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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Love is Love: Marking 10 Years of Marriage Equality in Maryland

Beginning thirty minutes after midnight on January 1, 2013, seven same-sex couples were wed at Baltimore’s City Hall. The historic event represented the first time such couples were legally permitted to marry in the state of Maryland.

Then Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who had been a fierce advocate for marriage equality during the referendum battle when 52.4% Marylanders voted “For” Question 6, opened the doors of City Hall to the nuptials.

“New Year's Day will have a new meaning for the hundreds - if not thousands - of couples who will finally have the right to marry the person they love,” said Rawlings-Blake in a statement prior to the event. “It is a remarkable achievement for Maryland, and we are excited to open City Hall to host some of the first wedding ceremonies in our great state. Newly married couples will stand before their friends and family to profess their love and commitment to each other. This is what we worked for, and I am looking forward to taking part in this historic and jubilant day.”

Many of the couples from all corners of the state who were eager to wed at the first opportunity had been in long-term relationships that have spanned ten, twenty, thirty years or more.  They had to endure society’s disapproval that was manifested at times by their government, in their families, neighborhoods, and in their workplaces while expressing a degree of commitment to each other that was no less equal or less valuable than that of legally married heterosexual couples.

Thus, when midnight approached on New Year’s Eve, members of couples—adorned in sharp suits or stunning gowns with colorful corsages and flashing smiles that could light up a small town—were ready to declare their love and commitment to their spouses-to-be as cheers and applause rang out. 

Those participating at the City Hall event were among the first same-sex couples in Maryland to wed.  A whole lot more did so the same that day and in the coming weeks, months and years.

The first couple on the list and the one that Rawlings-Blake officiated was Jim Scales and Bill Tasker.  Sadly, Jim Scales passed away on December 28, 2022, just a few days shy of the 10th anniversary after a long illness.

As I reported in the Washington Blade back then:

Jim Scales, a 40-year employee of Baltimore City and has been an office manager serving all mayors since William Donald Schaefer, and his partner Bill Tasker were the first to get married in City Hall at 12:30 a.m. on January 1. The couple who resides in Essex have been together for 35 years.  “We didn’t want to rush into this,” Scales said with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.  They waited and waited until marriage for same-sex couples became legal in their home state. 

Tasker also showed off his sense of humor just prior to the ceremony.  “The difference between the early part of their relationship and now is that earlier we used to complete each other’s sentences.  Now we correct them.”

The idea of opening up City Hall originated by attorney [now a judge] Mark Scurti.  “I watched while Washington State and Maine celebrated marriage equality by holding weddings at city halls and courts immediately after the law went into effect and wondered what was being done in Maryland,” Scurti told the Blade.  “I inquired to a few friends of mine who work as Clerks in various county courts to find out if they were opening up at midnight; all replied no.”

Scurti reached out to a friend of his who was Mayor Rawlings-Blake's chief of staff to make the connection and inquire about the possibility.  After a few conversations with her current deputy chief of staff, they asked the mayor, and she was overjoyed with the opportunity to not only open up City Hall, but to participate in this historic event. 

Mayor Rawlings-Blake officiating the marriage ceremony
of Jim Scales and Bill Tasker

“Being a part of making marriage equality legal in Maryland since 1996 has been my motivation and drive to see that this historic date be celebrated through marriages immediately after the law goes into effect,” Scurti said.  

When marriage equality passed the referendum hurdle, Jim Scales asked the mayor to marry them.  There was no hesitation.

“I’m honored to marry Bill and Jim” the mayor said following the brief ceremony that also included a reading of a proclamation with Scurti at her side proclaiming January 1, 2013 “Marriage Equality Day. “They’re a great couple.  It’s an emotional night, incredibly meaningful.  I’m so proud of Maryland that they chose marriage equality over hate.”

The other six couples who tied the knot at City Hall were: Brigitte Ronnett and Lisa Walther; Danielle Williams and Darcea Anthony; Jamie Kraft and Sarah Vickery; Tom Rabe and Robert Coffman; Ryan Wilson and Shehan Welihindha; and William L. Countryman, Jr. and Roy Allen Neal.

Similar ceremonies took place around the state with some occurring one minute after midnight.  Some took place in such locales as Annapolis, Tilghman Island, Howard County and Cumberland.   Havre de Grace City Councilman Joseph C. Smith married his fiancée Don Starr at the city’s Concord Point Lighthouse, complete with fireworks.

Though Jim Scales is no longer with his spouse Bill Tasker to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their legal marriage, the couple experienced the love and warmth that the many years of being together brought and enjoyed the benefits that legal marriage afforded them as they battled Jim’s illness over a long period of time.   

Winning the battle for marriage equality was the result of great effort and perseverance on the part of a multitude of individuals, elected officials and organizations. 

During these ten years, thousands of  same-sex couples in Maryland are finally receiving the same rights, recognition, benefits and responsibilities as other married couples, and that is worth celebrating.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

A Cabaret for December Holidays Sparkles at Olney

'The Most Wonderful Time of the Year' makes its world premiere.

When we use the expressions, “I’ll be home for the holidays” or “I’ll see you after the holidays,” we are pretty much thinking in general terms when referring to December. Well, according to the folks at the Olney Theatre Center, which is currently mounting an enjoyable musical revue, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, there are nearly a thousand religious, national and just plain fun holidays during December.

From left: Patricia Hurley, Kaiyla Gross, Nick Lehan and Jay Frisby

Of course, Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa are best known and celebrated worldwide, but there are others, such as National Cookie Cutter Day (December 1), National Mutt Day (December 2), and my favorite National Re-gifting Day (December 15), with December being Write a Friend Month and the more sobering World AIDS/HIV Awareness Month.

But in The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, which is making its world premiere, four talented performers focus on Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa, and for good measure they throw in Festivus, a fictional holiday that had been born from a Seinfeld episode.

Sharing the Olney campus with the groundbreaking Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Paul Morella’s brilliant one-man show A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas, this 75-minute cabaret at the 1938 Original Theatre amplifies the holiday spirit at Olney through song and comedy. The Most Wonderful Time of the Year brings out those aspects of the holidays that are common to all. Gatherings of family and friends, the presents, the movies, the food, the prayers, the singing and dancing, and the resulting memories demonstrate that people can and should celebrate all the holidays.

Under the direction of Kevin McAllister, who created this work, and the vocal arrangements and orchestration of Christopher Youstra with his 5-piece orchestra, the 4 talented performers in the revue—all who had previously starred on the Olney stage—display their versatility with solid comic timing and excellent vocals. Patricia Hurley (Elf, Mary Poppins) Kaiyla Gross (Miss You Like Hell), Nick Lehan (Pippin), and Jay Frisby (The Music Man), have the charisma and talent to make this holiday cabaret a joyful experience.

Through musical numbers and dialogue,  each one in the quartet takes a turn in guiding us through the holidays with the rest of the cast joining in. Some songs are solos while others are group numbers.

Patricia Hurley effectively leads the Christmas segment with some of her personal memories, with the group singing an assortment of popular songs including, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “The Christmas Song,” “Snow,” a humorous version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and “(There’s No Place Like) Home For the Holidays.” During this section amusing clips from a few old Christmas movies are projected on to a screen upstage.

