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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Road to LGBTQ Equality Has More Miles to Travel

When marriage equality—the ultimate political dream for gay and lesbian folks—became the law of the land in 2013 people figured the hard-fought struggle for equality was over. 

Moreover, in Maryland, a non-discrimination law that protects people on the basis on gender identity was passed and signed into law the following year, and ostensibly that was all that was needed, some believed. 

Locally, we are fortunate that additional laws protecting individuals from discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and lending practices on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity exist. And we are grateful for all those measures.

Nonetheless, codifying non-discrimination is one thing; changing people’s archaic and bigoted attitudes is a whole different matter. While it is true that polling has indicated there has been a growing acceptance of same-sex marriage as well as more general acceptance of LGBTQ people, the road to equality does not end with those important victories. Rather, there are bumps in the road and dangerous potholes that still need to be navigated.

Hate crimes against all targets have accelerated nationally since the election of Donald Trump, The Southern Poverty Law Center  notes that there have been anti-LGBT groups proliferating throughout the nation and with that, an increase in anti-LGBT rhetoric and a rise in anti-LGBT hate crimes/bias incidents.

This disturbing trend has hit home in Howard County. According to the Maryland State Police in partnership with the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center (MCAC) , reported hate crimes and hate bias incidents have increased in the county from 33 in 2016 to 43 in 2017, a 30 percent jump. Incidents against LGBTQ individuals ranked third after race/ethnicity/ancestry and religion, in particular, anti-Semitism.

Since that report was released, a representative from the Howard County Police Department told a meeting of the Maryland Coalition Opposing Violence and Extremism (COVE) in December that the 2018 number of hate crimes/bias incidents jumped to 64 in the county with more days left in December.

Keep in mind that these incidents were only the ones that were reported. There is an unknown number in which folks were victimized but were not reported to police for one reason or another.

Anti-LGBTQ attitudes are still pervasive in the schools, which is a troublesome situation given that much of the hopes to alleviate this bias have fallen to the youth. Although there are no statistics available for Howard County in particular, GLSEN a national organization aimed at ensuring that LGBTQ students are able to learn and grow in a school environment free from bullying and harassment, indicated in a 2017 report  that secondary schools in Maryland “were not safe for most lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students.”

Furthermore, there have been anecdotal accounts from Howard County students who not only have been victims of bullying and harassment in the local school system but have witnessed such incidents. And one gay student reported that while he was not a victim per se, he had to endure other students routinely and frequently using the word “faggot” unabated in his school gym’s locker room.

The situation is not being helped by adults who have targeted transgender students in their overhyped rhetoric regarding the use of bathrooms. In a recent effort to discriminate against these students, an online petition was circulated to thwart what the petitioner saw as the promotion of the “LGBT agenda” in Howard County schools. 

The fear-mongering petition was rife with inaccurate stereotypes and unfounded bigoted statements that among other things, confused sexual orientation with gender identity. The petition was removed by change.org because community members reported the vile language and bigotry contained therein and it was determined that it did not meet the site’s community standards.

The prevailing problem of bullying in the schools and online is dangerous.  According to The Trevor Project  suicide accounts for the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10 through 24. The rates among LGBTQ youth are disproportionately higher than non-LGBTQ youth.

Recognizing the devastation that youth suicide can cause, Howard County government in partnership with the school system launched a new suicide prevention program  on February 28 called “It’s OK to Ask.”

Despite legal gains, LGBTQ adults continue to feel the sting of homophobia and transphobia.  Same-sex partners, even those who are legally married, cannot enjoy the simple and benign gesture of holding hands in the mall, a park or other public venues without the fear of hurtful slurs or worse, physical attacks, such as the recent attack in Arundel Mills.

Additionally, there is discrimination in the foster care and juvenile justice system, and individuals and organizations may discriminate if such action is founded in their religious beliefs. They can deny a service to a member of the LGBTQ community but their religious convictions won’t motivate them to deny a similar service to say, an adulterer.

