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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

'Tootsie' Rolls Into the Hippodrome with Laughs Galore


I
t’s a good bet that you have already seen the 1982 Oscar winning film Tootsie starring Dustin Hoffman in the theater or on cable. After all, it grossed north of $177 million and that is when the prices of movie tickets were still in the single digits.

Well, like so many instances in recent years, a musical was created based on a film, and Tootsie, originally appearing in Chicago, made it to Broadway in 2019 and captured two Tony Awards among its 11 nominations for its efforts. Tootsie is not just a musical; it is a comedy musical with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and a book by Robert Horn, God bless him!  The lyrics are punchy and clever, but I find the music with the exception of a few of songs is not all that memorable. Denis Jones’ choreography, though, is memorable and impeccable.177 million and that is when the prices of movie tickets were still in the single digits.

Now on tour, Tootsie has made its way to Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theater for a brief time, and like the movie it is pure joy. While the contours of the plot remain intact with some characters added and subtracted and the show within the show has changed from a soap opera to a musical, the stage version is more hilarious.

The satirizing of musical theatre is evident throughout Tootsie. You know that when the opening number on the song list is called “Opening Number” you’re in for a funny ride. Laughter is guaranteed with almost every character contributing; you will need to pace yourself as the comedy is constant and unrelenting.

The most significant difference with this musical is that the lead character, unlike the film, must sing as well as act. Drew Becker, playing the dual roles of Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels, is magnificent on many levels and hits the grueling challenge of playing both roles out of the park.  

As a refresher if you had seen the film version and if not, here is what happens. Michael Dorsey is a talented actor who has struggled getting parts because of self-inflicted wounds derived from his arrogant personality and temper tantrums that render him radioactive to producers, directors, other performers and agents alike.

At an audition for a musical “Juliet’s Curse,” that was subsequently changed to “Juliet’s Nurse” – a sure-fire flop and the sequel to "Romeo and Juliet"—prior to its mounting on Broadway, Michael observes a string of women being turned down for the role of Nurse. He gets an idea that if he dresses like a woman named Dorothy Michaels, the baggage stemming from his volatile reputation would not be known and his talent alone can land him the role.

Disguised as a woman, Dorothy convinces the producer at the audition that she is right for the role and gets the part. Along the way, Dorothy befriends her co-star who becomes Michael’s romantic interest only to hurt her, sets aside his anxious ex-girlfriend Sandy, baffles his roommate Jeff and creates havoc during this impersonation.

Dorothy (remember it is Michael in disguise) tries to stand up to the sexism that is often displayed on the set. As an example, the director condescendingly uses cringe-worthy nicknames, such as “honey,” “precious” and yes, “tootsie.” Dorothy reminds him that she has a name and spells that out. And there are arguments made concerning the inequality of pay experienced by women. Moreover, acknowledging gender fluididity, a point is made by the director that people are free to be whoever they want.

Unfortunately, the male characters are the ones speaking about feminism with the female characters not given the chance to decry sexism, and there is a degree of using for comedic effect the possibility that one of the characters may be lesbian —notions I find problematic in the book.

As previously mentioned, Drew Becker shines in the dual roles. So convincing is he that I truly believed his Act One rendition of “I Won’t Let You Down” as Dorothy, one of the show’s best numbers, was actually sung by a woman. His ability to hit the high register with such clarity and consistency is truly amazing. As Michael, Mr. Becker displays a pitch perfect tenor voice in “Whaddya Do” for example. His performance with the Ensemble in the production number “Unstoppable” that concludes the first act is a show stopper.

Onstage for virtually the entire show, Mr. Becker is fluid in changing from one character to another often in frenetic moments. Yet, it his ability to work so proficiently with other cast members in the many comedic spots that add more luster to his performance.   

For instance, the chemistry and repartee between Michael/Dorothy and his roommate Jeff Slater, a struggling writer, could be the makings of a sitcom. Jared David Michael Grant plays that role with unbridled enthusiasm and is a natural scene stealer. Incredibly funny facial expressions and voice inflections in addition to his precise comedic timing make Mr. Grant a standout. The duet with Michael, “Jeff Sums It Up” is truly hilarious.

 “Juliet’s Nurse’s” star Julie Nichols is one of the few relatively non-comedic roles. Ashley Alexandra displays her vocal and acting skills with sensitivity in portraying the character. She becomes the love interest of Michael/Dorothy. A somewhat lonely soul at the crossroads of her life, Julie finds that Dorothy fills a void she has been missing only to learn of the deception and betrayal at the hands of Dorothy.  Ms. Alexandra has a lovely soprano voice, which becomes apparent when she performs “Who Are You.”

Payton Reilly as Sandy Lester, an actress who failed to land the role in “Juliet’s Curse,” is another comic standout.  The ex-girlfriend of Michael, Sandy is neurotic and self-pitying and pessimistic about any outcome. Her big and only number is “What’s Gonna Happen,” which lampoons her being overemotional, is so big that it is reprised two more times. It may seem like overkill but it is placed at the right moments.

"...the comedy is constant and unrelenting "

Then there is dimwit reality star winner of “Race to Bachelor Island” Max Van Horn who is cast as Romeo’s brother in “Juliet’s Nurse.” played perfectly by Lukas James Miller, Max has two propensities: he butchers words and exposes his well-muscled upper torso. Instead of saying Romeo, he says Rome-O. Instead of a plague on both your houses, he says plaque. That gives you an idea.

He is a purely comical character with his superficiality and goofy conceit, and Mr. Miller plays it supremely. He can sing too. His performance of the ballad “This Thing” where he proclaims his love for Dorothy by displaying a tattoo of her face on his chest showcases a smooth tenor voice.

Adam Du Plessis is uproariously funny as the director and choreographer of “Juliet’s Nurse” Ron Carlisle. The character is arrogant and irritating for sure but his performance in the production number “I’m Alive” as choreographer is one of the show’s highlights.

Excellent performances are turned in by Steve Brustien as the gruff and impatient agent Stan Fields and Kathy Halenda as Rita Marshall, the producer of “Juliet’s Nurse” who was from the outset impressed by Dorothy’s talent. Ms. Halenda performs well in the production number “The Most Important Night Of My Life.”

The Ensemble is also wonderful with their smooth precise dancing and backing the leads with fine singing throughout.

Christine Peters designed the functional set that include large blocks that slide out along the stage and unfold to reveal the various scenes. The smooth transition of the scenes makes for superb staging of the production.

Costume Designer William Ivey Long did a fine job with the contemporary garb as well as the Renaissance attire for the performers in "Juliet's Nurse." Also, the costumes for the Ensemble look great.

Lighting Designer Donald Holder illuminated the stage with colorful combinations that enhance the quality of the production. While Brian Ronan’s sound design was fine in most cases, the mic’s seem to have a bit of an issue in the second act where the orchestration overwhelmed the singers in spots. Hopefully, that will be remedied.

We can all use a good laugh, and with a strikingly talented cast, Tootsie at the Hippodrome delivers in a big way. Note the theater is not responsible if you pull something while laughing. Hurry and order tickets. 

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

Advisory: The show contains profanity and is not recommended for young children.

TOOTSIE runs through December 5 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit Ticketmaster.

Photo Credit: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Below is a video that provides a flavor of the show.


