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Wednesday, December 06, 2023

‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ est Splendide at the Hippodrome

When the doors to the auditorium open up at the historic Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore for this production, you are transported to the Montmartre Quarter of Paris, France in 1899 and more specifically to the notorious Moulin Rouge cabaret club, the birthplace of the French can-can. In its opulent, vivid red splendor, the Moulin Rouge with its famous red windmill on the roof represents a bit of raunch and a bit of gaudy decadence with a French accent. Boundaries and restraint are words with no meaning here.

Naughty, racy, uninhibited, and sexiness are embodied in the twirling pastel petticoats of the high-kicking can-can dancers. This is the Moulin Rouge. It’s a place ‘where all your dreams come true.” And those dreams mean love in all its forms. From scenery that depicts large, three-dimensional, decorated heart-shaped Valentine’s Day candy boxes to scenery where “L’amour” is written across a screen, there is no doubt that love is the central theme. And at its core, this is a love story.

Behind a translucent curtain, as the audience files into this free-spirit environment, performers are seen moving about sensuously in slow motion, seducing one and all to a web of fantasy and no-limits. And when the curtain suddenly rises and the chorus opens the show with the vigorous “Lady Marmalade,” the seduction is complete.

Making a national tour stop in Baltimore that exceeds the length of the normal Hippodrome Broadway series run, Moulin Rouge! The Musical sets a high bar in theatrical creativity and pure beauty.

The show officially opened on Broadway July 25, 2019 and is still going strong. At the Covid-delayed 74th Tony Awards in September 2021, Moulin Rouge! The Musical garnered 10 Tony Awards including Best Musical from the 14 nominations. Other competitors included Jagged Little Pill and Tina—both eventual touring productions having played at the Hippodrome.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical with a book by John Logan is based on the 2001 film Moulin Rouge! This is a jukebox musical that deserves to be on the top shelf in that genre. Dozens of pop songs—some snippets and some fuller length depending on the rights bestowed upon the producers—are offered.

Just as the stage is a kaleidoscope of brilliant hues augmented by artistic scenery, imaginative lighting and over-the-top (in a good way) costuming, the music during this masterpiece is an eclectic brew of songs spanning decades and styles. Most are recognizable: from Madonna and Beyonce to Rick Astley and Whitney Houston, from Lady Gaga and Elton John to Tina Turner and Adele, the catalogue is limitless. Many of the songs had been added since the film version increasing texture to the emotions conveyed in the plot.

The musical is structured so that each main scene provides a track to move the story along, and each track contains a bunch of these songs. When the audience recognizes a number, even if it only a line or two, there is giggling throughout because of how the lyrics fit into the scene depicted. This offers a lighter touch to what is a more dramatic and serious storyline.

Set in the Montmartre Quarter of Paris, France, at the turn of the 20th century. The plot centers on Christian, a young American composer who moved to Paris to find himself and his capabilities. But before that could happen, he and his two Bohemian pals, the famous artist Toulouse-Lautrec and Argentinean dancer Santiago who are attempting to write music for a play, encounter Satine, the beautiful star of the Moulin Rouge cabaret club.

Despite its opulence on the surface, the Moulin Rouge is in financial trouble. Harold Zidler, the club’s director, believes that the only way to alleviate the pressure is to have the wealthy Duke of Monroth invest in the Moulin Rouge. And for that to happen, he implores Satine to provide the Duke the needed company to make him happy so that he may have a woman of his own.

Mistaking Christian for the Duke, Satine falls for the American instead, and he falls deeply for her, and the fateful triangle begins. Much of the ensuing drama occurs when the Duke with his dangerous past regarding women, fights to keep Satine for himself and tries to elevate her to his class of wealth. Who says, you can’t buy me love?

For her part, Satine, who is seriously ill from consumption (what was then tuberculosis), sacrifices her own happiness and love for Christian in order to save the Moulin Rouge and her friends’ jobs. All of this leads to an inevitably sad ending despite the jovial music and comedic moments throughout.

Tony Award and Golden Globe winning director Alex Timbers deftly keeps the show on point balancing the jubilant performances and atmospherics with the heart-tugging love story.

Veteran theatre and TV performer Robert Petkoff is superb as the caring and exuberant Harold Zidler. Drawing upon his cache of acting and comedic talents as well as a crystal clear commanding voice in both dialogue and song, Mr. Zidler handles the role with flair and the right amount of campiness.  

Substituting for Christian Douglas, the character Christian was played by Preston Taylor on the night this performance was reviewed.  He played the role tenderly and with convincing emotion. An outstanding vocalist, he appears in much of the music selections. Mr. Taylor's on-stage chemistry with Gabrielle McClinton as Satine is excellent, and everybody roots for the love-struck couple despite the odds.

"Moulin Rouge! The Musical sets a high bar in theatrical creativity and pure beauty."

Lovely Ms. McClinton excels as the talented Satine caught in a love triangle with no hopeful outcome given that Satine is slowly dying from an incurable disease.  She demonstrates beautiful vocals as evidenced with her duets with Mr. Taylor, which blend their voices perfectly.

As the wealthy Duke of Monroth, Andrew Brewer adeptly plays the villain role to the hilt. Showcasing a muscular voice in speaking and singing, Mr. Brewer is spot-on portraying the cruel and sneaky character.

Nick Rashad Burroughs as Toulouse-Lautrec and Danny Burgos as Santiago, the two Bohemian buddies and advisers of Christian, are effective in delivering comedic relief moments. Both sing and dance very well, and Mr. Burgos shines during the “Backstage Romance” track..

Rounding out the cast are Sarah Bowden as Nini, one of the dancers at the Moulin Rouge who had always been jealous of Satine; Nicci Claspell as Arabia and Harper Miles as La Choicolat who are other dancers at the club; Kamal Lado as Pierre and Max Heitmann as Baby Doll.

In addition, the Ensemble does and excellent job of portraying the other quirky characters and sing and dance with precision.

As good as the performances are, the technical team members are co-stars without exception. Brilliant scenic design by Derek McLane adds superb backdrops to the action using a variety of methods including drop-down scenery. These colorful sets are enhanced by the hue-rich lighting design by Justin Townsend. Catherine Zuber attired the cast in brilliantly colorful and lavish period costumes. Peter Hylenski’s sound design is flawless. Notably, all of these professionals received Tony Awards for their work in Moulin Rouge! The Musical.

An additional round of applause goes to the Musical Director Andrew Graham and the talented musicians in the orchestra.

Truth, beauty, freedom and love are the mantra of the Bohemians. In this production, you get some of each, but especially love. This splashy, well-performed spectacle is an experience that should not be missed.  

Be sure not to rush out of the theatre at curtain call, however, as the performers put on an electric, dance-dominated mini-show following their bows.

Oui, tout est permis au Moulin Rouge.