For all these reasons, LGBTQ individuals still don’t entirely feel the sense that we are equal. We cannot thoroughly and peacefully pursue a quality of life that other county residents take for granted.
Accordingly, we must keep forging ahead on the road to equality in Howard County and beyond.

We look forward to our community rallying around the county's first LGBTQ Pride event this June, HoCo Pride. Another good step would be for the continuation of the LGBTQ Roundtable or a variation of that vehicle that existed under the previous administration.  This informal quarterly gathering had been an effective mechanism to bring concerns by LGBTQ community members to Howard County leadership and the various government departments, agencies and school board.

The road to equality in Howard County and beyond must continue to be traveled in order to truly move forward.

Monday, February 18, 2019

A First Class ‘Pygmalion’ on Display at Spotlighters

Phil Gallagher and Linae' C. Bullock

Gender and class are issues that permeate throughout much of today’s political discourse. Yet, in 1912 when famed controversial Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw penned arguably his most beloved work, Pygmalion, he saw the play as a vehicle to shed light on those very topics, which took aim at the mores of London society during the Edwardian era.

In a superb presentation at the Spotlighters Theatre, Shaw’s views through Pygmalion come to life with a potent drama laced with razor-sharp wit and humor.  Spotlighters veteran director Sherrionne Brown aided by Assistant Director Phil Gallagher who is also the Dialect Coach and for good measure plays a leading role, helms a sterling iteration of the play that is performed by a talented cast.

Pygmalion was the inspiration for the Broadway classic musical and Oscar-winning film My Fair Lady. The play, of course, does not contain the majestic score of Frederick Loewe or any score for that matter, but some of the dialogue is recognizable to those familiar with the musical in that it is incorporated in Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics while the plot is very similar in both versions.

Named after a Greek mythological figure, Pygmalion fell in love with one of his sculptures which came to life. That is the symbolic journey in the play whereby Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics takes in a poor London flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, with even poorer speaking skills and mannerisms.  She had initiated the contact so that she can learn to improve her speech in order to better sell flowers.

Linae' C. Bullock and Hillary Mazer
Through the resolute efforts of both he and his cohort, Colonel Pickering, a gentleman who also shares an interest in phonetics, they gave her new clothes and took on the challenge of improving Eliza’s speech and her mannerisms with the goal of transforming her into a duchess worthy of the company of high society. Pickering bet that if they can triumph, he would pay for all the expenses.

However, after this experiment was successfully completed, Higgins showed no further interest in Eliza and appeared ready to discard her without the slightest concern for her future. If Higgins had a soft spot, it was well hidden.  Eliza wondered wistfully what’s to become of herself.

But in the play’s denouement, Eliza finally stands up to the boorish professor and establishes her own independence—the more significant transformation in the story—and in the process, gained the respect of Higgins and perhaps winning his heart.

The aforementioned Phil Gallagher is sterling as Henry Higgins, the play’s Pygmalion.  Polished and accomplished, Mr. Gallagher dominates the stage with a powerful resonance that would make the late Rex Harrison applaud. Moreover, his facial expressions, body language, voice inflections and purposeful movements around the stage are on target in portraying this loutish character.  Mr. Gallagher is excellent in delivering the comical sarcasm and insults leveled at Eliza as well as demonstrating his exasperation and frustration.

Equally strong is Linae' C. Bullock who is first-rate as Eliza. She conveys the smart-mouth, shrieking “guttersnipe” as Higgins labeled her and demonstrates the ability to carry off the conversion to a potential duchess to a tee changing accents adroitly. Her passionate stance to declare her self-worth and independence near the play’s conclusion is a master stroke of acting on the part of Ms. Bullock.

Randy Dalmas does a fine job in playing the more reasonable and compassionate Colonel Pickering. Where Higgins berates and bullies Eliza, Pickering is more thoughtful and considerate to her and is the personification of a gentleman. He is the perfect foil to Higgins, and Mr. Dalmas pulls it off.

