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Saturday, January 22, 2022

There Are Lots and Lots to Enjoy with Toby's 'Spamalot'

"Spamalot."  That’s what I usually say when I open my email.

But Toby’s The Dinner Theatre of Columbia is presenting another Spamalot: Monty Python’s Spamalot billed as “a new musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture.”

It takes you back to medieval times. But it probably wasn’t quite like the way it was portrayed at Toby’s.  In the musical theatre’s version of the 1975 film Monty Python’s Spamalot (with a number of differences from the film), Helen Hayes Award-winning director Mark Minnick, who also choreographed the production, and the cast and crew offer up a zany, classic slapstick production with laughs at every turn. Just be ready for “alms for the poor” later on in the show.

Tony and Grammy Award winner Eric Idle penned the book and lyrics and also composed the wonderful music with John Du Prez.  Mike Nichols directed the original Broadway production of Spamalot in 2005 garnering three Tony Awards including Best Musical among 14 nominations.   It ran for over 1,500 performances, and the show has been seen in over a dozen countries.

The superbly costumed performers at Toby’s seem to have as much fun as the patrons, and why not? With impeccable staging and direction, the madness of Monty Python is executed to near perfection. Spamalot’s goofy, irreverent, no-holds barred plot, centers on King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail.  But that merely serves as a vehicle to string together a series of oddball encounters and shtick augmented by a deliciously funny and clever score.

Ross Scott Rawlings led the proficient six-piece orchestra on the night this performance was reviewed. Nathan Scavilla takes the baton in other performances. They support the talented vocalists as they hit the bull’s eye with each number while being the brunt of a few jokes by the actors as part of a bit.    

The show is amazing especially since Jordan Stocksdale, who plays the central character King Arthur, signed on to the production merely two days earlier to replace an injured actor.  Mr. Stocksdale never missed a beat in what I consider a seamless and near flawless performance.

While he had played the role in the past, Mr. Stocksdale had to deal with the challenges of performing in the round, and he clearly was a quick learner.  Much credit should go to Director Minnick and the other cast members for helping to bring him up to speed in such a short timeframe.

The experienced Mr. Stocksdale successfully handled the role with commanding stage presence showcasing a strapping baritone voice and fine acting skills, which include well-timed and delivered comedic lines when called upon. How he managed to keep a straight face throughout the non-stop insanity of the plot and the antics of the other cast members is beyond me. It takes discipline, and Mr. Stocksdale obviously has that.

His vocal talents are showcased in “King Arthur’s Song,” “Come With Me” in a duet with Janine Sunday who plays The Lady of the Lake, “Always Look On the Bright Side Of Life,” a glorious dance number with his Knights, and “I’m Alone.”

The aforementioned Janine Sunday as the Lady of The Lake, a multiple Helen Hayes Award nominee, is the only female lead in the cast. She demonstrates her excellent vocal talents with clarity and strength.  Ms. Sunday hits the right notes in such group numbers as “Come With Me,” “Find Your Grail,” and “The Song That Goes Like This.”  But her magnificent solo, “The Diva’s Lament,” is the icing on the cake. 

Another standout is the two-time Helen Hayes Award recipient David James, who is reprising his extraordinary tour de force from eight years ago at Toby’s. The versatile Mr. James begins the show as Historian (Narrator).  But then he tackles five other roles throughout the production with my favorite being Prince Herbert.  Prince Herbert, much to the chagrin of his overbearing and music-hating father, played wonderfully by Justin Calhoun, does not want to marry the girl his father had arranged for, mainly because he is gay.

"...a zany, classic slapstick production with laughs at every turn."

Mr. James plays Prince Herbert with flair as he did at the beginning of the show when he played the role of Not Dead Fred.  His Prince Herbert’s back-to-back numbers “Where Are You?” and “Here Are You!” are fun.  The madcap disco production number that follows, “His Name is Lancelot,” with the ensemble attired in flamboyant garb, is a show highlight.