In a shorter segment, Jay Frisby explains the origin of Festivus and what it means. Festivus as depicted on Seinfeld occurs on December 23 and includes a Festivus dinner, an unadorned aluminum Festivus pole, practices such as the “airing of grievances” and “feats of strength” and the labeling of easily explainable events as “Festivus miracles.” Using his superb tenor voice, Mr. Frisby takes the lead in the song “Festivus (For the Rest of Us).” And then the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” is performed proving any song is a Festivus song.

"From the outset, this revue brings joy and fun..."

The foursome then embarks on identifying some of “the worst Christmas songs ever.” “Last Christmas,” “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” “Wonderful Christmastime” and “Jingle Bell Rock” made the infamous cut. Personally, I like some of those songs, but what do I know?

Using a Kwanzaa Kinara, a candelabra, Kaiyla Gross, who also choreographed the show, does a splendid job of guiding the audience through the background of Kwanzaa and its meaning. She explains that this December holiday is for people of all religions and backgrounds.

Ms. Gross and the others perform “Kwanzaa-Umoja-Uhuru (Swahili) (First Fruits of the Harvest-Unity-Freedom),” “All Good Gifts” and “Stand By Me.”

Energetic and at times campy Nick Lehan presents the story behind Chanukah though he was raised Catholic but grew up in a Jewish community. In this segment, “Light One Candle” is performed followed by arguably the showstopper “Bohemian Chanukah,” a hilarious adaptation of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Finally, in what is called the Epilogue, the group performs favorite standards, “Winter Wonderland,” “Let it Snow” and wraps it up with “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

From the outset, this revue brings joy and fun and allows the audience to reflect on what the spirit of the holiday season holds for each. Said program creator Kevin McAllister, “I truly believe that celebrating what makes communities unique is the perfect way to connect individuals from different backgrounds.”

These talented performers bring their own special skills, styles, personalities and lived experiences to the stage and enjoy themselves as much as the audience did. 

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year is cheerful entertainment during this holiday season that blends a mixture of laughter, warmth, nostalgia and reflection, and perhaps most importantly, coming together. It is indeed the most wonderful time of the year.   

Running time. One hour and 15 minutes with no intermission.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year runs through December 31 at the 1938 Original Theatre at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832.

Regular Performances are Fridays - Saturdays, 7:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on December 28. Thursday at 1:30 p.m. on December 22. Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. on December 22 and 28. Friday at 1:30 p.m. on December 30. There are no performances on Saturday, December 24 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, December 25.

Tickets are available from $30 - 60 and can be purchased here or 301-924-3400. Discounts are available for groups, seniors, military and students.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Edgy ‘Jagged Little Pill’ Electrifies the Hippodrome

We may all have ideas as to what defines a perfect family. Perfection is in the eye of the beholder. What would be the criteria? But we can probably agree that the Healy family depicted in Jagged Little Pill currently playing at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre as part of a national tour is far from a perfect family.

In an expertly staged and performed production under the direction of Diane Paulus, Jagged Little Pill peels back layers of vulnerabilities and flaws we all possess as humans and maps out the journey to correct and heal from the messy mistakes we all make.  

The edgy jukebox musical with music by Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard, lyrics by Morissette, and book by Diablo Cody, with additional music by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth, is not biographical, as in the case of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which were recent touring offerings at the Hippodrome. Instead, it contains a fictional storyline enhanced by Morissette’s confessional and emotive lyrics and was adapted to the stage from Morissette’s 1995 album Jagged Little Pill, one of the top 20 best selling albums of all time.

Much of Morrissett’s well-known songs are included in the production. “Hand in My Pocket,” “Ironic,” “Head Over Feet,” “Uninvited,” “Thank You,” ‘You Learn” and the lead single “You Oughta Know” are among those performed.

Admittedly, I was never a fan of alternative rock music so I wasn’t dialed into Morissette’s body of work that brought her seven Grammy Awards. Unlike other jukebox musicals where I was familiar with and loved the music, I was stepping into the unknown.  As a result, I was quite pleased with the songs with several being emotionally charged and overflowing with passion. They were adroitly slotted in the story, leading to a moving theatrical experience.

With the extraordinary set designed by Riccardo Hernández, the brilliant Lighting Design by Justin Townsend, the grunge-like costumes by Emily Rebholz, Tom Kitt’s potent orchestration, and the stellar performances by the overwhelmingly young and energetic cast, you get a HAIR meets RENT vibe with the atmospherics and the types of issues explored.

Jagged Little Pill, which was nominated for a record fifteen Tony Awards in 2020 and winning two including Best Book of a Musical, aims a spotlight on such sensitive matters as drug addiction, rape, racism, sexuality, privilege and teenage angst.  The Healy family and the other characters in the cast provide the vehicle to navigate the pain these issues bring upon them.

Set in a Connecticut suburb, Mary Jane “MJ” Healy (played exceptionally by Heidi Blickenstaff in reprising her original Broadway role) is the central character. As the mother of two teenagers, and a controlling one at that, MJ attempts to be the force to keep the family on track so as to not sully the family’s (meaning her) reputation. She is recovering from an auto accident and is on prescription drugs to cope with the pain. When the prescriptions run out, she resorts to alternative means of acquiring the opiates to satisfy her addiction. MJ had also suffered another traumatic experience that is revealed later in the show.

Jade McLeod as Jo (l.) and Lauren Chanel as Frankie

This addiction is unknown to her husband Steve (played by Chris Hoch). An attorney who spends way too much time at work to provide for the family, Steve has noticed the widening gulf between him and MJ and is at a loss to understand why the intimacy has all but vanished. He turns to porn as a means to satisfy his needs, and they both seek help from a marriage counselor.

Adopted daughter Frankie (played by Lauren Chanel) has her own set of problems. She is a Black teenager in a mainly white world at home, at school and in her neighborhood. Frankie is trying to find her voice, identity and sexuality.

She’s had an interest in her long-time friend and gender non-conforming Jo (played by Jade McLeod) but also found an attraction to a boy Phoenix (Rishi Golani) and had a sexual encounter with him. Jo literally walks into the bedroom where this occurred and told Frankie’s parents.

Virtually throughout the show Frankie is clad in tight, short shorts mainly because her parents disapprove of her attire and this is probably a manifestation of rebellion.

For his part, son and older brother Nick (Dillon Klena) is burdened by the pressure of being the only member of the clan who has a chance of normalcy so more is expected of him. Being accepted in Harvard is great but he, too, has a difficult challenge. He witnessed a rape of a student named Bella (Allison Sheppard) by his friend Andrew (Jason Goldston) but never intervened.

Through powerful dialogue and song, the problems of this modern-day family are worked through. Although the subject matter is often dark and intense, there are enough comical moments tossed in to balance the emotions. Simply put, Jagged Little Pill is a dark comedy.