Monday, November 29, 2021

An Electric 'Hedwig' Rocks Olney

Mason Alexander Park stars as Hedwig
From the moment Hedwig ran down the aisle from the rear of the theater to the stage clad in black knee-high boots and stockings, black fishnet hose with runs in them, tight denim (very) shorts, elbow length red leather gloves, a glittery top, abundant makeup and a huge blond wig after initially being concealed by a silver box, rocking to the explosive song, “Tear Me Down,” I knew that I would be in for quite a ride. And based on the opening night audience’s raucous reaction, they realized it, too.

The Olney Theatre Center’s presentation of Hedwig and the Angry Inch showcases all the elements of solid musical theatre and does so with jaw-dropping magnificence. The glam rock musical, a winner of four Tony Awards in 2016 with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask and a book by John Cameron Mitchell whose own lived experiences inspired much of the story, is a display of a wide spectrum of emotions, high energy, great songs and exceptional talent. The show is a rock concert, comedy, drag show, confessional and revival all rolled into one. The music was influenced by the likes of Iggy Pop, Sex Pistols and David Bowie.

A riveting tragicomic story line brought to life by the outstanding score and a tour de force performance by standout Mason Alexander Park, a non-binary actor and a Helen Hayes Award winner from the role they played as the Emcee in Olney’s production of Cabaret in 2019, Hedwig delivers big time. This should be no surprise as Director Johanna Mckeon had helmed the national touring production of Hedwig and Park had also played the role on tour. Experience counts.

We learn through monologues and songs the central character was born male, Hansel Schmidt, in Communist East Berlin. As a condition for marrying his GI boyfriend to ultimately flee the Iron Curtain, Hansel undergoes gender reassignment surgery to join him in America. The operation, sadly, is botched, and the renamed Hedwig is left with an “angry inch” of flesh between her legs. Her husband eventually leaves her and she winds up in a Kansas trailer park penniless.

Hedwig pursues her dream as a rock star and eventually bonds with band mate Tommy Gnosis. He, too, betrays her and runs off with the songs they had collaborated on, and he goes on to become a bigger name, a bigger star, much to Hedwig’s chagrin. She tries to persevere despite the obstacles that had been thrown her way. The climactic ending is theatre at its best.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is mounted at the Olney Center’s 1938 Original Theater. With a creative set designed by Jacob A. Climer (who also designed the punk-like costumes), Hedwig’s rock’s identity is portrayed in a locale to simulate a club with all its grunginess and idiosyncrasies and an onstage four-piece, two singer band, “The Angry Inch” that is perennially moving from one rundown venue to another.  

The set features a hodgepodge of odd objects like a bunch of desk lamps, plastic Christmas figurines, statuettes, wigs, trunks, speakers and even a Menorah to signal the beginning of Chanukah.  There’s a loosely hung curtain with the show title on it, and behind it a projection screen that is used throughout each song under the projection design by Patrick Lord and the spectacular lighting design by Max Doolittle (whose name strikes me as an oxymoron) including strobe lighting, spotlights and stage fog replicating the intense atmosphere of a rock concert.

With that backdrop Park as Hedwig takes over. Moving about the stage from one corner to another, laying on the floor, sitting on a speaker, belting out the songs, Park tells the story.

"Charismatic and ubertalented, Park alone could bring the house down."

Hedwig banters with the audience, offers jokes with some of them improvised and confesses her tragedies with a chip on her shoulder and revenge on her mind. As she moves to the side of the theater to open a door, we hear the sound of Tommy’s concert in a nearby venue. The music and fog drifting in the theater from that concert with Tommy’s voice speaking the usual clich├ęs to his audience angers Hedwig more, and rightfully so. Kudos goes to Sound Designer Matt Rowe for that effect.

The infusion of local connections is an amusing touch as that concert where Tommy is performing, says Hedwig, happens to be at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in nearby Columbia. Md. And contemporary subjects are brought into the show like a reference to the Proud Boys.

As compelling and entertaining those monologues are, the performances of the songs alone are worth the price of admission. Park has an outstanding tenor voice and can belt out the rock songs with vigor and clarity and can effectively emote Hedwig’s plight in the softer numbers.

“Tear Me Down,” “The Origin of Love,” “Sugar Daddy,” ‘Angry Inch,” “Wig in a Box,” “Wicked Little Town,” “The Long Grift,” “Hedwig’s Lament,” “Exquisite Corpse” and “Midnight Radio” all tell Hedwig’s story.

Some of these numbers feature the singing of Helen Hayes Award nominated Chani Wereley. She plays Hedwig’s current husband and back-up singer in the band, Yitzhak, a Jewish drag queen from Croatia.  He is embittered by often being on the receiving end of verbal abuse by Hedwig.   

Ms. Werely’s vocal range is astounding by demonstrating her mezzo-soprano voice in singing a bit of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and showing off a deep, gruff masculine when speaking.

The other Angry Inch band members onstage who do an excellent job with the punk rock music are Manny Arciniega, Jaime Ibacache, Jason Wilson and Helen Hayes Award winning Music Director Christopher Youstra who I suspect was once a headbanger back in the day.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch breaks ground with a genderqueer central character but the story effectively focuses on Hedwig’s journey to find her other half, her soul mate. Hedwig’s life has been scarred not only by the surgical mishap but by the men she encountered along the way: her father who abandoned her, the GI who dumped her for another man, the former collaborator Tommy who stole her music and left her in the ashes.

All that is history, traumatic as it may be.  But to be accepted by others and to find that other half, she must first learn to accept herself. That is her task, and we all see ourselves rooting for her because in some fashion we all must accept ourselves.

Mason Alexander Park turns in an utterly brilliant performance as Hedwig with their singing prowess, spot-on comedic timing and acting skills. Charismatic and ubertalented, Park alone could bring the house down.  Under the show’s expert direction, and the talents from the rest of the cast and musicians as well as the superb technical crew this astounding electric production soars to great heights and should not be missed.

Running time. One hour and 35 minutes with no intermission.

Advisory: The show contains profanity, sexual situations, partial nudity and references to drugs and is not suitable for young children.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs through January 2, 2022 at the1938 Original Theater of the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting here.



Mason Alexander Park as Hedwig and Chani Wereley as
as Yitzhak rocking out a number

Photos: Stan Barough

Friday, November 12, 2021

Toby’s ‘White Christmas’ Returns to the Good Ole Days

With troubled times like these, no one could be blamed for longing for a simpler, genteel era. This welcome diversion can be currently found at Toby’s Dinner Theatre with its completely entertaining mounting of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.

Under the precise direction of Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick, stunning choreography by Christen Svingos, able musical direction by Ross Scott Rawlings, a lovely and familiar score, an abundantly talented cast and great visuals, this production of White Christmas  is a dazzling nostalgic escape to the good ole days.

The musical stage production is based on the 1954 movie of the same title that starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as well as Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. The popular music and straight-forward lyrics were composed by Irving Berlin with the book penned by David Ives and Paul Blake. 

White Christmas has been both praised and criticized for its simplicity. But I like simple as long as there is talent, and Toby’s production has that. To be sure, there are a few slow spots during the show, but that is overcome readily by the performances.

Mounting any musical on the tight stage of Toby’s and in the round no less is a daunting challenge. But just like so many other musicals in Toby’s long and distinguished history, this production of White Christmas meets that bar and then some.

