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Sunday, March 26, 2023

Waco Whacko

Not yet held accountable, Trump continues to stick his finger into the eyes of America

This is what a mob boss looks like
espite his 90-minute piss and moan-a-thon in Waco, Texas on March 25, former President Donald Trump behaved as though he will evade justice as he always has.  
With criminal investigations gathering steam in New York, Fulton County, and in Washington, Trump used his Waco rally not to offer a vision of what he sees as the future of the country in terms of policy, but to agitate and activate his cultist supporters by assailing these investigations.

Of course, there are methods to his madness. One, he is attempting to lay the groundwork for massive protests should an indictment or two or three be handed down. Trump’s incendiary rhetoric is designed to intimidate prosecutors into not filing charges lest there would be wide-scale violence or as he characterized it on social media, “death and destruction.” Already Alvin Bragg, the New York District Attorney who appears poised to ask the Grand Jury for such an indictment, has received numerous death threats. This is a mob boss in action.

Two, his goal is to raise money off of his legal predicaments. No stranger to theatre, Trump wants to do a perp walk led in handcuffs and have a mug shot sent over every fundraising email that can be mustered. He needs whatever money he can corral to pay off (not that he will) his burgeoning legal fees.

And speaking of theatre, Trump’s performance at Waco (the site of the 1993 siege that left 75 dead) must be deemed a flop. Or in theatre parlance, Trump laid an egg.  It’s bad enough that the crowd reportedly had begun to thin out 30 minutes into the grievance-laced speech.

It’s also bad that Trump continues to lie and exaggerate. For example, he told his worshippers that he satisfied his 2016 campaign promise by completing a concrete wall along the 2,000-mile southern border and Mexico paid for it. In fact, only 40 miles of penetrable fencing was constructed in which funding had been approved in the Bush Administration.

However, his biggest miscue and where he stuck his finger into the eyes of democracy-supporting Americans and maybe his own legal defense, is when he led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance while the J6 Choir performed in the background. That choir is made up by inmates serving time for the January 6 insurrection.  And if that wasn’t enough to make you puke, Trump showed footage of those “patriots” storming the Capitol on January 6. And this wasn’t the Tucker Carlson sightseeing tour version.

In other words, he is paying homage no, honoring, the insurrectionists and explains why he didn’t lift a finger as Capitol Police and other law enforcement were being bludgeoned by pro-Trump rioters on that fateful day.

Special Prosecutor Jack Smith, who is investigating the January 6 day of infamy as well as the Mar-a-Lago documents/obstruction of justice case, always needed to nail down Trump’s state of mind as these events unfolded. He needed to prove intent: intent to incite a riot/insurrection and intent to obstruct justice. If Mr. Smith was watching footage from the Waco pity party and how Trump honored the insurrectionists, he may be able to finally check that box. 

He can thank the Waco Whacko.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

‘The Wedding Singer’ is Pitch Perfect at Silhouette Stages

L to R: Seth Fallon as George, Xander Conte as Robbie Hart,
Henry Cyr as Sammy
When Jeremy Goldman, the President of the Board of Directors of Silhouette Stages, one of Howard County’s venerable community theatres, decided to step away from his over 30 years of performing on stage and tried his hand at directing, he could not have picked a better show in The Wedding Singer to make his directing debut. He also couldn’t have chosen a better cast and crew—all volunteers—to make it work. And did it ever!

At the helm, Mr. Goldman ably stitches all the moving parts into a cohesive, intricately staged, high-tempo tapestry of laughter and nostalgia. The talented cast is brimming with enthusiasm and energy, and under the precise choreography by Jeremy A. McShan, can dance up a storm.

Let me point out that the stage in the Slayton House Theater where this production takes place is rather compact and does not have the expanse of say, Radio City Music Hall. To choreograph the snappy numbers so adroitly in limited space is a tribute to Mr. McShan’s imagining of the dance steps and the abilities of the performers in the show led by dance captain Brandon Goldman to execute them.

With music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, and a book by Beguelin and Tim Herlihy, The Wedding Singer is based on the popular 1998 film of the same name that propelled Adam Sandler’s cinema career. The show garnered 5 Tony Award nominations in 2006 including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Choreography. I never saw the movie; I was wayyyy too young. However, I am delighted to have experienced the laugh-a-minute production at Silhouette Stages.

Even before the proverbial curtain rises, the sounds of the 1980’s are piped into the audience. The likes of Bon Jovi and other popular artists of the era signal that the setting is 1985 New Jersey, not far from Exit 16. Already it’s funny. And the never-ending, hilarious one-liners and goofy song lyrics keep the audience in stitches from soup to nuts.

