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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Do You Recall the Most Famous Snowflake of All?

We have now officially hit winter and our minds drift past the holidays and imagine snowflakes on the horizon. I can’t help but thinking of how the word snowflake crept into our political discourse particularly over the past five years.

Trump supporters have consistently derided liberals as snowflakes. They use the word as a pejorative description, sort of name-calling, but I venture to guess many of them do not know the meaning of pejorative.

As Dana Schwartz wrote on GQ.com several years ago, “There is not a single political point a liberal can make on the Internet for which ‘You triggered, snowflake?’ cannot be the comeback. It’s [sic] purpose is dismissing liberalism as something effeminate, and also infantile, an outgrowth of the lessons you were taught in kindergarten. ‘Sharing is caring’? Communism. ‘Feelings are good’? Facts over feelings. ‘Everyone is special and unique’? Shut up, snowflake.”

I interpret snowflake to mean weak, insecure, feelings hurt easily by criticism, can dish it out but can’t take it, cowardly—in other words, melts like a snowflake. Using that concept, only one person stands out to be the most famous snowflake of all, and that is former president Donald Trump.

We know that Trump cannot accept criticism or enjoys being made fun of (he’s not alone in that).  But he, more than most, stews about it for unusually lengthy periods of time or he will lash out immediately when such criticism is leveled at him or if he’s a brunt of a joke. 

Remember when President Obama gave Trump the what-for during the president’s monologue ten years ago at the White House Correspondents Dinner?

“I know that he’s taken some flack lately,” Obama said of Trump who was present. “But no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald.”  Obama went on further to mock Trump’s birther efforts.

Trump sat there motionless at his table as the camera trained on him. It’s impossible to feel heat off an image on TV but this may have been the breakthrough. Trump was seething as the rest of the audience of politicians, journalists and celebrities merrily laughed at the barb.

Trump hates that stuff—being scoffed at and such. He showed it at press conferences, rallies, even overseas on official business. And don’t get me started on the criticism of his appearance. The vanity-driven narcissist does not take that well. Thin (and orange) skinned for sure, but a definite snowflake.

Then there is Trump’s cowardice. He laments at the fact henever received a Purple Heart but clearly doesn’t understand that to do so, you must have sustained a wound in combat serving in our armed forces. That could not have happened with Trump because on five occasions he successfully received draft deferments based on bone spurs that rendered him unfit for military duty.  But he still longs for that medal.

When there were demonstrators near the White House following the murder of George Floyd, Trump was reportedly taken to a bunker in the mansion. He denied that, of course; it would make him look weak, which he is. He earned the moniker “bunker boy” at the time.

On January 6, 2021, during his speech that incited the violent insurrection, he implored his faithful to march to the Capitol and fight like hell or there won’t be a country anymore. He pledged to join them but instead exited stage right and headed back to his bunker, er the White House to gleefully watch Trump flags and poles being deployed to smack police and smash windows and doors of the people’s house.

But the most important and most dangerous reason he is the king of the snowflakes is his incapability to accept defeat.  Whether or not Trump truly believes his baseless big lie about the 2020 election being “stolen” and in which two-thirds of those identified as Republican go along, this snowflake cannot admit he lost. 

It is amazing he hasn’t come to grips with defeat before given his multiple failed marriages, numerous lawsuits, embarrassing bankruptcies including casinos that dent the illusionary armor of his being a great businessman, the takedown of the sham Trump University and on and on.

But when it comes to elections where he has twice lost the popular vote, the snowflake melts in the sunlight.

‘A Christmas Story, The Musical’ Delivers a Welcome Gift at the Hippodrome

You may not always get what want for a Christmas present, but I could assure you if someone gave you a gift that allows you to attend A Christmas Story, The Musical currently playing at the Hippodrome Theater, you would be jumping for joy. Hurry, though, as the show is in Baltimore for only three more performances before Santa makes his rounds. 

This lavish production under the solid direction of Matt Lenz is a sparkling snow globe full of enchantment, sweetness, brilliant color, eye-watering humor, pleasing songs and an abundance of talent to make your Christmas season bright.  It couldn’t come at a better time.

Based on the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, the musical adaptation, which premiered on Broadway in 2012, received several Tony Awards, Drama Desk and Outer Circle nominations.  The duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Tony Award winning Dear Evan Hansen and Oscar winning film La La Land) crafted the music and lyrics, and the book was penned by Joseph Robinette based on the writings of radio humorist Jean Shepherd as well as the film.

The story of young Ralphie Parker’s determined quest to receive the only gift he wants—an official Red Ryder® Carbine-Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle—is as endearing as it is comical. (Ralphie is played by Blake Burnham for this performance.)  The zany saga is packed with mishaps, disappointments, and fulfillment during December 1940 in Hohman, Indiana. 

Through dialogue and lyrics contained in the musical, the picture of a simpler time, not necessarily better, but definitely simpler, comes across loud and clear from the action that takes place.  The central family of the show—the Parkers—is traditional by those standards with the patriarchal father, a stay-at-home mother and two small kids.

