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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

‘Beautiful’ Nostalgia Fills the Hippodrome

Julia Knitel as Carole King Photo:Joan Marcus
Most of us who enjoy the music of the 60’s may recall how that era was dominated by the likes of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Motown artists and so on.  What seems to fly under the radar in many people’s memories are the works of the prolific music-composing duos of Carole King and Gerry Goffin as well as Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil who churned out a string of classic pop songs during their illustrious careers.  #hocoarts

With the jukebox musical Beautiful-The Carole King Musical now playing at the Hippodrome Theatre, we not only get to relive many of those hits and experience some surprise as to which artists covered them, we catch a glimpse into the early career and life of Carole King through the book written by Douglas McGrath.  Mann and Weil also played a part in King’s professional beginnings and are portrayed in the show as well.

It is sheer delight to reminisce about the old standards as the music dominates Beautiful. However, there is a mixture of drama, romance, infidelity, heartbreak and comedy to weave the songs together that features a talented cast and superb orchestration with Nick Williams at the helm. Mark Bruni skillfully directs this two-time Tony Award winning production, which is currently on tour.

Carole King standards “So Far Away,” “It’s Too Late,” You’ve Got a Friend” and “Beautiful” are performed with feeling by Julia Knitel in the title role.  

Yet, the songs that the Goffin-King team wrote that were covered by other artists shed light on the versatility and expanse of their catalogue that consist mostly of ballads.  In fact, King’s first ever song she composed, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” at the age of 17 was recorded by the girl group Shirelles in 1960 that catapulted to Number 1 on the Billboard chart.

Other hits from this duo include “Take Good Care of My Baby” for Bobby Vee, “Up on the Roof,”  and “Some Kind of Wonderful” (Drifters), “One Fine Day” (Chiffons), “The Locomotion” (Little Eva), “Pleasant Valley Sunday’ (The Monkees), “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (Aretha Franklin).

Backup singers in the Ensemble Songs emulate selected numbers by Neil Sedaka, the Shirelles,  The Drifters, Little Eva, The Chiffons (referred to in the program as Janelle and the Backup Singers) and The Righteous Brothers with sparkling precision adding joy to the production. 

All are decked out in colorful 60’s era costumes designed by Alejo Vietti with the women dressed in satiny gowns similar to the original performers wore when they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, concerts, and the like.

The team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who emerged as friendly competitors during those early years, were no slouches either.  “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (Righteous Brothers), “Walking in the Rain” co-written by Phil Spector (Ronettes, and Jay and the Americans among other groups), “On Broadway” (Drifters), and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (The Animals).  All of these songs are included in Beautiful.

As one hit after another rolls out during the show,  Carole King’s story from an ambitious 16 year-old living in Brooklyn, NY with her mother Genie Klein (played deliciously by Suzanne Grodner) to her pregnancy and marriage as a teenager to song-writing partner Gerry Goffin (Andrew Brewer) unfolds. 

With their success mounting, Gerry, played by Andrew Brewer, feels suffocated in the marriage after the birth of their daughter and wants to have an affair with Janelle.  Hurt, Carole plods on with her career while hoping Gerry would return.  Those hopes were dashed, however, when Gerry is discovered with yet another woman and Carole ends the marriage in a dramatic high point of the show.

Ms. Knitel as Carole displays a lovely, clear singing voice throughout.  Her vocal resemblance to Carole King is strong, which enhances the reality of the show. 

Mr. Brewer also performs well in the numbers he is called upon, such as “Take Good Care of My Baby” and “Up on the Roof” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”

Ben Frankhauser sprightly plays the nerdy hypochondriac but talented Barry Mann with excellent comedic timing and body language.  His rendition of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” is strong.

Erika Olson plays Cynthia Weil with a bouncy, sweet demeanor. Mann and Weil’s marriage was also headed in the wrong direction as their successful career proceeded but ultimately managed to straighten it out.  There are frequent comedic exchanges between the members of this couple while the interactions between Carole and Gerry are much more serious.

As Don Kirshner who launched Carole King’s stunning career, Curt Bouril does a wonderful job as the demanding record producer.

And who doesn’t love a witty Jewish mother form Brooklyn?  Sardonic and endearing, Ms. Grodner provides hilarious moments throughout the show. 