Running time. Two hours and 35 minutes with an intermission.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical runs through December 17 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: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade


Wednesday, November 22, 2023

A ‘Miracle’ Returns to Toby’s with Holiday Cheer

Robert Biedermann 125 as Kris Kringle

When I think of miracles a couple of

 things immediately pop into my head. “Do you believe in miracles?” shouted sportscaster Al Michaels at the conclusion of the U.S men’s hockey team upsetting the heavily favored Soviet squad during the 1980 Winter Olympics. The other is Miracle on 34th Street, a sweet musical that is now ushering in the holiday season at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia.

During these tense times, it is a delight to escape to the warm, comfortable in-the-round theatre venue known as Toby’s and to enjoy not only a luscious buffet but also to spend a couple of hours experiencing a miracle. In bringing back Miracle on 34th Street for the third time in ten years, Toby’s is offering as a dose of holiday cheer comfort food for the palette and comfort food for the eyes and ears.

Most of the energetic and talented cast members are reprising their original roles (except for the children), not to mention the fact that Director Shawn Kettering and Choreographer Mark Minnick as well as some of the proficient technical crew also return. Therefore, they should all be well-rehearsed, and clearly they are.

Miracle on 34th Street—not the black and white classic Christmas movie from 1947 presented every December on television but a live musical adaptation—plays neatly on Toby’s in-the-round stage.  The book, music and lyrics were penned by Meredith Willson of The Music Man and The Unsinkable Molly Brown fame, debuted on Broadway in 1963 under the title Here’s Love.

No one will compare the melodies in Miracle on 34th Street with the rich score in The Music Man or come close to the hefty scores of many other successful Broadway musicals. Indeed, few of the numbers in this one are memorable, save for the popular 1951 tune “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”  Moreover, the first act contains a few slow moments and some quirky songs like “Plastic Alligator.” Fortunately, the drama, tempo and pacing pick up noticeably in the second act with the courtroom scene being most enjoyable.

The strength of Miracle on 34th Street and the reason people should buy tickets the sooner the better rests with its endearing storyline and the outstanding performances. Every role is perfectly cast, and that lends to the sheen of the production.

"...Toby’s is offering as a dose of holiday cheer comfort food for the palette and comfort food for the eyes and ears."

The work of the creative team excels under the deft guidance of Mr. Kettering, the imaginative choreography of Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick, and the musical direction of Ross Scott Rawlings with Nathan Scavilla conducting the six-piece orchestra on the reviewed performance. 

Set in New York City before and after Thanksgiving in the late 1940s, the story focuses on a white-bearded, avuncular man named Kris Kringle (played convincingly by Robert Biedermann 125) who claims to be the real Santa Claus.  He brings about a genuine “Miracle on 34th Street,” spreading good cheer and good will among men throughout New York City. He encourages camaraderie between the arch-rival department stores Macy’s and Gimbel’s, and persuades a divorced, cynical single mother, Doris Walker (Heather Marie Beck), her daughter Susan Walker (played on the night the show was reviewed by young Hazel Vogel who alternates with Audrey Wolff) that Santa Claus is no myth.

Skeptics saw otherwise, and poor Kris Kringle had to appear before a stern Judge (superbly played by David Bosley-Reynolds) at a hearing in New York State Supreme Court to determine if he should be committed to the Bellevue Hospital, known for housing mentally ill patients.

As these events unfold, Doris finds her neighbor Fred Gaily (Jeffrey Shankle), an ex-Marine and inexperienced lawyer, who develops a father-daughter bond with Susan, falls for Doris and eventually represents Kris Kringle at the hearing, leading to a lovely conclusion.

Holiday atmospherics are in place. Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins constructed the set, which features a few streetlamps on the stage, the entrance to an apartment on a balcony, Christmas trees, garland, Christmas lights and views of the New York City apartment buildings and other images displayed on panels surrounding the walls of the theater. 

However, what makes the visuals even more appealing is the seemingly limitless number of set pieces and props employed throughout the show, which add texture to the scenery. The sleigh on wheels that Santa occupies, for example, is gorgeous, and it wouldn’t be a Christmas show without a little snow.  Lynn Joslin’s effective lighting design is critical to the myriad seamless scene changes. 

Mark Smedley’s sound design helped the performers effectively ring in the holiday season.

Sarah King designed the authentic 1940’s suits and dresses as well as Santa outfits and other novelty garb, such as clowns and police uniforms, thereby lending a realistic feel to this enchanting production.

The cast of Miracle on 34th Street

Mr. Minnick’s detailed choreography is most effective especially when there is a large group on the stage as in such numbers as “Plastic Alligator,” “That Man Over There” and “My State, My Kansas,” whereby he makes full use of the limited space by devising innovative dance steps, plenty of motion and ensuring the dancers are in sync rhythmically.

Jeffrey Shankle, as he often does, delivers a sparkling, near-flawless performance.  In tuneful voice, he sings “My Wish,” with Hazel and is simply stellar in his solo “Look, Little Girl.” The title and lyrics are cringe-worthy, but the show was set in the 1940’s after all.

Coming off an eight-months run in the national tour of Les Misérables, Hazel Vogel as Susan shines. Never missing a line, never missing a cue, never missing a note or a step, Hazel demonstrates can't-miss potential in musical theatre.

Jordan B. Stocksdale plays R.H. Macy, the strict owner of the department store bearing his name. Commanding on stage and with his strong baritone, Mr. Stocksdale stands out in “That Man Over There”—a highlight number during the courtroom scene, which in itself, is a highlight in the show. 

As Doris, Heather Marie Beck is well cast and delivers a solid performance.  The part requires proficient acting skills, and Ms. Beck delivers on that front particularly in her confrontations with the characters Susan and Fred.  She showcases her sturdy vocals in such numbers as “You Don’t Know” and “Love, Come Take Me Again” and the warm duet with Hazel, “Arm in Arm.”

Veteran performer Robert John Biedermann 125 plays Kris Kringle well.  He adroitly conveys the sweetness and kindness that all children believe Santa to be. His performance of "Here's Love" is touching. Everybody roots for him.

David Bosley-Reynolds hits the mark as Judge Martin Group particularly in that fun courtroom scene and the Governor, delivering well-timed comedic lines.

Another notable cast member is the always entertaining David James as Marvin Shellhammer whose facial expressions and comedic rejoinders are in the “don’t-miss” category.

Shane Lowry as Mr. Sawyer also exhibits comedic skills, and Justin Calhoun is especially strong as the prosecutor Thomas Mara. 

A number of the other performers are called on to play one or more roles as well as being part of the ensemble and do so splendidly. They include: Valerie Adams Rigsbee, Patrick Gover, AJ Whittenberger, Ryan Sellers, MaryKate Brouillet, Brooke Bloomquist, Lydia Gifford, Gwyneth Porter (alternates with Julia Bellinger), Jordyn Polk (alternates with AJ Bassett), Dylan Iwanczuk (alternates with Ezra Tornquist), Amanda Kaplan Landstrom, and Julia Ballenger (alternates with Skyler Smelkinson).