Justin Calhoun delivers one of the best comic moments of the show when in true Abbott and Costello mode attempts to instruct two guards to prevent his son from leaving the castle. I’m still laughing at that scene. Mr. Calhoun also turns in an excellent performance as Sir Dennis Galahad delivering one funny line after another.

Other cast members perform extremely well—most playing multiple roles—making this production as well-rounded as the knights’ table.  Adam Grabau plays Sir Lancelot splendidly as well as the hilarious French Taunter during a particularly hilarious scene.

Jeffrey Shankle plays Sir Robin with finesse especially during the side-splitting number “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway” in addition to the comical “I’m Not Dead Yet.”    

Quadry Brown, another eleventh hour replacement, does a commendable job. He portrays Patsy, who dutifully follows King Arthur around as his servant banging two coconuts shells together simulating horse’s hooves as King Arthur “rides” before him.  Mr. Brown excels in “I’m All Alone” as a counterpoint to Stocksdale’s King Arthur and appears in the memorable group number “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life.”  Again, kudos goes to Mr. Brown for stepping up when needed.

David James as Not Dead Fred

Notables in the production are Shawn Kettring, Ariel Messecca, Brandon Bedore, MaryKate Brouillet, Shane Lowry, and the show’s writer and lyricist Eric Idle playing the Voice of God, Who wouldn’t want that role appearing in their bio?          

The other members of a very energetic and talented ensemble include Amanda Kaplan, Alexis Krey, Patricia “Pep” Targete and Brook Urquhart.

Director and Choreographer Mark Minnick put the dancers through the paces, and they excel in several numbers especially in the zany “Knights of the Round Table” with much of the cast and ensemble participating.  “Find Your Grail” is another hopping production number.

David Hopkins’ simple yet functional set consisted of brick castle walls around the perimeter of the theater and side projection screens that were employed very effectively.  Stage entrances are used well to keep the action sustained and balconies are in place for various scenes. 

Props and large set pieces are a key element in this production that include such items as a pull wagon, a oversized wooden rabbit, fake human limbs, barnyard animals, candles and lots more.

The costume team coordinated by Marianne VanStee and Janine Sunday outfitted the cast in a dazzling array of medieval chain mail costumes originally designed by Tim Hatley and other attire that ranged from French maid costumes to “very gay” Broadway production number apparel to a sparkling gown. Yet, the period costumes worn by King Arthur and his Knights as well as the ensemble are simply jaw-dropping with their detail and authenticity.

Lighting designer Lynn Joslin makes effective use of color lights and sudden illumination to augment the action.  Sound designer Mark Smedley also does a nice job of creating echoes when authoritative pronouncements are made (such as when God is talking) or when there is a clap of thunder.  All the performers are effectively mic’d so that the lyrics and dialogue are clearly audible.

So, find your own grail. Visit Camelot and see among others Sir Lancelot. Eat a lot, drink a lot, tap your feet a lot, and be prepared to laugh a lot. Watch the actors sing a lot, dance a lot, prance a lot, and joke a lot. They lose their limbs a lot and come back from the dead a lot. They talk about Broadway a lot, Jews a lot, gays a lot, and even poke fun at France a lot.

Come see Monty Python's Spamalot. There’s a lot to enjoy and you will enjoy it a lot.

Running time: Two hours and 25 minutes with an intermission.

Spamalot runs through March 20 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.

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Prom at the Hippodrome Will Give You a Night to Remember

Photo: Deen Van Meer
If the producers and creative team of The Prom wanted to find a setting for homophobia in small town America, they found the right place in Edgewater, Indiana—that’s Mike Pence’s Indiana in case you forgot. And if they wanted to poke fun at Broadway performers and divas, they hit the mark with The Prom currently on its first national tour and making a brief stop at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theater.

Directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Casey Nicholaw, The Prom is a dazzling, colorful, extremely well-staged production that adroitly combines romance and gay acceptance with comedy. It tugs at your heartstrings while offering up an abundance of laughs making this one of the funniest musicals I’ve ever seen.

