mara. 

A number of the other performers are called on to play one or more roles as well as being part of the ensemble and do so splendidly. They include: Valerie Adams Rigsbee, Patrick Gover, AJ Whittenberger, Ryan Sellers, MaryKate Brouillet, Brooke Bloomquist, Lydia Gifford, Gwyneth Porter (alternates with Julia Bellinger), Jordyn Polk (alternates with AJ Bassett), Dylan Iwanczuk (alternates with Ezra Tornquist), Amanda Kaplan Landstrom, and Julia Ballenger (alternates with Skyler Smelkinson).

Excellent performances plus a delightful feel-good story (and a scrumptious buffet) make this a seasonal must-see, which will be enjoyed by the young and the young at heart.  To answer Al Michaels’ “Do you believe in miracles?’—the answer is Yes!

Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Miracle on 34th Street runs through January 7, 2024, 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.

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography

The Menu is shown here.

Drink Special: The Kringle

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Classic ‘Funny Girl’ Triumphs at the Hippodrome

Katerina McCrimmon as Fanny Brice and
Stephen Mark Lukas as Nick Arnstein

Ah, it’s so refreshing to enjoy good old-time theatre. And with the classic Funny Girl, whose revival is touring the U.S., we are fortunate to have a splendid production making a visit at Baltimore Hippodrome’s Theatre.

Under the direction of Michael Mayer, the outstanding performances, fantastic scenery, rich period costumes, brilliant illumination and wonderful music offer an old-time theatrical feel and charm representing the 1920’s but with a modern glow.

Funny Girl is a loose biographical portrayal of dynamic entertainer Fanny Brice in the nascent days of musical theatre during the early 20th century. It chronicles her start in show business and how she defied the estimation from family and friends that she is not sufficiently beautiful to appear on stage.

But feisty Fanny, from Henry Street in New York’s lower east side, would have none of that. She knew she has the talent—singing, comedy, dancing—and through sheer determination, ambition and a little help from her eventual husband, professional gambler Nick Arnstein, she ultimately became a star in the famous Ziegfeld Follies.

Fanny’s marriage with Arnstein, which produced a daughter, had its ups and downs like many marriages. But their careers, especially his frequent “business” trips and ensuing legal troubles, kept getting in the way and sadly could not endure the challenges that they faced despite their professed love for one another.

The first act frenetically describes how Fanny overcame the doubters and began her rise to stardom.
The second act, somewhat slower and sadder, examines the complexities of her marriage to Arnstein and how it affected her own values and the marriage’s impact on her mother, friends and associates.

Funny Girl whose score was by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, and book by Isobel Lennart opened on Broadway in 1964 and launched the career of superstar Barbra Streisand in the title role. The show received eight Tony nominations for that year but had the misfortune of going up against musical juggernaut Hello, Dolly! and didn’t take home a statue. Nonetheless, Funny Girl appealed to audiences all over and a film version was introduced in 1968 with Streisand as the lead with Omar Sharif.

Nearly six decades later, the show was revived in 2022, and Harvey Fierstein (Kinky Boots, Newsies) modified the book for the Broadway revival.

"...an old-time theatrical feel and charm representing the 1920’s but with a modern glow."

Styne’s score is solid with two songs that are indisputable classics: “People” whereby Fanny Brice expresses her loneliness and desire to live a normal life and “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” an inspiring anthem to independence.

Both of these numbers as well as a host of others are performed by an emerging charismatic star, Katerina McCrimmon, who is commanding in the lead role. One should never compare anyone to a superstar like Streisand. It just cannot and should not be done. Streisand’s simply untouchable.

However, Ms. McCrimmon’s zesty performance, her immaculate vocals and endearing personality conjures up unavoidable memories of Streisand. Diminutive in stature, I can only marvel how Ms. McCrimmon’s voice can hold up during the 140-minute show. Not only is she involved in most of the musical numbers with many of them strenuous, but her dialogue also requires a good deal of shouting or “hollering” as Fanny’s mother (Eileen T’Kaye substituting for popular singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester on the night this show was reviewed) puts it.