The staging is magnificent, efficiently using all levels and floor space. By dint of the creative and functional scenic design by David A. Hopkins and the gorgeous lighting design by Lynn Joslin, the show plays large and makes the viewing that much more pleasurable.

Though set in the 1950’s the music and choreography seem timeless and upbeat. It didn’t hurt that the first number was that Christmastime standard “Happy Holiday”—popularized by Bing Crosby and Andy Williams—that has you humming from the get-go.

The show opens up, however, not in the 1950’s but 1944 where Bob Wallace and Phil Davis (played by Toby’s dynamic duo of Jeffrey Shankle and David James, respectively), then two GI’s, were singing and dancing to cheer up the troops stuck in war-shattered Europe on Christmas Eve. It is here the title song “White Christmas” first appears in the show.

The next scene takes place 10 years later at the Ed Sullivan Show where the fellas continued what appeared to be a successful song and dance act and perform “Happy Holiday/Let Yourself Go,” which features solid choreography.

From there the guys—skirt-chasing Phil and his more cautious buddy Bob—pursue the Haynes sisters, another singing duo. Judy Haynes, played by Alicia Osborn, and Phil hit it off early on despite Phil’s wandering eyes. Betty Haines (Janine Sunday) and Bob struggle to connect.

They travel by train to the Columbia Inn in Vermont owned by the guys’ former Army commander who has fallen on bad luck, General Henry Waverly (played by Robert Biedermann).  The gals were on their way to perform in a Christmas show. Bob thought they were heading to Miami resulting in some funny moments.

We’ll leave it there as the familiar 1954-type theme boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back provides one of the key threads in the show’s plot as does the ensuing zaniness. Also, how the General’s old troops helped save the day provides the show with an emotional uplift.

"a snow globe filled with artistry" 

Popular standards, such as “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” “I Love a Piano” and “How Deep is the Ocean” are filled with joy and nostalgia. The Finale had the entire company (and audience) singing “White Christmas.” Then as an encore number, they all perform “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” as snowflakes drifted down from the ceiling. Beautiful.

Jeffrey Shankle as Bob is fabulous as usual. He showcases his brilliant, pitch-perfect tenor voice and solid acting chops, which he carries out with flair. Mr. Shankle is the featured singer in many of the show’s numbers with “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” “Sisters,” “How Deep is the Ocean” and “The Old Man” being highlights. And when he and the superb Ensemble perform “Blue Skies” with its spin moves and kicks to close out the first act, it is a high point in the show.

Another Toby’s veteran is David James reprising his role from 10 years ago. The two-time Helen Hayes winner plays Phil beautifully with fine singing and dancing performances, and he adroitly throws in his well-timed, clever lines. In a duet with Alicia Osborn as Judy in “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” Mr. James shines brightly.

Both Janine Sunday (also reprising her role) and Alicia Osborn as the Haynes sisters are terrific and play off the male leads with precision. As the strong-willed and independent Betty, Ms. Sunday is on top of her game. As the charming and lovely Judy, Ms. Osborn is ideal for the role.

Vocally, one couldn’t ask for better. For instance, Ms. Sunday’s duet with Mr. Shankle in the reprise of “How Deep is the Ocean” is stunning.

Jane C. Boyle, as Martha the inn’s outspoken concierge, is sensational (again). Returning to her role she performed 10 years ago at Toby’s, Ms. Boyle never misses a beat.  Possessing comedic timing and powerful stage presence, Ms. Boyle provides the show an added punch. Her rendition of “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” really hits the mark. It is a pure delight to see Ms. Boyle back on the Toby’s stage.

Another standout is veteran actor Robert Biedermann who plays General Henry Waverly to a tee. Kind and lovable the General had fallen under hard economic times with his inn. Mr. Biedermann conveys this situation movingly so that the audience finds it easy to is root for him.

Then there is young Susie, the General’s devoted granddaughter played on the night this performance was reviewed by Nina Brothers. (Anna Jachero and Ava Rose LaManna play the role in other performances.)

In this performance, Nina sparkled playing the feisty, lovable youngster who had her moment in the spotlight with a gorgeous rendition of the reprise of “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.” The song is intended to convince the Christmas show’s organizers at the inn that she can perform.

Other notable performances are turned in by DeCarlo Raspberry as the boisterous and spirited TV Announcer and Christmas Show Director; and Justin Calhoun as Ralph Sheldrake, the former Army buddy of Bob and Phil and now executive fresh off his leading role in Godspell.

Rounding out the talented, up-tempo cast and Ensemble are: Patricia Targete, Alexis Krey, Amanda Kaplan, Rachel Kemp Whittenberger, Shawn Kettring, Brook Urquhart, Quadry Brown, Brandon Bedore, Amanda Kaplan, and last but definitely not least AJ Whittenberger.

Music Director Ross Scott Rawlings as well as the accomplished six-piece orchestra brought life to Berlin’s magical score. (Nathan Scavilla assumes the role at other performances.)

The Ensemble hoofed it up skillfully with lots of energy and graceful movement to the tuneful songs. Credit Choreographer Christen Svingos for effectively designing the playbook, allowing the dancers to show off their talents on a tight stage.

“Happy Holiday/Let Yourself Go” featuring Mr. Shankle, Mr. James and the Ensemble is a treat. Mr. James and Ms. Osborn are graceful in the lovely number with the fitting title, “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing.” But the show stopper is the rousing second act opener “I Love a Piano” that features a scintillating display of tap dancing talent by the Ensemble, reflecting extraordinary choreography by Ms. Svingos.  

As mentioned previously, Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins employs clever scenery and set pieces to add heft to the production. Such varied scenes include the inn, a train ride, a ballroom, a TV studio among others. The best is the lobby of the inn with a front desk, a neatly decorated staircase leading to the inn’s rooms, and an A-frame ceiling that helps provide that traditional inn look.

In addition to her leading role in the show, Janine Sunday is also the Costume Designer. With well over a hundred pieces of wardrobe employed that ranged from period formal gowns to Army uniforms and much in between, the costumes are a significant element in the show’s visual appeal.

And Mark Smedley’s solid sound design helps make the performances that much better.

This is a special show for a special time of year, and a good one for the entire family. With a high-energy, talented cast performing Irving Berlin music and a skillful crew, White Christmas at Toby’s is a snow globe filled with artistry that brings out the best in musical theatre and is the present you may be looking for.  

Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes.

White Christmas runs through January 9 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the Box Office 410-730-8311 or visiting here.

Alicia Osborn, David James and Ensemble
in blockbuster number "I Love a Piano"


Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography

Sunday, November 07, 2021

‘Waitress’ Serves Up Fun No Matter How You Slice It

Photo: Jeremy Daniel
After a seemingly interminable absence due to the pandemic, Broadway is back to Baltimore with a brief two-day visit to the Hippodrome by the national touring production of Waitress. (The theater has implemented protocols to keep the audience and employees safe including mask requirements while inside and proof of vaccinations prior to entry.)

The long wait for Broadway musicals to return to the Hippodrome was rewarded by a high-energy, often hilarious, and at times emotional presentation of Waitress. 

It is hard to imagine that themes, such as an unwanted pregnancy, an abusive husband, adultery, and sexual encounters in the workplace would keep you laughing until your eyes tear, but here we are with Waitress. To be sure, the instances when these themes are addressed are also handled tenderly and with great emotion. The mixture is effective.