Phil Gallagher, Hillary Mazer and Randy Dalmas
As Higgins’ housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, Jennifer Grundy Hollett performs convincingly without going over the top. Seen mostly during the first half of the five-act play, the character at times consoles Eliza and on other occasions threatens her with delicious campiness. Not intimidated by her boss Higgins, Ms. Hollett’s Pearce demonstrates her independence and strength and chastises Higgins’ own foibles that include, among other things, his frequent and ill-timed swearing and sloppy table manners. It’s a fun-filled role and Ms. Hollett nails it.

Rich Espey plays the part of Eliza’s eccentric father Alfred Doolittle, a former dustman who eventually becomes wealthier. He’s a thinking man who “seems equally free from fear and conscience.” It is through this character that Shaw seems to convey much of his social criticism.  The complex role is played very well by Mr. Espey.

As Higgins’ upper class mother, Hillary Mazer plays the part with relish.  Stately Mrs. Higgins, very independent and a stalwart of London’s society, never bought into her son and Pickering’s experiment with Eliza and doesn’t have much respect for Henry.  Ms. Mazer’s acting skills allow this disdain to come through effectively.

Rounding out the talented cast are Melissa McGinley as Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, Carlo Olivi as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Caelyn Sommerville as Clara Eynsford-Hill, and Don Lampasone and Sarah Weissman playing multiple roles.

The cozy in-the-round square-shaped stage at the Spotlighters is perfect for a play such as Pygmalion. The inherent intimacy of the environment allows the audience to be interested eavesdroppers to the conversation with the performers merely a few feet away.  Outstanding period costumes by Jenifer Grundy Hollett reflecting the garb of both the lower class and upper crust of Edwardian Londoners contribute mightily to the presentation. 

Sherrionne Brown’s set design provided sufficient furniture and accessories to augment the scenes without causing clutter on the stage and which allow the actors to move about freely. Brad Ranno’s lighting design also enhances the atmosphere while stage manager Lady Tatum oversees the multiple scene and act changes that occur fluidly and efficiently.

The Spotlighters’ production of Pygmalion is extremely well-performed and staged and is worthy of a Bravo! It should not be missed as this is community theatre at its best.

Running time. Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

Pygmalion runs through March 10 at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St., Baltimore, MD 21202.  Tickets may be purchased by calling 410-752-225 or by visiting online

Photos: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Saturday, February 16, 2019

A Rocking ‘Rock of Ages’ Rocks the Hippodrome

Sam Harvey as Stacee Jax

It may as well have been a 1980’s rock concert sans illegal substances: mind-blowing, hand-clapping rock music with an infusion of metal; multi-hued strobe lighting; fog effects; long flowing hair and an audience totally into it and eager to sing along to the songs.  That’s what occurred during the first of only three performances of the superb production of Rock of Ages, making its way-too-brief stop at the Baltimore Hippodrome Theatre as part of the show’s 10th Anniversary tour.

Indeed, it was a raucous audience the evening the production was reviewed, the likes of which not seen at the Hippodrome in my memory. Perhaps the electric atmosphere was a bit too intense for one theatre patron who became ill necessitating a 15-minute interruption at the midway point of the first act. Undaunted, the highly professional company and technical crew resumed without missing a beat and the show rocked on with enormous intensity leading to a crescendo of cheers, howls and an explosive standing ovation by the audience at the show’s end.

There have been dozens of popular jukebox musicals—Mamma Mia!, Beautiful, Jersey Boys, Escape to Margaritaville, On Your Feet, to name a few—that showcase a particular individual or group. In the Tony Award nominated Rock of Ages, another jukebox musical, you have a show which focuses on multiple acts and performers, but in particular, an era and genre—the rocking 1980’s.

Martha Banta’s precise direction, Janet Rothermel’s rhythmic  choreography, Mike Baldassari’s stunning lighting design, Cody Spencer’s effective sound design, Cynthia Nordstrom’s period costumes, Monica Sabedra’s hair and wig design, musical arrangements and orchestrations by Ethan Popp conducted by Marshall Keating, and a visually pleasing multi-level stage with the clever use of creative set pieces and props provide the atmospherics.  