Excellent performances plus a delightful feel-good story (and a scrumptious buffet) make this a seasonal must-see, which will be enjoyed by the young and the young at heart.  To answer Al Michaels’ “Do you believe in miracles?’—the answer is Yes!

Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Miracle on 34th Street runs through January 7, 2024, at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311or visiting online.

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography

The Menu is shown here.

Drink Special: The Kringle

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Classic ‘Funny Girl’ Triumphs at the Hippodrome

Katerina McCrimmon as Fanny Brice and
Stephen Mark Lukas as Nick Arnstein

Ah, it’s so refreshing to enjoy good old-time theatre. And with the classic Funny Girl, whose revival is touring the U.S., we are fortunate to have a splendid production making a visit at Baltimore Hippodrome’s Theatre.

Under the direction of Michael Mayer, the outstanding performances, fantastic scenery, rich period costumes, brilliant illumination and wonderful music offer an old-time theatrical feel and charm representing the 1920’s but with a modern glow.

Funny Girl is a loose biographical portrayal of dynamic entertainer Fanny Brice in the nascent days of musical theatre during the early 20th century. It chronicles her start in show business and how she defied the estimation from family and friends that she is not sufficiently beautiful to appear on stage.

But feisty Fanny, from Henry Street in New York’s lower east side, would have none of that. She knew she has the talent—singing, comedy, dancing—and through sheer determination, ambition and a little help from her eventual husband, professional gambler Nick Arnstein, she ultimately became a star in the famous Ziegfeld Follies.

Fanny’s marriage with Arnstein, which produced a daughter, had its ups and downs like many marriages. But their careers, especially his frequent “business” trips and ensuing legal troubles, kept getting in the way and sadly could not endure the challenges that they faced despite their professed love for one another.

The first act frenetically describes how Fanny overcame the doubters and began her rise to stardom.
The second act, somewhat slower and sadder, examines the complexities of her marriage to Arnstein and how it affected her own values and the marriage’s impact on her mother, friends and associates.

Funny Girl whose score was by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, and book by Isobel Lennart opened on Broadway in 1964 and launched the career of superstar Barbra Streisand in the title role. The show received eight Tony nominations for that year but had the misfortune of going up against musical juggernaut Hello, Dolly! and didn’t take home a statue. Nonetheless, Funny Girl appealed to audiences all over and a film version was introduced in 1968 with Streisand as the lead with Omar Sharif.

Nearly six decades later, the show was revived in 2022, and Harvey Fierstein (Kinky Boots, Newsies) modified the book for the Broadway revival.

"...an old-time theatrical feel and charm representing the 1920’s but with a modern glow."

Styne’s score is solid with two songs that are indisputable classics: “People” whereby Fanny Brice expresses her loneliness and desire to live a normal life and “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” an inspiring anthem to independence.

Both of these numbers as well as a host of others are performed by an emerging charismatic star, Katerina McCrimmon, who is commanding in the lead role. One should never compare anyone to a superstar like Streisand. It just cannot and should not be done. Streisand’s simply untouchable.

However, Ms. McCrimmon’s zesty performance, her immaculate vocals and endearing personality conjures up unavoidable memories of Streisand. Diminutive in stature, I can only marvel how Ms. McCrimmon’s voice can hold up during the 140-minute show. Not only is she involved in most of the musical numbers with many of them strenuous, but her dialogue also requires a good deal of shouting or “hollering” as Fanny’s mother (Eileen T’Kaye substituting for popular singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester on the night this show was reviewed) puts it.

Perhaps there was a bit too much shouting as her voice becomes shrill at times. But Fanny Brice was known to have a booming voice. She was Ethel Merman before there ever was an Ethel Merman, so it was realistic.

Ms. McCrimmon’s mezzo-soprano vocals are pure and powerful. Aside from the two iconic songs mentioned previously, she shines in “Who Are You Now?”and “I’m the Greatest Star” among other solos as well as in duets with Stephen Mark Lukas who plays Nick Arnstein, such as “I Want To Be Seen With You”.

Besides her vocal prowess, Ms. McCrimmon’s comedic dialogue and quips bring much joy to the production. Her acting skills are on full display whereby she has those funny moments but can also be convincingly tender during her exchanges with Arnstein. I have no doubt you will hear more about the ultra-talented Katerina McCrimmon in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Hello gorgeous! As Nick Arnstein, Stephen Mark Lukas convincingly plays the role of the suave, sophisticated gambler and schemer. Possessing a muscular baritone voice that matches his muscular pecs, which he flashes all too briefly early in the second act, he shines in duets with Ms. McCrimmon in “I Want To Be Seen With You” and “You Are Woman, I Am Man”.  Mr. Lukas also sings proficiently in the ballad “You’re a Funny Girl.”

It was a pity to have missed Melissa Manchester for this performance, but her stand-in, Eileen T’Kaye as Mrs. Brice is fantastic. Quick-witted, strong and supportive, Fanny’s mother is a hoot. Their exchanges are priceless and perfectly timed, and both actors appear to relish their roles with their onstage chemistry being very strong. Ms. T’Kaye sings well in a group number “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty” and in a duet with Ms. McCrimmon in the reprise of “I’m The Greatest Star” and with Izaiah Montaque Harris who plays Fanny’s good friend Eddie Ryan in “Who Taught Hr Everything She Knows?”.

I’m told that Ms. Manchester will be appearing in subsequent performances.

As the aforementioned singer-dancer Eddie, Mr. Harris excels as the supportive and loyal friend of Fanny. However, his tap-dancing skills are of show-stopping quality. He puts those formidable moves on display at various points in the show and are breathtaking under the tap choreography of Ayodele Casel.

Other notable performers include Walter Coppage as the authoritative, no-nonsense Florenz Ziegfeld; Christine Bunuan as Mrs. Strakosh who is Mrs. Brice’s pushy and comedic friend; Hannah Shankman as Mrs. Meeker; and David Foley, Jr. as the gruff producer Tom Keeney. The remainder of the talented cast and ensemble ably support the lead performers through vocals and dancing.

Scenic Designer David Zinn created an excellent set for the production. The use of varied lighting combinations (designed by Kevin Adams for the proscenium stage) amplifies the visuals. Scenes change flawlessly and efficiently behind a drop-down curtain that include the backstage at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York to an elegant restaurant in Baltimore to an apartment among other locales.  The staging is well-coordinated and smooth.

Period costumes designed by Susan Hilferty are colorful and eye-catching and add authenticity to the musical’s timeframe.

The sound designed by Brian Ronan and Cody Spencer is well balanced, and the orchestra led by Elaine Davidson ably brings the wonderful score to life.

All the elements come together beautifully in this triumphant production. There will be laughter and there will be tears, and you will witness the emergence of a budding star in this classic in which tickets remain available.

To paraphrase the song, people who will get to see Funny Girl are the luckiest people in the world.