“If there’s a choice between Times Square and hell, the good people will choose hell,” she said when 16 year-old Carole wanted to venture into Manhattan to have a song she wrote,  “It Might as Well Rain Until September,” produced. 

This fine production is aided by the multi-level, colorful scenery designed by Derek McLane.  Two large towers with oblong panels that house lights appear in most of the scenes. There are also two scaffolds where performers can reach by stairs to offer a different sight line.  Drop-down scenery is also employed.  An abstract background is used to depict a recording studio.

This set is amplified by the hue-rich lighting designed by Peter Kaczorowski which makes good use of the lights embedded in the towers.

All this makes Beautiful-The Carole King Musical a sight to behold and enjoyable to hear. The audience was chomping at the bit to sing along to the familiar songs but struggled to hold back until the very end when after the curtain call, the ensemble led the spirited “I Feel the Earth Move” and everyone joined in. 

Turn back the clock and enjoy this wonderfully executed trip down memory lane.  Indeed, it’s a beautiful experience.

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

Beautiful-The Carole King Musical runs through January 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.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

A Lighter Show Boat Docks at Toby’s

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Ever since Show Boat debuted in 1927, controversy followed it.  Was this a racist musical or was it a musical about racism?

On one hand, it was the first show on Broadway where black and white individuals performed together. It also drew attention to miscegenation laws and the horrors such laws inflict on people.

On the other hand, the first production of Show Boat featured two white women playing black characters—Julie and Queenie—in blackface.  And it also depicted a multitude of offensive stereotypes about black people and racial slurs that were common during the 1877-1927 period during which the show’s plot took place.

Controversy or not, Show Boat, with music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and based on Edna Ferber’s best-selling novel of the same name, remains a musical classic.  The iteration of Show Boat now playing at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, is a talent-rich production whereby the superb cast is attired in magnificently detailed period costumes that were designed by AT Jones & Company.

Co-Directors Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick (who also choreographed the production) made the decision to trim the sprawling show to a manageable level.  Several songs and scenes were cut, and with them, much of the offensive dialogue and slurs.  Serious themes, such as abandonment, gambling and poverty remain woven throughout the fabric of the plot.  #hocoarts

This is not to say the Toby’s version was completely cleansed of racial tensions. The N-word was spoken early on to remind the audience of what race relations were like during this Jim Crow era.  

Miscegenation laws factor in a key sub-plot. A married couple, Steven Baker, who is white (played convincingly by Justin Calhoun) and Julie LaVerne (Julia Lancione) who is of mixed race, were the victims of these laws. The tense confrontation between the local sheriff played powerfully by David Bosley-Reynolds and Steven and Julie—the two leading performers on the Cotton Blossom, a show boat that traveled up and down the Mississippi River—is one of the better dramatic scenes. 

Though Steven convinces the sheriff that he “has Negro blood in him” and is backed up by the troupe, they are forced to cease performing with the white performers on the Cotton Blossom because of segregation.

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Despite the serious issues, Ms. Orenstein and Mr. Minnick deftly guide Show Boat with a lighter touch than the original, resulting in more laughs than gasps, and the classic songs including the ballads “Ol’ Man River,” “Only Make Believe” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” were retained.

Ms. LaVerne as Julie sparkles and her perfor
mance in “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” is moving.  Mr. Calhoun, in playing Steven, a not-so-good actor on the Cotton Blossom but thinks he is, creates some fine comedic moments. 

Robert John Biedermann 125 effectively plays Captain Andy Hawks, the patriarch of the Cotton Blossom, which is the hub for which the subplots revolve.  Mr. Biedermann knows how to deliver a punch line with the best of them and excels throughout the show.  His repartee with the ultra-talented Jane C. Boyle, who plays his stern, humorless, domineering wife Parthy, is hilarious and provides effective comic relief sprinkled among the dramatic sequences in the plot.

The Hawks’ daughter, Magnolia, is played by Abby Middleton. Magnolia falls in love with a riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal played by Russell Rinker and marries him against Parthy’s wishes.  After subsequently moving to Chicago and succeeding at first with his gambling, the financial bottom falls out for Gaylord, and he abandons Magnolia and their newborn daughter Kim.  Gaylord returns two decades later and the couple reconciles as the show ends. Kim (Allie O’Donnell) becomes a successful performer in her own right.  