The cute love story that unwinds and often hilarious subplots from a book by Chris D’Arienzo are embedded in a catalogue of classic rock ‘n roll and heavy metal songs and performances by a stellar cast and musicians. 

Music from Journey, Styx, Whitesnake, Bon Jovi, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Starship, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister and others tie in neatly to the story. It’s pieced together so well that often the first line of a song immediately follows the last line in a dialogue eliciting laughter.
Anthony Nuccio and Katie LaMark

Set in 1987, Anthony Nuccio plays Drew, an employee in the Bourbon Room, a bar on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, who falls for an innocent girl from Kansas named Sherrie played by Katie LaMark.  (You just know that the song “Oh Sherrie” will surface at some point.)  Their desire and pursuit of a romantic relationship forms the central plot but there are other humorous storylines going on that supplement it.

Mr. Nuccio, rocking a sleeveless vest throughout most of the show, was obviously able to locate gyms in the various cities on the tour. Unlike prototypical front men rockers of the day who generally are pencil thin, Mr. Nuccio is built more like a linebacker.

He is exceptional as the vulnerable good-guy Drew with dreams of making it as a rock star.  Mr. Nuccio’s powerful tenor voice with an enormously wide range is magnificent. Such numbers as “I Wanna Rock,” “Cum On Feel the Noize,” “Any Way You Want It,”  “High Enough” and yes, “Oh Sherrie” showcase his amazing vocal talents. Yet, it is during “The Search is Over,” the romantic ballad made famous by REO Speedwagon, Mr. Nuccio holds a note that seems to last a month, that to me, makes him an elite vocal talent.

As Sherrie, Ms. LaMark is spot-on who is also dreaming of being a star.  At a picnic on a hill overlooking Los Angeles, Drew drops the f-word—friends—and that was that.  She mistook his desire to be simply friends and not looking for a serious relationship. Sherrie was so disappointed she pursues other options.  This innocent young lady winds up becoming a performer in the Venus Club—a strip joint, er, gentleman’s club, as many aspiring stars wind up doing.

Ms. LaMark possesses a strong rock belt voice and excels in several group numbers. They include “More Than Words/To Be with You/Heaven,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “Here I Go Again,” “Anyway You Want It,” “Renegade” among others.

John-Michael Breen plays Lonny, who also works at the Bourbon Room and serves as the show’s narrator whereby he immediately endearing him to the enthusiastic audience. Charming and comedic, mischievous and fun-loving, Mr. Breen plays the role to the hilt.

Ryan M. Hunt plays Dennis, the owner of the Bourbon Room. A laid back former rocker, Mr. Hunt’s portrayal is excellent and a perfect complement to the Lonny character.  Together they perform well in “Just Like Paradise/Nothin’ But a Good Time” that opens the show. But it is their ultra-hilarious second act duet in “Can’t Fight This Feeling” that shines as one of the production’s show-stopping numbers.

In the role of bad boy Stacee Jaxx, a charismatic rock star who decides to leave his successful metal-rock band Arsenal to try it solo, Sam Harvey performs quite effectively with an abundance of pizzazz. Like Anthony Nuccio, Mr. Harvey also sports a chiseled physique and is not shy about flexing his biceps and flashing his abs. Stacee is one of the story’s villains who does some naughty (and illegal) things, and Mr. Harvey’s comedy and acting skills shine as he pulls it off perfectly.

His vocals are superb in “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “Here I Go Again.” But it is his performance in “I Wanna Know What Love Is” with Ms. La Mark where the two characters are copulating in a men’s room that becomes yet another show-stopping laugh-a-second number.

Andrew Tebo plays Hertz, a cold-hearted German developer who is trying to buy up the Sunset Strip to eliminate the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll lifestyle and bring in what he calls “clean living” to the area. Of course, the Bourbon Room is a target.  