Aesthetically, the production is superb. Everything on the stage seems to be in perpetual motion. It is difficult to recall a show with so much movement of scenery, set pieces and projections—all executed flawlessly and smoothly—adding a high-tempo pace to the show. Throw in the stunning lighting and you have an eye-pleasing spectacle.

The basic set includes a geometric, angular frame resembling an outline of a house with set pieces moving in from upstage and across. Moveable large panels are used that are on an angle giving the entire set a “jagged” look, which is undoubtedly the intention. The orchestra is seated on top of a scaffold upstage.

As Mary Jane, Heidi Blickenstaff excels on all fronts. Her acting is skilled as she convincingly plays the distraught, desperate wife and mother trying to overcome her own weaknesses.  Her later overdose gives her an additional opportunity for Ms. Blickenstaff to burnish her acting skills.  The actress demonstrates her spectacular vocals in such numbers as “Smiling” and ‘Uninvited” as well as several group numbers.

Chris Hoch does a fine job as Steve. His ability to touchingly convey the frustration from a relationship slipping away is spot-on. He sings well in a few group numbers including “All I Really Want,” “So Unsexy,” and “Mary Jane” displaying a strong baritone voice.

Playing the part of Frankie is Lauren Chanel. She effectively conveys the anger and rebellious nature of this 16-year-old dealing with being an African American with her environment almost entirely consisting of white people.

Frankie is also bisexual. When she came out to her parents, they were stunned by the revelation. An argument ensued about her having sex with a boy and she ran away to New York, albeit temporarily. 

Frankie’s relationship with Jo is complicated by Jo’s desire to intimately be with her and the resulting jealousy of Phoenix that threatens their friendship.

Ms. Chanel’s vocals shine in “Ironic,” a duet with Rishi Golani as Phoenix and in “Unprodigal  Daughter.”

Handsome Dillon Klina plays Frankie’s older brother Nick. His acting is proficient especially when Nick confronts MJ regarding the rape he witnessed. She does not want him to report it because it would follow him forever and ruin his reputation. He deftly snaps back and told her it was her reputation she was trying to protect.

MJ tells Nick that he is the only thing she did right, and he reflects on that pressure with his solo “Perfect.”   

"Aesthetically, the production is superb."

One of the bright lights of this production is Jade McLeod, who superbly plays the gender non-conforming Jo.  Raised by a religious mother who tells them that they does not wear sufficiently feminine clothing and life is too hard as it is, Jo is confident and secure in their identity. They truly want an intimate relationship with Frankie but the latter’s bisexuality provides a barrier.

Jade McLeod’s vocals soar in “Hand in My Pocket,” a solo “Your House,” and the production’s show stopping number and best seller from the album “You Oughta Know.” The audience exploded with cheers at the conclusion of that song, which expresses Jo’s anger and passion.

As Bella, a withdrawn and hurt student, Allison Sheppard does a splendid job as the rape victim. She movingly expresses the frustration of not being believed and when MJ discloses that she had also been raped, she found no solace as MJ could not state when the pain would end. This was one of the most emotional scenes in the show.

Ms. Sheppard commands a mighty voice and  excels in “Predator” and “No.”

The remainder of the cast is excellent, notably Rishi Golan as Frankie’s boyfriend Phoenix and Jason Goldston as Andrew, a privileged student who committed the rape.

The youthful Ensemble is outstanding with their high-energy dancing that is choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaqui and wonderful vocals in performing in most of the numbers.

The song “Thank U” is yet another show stopper in which the cast and Ensemble perform.

In short, Little Jagged Pill is theatre at its best. It contains all the elements that make a musical so entertaining. Powerful messages on serious issues conveyed by Alanis Morissette’s stirring music and lyrics and performed by a talented cast give it an edgy feel and puts this show in the “don’t miss” category.

Running time. Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

Jagged Little Pill runs through December 18 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 BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

Photos: MurphyMade

Friday, December 02, 2022

The Republicans’ Nazi Problem

By now, most of us have read or heard about the infamous pre-Thanksgiving dinner former president Donald Trump held with anti-Semite Kanye West (now named Ye) and also self-described anti-Semite, Holocaust denier and white nationalist scumbag Nick Fuentes. Following rather bad press from the dinner at Mar-a-Lago, Trump claimed (as he always does) that he didn’t know who Fuentes was at that time. Trump also denied knowing the identity of his sexual assault accusers, his pal Jeffrey Epstein, former KKK leader David Duke and a host of others who make him look bad in the public eye.

But he knows him now. Trump will never condemn somebody who praises him. This is part of his psychopathic narcissism. No matter what a person believes in or what he does, as long as he or she flatters Trump, nothing else matters.

Trump knew that Ye has been the author of a slew of anti-Semitic tropes and yet still agreed to sit down and break bread with this lunatic. This week, Ye tweeted an image of a swastika embedded inside the Star of David to burnish even further his anti-Semitic bona fides.

That earned him a mere 12-hour suspension from Twitter’s new chief Elon Musk, which is tantamount to a 2-minute hooking penalty. And for good measure, on the Alex Jones podcast or whatever the hell that platform is, Ye doubled down and praised Hitler for doing good things.

While outcries from Republican leaders and elected officials have mostly expressed opposition to anti-Semitism, few have lambasted Trump directly. To be clear, some have criticized his judgment for holding such a dinner confab. By judgment, they mean allowing media types to witness this event, which would embarrass and harm the party.

Chris Christie, a potential challenger against Trump in 2024 and a weathervane when it comes to all things Trump, was one of the early commenters.

“We have to stop the whispered concerns and veiled statements, and we have to stand up for the principles and the beliefs that our country and party were founded on. There is no place for antisemitism or white supremacists in the Republican Party and no place for anyone who gives people like Nick Fuentes the time of day. Donald Trump’s recent actions and history of poor judgment make him untenable as a candidate for our party.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed those sentiments days later but declined to point a finger at Trump by name.

He’s not alone. While the media continues to berate Trump for dining with Nazi sympathizers, few

Jew-hating and Trump-loving Nick Fuentes
Republicans have directly criticized Trump by name and none, as far as I know, disavowed him completely. Potential House Speaker Kevin McCarthy hasn’t figured out what to say. Boy, is he going to have a rough ride come January.

Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida seen by many as the heir apparent to Trump, has avoided the fracas so far. And that is deliberate.

Dan Eberhart, a long time GOP donor and Trump donor told Rolling Stone, “My understanding is that the DeSantis team doesn’t see upside in kicking off the fight with Trump this early, even if it may be inevitable. Wading into the Fuentes fiasco just isn’t worth it for them. The media will harpoon Trump without Team DeSantis lifting a finger.”

Such courage! My feeling is that if DeSantis can’t stand up to the twice-impeached, three-time loser, soon-to-be-indicted, disgraced ex-president, how will he stand up to Putin or Kim Jung-Un?

The answer is simple. Republicans still fear Trump but more broadly, his bigoted white supremacist base. They are under the illusion that they will win elections by keeping this shrinking group of racists and/or Nazi sympathizers in tow.

It’s not going to happen. Trump will or should be forever linked to hobnobbing with Nazis and Hitler admirers. Of course, this wasn't his first foray with Nazis. How can we forget "there are very fine people on both sides" line following the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville?

