Wednesday, October 16, 2019

How Sweep It Is


The Washington Nationals exorcised past demons to advance to the World Series.


Game 4 of the National League Champion Series between the St. Louis Cardinals, a team that has made 19 trips to the World Series, and the Washington Nationals, who have made exactly zero such appearances, took on an eerie and frightening feeling midway through the game. Just in time for Halloween. Except this was not a fun house by any means.

In what was arguably one of the most disappointing games in D.C. sports history, 7 years ago, the Nationals faced off against these Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series for a chance to advance to the NLCS. With a barrage of extra base hits, the Nats jumped out to a 6-0 lead and managed only one more run after the 3rd inning.

Twenty-one game winner southpaw Gio Gonzalez allowed the Cards to creep back into the game, yielding 3 runs in 5 innings. A bevy of relievers continued to fail culminating in a Cardinals 4-run rally in the 9th against Drew Storen to come back and shock the Nats and their fans in a devastating 9-7 loss.

Fast forward to Game 4 of the 2019 NLCS between the same teams in which Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina (Cards) and Ryan Zimmerman and Kurt Suzuki (Nats) remained as the only players from the 2012 series. In the 2019 edition of this matchup, there were differences, of course, but scary similarities as well.

In 2012, the Nationals had the best record in baseball with 98 wins. The current team with 93 wins was the NL Wild Card winner.  The 2012 game was the winner-take-all 5th game; the 2019 game was the 4th game with the Nats leading 3 games to none and looking to sweep.

Even with less pressure facing the Nats having built up that 3 game cushion, fans in Nationals Park and those watching on TV felt an unease that can only be described as “oh man, this can’t be happening again” because the similarities between 2012 and 2019 were too much to ignore.

In this game, the current Nats also trotted out their sterling left hander, reliable Patrick Corbin.  The Nats, like in 2012, also jumped out to a big lead, 7-0 in the first inning.  The Cards got it back to 7-4 with 4 innings left. Washington bats went silent after that first inning, not adding on.

The Nats’ Achilles heel all season has been the bullpen, though during the playoffs, they have been surprisingly effective. Could they survive the Cardinals’ desperate bid to stave off elimination and repeat the horrors of 2012?

Tanner Rainey, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson slammed the door and the Nats held on to win the game and sweep the Cardinals in four. They head to the World Series for the first time in the franchise history to meet the Houston Astros or the New York Yankees.

For Corbin the game had some irony attached to it. For most of the early part of the season his offense either deserted him or the bullpen failed to protect leads he had before he had been removed. This night the opposite was true.

In previewing Game 5 of the NLDS between the Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers, I stated that the Nats have been the team of destiny. Including that game in which the Nats came from behind and won with a grand slam home run from the ageless Howie Kendrick and the way the Nats-Cardinals series played out, I am convinced that description is still applicable.


View the clinching game’s highlights below.







Saturday, October 12, 2019

‘Phantom’ Brings its Power to the Hippodrome

Derrick Davis as the Phantom and Emma Grimsley as Christine
Photo: Matthew Murphy

As Halloween season approaches, it is fitting that Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre presents the touring production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic The Phantom of the Opera

The legendary first notes heard from the Overture signal the spooky drama that is about to unfold. Replete with its masked ghoulish villain, a masquerade ball, exquisite imaginative costumes, horror, terror and fog, the atmosphere is just right for the Halloween mood. There are many tricks devised by the technical crew, and as a whole, the splendidly dramatic musical is a treat#hocoarts

Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Phantom remains largely faithful to the record-breaking original that has celebrated three decades on Broadway and still counting. Under the meticulous direction by Laurence Connor, this iteration of the musical is substantially different from its last appearance in Baltimore three years ago. It is more powerful with its larger and more ornate sets, increased special effects and an abundance of pyrotechnics throughout.
  
The Phantom of the Opera, which had opened on London’s West End 33 years ago, featuring the incomparable award-winning Michael Crawford in the title role, was scored by Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Charles Hart and additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe. It captured seven Tony Awards in 1988 including Best Musical and is among the highest grossing musicals of all time.

The love story-thriller is best known for its memorable songs, such as the rousing title number “The Phantom of the Opera,” the gorgeous and a personal favorite “The Music of the Night,” the tender ballad “All I Ask of You,” and the romantic “Wishing You Were Somehow Here.” It’s also known for the iconic dropping of a crystal chandelier over the audience (that doesn’t actually land, thank Goodness).

Based on the classic French novel Le Fantôme de L’Opéra by Gaston Leroux, Phantom’s familiar story binds the glorious music together.  It centers on a disfigured musical genius (The Phantom of the Opera played by Derrick Davis) who lurks in the labyrinths below the Paris Opera House in the mid-19th century.  He is completely obsessed with a young innocent soprano Christine Daaé (Emma Grimsley) whom he had taught. 