His flamboyant son Franz is played  by Chris Renalds. Campy Franz wishes to open his own candy store in Germany but is intimidated by his strong father until things change over the course of the show. His line, “I’m not gay, I’m German” is uproarious in its delivery.

Proficient vocalists, they appear together in several numbers, such as “We Built This City/Too Much Time on My Hands” and “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” Mr. Renalds excels in “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” when Franz finally stands up to his father. For his part, Mr. Tebo is charming in one of the show’s rare solos, “Keep On Loving You.”  

An excellent performance is turned in by Kristina Walz as Regina (rhymes with angina) as the mayor’s assistant who, through energetic protests, is fighting to save the Strip.  She and the ensemble heartily deliver “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “The Final Countdown.”

Also performing well is Kenya Hamilton as Justice, the owner of the Venus Club.  A former performer, Justice provides soothing advice to Sherrie and demonstrates proficient acting abilities in the process.  

The remainder of the cast and musicians support the leads exceptionally.

The rousing finale "Can't Stop Believing" effectively symbolizes the entire messaging contained in the story.  And with that, hopefully, Rock of Ages will return to Baltimore in the near future to afford the opportunity to enjoy a lively, nostalgic, highly entertaining production performed by a rock-solid company.  Rock on!

Running time. Approximately two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory. Rock of Ages contains adult language and adult situations and is not recommended for young children.

Rock of Ages runs through February 16 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit online here or here,  call 800-982-ARTS, or visit the Hippodrome Box Office located at 12 N Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.

For a look at the tour’s upcoming schedule, visit the Rock of Ages tour website.

Photos: Jeremy Daniel

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Hitting the Right Notes More Than ‘Once’ at Olney

Malinda Kathleen Reese as Girl and Gregory Maheu as Guy

As the patrons file into the Olney Theatre Center’s Mainstage, they are greeted by an impromptu, high-tempo mini-concert performed on stage by a group of musicians playing and singing a few Irish folk songs and some pop tunes thrown into the mix. Their wardrobe and spoken accents leave no doubt about the setting for what was about to unfold.

Once, a quirky romantic musical by Irish film director, producer and screenwriter John Carney, is making its Residential Regional Premiere at the Olney Theatre Center. The musical, which opened on Broadway in 2012 following a brief stint at the New York Theater Workshop, was based on the 2006 low-budget indie film that was also written (and directed) by Carney. Once received 11 Tony Award nominations and corralled eight statues in 2012 including Best Musical. #hocoarts

Marcia Milgrom Dodge, Tony Award Nominee for the 2009 revival of Ragtime on Broadway, makes her Olney Theatre Center debut as Director and Choreographer. Her direction and staging of this musical is impeccable. The production is paced superbly with precise timing, and a talented cast and crew deliver in splendid fashion. 
Once is an unconventional show in that actors comprise the orchestra, play multiple instruments, and are onstage through most of the production.  There are two leads in the show, and the other cast members appear in scenes and then return to the sides or rear of the stage so they can resume their instrumental work.

Even Olney’s talented resident maestro, Helen Hayes Award winner Christopher Youstra, who serves as Musical Director for the production, emerges from his familiar locale in the orchestra pit to participate in the onstage action, playing the accordion among other instruments, joining in a dance, and has a bit of a speaking part as Emcee.  He appears to be enjoying this different facet of his repertoire.

It is indeed a challenge to find accomplished musicians who concurrently possess solid acting skills, yet their performances demonstrate that the folks at Olney responsible for casting were quite successful in meeting that challenge.

John Sygar (Andrej), Carlos Castillo (Svec), Daven Ralston (Reza),
Malinda Kathleen Reese (Girl), Somaya Litmon (Ivanka)
, and Emily Mikesell (Baruska)
As was the case with the film with the same odd name, the musical Once features music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The book for the musical was written by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, which contains a good dose of romantic sentimentality with comedic moments popping up throughout. 