That hundreds of thousands of American servicemen lost their lives in the fight against Hitler and Nazism and preserve our freedoms will be etched in the minds of decent and genuinely patriotic Americans. 

Trump’s behavior and the Republicans’ tepid, cowardly response crosses a line that will or should permanently destroy the party of Trump.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Toby’s Puts the Wonderful in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

The musical version of It’s a Wonderful Life returns to Toby’s, The Dinner Theatre of Columbia, as its featured holiday production. With its heartwarming charm, the musical hews closely to the Frank Capra film classic starring Jimmy Stewart that has been a Christmas staple on TV for decades.

Under the direction of Toby Orenstein and her two Assistants to the Director Mark Minnick and Tina Marie DeSimone, the production brings to life the loveable and not-so loveable characters from the film—and in living color, no less. From a book and adaptation by Michael Tilford and with a sweet score and clever lyrics by David Nehls, Toby’s iteration of this classic is perfect for the holiday season (though the connection to Christmas doesn’t directly take place until the second act) and a joyful, needed escape from the times we are living in now.

Led by the stalwart efforts of the multi-talented Justin Calhoun as the central character George Bailey, the entire cast is outstanding in delivering an energetic, well-staged and expertly performed production.

The overarching theme of the story that takes place in the small town of Bedford Falls spanning the 1920s to 1940s is that life is worth living no matter how bad things may appear. Every life has value if you do good deeds that touch upon others.

To be sure, George Bailey did good deeds starting at a young age. He saved his younger brother Harry’s life from drowning. He prevented a pharmacist, Mr. Gower, from accidentally adding poison to a prescription. He reluctantly postponed plans to travel the world to take over his father’s Building and Loan business after the elder Bailey died. He kept the business open despite the hardships of the times and the pirating efforts by the town’s owner of everything else in Bedford Falls, the villain Mr. Potter.

Along the way and in the face of these challenges, George found love and married Mary. They began a family.

But things went sideways at the Building and Loan as $8,000, which was supposed to be deposited in the bank by George’s Uncle Billy, went missing. It had been found by Potter who kept it. 

Frantic and unable to find the money, the business was under a threat of being shut down as a result of a review by a bank examiner, Mr. Carter. George was facing imminent arrest for malfeasance and other charges. Predictably, Mr. Potter refused to grant him a last-ditch loan to overcome his quandary. He told George that he “is worth more dead than alive.”

Unable to wrest himself from this plight, George took out his frustration on his wife and children. In despair, he climbed on top of a bridge to jump and take his own life. His guardian angel, Clarence, under the mentorship of a winged angel, Joseph, intervened and then George said he wished he was never born.

Clarence, in pursuit of earning wings of his own, proceeded to demonstrate how things would have developed had there been no George Bailey. His brother Harry Bailey would have died from drowning rather than being a national hero in the war. Mr. Gower would have been punished for the poisoned prescription. The town would be called Pottersville as Potter would have owned everything. Nobody in the town including friends knew who George was.  Mary would not have married, and the three cute children would have never been born.  The message worked, and everything eventually played out for a happy ending.

"Toby’s iteration of this classic is perfect for the holiday season..."

Scenic designer David A. Hopkins and Properties Designer Shane Lowry crafted a simple set depicting the town of Bedford Falls with the use of streetlamps surrounding the in-the-round stage and other touches on the walls. The use of the balconies and an excellent facsimile of a bridge from which George intended to jump enhance the aesthetics. Numerous set pieces are employed, such as a bank window and desks,, and were moved on and off the stage as efficiently as Santa’s deliveries on Christmas Eve. The transformation from bar stools to grave stones with just a flick of the wrist is particularly well done.

While there isn’t an abundance of dancing throughout the show, Tina Marie DeSimone’s up-tempo choreography hits the mark. The dancers excel in such numbers as “Syncopation Rag,” “A Very Special Occasion,” and “This Round is On Me.”

Reenie Codelka led the six-piece orchestra on the night this show was reviewed (Ross Scott Rawlings takes the baton on other performances) and supported the vocalists very well without overpowering them.

Lynn Joslin’s Lighting Design and Mark Smedley’s Sound Design as well as the period costumes designed by Sarah King contributed to the realistic atmosphere of the time.

Justin Calhoun, in a tour de force, excels as the earnest and well-intentioned George Bailey. His marvelous tenor voice delights in “I’m On My Way,” “Lullaby,” and “I’m At Home” among others. Mr. Calhoun’s stellar acting skills are showcased in this demanding role. Convincingly playing a full range of emotions from bliss to anxiety, to enthusiasm, to love, to generosity, to frustration, to anger, to despair, to triumph, Mr. Calhoun is superb. Watching his performance alone is worth the price of admission. Bravo Justin Calhoun!

Robert Biedermann channels his inner Lionel Barrymore as the wheel chaired-bound Scrooge-like villain, Mr. Potter. Mr. Biedermann effectively portrays the gruff, miserly, mean and joyless tycoon to the hilt without going over the top, which would have been easy to do. A few in the audience did boo him (hopefully good-naturedly) at curtain call to signify how effective Mr. Biedermann performed.

For comic relief, one can always count on Toby’s resident cut-up David James. He plays the part of Clarence, George’s guardian angel in his quest to earn wings, with mischief and precise comedic timing. As his mentor Joseph, DeCarlo Raspberry is more than up to the task in the role of keeping not only Clarence in check but also Mr. James. Neither is an easy task.

This duo offers the teachable moments in the story and binds the events effectively. Sadly, we don’t get the chance to enjoy Mr. Raspberry’s amazing singing voice in this show, but Mr. James does a fine job in the spirited “Ya Gotta Have Wings.”

Lovely MaryKate Brouillet plays Mary, George’s wife with tenderness. She rides the rollercoaster of George’s journey of emotions and conveys her devotion to him and her children. As she has demonstrated in other Toby’s productions, Ms. Brouillet commands a beautiful singing voice. “My Wish is You” and “Mary’s Sequence” stand out. Her vocals shine in a duet with Mr. Calhoun in ‘I’m at Home.”

Other notable members of the cast include Adrienne Athanas, David Bosley Reynolds, Tina Marie DeSimone, AJ Whittenberger, Jeffrey Shankle, Shawn Kettering, Heather Beck, Santina Maiolatesi, Adam Grabau, Jane C. Boyle, Gerald Jordan, Jordan Stocksdale, Lydia Gifford, Andrew Horn and Susan Thornton.

The Bailey children are being portrayed by Jana Sharbaugh, Lucas Rahaim and Gwyneth Porter on this night with Ava and Mia LaManna and Jackson Page during other performances.

On a personal note, it was heartwarming to see Jane C. Boyle, Tina Marie DeSimone and AJ Whittenberger return to the Toby’s stage. They may have been gone for a while for various reasons but their talent did not subside at all. They are terrific.

Adding to a long list of triumphant shows at Toby’s is It’s a Wonderful Life. A very talented cast and crew under excellent direction makes this a pleasant experience with a much-needed happy ending to enjoy during the holiday season. And bring your appetite to partake in Toby’s scrumptious show-themed dinner buffet.