Waitress may not be the most well-known musical to ever hit the stage but it is an excellent one. It garnered four Tony Award nominations in 2016 including Best Musical. It had successful stints on Broadway and London’s West End as well as other locales. The all-female creative team includes music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles and a book by Jessie Nelson and is based on the 2007 film of the same name, written by Adrienne Shelly.

Accordingly, there is a palpable amount of feminism laced throughout as the story deals with the veracity of the lives of working women in America and how women bond to help bring out the best in each.

The multi-layered plot centers on Jenna Hunterson, a baker and waitress at Joe’s Diner in a small Southern town. She has a penchant for creating magnificent pies and coming up with clever names for them based on the situation. Many of her recipes originated with her late mother but Jenna concocts some pies on the fly. There are pies galore in this show, and thankfully they are not the kind seen in Sweeney Todd.

Her problem is that she is in loveless relationship with her temper-prone husband Earl who is abusive and demanding. As an example, he regularly pops in the diner and collects the tips she earned while he habitually shows up late for work and is constantly on the precipice of being fired.

You would think Jenna would have left him given this toxic relationship. Easy as pie? Not so fast. Complicating matters is that Jenna discovered she was unexpectedly pregnant as a result of a drunken night with Earl—a development in which she kept from him until she blurted it out right before he attempted to strike her.  

Jenna attempts to escape from this misery by finding solace in baking pies and also from the companionship of her two close friends in the diner, waitresses Becky and Dawn.  The trio serves as confidants to one another and provides the moral support needed to escape from their ho-hum existence and to make choices to seek the joy that had been missing from their lives. Each reveals their own bit of eccentricities as they embark on this journey.

Jenna’s baking prowess leads her to consider entering a pie baking contest that would award $20,000 to the winner and enable her to leave Earl.

Adding another element to the plot is that Jenna has fallen for her handsome gynecologist Dr. Jim Pomatter, who as it turns out, is also married, and the two have sex in his office.

Meanwhile, Becky, also married, begins an affair with Cal, a manager at the diner, and Dawn finds love from a hilariously gawky goofball she met online.

So, there you go. The ingredients for this pie of a plot are in place. It’s just a matter of how they are mixed and with the right proportions to make it tasty. Spoiler alert: it is tasty!

Ms. Bareilles’ ballad-heavy score is solid with many numbers heart-wrenching and tender, such as “She Used to Be Mine” and “Take it From an Old Man.”  Some are simply playful and much fun like “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.” The show starts off on the right foot with the snappy number “What’s Inside.”

As the central character Jenna, Jisel Soleil Ayon excels on all fronts. Her acting is strong in portraying the victim trapped in her marriage and the anguish she experiences in confronting the reality of her pregnancy as well as her dealing with infidelity. Her soprano voice is crystal clear and powerful, holding notes exceptionally. Ms. Ayon’s solos “What Baking Can Do” and “She Used to Be Mine” showcase her vocal talent.

Kennedy Salters as Becky, one of the waitresses, fills the comedy role with relish. Sassy and loud, Ms. Salters demonstrates impeccable comedic timing with her wisecracking antics directed mainly towards her boss Cal (played effectively by Jake Mills). Always on the edge of being fired by Cal, Becky intimidates him enough to stay on and has an affair with Cal though she, too, is in an unfulfilling marriage. Ms. Salters joins other cast members in song but her one solo number “I Didn’t Plan It” soars.

The third waitress in the musical is Dawn played wonderfully by Gabriella Marzetta.  A shy, quirky type, Dawn is another who plays a largely comedic role. Through online dating, she meets a guy named Ogie (played terrifically by Brian Lundy) whose handle is oddly OKCBullet. Initially, it was hate at first sight from Dawn’s perspective, but once they found out they both loved American Revolution re-enactments, it was just a matter of time that they would marry.

Mr. Lundy’s Ogie is a scene stealer with his nerdy looks including trousers pulled way up high. He sang in “I Love You Like a Table” but his performance in “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” where he briefly showed off his clog dancing talents is a genuine show stopper.

David Socolar as the gynecologist Dr. Pomatter is one of the show’s standouts. Nimble physically with astounding comedic timing, Mr. Socolar turns in a superb performance as his character navigates the tricky terrain of adultery as he falls deeply for his patient Jenna. There were many funny lines, and he executed them to perfection. Mr. Socolar performs splendidly with Ms. Ayon in “It Only Takes a Taste,” “Bad Idea” and the tender ballad You Matter to Me,” displaying a smooth tenor voice.

Then there is the villain of the show, Earl, Jenna’s arrogant and manipulative husband, played convincingly by Shawn W. Smith. So effective was Mr. Smith’s acting skills that there was a smattering of boos from the audience at curtain call. His nice duet with Ms. Ayon in “You Will Still Be Mine” follows his request that Jenna will not love the baby more than him.

Michael R. Douglass as Joe, the aging, cranky, picky and generous owner of Joe’s Diner, is excellent in his role. He is a fan of Jenna and encourages her to participate in the pie contest. Mr. Douglass’ performance in the lovely ballad, “Take it From an Old Man,” is touching. The surprise ending involving Joe is a game changer on several levels.

Rounding out the excellent cast Vanessa Magula who deliciously plays Nurse Norma. She is wise to Dr. Pomatter’s antics and is hilarious with her reactions.

The talented Ensemble support the leads with vocal back-up and occasional dancing. Also, providing a musical lift is the 6 –piece on-stage orchestra conducted ably by Alyssa Kay Thompson.

Scott Pask’s set design is extremely effective in its simplicity and functionality. Much of the action takes place in the diner with its kitchen, tables, counter and other set pieces that depict the small town eatery. A projection screen displays the flat, nearly barren vista one would see in the rural South. Other scenes switch seamlessly to the doctor’s office, Jenna and Earl’s home among other venues.

Also, Ken Billington’s lighting design and Jonathan Dean’s sound design enhance the quality of the production.

Waitress is a musical with a wonderful score that takes on serious issues with a good heart and levity. The performers excel in all facets and the show makes for a most entertaining evening tempting the audience to indulge in pies soon after. It is a pity that Waitress visited Baltimore for only two days but it hopefully will return soon.

Running time: Two hours and 35 minutes.

Advisory: The show contains mature themes and sexual situations and is not recommended for young children.

To view the Hippodrome’s upcoming season, visit here

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Kris Fair Announces Run for State Delegate

Candidate seeks to be first openly gay representative from Western MD

Kris Fair
Kris Fair, a Democrat and lifelong resident of Frederick County, will officially announce his candidacy for the Maryland House of Delegates in the current District 3A at a free event on November 15. It will take place at the Monocacy Brewing Company, 1781 N Market Street Frederick, MD 21701 at 6 p.m. The program will run from 6:45 p.m. to 7:15 p.m.

Delegate Karen Lewis Young will be introducing Fair at the kickoff event and endorsing him for the seat she currently holds. Delegate Lewis Young is preparing her run for the Maryland State Senate with the impending retirement of Senator Ron Young. Fair has served as Delegate Lewis Young’s legislative director and former campaign manager. In addition, speakers will include local activists and campaign co-chairs Tracy Racheff and Wil Graham.

At the announcement, numerous local businesses and organizations will be represented, including Brewer’s Alley beer, Dublin Roasters coffee, and food from Traditional Authentic Mexican Food truck. Additionally, The Frederick County Health Department will be providing COVID-19 Vaccines (Moderna, Pfizer, and J & J). Love for Lochlin will be providing free Flu Vaccines.