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

Funny Girl runs through October 29 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: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Saturday, October 07, 2023

‘SpongeBob’ is Awash in Optimism at Silhouette Stages

f there was any question that the setting of The SpongeBob Musical now playing at Silhouette Stages takes place in a town called Bikini Bottom deep below the sea, here are some clues. The names of some of the characters include Sheldon Plankton, Squidward Q. Tentacles, Perch Perkins, Mr. Krabs, Larry the Lobster, and SpongeBob. Add those names to the sea-themed set designed by Bill Pond and the projections led by Todd Hochkeppel, the audience is called upon to imagine this undersea town and the goofy characters that inhabit it.

Under the polished direction of Debbie Mobley and Robyn Yakaitis, the exuberant and talented cast entertains with explosive energy and helps deliver a message of optimism, inclusion and coming together as a community in this eye-pleasing, colorful, fantasy romp. Powerful vocals, precise dancing and well-delivered comedic lines highlight the show that employs a large array of props and set pieces, which are becoming the norm at recent Silhouette Stages productions.

The SpongeBob Musical is an adaptation of Nickelodeon’s long-running animated children’s sitcom SpongeBob SquarePants created by Stephen Hillenberg. It features a book by Kyle Jarrow, with an eclectic array of original songs by Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alexander Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady A, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants and T.I., and songs by David Bowie, Tom Kenny and Andy Paley. Each song in the musical is composed by a different artist.

Additional lyrics are by Jonathan Coulton, with other music by Tom Kitt. The musical production was conceived by Tina Landau and received 12 Tony Award nominations in 2018 including Best Musical.

"...the exuberant and talented cast entertains with explosive energy..."

The zany, campy story centers on an impending eruption from nearby Mount Humongous that threatens to decimate the town and its colorful inhabitants within 48 hours. A perennially sunny and optimistic pineapple-dwelling sea sponge named SpongeBob (played zestfully by Matt Wetzel) sets out to save the town and prove he is not “just a simple sponge” as he was accused of being by miserly Mr. Krabs (Robert Howard), manager of the Krusty Krab restaurant.

With his BFF Patrick Star (Geraden Ward) and Sandy (Summer Moore)—a land mammal squirrel with scientific knowledge and who had been marginalized by the townsfolk in tow—SpongeBob attempts to climb Mount Humongous to intervene and prevent the seemingly inevitable eruption.

They endeavor to overcome their own lack of self-esteem and confidence as well as a pair of
antagonists, Sheldon Plankton (Adam Goldsmith) and his wife Karen (Jessica Long ) who want to thwart the effort. In the rather predictable conclusion, all works out despite the obstacles.

When I saw Sondheim on Sondheim recently at Silhouette Stages, I was impressed by Matt Wetzel who

Matt Wetzel

performed well in the show. But his tour de force as the title character in SpongeBob has taken him to a new level.

Though diminutive in stature, Mr. Wetzel has a big voice—and not just a big voice but a strong one. Throughout the production, I was worried that because of the many songs he participates in and the shouting he is called upon in the dialogue that his voice wouldn’t hold up. Happily, it remained robust through the end.

He literally bursts on the stage with energy that only Mount Humongous could hold. His role is physical with a lot of dancing and movements all over while his acting skills excel in portraying the cheery, carefree character.  He even tosses in a well-executed cartwheel for good measure.

Mr. Wetzel performs in many of the show’s songs with other members of the cast and stands out in the solos “Bikini Bottom Day” and the excellent “(Just a) Simple Sponge.” He is also wonderful in the snappy group number “Best Day Ever.”

As SpongeBob’s best friend Patrick, Geraden Ward brings their own set of talents to the fore. Geraden is also a competent vocalist as evident in the duet “BFF” and the outstanding group number “Super Sea-Star Savior” with a bunch of sardines, no less, which has a revival feel.

Patrick, a starfish, is kind of dim-witted. Yet, some of the Bikini Bottom residents including those sardines clad in pink and green costumes think Patrick is a genius and made him a guru of some sort, which threatened the BFF status with SpongeBob. Spoiler alert: they do reconcile and join forces to conquer Mt. Humongous. Geraden adeptly portrays that comedic character.

As the denigrated scientist-squirrel Sandy, Summer Moore is excellent. She came up with the invention, “the eruption interrupter” that was counted on to stem the eruption and eventual doom. Her lovely singing voice is on display in “Hero Is My Middle Name” with Mr. Wetzel and Mr. Ward and the duet “Chop to the Top” with Mr. Wetzel.

Seth Fallon as Squidward and his sea anemone chorus line

Seth Fallon deliciously plays the 4-legged octopus (yes, there are 4 legs) Squidward Q. Tentacles—my favorite name in the show. Constantly reminded of being a loser, Squidward is determined to overcome the label.

Mr. Fallon excels in the song “I’m Not a Loser,” a superb tap-dancing number with the company. Tap dancing is quite a skill to possess; dancing with 4 legs is definitely a challenge and Mr. Fallon pulls it off splendidly. In addition, his facial expressions and flamboyant demeanor throughout are worth the price of admission.

Robert Howard plays greedy Mr. Krabs, the manager of the Krusty Krab, with flair. Mr. Howard performs well with Leah Freeman who plays the role of Mr. Krabs’ daughter Pearl in the duet “Daddy Knows Best.”

Other notable members of the amazing cast include Adam Goldsmith and Jessica Long as the villains Sheldon Plankton and Karen, respectively; Don Lampasone as the comedic Patchy the Pirate;  Mica Weiss as campy Perch Perkins who performed as a newscaster counting down the time of the impending volcano eruption; Debbi Watts as the Mayor of Bikini Bottom who loves to create a multitude of task forces to analyze problems; Nick Yarnevich as Larry the Lobster; John Sheldon as Old Man Jenkins who demands that these creatures get off his lawn; and Forest Roca as Gary.

The Electric Skates is comprised of Shaelyn Betances, Kelsey McDaniel and Samantha Sheldon. The remainder of the Ensemble include Angela Cava, Katelyn Dixon, Bethany Jani, Al Norman, Tori Worth and Angie Townsend.

Music Director Mari Hill and the six-piece orchestra do a fine job with the score. Tori Worth’s choreography is spot-on with the tap-dancing number “I’m Not a Loser” as a standout. The cast execute the moves proficiently.

Mica Weiss designed the eclectic, colorful costumes. Since SpongeBob Square Pants is a cartoon, the imaginatively created costumes are suitably bright with pastels splashed all over them. Many of the costumes are intricate and eye-popping and add much to the spectacle. There are lots of pinks and greens as well as aqua shades and yellow. And yes, SpongeBob had little square patterns on his pants.

TJ Lukacsina’s lighting design adds much to the optics, and sound designers Ethan Hogarty and Alex Porter keep the performers audible without being overwhelmed by the orchestration.

The SpongeBob Musical is a solid show throughout highlighted by an outstanding lead performer Matt Wetzel and a talented cast and crew. Under Debbie Mobley and Robyn Yakaitis’ direction, the production moves smoothly and meticulously and brings all the elements together in a cohesive manner.