Running time. Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission. The show begins 15 minutes earlier than usual.

It’s a Wonderful Life: The Musical runs through January 15, 2023, 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 the website as well as Ticketmaster.

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography


Not everybody can be fortunate enough to have a guardian angel help them navigate through the trials and tribulations of life. And this is especially significant during the holidays when many feel lonely and detached.  The lessons taught in It’s a Wonderful Life are valuable in reminding audiences that all lives have value no matter how bad things seem to be. To call the Suicide Prevention Crisis Hotline, dial 988.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Who’s the Next GOP's Bogeywoman?

When Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she is stepping down from the Democratic leadership position, the response by the vapid, classless, near brain-dead Republican leader, soon to be Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, was predictable. “We have fired Nancy Pelosi,” he declared triumphantly as he made it personal. Such statesmanship! Such grace!

That’s who he is. That’s what the Republican Party is.

Republicans as a matter of policy have had a long history of being anti-women from health care to raising the minimum wage to childcare to abortion rights and everything in between. The “grab ‘em by the p***y” former president offered the anti-woman crowd hope. Right wing media with the likes of Tucker Carlson and the late Rush Limbaugh have pushed the misogyny along.

Over the past few decades, the Republican Party bludgeoned Hillary Clinton with their misinformation and disinformation. The campaign against Ms. Clinton had been relentless and began in earnest before she was the First Lady.

Conspiracy theories sprung up like April dandelions. There was absolutely no stopping these baseless onslaughts. But thanks to social media, people believed she was running a pedophilia ring out of a D.C. pizza joint and other nutty stuff.

When Ms. Clinton ran for president in 2016 the GOP had laid such a foundation of negativity that it was almost impossible to overcome, even as she was pitted against a dimwit, narcissistic TV personality and lying conman. Her missing emails became the equivalent of a nuclear attack. 

Her role as Secretary of State under President Obama in the Benghazi debacle was investigated over and over again with nothing substantive to report. And who could forget Trump’s never ending moniker "Crooked Hillary "?

The Republicans also attacked Nancy Pelosi ruthlessly over the years. As is in the case of Ms. Clinton, the GOP couldn’t bear the fact the country had a strong, intelligent woman as a leader. This treatment emboldened the Speaker. She stood up to Trump on numerous occasions and embarrassed the former president with her antics at meetings and at the State of the Union Address.

So vitriolic the Republican Party has been towards, Ms. Pelosi, she was hunted down by the members of the violent mob Trump incited on January 6. “Oh Nancy. Nancy? Where are you, Nancy.”

And last month a nutcase broke into her home in San Francisco looking for her to kidnap and perhaps break her kneecaps and wound up banging her husband with a hammer.

A champion of women and children’s issues, Speaker Pelosi fought for legislation in an attempt to level the playing field for women. She constantly held her caucus together—no small accomplishment given the disparate ideological wings of the party. And the thing that provides her with a great deal of satisfaction has been the progress in seating a more diverse Congress.

“When I came to the Congress in 1987, there were 12 Democratic women.  Now, there are over 90.  And we want more!,” she said during her floor speech on November 17 where she announced her future plans.

Yes, the Republicans have pummeled the likes of Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi for electoral reasons. But make no mistake, the main motivation is fundraising. The GOP has probably raised billions over the years off of these two strong women by a base that is not onboard with strong women leading the country.

Now with Hillary Clinton out of the limelight for the most part and Nancy Pelosi serving out her term as a member of Congress and not the leader, who will be the next Republican bogeywoman?

Republicans have been going after Gretchen Whitmer,  AOC and other members of the "Squad."

Now all eyes will soon turn to Vice President Kamala Harris. She has already taken shots by the Republicans since her term, but will they intensify? It could be at their peril because attacking the first ever African American and female vice president in the manner they attacked these other powerful women may not be received well by suburban women, young people and independents among other groups.

It will happen though. It’s who they are.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Compelling ‘Tina’ Electrifies the Hippodrome

Adding to its growing list of solid jukebox/bio musicals, Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre is presenting Tina: The Tina Turner Musical as part of the show’s 30-city North America tour. This mounting could not have been better if it tried. With spectacular staging and lighting, wonderful toe-tapping songs, a brilliantly acted gritty storyline, and an abundance of musical talent on display, Tina delivers one of the best all-around jukebox musicals in memory.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd with a book by Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar, and Kees Prins, the musical takes the audience on a journey in the life of Anna-Mae Bullock (whose name eventually changed to Tina Turner) from a youngster in Nutbush, Tennessee to the summit of an internationally revered musical career. Her story chronicles one of the most amazing comebacks in music history in becoming “The Queen of Rock ‘n Roll.”

Tina’s journey is riveting. As much as the musical showcases Tina Turner’s catalogue of big-time hits that earned her 12 Grammy Awards and her twice induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, what she had to endure along the way is captivating.

Many of the dramatic episodes involve her tumultuous, sometimes violent relationship with Ike Turner, who launched Tina’s career and gave her the stage name she continued to use. Ike was a short-tempered, controlling, abusive womanizer who slapped Tina during their frequent arguments. She maintained that she loved him but was forced to run away from him after yet another violent fight and his striking one of Tina’s two children.

Tina also had to confront blatant racism and ageism not only in the 60’s and 70’s South but also in dealing with record label moguls. Moreover, her mother, Zelma, whom Tina believed was never supportive of her, adds to the struggle.  Even without any music in this show, the compelling drama alone would make for good theatre.

But there is music, and lots of it. The audience will be familiar with Tina Turner’s hits performed in the show though not presented in chronological order of their release. Such favorites like “River Deep—Mountain High,” “Private Dancer,” “Proud Mary,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” and “(Simply) The Best” are among the 24 musical numbers in the show.

"...Tina delivers one of the best all-around jukebox musicals in memory."

Because of the drama woven throughout, the songs performed do not constitute a concert. Nonetheless, a two-song mini-concert with all the spectacular lighting and other concert effects takes place following the curtain call, so wait for that.

The entire production is an electrifying spectacle. With brilliant hue-rich lighting by Bruno Poet and projections by Jeff Sugg, the scenes change not just smoothly, not just seamlessly, but instantly—in a blink—lending to the rapid pacing of the show. Nevin Steinberg’s superb sound design and Music Director Anne Shuttlesworth and the orchestra support the vocalists exceptionally without overpowering them.  Credit Set and Costume Designer Mark Thompson for his contributions to the show’s aesthetics.

During this run, the lead role of Tina is split between Zurin Villanueva and Naomi Rodger in alternate performances. On the night this performance was reviewed, Zurin Villanueva was the lead.

In a tour-de-force, it’s not enough to say that Ms. Villanueva has a magnificent singing voice with enormous range and power. She can also dance, and she can act. In fact, her acting skills grab your attention as much as her vocals.

This versatile performer is extremely convincing as a woman who had to suffer through the abuse of Ike reflected by frequent shouting matches embedded in their arguments. Tina’s frayed relationship with her mother and the dynamics with her managers during her career are nuanced and conveyed well. All of this while belting out songs to near perfection, and she performs in just about all of them.