Ms. Middleton’s gorgeous soprano voice and Mr. Rinker’s solid tenor are on display in the beautiful “Only Make Believe” and “Why Do I Love You.”  Her solo, the reprise of “Can’t Help Lovin Dat Man,” and his solo “Where’s the Mate For Me” are outstanding.

Marquis White, who plays Joe, a dockworker delivers the iconic, slow-moving “Ol’ Man River” in a goose bump-inducing, knockout performance that showcases his stellar bass voice.

Joe’s wife, strong-minded Queenie, a cook on the boat, is played flawlessly by Samantha Deininger.  She demonstrates spot-on comedic and acting skills, and her mezzo-soprano vocals stand out in “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’” and in the moving duet with Mr. White, “I Still Suits Me.”

Other performers on the Cotton Blossom include Frank Schultz and Ellie May Chipley, played by Jeffrey Shankle and Elizabeth Rayca, respectively. They also deliver comic moments.  The married couple becomes successful and generous with their success.  Their duet, “Goodbye My Lady Love” is a joy.

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
The remainder of the ensemble perform very well in support of the leads and in production numbers.  Mr. Minnick’s choreography is creative in designing several dance sequences that play well on Toby’s in-the-round stage.

Ross Scott Rawlings and his six-piece orchestra do a splendid job in performing Mr. Kern’s score and allowing the vocalists to shine without drowning them out.   

Mark Smedley’s sound design is perfectly executed as all dialogue and music are heard with clarity.
David A. Hopkins who designed the effective lighting effects also designed the set. Elements of a 19th century show boat are seen overhead with detailed lattice work and fences at the two balconies denoting the upper deck of the boat.  In addition, many props and set pieces are effectively utilized to portray the era that include carts, sacks of flour, bales of cotton, and miscellaneous furniture for scene changes spanning 40 years.

The trimmed-down version of Show Boat at Toby’s manages to provide the audience with sufficient flavor from the time when segregation and miscegenation laws ruled the day without dragging it out.  It also demonstrates the strength and fragility of relationships over a swath of time through an excellent score and potent dialogue.

Get your tickets to hop on Show Boat. This is an entertaining, well-directed production performed by a talented company that is sure to please.  

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

Show Boat plays through March 19 at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets can be purchased by calling the Box Office at 410-7390-8311 or 1-800-88TOBYS or online .

Friday, January 20, 2017

We’re Not Sore Losers; We Just Love Our Country

Since the election, the millions of us who have been in anguish over Trump’s Electoral College win or have protested or have posted anti-Trump memes on social media have been accused by his dwindling number of supporters as being sore losers.  This is the mindset of an eighth grader, and to no surprise this accusation has come from the eight-grader-in-chief himself, Donald Trump.  #hocopolitics

Sore losers? Really??

Of course, so many of us have been stunned by the results.  We have wrung our hands over the now real scenario of someone who is so thinly informed on policy, so unstable in his personality, such a pathological liar, so thin-skinned, so narcissistic, so paranoid (he blamed the “rigged” poll takers for the historically low 32-40 percent approval ratings heading into the Inauguration), that Trump is actually the 45th President of the U.S. 

Add to that the tainted election process because of likely Russian cyber interference and FBI chief James Comey’s own meddling that has sparked the launch of several investigations prior to Trump’s taking the oath. Then there is the popular vote differential of some 2.8 million making Trump the biggest loser to have won the Electoral College. 

I love how the Trumpsters respond by saying that’s all because of California.  Shrug off Cali if you want but that state alone represents the world’s sixth largest economy.  If we’re cutting off states from our calculations, let’s knock off the votes down the center: North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.  We can play this dumb game, too.

This is not sore losing.  This isn’t about wins and losses as Trump emphasizes.  The angst is real; people are literally terrified about what may happen to this country as Trump has taken the reins.
Much of this disquiet could have been mitigated had Trump made any kind of effort to bring the country together, any kind of outreach.  Not his style. 

He would rather coddle the tyrannical Vladimir Putin, the guy who has a way of making his opponents “disappear” and expanding Russia’s already lengthy borders by force than alleviating the concerns of the American people—the majority who did not vote for him, California or not.

He could have shown more interest in attending vital Intelligence briefings than chillin’ with Kanye West.  He could have avoided a major feud with the Intelligence community resulting from their uncovering Russia’s intent to help him win the election.