The campaign asks attendees to bring hygienic items (toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, soap, toothbrush, hairbrush, deodorant, body wash, toilet paper, etc.) that will be donated through a local nonprofit to families in need during the holiday season.

Fair will outline his message of “Progress Starts on Day One.” His campaign will focus on post-Covid recovery, access to quality education and healthcare for all, fighting for social justice and equity, and investing in critical community needs, including the environment, fair wages, housing, and mental health. He will also share how he is uniquely qualified with vast experience in the nonprofit, for-profit, and public sectors and how he will harness his lived experience to support all Frederick residents with a powerful voice in Annapolis.

“As Delegate I will apply my lived experience growing up gay in rural Frederick County, surviving the many adversities in our community to become one of the leaders that built the largest LGBTQ+ organization in Western Maryland,” Fair told me. “I will fight every day for Frederick residents and my LGBTQ+ family.”

Fair, who is the current Executive Director of The Frederick Center, a support and advocacy organization serving the LGBTQ+ communities in the broader Frederick area, has 20 years’ leadership experience in civil rights and community outreach organizations serving the disenfranchised with a strong track record of inter-agency coordination. Previously, he chaired The Frederick Center Board of Directors for over four years and had been the Director of Frederick Pride since 2012.

A graduate of Linganore High School in 2002, Frederick Community College in 2008, and Hood College in 2012, Fair has been active with numerous organizations besides The Frederick Center. They include The Frederick Arts Council, The Student Homelessness Initiative Partnership (SHIP), MOM’s Demand Action, The Golden Mile Alliance, Marylanders for Marriage Equality, The Greater Frederick Advertising Federation, Frederick County Democratic Party, and Weinberg Center for the Arts.

In recognition of his strategic planning abilities, leadership skills, and contributions of many volunteer hours, Kris has been honored with the Community Foundation of Frederick County’s Wertheimer Award, The Human Relations Commission’s Lord Nickens Public Service Award, and Hood College’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Award. He has been named the Frederick County Democratic Party volunteer of the year and was recently featured in Frederick Magazine’s People to Watch.

Kris Fair currently lives in Frederick City with his husband, Dominick.  

For more information, email info@krisfair.com or visit here.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Republicans’ Descent into the Party of Hypocrisy

The Republicans call themselves the “Law and Order Party.” Yet House Republicans overwhelmingly opposed the punishment of one of former President Trump’s thugs Steve Bannon for spitting on a lawfully issued subpoena to testify before the January 6 House Select Committee.

They like to call themselves the “Party of Patriotism.” But mostly all Republican officials and a vast majority of the party’s membership deny the results of the free and fair 2020 presidential election following the demands from their cult leader Donald Trump. They not only publicly believe Trump’s Big Lie but they have continued to propagate it.

These folks don’t want the facts from the run-up of the January 6 insurrection—the largest attack on our citadel of democracy in centuries—to see the light of day lest that would affect the midterms in 2022. Note that Republicans who were elected and re-elected last November had no such concerns of “voter fraud” in their own races stemming from the same ballots!

They like to say how much they revere the American flag. Of course, many do. But they seem to have no problem that such flags and their attached poles were used as weapons during the insurrection on January 6, 2021that was incited by Trump to prevent the certification of the presidential election.

In that regard, they call themselves the party that supports the police—the Blue Line, Blue Lives Matter, etc. Yet again, when hundreds of police were attacked by lawless criminals using an array of weapons on January 6, the Republicans in both houses succeeded in preventing the establishment of a nonpartisan commission to investigate the domestic terrorism as the FBI characterized it and have tried to delegitimize the January 6 committee.  They also overwhelmingly refused to award medals to police heroes who put themselves on the line during the Capitol riot.

The GOP prides itself as the “Party of Fiscal Responsibility.” But wait, under President Trump the national debt ballooned to nearly $8 trillion, the highest in our history.

The Republicans are all about freedom and liberty. Very cool. Nonetheless, dozens of Republican controlled state legislatures have passed or are in the process of passing laws that impose major roadblocks to voting. Much of these laws are targeting Blacks and people of color thus denying or at least impeding their freedom to vote. Republicans in Congress have stymied voter protection laws. So much for freedom.

They see themselves as the “Party of Family Values.” But they balk at or mock Democratic attempts to provide child care, health care, nutritional services and economic relief to working families—all measures that would strengthen and keep families together.

Republicans consistently maintain that they are the “Pro-life Party.”  Whether it’s the GOP elected officials or their voters, they have eschewed wearing masks in public spaces and peddle misinformation about proven vaccines intended to curb serious illnesses and deaths attributed to Covid-19. They overwhelmingly support the death penalty, too.

And don’t get me started on their being the “Party of Morality.” This article would triple in size if I delved into that topic.

To be clear, some of these examples of hypocrisy began before Trump.  But Trump is the Republican Party. He has taken hypocrisy to new depths.  And the hypocrisy will continue during the Republicans’ ongoing quest for autocracy while our democracy will melt away like an Arctic glacier. 




Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Peril Ahead: A Review of New Woodward-Costa Book

In the seemingly endless parade of books about Donald Trump, a new entry by multiple award winning best-selling author Bob Woodward and his Washington Post colleague Robert Costa, offer a new take on the topic. Their Post cohorts Phillip Rucker and Carol Leonnig in the recently  published bestseller I Alone Can Fix It: Donald Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year focuses on Trump from the onset of the pandemic through Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Peril provides insight into the thinking of Donald Trump as well as his associates, members of his administration, military leaders and political allies. The period covers the months leading up to the election to the present (Summer 2021) but it also includes the presidential campaign and the nascent presidency of Joe Biden.

The title I Alone Can Fix It is a quote lifted from Trump’s acceptance speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention.  Peril is derived from Joe Biden’s inauguration speech where he said, “We have much to do in this winter of peril.”

Both books reflect solid sourcing from these experienced and highly regarded journalists involving tons of recorded interviews and documents to back up their words. Therefore, what you read, you can take to the bank.

While Peril devotes about half the book to Trump and the other to Biden, I found the Trump chapters more captivating and dramatic even though much of what is written is generally well known. This is no surprise given that Biden did not incite an insurrection, continues to lie about the election, has a larger than life standing within his own party, and is prone to salty temper tantrums. Moreover, the military leadership does not fear that Biden would start a war on a whim or deploy soldiers to control lawful demonstrations by the citizenry.   

Yet, if you’re looking for a book that is filled with jaw-dropping salacious reveals, Peril is not the one. Woodward and Costa, nonetheless, get behind the scenes and offer fascinating glimpses into Trump (and Biden) meetings and phone calls and delve into the relationships between the principals and their aides, congressional personalities and others, much of which had not been brought into the sunlight previously.

As with I Alone Can Fit It, Peril is pretty much chronological in structure. Presented in a somewhat choppy cadence, Woodward and Costa hop back and forth to the early stages of Biden’s campaign to the Trump campaign.  The election itself and all the mishigas and danger that ensued as a result of Trump’s denial of the results, January 6 and the run-up to the inauguration are described in appropriately vibrant fashion.

The authors effectively convey the dynamics between Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Attorney General William Barr, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley, and Senator Lindsey Graham. These accounts are presented in fascinating detail—all the colorful language included.

