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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

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 voice 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 production 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