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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Nostalgic ‘Summer’ at the Hippodrome

Looking for some Hot Stuff?  Heaven Knows you will Stomp Your Feet after they Dim All the Lights as Bad Girls will give you Unconditional Love singing songs you already heard On the Radio, and to be sure, it won’t be the Last Dance.

These favorites and lots more associated with the “Queen of Disco” Donna Summer come to life under the disco ball of Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre with the touring production of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical as part of its Broadway Series.

The Hippodrome had presented several exceptional jukebox musicals in the recent past including MammaMia!, Jersey Boys, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Rock of Ages, and The Bodyguard.  Summer is no exception with its incredible song catalogue, outstanding performers, and brilliant lighting design and effects that enhance the production.

The musical features a book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff and music and lyrics by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Pete Bellotte, Paul Jabara, and others. It is based on the life of Summer who was originally from Boston and began in a gospel choir before becoming arguably the most popular diva during the disco era of the seventies and early eighties. A whopping 42 of Donna Summer’s singles made it to the Billboard Hot 100 list with 14 finding its place in their Top 10. And in the period from 1975 to 1984, Summer had a Top 10 hit in each year.

Although Summer: The Donna Summer Musical received two Tony Award and three Drama League Award nominations in 2018, it had a brief stint on Broadway in which it closed after 289 performances. The show began its tour in 2019.  As evident by the warm reaction by Hippodrome audience, there continues to be a longing for disco music especially by those who were around then. The late Donna Summer along with the Bee Gees embodied that sound as much as any from the genre. 

"...incredible song catalogue, outstanding performers, and brilliant lighting design and effects..."

To be clear, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is not a concert though 23 of her songs are included in a tight 100-minute production under the meticulous direction of Lauren L. Sobon and the excellent five-piece band conducted by Erika R. Gamez. 

Summer’s hits are presented through a musical biography representing three stages of her life: Duckling Donna in her pre-teens, Disco Donna in her late teens and early 20’s, and climaxing with Diva Donna in her 50’s when she was on top of the proverbial disco ball. But the songs performed are not in chronological order of their release but rather tied to a particular event in Summer’s life.

Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines, Summer’s life’s story was a rollercoaster of highs and lows even with her incredible professional success.  Through dramatic dialogue and clever quips, we meet the folks who were part of that rollercoaster.

From her parents to producers, to studio execs, musicians, agents, lawyers, lovers, children and her husband, we get to know Donna Summer as the person behind the mic and what she endured through her journey that ended in 2012 at the age of 64 from lung cancer. Brittny Smith, who plays Diva Donna to perfection, characterizes Summer’s life aptly by confessing, “Sometimes I feel like Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Other times I just feel like Judy Garland.”

Ms. Smith, armed with a glorious voice, also provides some narration and commentary as the story moves from one phase of Summer’s life to another. She is particularly strong in the memorable “I Feel Love” and the production numbers “Stamp Your Feet” and “MacArthur Park” as well as in several other group songs.

Also superb in her vocals is Charis Gullage as Disco Donna.  As the “Donna” during the height of her career, Ms. Gullage performs in the majority of the songs. Her voice is so good that she can cut an album without any worry. “Love to Love You Baby,” “Heaven Knows,” “Dim All the Lights” and “Hot Stuff” are examples where Ms. Gullage shines.

Amahri Edwards-Jones as young Duckling Donna ably solos in “On My Honor” and participates in several group numbers.

The 3 Donnas: Charis Gullage, Brittny Smith and Amahri Edwards-Jones
All three combine effectively for the dramatic “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” performed following a domestic violence incident experienced by Summer.

Other members of the cast include Robert Ayala, Emilee Theno, David Tanciar, Christopher Lewis, Aubrey Young (performs in “Dim All the Lights”), Francisco Risso, Porter Lee Anderson III, Meridien Terrell, Ciara Jones, Lamont Whitaker, Mia Davidson, Sy Chounchaisit, Layla Brent-Tomkins, and Lily Kren. As Summer’s husband Bruce Sudano, John Guaragna, performs well in “Heaven Knows” and “I Love You.” The talented Ensemble backs up the leads splendidly.