Trump and Graham have a beguiling dynamic. They are good friends and golf buddies who speak frequently on the phone. Despite Graham’s best efforts, he cannot move Trump away from his continuing lie that the election was stolen. He pleaded with Trump that the party needs him to move on from this in order to win back the House and Senate. Graham is blunt with Trump whereas others can’t get away with it.

“If we come back in 2022 and recapture the House and Senate, you’ll get your fair share of credit. If we fail…Trumpism, I think, will die. January 6 will be your obituary.”

Trump remains unmoved to this day.

His pique with Kevin McCarthy is also notable.

“This guy called me every single day, pretended to be my best friend, and then, he fucked me. He’s not a good guy,” Trump said in reaction to McCarthy’s talking him down about election fraud.

Likewise, the relationships between Biden and McConnell, Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Joe Manchin and Rep. Jim Clyburn are intriguing. One interesting reveal is that Clyburn, an African American, had worked with collegially with segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond in Congress.

The scurrying to prove the election was stolen that reflect the silliness of the case manifested by the bizarre performances of Trump’s lawyers is one of Peril’s highlights. The run-up to and including January 6 is also chronicled. The threat to democracy was genuine and unfolding in real time. Peril captures the essence of that threat but does not convey the wrenching terror the individual congressmen and senators experienced during those horrific hours.

Many wonder what Trump was doing while the riots were taking place. The House Select Committee will be looking into that very question in the coming weeks. But the authors indicate that Trump was alone in a private dining room in the White House watching the events play out on TV. We also learn the exact location where Speaker Nancy Pelosi had been whisked away during the siege.

Much of the reporting about Biden centers on his personality and character. It is in stark contrast with Trump’s belligerent, me-only attitude. Peril adroitly captures Biden’s self-reflection, and his memory of his son Beau who died from brain cancer is constantly with him and helps guide him in key decision-making opportunities.

Biden’s priority when he took office was to end the Covid-19 pandemic by accelerating the vaccination rate in the country. He also spent a lot of effort and perhaps political capital trying to get a relief bill through Congress. In that regard, his interactions with Manchin were intense.

The summer discussions surrounding the potential withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan that eventually took place seem prescient as we witnessed the chaos later on after Peril was printed. Opposed to the endless war in Afghanistan, Biden’s incentive was to end it now. Ultimately, the mess proved not to be his finest moment.

The detailed accounts in Peril especially the behind-the-scenes conversations make it a thrilling read. However, notably omitted were such events as Trump’s risky and showy ride-around outside the hospital where he was treated for Covid putting his secret service agents in peril, so to speak.

Trump’s phone call to pressure the Georgia Secretary of State to come up with enough votes to overturn the state’s official tally was also not included. This is surprising given that the Washington Post had broken the story.

Also, not discussed in any length was the delay by the Trump people in helping the Biden team transition. I saw only one reference to this unprecedented delay: “Cooperation on the transition was spotty at best, even obstructionist.”

Nonetheless, the reporting was meticulous in most areas, and Peril provides a concrete historical record of what transpired during 2020-21. I fear, however, there may be more peril to write about in the future.

______

Peril; Bob Woodward and Robert Costa; published by Simon & Schuster 2021; 426 pages plus reference notes and index; $30.00 U.S., $39.99 Canada; Hard Cover ISBN 978-1-9821-8291-5; ebook ISBN 978-1-9821-8293-9.

 

Authors Bob Woodward and Robert Costa

 

Saturday, September 04, 2021

Zany ‘Godspell’ Brings Teachable Moments to Toby’s

Godspell has been around for 50 years, but the musical’s message of love, kindness, tolerance and loyalty is timeless.  The high energy, entertaining production of this classic musical now playing at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, has been clearly modernized to reach a contemporary audience.

From the opening Prologue when the 10-person cast all use smartphones as props to many modern references including lampooning popular game shows, TV series and even Donald Trump, you knew you were not in 1971 when the production had opened off Broadway.  

Based on the Gospel of Matthew, the show is a mixture of Scripture parables as told by Jesus loosely tied together with an eclectic array of songs, such as rock, pop, folk and vaudevillian, and dance.   Yes, there is Jesus (played superbly by Justin Calhoun) and John the Baptist/Judas (played splendidly by Shane Lowry).

However, the other eight characters, who all remain on the stage throughout the production as do the aforementioned ones, will not be found in any version of the Bible. In fact, the performers are assigned their own names rather than biblical or even fictional ones.  They comprise an eccentric collection of comical folks, decked out in everyday street clothes, all with different personalities, who work with Jesus to present lessons through parodies of pop culture and politics. These moments elicit most of the laughs in the show—not the lessons themselves but the manner in which they are conveyed.

For example, Toby’s veteran Jeffrey Shankle delivers hilarious impersonations during these sequences with none better than that of Donald Trump when the topic of taxes comes up.

Though enjoyable, Godspell seems to be searching for an identity. In many places the show features full-on comedy with vaudevillian shtick, slapstick, corniness and other high-jinks especially during the first act. In other parts, serious messaging, teachable moments from Jesus and, of course, the tragic ending of Jesus’ life on Earth contribute to a noticeable change in mood. Sometimes, the solemn and virtuous lessons can be overwhelmed and distracted by the comedy.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz who went on to pen Pippin and Wicked, and a book by John-Michael Tebelak, Godspell whose most well-known song “Day By Day” has become a staple of high school and community theatre as well as numerous professional mountings, revivals and tours since its debut.

Co-Directors Mark Minnick and David James—both Helen Hayes Award recipients—masterfully guide the performers and technical crew in a cohesive, fast-paced production. Mr. Minnick also choreographed the production and deftly arranged dance numbers in a tighter than normal area of the in-the-round stage because of the set pieces that remained onstage throughout. 

The performers are called on to dance, ride a bicycle and move about navigating and weaving around these set pieces that include benches, bleachers, lamp posts, and a swing while staying in synch with the music, which was ably performed by conductor Ross Scott Rawlings and his 4-piece orchestra. (Nathan Scavilla conducts in other performances. )

So much was this orchestra integrated into the show that it was actually visible to the audience whereas in most other Toby’s productions they are concealed by a curtain in the upper level. Mr. Rawlings even briefly participated in one of the parable games from his perch.

As Jesus, handsome Justin Calhoun is masterful on many levels. Mr. Calhoun lights up the stage with charisma and energy, and his beautiful tenor voice soars in “Save the People,” “All the Best” and “Alas for You.”

In a simply dazzling performance of a challenging dialogue-heavy role, Mr. Calhoun, showcases his versatility to the delight of the audience.  Aside from his excellent vocals, he dances with precision and clearly seems to enjoy himself while doing so. He also demonstrates his athleticism by using a jump rope while singing and manages to juggle two basketballs. Mr. Calhoun’s comedic lines are delivered with gusto, and when called upon in dramatic moments like when Jesus is experiencing self-doubt, he pulls that off as well.

"Mr. Calhoun lights up the stage with charisma and energy..."

And boy does his character show patience! Trying to earnestly teach the Gospel, Jesus must overcome the rowdiness, unruliness, and smart-alecky behavior of the troupe. Mr. Calhoun demonstrates the right balance of exasperation but mainly patience as he plows through the distractions.