You may be up to your gills in sea and fish references, but it’s a lot of fun. Adults will enjoy the quality of the entertainment, the music and the messaging contained therein; children will absolutely love it and swallow it—hook, line and sinker.  

Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

The SpongeBob Musical plays on weekends through October 22 at the Slayton House Theatre, 10400 Cross Fox Ln, Columbia, MD 21044. For tickets, call 410-730-3987 visit online

Photos: Stasia Steuart Photography

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

‘The Wiz’ Stunningly Brings it Home to Baltimore

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Remember Baltimore’s Morris A. Mechanic Theatre? Along with the venerable Lyric Opera House it was a centerpiece of theatre in Charm City spanning four decades. Alas, the Mechanic closed its doors in 2004 but not before it was the venue for numerous classic Broadway plays and musicals featuring a ton of iconic, award-winning performers that are too many to list here. 

Well, the Mechanic happened to be the locale for the world premiere in October 1974 of the breakthrough musical The Wiz.

Now, nearly a half century later, the seven-time Tony winning musical has launched its pre-Broadway revival, multi-city tour at the more spacious and ornate Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore. Who says you can’t go home again?  

The Wiz, with music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls (and others) and book by William F. Brown, is based on L. Frank Baum's children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). The music and structure of The Wiz originated with Black creators, directors and an all-Black cast. It was reportedly created as an answer to the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, which had an all-white cast and an opportunity to break through a Broadway culture, which ostensibly was not that receptive to Black creators and performers. Nonetheless, notable productions with African American themes, such as Show Boat, A Raisin in the Sun, and Porgy and Bess preceded The Wiz to Broadway.

The musical, which originally starred Stephanie Mills, spawned several tours, a film in 1978 starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson among others, and a live TV performance in 2015. Using soul, gospel, rock, jazz and 70s funk, the dynamic score augments the story of Dorothy’s journey to find her place in a contemporary world fraught with obstacles and her fervent quest to find her way home.

The top-selling single “Ease On Down The Road” and the gospel-infused “Home” are highlights. But there are plenty of other songs to enjoy including “The Feeling We Once Had,” “Be A Lion,” “We’re Gonna Make It,” and “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.” Some of these are in the showstopper category. And there is plenty of wonderful dancing to add even more life to the songs.

With the dialogue, music styles, choreography and the interactions among the endearing bunch of characters as presented in the revival production, the Black experience and culture are celebrated in a tapestry of light-hearted humor, campiness and powerhouse musical performances. Yet, audiences of all backgrounds and ages will enjoy this work of art.

Given that the original movie The Wizard of Oz, which was later broadcast on television in 1956, has been viewed by so many and is considered one of the greatest films of all time, I am assuming that people are familiar with the fantasy storyline so I will not offer a deep dive into the plot.

"...the entire cast ... is brimming with vivacity and pure talent." 

Suffice to say, the coming-of-age saga centers on Dorothy whose house is blown away with her in it during a tornado and winds up in the land of Oz. In order to find her way home, which is her top priority, she is advised to meet the omniscient, mysterious “Wiz” (aka Wizard of Oz) in the Emerald City who can help her return home.

Along the way she encounters a scarecrow in need of a brain; a tin man who lacks a heart; and a lion, which is short on courage—all of whom were put under spells by Evillene, a wicked witch—can also benefit from Wiz’s “powers.” Their adventures en route, especially the confrontation with the wicked witch Evillene, comprise most of the action and fun in the show.

While the contours of the storyline are pretty consistent with the original film, there are some differences including the absence of a yellow brick road, the munchkins, changes to the witches’ names, and there is no Toto—Dorothy’s loveable pooch.

On the night this production was reviewed, the theatre experienced a power snafu that briefly delayed the opening. Undaunted, this production of The Wiz is electric.

Guided by the meticulous direction of Schele Williams, choreography of Jaquel Knight, orchestrations by Joseph Joubert, and an abundantly talented cast, the production’s energy alone could have powered the performance. Thankfully, though, the issue was resolved after 30 minutes.

An amazing set with hue-rich lighting, spectacular costumes and a solid score provide support to the entire cast, which is brimming with vivacity and pure talent. The leads are exceptional especially Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy, who will be making her Broadway debut. Expect to hear a lot about her in the future.

As the youthful, homesick and caring Dorothy, Ms. Lewis is phenomenal—both as an actress and vocalist. Dorothy convincingly offers encouragement to the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion and is every bit on board in having their deficiencies repaired by Oz. All the while she is wearing powerful silver slippers that are coveted by Evillene.

Ms. Lewis’ Mezzo-Soprano voice soars throughout all her songs hitting notes that I questioned if ever existed. “Soon As I Get Home,” “Wonder, Wonder Why” and the show’s anthem “Home” are solos that exemplified her singing prowess. She also partnered with other performers in songs that showcase her gift like the repeated “Ease On Down The Road.”

Melody A. Betts is another strong performer, first playing the early role of Aunt Em, a tough but loving role model for Dorothy. Her first name of Melody is apparently no accident; she can sing up a storm, and the tornado happened to occur following her belted out rendition of “The Feeling We Once Had” as part of a duet with Ms. Lewis.

As if Ms. Betts’ talents weren’t enough as Aunt Em, she later played the role of Evillene, one of the wicked witches who desperately wants Dorothy’s silver slippers. In an incredibly amusing scene where the four travelers were dispatched by Oz to kill Evillene in exchange for doing his promised good deeds, Ms. Betts’ comedic skills are as spot-on as her vocals. “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” is fantastic.

Avery Wilson plays quick witted Scarecrow, the first to join Dorothy on her journey. The character might be brainless but Mr. Wilson can sure dance! He’s graceful with powerful, sure-footed moves throughout. He sings well in the comical number “You Can’t Win” with the crows who are supposed to be frightened of him but clearly are not. He also appears in several group numbers including the upbeat “We’re Gonna Make It.”

Sad but hopeful Tin Man, played by Phillip Johnson Richardson, is seeking a heart and also has a comical role. His solo “Slide Some Oil To Me” is a good example of his vocal abilities. He joins his fellow travelers in “What Would I Do If I Can Feel” as well as other numbers.

Kyle Ramar Freeman is particularly proficient as the campy, cowardly Lion. Campy for sure; he uses highlighter in his mane. But he keeps looking for his pride that was taken from him by Evillene. Mr. Freeman possesses an excellent, far-ranging tenor voice, which is evident in “Mean Ole’ Lion” and the phenomenal group number with his travel companions “Be A Lion” that concludes the first act.

As the title character, Alan Mingo, Jr. first appears in the second act. A conman’s conman, Wiz feigns powerful abilities in a deal with Evillene to keep the Ozians trapped behind the gates of Emerald City. In a tour de force, Mr. Mingo acts and sings with aplomb and is showcased in “Meet The Wizard” and “Y’all Got It.”

Deborah Cox plays Glinda, one of the good witches, with flair. Her powerful Mezzo-Soprano is evident in “He’s The Wiz” and the stunningly powerful “Believe In Yourself.”