Adding vitality to the hue-rich production is the superb lighting designed by Russell A. Thompson, the fabulous costumes designed by Paul Tazewell and the wig and hair design by Brandon T. Miller. Also augmenting the production visuals is the neat projection screen designed by Chris McCleary containing myriad colorful images and graphics forming the backdrop to the set.

Folks who remember the disco era certainly will enjoy the music presented in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. For my part, as I listened to the wonderful performers bringing back those memories of the disco era, I tried to recall where I was when I first heard the song played on the radio or where I danced to the beats. I’m sure I was not alone.

This is a top-notch production that should not be missed even if you are too young to have worn bell bottoms, a groovy jumpsuit, go-go boots or had danced to the vibes from Donna Summer’s music.

Running time. One hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical plays through February 20 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or visit here.

Photos: Denise Trupe

Friday, February 11, 2022

Satirical, Soulful ‘A.D. 16’ Premieres at Olney

The Bible leaves a gap between the time Jesus was born until he reached age 30. Composer and lyricist Cinco Paul (Despicable Me) in collaboration with Bekah Brunstetter took it upon themselves to fill that void and imagine what life in Nazareth would be like at the time Jesus was 16 years old.

It’s a safe bet that over two thousand years ago Jesus wasn’t fine tuning his TikTok performance or hoping for a new Bluetooth speaker or PlayStation 5. He was, according to Paul and Brunstetter, just Jesus—pensive, caring and inspiring. And his teenage neighbor Mary Magdalene who just made her way to Nazareth with her widowed father Jacob was smitten by this son of a carpenter and tried everything in her power to make it a two-way street. She takes “love thy neighbor” to a new level.

The dynamic between the two shape the core storyline of a spanking new musical making its world premiere at the Olney Theatre Mainstage called A.D. 16. Mind you that the actors portraying Jesus and Mary (Ben Fankhauser and Phoenix Best, respectively) can only see 16 in their rear-view mirrors so you will need to rely on your imagination.

Familiar themes from the Bible are presented mainly in a light-hearted satirical manner in both song and dialogue. However, others depict cruelty and punishment and form the tensest moments in the show.  Strict laws, such as a girl must accept a marriage to a boy if the boy’s parent offers him, or girls cannot be outside the house after dark surface in the story. And most critical to the plot, lepers who are quarantined in a squalid colony cannot be allowed back into the town.

But the values that Jesus preaches regarding generosity, humanity and love try to break through the darkest moments. Using satire, Jesus "turns the other cheek" and works on his healing powers, to name a few.

Director Stephen Brackett guides a spirited talented cast and creative technical crew, and in conjunction with a terrific score and lyrics, the production contains all the ingredients of being a crowd pleaser. At times irreverent, rambunctious, soulful and campy, A.D. 16 is entertaining regardless of one’s faith.

Paul’s score dominated by R&B and 90’s hip-hop genres is up to the task allowing the cast to showcase their considerable vocal talents. His lyrics are witty and emotional and work well with Brunstetter’s book.  Music Director Christopher Youstra and his 8-piece orchestra perfectly support the vocals. Katie’s Spelman’s choreography is effective and precise.

..."irreverent, rambunctious, soulful and campy, A.D. 16 is entertaining regardless of one’s faith."

In what might be the most phenomenal set I’ve seen on Olney’s Mainstage, Scenic Designer Walt Spangler and his team erected a stage-wide multi-level, multi-dimensional set on a turntable displaying stone structures of huts and similar dwellings and switching to other venues, such as a leper's colony and a jail. The multiple sets on the turntable are put to good use in a scintillating travel scene as they revolve in a clockwise manner. The set plus the extraordinary period costumes designed by Emilio Sosa and fantastic lighting designed by Colin K. Bills craft the perfect backdrop to the story and its presentation.

Mary, played by Phoenix Best in a sensational performance, noticed her neighbor Jesus and instantly fell for him. Jesus, projecting a calm, soothing understated manner by Ben Fankhauser, was considered an outcast, and a trio of sassy expecting girls from the village—the Nazarene Girls to be precise (Jade Jones, Chani Werely and Adelina Mitchell) -- tried to dissuade Mary from pursuing him. Their big number “That Boy” conveys that message.  For her part, Mary showing a feminist side criticizes the girls for accepting the fact they are merely considered property in a man’s world. The opening rousing group number “It’s Not Easy Being a Girl (in Nazareth)” sets the tone.