Perhaps there was a bit too much shouting as her voice becomes shrill at times. But Fanny Brice was known to have a booming voice. She was Ethel Merman before there ever was an Ethel Merman, so it was realistic.

Ms. McCrimmon’s mezzo-soprano vocals are pure and powerful. Aside from the two iconic songs mentioned previously, she shines in “Who Are You Now?”and “I’m the Greatest Star” among other solos as well as in duets with Stephen Mark Lukas who plays Nick Arnstein, such as “I Want To Be Seen With You”.

Besides her vocal prowess, Ms. McCrimmon’s comedic dialogue and quips bring much joy to the production. Her acting skills are on full display whereby she has those funny moments but can also be convincingly tender during her exchanges with Arnstein. I have no doubt you will hear more about the ultra-talented Katerina McCrimmon in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Hello gorgeous! As Nick Arnstein, Stephen Mark Lukas convincingly plays the role of the suave, sophisticated gambler and schemer. Possessing a muscular baritone voice that matches his muscular pecs, which he flashes all too briefly early in the second act, he shines in duets with Ms. McCrimmon in “I Want To Be Seen With You” and “You Are Woman, I Am Man”.  Mr. Lukas also sings proficiently in the ballad “You’re a Funny Girl.”

It was a pity to have missed Melissa Manchester for this performance, but her stand-in, Eileen T’Kaye as Mrs. Brice is fantastic. Quick-witted, strong and supportive, Fanny’s mother is a hoot. Their exchanges are priceless and perfectly timed, and both actors appear to relish their roles with their onstage chemistry being very strong. Ms. T’Kaye sings well in a group number “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty” and in a duet with Ms. McCrimmon in the reprise of “I’m The Greatest Star” and with Izaiah Montaque Harris who plays Fanny’s good friend Eddie Ryan in “Who Taught Hr Everything She Knows?”.

I’m told that Ms. Manchester will be appearing in subsequent performances.

As the aforementioned singer-dancer Eddie, Mr. Harris excels as the supportive and loyal friend of Fanny. However, his tap-dancing skills are of show-stopping quality. He puts those formidable moves on display at various points in the show and are breathtaking under the tap choreography of Ayodele Casel.

Other notable performers include Walter Coppage as the authoritative, no-nonsense Florenz Ziegfeld; Christine Bunuan as Mrs. Strakosh who is Mrs. Brice’s pushy and comedic friend; Hannah Shankman as Mrs. Meeker; and David Foley, Jr. as the gruff producer Tom Keeney. The remainder of the talented cast and ensemble ably support the lead performers through vocals and dancing.

Scenic Designer David Zinn created an excellent set for the production. The use of varied lighting combinations (designed by Kevin Adams for the proscenium stage) amplifies the visuals. Scenes change flawlessly and efficiently behind a drop-down curtain that include the backstage at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York to an elegant restaurant in Baltimore to an apartment among other locales.  The staging is well-coordinated and smooth.

Period costumes designed by Susan Hilferty are colorful and eye-catching and add authenticity to the musical’s timeframe.

The sound designed by Brian Ronan and Cody Spencer is well balanced, and the orchestra led by Elaine Davidson ably brings the wonderful score to life.

All the elements come together beautifully in this triumphant production. There will be laughter and there will be tears, and you will witness the emergence of a budding star in this classic in which tickets remain available.

To paraphrase the song, people who will get to see Funny Girl are the luckiest people in the world.