Another notable performer is Allyson Kaye Daniel who plays Addaperle, a funny, sassy witch.

The remainder of the talent cast excels in their vocals and choreography and add much quality to the show. They appear in many scenes and help to bolster the rich score.

If The Wiz were to have an additional co-star, I’d give the title to the scenic designer, Academy Award winner Hannah Beachler. The set and scenery are nothing short of spectacular. The stage is framed with an art deco design but what is between is simply eye-popping. With the use of high-tech effects, projections and colorful scenery plus a wide variety of set pieces, the changing scenes are in perpetual motion. Add to that the brilliant palette of beautiful lights designed by Ryan J. O’Gara that combine so well with the scenery changes.

Sharen Davis designed the stunning costumes—colorful, fanciful, imaginative and functional.  I was a little disappointed, however, with the rather bland costumes for Scarecrow and Tin Man. But that minor quibble does not mitigate the fact that The Wiz is a simply gorgeous visual.

Also, Jon Weston’s sound design is flawless keeping the orchestra and vocalists in perfect blend and
enabling the audience to hear the dialogue clearly.

I had seen The Wizard of Oz numerous times, the film The Wiz, and the TV presentation. I loved these but I love this current iteration most. The performances, the visuals, the staging are all top-notch and pure joy. The underlying message of believing in yourself is powerful and persuasive.

The Wiz is unquestionably going to be a success on the tour, and when it arrives at New York’s Marquis Theatre next April, it is destined to be a smash hit. While in Baltimore, it would be advisable to hurry to buy tickets to this stunning masterpiece as the show eases on down the road across America very soon.

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

The Wiz runs through September 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.

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

This (Sister) Act at Toby’s Never Gets Old

If you prayed for a top-notch musical to kick off the fall season, then your prayers have been answered. Sister Act makes its return to Toby’s The Dinner Theatre of Columbia under new direction with several leads and cast members reprising their roles from the 2016 iteration. The show’s themes of humanity, hope, faith and sisterhood, and the message that people can change for the better if given the right environment and support never gets old.  

Helmed by Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick, this slick production at Toby’s is as good as it gets. Mr. Minnick, who also choreographs the intricate, well-executed dance numbers, is blessed with a sterling cast whose vocals soar, works damn (oops, sorry) hard, and has a lot of fun entertaining for an appreciative audience.

With music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater and a book by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, Sister Act is based on the successful 1992 movie of the same name that starred Whoopi Goldberg.   The musical production opened on Broadway in 2011 and received five Tony Award nominations. The prolific Menken is best known for his composing such stalwarts as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Little Shop of Horrors and Newsies, to name a few.

There is an abundance of comedy that will keep you laughing heartily. The up-tempo songs are toe-tapping with some powerfully delivered ballads in the mix.  The influence of disco, Philly soul and gospel is evident in Mr. Menken’s score. A few of the songs are of the show-stopping variety and are performed exceptionally by the skilled vocalists.  Ross Scott Rawlings’ six-piece orchestra (he alternates with Nathan Scavilla) is well-balanced in support of the performers without overpowering them.

Set in 1977 Philadelphia, the Whoopi Goldberg in this production is Ashley Johnson-Moore as Deloris Van Cartier, an aspiring disco diva who ends up in hiding at a convent at the urging of police desk chief Eddie Souther (Gerald Jordan) when her married club-owning gangster boyfriend, Curtis Jackson (Ryan Holmes) and three buffoon-like accomplices Joey, Pablo and TJ (Jordan B. Stockdale, Brian Dauglash, and Anwar Thomas, respectively) find out she’s squealed to the cops about his murdering one of his cronies.  Curtis is hell-bent (sorry again) to find her.

At the convent, Deloris meets up with the rigid, no-nonsense Mother Superior (Lynn Sharp-Spears) where their backgrounds, personalities and religious values clash but mostly in a light manner laced with sarcasm.  Deloris brings to the convent her streetwise persona, plenty of sass, and an irreverent view of religion and is frustrated by the convent’s restricting rules.

She also brings a ton of singing talent to help the other sisters transform their hapless choir into one that is adding more folks to the pews and more dollars to the collection plate, which are needed to make necessary repairs.  Throughout her stay at the convent,she never loses her dream to be a big-time singer.

Moreover, Deloris finds the meaning of true friendship as she engages with the other sisters.  From them Deloris ultimately finds a higher purpose to her life and that ultimately they are not much different from her.

David A. Hopkins’ imaginative set design converts the in-the-round stage to a realistic convent and church chapel atmosphere. To be sure, there are other scene locales like bars and a disco that require a bevy of props and set pieces, but the design for the convent and church truly excels.   

Stained glass windows along the walls of the theater in addition to well-placed candles, projection screens and even a faux church organ take the audience inside these hallowed walls. Numerous set pieces are employed that include tables, chairs, pews, bars, a piano, beds, swinging doors, lighted pillars among them add much texture to the scenes. The staging for the scene changes with all of these set pieces involved is thoroughly smooth and seamless. Lynn Joslin’s lighting design is magnificent and augments the scene changes to perfection.

"...this slick production at Toby’s is as good as it gets." 

Dammit, those fabulous costumes! (ugh, there I go again.)  Sarah King and Carrie Seidman fitted the cast in stunning attire. Tight disco dresses, various sets of habits for the sisters (black, white and red), colorful gowns for the choir boys, pajamas, and polyester suits present enormous visual appeal to the audience.

Without question, Helen Hayes nominee Ms. Johnson-Moore (Memphis, The Wiz, The Color Purple) as Deloris turns in a star-quality performance as she did during the 2016 Toby’s production.  She offers the right amount of impudence in her dialogue, showcases her comedic skills with spot-on timing and body language, and Lord, can she sing!

Commanding a rich soprano voice, Ms. Johnson-Moore excels from the opening numbers “Take Me to Heaven” and “Fabulous Baby” to “Raise Your Voice” and “Sister Act.”

The romantic interest is “Sweaty Eddie” Souther, played by Gerald Jordan, a klutzy policeman whom she knew in high school.  Eddie is assigned to protecting her from Curtis.  His big song “I Could Be that Guy” is strong and emotional and well-delivered.  That number is enhanced by a wonderful double-breakaway costume.

As the deadpan Mother Superior, Ms. Sharp-Spears reprises her role and is the perfect foil for Deloris.  Their exchanges provide many of the laughs in the show with each feeding off each other with well-timed retorts. “Here Within These Walls” and “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” ably displays Ms. Sharp-Spears’ solid soprano voice and her amazing ability to hold a note. Ms. Sharp-Spears is excellent throughout.

Ryan Holmes as the show’s antagonist Curtis shines in “When I Find My Baby” aided by his three aforementioned cohorts.  He repeats that number in the second act as a solo very movingly demonstrating his rich baritone vocals.