There are peppy folk-rock numbers in the show but overall, the score is ballad-heavy. The Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly” plus others like “If You Want Me,” “Leaving,” “Say It to Me Now,” “Gold,” “Sleeping” and “When Your Mind is Made Up” are quite enjoyable in their tenderness. Generally, the melodies are sweet and the lyrics are quite touching in support of a sweet and touching story.

Guy, a contemporary Dublin street musician (played wonderfully by Gregory Maheu) is ready to throw in the towel on his music as the songs he wrote were directed towards a girlfriend who left him to move to New York.  The reason for the breakup is never divulged, but he continues to brood about it.

He encounters a Czech immigrant, referred to as Girl (played expertly by Malinda Kathleen Reese) who heard his guitar playing and singing and immediately becomes curious about him.  If that chance meeting wasn’t enough of a coincidence, you have the fact that Guy’s day job is a Hoover vacuum cleaner repairman and Girl’s Hoover that “doesn’t suck” is in need of repair.

Guy creates a barrier whereby Girl doesn’t get too close. But they open up to each other as the budding friendship ensues. She recognizes the beauty and scope of his talent and encourages him to not let his recent breakup prevent him from realizing his true potential.

Girl ultimately convinces Guy to share his music and she gets behind the piano.  It is clear both have musical gifts and they make each other’s music better.

She implores Guy to keep writing his music, make an album and go to America to win back his ex-girlfriend and return to his original love. It is during their quest to finish this album that Girl and Guy become closer and begin to fall in love with each other. However, Girl’s estranged husband wants to reconcile, and out of duty towards her young daughter, she wants to give it a chance.

Gregory Maheu as Guy and the ensemble of Once
As the guitar-playing musical talent Guy, sturdy and handsome Gregory Maheu is commanding and graceful on stage and portrays the brooding young man effectively while maintaining an Irish accent throughout.  Mr. Maheu’s guitar-playing abilities and baritone vocals are impressive and strong and are showcased in such songs as “Leaving,” “Say It to Me Now” and “Gold.”

His lines are perfect set-ups for the more comedic Girl character in the person of Malinda Kathleen Reese. With a Czech accent in tow, she is a loveable forceful firecracker but exhibits a vulnerability and resists the temptation to fall physically for Guy. Ms. Reese’s comic timing is spot-on in many exchanges, and her vocal prowess is on display in the duet with Mr. Maheu in “Falling Slowly.” The onstage chemistry between the two leads is outstanding as is the hilarious repartee. These are key factors in the production’s success.

They receive solid support from other performers, such as Dave Stishan as Billy who provides a comedic turn as well as Emily Mikesell as Baruska who is Girl’s mother, and Nick DePinto as Bank Manager.

Rounding out the talented cast are John Sygar as Adrej, Carlos Castillo as Švec, Katie Chambers as Ex-Girlfriend, Craig MacDonald as Da who is Guy’s father and owns the vacuum repair shop, Daven Ralston as Réza, and Brian Reisman as Eamon.  Girl’s daughter, Ivanka, is played in-rotation by Kyleigh Fuller and Somaya Litmon.

Scenic Designer Michael Schweikardt’s set, while not elaborate, is artistic and functional. The backdrop is abstract and aesthetically pleasing. A couple of lamp posts are shown to denote the street scene and chairs are off to the sides from where the musicians play.  Several large set pieces like a piano, a bed and a large wooden bar are used with the latter two being elevated from under the stage.

This setting is amplified by the warm glow from Colin K. Bills’ lighting and the exceptional sound designed by Matt Rowe. Frank Labovitz attired the cast neatly in costumes that are emblematic of  the working class neighborhood of Dublin.

Once is a different type of musical from what we’re accustomed and is highly recommended. It features a tender romantic story of looking back at what has been, how to bounce back from despair and to try anew while beautiful songs fill the theater.

Not splashy and bold as many musicals are, but Once is a performance-driven production executed by a wonderfully talented cast, a skilled technical crew, and helmed so ably by a total pro. The issue is you may not want to see the show just once.