The performances by the energetic and talented cast are fabulous. Their vocals are magnificent as almost everybody has a turn to showcase those skills. Nicholaw’s potent choreography is executed to perfection by all, particularly the Ensemble in several amazing production numbers. One of these is the spectacular, get-on-your-feet show stopping finale “It’s Time to Dance.”

With music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin and a book by Bob Martin and Beguelin, the 2018 musical is based on an original concept by Jack Viertel. Sklar’s score is melodic and lively, if not spectacular, and Beguelin’s lyrics are witty and tender.

A film adaptation produced and directed by Ryan Murphy (Glee) and featuring Meryl Streep, James Corden and Nicole Kidman among others, was released on Netflix in December 2020. Despite the high-powered cast, I prefer the stage version over the film, and the production at the Hippodrome supports that belief.

As I mentioned earlier, part of The Prom’s charm is that it is unafraid to lampoon Broadway performers and the industry as a whole. “Straight people like Broadway, too” is one of the many clever lines crafted by Martin and Beguelin that land a punch. They also do a number on Edgewater, Indiana. If this town had a Chamber of Commerce, I doubt they would buy a block of tickets to see The Prom.

"The performances by the energetic and talented cast are fabulous."

Four eccentric narcissistic Broadway has-beens seek to resurrect their flagging careers by gaining attention if they can latch on to a cause. They found one on social media of all places where Emma, a lesbian high school student in Edgewater, Indiana, was having trouble with the local PTA who opposed her attending the event with her girlfriend. As a result of the controversy, the scheduled prom was cancelled incurring the wrath of the other students that led to the bullying of Emma.

The performers—Dee Dee Allen, Barry Glickman, Trent Oliver and Angie Dickinson—burst into a PTA meeting with signs in support for the bewildered Emma and the stunned head of the PTA, Mrs. Greene. Unbeknownst to her, Emma’s closeted girlfriend is Mrs. Greene’s daughter Alyssa, a situation which provides much of the drama.

With the help of the school’s principal Mr. Hawkins, the Broadway do-gooders attempt to change the hearts and minds of the conservative townsfolk leading to a happy conclusion. The zaniness that ensues does not obliterate the serious issues of acceptance and inclusion, not to mention bullying, that form the core of the storyline. The ability to blend these concepts effectively is why The Prom is so entertaining and heartwarming.

Kaden Kearney shines brightly as the shy Emma. The chemistry with their girlfriend Alyssa (Kalyn West) is evident onstage with both demonstrating fine acting skills and melodic vocals. Kaden's standout performance with her mezzo-soprano voice is in “Just Breathe” after they was bullied by other students.  They also excels in the duets with Ms. West in “Dance with You” and “You Happened” and in the emotional “Unruly Heart” with the Ensemble.

The two actors who were slammed by critics for being too narcissistic following their performance in the fictional show “Eleanor” that kicks off The Prom are Barry Glickman (Patrick Wetzel) and Dee Dee Allen (Courtney Balan).  This shellacking in the press and the closing of “Eleanor” after just one performance motivate them to find a cause célèbre as a means of professional rehabilitation. These two generate the most laughs though there are plenty of others to enjoy.

Mr. Wetzel’s self-absorbed but kind-hearted Barry is filled with flamboyance and camp. “I’m as gay as a bucket of wigs,” he states. And for good measure, he emphatically declares he’s Jewish. A funny role in which he brings it home, Mr. Wetzel demonstrates his versatile acting abilities as he displays his paternal instincts by tenderly getting Emma ready for the prom while he admits he never had the opportunity himself to attend one. It’s a touching scene.

He excels in the moving “Barry is Going to Prom” and does a great job in the first act finale “Tonight Belongs to You.” This is an outstanding high-octane production number that displays the exceptional dancing abilities by the cast and Mr. Nicholaw’s meticulous choreography. (A special nod goes to Ensemble member Braden Allen King for his well-executed two handsprings in which he gracefully flipped across the width of the stage.)