Through the use of threats, terror and even murder, he insists that the ingénue receive lead roles in current and future opera offerings.  All the while, a former childhood friend of Christine, Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny (Jordan Craig), falls in love with Christine as she does with him.  However, Christine is torn between her love for Raoul and her gratitude towards the Phantom of the Opera for his teaching her to sing so beautifully.  This leads to the famously heart-pounding conclusion.

Paul Brown’s exquisite set design that includes the signature rising and crashing crystal chandelier allows for smooth transitions employing a rotating floor-to-ceiling cylindrical wall that opens up into various scenes as well as dropdown devices for a wide range of settings.  Among them are: the opera house stage, the manager’s office, the underground labyrinth, the Phantom’s lair, the grand ballroom and a graveyard.  For its part, the opera house set is a massive, multi-level ornate, gilded structure that frames the stage, which includes theater boxes. It is simply awesome.

"There are many tricks devised by the technical crew, and as a whole, the splendidly dramatic musical is a treat."

Large set pieces, such as oversized statues, are on display. And there are numerous special effects, especially startling pyrotechnics that display very intense shooting flames at times, amplifying the drama that unfolds. 

Fog and strobe effects are also used to embellish the spooky atmosphere and are evident during the gondola scene in the labyrinth and the cemetery. When do you ever see a cemetery scene that doesn’t include fog?  In fact, there was so much fog downstage that it envelops and virtually swallows up the orchestra leader in the pit, Jamie Johns, who carries on his extraordinary work oblivious to this effect.

Under the musical supervision of John Rigby, Mr. Johns directs Lloyd Webber’s superbly melodic score with excellent balance and proper restraint so that the vocals can rise above the background. When needed, the volume is turned up considerably for dramatic effect.

Paule Constable’s effective lighting creates the right atmospheric moods and furthers the thrilling moments as does Mick Potter’s sound design, which is especially effective during off-stage commentary from The Phantom.  

Costume Designer Maria Björnson brings 19th century French attire to the company with a wide range of dazzling costumes.  The exquisite costumes in the opera scenes and masquerade sequence are manifestations of Ms. Björnson’s great work.

Masquerade scene Photo: Alastair Muir
As the title character, Derrick Davis is more than up to the task.  Called upon to perform challenging and strenuous songs, Mr. Davis excels. His acting abilities are clearly on display as the obsessed villain in the plot with his powerful dialogue and solid movements on the stage. Mr. Davis’ performances of such numbers as “Music of the Night” and the reprise of “All I Ask of You” are delivered with flair and passion while showcasing his strong tenor voice.  

Emma Grimsley as Christine also acts proficiently, and her sweet soprano vocals shine throughout. “Think of Me,”  “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” and her performances in “The Music of the Night” are notable.  In the latter, Ms. Grimsley ably hits the highest register. The magnificent duet with Mr. Davis in the powerful “The Phantom of the Opera” is a show-stopper.

As Raoul, handsome Jordan Craig adeptly demonstrates his desire for Christine with his acting prowess and through song. Though I find his voice a bit nasal in tone, he performs well in duets with Ms. Davis, “Why Have You Brought Me Here?/Raoul, I’ve Been There” and “All I Ask of You.”  

Trista Muldovan as the diva Carlotta Giudicelli whom Christine replaced in the opera; David Benoit as Monsieur Firmin and Rob Lindley as Monsieur Firmin, the managers of the Paris Opera House; and Sarahgrace Mariani as Christine’s friend Meg Giry also turn in sturdy performances.  Ms. Muldovan lovely voice sparkles in “Think of Me” with Mr. Davis and Ms. Grimsley and “Poor Fool, He Makes Me Laugh.”

The entire company is first-rate and energetic. Under the choreography of Scott Ambler, the ensemble’s magnificently costumed presentation of “Masquerade/Why So Silent” is a standout, and their performances in the opera scenes also hit the mark.

Phantom’s powerful visit to Baltimore is a welcome one in which great music, staging and performances do justice to the classic original that will play on with no end in sight.  The production at the Hippodrome is highly recommended for all audiences and just in time to get into the Halloween mood.

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

The Phantom of the Opera runs through October 20 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit Ticketmaster.com, BaltimoreHippodrome.com, call 800-982-ARTS, or visit the Hippodrome Box Office located at 12 N Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

In Defense of Kershaw


There was plenty of blame to go around in yet another Dodgers elimination.

Photo: Star Tribune
Following the Washington Nationals’ stunning comeback victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the final game of the best-of-five National League Divisional Series, the blame game ensued in full earnest.  Much of the blame by annually disappointed Dodger fans and media has been directed towards manager Dave Roberts but the remainder appears to be aimed at future Hall of Fame pitcher Clayton Kershaw.

Indeed, Kershaw whose performances in post-season are far less successful than his regular season stats (he has a 2.44 ERA during his career, but in 158 ⅓ career postseason innings, he has a 4.33 ERA), served up back-to-back home runs in the 8th inning that nullified Walker Buehler’s scintillating effort after he came in to relieve. Kershaw dispatched Adam Eaton on 3 pitches to end the rally in the 7th inning only to return in the 8th.