Old-time messages like don’t run while holding scissors; never use a cuss word; a BB gun will shoot your eye out; the notorious triple-dog-dare is the ultimate attempt to coerce someone to do something involuntarily; and teachers imploring students to mind their punctuation, conjugation and stay within the margins flow throughout the story.

You have this tawdry lady’s leg lamp that was won by Ralphie’s father in a contest, “a major award,” which the old man covets but his wife deplores.  You have bullies who if they push the right buttons can be beaten up themselves. There are flying lug nuts and a wayward cuss word that results in a bar of soap snack.  You have neighbors’ hounds running amok through the Parkers’ house and devouring their Christmas turkey. 

"...as good as the adult leads are, the kids steal the show ."

There is a cranky and increasingly intoxicated Santa who frightens the children more than giving them Christmas joy.  A down-to-earth teacher breaks out of character to perform a stunning dance number in a glitzy red gown. You have a tongue freezing on a flagpole incident resulting from the dreaded triple-dog-dare.  Then there is the Christmas carol-singing Chinese restaurant waiter, just for good measure. 

Regardless of who Ralphie encounters to lobby for this special rifle, whether it is his mother (Briana Gantsweg); his old man (Sam Hartley); his teacher Miss Shields, (Sierra Wells); even Santa (Hank Von Kolnitz), Ralphie is told one thing, “You’ll shoot your eye out.”

Performing the role for a seventh year with a hiatus due to Covid, Chris Carsten does a truly splendid job as the voice of Jean Shepherd, narrating the often-hilarious story in the first person as a grown-up Ralphie with an onstage, non-intrusive presence throughout the production.  He recalls and shares the younger Ralphie’s thoughts as the boy navigates through each caper.

As the central character, bespectacled Ralphie performs proficiently with his acting and comedic skills, strong vocals and dancing.  He is particularly adept in one of the show’s best numbers, “Ralphie to the Rescue!” whereby he imagines he’s a cowboy using his rifle to thwart bank robbers and assorted other scoundrels.

Photo: Gary Emord Netzley

The remainder of his family unit is also appealing with its Midwestern charm.  Sam Hartley as The Old Man is spot-on.  The father is strict with his children and cursing is verboten (except when he does it).  A hardworking man who struggles with the house’s furnace and his Olds, while attempting to dodge his neighbor’s hounds, he found solace in winning that lady’s leg lamp.  Gruff as he may be at times, you still root for him, thanks to the performance of Mr. Hartley.

His best songs are “The Genius on Cleveland Street,” a duet with Ms. Gantsweg and “A Major Award,” a phenomenal dance number that evolves into a clever can-can with he and the ensemble dancing with lady legs lamps with the shades seeming like skirts.  

Ms. Gantsweg as Ralphie’s sweet mother is the perfect counterpart for her husband.  She is the sensible one of the two and protective of her children. Her performance of “What a Mother Does” and “Just Like That” are tender, made even better by her lovely clear soprano voice.

 Nicholas Reed adorably plays Ralphie’s timid younger brother Randy who is averse to eating unless he mimics a pig at a trough.  But talented Nicholas is quite the hoofer as he along with Miss Shields (Sierra Wells) and other youngsters in the ensemble are flawless tap dancers in “You’ll Shoot You’re Eyes Out.” 

This is one of several terrific production numbers choreographed by Warren Carlyle for Broadway and then reset by Jason A. Sparks for the tour.  Other quality dance numbers include the aforementioned “Ralphie to the Rescue!” and the imaginative “A Major Award.” The songs are performed with precision under the musical supervision of Andrew Smithson.

Photo: Gary Emord Netzley

The remainder of the cast performs exceptionally in support of the leads. They play the roles of neighbors, shoppers, parents, students, townspeople, elves and others. I’m telling you, as good as the adult leads are, the kids steal the show. They are filled with energy and talent and enthusiasm and joy.

All are costumed magnificently by Elizabeth Hope Clancy from period attire to brilliant elves costumes. And let’s not forget that pink bunny costume Ralphie was sent to him by his aunt.     

Walt Spangler designed an outstanding set that was adapted by Michael Carnahan.  The principal set is a cut-out of the two-level Parker house that moves back and forth to accommodate scene changes. The living room and kitchen are downstairs while the bedrooms are on the second floor.  The exterior of the house is appropriately lined with Christmas lights.  Another spectacular set is the snow globe effect that serves as a background to several scenes.

Working in conjunction with the sets is the fantastic lighting design by Charlie Morrison.  His use of bold hues that frequently change for emphasis and effect produces a gorgeous palette of color throughout the production. Bright red and green lights in various scenes make for a visual delight.

In addition, much credit should go to sound designer Don Hanna as all dialogue were audible and clear and the orchestration balanced so as not to overwhelm the vocalists.