Running time. Two hours with an intermission.

Advisory: Once contains profanity and is not suitable for young children.

Once runs through March 10 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

Photos: Stan Barouh

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Curtain Up! Light the Lights! Gypsy Comes Up Roses at Toby’s

Cathy Mundy belting out "Everything's Coming
Up Roses"

Oh, how I well remember vaudeville back in the 1920’s! Those singers, dancers, magicians, comedians, minstrels, trained animals, male and female impersonators—you name it.  I had so much fun.

With the iconic musical Gypsy, now playing at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, I can relive those memories of vaudeville with its eventual decline and the rise of burlesque. The Toby’s production of this sterling musical under the co-direction of Helen Hayes Award winners Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick will provide even better memories.  #hocoarts 

Gypsy is a 1959 musical with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim making his Broadway debut, and a book by Arthur Laurents. It is loosely based on the 1957 memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous striptease artist, her sister June who ultimately became the actress June Havoc and her mother, Rose, who is the focus.

Its songs are phenomenal with many becoming standards, such as “Let Me Entertain You,” “Some People,” “Small World,” “You’ll Never Get Away From Me,” “Together Wherever We Go,” “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” “Rose’s Turn,” and my favorite “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

The original Broadway production received eight Tony Award nominations in 1960 yet failed to cash in on the big prize. However, subsequent revivals did capture Tony’s in 1975, 1990 and 2008.

On top of the skilled musical performances and proficient acting in the Toby’s production of Gypsy you can add in the brilliantly colorful and varied costumes designed by Janine Sunday, the meticulous choreography by Mark Minnick, the solid music direction by Ross Scott Rawlings and the six-piece orchestra, the perfectly balanced sound design by Mark Smedley, and the creative lighting designed by Lynn Joslin. The overall staging of this production is excellent with numerous set pieces moving smoothly on and off the in-the-round stage with precision.

MaryKate Brouillet soars as Louise
Toby’s features an accomplished cast who demonstrate skill, poise, energy and loads of talent. And among them is a bona fide star, Cathy Mundy, playing the lead role of Rose, an archetypical aggressive and brash stage mother.

The story centers on thrice-married Rose pushing her two daughters, June and Louise, at all costs to perform on stage and become stars.  Rose, whose parents as well as her previous husbands had left her, lives vicariously through her daughters and is like a wrecking ball in dealing with promoters, agents and other performers during the declining years of vaudeville.

Baby June is the chosen one to become the star. Onstage she is a precocious blonde cutie-pie while her older sister Louise is shyer and more subdued as she takes the back seat to June. When they get a little older they tire of their mother’s hounding as well as show business, and eventually June runs off to marry a young man in one of the acts her mother created.  Despondent over this development, Rose’s only hope for stardom for her children remains with Louise who can’t see herself as an entertainer.

All the while Rose finds a love interest in Herbie, an agent who has tried to get the acts booked anywhere he can and tries to put up with Rose’s antics.

In a fortuitous development Rose pushes Louise to fill in as a striptease performer in a Wichita burlesque house after one of the strippers was arrested.  Under the advice from her co-strippers she finds a gimmick for her act and the rest, they say, is history. Louise transforms into the famous Gypsy Rose Lee and eschews further involvement from her mother. Rose contemplates what all has happened and acknowledges she did this all for herself.

The part of Rose is a demanding one with belt vocals a necessity. It is a strenuous role not only for the singing performances but also for the acting, and she appears onstage in a vast majority of the scenes.  

Some of the previous stars who performed this role on Broadway over the years include Ethel  Merman, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone.  I am not saying that Cathy Mundy is comparable to these Broadway superstars, but she is darn close. Her acting is top-notch; full of passion and conviction and portrays the loud, single-minded stage mother to the hilt.  She is called upon to navigate the complex character of Rose who is forceful and unbridled but at the same time one can detect a vulnerability from lacking something important in her life.