A young apostolate in the convent, Sister Mary Robert, played tenderly by MaryKate Brouillet, takes the leap from being shy to confident thanks to her bonding with Deloris.  Her soaring performance of “The Life I Never Led” that depicts this discovery is one of the production’s highlights.

The remainder of the company supports the leads effectively in the musical numbers with their vocals and dancing.  Mr. Minnick’s creative choreography is exemplified in such songs as “When I Find My Baby,” “I Could Be That Guy,” “Sunday Morning Fever,” and in the revival-like finale, the reprise of “Raise Your Voice.” Another favorite of mine is “Lady in the Long Black Dress” performed by Jordan B. Stockdale, Brian Dauglash, and Anwar Thomas.

Other notable performers include the comedic Robert Biedermann as Monsignor O’Hara, David James as Ernie, Valerie Adams Rigsbee as Sister Mary Patrick, Lynne Sigler as Sister Mary Lazarus, and Jane C. Boyle as Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours.

Rounding out the company are Jeffrey Shankle, Patricia “Pep” Targete, Asia-Ligé Arnold, Adrienne Athanas, Brandon Bedore, Tina Marie DeSimone, Lydia Gifford, and Patrick Gover. The male swing is Angelo Harrington II, and the female swings are Amanda Kaplan Landstrom and Alexis Krey-Bedore.

Sister Act is an enjoyable, well-staged, uplifting musical with a solid score, stunning visuals, an amazing cast and crew under expert direction. Praise the Lord, it will surely entertain you. Don’t miss it. Your prayers will be answered. Amen!

Advisory: Strobe lighting and fog effects.

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

Sister Act runs through November 5, 2023, at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311or visiting online.

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography

The Menu appears here.

Drink Special: “The Van Cartier”

Monday, September 04, 2023

The Other Mr. Splash

Orioles owner John Angelos is throwing cold water on the fans’ spirits.

Orioles owner John Angelos dousing the fans with his nonsense

Without question, this has been a magical season for the Baltimore Orioles and Birdland. One year removed from a major turnaround last year (83 wins) that effectively ended the rebuild, this season the O’s sit atop the American League. And that includes you—Astros, Blue Jays and Yankees.

They are currently on pace to win 101 games when just two years ago, their record was 52-110. Most betting experts prior to the 2023 season had projected the O’s to win 75 games or thereabouts—a regression from 2022. But that didn’t happen. Experts are not always experts.

The team, the fans, and both the national and local media are all abuzz surrounding this astonishing success. Even Gerry Sandusky, the sports anchor on WBAL-TV, has allowed Orioles news to share the time slot with the Ravens happenings that always used to dominate.

Attendance, though not great, has improved. An increasing number of fans root on the team in the road ballparks, no longer fearful of being mocked by the home crowd. There is a lot of well-deserved and long overdue swagger among the O’s faithful.

Nearly everyone seems excited in Birdland and for good reason. Besides the superb and consistent record in which they have not been swept in a series dating back to before the arrival of catching phenom and all-star Adley Rutschman, and in this season the Birds only lost four games in a row once, the team is showcasing its exciting and highly touted young prospects.

Budding superstar Gunnar Henderson, the favorite to win the American League Rookie of the Year trophy; Grayson Rodriguez, a hard-throwing pitcher with electric stuff; slick fielding and potentially strong bat Jordan Westburg; southpaw prospect DL Hall; and the emergence of other pitching talent, such as Yennier Cano, Dean Kremer and Kyle Braddish have all made key contributions.

And when you add the likes of Ryan O’Hearn, James McCann, Adam Frazier, Kyle Gibson, Danny Coulombe, Jacob Webb, Shinataro Fujinami  and Aaron Hicks that the O’s picked up as well as mainstays Cedric Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays, Ramón Urías, Cionel Pérez and Anthony Santander, the team is jellin’ with off-the-charts chemistry and solid ability. The only on-field downer this season has been the potentially serious injury to super closer Félix Bautista.

Yes, everyone is excited except one key person: the team’s owner John P. Angelos. I could be wrong, but I have never heard or read where Angelos openly rooted the team on or praised the on-field performances given their success. Last season, with the dramatic turnaround, he called them overachievers. This year, crickets.

The O’s instituted a “Bird Bath” section in left center field at Oriole Park whereby a fellow dubbed Mr. Splash, using a hose, sprays the O’s fans seated there with water on every Oriole extra base hit or run scored.  Just as Mr. Splash soaks the jubilant fans, Angelos douses Birdland with cold water seemingly every time he speaks.

In Spring Training, Angelos, who is always crying poverty, promised to open the team’s books to the media. That never happened. My guess is that with the second lowest payroll among the Major League teams, the Orioles are more profitable than he wants to let on. After all, major league owners receive approximately $100 million from TV and other revenue sources every year before a single ticket is sold.

Then there was the astoundingly tone deaf escapade involving broadcaster Kevin Brown. It was reported that the popular Brown had been suspended following his comparing the team’s successful performance this year at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg with the futility of previous seasons. That didn’t sit well with Angelos who reportedly took offense at Brown’s mentioning the factual numbers, which, by the way, Brown read from a graphic on the MASN broadcast, since Angelos believed people would see him as cheap in those lean years.

The real Mr. Splash
The blowback was rapid and intense. Angelos managed to turn himself into the laughingstock of the baseball world, and Brown was reinstated eventually under fierce pressure. Angelos couldn’t figure out how this suspension took place.

While that was going on, Anglos has been dithering with the Maryland Stadium Authority on a new lease at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. It is due to expire at the end of this year. Maryland Governor Wes Moore has been involved with the negotiations, but no signing has taken place. Angelos had pledged a new deal by the all-star break. But just like his offer to be transparent about the team’s finances, this was another broken promise. Mindful of what happened to the Colts sneaking out of Baltimore forty years ago, Orioles fans are understandably skittish.

If that wasn’t enough, Angelos said in a New York Times interview that this small market team cannot afford to sign the young studs to long-term deals unless ticket prices (already high) would go up dramatically.

As part of the negotiations with the MSA, Angelos wants to model the surrounding area of Camden Yards after The Battery outside Atlanta’s Truist Field with its shops, restaurants and bars. It’s a noble idea but logistically challenging. Truist Field is in a suburban area; Camden Yards is in an urban district with not much available land.

If Angelos wants the Orioles to emulate the Braves, he should follow their example of extending the contracts of their young stars: Ronald Acuna Jr., Austin Riley, Matt Olson (right after trading for him), Ozzie Albies, Sean Murphy (also immediately after a trade), Spencer Strider, and Michael Harris III. That’s an all-star team right there.

I am suspicious that deep down Angelos does not want the Orioles to succeed on the field, only on the balance sheet. He never gave words of encouragement as the team grabbed first place and has held it thus far. The more team success, the more pressure he would face to open the checkbook and sign the young studs long-term.