Her most touching moment was near the end of the first act when Tina escaped from Ike after another violent episode and was reduced to literally beg a motel clerk to let her spend the night. She only had 36 cents in her possession but promised to pay him back. Her heartrending number “I Don’t Wanna Fight No More” describes her plight.

Garrett Turner is convincing as the gruff, manipulative and violent villain Ike Turner. Mr. Turner (no relation) delivers a strong, commanding performance and contributes to the high drama. So effective is he in the role that at curtain call he received a smattering of boos from the audience. His deep baritone is on display in the solo “Rocket 88/Matchbox” and with Ms. Villanueva in the iconic “Proud Mary.”

Roz White delivers a mighty performance as Tina’s mother Zelma. Having been abused by her own husband, Zelma has been tough on Tina throughout her life. She even attempted to get Tina and Ike to reconcile prior to her death but to no avail. Ms. White is excellent in the role and performs well in a duet with Ms. Villanueva in the reprise of “Don’t Turn Around.”

Young Ayvah Johnson is a standout and an audience favorite in portraying Young Anna-Mae. Her excellent vocals are on display in the group number “Nutbush City Limits.”

Other notable cast members include Lael Van Keuren as Rhonda, Tina’s first manager; Taylor Blackman as Raymond, Tina’s second manager, Jacob Roberts-Miller (for this performance) as Roger Davies as another manager; Andre Hinds as Craig, Tina’s son; Parris Lewis as Alline, Tina’s sister; Antonio Beverly as Ronnie, another son of Tina; Geoffrey Kidwell as Phil Spector and other roles; and Ann Nesby as Tina’s grandmother, Gran Geogeanna. The remainder of the talented, high-energy cast and Ensemble contribute to the high quality of the production.

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical is a sterling production that showcases magnificent talent and songs and also brings to light in an honest manner some of the nagging sores of our society. This is a musical that should not be missed.

Running time. Two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory. The show contains scenes of domestic violence and profanity including the use of the N-word and is not recommended for children under 14.

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical runs through November 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 BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

Images: MurphyMade

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Groundbreaking ‘Beauty and the Beast’ Graces Olney Theatre

Evan Ruggiero as the Beast and Jade Jones as Belle

Over the past few years, the Olney Theatre Center has been mounting productions that have transcended conventional theatrical boundaries in its goal to “drive social change, better humanity, inspire joy, and bring communities together.” Some of these efforts involve a particular theme of the production, some involve casting decisions, and others simply try out something new.

In staging Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in 2021, the artistic team decided to go outside the box and cast as the lead a self-described queer, plus-sized Black woman, Jade Jones, who plays the role of Belle, “the most beautiful girl in town.”

Olney Theatre made a conscious effort to expand the stereotypical notions of beauty onstage in this casting choice, and it worked marvelously. In addition, Olney cast Evan Ruggiero, an acclaimed tap dancer and actor who lost a leg to cancer as a teenager, to play the role of the Beast. Demonstrating that his condition was not an impediment to his performance, Mr. Ruggiero also succeeded.

Unfortunately, the production had to be cut short in 2021 because of a surge in a Covid variant. Determined to build on the success of the original production, Olney Theatre has brought back Disney’s Beauty and the Beast to the Main Stage to run through the holidays with most of the cast including these superb leads returning.

Under the meticulous direction of Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the snappy choreography of Josh Walden and the musical direction of Walter “Bobby” McCoy, the show excels on many fronts. Besides the talented leads and ensemble, the glorious set designed by Narelle Sissons, the extraordinary period costumes by Ivania Stack, the wigs designed by Ali Pohanka, the exceptional lighting by Colin L. Bills and the crisp sound by Matt Rowe, Beauty and the Beast is far more beauty than beast.

"[Jade Jones as Belle] is, in fact, perfect for the role."

Let me emphasize that Jade Jones as Belle is indeed beautiful. There is no concern, nor should there be that because they doesn’t look like Belle in the animated film or in previous iterations of the stage production, that they is not perfect for the role. Blessed with extraordinary vocal talent and acting abilities, any stereotypes about beauty vanish by their performance. Jade Jones is, in fact, perfect for the role.

Likewise, Mr. Ruggiero as the Beast, who continued to pursue dancing as a career even after the amputation, effectively moves about the stage peg leg and all and is an inspiration. He also possesses a muscular baritone voice that is a joy to hear.   

The musical, which opened on Broadway in 1994 and was based on the 1991 animated feature film with the same name, became the 10th  longest ever running musical on Broadway. It features the Oscar-winning score with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman, with additional songs composed by Alan Menken and lyrics by Tim Rice. The book is written by Linda Woolverton.

Show-stopping well-choreographed production numbers, such as “Be Our Guest,” “Gaston,” and “Human Again” that

showcase the singing and dancing talents of the ensemble are audience pleasers to be sure.  Yet, it is the fairy tale itself that sweeps you away on an emotional and romantic journey.  

The story of a spoiled prince who had been transformed by an enchantress into a boorish, hot-tempered beast until he can find love and return to his human form before petals fall off from an eternal rose given by the enchantress and a beautiful woman Belle from a provincial town is tender and endearing. This relationship has the audience rooting hard for both.  Also pushing enthusiastically for the couple to fall in love are various servants in the prince’s castle who were converted into household objects when the spell was cast on the prince.  They, too, have a stake in the spell being removed.

Simultaneously, the town’s egomaniacal, narcissistic, preening bully, Gaston, rejected by Belle to be his wife, strives to make her change her mind. 

Simply put, Jade Jones as Belle, shines throughout.  Considered “weird” by the townsfolk because of her passion for books, Belle is strong-minded, and her eventual attraction to the beast that requires his becoming more gentlemanly for starters is tearful in its sweetness.   Ms. Jones’ Broadway-caliber vocal prowess is evidenced in the ballads “Belle,” “Home” and “A Change in Me.”

For his part, Evan Ruggiero as the Beast is superb.  He is called upon to be mean and demanding only to soften his demeanor as he becomes emotionally closer to Belle. His on-stage transformation back to being human displaying his handsome countenance at the show’s end with the ingenious use of lighting techniques is spectacular.  Mr. Ruggiero’s powerful voice is evident in “How Long Must This Go On?” and “If I Can’t Love Her.” As mentioned earlier, he overcomes his physical challenges flawlessly.

Michael Burrell romps through his role as the superior, perfect-looking God’s gift to the world, Gaston.  His character, though an antagonist, provides much of the comic relief throughout because of his over-the-top self-centeredness with the amusing and energetic help from John Sygar as Lefou, Gaston’s goofy, ever-fawning sidekick.  Mr. Burrell’s commanding baritone in the heavily misogynistic “Me,” “Gaston” and “The Mob Song” is on display.

As noted earlier, the Beast’s staff had been turned into such objects as a teapot (Mrs. Potts played by Kelli Blackwell).  Her rendition of the beautiful title song was performed sweetly. 