He could have released his tax returns as promised and not hide behind the bogus audit as an excuse to conceal his true wealth, business entanglements with foreign governments, and the extent of his charitable contributions, just to name a few.  He could have attempted to divest his business—not hand them off to Eric and Donny Jr.—to um, drain the swamp some. 

He could have taken the high road by ignoring the comments of venerable civil rights veteran Rep. John Lewis’ assertion that Trump is not a legitimate president.  But no, thin-skinned Trump was moved to tweet out that Mr. Lewis is all talk and no action.  Look who’s talking!

He certainly could have made some form of outreach during his dark Inauguration speech to all those tens of millions of voters who opposed him. Nothing.

He could have graciously mentioned his defeated opponent Hillary Clinton during this golden opportunity.  But he lacks grace.

"He has done nothing during the transition to win over his opponents whom he refers to as enemies as dictators often do."

Trump could have made these moves but he refuses to and would rather blame the “dishonest media” for exposing him.  Instead, Trump embarked on a “rub-it-in-your-face” victory lap whereby he waxed nostalgic over how the election results rolled in on that fateful night on November 8 and shocked the pundits.  He continued to belittle his vanquished opponent as recently as this week.  And he still claims with a straight face that he won in an electoral landslide.  Good grief! 

Sore loser?  How about sore winner?

No, we are worried not only about Trump’s lack of knowledge, interest and curiosity on issues and his fingers on the nuclear codes, but also the hall of shame he has surrounded himself with. 

What a group of bigots and Russia-loving goofballs he assembled!  Very few have the experience needed to do the job they are appointed to do, and what experience they do have is scary.  The ill-suited, non-diverse individuals he has nominated to cabinet positions is akin to allowing baseball players to play football against a pro football team. In other words, they’re out of their league.

And you have the haters starting with the homophobe-in-chief VP Mike Pence and the lead anti-Semite Steve Bannon.  Everyone else falls into their rightful place.  Then there are the former generals, billionaires and bankers who relate so well with the average Trump voter. Right.

He has done nothing during the transition to win over his opponents whom he refers to as enemies as dictators often do.  And Republicans are not going to capitulate so easily—not with Trump’s favorability numbers at historic lows.  Honeymoon?  More like a looming divorce.

Trump is faced with daunting problems as he enters the office: his own inexperience and lack of gravitas; an extreme right wing cabinet and cabal of advisers; multiple investigations that, if allowed to continue, I believe will produce explosive findings; serious and perhaps illegal conflicts of interests; a bitterly divided country; a squandered transition in which he exacerbated the divide, an ungracious Inaugural speech, and so on.

Call us sore losers if you want.  We just love our country and will try to get it back.  “Make America America Again” should be our slogan. 

Now to find some blue hats to put that on.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Winning 'Mamma Mia!' Takes it All at the Hippodrome

Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia
Everyone loves a beautiful white wedding especially when it takes place on a lovely sun-splashed Greek Island. It’s even more special if the bride is walked down the aisle with her proud father.  

Getting to the latter forms the plot of the popular jukebox musical Mamma Mia! which is making an all-too-brief return to Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre as part of its “final” farewell tour.

Under the direction of Phyllida Lloyd, a remarkably exuberant and talented cast brings the house down with outstanding musical performances, spot-on comedy, and solid acting when called upon during the show’s dramatic moments.  A wide variety of attire including spandex and  wet suits and brightly colored costumes at the end of the show adorn the energetic cast.  Those young, lithe men in the ensemble who were shirtless at times, well that was good costuming, too.   #hocoarts 

The set is simple with two basic structures that are turned around for scene changes.  It is enhanced, however, by the backdrop consisting of mainly blue horizontal lines denoting the merger of the sea and sky, which is further amplified by Howard Harrison’s hue-laden lighting design.  Together with the costumes, the production is lavishly colorful.

Based on the songs of the successful 70’s pop rock group ABBA that were composed by former band members Benny Andersson and Bj√∂rn Ulvaeus, British playwright Catherine Johnson managed to tie together seemingly unrelated songs to craft a story line around them that works.

Twenty year-old Sophie Sheridan (played superbly by Lizzie Markson), dreams of a perfect wedding where she marries her beau Sky (Dustin Harris Smith). She also wants her father to walk her down the aisle.  But who’s her daddy?  She never knew who her father was as she was raised only by her mother, Donna Sheridan (Betsy Padamonsky). 

