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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.

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

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