Other characters in this group include Cogsworth, the clock (Dylan Arredondo); Babette, the feather duster (Haley Rebecca Ibberson); Lumiere, the candelabra (Bobby Smith); operatic Madame de la Grande Bouche, the wardrobe (Tracy Lynn Olivera); and Chip, the cup (Arianna Caldwell).  All performed well in their mostly comic roles as foils to the Beast.

Also, turning in a solid performance is Sasha Olinick as Maurice, Belle’s inventor-father thought to be crazy by Gaston and the town folk.

The remaining members of the talented and energetic cast include Connor James Reilly, Selena Clyne-Galindo, Erica Leigh Hansen, Miya Hamashige, Megan Tatum, Jessica Bennett, Ariel Messeca, David Singleton, Tyler M. White, Michael Wood and Felicia Curry.

The set, which is comprised of a facsimile of a castle’s great hall with a staircase and balcony, is essentially the only scenery used. Movements of the stairs and dropdown lighting fixtures as well as lighting changes, moveable set pieces and props signal shifts in locale, such as the town and woods as well as the castle.  Additionally, there is a clever round depiction of a rose that tracks the falling of the pedals on the rear wall.

Hundreds of costume pieces are employed including colorful 18th century gowns, dresses with hoopskirts, as well as attire for wolves and the beast himself.  Creative devices are used to outfit the enchanted objects—clock, tea pot, candelabra, etc.  There are great challenges in designing such costumes but Ivania Stack succeeds spectacularly, which fortifies the aesthetics of the show.

This production proves why the musical has received such worldwide popularity. No matter our age, we can all enjoy a good fairy tale with a happy ending to brighten our lives.  Bring the kids, too; they’ll love it.

The desire on the part of the Olney Theatre to make the theatre experience inclusive, shatter stereotypes, and open doors to all talented people regardless of how they look, who they love, where they’re from, and the nature of their physical abilities is laudable and appreciated.  They should be applauded along with the performers and creative and technical teams.

Running time. Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through January 1, 2023, 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 by Teresa Castracane Photography

Saturday, November 12, 2022

GOP: Don’t Blame Trump, Blame Yourselves

The votes haven’t all been counted yet so that which party will control the House of Representatives remains unclear.  The Senate is officially blue, however. What is known is that the nearly unanimous expected “red wave” did not materialize. In fact, the only red seen is the color of the faces of those embarrassed pundits, right wing media, and other Republican cheerleaders who confidently predicted otherwise.

Instead of the “bloodbath” that Donnie Dipshit, Jr. declared on Twitter on election night, the Dems will likely hold the Senate and perhaps increase their position by an extra seat pending the outcome of the Georgia runoff on December 6. They have a steep climb to retain their majority in the House but the Democrats are still mathematically in it. Even if they don’t quite get there, the GOP will be in control but with the slightest of margins, which will give them political migraines for at least two years. Donald Trump, Jr.’s tweet did not age well.

But Junior was not alone. No Republican (or Democrat for that matter) predicted this shocker.  To be clear, the polls leading up to Election Day (now Week) indicated that inflation and the economy was the number one issue and that would, as well as historical precedent, gerrymandering and the unpopularity of the president, be a burden on the party in power.

It didn’t.

Rather, the Republican controlled Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs case that essentially overturned Roe v. Wade angered women and young people. Democrats also realized how our democracy was on the ballot as hundreds of election deniers and conspiracy nuts were running for offices at all levels.

They voted in great numbers their fury at the SCOTUS ruling and in the need to protect democracy. Republicans incorrectly assumed that Dobbs was sufficiently distanced in the rear-view mirror, as well as the horrors of January 6 and that the energy would fade. The predicted red wave would wash over the country; just a lot of embarrassment and finger pointing resulted instead.

Then there was the Trump effect. The former president was not on the ballot, but he might as well have been. He encouraged potential candidates at all levels who were mini-Trumps and who bended their knees to him to run in primaries. To be sure, these weren’t the best candidates the Republican Party could have recruited, e.g., Herschel Walker. Cringing at this roster, party leaders crossed their fingers that the red wave would be too strong, and that inflation would trump the inexperience, incompetence and extremism that the mini-Trumps possessed.

Most lost their elections, not just in Congress but gubernatorial races, state legislatures and secretaries of state candidates were defeated. There were some victories, of course, but not enough to propel a red wave.

So, with eggs on their faces, the humbled and humiliated Republican establishment has finally begun to recognize that Donald Trump is an albatross. After all, he has been linked to Congressional losses in 2018, lost the presidential race and Senate in 2020 and now may have contributed to thwarting the red wave.

With Governor Ron DeSantis’ crushing victory in Florida, he instantly became the new darling of the party in some quarters. Seeing a replacement for Trump as the leader of the party on the horizon, some Republicans and right-wing media, such as FOX News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post have cast the loser label on Trump and are edging away from him. They are blaming him for the failure to capitalize on rising prices and an unpopular president.

Certainly, much of the blame should be leveled at Trump. He chose, endorsed and appeared at rallies on behalf of loyalists to him rather than qualified, competent candidates. Mehmet Oz’s defeat to John Fetterman in Pennsylvania that swung a former Republican seat into the Dem column was the singular most crushing example. Herschel Walker will be next come December.

However, the Republicans have themselves to blame for allowing Trump to go unfettered around the country choosing these people. Even Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, cringed at the lack of “candidate quality”. 

It started during the 2016 primaries when Trump made frequent racist and misogynous comments. He degraded John McCain and a Gold Star family, made fun of a disabled reporter and proceeded from there while president to the disgusting remarks surrounding Charlottesville where both sides including Nazis and KKK members contained “very fine people.”

Then there was the deadly violent insurrection in which Trump summoned and incited a mob to prevent the constitutionally mandated certification of votes at the Capitol on January 6.  Additionally, he participated in a fake elector scheme and in effect, tried to launch a coup.

After initial outrage by some Republicans to these events, they tried to whitewash them and hope that time would pass and that the insurrectionists were to be seen as tourists having a bad hair day. Heck, they wouldn’t even go along with a bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection.

Thus, they let Trump with his 74 million votes he garnered to run the party. At the second impeachment trial that focused on Trump, Mitch McConnell could have easily whipped votes to convict Trump (he put the blame squarely on Trump during a post-impeachment speech) so that he would be automatically disqualified to run for federal office again. He wimped out.

Image: cartoonmovement.com
Now, the new dilemma for Republicans is Trump’s impending announcement to run again for president in 2024. They don’t want him to make such a declaration at least until the December 6 runoff. But Trump needs to act fast because he knows, as well as many legal observers, that indictments will be handed down in short order. He wants the cover of being a candidate to claim the indictments are partisan. It appears that’s his only defense.

The Republicans’ empowering him because of their fear of his base and allowing Trump to run loose to hand pick his sycophants in these midterm elections is the price one pays. It’s like allowing an unrestrained dog to roam your house only to find that he chewed on the furniture. Do you blame the dog or yourself for providing him the opportunity to do what dogs do?

It’s on you, Republicans, not Trump.