From the opening number, “It’s Your Wedding Day” where the cast scampers up the aisles and onto the stage, the burst of energy never wanes.

Yes, there is plenty of nostalgia to go around and enough corn to blanket Iowa. A Back to the Future vibe permeates throughout with an appearance of a Delorean on the stage, the prediction that coffee could never ever cost $3, and a cellular phone that must be attached to a battery the size of a car’s are just a sample of what you can expect. And when the scene shifts to Las Vegas, you get to enjoy impersonators of Billy Idol, Mr. T, Imelda Marcos, Cyndi Lauper, Ronald Reagan and Tina Turner.

Costume Designer Deanna Cruz-Conner’s colorful period attire is on point and adds another dimension to the spectacle. Then there are those mullets! Wig designer Tommy Malik deserves co-star status for the spectacular job in adorning cast members with those Richard Marx do’s. (Tommy, I need to speak with you.)

The story centers on Robbie Hart (played exceptionally by Xander Conte), a rock star wannabe and now a famous wedding singer who was jilted at the altar by Linda (Megan Mostow Kaiser), a trashy woman who could not at the last moment bring herself to marry a wedding singer.

Crushed by this disappointment and despite the encouragement he receives from his bandmates Sammy (Henry Cyr) and George (Seth Fallon) as well as a waitress at one of the halls he performed Julia (Maddie Bohrer), Robbie flies off the handle at the next wedding gig and angers the guests with his self-pity and ruminations about love. He gets dumped again, but this time literally in a dumpster.

With more encouragement from Julia and his bandmates as well as his nutty Grandma Rosie (Debbie Mobley) he tries to bounce back but will only perform at Bar Mitzvahs now rather than exposing his fragile emotions at weddings. Along the way, he develops a connection with Julia and becomes attracted to her.

"...a cohesive, intricately staged, high-tempo tapestry of laughter and nostalgia.

The problem is she is dating and is ultimately engaged to Glen Gulia (Chris Riehl), a wealthy, pompous Wall Streeter. It doesn’t look like a comfortable match from the outset but regardless, Julia wants to be married and have the perfect wedding song performed at her nuptials. She does imagine being Julia Gulia, an odd name that is not lost on her.

Following a practice kiss with Robbie at the urging of Julia’s cousin and friend Holly (Bailey Wolf), sparks begin to fly. Realizing that Julia is going to marry Glen because of security and money, he tries to change his lot by getting a job at Glen’s Wall Street firm where the almighty dollar is worshipped at any cost.

An ill-timed visit by Linda at Robbie’s basement apartment in the house owned by Rosie, some communication missteps and further misunderstandings seem to set back Robbie’s quest for true love. The feelings between Julia and Robbie remain, however.

How Robbie and Julia navigate this dilemma forms the remainder of the plot and we’ll leave it there.

Though this is a community theatrical production, the direction, performances and staging are professional caliber.  In a demanding role and in a tour de force, Xander Conte brings an abundance of personality and talent in portraying the lead character Robbie. Likeable for sure, you can't help but root for Robbie. 

Mr. Conte sings, he dances, he impeccably delivers comedic lines, he acts, he performs physical comedy, he strums the guitar, and he possesses an inventory of facial expressions that is limitless.

Mr. Conte’s emotional rendition of “Somebody Kill Me” and duets with Ms. Bohrer in “Awesome,” “Come Out of the Dumpster” (not many songs with that title), “If I Told You” and “Grow Old With You” are particularly well done.

A group number in which Mr. Conte participates, “Casualty of Love” is among several songs with excellent choreography by the energetic cast and Ensemble. This number and the Act One finale “Saturday Night in the City” stand out. But others are quite good as well.

Maddie Bohrer does a fine job of conveying the likable and conflicted Julie. Possessing a sweet singing voice, she performs well in her solo “Someday” and the aforementioned duets with Mr. Conte.

Debbie Mobley as Robbie’s feisty grandmother Rosie should be apprehended for scene-stealing. She boasts that she had been with 8 or 9 men prior to marrying her (unseen) husband of nearly 50 years, and if adjusted to inflation that amounts to about 200 men in 1985.

Robbie lives in her basement and as a present for his wedding that was ultimately doomed, she bought him a new bed. However, with this bed, you put a quarter in the slot, and it vibrates as in the case of those beds of yesteryear with magic fingers. Judging how Robbie reacted when he tried it out, only the middle one worked.