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

Funny Girl runs through October 29 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

Photos: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Saturday, October 07, 2023

‘SpongeBob’ is Awash in Optimism at Silhouette Stages

f there was any question that the setting of The SpongeBob Musical now playing at Silhouette Stages takes place in a town called Bikini Bottom deep below the sea, here are some clues. The names of some of the characters include Sheldon Plankton, Squidward Q. Tentacles, Perch Perkins, Mr. Krabs, Larry the Lobster, and SpongeBob. Add those names to the sea-themed set designed by Bill Pond and the projections led by Todd Hochkeppel, the audience is called upon to imagine this undersea town and the goofy characters that inhabit it.

Under the polished direction of Debbie Mobley and Robyn Yakaitis, the exuberant and talented cast entertains with explosive energy and helps deliver a message of optimism, inclusion and coming together as a community in this eye-pleasing, colorful, fantasy romp. Powerful vocals, precise dancing and well-delivered comedic lines highlight the show that employs a large array of props and set pieces, which are becoming the norm at recent Silhouette Stages productions.

The SpongeBob Musical is an adaptation of Nickelodeon’s long-running animated children’s sitcom SpongeBob SquarePants created by Stephen Hillenberg. It features a book by Kyle Jarrow, with an eclectic array of original songs by Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alexander Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady A, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants and T.I., and songs by David Bowie, Tom Kenny and Andy Paley. Each song in the musical is composed by a different artist.

Additional lyrics are by Jonathan Coulton, with other music by Tom Kitt. The musical production was conceived by Tina Landau and received 12 Tony Award nominations in 2018 including Best Musical.

"...the exuberant and talented cast entertains with explosive energy..."

The zany, campy story centers on an impending eruption from nearby Mount Humongous that threatens to decimate the town and its colorful inhabitants within 48 hours. A perennially sunny and optimistic pineapple-dwelling sea sponge named SpongeBob (played zestfully by Matt Wetzel) sets out to save the town and prove he is not “just a simple sponge” as he was accused of being by miserly Mr. Krabs (Robert Howard), manager of the Krusty Krab restaurant.

With his BFF Patrick Star (Geraden Ward) and Sandy (Summer Moore)—a land mammal squirrel with scientific knowledge and who had been marginalized by the townsfolk in tow—SpongeBob attempts to climb Mount Humongous to intervene and prevent the seemingly inevitable eruption.

They endeavor to overcome their own lack of self-esteem and confidence as well as a pair of
antagonists, Sheldon Plankton (Adam Goldsmith) and his wife Karen (Jessica Long ) who want to thwart the effort. In the rather predictable conclusion, all works out despite the obstacles.

When I saw Sondheim on Sondheim recently at Silhouette Stages, I was impressed by Matt Wetzel who

Matt Wetzel

performed well in the show. But his tour de force as the title character in SpongeBob has taken him to a new level.

Though diminutive in stature, Mr. Wetzel has a big voice—and not just a big voice but a strong one. Throughout the production, I was worried that because of the many songs he participates in and the shouting he is called upon in the dialogue that his voice wouldn’t hold up. Happily, it remained robust through the end.

He literally bursts on the stage with energy that only Mount Humongous could hold. His role is physical with a lot of dancing and movements all over while his acting skills excel in portraying the cheery, carefree character.  He even tosses in a well-executed cartwheel for good measure.

Mr. Wetzel performs in many of the show’s songs with other members of the cast and stands out in the solos “Bikini Bottom Day” and the excellent “(Just a) Simple Sponge.” He is also wonderful in the snappy group number “Best Day Ever.”

As SpongeBob’s best friend Patrick, Geraden Ward brings their own set of talents to the fore. Geraden is also a competent vocalist as evident in the duet “BFF” and the outstanding group number “Super Sea-Star Savior” with a bunch of sardines, no less, which has a revival feel.

Patrick, a starfish, is kind of dim-witted. Yet, some of the Bikini Bottom residents including those sardines clad in pink and green costumes think Patrick is a genius and made him a guru of some sort, which threatened the BFF status with SpongeBob. Spoiler alert: they do reconcile and join forces to conquer Mt. Humongous. Geraden adeptly portrays that comedic character.