Kaden Kearney (l.) and Kalyn West
Photo: Deen Van Meer

Then there is Ms. Balan’s hilarious portrayal of Dee Dee. There was no shortage of lines that try to convince anyone who’s listening, especially herself, that whatever she does, it’s for others, not just for Dee Dee. This is exemplified in the solo “The Lady’s Improving.” She plays the diva role to the hilt and delights with her facial expressions and body language in addition to her words.

Another pretentious actor making the trip to Indiana is Trent Oliver played very well by Bud Weber. Trent is Julliard-trained and makes sure everyone, and I mean everyone, is aware of it. He is currently on a non-equity tour with the cast of Godspell. That must have helped his understanding of Christianity as Trent performs my favorite number in the show, “Love Thy Neighbor.” That song is intended to convince the Edgewater students that the Bible contains many principles in which they are violating, such as tattoos or pre-marital sex in response to their condemnation of homosexuality.

Emily Borromeo plays Angie as the fourth Broadway performer making the trip. Her role is not as dominant as the other three actors on the mission, but Ms. Borromeo’s rendition of “Zazz” with Ms. Kearney’s Emma is one of the show’s highlights. In that song, she explains jazz to Emma and her memories of Bob Fosse while she had performed in Chicago. Ms. Borromeo’s vocals and silky smooth dance moves are superb.

As the principal Mr. Hawkins, Sinclair Mitchell effectively provides the lone support for Emma’s quest to attend the prom until the Broadway actors plus an agent (Sheldon Saperstein played by Shavey Brown) swing into town. Mr. Mitchell’s acting props are evident as he displays his empathy for Emma.

The principal happens to be a fan of Dee Dee and they grow close from their dinner dates at Applebee’s only to realize that Dee Dee is in it for herself. She won him back with “The Lady’s Improving.” Mr. Mitchell also excels in his solo “We Look to You.”

Much of the drama in The Prom stems from Mrs. Greene, the PTA president and mother of Alyssa. Played proficiently by Ashanti J’Aria, Mrs. Greene is a tough, controlling mother who, like most conservative small town residents, is not a fan of homosexuality. For that reason, Alyssa had such difficulty coming out—until the end.

Aside from the splendid direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw, the rest of the technical crew has done an outstanding job in making The Prom a sparkling spectacle. Conductor Chris Gurr and the orchestra deliver Mr. Skkar’s score beautifully and support the musical numbers effectively without overwhelming the vocals.

Scott Pask’s scenic design enhances the visual enjoyment. Scene changes are made swiftly mainly through the use of revolving backdrops that transform settings from the school corridor to the gym to a motel room to a bedroom to an Applebee’s and other venues.

Natasha Katz’s bright and colorful lighting design also adds to the visuals as do the costumes designed by Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman.

The story of a young lesbian’s quest for love and acceptance is of paramount importance. The laugh lines and the comedic characters lighten the mood, but the main theme must not be overlooked.

It should be noted that the inspiration for the musical originated not from any circumstance in Indiana but from a real-life controversy that occurred in Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi in 2010.

The Prom was nominated for seven Tony Awards in 2019 but had the bad luck of going head-to-head against Hadestown. The Prom did, however, win the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical.

With excellent music, an important storyline and a brilliantly staged musical featuring a talented cast, you should get your dancing shoes on and be taken to The Prom. It will be a night to remember.

Running time. Two hours and 25 minutes.



UPDATE: 
BECAUSE OF COVID AFFECTING MEMBERS WITHIN THE COMPANY, ALL PERFORMANCES FROM JANUARY 21 THROUGH JANUARY 23 AT THE HIPPODROME HAVE BEEN CANCELLED. THE THEATRE PLANS TO RESCHEDULE. IF YOU HAVE TICKETS, PLEASE HOLD ON TO THEM.