 A Christmas Story, The Musical is a production that runs on all cylinders.  It has all the elements needed to bring holiday cheer and pure enjoyment with its talented cast and crew under masterful direction.  Oh, and the loveable (not to The Old man) hounds?  They’re real!

So, the question you may ask, what’s so great about a show about a kid desiring a BB-gun for Christmas?  The answer: everything.  Don’t miss this one.

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

A Christmas Story, The Musical runs through December 23 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit here or visit the Hippodrome Box Office located at 12 N Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.

Saturday, December 04, 2021

HoCo LGBTQ+ Activists and Allies Hit Back at Censorship, Hate

Photo: Bob Ford
A diverse crowd of 100 to 200 folks gathered at the Columbia Lakefront on December 4 to attend a rally to push back against censorship in the county’s public schools as well as homophobia and transphobia emanating from a group of conservative parents.

The rally called “We ARE the People” was organized in response to the comments and actions by members of a Maryland-based conservative group “We the People 2” that among other things are anti-masks, anti-vaccinations and are opposed to teaching racial history in the schools. They also oppose two books that are in Howard County Public Schools library shelves: “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy.”

Speakers at a We the People 2 rally last month at an Elkridge, Md. warehouse condemned the books, which contain LGBTQ+ characters, as sexually explicit. The group later filed police reports against the Board of Education alleging the books constitute pornography with “graphic sexual content and materials being used and disseminated in public schools,” according to the group’s press release.  A flier announcing this action used the loaded terminology, “We must not allow our children to be abused and victimized.”

Among the speakers at the Elkridge rally was Republican Gordana Schifanelli who is running for Maryland Lt. Governor on the ticket with Daniel Cox. Another speaker, George Johnson, a teacher from Baltimore City, was heard on a video of the event saying, “We’re doing God’s work because Marxism, homosexuality and transgenderism is the devil.”

In response, the pro-LGBTQ+ rally in Columbia announced the following:

We are taking a stance against hate in the community as we raise our voices in support of equity in our schools. Attacks on teachers and school staff have prompted us to stand united and drown out the noise.

In addition, We ARE the People states:

We stand for LGBTQ+ students and educational professionals

Teaching accurate history to our students

Supporting equitable practices in our schools

Providing students with relevant LGBTQ+ media through their school libraries

The two-hour rally, which was attended by several county council members, featured speakers representing a wide swath of community, educational, religious and political organizations. They included: Community Allies of Rainbow Youth (CARY), Black Lives Activists of Columbia (BLAC), Absolutely Dragulous, Howard County Schools, PFLAG-Columbia/Howard County,  IndivisibleHoCoMd, Columbia Democratic Club, Howard Progressive Project, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia (UUCC), HoCo Pride, Progressive Democrats of Howard County, and the Columbia United Christian Church.

Many of the speakers denounced the censorship of materials that are needed by many LGBTQ+ students. Genderqueer and non-binary students, they point out, are most vulnerable and need affirming literature to help with their development and self-acceptance. The speakers also decried hate speech, which has surfaced again, as well as the opposition to teaching history as it relates to race.

Others argued that the community must not sit back and take it from extremist groups.

“You are all defenders,” said Cynthia Fikes, President of the Columbia Democratic Club in a fiery speech. “But to succeed a strong defense also needs a strong offense.”

The two books in question were recently the center of controversy in the Fairfax County (VA) school system. The books were removed in September from the shelves of the high schools pending a comprehensive review following opposition from a parent at a school board meeting. It should be noted that both books were previous winners of the American Library Association’s Alex Awards, which each year recognize “ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.”  

The Board established two committees consisting of parents, staff and students to assess the content of the books and make recommendations to the assistant superintendant of instructional services who would make the final determination.

One committee found that “Lawn Boy” includes themes that “are affirming for students” with marginalized identities. “There is no pedophilia in the book,” the committee added. The other committee found that “Gender Queer” depicts “difficulties non-binary and asexual individuals may face.” The committee concluded that “the book neither depicts nor describes pedophilia.” The books were restored to the shelves.

“As this backlash against LGTBQ+ literature demonstrates, we must be ready to stand up and defend the progress we have made,” said Jennifer Mallo, member of the Howard County Board of Education expressing her own point of view. “We must ensure our elected officials understand and share our values and will fight for our marginalized students.”

The enthusiastic crowd was clearly pleased with the event.

“Today’s rally was meant to inspire our community to take action,” said Chris Hefty, who was the lead organizer of the rally and the emcee. “Action that protects our youth. Action that protects our educators and admins. This action comes in the form of advocacy, communication with elected officials so they know your voice, and through well informed voting to ensure those who represent us are those we know will support us. We shared a message of love, acceptance, and warmth.”

Hefty adds, “The unity we facilitated through this rally was a sight to behold. As the lead organizer I couldn’t have been more pleased! In the future we will be sure to better meet the needs of all our community members. We thank all those in our community for their support and feedback and look forward to accomplishing great things together moving forward.”

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

'Tootsie' Rolls Into the Hippodrome with Laughs Galore

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.