As the denigrated scientist-squirrel Sandy, Summer Moore is excellent. She came up with the invention, “the eruption interrupter” that was counted on to stem the eruption and eventual doom. Her lovely singing voice is on display in “Hero Is My Middle Name” with Mr. Wetzel and Mr. Ward and the duet “Chop to the Top” with Mr. Wetzel.

Seth Fallon as Squidward and his sea anemone chorus line

Seth Fallon deliciously plays the 4-legged octopus (yes, there are 4 legs) Squidward Q. Tentacles—my favorite name in the show. Constantly reminded of being a loser, Squidward is determined to overcome the label.

Mr. Fallon excels in the song “I’m Not a Loser,” a superb tap-dancing number with the company. Tap dancing is quite a skill to possess; dancing with 4 legs is definitely a challenge and Mr. Fallon pulls it off splendidly. In addition, his facial expressions and flamboyant demeanor throughout are worth the price of admission.

Robert Howard plays greedy Mr. Krabs, the manager of the Krusty Krab, with flair. Mr. Howard performs well with Leah Freeman who plays the role of Mr. Krabs’ daughter Pearl in the duet “Daddy Knows Best.”

Other notable members of the amazing cast include Adam Goldsmith and Jessica Long as the villains Sheldon Plankton and Karen, respectively; Don Lampasone as the comedic Patchy the Pirate;  Mica Weiss as campy Perch Perkins who performed as a newscaster counting down the time of the impending volcano eruption; Debbi Watts as the Mayor of Bikini Bottom who loves to create a multitude of task forces to analyze problems; Nick Yarnevich as Larry the Lobster; John Sheldon as Old Man Jenkins who demands that these creatures get off his lawn; and Forest Roca as Gary.

The Electric Skates is comprised of Shaelyn Betances, Kelsey McDaniel and Samantha Sheldon. The remainder of the Ensemble include Angela Cava, Katelyn Dixon, Bethany Jani, Al Norman, Tori Worth and Angie Townsend.

Music Director Mari Hill and the six-piece orchestra do a fine job with the score. Tori Worth’s choreography is spot-on with the tap-dancing number “I’m Not a Loser” as a standout. The cast execute the moves proficiently.

Mica Weiss designed the eclectic, colorful costumes. Since SpongeBob Square Pants is a cartoon, the imaginatively created costumes are suitably bright with pastels splashed all over them. Many of the costumes are intricate and eye-popping and add much to the spectacle. There are lots of pinks and greens as well as aqua shades and yellow. And yes, SpongeBob had little square patterns on his pants.

TJ Lukacsina’s lighting design adds much to the optics, and sound designers Ethan Hogarty and Alex Porter keep the performers audible without being overwhelmed by the orchestration.

The SpongeBob Musical is a solid show throughout highlighted by an outstanding lead performer Matt Wetzel and a talented cast and crew. Under Debbie Mobley and Robyn Yakaitis’ direction, the production moves smoothly and meticulously and brings all the elements together in a cohesive manner.

You may be up to your gills in sea and fish references, but it’s a lot of fun. Adults will enjoy the quality of the entertainment, the music and the messaging contained therein; children will absolutely love it and swallow it—hook, line and sinker.  

Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

The SpongeBob Musical plays on weekends through October 22 at the Slayton House Theatre, 10400 Cross Fox Ln, Columbia, MD 21044. For tickets, call 410-730-3987 visit online

Photos: Stasia Steuart Photography

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

‘The Wiz’ Stunningly Brings it Home to Baltimore

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Remember Baltimore’s Morris A. Mechanic Theatre? Along with the venerable Lyric Opera House it was a centerpiece of theatre in Charm City spanning four decades. Alas, the Mechanic closed its doors in 2004 but not before it was the venue for numerous classic Broadway plays and musicals featuring a ton of iconic, award-winning performers that are too many to list here. 

Well, the Mechanic happened to be the locale for the world premiere in October 1974 of the breakthrough musical The Wiz.