As she interacts with Jesus, Mary picks up on Jesus’ way of thinking and tries to emulate that philosophy and his values to impress him with mixed results.

The harsh laws are gleefully enforced by a trio of Sanhedrin Officers played by Calvin McCullough, Jared Loftin and Christian Montgomery. They are the villains of the show who prosecute violators and carry out the punishment.

Ironically, in enforcing the strict provisions contained in Leviticus and other books from the Old Testament, these officers are represented as swishy, effeminate men most likely to garner chuckles from the audience. It should be pointed out that this stereotype is similar to the way gay men were depicted in early 20th century films and theatre.

Though the characters are not explicitly gay, their portrayal was not all that subtle. For instance, one of the men, Nicholas, mentioned that he has a wife but was quick to clarify that she is a woman. In another scene, Mary asks him, “What makes you a man, that you have a sword?”  Their caricatures may elicit some laughs, but I don’t think the creative team should expect a GLAAD Award.

A.D. 16 is marked by stellar performances. As Mary, Phoenix Best exhibits her Broadway (Dear Evan Hansen) and national touring chops. Ms. Best is a star in the making with an outstanding soprano voice. She performs in several group numbers including “Jesus Loves Me” and her moving solo “Better than This.” Ms. Best appears most comfortable in musical moments, but her overall performance shines brightly.

Ben Fankhauser as Jesus and Phoenix Best as Mary
As Jesus, Ben Fankhauser does a fine job of conveying the earnestness and seriousness of the boy. Also possessing strong vocal skills, Mr. Fankauser excels in “You Did it for Yourself” whereby he points out to Mary that her risky effort to take the lepers back to town was more about her than for the benefit of the lepers themselves.

Broadway veteran Alan H. Green is excellent as Mary’s father Jacob. He is a controlling dad in which Mary has difficulty accepting. Sadly, the widower had preferred a son to a daughter and expresses that belief in the soulful song “If She Was a He.” At the end, he admitted his love for her and literally had the scars to prove it. Mr. Green’s acting was stellar throughout the production.

Other notable members of the cast include Kelli Blackwell, Jade Jones, Jared Loftin, Calvin McCoullough, Adelina Mitchell, Christian Montgomery, Da’Von Moody, Chani Wereley and an Ensemble consisting of Ales De Bard, Sylvern Groomes, Jr., RJ Pavel, John Sygar and Kanysha Williams.

Any opening night will produce a hiccup or two. On this night a top of a torch (facsimile) flew into the audience. From my perch it appeared that no one, thankfully, was injured and I can predict with great confidence that it won’t happen again.

A.D. 16 is an entertaining production that is performed by a talented cast.  Credit Artistic Director Jason Loewith and the team at Olney Theatre Center for taking a risk of putting on a brand-new musical amidst a pandemic and other challenges. In my opinion the risks were worthwhile, and I urge folks to enjoy this fine theatrical experience. 

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

A.D. 16 runs through March 20 (Extended) at 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.

Photos: Teresa Castracane Photography

Thursday, February 10, 2022

The Dems' Secret Weapon

It was the phrase heard around the world: “Legitimate Political Discourse.”  The violent and deadly January 6 insurrection was deemed unanimously by the Republican National Committee as “legitimate political discourse.” Wow!

Does this compare with Mitt Romney’s “47%” gaffe in which he said during a fundraiser as candidate in 2008 that 47% of the population is made up of people who believe they are “victims,” and are “dependent on government.”? That statement, which was untrue, was interpreted to mean that almost half the country were freeloaders. He lost.

Or is it as unifying for the opposition when Hillary Clinton said half of Trump supporters belong in “a basket of deplorables.”? That spawned t-shirts and other merchandise bought and worn by Trump supporters proudly proclaiming that they are deplorable. She lost.

Only time will tell if the RNC blunder will impact the political landscape. But it may have been the gift the Democrats sorely needed to help mitigate a potential disaster in the midterms.

With this characterization of January 6, the Republican Party should be branded as the party that condones political violence. Democrats must capitalize on the GOP flub. Plus, the censure of two Republican congressman—Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger—for sitting on the Select Committee investigating the January 6 insurrection and events leading up to it has caused a fissure within their own ranks.

Leaders like Mitch McConnell and Mike Pence acknowledged the legitimacy of the 2020 election and want their party to look forward and concentrate on the midterms rather than obsessing over an election that was lost.

Last year’s attack on the Capitol “was a violent insurrection for the purpose of trying to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a legitimately certified election from one administration to the next,” McConnell said.

"With this characterization of January 6, the Republican Party should be branded as the party that condones political violence." 

Others who are tethered to Trump’s big lie want to keep litigating the election. Sooner or later there will be an explosion.

The divergence in strategy will power the primaries between Trump cultists and other Republicans. Money will be spent on ads fighting each other that will leave less to be directed against their Democratic foes. Moreover, negative ads used against one another can be gleaned by Democratic candidates for their own advantage. And if Trump-backed candidates win, they are likely to make them defeatable in a general election because they will be so scary.

To be sure, the midterms can be catastrophic for Democrats regardless of Republican in-fighting. The historic nature of midterms does not bode well for the party that is occupying the White House during the first term. President Biden’s approval numbers have been dismal. Then you add in the political effects of Covid, increased inflation, higher gas prices, supply line issues, the inability to pass the blockbuster legislation package called Build Back Better, and other factors that lay at the feet—unjustifiably in most cases—of the current administration.

The GOP is oozing with confidence that they can re-take the House for sure and stand a good chance of capturing the Senate as well. For the reasons above they should feel giddy about their prospects.

But the Democrats have a secret weapon that won’t be a secret much longer: the Republicans themselves.

Republicans would be wise to drop Trump like his torn-up presidential documents into the toilet.
Though his base remains steadfast in their support, that fealty is beginning to leak fumes.  The Republican crazies like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Ted Cruz, Matt Gaetz, Madison Cawthorn and other Trump worshippers are going to help as well.

Another dynamic is the Supreme Court selection and confirmation process to fill Justice Breyer’s seat. This could be most critical politically in terms of the midterms and beyond. Joe Biden pledged to fill any vacancy with an African American woman, which would be the first such selection to the high court. It would add to his already historic endeavor with his choosing Kamala Harris as his running mate who ultimately became the first African American and Asian American Vice President.

Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Image

Having a Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court would, of course, stoke the base, which has soured on the President to a significant degree. In addition to the resurgence of enthusiasm that is expected from the nomination, it puts the Republican Party on a tightrope without a safety net.

No matter which person is nominated, she will undoubtedly be very qualified for the lifetime post. As they are prone to do, Republican senators will do their very best to stonewall the nominee, partake in rough questioning at the committee hearings and probably accuse her of being a socialist or radical—their go-to monikers.

However, in doing so, they could zealously appeal to the racist elements of the base and run the risk of appearing racists themselves. That will not only motivate the Democratic base but also turn off independents who the GOP is counting on in the fall.  The Dems could run on that alone.

In addition, the House Select Committee on January 6 will be holding hearings in a matter of weeks that will last for months revealing the causes of the events of January 6, who planned the insurrection, who paid for it and other details. It will also cover the attempted coup by Trump and his aides to retain power against the will of the people.

Some of the hearings are expected to take place in prime time and the nation can learn of the insidious plot to destroy our democracy. It promises to be compelling. None of these revelations will help the Republicans, especially those who are pro-Trump.

That brings us to another secret weapon the Democrats have at their disposal: Donald Trump himself. Though not on the ballot in 2022, the Democrats should still treat him as if he was. Trump will be challenged to navigate the myriad legal messes he’s in and that won’t be easy. A criminal indictment here and there could shake up the entire political landscape. Keep your eyes on Georgia.

Trump continues to be unhinged about the 2020 election in which he cannot bring himself to accept defeat. The big lie that the election was stolen from him is an utter disgrace and an embarrassment to the nation. But he is unrelenting. Sooner or later, you would think his people would be tired of his con game. But will they?

Unquestionably, the Democrats face enormous challenges in the midterms including Republican-led gerrymandering and voter suppression. You would be na├»ve to think there would be a positive outcome. Yet, between Republican overreach and obstructionism, divisions within the party, perceived racism if they attack the Supreme Court nominee and the continued gross behavior of Trump, you just don’t know for sure.

A lot can happen between now and November, but the GOP itself seems to be the Dems’ best weapon and hope.