Cashelle Butler, Betsy Padamonsky and Sarah Smith
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia
Donna owns a taverna on a Greek island and at one time was the lead singer of a pop trio Donna and the Dynamos along with Tanya (Cashelle Butler) and Rosie (Sarah Smith).

Sophie sneakily peruses her mother’s diary entries and determines the possibilities based on steamy episodes that took place just prior to her birth: Sam (Shai Yammanee), an architect; Bill (Marc Cornes), a travel writer; and Harry, a British banker (Andrew Tebo). Unbeknownst to her mother, she secretly invites all to her wedding feeling she will know who that man is. 

Much of the story is centered on how the three men interact with Sophie and how they explain their presence to Donna as well as the mother-daughter relationship that evolves over this two-day period.  But how that transpires up until the actual wedding and its surprising twist at the end (surprising only if you haven’t seen Mamma Mia! before) becomes the plot that is coaxed along by the music.

That music and the performances are a joy to behold.  Kevin Casey’s five-piece band is robust but at times too much so to allow some vocals to pierce through.

Not all of the ABBA catalog is on display; for instance, the popular “Fernando” is not performed.  Yet, many favorites like “Dancing Queen,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Take a Chance on Me” (my favorite) and “The Winner Takes it All,” and, of course, the title song, "Mamma Mia,"  help make the production soar.

Anthony Van Lasst’s choreography is precise with an abundance of energy.  The dancing in “Money, Money, Money” and “Voulez-Vous” are two good examples of that.  However, “Dancing Queen,” performed by Ms. Padamonsky, Ms. Butler and Ms. Smith, is a bona fide show stopper.

I am reluctant to say that Sarah Smith steals the show since all the leads and ensemble are so talented.  But let’s just say, she borrows it and forgets to return it.  

The bubbly Ms. Smith sparkles as Rosie, an unmarried free-wheeling soul, with an incredible command of physical comedy.  The moment she is onstage, a smile is triggered followed by a healthy dose of laughter as she meanders about.  In the comedic “Take a Chance on Me,” a duet with Marc Cornes, Ms. Smith kills it and not just by her antics but also her superb vocals.

Another member of the Donna and the Dynamos trio, Cashelle Butler, who plays the thrice-married Tanya, also demonstrates her comedic skills and lovely singing voice.  Her vocal chops are on full display in “Money, Money, Money,” “Chiquitta,” “Super Trouper” as well as “Dancing Queen.”

As Sophie, Lizzie Markson showcases a fine soprano voice as well as strong acting prowess.  “The Name of the Game,” “Under Attack’ and “I Have a Dream” are all well-performed.  Her dramatic interactions with Ms. Padamonsky as her mother Donna and Dustin Harris Smith as Sky are superbly played by all the actors, especially in scenes where there are notable confrontations.

Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia
Ms. Padamonsky is sterling as Donna.  She is a commanding force onstage with her acting skills and gorgeous soprano voice.  As part of the trio in “Dancing Queen” Ms. Padamonsky excels.  She also delivers in “One of Us,” “SOS, a duet with Mr. Yammanee, “The Winner Takes it All,” and “Our Last Summer,” a duet with Mr. Tebo.

Mr. Tebo as Harry, Mr. Yammanee as Sam and Mr. Cornes as Bill act and sing very effectively. They each present plausible explanations on how they could be Sophie’s real dad, and combined with Donna’s uncertainty, muddies the waters keeping the audience in suspense. 

There are Donna’s two workers at the taverna.  One is Pepper, played by Austin Michael, who makes an unsuccessful attempt to woo Tanya.  Their number together “Does Your Mother Know” is hilarious.

The other is Eddie played by hunky and handsome Max Ehrlich.  All I can say is “Mamma Mia!”

The eight longest running show both on Broadway and London’s West End, Mamma Mia has been played everywhere on earth and perhaps two other planets.  If that weren’t enough, there is a popular film version with the same name.   Oddly, the musical never captured a Tony Award though it received five nominations in 2002.   That factoid is shrugged off by the 60 million who have seen the show worldwide.

The touring company is blowing through Baltimore faster than you can say “Mamma Mia.”  So quickly get your ticket and take a chance on this excellent production with its lively familiar music.  Surely, you will be dancing at your seats.

Running time: Two hours and 40 minutes.

Mamma Mia! runs through January 15 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.