Xander Conte as Robbie Hart, Maddie Bohrer as Julia

Towards the end of the show, the hilariously zany number “Move That Thang” in which Ms. Mobley performs with Seth Fallon as George and the Company is a bona fide showstopper.

Chris Riehl ably plays the role of Glen, the one who was to marry Julia. He trades in junk bonds at work and other illegal activities where making money at any cost is the goal. To that end, Mr. Riehl joins Mr. Conte and the Company in the high-tempo dance number “All About the Green.”

Glen has a wandering eye and lies and shows a violent streak to go with his full-of-himself demeanor. He is a polar opposite of Julia.

Robbie’s bandmate and good friend Sammy, played very well by Henry Cyr, is also a comical figure. His relationships with women aren’t the nicest but he counsels Robbie to help him recover from his depression following Robbie’s break-up with Linda.

He joins George (Seth Fallon) and Robbie in the enjoyable dance number, “Today You’re a Man” at the Bar Mitzvah where they performed and later in a duet with Bailey Wolf as Holly in “Right In Front Of Your Eyes.”

The other member of the band, George, played deliciously by Seth Fallon is a campy, flamboyant character. Sammy is oblivious to George’s sexual orientation, and that lack of awareness provides some good laughs. Mr. Fallon, as stated before, is part of the showstopper “Move That Thang.”

Ms. Wolf is excellent as the flirty, promiscuous Holly. She helps Julia realize that she has fallen for Robbie after trying to latch onto Robbie herself.  

Linda, who broke up with Robbie on the day were to marry and then returned later on to selfishly try to get back in Robbie’s life, is played well by Megan Mostow Kaiser. During that attempt, Ms. Kaiser demonstrates her powerful vocals in “Let Me Come Home.”

The remainder of the talented cast does justice to the production and includes Beth Cohen, Dean Davis, Nick Thompson, Johnny Dunkerly, Rowena Winkler, Patricia Anderson, Julia L. Williams and Erin Branigan. The Ensemble consists of Brandon Goldman, Patrick Gray, Devin Holsey and Geraden Ward.

Aside from the wonderful performances, the atmospherics are excellent. Set Designer Ryan Geiger and Scene Designer Jessie Krupkin plus the set construction and painting crew have done a masterful job in providing the colorful and functional sets. Large set pieces are used throughout that include the Delorean car, a bar, a dumpster, even bathroom stalls. Despite such bulky items, the scenes change with precision and efficiency that maintains the rapid tempo of the show.

Light Designer Thomas P. Gardner and Lighting Board Operator Erin Ardanuy bathe the stage in brilliant hues and change the intensity according to the scene.  

All the elements of Silhouette Stages’ The Wedding Singer blend beautifully under the direction of Jeremy Goldman, his team and the amazing performers. You’re taken back to the 1980’s with all its quirks and you will laugh throughout.  As they would say back then, it’s a bitchin’ show and one that should not be missed.

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

The Wedding Singer plays on weekends through April 2 at the Slayton House Theatre, 10400 Cross Fox Ln, Columbia, MD 21044. For tickets, call 410-730-3987 visit online. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 3:00 p.m.

Photos: Stasia Steuart Photography

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

‘Mockingbird,’ Thomas Soar at the Hippodrome

Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch

Atticus Finch.

That is arguably one of the most recognized names in American literature. It is also a famous name in American cinema, and now it is a well-known name in theatre. Atticus Finch is the leading character in the book, movie and play To Kill A Mockingbird, the latter of which is currently gracing the stage of Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre as part of a national tour.

It is indeed a rare event that the Hippodrome presents a straight play as opposed to a musical. However, Miriam Buether’s scenic design, Ann Roth’s costumes, Jennifer Lipton’s lighting and Scott Lehrer’s sound design plus the excellent performances by the actors make it work. I hope the Hippodrome continues to feature stage plays, and next season the comedy Clue will be part of the slate.

Starring as Atticus Finch is none other than the celebrated actor Richard Thomas, whose body of work spanning five decades has earned him numerous awards and accolades. But his role as the beloved John-Boy character in the 1970’s TV series The Waltons is probably what most people remember about him. Incredibly, he looks almost the same as he did some 50 years ago. (I hate him!)

Under the meticulous direction of Bartlett Sher, the cast performs at a high level, and Mr. Thomas, in particular, offers a master class in acting. 

To Kill A Mockingbird is a 2018 play based on the 1960 novel of the same name by Harper Lee, adapted for the stage by Aaron Sorkin, the writer best known for the Emmy Award winning TV series The West Wing. The 1962 black and white film version, which garnered three Oscars, starred Gregory Peck. Fun fact: Mary Badham, who plays the role of the racist neighbor, Mrs. Henry Dubose in this iteration, had played Scout as a 10-year-old in the film.

"Mr. Thomas... offers a master class in acting."

Sorkin’s depiction occasionally veers from Lee’s popular book, but the core storyline remains intact. The play takes on serious issues, but comedic lines are dropped throughout. While those lighter moments may entertain the audience by offering a diversion from the solemnity, I feel that at times that diversion distracts, albeit temporarily, from the powerful messaging contained in the plot.

For instance, a character throws around the N-word and refers to someone as sub-human to jolt the audience only to have another character say something amusing just a few minutes later inducing chuckles. Less would be better. The exception is the well-placed stinging lines by Jacqueline Williams as Calpurnia. They hit the mark.

Set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama during the 1930’s, the story centers on Atticus Finch, a lawyer who was assigned the task of defending a Black man, Tom Robinson, who was wrongfully accused of assaulting and raping a white young woman Mayella Ewell. Finch, a widower, is raising two young children, Scout and Jem. He is assisted in this effort by Calpurnia, a Black housekeeper who is as close to a mother as the children ever had.

The poignant trial of Tom Robinson is the centerpiece of the play. Flashbacks of events leading to the trial are presented, which is a fresh approach to the plot. Here we learn of the palpable amount of ignorance and racism in the town.

Scout, a tomboy-ish, precocious girl; Jem, her good-hearted friendly older brother; and Dill, their nerdy friend who dazzles Atticus with his sophistication are narrators of the story looking back at these impactful years. They also provide commentary throughout including the proceedings during the trial.

Melanie Moore as Scout and Jacqueline Williams as Calpurnia enjoy a playful moment.
As a side story, these three are determined to flush out a reclusive neighbor Boo Radley, a person nobody had seen. This character plays a critical role at the end, which will not be divulged.

In a tour de force, Richard Thomas, as stated previously, excels as Atticus Finch and does more than
justice to the legendary role. The character sees only the good in people and instills upon his children to respect everybody no matter who they are. While not trained in criminal law, Atticus reluctantly agrees to take on the case of Tom Robinson (played extraordinarily by Yaegel T. Welch) persuaded by Judge Taylor (David Manis) who presides at the trial.

As Atticus, Mr. Thomas’ interactions with the Finch children Scout and Jem and later Dill are heartwarming and where much of the humor takes place. He earnestly conveys the principles of respect and morality to the children—traits he holds dear.

Yet, it his performance at the trial that reveals Mr. Thomas’ massive acting talents. Low-keyed at first, but during cross-examination of the State’s witnesses he is explosive. Fiery and on point, Mr. Thomas demonstrates the passion needed to convince a jury but, sadly, to no avail. His scorching closing argument alone is worth the price of admission.

Melanie Moore plays young Scout with flair. At times pugnacious, she has no trouble challenging her father and curiously refers to him as Atticus rather than Dad. Her role as the narrator is effective and spirited.

Similarly, Daniel Neale, who plays Jem on the night this performance was reviewed, performs well as Scout’s older brother and protector. He grapples with the ills of society and in particular, the scourge of racism existing in this southern town.  

Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch and Yaegel T. Welch as Tom Robinson

Their friend Dill, who was visiting his aunt and neighbor of the Finches during the summer, played by Morgan Bernhard on the night this performance was reviewed, has a somewhat comedic role. He continually impresses Atticus with his sophistication and wisdom.

Perhaps one of the most touching scenes in the play was his moving conversation with Atticus whereby the youngster reveals his loneliness and never having known his father. Mr. Bernhard delivers the scene splendidly.

An outstanding performance is turned in by Jacqueline Williams as Calpurnia, the Finches housekeeper. Maternal to the core and sassy, Calpurnia has experienced racism first-hand and is taking its toll on her. Ms. Williams delivers her powerful lines with precise timing.

Yaegel T. Welch convincingly plays the falsely accused rapist Tom Robinson. From an injury sustained at childhood, Tom was not physically able to have attacked his accuser Mayella Ewell (Arianna Gayle Stucki) nor did Atticus Finch’s explosive defense stop the jury from convicting him in 37 minutes and facing an eventual death penalty. 

For her part, Ms. Stucki is excellent in conveying the tormented Mayella. Unable to face the principals in the courthouse and seemed to be sitting in a fetal position throughout the proceedings, she was triggered by Atticus’ cross-examination. There it was revealed that her attacks and subsequent bruises were brought on by her father, Bob Ewell (Joey Collins) and not Tom Robinson, not that she admitted it. When that point was raised, Ms. Stucki effectively portrays Mayella as she releases her pent-up emotions and fears that her father wrought. It is a dynamite scene.

As the villain Bob Ewell, Mr. Collins has the unenviable task of spewing the most racist and also antisemitic language in the play. Ignorant and illiterate and often drunk, Ewell comes off as a menacing figure and a threat to anyone including Atticus who sides with “them.” Through rousing diatribes, Mr. Collins is masterful in portraying that character.

Overall, the cast and technical crew are terrific in presenting a powerful story. The staging adds to the excellence with the frequent scene changes, such as from the courtroom to the Finches front porch that require the movement of sizable set pieces.  

To Kill a Mockingbird is an American classic no matter the medium. Its overarching message of respect, morality and goodness overrules the cynicism, evil and racism that unfortunately still exist today. This is a must-see play and a joy to witness such an accomplished actor like Richard Thomas perform in a role so suitable for him. 

And that is my closing argument.

Advisory: The play contains profoundly racist language in the dialogue including the use of the N-word.

Runing time. Three hours with an intermission.

To Kill a Mockingbird runs through March 19 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: Julieta Cervantes

Monday, March 13, 2023

The Politics of Stupid

As a partisan Democrat, I admit I relish the Republicans’ political stupidity that is on full display. They used to be smarter and more strategic. Not anymore.

When Speaker (in title only) Kevin McCarthy handed over 40,000 hours of footage from the deadly, violent and unpatriotic insurrection of January 6, 2021, to perennial liar and senior conspiracy theorist Tucker Carlson of Fox “News,” they thrust the horrific event right back into the spotlight. That’s not a winner for Republicans as their leader and grand patriarch of the party Donald Trump sparked the attempted coup.

Polls have indicated the public’s anger at the attempted insurrection of January 6 was on the wane despite the excellent work of the bipartisan House Select Committee investigating January 6. The magnitude of the event had been receding in the rear-view mirror as the days and months went on.

But leave it to McCarthy who only received the title of Speaker when he sold his soul (and probably the country’s) to the far-right fringe of the Republican caucus in Congress—the majority of which denied the valid election of Joe Biden—to resurrect this day of infamy. Tucker exacerbated the problem for Republicans by cherry-picking the images to suit a bizarre and totally unbelievable narrative that the rioters were, in fact, peaceful, patriotic sightseers. Dumb move.

Here’s the rub: just about everybody had seen the events in real time and in subsequent news reports, Trump’s second impeachment and the presentation and report by the House Select Committee. People realize, except for those misguided MAGAs, that Carlson is a complete loon, and he is insulting the intelligence of Americans with his production of alternative facts. Clearly, he has made Republicans look foolish because not many of them publicly denounced this gambit so it will stick to the party like Velcro.

If that wasn’t enough, House Republicans are beginning to launch multiple probes into January 6, including examining the Select Committee’s actions from the last Congress, the security failures from that day and potentially even the treatment of January 6 defendants. 

All these efforts will keep January 6 front and center, a situation that is causing ugly divisions within the party and the donor class. It’s an unforced error as revenge has trumped common political sense, and I am delighted they are keeping the flame alive. Democrats must continue to equate Republicans to January 6.

The antics of McCarthy and Carlson will extend the January 6 shelf life.  But even after the Carlson fictional production eventually fades as a news story, January 6 may burst back to the spotlight as potential indictments of a former president may land.

Tourists, my ass!

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Overcoming the Orioles’ Inferiority Complex

As the 2022 Major League Baseball trade deadline approached, the surprising Baltimore Orioles record was hovering around .500 and only 3 games back for a Wild Card berth. The team, which was the worst during the past 5 years, was experiencing a remarkable and unexpected turnaround. Baseball fans may have forgotten that the Orioles’ miseries were recent; they had the best record in the American League the previous 5 years.

The fan base was understandably excited over the chance the O’s may make it to the postseason despite a string of 100 + game loss seasons. Would General Manager Mike Elias make a big move or two to shore up some holes and provide the team with reinforcements to actually make a run?

No, he continued on a path to what he calls the long-term picture. Instead, he traded fan favorite Trey Mancini, a move in which I was begging he would not do on several levels, and emerging star closer Jorge López—both for minor league prospects.

Despite no help from the cavalry, the 2022 Orioles persisted and finished the season 4 games over .500—with 31more wins than they had amassed in 2021—and only 3 games from a Wild Card spot. If not for a team batting slump for most of September, they most likely would have landed in the post-season.

Following 2022, Elias spoke of—actually promised—increasing the payroll (the O’s have the 2nd lowest of the 30 teams) but as it turned out, did not include large long-term deals for free agents. A few free agents signed for short deals and none of them are in the superstar category.

Elias declared the rebuild is over and said this year’s goal is to make the postseason building on last year’s success. Here’s my problem. Why can’t he simply say that he and team ownership will do whatever it takes to get the team ready for a run deep into October and not just make the Wild Card?  After all, most inspirational speakers implore us to “reach for the stars”, “aim high”, etc.

Why doesn’t owner John Angelos commit to a higher payroll rather than clinging to the default notion that small and mid-market teams can’t compete for the top dollar stars? Look at the San Diego Padres, a comparable team in the TV market and what they are spending.

Kyle Stowers greeting Gunnar Henderson

The lack of significant financial commitment is among the reasons the O’s attendance was so dismal in 2022 especially during a playoff-contending run. Fans aren’t convinced the management and ownership believe in the team’s ability to compete at a high level. It’s some form of inferiority complex.

There is a lot more to be excited about in 2023. The emergence of young stars catcher Adley Rutschman, infielder Gunnar Henderson, starting pitcher Grayson Rodriguez and other talent like outfielder Kyle Stowers will be mainstays in the solid core line-up.  With the acquisition of Kyle Gibson and Cole Irvin, the starting rotation will be competitive for the few remaining spots with their ace John Means still on the shelf recovering from Tommy John surgery.

And the Orioles boast arguably the best farm system in baseball with a plethora of talent in the pipeline, so the team should be quite entertaining and competitive in the years to come.

Disregard the stat-driven projections, which are ridiculously predicting a fall-off this upcoming season. No wonder there is an inferiority complex. I’ll bet against those projections, especially with the new balanced schedule favoring the O’s.

Team ownership and the front office need to become as excited as the fan base and media and act like the Orioles are a big-time ballclub because they are.  Of course, they want to manage expectations. But come on, this is a talented, young squad. They are not the “Why Not?” team of 1989.  They’re better, and don’t be shocked that they will prove it by season’s end.

Wednesday, February 08, 2023

‘Les Misérables’ at the Hippodrome est Magnifique

If you bought a ticket simply to hear the magical tenor voice of Nick Cartell who plays Jean Valjean in the stellar production of Les Misérables currently mounted at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre as part of a North America tour, it would be worth it just for that.  The same could be said for experiencing the performances of Preston Truman Boyd as Javert or Matt Crowle as Thénardier or Addie Morales as Cosette or Gregory Lee Rodriguez as Marius.

In fact, the entire sizable cast, attired in superb period costumes, delivers astounding performances. And the work of the solid orchestra conducted by Brian Eads and an incredibly creative technical crew to deliver innovative and efficient staging under the impeccable direction of Laurence Connor and James Powell. These elements combine to present one of the truly amazing spectacles to adorn the Hippodrome stage.

Les Misérables, a classic sung-through musical based on the 1862 novel by the French poet/playwright Victor Hugo, has been entertaining audiences throughout the world for decades.  The Broadway musical, whose score was written by Claude-Michel Schönberg, original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with an English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer, opened in March 1987 and ran until May 2003. Les Mis was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and won eight, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. The musical has been performed in over 40 countries in 22 languages.

The powerhouse catalog of songs such as “Who Am I,” “Come to Me,” “Master of the House,” “Red and Black,” “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, “A Heart Full of Love,” the show-stopping “One Day More,” “A Little Fall of Rain,” “Bring Him Home” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” are gorgeous and memorable.

"...one of the truly amazing spectacles to adorn the Hippodrome stage."

The compelling storyline with its adventure, drama, love, generosity, redemption and tragedy has many moving parts to it, but it essentially follows the life of a peasant Jean Valjean in early 19th century France.  He had been imprisoned 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread as a means to help his sister’s starving child as well as for multiple attempted escapes. 

After Valjean broke parole, he began his life again, turning to God and seeking redemption that was aided by the kindness from a Bishop.  Throughout this journey, Valjean was doggedly pursued by police inspector Javert who maintained that Valjean would always remain a criminal at the core and could never change for the better.  

Changing his identity, Valjean became a town mayor and factory owner eight years later. He rescued a dying woman named Fantine from the police and promised her to care for her young daughter Cosette, whom he liberates from the abusive innkeepers-turned-street gang leaders, the Thénardiers.   

Years pass by and Valjean is still being dogged by Javert, and a student uprising begins in Paris in which Valjean and many other characters are drawn in.  One of the revolutionaries, Marius, falls in love with the grown Cosette who reciprocates, and they eventually marry.  Valjean, who rescued Marius from an injury sustained at the hands of the French military at the barricades, ultimately reveals his identity before he passes on. 

Much occurs in between as this merely represents the contours of the plot. The story contrasts the compassionate good and search for redemption with the evil of dispassion towards human misery.

Since there is no dialogue, the entire plot is revealed through highly memorable music, and the performances are characterized by top-notch vocals with clear enunciation of the lyrics to illuminate the story.   

As John Valjean, Nick Cartell delivers a master class in singing and acting. His incredibly powerful tenor vocals are captivating, eliciting thunderous ovations from the audience. Solos, such as “Who Am I?” and “Bring Him Home” are guaranteed to bring chills. His duets with Haley Dortch as Fantine in “Come to Me” and “A Little Fall of Rain” with Christine Heesun Huang as Éponine are also outstanding.

"Red and Black" Devin Archer as Enjolras and Company

As the intense and relentless Javert who is committed to the law, Preston Truman Boyd brings his commanding baritone to the fore. He soars with “Stars” and “Soliloquy,” and his dynamic acting skills come into play as well.

Haley Dortch movingly plays the tragic figure Fantine, a poverty-stricken soul who turned to prostitution to pay innkeepers, the Thénardiers, to take care of her daughter, Cosette. Prior to her death, Fantine asks Valjean to take care of Cosette.  Ms. Dortch’s main song, “I Dreamed a Dream” is performed touchingly.

Gregory Lee Rodriguez is sturdy in the role of the student revolutionary Marius and the love interest of Cosette (Addie Morales).  He is convincingly passionate and sings effectively in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” and in a duet with Ms. Hwang as Éponine, the daughter of the Thénardiers (Matt Crowle and Christina Rose Hall) in “A Little Fall of Rain.” Mr. Rodriguez also performs well in several group numbers.

Ms. Hwang does an excellent job in the portrayal of Éponine, a woman who took after her father and became a thief. She secretly loved Marius but was unable to land the prize. In a moving number, “A Heart Full of Love,” Ms. Hwang sings beautifully with Ms. Morales and Mr. Rodriguez.

Ms. Hall as Madame Thénardier adroitly demonstrates her vocal prowess and funny facial expressions in her scenes. And Mr. Crowle is an absolute scene stealer.  The Thénardiers are a conniving couple who provide what little comedy the show offers (after all, “Miserables” is in the title). Mr. Crowle leads my personal favorite number, the snappy and hilarious “Master of the House.” He also excels in “Dog Eats Dog” and “Beggars at the Feast.”

Another vocal standout is Devin Archer as Enjolras, the leader of the student revolutionaries and a friend of Marius.  Commanding an outstanding voice, his performances in “Red and Black” and “Do You Hear the People Sing” with other members of the ensemble are fantastic.

Other notable cast members include Harrison Fox who in the evening this production was reviewed plays the young street urchin Gavroche (he alternates with Gabriel Lafazan) and Randy Jeter as the Bishop of Digne.

The remainder of the company consisting of the other cast members, Thénardier’s Gang, the Students and the entire Ensemble are sensational in their singing, acting and movements on the stage.

As is the case with the performers, the atmospherics are spectacular, to say the least. Highly detailed and authentic costumes originally designed by Andreane Neofitou with additional design by Christine Rowland and Paul Wills allow you to travel in a time capsule back to 1800’s France.

Matt Kinley’s set design is imaginative and functional and is inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. Two multi-story stone dwellings flank the stage with many moveable set pieces including the iconic barricades used throughout. Projections amplify the scenery with the eventual demise of Javert being one of the show’s many highlights.  Fog effects are used liberally.

Lighting Designer Paule Constable keeps the stage dim during most of the production.  This is symbolic of the impending gloom and tragedies that are intrinsic to the story. However, flashes of light are used effectively during the battle at the barricades for maximum dramatic effect. These moments are aided by Mick Potter’s excellent sound that depicts gunshots during the battle.

With all the elements excelling throughout combined with the masterful performances, this is theatre at its best.  Les Mis is tout simplement spectaculaire and worthy of the rollicking standing ovation it received at show’s end.  Don’t miss it.

Running time. Three hours with an intermission.

Les Misérables runs through February 12 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.