Shane Lowry does a fine job in portraying John and then Judas. As John the Baptist, he is Jesus’ most loyal fan and most fervent disciple. Later as Judas, Mr. Lowry further puts his acting skills on display as a doubter and then a rebel leading to the climactic conclusion. He dances smoothly and sings ably in “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” and “All for the Best.”

Each of the talented company members has a chance to shine and lead off a song with the rest of the company joining in. Janine Sunday sings the show’s popular number “Day By Day” with a sparkling-clear, lovely voice.  Crystal Freeman delivers a powerful and emotional performance in “O, Bless the Lord, My Soul”—one of the show’s standouts.

Rounding out the excellent female cast are Heather Beck (“Light of the World,” “Turn Back, O Man,” “On the Willows”), MaryKate Brouillet (“By My Side” with Janine Sunday) and Tina Marie DeSimone (“Learn Your Lessons Well”)—all exceptional performers through voice, dancing and comedy.

DeCarlo Raspberry, showcasing his powerful vocals, is sensational in his moving rendition of “All Good Gifts.” It is another standout performance.

Jeffrey Shankle and David James are always high camp in Toby’s productions, and Godspell is no exception. They are hilarious throughout with their antics and comedic lines. But as many Toby’s patrons know, they can also sing quite well.

Mr. Shankle is outstanding in “We Beseech Thee” and “On the Willows.” Mr. James performs nicely with Heather Beck in “Light of the World” and “Turn Back, O Man,”   

The technical crew is proficient in contributing to the success of this production. David A. Hopkins, who also designed the simple and functional set, does a superb job with the lighting effects especially in the second act. John Pantaziz’s sound design is also spot-on.

Godspell at Toby’s is a quality production aided by superb direction, strong technical elements and a lively, talented cast.   The musical provides teachable moments that convey timeless messages of love and kindness and delivers high energy performances, lots of laughs and joyful music.

It also has a bit of history with Toby’s as it was the first show on Toby’s stage 41 years ago. Toby Orenstein, the owner and artistic director of Toby’s, dedicated this revival production to the memory of James W. Rouse who founded the city of Columbia by bringing people together as is the message of Godspell.

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

Godspell plays through October 31 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the Box Office 410-730-8311 or visiting Toby's website as well as Ticketmaster

Toby’s website also contains the theater’s updated Covid-19 policies and protocols that are in place to ensure the health and safety of the employees and patrons including the requirement that proof of Covid-19 vaccination must be presented or proof a negative Covid-19 test taken with 72 hours of the performance.

Justin Calhoun shines as Jesus in Godspell

Photos by Jeri Tidwell Photography

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Landing the Bad Boy: A Review of ‘I Alone Can Fix It’


The year 2020 will be remembered for three major events: the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd that sparked protests and unrest, and the general election.

Globally the pandemic was and continues to be an insidious health crisis resulting in millions of lives lost. In addition, the U.S. confronted once again the quest for racial justice with a demand for reform in how the police interact with people of color. And the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, the election itself and the tumultuous aftermath placed the United States at the precipice of losing its democratic traditions and democracy itself.

At the heart of these events, President Donald Trump played a key and massive role in how the country would respond to the first two crises and how he literally created the third one.  All were dangerous.

In their book, I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, Pulitzer Prize winning reporters from the Washington Post Carol Leonnig and Phillip Rucker present a chilling and at times horrifying account of how President Trump mishandled, exacerbated or created these crises. The title is derived from a statement President-elect Trump gave at the Republican National Convention in 2016 whereby he told his faithful that nobody knows the system better than he does, and, therefore, “I alone can fix it.”

In their previous best seller in 2020, the authors used another well-known Trump phrase, “A Very Stable Genius” as their title. Should they pen additional books about this presidency, there is a plethora of Trump phrases to draw from.

Speaking of lifting phrases, I used the title of this review from a chapter title “Landing the Bad Boy” later in the book.  Referring to the drama, frayed nerves and mounting fears leading up to the 2021 inauguration and the determination to have a peaceful transition of power, one senior official was quoted in the book as saying, “We’ve got an aircraft, our landing gear is stuck, we’ve got one engine, and we’re out of fuel. We’ve got to land this bad boy.”

Keeping to a chronological format, Ms. Leonnig and Mr. Rucker present the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Trump administration as it courses through its fourth year beginning with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic through the inauguration of Joe Biden.

While many of us have witnessed Trump’s behavior and character flaws in real time through his tweets, press briefings, appearances on Fox News and other platforms and have read previous accounts of his presidency and personality in other books, I Alone Can Fix It offers a chronicle that stems not from a single person or a few persons but dozens of eyewitnesses to history being made before their very eyes (and ears).

The authors gleaned from hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 140 sources including those at the highest levels of the Trump administration. Various sources spoke on the record while others spoke candidly on the condition of anonymity as the authors note, “to share private accounts of moments that profoundly challenged or shook them, to protect future careers, or to fend off retaliation from Trump or his allies.” Some of the information stemmed from the authors' own reporting for the Washington Post as well as that of other journalists.

And as Pulitzer Prize journalists do as a matter of routine, they fact-checked and verified the accounts from their sources. There are scores of referenced notes to back up the accounts. In other words, what is portrayed in I Alone Can Fix It is extremely credible. The authors do not offer their own opinions; they present these accounts often from people with direct knowledge of the situation.

Throughout the book, Trump’s well-documented personality defects are exposed, again not by the authors themselves but by the subjects of their interviews. His ever-frequent demonstrations of victimhood, grievance, oversized ego, narcissism, inability to tell the truth, lack of empathy and revenge supplement the narrative. Trump’s transactional nature is his state of nature. He saw the COVID crisis as more of a threat to his re-election than the public health crisis it truly is. Everything, and I mean everything, was seen through the lens of his political fortunes.

The book highlights Trump’s interactions with his underlings and advisors, such as Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley. He had strained relationships with Dr. Deborah Birx, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Alex Azar among others on the pandemic front. They didn’t buy into Trump’s happy talk about the virus magically disappearing. However, the book contains praise for Trump on pushing for the accelerated manufacturing of a vaccine while there were scathing condemnations on everything else related to the president’s handling of the pandemic.

Trump’s relationship with AG William Barr was solid until Barr refused to relent on Trump’s demands to send federal troops to respond to Black Lives Matter protesters. And it worsened when Barr would not pressure certain states to review the results of their elections. Despite a fawning, disgraceful ass-kiss of a resignation letter to Trump, Barr was on the outs.

The same could be said for the four years of servitude and sychophancy by Vice President Mike Pence. His refusal to reject the certification of the Electoral College tallies led to a chilly end to their relationship. During the siege on January 6, Trump never inquired about the safety of Pence after he attacked him on Twitter during the insurrection.

The dynamics between Milley and Trump were almost a core part of the book. Milley was determined to not permit the military to be deployed to quell civil unrest and was adamant about not allowing the military to be involved in the electoral process. This back and forth between the two and the thought processes between Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other trusted individuals were among the most revealing episodes contained the book.

Milley feared that Trump would use the military to stage a coup. “They may try, but they’re not going to fucking succeed. You can’t do this without the military. You can’t do this without the CIA and the FBI. We’re the guys with the guns,” he said.

They were also concerned Trump would try to launch a war against Iran in his final days. 

The portions of I Alone Can Fix It relating to the election are particularly poignant. The drama unfolding on election night is described in vivid detail. Trump’s refusal to accept the results, promulgating “the big lie” that the election was stolen, and his futile battles in dozens of courts led by the hapless Rudy Giuliani held your attention.