Cathy Mundy as the incomparable Rose
Ms. Mundy’s powerful vocals are also outstanding, especially in the beautiful ballad “Small World” as part of a duet with David Bosley-Reynolds as Herbie and in another duet “You’ll Never Get Away From Me.” She brought the house down with her rendition of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” that concludes the first act. Ms. Mundy also scores high marks in such numbers as “Some People” and in “Rose’s Turn,” an emotional introspection of her life with all the highs and the many lows. 

To their credit, Ms. Orenstein and Mr. Minnick allow Ms. Mundy to unleash the full potency of her character.  In short, if there is no other reason to see this production, see it for the tour de force performance by Ms. Mundy.

Yet, the rest of the talented cast provides additional reasons to see Gypsy at Toby’s. Lovely MaryKate Brouillet soars as Louise in terms of both acting and vocal skills.  Her rendition of “Little Lamb” is touching as she contemplates her being pushed aside by her mother in favor of June and the loneliness she is experiencing on her birthday with her pet lamb. Her “Gypsy Strip Routine” number is also performed well and is a pivotal part of the plot.

Tina Marie DeSimone, Elizabeth Rayca and Heather Beck perform
"You Gotta Get a Gimmick"
As kind hearted and patient Herbie who was poised to marry Rose, David Bosley-Reynolds remains reserved most of the time (especially in comparison to the hyper Rose) but demonstrates his exasperation towards the end as he leaves Rose still seeking a wife in his life. In addition to the aforementioned duets with Ms. Mundy, he also demonstrates his smooth baritone voice in the bouncy “Together Wherever We Go” with Ms. Mundy and Ms. Brouillet.

There isn’t as much dancing in this production as in some other Toby’s offerings, but what is performed is done so very proficiently under the guiding hand of Mark Minnick.  For example, the young children and Baby June morph seamlessly into adolescents as the older dancers replace the young ones in the dance number “Dainty June and Her Farmboys.”

Louisa Tringali, delightfully playing the role of Dainty June, the older version of Baby June, dances skillfully in the group number “Broadway” along with those Farmboys—a group in the act that Rose created. The Farmboys are played enthusiastically by Shiloh Orr, Justin Calhoun, AJ Whittenberger and James Mernin.

In one of the show’s highlights for me is Shiloh Orr’s showcasing his dancing skills in “All I Need is the Girl” whereby as the character Tulsa he informs Louise of his plan to break away from the Farmboys and form his own dance act.  In this number Orr sings and gracefully glides around the stage while holding a broom employing various dance techniques and steps with an emphasis on tap. It’s a nice demonstration of artistry.
Louisa Tringali and her "boys"--Shiloh Orr, James Mernin,
AJ Whittenberger and Justin Calhoun
Another outstanding scene involves Louise getting advice from three veteran strippers in the song “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” Tina Marie DeSimone, Elizabeth Rayce and an “electric” Heather Beck elicit a huge ovation with tons of laughs during this number.

Other cast members who perform notably include Jeffrey Shankle, Russell Sunday, Robert Biedermann, David James, Coby Kay Callahan, Maggie Dransfield, Amanda Kaplan and Santina Maiolatesi. Oh, and a bark-out to Dudley Foley, a pooch who appears in the early part of the show.

As far as the young children in the cast are concerned, on the evening this performance was reviewed, Nina Brothers as Baby June and Maddie Ellinghaus as Baby Louise performed admirably as did the child’s ensemble consisting of Cooper Trump, Jackson Smith, Hannah Dash.

Gypsy is a must-see show, which offers the complete package: a wonderful score and lyrics and a compelling dramatic storyline with an infusion of comedy that weaves in the music to form a gorgeous tapestry of entertainment.  A talented cast and crew do justice to this iconic musical and you will enjoy Toby’s famously delicious buffet as well.

Toby’s superb production of Gypsy will most certainly entertain you and you’ll have a real good time.

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

Gypsy runs through March 17 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 .

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography