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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Friday, February 14, 2020

'Wicked' at the Hippodrome Will Leave You Spellbound

Talia Suskauer and Allison Bailey

Hello, you munchkins out there. Do I have news for you! One of the most endearing and enduring Broadway musicals of all time, the touring production of Wicked, is making its fourth stop at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre. And just like the previous iterations, this production is as enchanting as ever. #hocoarts

Scored by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman, Wicked is based on the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, itself a retelling of the classic 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and the iconic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Who hasn’t seen at least once The Wizard of Oz?

Wicked, which opened on Broadway in 2003, captured three Tony Awards and a host of other accolades.  The prevailing color throughout is green. You see it in the lighting, the costumes, the skin color of a main character, the color of a potion that created the skin color, the Emerald City, even envy.

And speaking of green, Wicked is the second highest grossing Broadway musical of all time trailing only The Lion King. Why? Because both musicals offer high quality entertainment and appeal to children as well as adults thus broadening the audience.

Talia Suskauer in "Defying Gravity"
Multiple Tony Award winner Joe Mantello helms a sterling spectacle at the Hippodrome presenting optimal stage magic and effects that when combined with a talented cast and great music, it results in a captivating, one could say a jaw-dropping, theatrical experience.

Under the musical direction of Conductor Evan Roider, the orchestration is wonderful and well-balanced. The wizardry on the stage is highlighted by the signature production number “Defying Gravity” that brings down the curtain (and the house) at the end of the first act. It is worth the price of admission just to see that performed.

The story of Wicked takes place prior to Baum’s novel and before the fictional Dorothy was even alive. In an unusually plot-heavy musical, there are so many twists and turns one might get whiplash. Nonetheless, the story is easy to follow despite the rapid pace of the action particularly in the second act.

It tells of two young girls from the Land of Oz in which one was born with green skin named Elphaba who is played exceptionally by Talia Suskauer. The other, Galinda, who changes her name later to Glinda, played by Allison Bailey, simply radiates beauty. They cross paths in school but to say their relationship was complicated is an understatement.

Possessing disparate appearances, outlooks and personalities, the two begin as rivals then end up as close friends. Their evolution includes a rivalry over their common love-interest, Fiyero, played effectively by Curt Hansen as well as their reactions to the corruption of the Wizard’s government.

Allison Bailey and Talia Suskauer 
The contrasts between Elphaba and Glinda couldn’t be starker. Elphaba was smart, intense, an advocate for animals and possessed the skills of magic though limited in that capacity.  Glinda was bubbly, pretentious, gorgeous, self-centered and manipulative. Where Elphaba’s green skin that was caused by a potion given to her mother by the mother’s lover caused her to be basically rejected by her non-biological father and ostracized at school, Glinda was extremely popular, and she had no trouble reminding people of that.    

Friendship and trust are the underlying themes as well as prejudice and tolerance. Government corruption also plays a role in the story. And what may appear wicked or good to some may actually be the reverse. As the saying goes, never judge a book by its cover. The story makes you think as well as being entertained. If you haven’t seen Wicked before, you’re in for a treat. If you have, the magic will continue.

Talia Suskauer as Elphaba is simply outstanding. Who among us haven’t felt they were the underdog at some point? We can certainly relate to Elphaba to a degree, and Ms. Suskauer’s  acting skills draw empathy from the audience.

But her Mezzo-Soprano vocals are undoubtedly Broadway caliber.  She shines in every song she participates in, notably “The Wizard and I,” a duet with Sharon Sachs playing the role of Madame Morrible; “I’m Not That Girl;” “As Long As You’re Mine,” a sensational duet with Curt Hansen; and a bona fide showstopper, “No Good Deed,” a brilliant solo that evoked a thunderous ovation from the appreciative audience the evening this performance was reviewed.

Stunningly beautiful Allison Bailey effectively conveys the complex personality of Galinda/Glinda. Ditzy when she wants to be, smart when she needs to be, Ms. Bailey portrays the character with relish.  Her beautiful Soprano voice is on display in “Popular,” the reprise of “I’m Not That Girl” and in the emotionally charged duet with Ms. Suskauer “For Good.”

My only quibble has to do with the sound design. It wasn’t clear if Ms. Bailey’s mic wasn’t turned up sufficiently or if she needed to project more especially during dialogues in the first act.  Whatever the cause, hopefully some sound adjustment will take place in subsequent performances.

Curt Hansen as Fiyero
Having appeared in the Broadway production of Wicked, Curt Hansen is quite familiar with the part of Fiyero, another complex character. He plays the role of the handsome common love-interest of Elphaba and Glinda with verve and enthusiasm. Mr. Hansen showcases his potent tenor voice in the duet with Ms. Suskauer “As Long As You’re Mine.”

Other fine performances are turned in by Cleavant Derricks as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; Amanda Fallon Smith as Nessarose; Elphaba’s younger sister born paralyzed from the waist down and who was her father’s clear favorite; the aforementioned Sharon Sachs as Madame Morrible, Tom Flynn as Doctor Dillamond, the fatherly professor-goat who could speak but was silenced by the powers that be; and DJ Plunkett as the munchkin Boq who as of this writing, is still looking for love.

The leads are supported by an energetic ensemble that performs proficiently to the choreography of James Lynn Abbott.

Kenneth Posner’s lighting design is beyond superb in its creativity and execution. Susan Hilferty’s costume design is so imaginative and eclectic it is indescribable.

The set designed by Eugene Lee while aesthetically appealing, could be confusing. The prevailing background theme is a Time Dragon Clock from the book. If you didn’t read the novel (I didn’t), you would not understand its significance. However, other scenery has more clarity and the one depicting the crashed house form the tornado with the cornfield in the background (pictured) is gorgeous.

Wicked is an entertainment bonanza with interesting characters, eye-pleasing staging, a lush score and sterling performers. Parents should be eager to bring their children if for nothing else, there is good messaging within the plot with lessons to be learned. It is highly recommended.

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

Wicked runs through March 8 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit here or here , call 800-982-ARTS, or visit the Hippodrome Box Office located at 12 N Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.

Photos: Joan Marcus

Friday, February 07, 2020

New LGBTQ-Friendly Establishment Opens in Mount Vernon

The Manor now occupies the former Brass Elephant building

When owners Joshua Persing and Robert Gay announced  in October 2017 the closing of the G•A•Y Lounge that had been in operation for six months in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood until a dispute with the building’s owner forced it to close, they vowed to open up a new establishment in the near future.

“While today we announce that we are closing our doors, we also make a promise for the future – This is not the end,” the owners said in a statement then. “We want you to know that we have every intention of coming back, and coming back better than before. When the time is right and the cards fall back into place, we plan to recreate this dream of ours and rekindle the spark that ignited so quickly here in a small corner bar in Mount Vernon.”

They have made good on that promise.

The Manor Restaurant and Ultralounge, located at 924 North Charles Street, opened its doors on February 6 to a large crowd of patrons eager for a new option in the neighborhood. The multi-level building, which had been previously renovated by the owners of The Elephant—a restaurant that succeeded the long-standing prestigious Brass Elephant—had added a few delightful extra touches by Persing and Gay.

Low level lighting, a marble upstairs bar (bars on both levels), crystal chandeliers and freshly cut flowers amplify the chic d├ęcor throughout the 10,000-square-foot historic building. A variety of small lounges with sofas are featured as well, which contribute to a romantic atmosphere. 

The Manor is seeking to carve out its own niche. According to its Facebook page, “The Manor is bringing Mount Vernon an eclectic venue on the cutting edge of style - featuring a vast selection of worldly cuisine, EDM and house music, weekend entertainment & Baltimore’s best drag brunch.”

The owners’ goal with the G•A•Y Lounge was to market to a gay clientele given the closing of the Club Hippo. However, the outreach of The Manor will be broader.

“We are not going to be gay-centric, but we are going to be gay friendly,” Persing told the Baltimore Fishbowl. “We’re trying to give a home to those people who enjoyed our last bar and restaurant in Mount Vernon as well as provide a home to everyone in the community.”

Persing had told the Baltimore Fishbowl  that The Manor will be different from his last venture and will take advantage of the building’s history and grandeur. He said the business is named The Manor because 924 N. Charles St., started out as a “manor house” in the 1800s.

The reviews thus far have been very positive. 

“The attention to detail is second to none. The food and drink were spectacular. I can’t wait to go back,” posted one individual to The Manor’s Facebook page.

“A must go to for a chic fun night out! Exactly what Baltimore was missing,” posted another.

And this one: “Most likely the most beautiful restaurant in all of Baltimore. The staff, the food, the ambiance, the decor is simply fascinating!! The cocktails are made to perfection. Parking is available. This is first class at its best. Hands down, a must go to whether a local or tourist, you must go!!!!”