And the authors’ account of the harrowing experience of the January 6 insurrection and that critical period between that assault on our Capitol and the inauguration is loaded with palpable tension and hand-trembling fear. Even though we all witnessed it and will continue to see what transpired, the book effectively conveys the horrors of the event, the incitement of the riot based on that big lie, and how close democracy in the U.SA was in peril.

 I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year is an extraordinary work for the ages. History will find that this book accurately chronicled this last nerve-wracking year of this nerve-wracking Trump presidency. 

It's a fast read and a must read.

_____

I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year; Carol Leonnig and Phillip Rucker; published by Penguin Press; 2021; 527 pages plus reference notes and index; hardcover - ISBN: 9780593298947; ebook – ISBN: 9780593298954; international edition – ISBN: 9780593300626

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Dancing Feet Abound in Beth Tfiloh’s ‘42nd Street’

Matthew Trulli and the cast of '42nd Street' Photo by Diane M. Smith
You can always count on Artistic Directors Diane M. Smith and Evan Margolis finding a challenging musical for the annual Beth Tfiloh Community Theatre summer production. In the classic musical 42nd Street under the meticulous direction of Ms. Smith, BTCT met that challenge and then some. An energetic and talented cast from the Baltimore area performed at a high level and produced thunderous ovations from the audience throughout.

With music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin and a book penned by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, 42nd Street captured a Tony Award for Best Musical in 1980. The Broadway revival in 2001 also won the Tony for Best Musical, and for good measure the London production netted the Olivier Award for Best Musical in 1984.

Based on the 1932 novel by Bradford Ropes and the ensuing 1933 film adaptation, 42nd Street tells the feel-good story of a young tap dancing performer from Allentown, Peggy Sawyer and her journey that began as a nobody to a becoming a star. She had to endure several obstacles enroute, not the least of which was impressing a demanding Broadway director Julian Marsh as he struggled to mount a musical called “Pretty Lady” during the Depression.

It was Peggy’s involvement in this show that launched her to stardom following a freak mishap to the show’s diva, Dorothy Brock. Despite much self-doubt and lack of confidence, her talent took over and Peggy seized upon the fortuitous opportunity.

BTCT, now in its 13 year, is adroit in mounting musicals that contain other plays or musicals within.  Man of La Mancha and Pippin come to mind. The backstage musical 42nd Street is no exception.

Well-known songs, such as “We’re in the Money,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” the iconic “Lullaby of Broadway” and the title song “42nd Street” are nostalgic to us oldsters, but the BTCT company performed so admirably that I am certain the younger audience members appreciated these classics as well.

From the opening number “Auditions”, I knew I was in for a treat. The tap dancing throughout the show sounds impressive and looks impressive as the able hoofers are clearly in sync and on point. All members of the company participate at some juncture  in which the numbers vary with slower methodical dances in some as well as high-tempo ones in others.

There are so many amazing dance selections that the choreography responsibilities were split between two talented individuals. Rachel Miller handled “Auditions,” “Go Into Your Dance,” “We’re in the Money,” “42nd Street” and “Act I Finale.”  James Hunnicutt choreographed “Young and Healthy,” “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me,” “Dames,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” “Montage” and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.” They did a splendid job in leading the cast through their paces.

The main performers are superb, and the rest of the cast back them up proficiently. As the lead tenor Billy Lawlor in “Pretty Lady,” Matthew Trulli is a standout.  A triple threat with his acting skills, dance moves and singing voice, Mr. Trulli shines. This isn’t surprising given his extensive list of credits. But what is surprising is that he has all this experience under his belt, in key roles no less, though he is a young adult.

Mr. Trulli has a smooth tenor voice that is evident in the duet “Young and Healthy” and group numbers “Dames,” “I Know Now,” and “We’re in the Money” among others.

Hanna Elliott as Peggy Sawyer plays her role well as the enthusiastic, talented but nervous chorus girl who auditioned and secured a role in “Pretty Lady” mainly through her dancing skills. She displays her melodic soprano vocals in “Young and Healthy,” a duet with Mr. Trulli who was trying to woo her early on and “About a Quarter to Nine,” another duet with Cheryl Campo playing the diva Dorothy Brock.

As Dorothy Brock, Cheryl Campo has the primary comic role in the show. Though Dorothy Brock’s best days as a performer are behind her, she remains a star through reputation if not talent. Despite her lack of dancing ability, which is crucial in “Pretty Lady,” she was signed to the lead role principally because one of her two boyfriends, Abner Dillon (David Zisow), is a financial backer of the project.

Ms. Campo's acting skills and comedic timing are top-notch.  An accomplished performer and director in local theatre, she is on target portraying the diva Dorothy Brock. She commendably demonstrates sufficient restraint so that she does not go too far over the top in the role. But she is funny!

Ms. Campo can also sing well, and that is demonstrated in the group number “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me,” the duet with Mr. Zizso in “I Know Now” and the aforementioned duet with Ms. Elliott, “About a Quarter to Nine.”

Then there is Brian Singer who plays the harsh and impatient director Julian Marsh. This role was played by the late Jerry Ohrbach when 42nd Street opened on Broadway. Mr. Singer, also demonstrating strong acting abilities that he accumulated through years of experience on stage, radio and television, is the thread that stitches the plot together. He delivers his lines in a clear, resonant voice to manifest his demanding nature and sharp demeanor. Yet, he exposes a soft side on occasion, which is endearing.

And as his name might suggest, he can sing, too. He starts off “Lullaby of Broadway” deliberately and with emotion as the rest of the Company joins in and builds to what is a blockbuster number. He also effectively wraps up the show with “Act Two Finale.”

Other notable members of the cast include Matthew Byrd, Ryann Reich, Eitan Murinson, Rachel Miller, Emily Signor, Carly Dagilis,  Ava Correlli, Ryan Holmes, Sharon Byrd, Emily Machovec, Julia Egan, Maytal Fleisher, Beau Smith, Taylor Fruhling, Quinn Holmes, Ryan Holmes, Rachel Murinson, Abby Ostrow and Tejal Schwartz.

A round of applause goes to Costume Design and Coordinator Lizzie Jaspan for decking the cast out in a wide array of colorful period costumes.

Set Designers Diane M. Smith and Evan Margolis oversaw imaginative scenery that was highlighted by a large screen reflecting the projection of scenes and images that adds depth to the stage. In addition, various scaffolds, platforms, turntable sets and a variety of props and set pieces provide additional quality to the production. Laura Miller and Dassi Cohen contributed to this effort, which made for good visuals.

Overall, from a technical standpoint, the production was solid including the Lighting Design by Tyrell Stanley on the day the show was reviewed, but there was some unevenness in the audio in spots, which hopefully will be addressed by the next performance.

BTCT’s 42nd Street is an ambitious undertaking especially for community theatre considering the size of the cast and the skill sets needed to pull it off. With the capable Diane M. Smith at the helm, the talented cast and crew did so with aplomb. With only two performances left, you should hurry to get tickets to see this wonderful production.

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

42nd Street plays August 3 and 4 at the H. Morton Rosen Arts Center located at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, 3300 Old Court Rd., Pikesville, MD 21208. Tickets can be purchased by calling 410-413-2436 or visiting the box office.