Now, nearly a half century later, the seven-time Tony winning musical has launched its pre-Broadway revival, multi-city tour at the more spacious and ornate Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore. Who says you can’t go home again?  

The Wiz, with music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls (and others) and book by William F. Brown, is based on L. Frank Baum's children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). The music and structure of The Wiz originated with Black creators, directors and an all-Black cast. It was reportedly created as an answer to the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, which had an all-white cast and an opportunity to break through a Broadway culture, which ostensibly was not that receptive to Black creators and performers. Nonetheless, notable productions with African American themes, such as Show Boat, A Raisin in the Sun, and Porgy and Bess preceded The Wiz to Broadway.

The musical, which originally starred Stephanie Mills, spawned several tours, a film in 1978 starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson among others, and a live TV performance in 2015. Using soul, gospel, rock, jazz and 70s funk, the dynamic score augments the story of Dorothy’s journey to find her place in a contemporary world fraught with obstacles and her fervent quest to find her way home.

The top-selling single “Ease On Down The Road” and the gospel-infused “Home” are highlights. But there are plenty of other songs to enjoy including “The Feeling We Once Had,” “Be A Lion,” “We’re Gonna Make It,” and “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.” Some of these are in the showstopper category. And there is plenty of wonderful dancing to add even more life to the songs.

With the dialogue, music styles, choreography and the interactions among the endearing bunch of characters as presented in the revival production, the Black experience and culture are celebrated in a tapestry of light-hearted humor, campiness and powerhouse musical performances. Yet, audiences of all backgrounds and ages will enjoy this work of art.

Given that the original movie The Wizard of Oz, which was later broadcast on television in 1956, has been viewed by so many and is considered one of the greatest films of all time, I am assuming that people are familiar with the fantasy storyline so I will not offer a deep dive into the plot.

"...the entire cast ... is brimming with vivacity and pure talent." 

Suffice to say, the coming-of-age saga centers on Dorothy whose house is blown away with her in it during a tornado and winds up in the land of Oz. In order to find her way home, which is her top priority, she is advised to meet the omniscient, mysterious “Wiz” (aka Wizard of Oz) in the Emerald City who can help her return home.

Along the way she encounters a scarecrow in need of a brain; a tin man who lacks a heart; and a lion, which is short on courage—all of whom were put under spells by Evillene, a wicked witch—can also benefit from Wiz’s “powers.” Their adventures en route, especially the confrontation with the wicked witch Evillene, comprise most of the action and fun in the show.

While the contours of the storyline are pretty consistent with the original film, there are some differences including the absence of a yellow brick road, the munchkins, changes to the witches’ names, and there is no Toto—Dorothy’s loveable pooch.

On the night this production was reviewed, the theatre experienced a power snafu that briefly delayed the opening. Undaunted, this production of The Wiz is electric.

Guided by the meticulous direction of Schele Williams, choreography of Jaquel Knight, orchestrations by Joseph Joubert, and an abundantly talented cast, the production’s energy alone could have powered the performance. Thankfully, though, the issue was resolved after 30 minutes.

An amazing set with hue-rich lighting, spectacular costumes and a solid score provide support to the entire cast, which is brimming with vivacity and pure talent. The leads are exceptional especially Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy, who will be making her Broadway debut. Expect to hear a lot about her in the future.

As the youthful, homesick and caring Dorothy, Ms. Lewis is phenomenal—both as an actress and vocalist. Dorothy convincingly offers encouragement to the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion and is every bit on board in having their deficiencies repaired by Oz. All the while she is wearing powerful silver slippers that are coveted by Evillene.

Ms. Lewis’ Mezzo-Soprano voice soars throughout all her songs hitting notes that I questioned if ever existed. “Soon As I Get Home,” “Wonder, Wonder Why” and the show’s anthem “Home” are solos that exemplified her singing prowess. She also partnered with other performers in songs that showcase her gift like the repeated “Ease On Down The Road.”