Monday, January 10, 2022

‘Dance of the 41’ Recounts Historic Mexican Scandal

Steamy history streaming on Netflix
Alfonso Herrera (L.) and Emiliano Zurita


In early 20th century Mexico, the husband of the President’s daughter skipped out almost every night to engage in a clandestine gay affair with a lawyer. One would think that in itself would have been a societal scandal.  Indeed, the focus of Dance of the 41, a splendidly photographed and acted drama currently streaming on Netflix, was the steady and certain deterioration of that nascent marriage.

But to Mexican society back then, which was marked by a deep schism between the elite upper crust of the citizenry and the impoverished, the true scandal that is part of Mexico’s history emerged: a discreet gay ball where nearly half of the all-male participants wore women’s garb.

Directed by David Pablos, written by Monika Revilla and produced by Pablo Cruz and El Estudio, the 2020 film, dubbed in English, was based on a true story. Ignacio de la Torre y Mier, a politician (played commandingly by Alfonso Herrera), was appointed to Congress by Mexico’s president Porfirio Diaz (Fernando Becerril). The only condition of this appointment was that Ignacio make his daughter Amada Diaz (Mabel Cadena) happy.

 It didn’t work.

Ignacio encountered Evaristo “Eva” Rivas (Emiliano Zurita) at the building where he works, and it was instant magnetism. Both sporting classic handlebar moustaches carry out their attraction secretly in steamy trysts.  As this relationship tightens, the marriage between Ignacio and Amada unravels. Sex between the husband and wife was rare, strictly physical and devoid of any emotion or romance.

Amada becomes increasingly suspicious of Ignacio’s “late dinners” with friends as he typically doesn’t return to their palatial estate until early the next morning. Later she discovered love letters to Ignacio from Eva and demanded he provide her with a child or she will reveal everything.

But it’s not just the dalliances with Evaristo that occupies Ignacio’s time. Apparently known to the underground gay community of Mexico City prior to his marrying the president’s daughter, Ignacio was invited to become a member of a secret gay private club complete with a brief initiation ritual in the spacious house of one its members. Ignacio soon brought Evaristo to the festivities thereby becoming its 42nd member.

The members, displaying various levels of flamboyance and camp, engaged in orgies that took place in and around half dozen bathtubs, sing-alongs, drag cabaret performances and the like while booze flowed freely. On November 17, 1901, the annual ball took place from which the title of this film was derived.

SPOILER  

Rumors swirled around society concerning Ignacio’s behavior. Bodyguards were assigned to him, and he was being followed. During this ball, armed police raided the party. According to a contemporary press report:

On Sunday night, at a house on the fourth block of Calle la Paz, the police burst into a dance attended by 41 unaccompanied men wearing women’s clothes. Among those individuals were some of the dandies seen every day on Calle Plateros. They were wearing elegant ladies’ dresses, wigs, false breasts, earrings, embroidered slippers, and their faces were painted with highlighted eyes and rosy cheeks.

The film accurately portrayed the incident.

Though there was nothing illegal about men dressing up as women, the 42 men were arrested for violating the principles of morality and to appease an already distressed society. There were no trials; the punishment was meted out by Governor Ramon Corral—a fact that was not included in the film. 

Only 41 were officially counted.  As the security chief recognized Ignacio, he was allowed to escape to

spare embarrassment to the government. Others, including Evaristo, were beaten and forced to sweep the streets in their women’s attire. They were eventually sent to work for the military doing menial tasks.

Throughout the decades, the number 41 was considered taboo. 

“At one point the Army left the number out of battalions, hotel and hospital rooms didn’t use it and some even skipped their 41st  birthday altogether," reports history. com. "While the number was etched into society as derogatory, 41 is now considered a badge of courage and a symbol of strength for queer Mexicans.”

One might consider the "Dance of the 41" Mexico’s Stonewall, although any liberation for LGBTQ+ Mexicans did not occur until over a century later.

Dance of the 41 is highly recommended. The accurate depiction of historical events makes it worthwhile, and the cinematography, direction and acting talents displayed enhance its excellence.