I was in the minority, but back in May, I wrote a piece describing why the doom of the Democrats may be avoided in these midterms. You can read it here.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

‘Hamilton’ Makes its Shot at the Hippodrome

I wish that American History was taught back in the day in the manner it is presented in the highly acclaimed musical Hamilton.  The show, which is gracing Baltimore’s majestic Hippodrome Theatre as part of a national tour, presents an inventive, moving, uber-entertaining and informative story of the country’s Founding Fathers. It centers on the life and death of Alexander Hamilton spanning the American Revolution era and beyond over a period of 30 years.

While historians may quibble about the accuracy of some of the events and interactions as depicted in the musical (and the admitted taking of some dramatic license in conveying the story), it’s pretty darn close. You should simply relax and soak it all up during what must be described as a spectacular production and an exhilarating theatrical experience.

Written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), who also starred in the show on Broadway, the 2015 musical captured 11 Tony Awards out of a record 16 nominations at the 70th Tony Awards presentation in 2016 including Best Musical as well as numerous other accolades including a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. And for good measure, it won a Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama.

Miranda was inspired by the story on the Pulitzer-winning biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.  The success of the show on Broadway and elsewhere as well as on tour is utterly breathtaking, and for the longest time, a ticket to Hamilton was like finding gold. But here it is, in Charm City. And yes, tickets are currently available for weeknight performances, so there is gold to be had.

Hamilton’s style and music blend contemporary with the historical in a complex and layered musical arrangement. There is little dialogue outside of the songs. As such, Miranda’s music is presented with mostly hip-hop songs with conventional ballads mixed in and performed superbly by a cast that is comprised of largely people of color. A little campiness and some comedic lines are thrown in along the way. These elements are aimed at appealing to a younger generation.

Virtually all the songs are top rate.  They narrate the story and adroitly capture the emotions of the principals. Songs like “Wait for It,” “My Shot,” “The Room Where It Happens,” “The Story of Tonight,” “Dear Theodosia,” “Non-Stop,” "Washington on Your Side,” “One Last Time,” and the incredible “Satisfied” are among my favorites, but you can’t go wrong with any number.

Conductor Emmanuel Schvartzman and the orchestra are excellent in executing Miranda's score without overwhelming the vocalists so that all lyrics are clearly heard. This is significant because the lyrics relate much of the story.

Thomas Kail’s meticulous direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s stunning and varied choreography keep the show moving like a whirlwind no matter the scene. Clad in exquisite period garb designed by Paul Tazewell, the talented company puts on a performance for the ages.

Campy King George
The musical breathes vibrancy into the colorful lives of the Founding Fathers.  As one would expect, Alexander Hamilton (played exceptionally by Pierre Jean Gonzalez) is the central figure. The show depicts Hamilton’s journey from being an immigrant orphan to anti-slavery advocate, to war hero, to George Washington’s right-hand man, to Secretary of the Treasury, to political influencer until he was not. Fueled by ambition and motivated by his legacy, Hamilton navigates his life that experienced triumphs and tragedies along the journey.

His relationship with his chief nemesis Aaron Burr was, as one could say, complicated. Played superbly by Jared Dixon, Burr was at times Hamilton’s friend, but through envy and jealousy, most other times, he was his rival. The intensity of the rivalry increases, and it led to the famous tragic duel at show’s end.

Hamilton found love and married Eliza Schuyler, one of the three daughters of the wealthy Phillip Schuyler in the production.

Throughout, Hamilton engages with other Founding Fathers Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison as well as Marquis de Lafayette, and for comic relief, King George with varying degrees of collegiality. These interactions and developments led to events that helped shape our country from the outset.

As Hamilton, Pierre Jean Gonzalez performs with blazing energy and passion. He raps most of his numbers, which bring to life the complexities of Hamilton’s emotions and personality.  Mr. Gonzalez is involved in the majority of the show’s songs with others in the cast and effectively channels his inner Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Jared Dixon as Aaron Burr is also a standout. Possessing a stellar voice, Mr. Dixon excels in “Wait for It,” “The Room Where it Happens” and “Guns and Ships” among several others. Commanding the stage, he proficiently conveys the up and down relationship with Hamilton.

On the night this show as reviewed, Jisel Soleil Ayon wonderfully played the devoted wife of Hamilton, Eliza. In an emotional role, she had to contend with her husband’s marital infidelity and time spent away from her to carry on his work. On top of that, she faced the death of her son in a duel. Her excellent vocals came to the fore in songs like “The Schuyler Sisters,” “Helpless,” “That Would Be Enough,” and the rare solo in the show “Burn” whereby she movingly copes with her husband’s betrayal and calls him out on his flaws.

"The musical breathes vibrancy into the colorful lives of the Founding Fathers."

Angelcia Schuyler, Eliza’s sister, is played Ta’Rea Campbell. A smart woman who envisions women’s liberation, she rapped that she isn’t concerned about the American Revolution; she wants a moment of revelation. Angelica also fell in love with Hamilton along with her younger sister, Eliza, but selflessly yielded to her so they could be married.  This is manifested in one of the show’s best songs, “Satisfied,” where Ms. Campbell’s proficiency in rap is outstanding.

Marcus Choi does an excellent job as George Washington. He exemplifies Washington’s commanding demeanor and possess an outstanding singing voice. He excels in “Non-Stop,”  “Cabinet Battle #1,” “Cabinet Battle #2,” and “One Last Time.”

In the role of Thomas Jefferson, Warren Egypt Franklin (he also plays Marquis de Lafayette) adds a little camp and cool to the show with his swagger. He opens the second act with “Wha’d I Miss,” a playful song and performs well in such numbers as “Washington on Your Side” and “The Election of 1800.”

Other notable performances include Desmond Sean Ellington as James Madison and Hercules Mulligan and Neil Haskell who plays the comic relief character, the glittery King George. Mr. Haskell excels in the solos “What Comes Next?” where he taunts the Founding Fathers and “I Know Him.”

The remainder of the cast and ensemble perform at a high level and exhibit outstanding moves in the precise and polished choreography.

Tony-nominated Scenic Designer David Korins designed an aesthetically attractive and functional set and the only set in the show. The dark bronze-colored scenery combined with Howell Binkley’s superb lighting design casts a brownish hue that is reminiscent of sepia toned photographs from over a century ago giving it an old-time feel. I don’t know if that was the goal, but that’s how I perceive it.

There is a frequently used turntable arrangement downstage, framed by scaffolding and a second-level catwalk. The multi-level set provides depth, changing the eye level of the action effectively.  The spinning turntable allows the musical to swirl and maintain the rapid-fire action as the performers stand still yet in motion.

Hamilton is one of the gold standards in musicals. It contains all the ingredients for an amazing evening of pure entertainment while you can brush up on your history, too. A talented cast and Miranda’s unique storytelling employing contemporary music and styles make Hamilton a standout.

The thunderous ovation received from the audience at show’s end does no justice to the word “thunder.” As stated previously, seats are currently available for weeknight performances though it will cost more than the $10 bill that Hamilton adorns. Take your shot; it’s worth it.

Running time. Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

Hamilton runs through October 30 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 BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

Photos by Philip Tour