Melody A. Betts is another strong performer, first playing the early role of Aunt Em, a tough but loving role model for Dorothy. Her first name of Melody is apparently no accident; she can sing up a storm, and the tornado happened to occur following her belted out rendition of “The Feeling We Once Had” as part of a duet with Ms. Lewis.

As if Ms. Betts’ talents weren’t enough as Aunt Em, she later played the role of Evillene, one of the wicked witches who desperately wants Dorothy’s silver slippers. In an incredibly amusing scene where the four travelers were dispatched by Oz to kill Evillene in exchange for doing his promised good deeds, Ms. Betts’ comedic skills are as spot-on as her vocals. “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” is fantastic.

Avery Wilson plays quick witted Scarecrow, the first to join Dorothy on her journey. The character might be brainless but Mr. Wilson can sure dance! He’s graceful with powerful, sure-footed moves throughout. He sings well in the comical number “You Can’t Win” with the crows who are supposed to be frightened of him but clearly are not. He also appears in several group numbers including the upbeat “We’re Gonna Make It.”

Sad but hopeful Tin Man, played by Phillip Johnson Richardson, is seeking a heart and also has a comical role. His solo “Slide Some Oil To Me” is a good example of his vocal abilities. He joins his fellow travelers in “What Would I Do If I Can Feel” as well as other numbers.

Kyle Ramar Freeman is particularly proficient as the campy, cowardly Lion. Campy for sure; he uses highlighter in his mane. But he keeps looking for his pride that was taken from him by Evillene. Mr. Freeman possesses an excellent, far-ranging tenor voice, which is evident in “Mean Ole’ Lion” and the phenomenal group number with his travel companions “Be A Lion” that concludes the first act.

As the title character, Alan Mingo, Jr. first appears in the second act. A conman’s conman, Wiz feigns powerful abilities in a deal with Evillene to keep the Ozians trapped behind the gates of Emerald City. In a tour de force, Mr. Mingo acts and sings with aplomb and is showcased in “Meet The Wizard” and “Y’all Got It.”

Deborah Cox plays Glinda, one of the good witches, with flair. Her powerful Mezzo-Soprano is evident in “He’s The Wiz” and the stunningly powerful “Believe In Yourself.”

Another notable performer is Allyson Kaye Daniel who plays Addaperle, a funny, sassy witch.

The remainder of the talent cast excels in their vocals and choreography and add much quality to the show. They appear in many scenes and help to bolster the rich score.

If The Wiz were to have an additional co-star, I’d give the title to the scenic designer, Academy Award winner Hannah Beachler. The set and scenery are nothing short of spectacular. The stage is framed with an art deco design but what is between is simply eye-popping. With the use of high-tech effects, projections and colorful scenery plus a wide variety of set pieces, the changing scenes are in perpetual motion. Add to that the brilliant palette of beautiful lights designed by Ryan J. O’Gara that combine so well with the scenery changes.

Sharen Davis designed the stunning costumes—colorful, fanciful, imaginative and functional.  I was a little disappointed, however, with the rather bland costumes for Scarecrow and Tin Man. But that minor quibble does not mitigate the fact that The Wiz is a simply gorgeous visual.

Also, Jon Weston’s sound design is flawless keeping the orchestra and vocalists in perfect blend and
enabling the audience to hear the dialogue clearly.

I had seen The Wizard of Oz numerous times, the film The Wiz, and the TV presentation. I loved these but I love this current iteration most. The performances, the visuals, the staging are all top-notch and pure joy. The underlying message of believing in yourself is powerful and persuasive.

The Wiz is unquestionably going to be a success on the tour, and when it arrives at New York’s Marquis Theatre next April, it is destined to be a smash hit. While in Baltimore, it would be advisable to hurry to buy tickets to this stunning masterpiece as the show eases on down the road across America very soon.

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

The Wiz runs through September 30 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.