On the second pitch to Anthony Rendon, a notorious low ball hitter, Kershaw threw a slider down at the knees—a good pitch to a more mortal batter—and Rendon, in his walk year, reached down and yanked the ball over the left field wall.  The next pitch was a cookie slider to Juan Soto, 20, a budding super star in the league, crushed it 449 feet in the right center pavilion to tie the game.
So, based on Kershaw’s mediocre record in post-season games, the finger pointing headed Kershaw’s way—an inescapable occurrence that Kershaw acknowledged.

“When you don’t win the last game of the season and you’re to blame for it, it’s not fun,’’ he said following the loss to the Washington Nationals. “…Yeah, it’s just a terrible feeling.’’
“There’s no excuses. Just didn’t make pitches,’’ Kershaw said and later added, “Everything people say is true right now, about the postseason. I understand that.’’

Those two pitches only tied the game at 3-3.  Why is he blamed for the loss?  The Dodgers had every opportunity to break the tie in the bottom of the 8th and 9th innings but failed to do so. In the 10th the underappreciated Nationals, with their own post-season miseries until this year, had shocked the baseball world with veteran Howie Kendrick blasting a grand slam over the center field fence to give the Nats a 7-3 lead, which held up for the win.

Davey Martinez, the Nats manager, always said as most managers do, that it takes 25 players to contribute to team’s success. It’s not about one guy or two guys. Everyone has a role to play and they all need to step up.
Howie Kendrick blasts game winning grand slam.
Photo: Los Angeles Daily News

Clayton Kershaw is only one of the Dodgers’ 25 man roster. He’s getting the blame for allowing the game to be tied but some of the other players need to be called out. For one thing, Joe Kelly loaded the bases in the 10th including a dubious intentional base on balls then delivered the game winning gopher ball to Kendrick.   MVP candidate Cody Bellinger batted .211 in the series with zero RBIs. AJ Pollack went 0-13 with 11 strikeouts, an amazingly horrendous performance. Corey Seager batted .150.  Rookie catcher Will Smith hit .077. Chris Taylor .125…I can go on. Except for the outlier game, a 10-4 thrashing of the Nats in Nationals Park in Game 3, the Dodgers were extremely feeble with men in scoring position.

Roberts, for his part, is getting eviscerated in the press and on social media for his in-game decision making. Much of the second guessing regarding the usage or lack thereof of the bullpen is legitimate.  In addition, I found two instances whereby he blew it and I said so prior to the consequences from those decisions.

The first is not having veteran catcher Russell Martin start in this key game when he was so potent in Game 3.  The other was giving the intentional pass to Soto in the 10th.  Left-handed specialist Adam Kolarek should have faced Soto again as the young phenom had been 0-3 against him in the playoffs.  If successful, Roberts could then choose to intentionally walk Kendrick setting up a double play possibility with Kenley Jansen coming in to face a DP-prone Ryan Zimmerman.

Regardless of the second guessing and finger pointing, there was a ton of blame to go around, but Clayton Kershaw cannot and should not be considered the reason the Dodgers lost.

Baseball is a team sport.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

The Pressure is More on the Dodgers in Game 5


Any elimination game in a playoff series regardless of the sport is a pressure cooker for sure.  The 2019 NLDS is no exception as both the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers face different types of pressure in the win-or-go-home scenario.

The final game of the best of 5 series on October 11 will feature two of the league’s most formidable starting pitchers: seasoned veteran Stephen Strasburg of the Nats, who was lights out in game 2 winning 4-2 to even the series in LA, and young Walker Buehler, who was even more dominating in a 6-0 blanking, yielding only 1 hit in 6 innings in the opener, will face off in what should be a tension-packed, epochal finale.

For the Nationals, they are seeking to escape the NLDS for the first time in five tries. The team has failed in previous attempts despite their gaudy records during the regular season. Three of the four eliminations occurred on their home field as the dismayed and disappointed fans endured the inglorious experience of watching the opposition (Cardinals, Dodgers and Cubs in 2012, 2016 and 2017, respectively) celebrating on the infield at Nationals Park.

There is added pressure to finally move on to the League Champion Series and beyond as the Nats are facing a future that will likely not include free agent star 3rd baseman Anthony Rendon and maybe Ryan Zimmerman—the  original Nat and considered the face of the franchise—among others who will probably depart.

The Dodgers have a different story and have felt the mounting pressure to win.  They have not won a World Series since the Kirk Gibson-Orel Hershiser-Mickey Hatcher phenomenon in 1988. Dozens of playoff games had ensued during these three decades including two World Series appearances (2017 and 2018) without a ring despite the team’s high payroll for many of those seasons.

In the World Series elimination games, both at Dodger Stadium, the opposition scored early that succeeded in deflating the crowd’s energy, and both the Astros and Red Sox never looked back. Angelinos were forced to witness the victors exchanging their uniform shirts and caps for World Champion t-shirts and caps right in front of them as the Dodgers despondently meandered to the clubhouse from the third base dugout.