Angelos doesn’t appear to be onboard the Birdland Express. He just throws cold water on the fans’ spirits and the good vibes the team created. They will prevail on the field, however, not because of him but in spite of him.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Poignant ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at Beth Tfiloh

Gabe Lewin as Tevye

Fiddler on the Roof at Baltimore County’s Beth Tfiloh Community Theatre is “a perfect fit…like a glove,” to borrow a line from the show. It would seem to be a no-brainer that BTCT would have put on this musical years ago. Except there is that pesky thing called production rights that theatre producers and artistic directors must pursue and obtain. Thankfully, BTCT was able to secure said rights after a five-year quest, and this classic is now being presented as its annual summer musical. And it’s superb.

Fiddler on the Roof, with its iconic score, opened in 1964 and became the longest running show on Broadway (over 3,000 performances) until it was eclipsed by Grease.  It captured 9 Tony Awards of the 10 categories nominated including Best Musical, Score, Book, Direction and Choreography. 

Based on the Sholem Aleichem story Tevye and his Daughters, the show was crafted from music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein. A hit movie and numerous productions worldwide were spawned by the timeless musical.  

Popular songs, such as “Tradition,” “Matchmaker,” ‘If I Were a Rich Man,” “To Life” and “Do You Love Me” are performed expertly during Beth Tfiloh’s production. And the classic “Sunrise Sunset” during the climactic wedding scene at the end of the first act is extraordinary.

Venerable director and co-artistic director Diane M. Smith leads a talented and enthusiastic cast, crew and orchestra in bringing the six decades-old powerhouse musical to life. The performers’ ability to act, sing and dance at such a high level may make you forget that this is a community theatrical production.

With the company being predominantly Jewish, it lends a unique authenticity to the musical and that is evident throughout. Adding to that authenticity are the magnificent period costumes designed and coordinated by Lizzie Jaspan.

The story centers on a Jewish family in Anatevka, a small village in 1905 Czarist Russia. The head of the household, Tevye, tries desperately to cling to the old-time Jewish traditions while confronting the emerging changes in social mores that his three oldest daughters bring to the table. These young women eschew deeply ingrained Jewish traditions in favor of pursuing lives of their own as the times are changing.

"The performers’ ability to act, sing and dance at such a high level may make you forget that this is a community theatrical production."

If there ever was a character in theatre who one feels compelled to root for, it has to be Tevye, the nearly impoverished milkman in Anatevka. His strong-willed wife has a sharp-tongue, and he is struggling to house, feed and clothe his five daughters.   And on top of that, Tevye and his family as well as the other Jews in Anatevka face constant anti-Semitism and intimidation from Czarist Russia.

The central character, Tevye, played by Gabe Lewin, appears in most scenes in the production. On one hand he possesses a rich and authoritative baritone voice. On the other hand, he acts with a commanding presence to include appropriate facial expressions, mannerisms and timing. On one hand he demonstrates comedic instincts.  On the other hand, he can dance, too. Mr. Lewin would have made Zero Mostel—the original Tevye—proud of his work and would have applauded him with both hands. 

Once Mr. Lewin kicked off the production with a solid rendition of “Tradition,” you knew you were in for a treat the rest of the way.  He continues to soar in “If I Were a Rich Man,” the group number “Sabbath Prayer,” and in one of the more touching songs, “Do You Love Me?” with Kendra Keiser as his wife Golde.

Abby Ostrow, Ella LaFiandra, Samara Silverman

Demonstrating his acting dexterity, Mr. Lewin convincingly and endearingly conveys his frustrations with his daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava.  Each one of them pushes back on longtime Jewish traditions, deeply troubling Tevye, to pursue the ones they love. 

With Tzeitel it was Tevye’s breaking an agreement—convinced by the protests from Tzeitel (played exceptionally by Hannah Elliott)—with the much older wealthy butcher Lazar Wolf, played by Brian Singer.  Lazar had been “matched” by Yente (Julie Kitt who plays the part wonderfully leading to amusing exchanges.)  

But Tzeitel wanted to be with and eventually marry the poor and timid tailor Motel (pronounced MAH-tel) played very well by Yitzchok Smilowitz. In dramatic fashion, Motel calls up his latent inner strength to fight for the woman he loves. He performs well in the number “Miracle of Miracles.”

Hodel, charmingly played by Ayala Asher, caused Tevye’s blood pressure to rise as she rebuked tradition too.   She was not being formally “matched” and instead found love with Perchik, a radical who thinks little of such customs.  Strong-headed Perchik is played excellently by Eitan Murinson.  Ms. Asher’s rendition of “Far From the Home I Love” is moving, using her beautiful voice to full effect.

For Chava (Talia Lebowitz), it was all Tevye could take.  When analyzing each of the other two daughter’s intentions, he reasoned, “On the one hand…but on the other hand…” before he reached a decision.  In Chava’s case, “I have no other hand,” he concludes.  This is a result of her desire to be with Fyedka (Kemuel Vander-Puije) who was not Jewish.  Tevye could not go along in this case. 

Then there is Golde, Tevye’s wife of 25 years.  She provides comedic balance with her brusque retorts to Tevye especially when the sacred traditions were being compromised.  Golde succumbs to Tevye’s fake nightmare ruse in a spectacular scene that includes white-clad spirits from the otherworld that allowed her to be convinced that Tzeitel should marry Motel. Kendra Keiser plays the role to the hilt.

Kendra Keiser as Golde and Gabe Lewin as Tevye

Scott Black effectively plays the Constable, an underling of the anti-Semitic Czar but one who has compassion for the Jewish community in the village.  He ably expresses his conflicting emotions between duty and his concern for Tevye and his cohorts.

At the end, the Czar ousts the Jewish residents from Anatevka and the family members go their separate ways in a sad conclusion.

The remainder of the sizable cast and ensemble provide excellent support for the principal characters with their vocals and dancing. They execute these numbers choreographed by Rachel Miller with energy and precision, which are on target with Jewish traditional and Russian Cossack dances.  Charlotte Evans Crowley ably directs the six-piece orchestra.

The set was designed by Evan Margolis, BTCT’s co-artistic director. The backdrop is simple but contains the Hebrew words for Tradition, Marriage, The Bible, Family, Home, and Community—all overlying themes from the show.

Scene changes are executed by moving large set pieces like a porch, benches, chairs, tables, beds, a cart and a well. While these changes occur, Ms. Crowley’s orchestra provides music to help with the transitions.

At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in the U.S. and beyond, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of what can happen. Amid the music, dancing, celebrating and joy, Fiddler on the Roof, brings that poignant consciousness to the fore.  

מַזָל טוֹב (congratulations) to Beth Tfiloh Community Theatre and director Ms. Smith for staying true to the original and all of its traditions and to the hardworking performers and technical crew for executing an unforgettable and enlightening production.

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

Advisory: Fog effects in use.

Fiddler on the Roof plays August 23 and 27 at the H. Morton Rosen Arts Center located at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, 3300 Old Court Rd., Pikesville, MD 21208. Tickets can be purchased by calling 410-413-2436, visiting online


Photos: Evan Margolis/Beth Tfiloh Community Theatre