For more information, visit The Manor’s website  or call 443-835-1526.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

The Debasement of a Medal

Melania Trump places medal around the neck of Rush Limbaugh
Photo: LGBTQ Nation

It is obvious Donald Trump is profoundly ignorant of the significance of sacred medals. Back in 2016 while running for president, after a soldier received the Purple Heart, he commented that he always wanted one as if it were a souvenir.  This comes from a five-time draft dodger feigning bone spurs that kept him out of combat where such a medal could have been issued to him upon injury. Dumb as that comment was, how any veteran or service member would have voted for him is beyond me. Alas, he became the Commander-in-Chief.

At Tuesday night’s heavily divisive State of the Union address, Trump pulled one of his reality TV stunts and announced the awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest award to be bestowed to a civilian—to none other than  right-wing talk-show flamethrower Rush Limbaugh in the middle of the speech. Trump praised Limbaugh for “decades of tireless devotion to our country.”

He asked the First Lady place the medal around “shocked” Limbaugh’s neck in the gallery of the House of Representatives to the howls and cheers of Republican lawmakers in the chamber and millions more at home. Limbaugh had announced the previous day that he has been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom as described in the executive order that created it is for “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” 

Recipients over the years have included the likes of Rosa Parks, Harvey Milk, Walt Disney, Jackie Robinson, Elvis Presley, Jonas Salk, Loretta Lynn and Walter Cronkite, to name a few. A wider list is shown here.

Overwhelmingly, the previous recipients’ records of accomplishments did not include dividing Americans against one another.  For Limbaugh to receive such a weighty award given that he has made a potent living condemning minorities and marginalized populations is an utter disgrace and a debasement of the honor the medal represents.

Says Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, Limbaugh spent a “lifetime of racism, homophobia and misogyny.”

Over the course of decades, Limbaugh has had a field day deriding the LGBTQ community and those with HIV/AIDS. In 1989, he said that the best way to stop HIV was “do not ask another man to bend over and make love at the exit point. That’s what you don’t do.”

During the 1990’s he advocated against funding to fight the AIDS epidemic. Writes Alex Bollinger on LGBTQNation.com, “Limbaugh referred to the disease as ‘the only federally-protected virus.’ He denounced spending money on ‘education, and condoms, and cucumbers and all that’ because there was no ‘evidence that [HIV] was spreading to the heterosexual community, not sexually anyway.’”

In the 2000’s Limbaugh turned his ire on marriage equality.
Bollinger quotes Limbaugh:

“They seek to impose their perverted views, their depraved views on family and marriage,” he said, talking about marriage equality activists in 2010. “Marriage is a union of a man and a woman… This is about destroying an institution.”

He later said “we lost” the issue when the word marriage was “bastardized and redefined by simply adding words to it” like “gay marriage” or “straight marriage.”

“We allowed the argument to be made that the definition needed to change, on the basis that we’re dealing with something discriminatory, bigoted, and all of these mystical things that it’s not and never has been,” he said in 2013.

Limbaugh didn’t just oppose LGBTQ equality – he actually believed that gay people were out to get straight people.

Says Bollinger, Limbaugh “claimed in 2014, before marriage equality was even a reality in all of the U.S., that straight people were the real marginalized group: “They’re under assault. You say, ‘Heterosexuality may be 95, 98 percent of the population.’ They’re under assault by the two to five percent that are homosexual.”

He also said that there was a “movement on to normalize pedophilia” that was related to the movement for marriage equality. “The same things that were said about gay marriage,” he said in 2013, implying that there was a comparison between child molestation and two consenting adults of the same sex getting married.

Adds Bollinger, “Limbaugh is also well known for his demeaning comments about Black people – from calling former President Barack Obama ‘Barack the Magic Negro’ to saying that the NBA was filled with “thugs” like “the Crips and the Bloods” to literally calling Michelle Obama “uppity” – and women – like when he called then 12-year-old Chelsea Clinton a ‘dog’ and when he repeatedly attacked Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke as a ‘slut’ because she used birth control – as well as other groups – like when he made fun of Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s Disease, for shaking.

This is who President Trump deems to be a person worthy of this honor for “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” 

Placing a hateful, divisive person as Rush Limbaugh alongside the extraordinary Americans who were trailblazers, heroes and devoted a lifetime of work for the better good who had previously received this honor, it debases the medal pure and simple.