The feeling in LA, as I have read, is this better not happen again this year.  Holding a 2-1 advantage, the Dodgers had the chance to put the Nats and their rightfully maligned bullpen away. But fiercely competitive Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young award winner, would have none of it. And Zimmerman, perhaps playing his final home game as a National, struck the decisive blow in a 6-1 Nats victory, forcing game 5.

The Nats Stephen Strasburg will try to help advance the team
to the next round
The Dodgers are the better team with a deeper bench and jaw-dropping defensive versatility. Their 106-56 record in the regular season attests to their superiority as a club, and they ran away with the Western Division by a record 21 games. They possess strong starting pitching, a powerful line-up and more options in the bullpen than the Nats have. The Dodgers, an offensive juggernaut, broke a National League record for home runs in a season with 279.

The Nats, however, appear to be taking on the proverbial “team of destiny” mantle.  Starting the season 19-31, they managed to finish with a 92-69 record despite the worst bullpen in the league, closing with an 8-game winning streak that grew to 9 after the amazing, improbable comeback victory over the Brewers in the Wild Card game.

Their good fortune surfaced again in game 4 of the current series as a gust of wind intercepted a Max Muncy deep drive to center in mid-air and was caught easily instead of leaving the park. And later in the game with the bases loaded, Joc Peterson’s smash down the right field line was foul by an inch. Had the ball been fair, the hit would have cleared the bases and changed the complexion of the game in a major way.

So it comes down to what should be an exciting game 5 on Wednesday. The Dodgers’ longer history of not capturing the title puts them in a position where the pressure will be intense. The Nats feel the pressure, too, but in a different way.  Playing at home, the Dodgers will feel it more.

One thing is for sure: one of these teams will be celebrating on the infield and donning NLDS championship shirts and caps and popping champagne in the clubhouse and will move on to the next round.  The other will ponder what might have been and go home to face the media and a disappointed fan base yet again.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Nationals 'Managed' Historic Win in Wild Card

The Washington Nationals celebrate following 4-3 win over Brewers

There’s an old adage in baseball: managers can’t win games; they can only lose them. In the case of second year manager of the Washington Nationals, Davey Martinez, he proved clearly in the Wild Card game of this improbable major league baseball season that managers can, in fact, win games. It was the first time in the Nats history since they moved to Washington from Montreal in 2005 that they ever advanced in the postseason  

It is rare to see a situation whereby a manager can push all the right buttons at the right time.  Yet, in the National League Wild Card game on October 1 before an uncharacteristically raucous crowd at Nationals Park in which the home team came from behind to defeat the Milwaukee Brewers, 4-3, Martinez did just that.

The magic that Martinez demonstrated actually began in late May when the Nats sunk to 12 games under .500 through the first 50 games—nearly a third of the season had transpired. He faced severe criticism by fans on social media and in the press for his managing of a frustratingly incompetent bullpen in which viable options were scarce.

Undaunted he guided the team—a blend of veterans and young players including 20 year-old phenom Juan Soto and eventual hero of the Wild Card game—to finish second in the Eastern Division and not only sealed a Wild Card berth but secured home field for the do or die game. The team finished the season with a flourish winning their last 8 games.  The victory in the Wild Card extended that streak.

Martinez skillfully crafted the 25-player roster for this game envisioning all the likely scenarios in a win or go home proposition.  He kept more bench players than usual to insert them in key spots, such as pinch running, pinch hitting or defensive replacements while paring the usual bullpen contingent in favor of as many as three starting pitchers that may be needed in relief.  There was no margin for error.

He assembled a batting order that was the best he could have used. Martinez opted to play Howie
Nationals manager Davey Martinez could not have done better.
Kendrick, a consistent hitter all season long in favor of Ryan Zimmerman, the longest-tenured National. Starting Zimmerman would have been a sentimental choice given the first baseman’s iconic position with the team. But Kendrick, who batted .344 during the season, was the correct pick.

For his part, Zimmerman would come off the bench when the situation warranted.  In a couple of spots Zimmerman was slated to pinch hit, but Martinez pulled him back in favor of other batters. In the eighth inning when the Nats rallied for 3 runs to take the lead, Zimmerman finally had his chance, and he came through with a broken bat single to center that kept the winning rally going.

As it turned out, all three pinch hitters selected by Martinez reached base safely and the one pinch runner he inserted scored.  You can’t do any better than that.

The pitching side of the ledger was also well-managed by Martinez. Starting the fiercely competitive Max Scherzer was the correct decision despite the right hander’s rather unsuccessful past post-seasons and a troublesome injury he endured a couple of months ago. Yet, Martinez was not about to allow Scherzer, who served up two home runs for the Brewers 3-0 early lead,  to stay in the game past the fifth inning (there is nothing to suggest that Scherzer protested his removal but Max never wants to leave a game he starts).

Instead, Martinez gave the ball to Cy Young candidate Stephen Strasburg, who completed three scoreless innings in smooth fashion and ultimately was credited with the win.