Friday, January 07, 2022

January 6 Denial

Immediately following the catastrophic attacks on September 11, 2001, the country rallied behind President George W. Bush. Perhaps for the final time, the U.S. was united behind a cause. Anyone who was not all-in was accused of not loving America and siding with the terrorists.

In 2004, Bush ran on and won re-election primarily on stoking fears of terrorism and relentlessly pointing back to 9/11. That fateful day continued to be invoked even during the 2008 presidential primaries when then candidate Joe Biden characterized a Republican hopeful, the former “America’s Mayor” Rudy Giuliani, as saying nothing more than a subject, a verb and 9/11.

Some 20 years later, another form of terrorism struck the U.S. but this time it was domestic terrorism.  On January 6, 2021, American democracy was attacked. The terrorists were not brown-skinned foreign Muslims who hijacked four planes and killed thousands of people including first responders. Instead, they were mostly white supremacists and violent extremists, key components of the former and defeated president Donald Trump’s base.

Thousands were frothing from the words of Trump and other incendiary speakers on the Ellipse before the U.S. Capitol was stormed, desecrated and under siege while lawmakers were attempting to carry out their constitutional duty of certifying the election that was held in November.

Perpetuating the big lie, which he continues to this day that somehow the election was stolen from him, he egged on the supposedly peaceful assembly who happened to carry police shields, bats, bear spray, flag poles and other weapons just for kicks, to march to the Capitol.

“We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” Trump said. His obvious incitement of the riot earned him a record-setting second impeachment with the most votes to convict ever. But it was not enough to meet the high bar in the Constitution.

At least five died during the riot and insurrection that ensued with hundreds injured or psychologically damaged. Our Capitol, the citadel of democracy, was defaced, shattered and turned into a public toilet. Hundreds sought out lawmakers to do God knows what. Had it not been for the bravery of the undermanned Capitol Police a whole different storyline would have been written. Democracy prevailed that day and night, but only by a hair.

But as the black eye on democracy marked its one-year anniversary, it is clear Republicans don’t seem or want to acknowledge the seriousness of the event. Over the course of the year, attempts were made to whitewash it, create conspiracy theories that the FBI or antifa were behind it, the rioters were patriots or even tourists.

Lindsey Graham who had decried Trump’s role in the riots the night of the horror show, now feels the Democrats are politicizing the event. (Remember 9/11, Lindsey, when Bush and later your buddy McCain made hay over that day.) Mitch McConnell did the same thing.

The cowardly Kevin McCarthy after assigning responsibility for the riots to Trump went down to Mar-a-Lago to beg for forgiveness in an attempt not to resurrect Trump’s career, but his own.

Equally spineless Marco Rubio claimed that the Democrats are trying to portray all Republicans as insurrectionists. Yet, he accuses Democrats of being looters.

Other than Liz Cheney (and her father), no other Republican representatives took part for a moment of silence in the Capitol to commemorate the somber day. Nor did they show up for a prayer vigil later.

Republicans are clearly in denial. They are fully aware that by being tethered to Trump and his biggest of all lies, this could have political fallout as the next cycle begins. Images of the insurrection will or should play in all political ads not to blame Republicans for January 6 but to blame their enabling of Trump, failing to convict him in the face of overwhelming evidence, supporting the big lie, denying the significance of 1/6, refusing to certify the election and attempting to suppress the vote in future elections.

January 6 was not a good look for the GOP. They know it and are doing the darndest to minimize it. Even Ted Cruz was forced to publicly and pathetically apologize to Tucker Carlson, of all people, for having a brief and rare truthful moment when he characterized January 6 as a “violent terrorist attack.”

And never mind their opposition to a bipartisan commission and their minimizing the role of the House Select committee. 

President Biden delivered a powerful speech calling out Trump for his role in the insurrection. Finally, he put the illusion of bipartisanship to rest and swung hard. It was most needed and overdue.

Republicans are still living in fear of Trump and his base. Our country was the victim of domestic terrorism, and the Trump loyalists can’t bring themselves to admit it. 

Imagine how they would have reacted if Democrats minimized or shrugged off 9/11 in the same manner.