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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.