Juan Soto striking the decisive hit in the 8th inning
The ninth inning save opportunity was afforded Daniel Hudson, a trading deadline acquisition who was arguably the most consistent reliever on the staff, to seal the deal. The manager could have easily gone to southpaw starter Patrick Corbin but decided (again correctly) to allow Hudson to close out the game thereby saving Corbin for the opener in Los Angeles.

Another option was the heretofore regular Nats closer Sean Doolittle, but his performance has been erratic, and his recent injury appears to have had an effect on him. With no margin of error   Martinez made the right move one more time.

It is unclear how the Nats will fare against the powerful Dodgers in the Divisional Series as that team has one of the most potent line-ups in baseball and three previous and potential Cy Young starters taking the hill. But one thing is for sure, the Washington Nationals appear to have one heck of a manager to guide them through what comes next.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Bodyguard at Toby’s Serves up Tuneful Moments in Time

Samantha McEwen Deninger and Ashley Johnson-Moore in
The Bodyguard.  Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography

It’s pretty safe to say that most people, regardless of their favorite music genres, enjoy the tuneful songs made popular by the late great Whitney Houston.  We remember such classics as “So Emotional,” “One Moment in Time,” “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know,” “I’m Every Woman,” “Greatest Show of All,” “I Have Nothing,” “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (my personal favorite) and one of the biggest selling songs of all time, “ I Will Always Love You.”  In all, Houston sold an estimated 170 to 200 million records worldwide.  #hocoarts

These and other delicious songs (as well as the tasty buffet) are served up at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia in its presentation of The Bodyguard.  Helen Hayes Award winners Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick co-directed this musical adaptation of the Oscar-nominated 1992 film that starred Houston and Kevin Costner.  

Ms. Orenstein and Mr. Minnick helms a well-paced, efficiently staged production showcasing an incredibly talented cast that provides Whitney Houston fans a fulfillment of the craving to hear those many pop hits primarily from the 1980s and 1990s. 

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

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


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

The songs are very neatly woven through the story and are exquisitely performed by Helen Hayes Award nominee Ashley Johnson-Moore as Rachel Marron and Samantha McEwen Deninger as Nicki. (Full disclosure: I first fell in love with the talents of then Samantha McEwen when in 2012 she won  the Rising Star competition at the Annual Celebration of the Arts gala at Howard Community College. She has been a prolific and outstanding performer at Toby’s since.)

Both leading women excel in their sultry, silky smooth and soulful interpretations of the familiar Houston numbers with powerhouse vocals, hitting every note with virtuosity.  Several of the songs are duets and production numbers while others are solos.  In addition, each demonstrates potent acting skills especially in the tender romantic moments.

Their duet “Run to You” was nothing short of spectacular. Ms. Johnson-Moore shines in all of her numbers, such as “One Moment in Time,” but her rendition of “I Will Always Love You” near the end of the second act is a moving, tear-producing tour de force and a show highlight.  Ms. Deninger induces goose bumps with her selections including “Saving All My Love for You.”

"Both leading women excel in their sultry, silky smooth and soulful interpretations of the familiar Houston numbers with powerhouse vocals..."

Russell Sunday does a fine job as the mainly serious and seemingly unemotional bodyguard Frank Farmer. His acting skills are on display as he attempts to reconcile his growing attraction towards Rachel with his dedicated mission to protect her from harm.  Despite the prevailing seriousness between the two, we find some amusement in a karaoke bar.  In that scene Farmer, a self-admitted poor singer, attempts “I Will Always Love You” followed by a disguised Rachel performing “I Have Nothing” to an admiring crowd who captured the performance on video.

Adorable Chase Reaves (alternates with Gavin Lampasone and Kaden Lampasone) is endearing as Rachel’s young son Fletcher.   He tugs at your heart as he develops a fondness towards Farmer and becomes an important ingredient in the plot.
Ashley Johnson-Moore as Rachel and Russell Sunday as Farmer

As The Stalker, a scruffy Justin Calhoun doesn’t have much of a speaking role but his menacing presence is felt throughout. 

Shadowy and mysterious, The Stalker is occasionally seen in an enclosed room in a balcony designed by David A. Hopkins. The Stalker’s silhouetted visage becomes visible when a light shines on him. Mr. Hopkins is also responsible for the lighting design and its effects throughout the show are exceptional.

Other notable performers include David Bosley-Reynolds as Tony Scibelli, Rachel’s personal security guard; Jeffrey Shankle as FBI agent Ray Court; DeCarlo Raspberry as manager Bill Devaney, and David James as publicist Sy Spector.

The talented Ensemble adds to the entertainment with several sparkling production numbers that are choreographed deftly by Shalyce Hemby. “Queen of the Night,” “How Will I Know,” “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” and “I’m Every Woman” are performed with precision by the talented and energetic ensemble. Ross Scott Rawlings ably conducts the six-piece orchestra playing the sweet melodies with the right amount of volume that succeeds in not drowning out the stellar vocalists.

Neatly attired by Costume Designer Janine Sunday, the Ensemble includes Quadry Brown, Simone Brown, Crystal Freeman, Sylvern Groomes, Rachel Kemp, Alexis krey, David Singleton, Patricia Targete, James Toler, Brook Urquhart, Carl Williams and Tara Yates-Reeves. Ms. Sunday also designed stunning gowns for the leading ladies in the show.

The encore consisting of the entire cast performing “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is a toe-tapping, hand-clapping spectacle.
  
The darkness and subsequent tragedy contained in the plot of The Bodyguard  do not induce many smiles. However, the enjoyable music popularized by Whitney Houston and the polished performances by Ashley Johnson-Moore, Samantha McEwen Deninger and Russell Sunday as well as the other cast members make the show a must-see experience.   

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

The Bodyguard  runs through November 3 at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311 or visiting online

Friday, September 06, 2019

Trump is Not as ‘Sharpie’ as He Thinks


Why ‘Sharpie-gate’ could be devastating Trump’s re-election hopes

There’s a lot opponents can say about President Trump heading into the 2020 election. You have the Mueller Report, which laid out at least ten examples where the president obstructed justice. He was named as a co-conspirator in the indictment of his personal attorney who is now serving time in prison. 

You can point out his enriching his businesses and himself while being president. His policies have allowed children to be locked in cages living in their own filth.  #hocopolitics

There are his embarrassing moments on the world stage including his coddling of autocratic tyrants and belittling allies. More recently is the nonsensical trade war with China that, if continued, will put our economy in peril.  And, of course, you have the endless lies, blatant hypocrisy and narcissism.

None of this seemed to have moved the needle. Where he should be sitting at 12 percent approval mainly from the KKK wing of his base, he is still in the mid-40’s range.  It’s a real head-scratcher to be sure.  What would it take? #hocopolitics 

Hurricane Dorian and in particular “Sharpie-gate” might be the answer.

Trump incorrectly announced that sweet home Alabama would be in the path of Dorian.  As the hurricane moved along its wobbly track it became more apparent that it will hit along the Florida coast and head north. Alabama would be spared. 

But Trump did not back off and reiterated his prediction necessitating a rare rebuke from the National Weather Service (NWS).

Unwilling or unable to admit what seemed to have been an honest mistake, Trump continued to maintain he was right all along.  So at the Oval office on September 4, he pulled out a chart showing the track of Dorian but it was doctored by the markings of a black sharpie that extended the cone of uncertainty to Alabama.
On Twitter Trump continued to defend his prediction fully five days after his initial statement. Somehow he managed to get Rear Adm. Peter Brown, a Homeland Security and counterterrorism adviser, who said he briefed Trump multiple times about Dorian as well as models that showed the potential path of the eye of the storm to defend him in a rather lengthy statement.


The backlash was severe and unrelenting.

This all became fodder for jokes by late night comedians and political commentators—print and TV—a well as creative memes that spread all over social media displaying doctored photos with a black marker to increase the size of Trump’s hands or his height to show he is taller than Obama as examples.

But for the Trump campaign, this was no laughing matter.  While the actions, performance and character of the president have been insufficient to this point to shake his base, “Sharpie-gate” might.  This is a much easier concept to digest than the 440-page Mueller Report and Attorney General William Barr’s deliberate attempt to muddy the waters.  People saw this in very simplistic terms; many of Trump’s foibles rose to the surface with this one episode.  


On September 5, The Washington Post put up a brief story on Instagram  about the sharpie modifications on the chart.  It received over 14,000 “Likes” so far.

The most popular comment (over 1,700 Likes) came from Paulsarkisphoto who posted, “Trump’s head is a cone of uncertainty.”

Another comment came from gt69 who said, “I can not [sic] believe this man is president. I live in Alabama and heard this. People need to wake up and vote!!! Let’s elect someone that’s competent!!!

Why this reaction should be a red flag for Trump and his team is the fact that there were very few people willing to defend him. Usually a WAPO story on Trump has a pretty decent number of people going to bat for the president. With this one, however, they hunkered down.

That's not a good sign for Trump.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

With ‘Cabaret’ at Olney, Even the Orchestra is Beautiful

Mason Alexander Park as the Emcee surrounded by the Kit Kat Girls
Photo: Stan Barouh

Over the past few years, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and hate-motivated crimes in the U.S. and around the world have been on the uptick.  Little has been done so far to stem the tide, which is disturbing if not frightening as we view this phenomenon through the lens of the rise of Nazi Germany in the early 1930’s.  The population at the time, unknowing of the horror that would eventually take hold, stood by and watched it happen. When it reached its pinnacle in the early 1940’s it was already too late.  #hocoarts

Today’s virulent partisan divide in our nation is allowing this ever-growing movement to fester. The question on many people’s minds is, could history repeat itself? 

With the superlative, near flawless production of Cabaret kicking off the Olney Theatre Center’s 2019-2020 season, we take a glimpse into that ghastly period in history where the darkness of evil seeped through the escapist veneer of frolicking decadence and burlesque.  

Under the astute direction of Alan Paul, making his Olney Theatre Center debut, the musical starts off sunny enough with lightheartedness, clever retorts and high camp.  Gradually the clouds metaphorically thicken, and by the end, the skies have blackened with the gloom from the inevitable Nazi takeover.  The final moments of the show are downright chilling. 

Says Mr. Paul, “It is about complicity, and what happens when citizens of 1930’s Berlin turn a blind eye to the rise of the Nazis. It has huge political overtones now as we think about what it means to be a citizen in this incredibly partisan and political moment.”

The plot that encompasses several sets of relationships among disparate individuals takes place with stirring drama.  The Kit Kat Klub, a decadent nightclub in 1931 Berlin, provides the escape, albeit temporarily, from the inescapable reality: the ominous political changes which are engulfing Germany. 

“Leave your troubles outside, exclaims the naughty Emcee in the opening number “Willkommen.” “So, life is disappointing? Forget it!  In here, life is beautiful... The girls are beautiful... Even the orchestra is beautiful.”  

Outside?  Not so much. 

Cabaret, a multiple Tony Award winner in 1967 including Best Musical, spawned many revivals on Broadway and London in addition to numerous tours and the popular 1972 movie.  With music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, Cabaret, which was ultimately adapted from the book Goodbye to Berlin (1939) by Christopher Isherwood, is distinguished by its stylistically diverse catalogue of music. 

Well-known songs, such as the aforementioned “Willkommen” along with “Maybe This Time,” “Money,”  “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” and, of course, the title song, have made the show endearing, and with Mr. Paul at the helm, the production at Olney is no exception.  It excels in an intricately staged, brilliantly costumed spectacle that showcases an abundance of outstanding performances by the leads and the ensemble. 

Bravo to Musical Director and Conductor Christopher Youstra and the talented musicians for their outstanding renditions of Kander’s score and to Katie Spelman for her creative choreography.

Wilson Chin designed an ornate set depicting the Kit Kat Klub that serves as the hub for all the action. Six large sparkling chandeliers adorn the stage with a large pentagon-shaped mirror reflecting Colin K.  Bills’ first-rate lighting effects affixed to a stage-wide crimson curtain the upstage. In front of it but still upstage, the aforementioned “beautiful” tuxedo-clad 11-piece orchestra is seated in a formal bandstand mode reminiscent of the swing and jazz bands of Benny Goodman and the Dorsey Brothers.

Downstage there is a series of lit steps that effectively expands the performing area and adds depth to the action.  Scene changes through the use of moveable set pieces are accomplished seamlessly.  Several members of the audience sit at tables right on the stage to simulate the nightclub.
Gregory Maheu as Clifford Bradshaw
and Alexandre Silber as Sally Bowles
Photo: Stan Barouh
(I was told by a member of the production team that the set was designed in this manner after extensive research took place on how the typical Berlin nightclub of that era appeared to foster authenticity.)

The leads and ensemble are called upon to don countless period costumes in a vast array of styles—from ordinary house dresses to suits to pastel gowns to suggestive and gaudy burlesque costumes to Nazi uniforms. The Emcee alone wears at least a dozen creative pieces.  Costume Designer Kendra Rai was more than up to the task and should receive formal recognition for her exceptional work.


Aside from the eye-pleasing aesthetics and solid sound design by Matt Rowe, the entire cast makes this production soar with their acting and vocal talents. The show’s lead is Mason Alexander Park as the puckish Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub. Wearing macabre makeup and flamboyant and at times revealing costumes, the Emcee, the personification of unfettered sexual freedom, is inserted in multiple scenes to offer his take on events mainly through song. And it is clear that the mood of this commentary gets progressively darker over time to coincide with the plot. 

[Watch Mr. Park apply his makeup--a 2-hour process--condensed in 4 minutes at the end of the review.]

Mr. Park possesses an excellent singing voice and shines in the opening number “Willkommen,” the hilarious “Two Ladies,” the lively standard “Money,” and the melancholy “I Don’t Care Much.”  He does a wonderful job in this role though I believe he can take the character even a little further over the top. 

"...an intricately staged, brilliantly costumed spectacle..."

Another lead is Alexandra Silber as Sally Bowles as the headlining British singer at the Kit Kat Klub.  Despite her singing adroitness, Sally seems to hold a job only if she sleeps with someone.  Sally meets an American writer Clifford Bradshaw who was traveling to Berlin and then fall in love, it but doesn’t end well.

Ms. Silber performs two iconic solos, “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret” with a resoundingly sweet voice.

Perfectly cast in the role of Clifford, Gregory Maheu, fresh off of his sterling performance in Once at Olney, is convincing both in his acting and singing as he commands the stage with his voice and movements.  Mr. Maheu’s singing prowess comes to the fore in the duet with Ms. Silber in “Perfectly Marvelous.”

Another love affair takes place between Fräulein Schneider, played by Donna Migliaccio, an elderly owner of the boarding house where Clifford resides and Herr Schultz (Mitchell Hébert), an elderly optimistic fruit shop owner.  Things go adoringly well until Fräulein Schneider learns that her beau is Jewish and the conditions in Germany are too dangerous to consider marriage.  A brick thrown through his store’s window was the last straw and sadly, she breaks off the engagement. 

They play their roles with sensitivity and charm, and their performance of “Married” is done tenderly. Ms. Migliaccio is an outstanding vocalist and is one of the show’s highlights. Her renditions of “So What,” “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “What Would You Do?” are emotionally performed with superb range.

For comic relief there is Fräulein Kost (Jessica Lauren Ball), a prostitute who rents from Fräulein Schneider where no member of the German Navy is safe from her lure. Ms. Ball does a fine job in portraying the character with the right touch of humor.

Tom Story as Ernst Ludwig, a man who had met Clifford on a train to Berlin and recommended him to the boarding house, is very effective in his role. He is later revealed as a Nazi and who warns Fräulein Schneider to drop her marriage plans. Mr. Story had turned in a wonderful performance in Olney’s recent production of Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical.

Then there are the gender-bending Kit Kat Girls (Katy Tabb, Jessica Bennett, Lina Lee, Bridget Riley, Jessica Lauren Ball, and Louisa Tringali) and Kit Kat Boys (Connor James Reilly, Andre Hinds, Ben Gunderson, and Rick Westerkamp) who playfully sing and dance throughout, play other roles, and ably contribute visible energy to the show. 
Photo: Stan Barouh
While there isn’t an abundance of dancing in this musical with most of the work carried out by the Kit Kat Girls and Boys, the number “Mein Herr” with Ms. Silber and the Kit Kat Girls is a standout.

Surprisingly, this was the first time the Olney Theatre Center presented Cabaret considering the theatre’s 82-year existence and the popularity of the musical. It is an enjoyable musical on many levels that presents exceptional performances by the well-directed talented cast and ably supported by the technical and design teams.

Do come to the Cabaret, old chum, and leave your problems outside at least for a while. But please do not turn a blind eye to those problems looming outside lest history will indeed repeat itself.

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

Cabaret runs through October 6 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting online.  

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Rooting for a Recession???

The desperate GOP accuses Dems, media for craving an economic downturn.

You have to hand it to the Republicans for their ability to create excuses when things aren’t going their way.  President Trump, seeing his re-election prospects dimming by the findings from a FOX News poll,  has started to re-launch one of his favorite B.S. excuses: voter fraud.  It is a metaphysical certainty that should Trump go down to defeat in 2020, he will state without equivocation and without evidence that voter fraud turned the election against him. And Lord knows what else he might do or say.

Following the recent gargantuan stock market drop that included a striking 800-plus loss from the Dow, talk of the R-word (recession), started to surface.  The prospect of a recession in the not-too-distant future emanated from numerous well-respected economists. But because the media covered these alarm signals, the media as well as Democrats and other opponents of Donald Trump are being targeted by Trump supporters for as they see it, rooting for this to happen.  Why? A recession would hurt the chances for Trump’s reelection.  #hocopolitics

Simply put, a recession is an economic phenomenon when there is negative economic growth for two consecutive quarters.  Consumer confidence is down; consumer spending, which is the principal driver of the economy, is sharply reduced; the stock market heads south; the national debt heads north; and businesses tend to lay off workers . 

Coincidence or not, according to MarketWatch, every Republican president since Teddy Roosevelt has had to deal with a recession in his first term.  These are cyclical events that follow years of robust economic expansion. 

A recession or a significant downturn in the economy would eliminate the main rationale for Trump’s re-election. He has prided himself and has taken all the credit for what has been up to now--a strong economy.  Yet, as the New York Times explains,  Trump’s on again, off again trade war with China has exacerbated the uncertainty among business leaders and that has sparked the talk of a slow-down.

Knowing that, his supporters are accusing Democrats with the help of the liberal media of creating a fertile environment for a recession by rooting for it to happen. Here’s a sampling from Twitter:




To be fair, anti-Trump comedian Bill Maher has indicated on several occasions that he is rooting for a recession to hurt Trump in his re-election bid. But Maher is in the minority and he is unlikely to be severely impacted financially from such an outcome.

However, millions of other Americans will suffer.  A recession is not something to long for even if makes you feel better politically. It’s like hoping to catch the flu to avoid school or work. Recessions are caused by myriad domestic and global factors but cheering them on is not one of them.

The point is, the GOP strategy is to preemptively pin the blame of a possible recession on the Dems and the media to mitigate the political damage it would cause the president in his reelection chances.  For his part,  Trump has primarily pointed his fingers at the Chairman of the Federal Reserve for his monetary policies as the cause of a potential recession. 

From Trump's corruption, to incompetence, to racism, to whiplash reversals of policy statements through tweets, the Democrats have seemingly unlimited ways to make the case against Trump.  They shouldn't need a faltering economy to win in 2020, and they are certainly not wishing for one.