Saturday, February 04, 2023

‘Something Rotten!’ at Toby’s But Only the Title of the Show

The last thing you want to hear is that there is "something rotten" at a dinner theatre. But rest assured we’re not talking about the cuisine at the famously scrumptious buffet at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Md. What I am referring to is the hilarious musical, Something Rotten! that is currently being presented at Toby’s. The laugh-a-minute production is a spoof on Shakespeare, the Renaissance and yes, Broadway.

Unlike Toby’s buffet (the menu is shown at the conclusion of this review), Shakespeare is an acquired taste.  Many love his works, others not so much.  But how many actually HATE Shakespeare?  Well, in this zany musical there is certainly one: Nick Bottom.  He is a struggling playwright with an underachieving acting troupe who has nothing but disdain for the ultra-successful Will Shakespeare in late 16th century England. And that’s just the beginning.

With a book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell and music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatick, Something Rotten! delivers countless “you’re killing me” situations from start to finish.  That is, if you find the likes of puritanical oppression and the black plague humorous.  Comedic moments are highlighted by well-placed double entendres and a not-too-subtle stream of gaiety, or should I say gayness, running through the production.

The Tony Award winning production irreverently takes on other Broadway musicals like no other, even more so than The Producers, The Book of Mormon, and Shrek to name a few. In fact, there are dozens of references to Broadway musicals in Something Rotten! Among them: Rent, Little Shop of Horrors, Annie, Hair, Cats and Fiddler on the Roof.

In an unusually dance-heavy production, Helen Hayes Award winning director and choreographer Mark Minnick brought his A-game, and the talented cast members (some with Helen Hayes nominations of their own from this past season) does the rest with precision and excellent timing. All sorts of intricate and vigorous dance numbers are on display including tap and high-kicking steps. And three cheers to Mr. Minnick for the show’s staging, pacing and space utilization.

Contributing to the show’s excellence is the brilliantly detailed and lavish period costuming down to the codpieces worn by the men and even omelet costumes (where else would you see those?). These costumes were designed by Gregg Barnes, who crafted the attire for the original Broadway production.

The hue-rich lighting design by Lynn Joslin aided by colorful hanging lanterns brightened up the in-the-round stage. Mark Smedley’s sound design is particularly effective in this production with solid and balanced audio.

Conductor Ross Scott Rawlings (Nathan Scavilla at other performances) leads the 6-piece orchestra who ably back up the vocals and dance numbers.

"All sorts of intricate and vigorous dance numbers are on display..."

In this musical the Kirkpatrick Brothers’ bouncy score is catchy for sure but the lyrics are stunningly clever.  Most successful Broadway musicals have a show-stopping number that elicits ovations from audiences. Something Rotten! boasts two such epochal moments.  

The elaborate number “A Musical” is performed halfway through the first act.  Its high-energy tap dancing and kick line choreography and fabulous lyrics, which include clever references to a bevy of Broadway musicals, such as Les Misérables, and A Chorus Line, drew loud cheers.  Also bringing down the house was the second act “Make an Omelette” that contains similar ingredients.

Moreover, a solid musical may present one or two scene-stealers during the course of the show. “Something Rotten!” delivers a multitude, which accounts for the prodigious amount of laughter-producing lines. While the frenzy from the first act settles down in the second act, there is ample fun to enjoy.

The insanely funny story centers on the aforementioned Nick Bottom (played superbly by Jeffrey Shankle) and his younger naïve brother Nigel Bottom (Ben Ribler) who barely can make ends meet.  Nick more than Nigel is so jealous of Shakespeare (Justin Calhoun) that he is desperate to write a successful play for a change. 

Finding a soothsayer, Thomas Nostradamus (Jordan B. Stocksdale), the nephew of THE Nostradamus, Nick is told that the wave of the future is a musical, whereby the actors break out into song and dance in the middle of their dialogue. What a concept! 

Nostradamus, who apparently did not have all his wires connected properly, looked into the future and predicted the next great play would be “Omelette,” instead of Shakespeare’s greatest hit that sounds similar.  Mr. Stocksdale is rip-roaring funny in this sequence and is one of the show’s scene stealers.

Shakespeare, meanwhile, displaying surprising insecurity, is worried that the Bottom Brothers are stealing his work.  The ensuing madness, dominated by eggs, needless to say, comprises the rest of the plot, which eventually is happily resolved.

Perfectly cast as Nick Bottom, Jeffrey Shankle puts on an amazing performance not only by his comedic timing but also his singing and dancing. Full of energy, Mr. Shankle’s character frantically tries to compete with Shakespeare and has the audience rooting for this underdog.  He sets the tone right in “God, I Hate Shakespeare” showcasing his strong tenor vocals.

Justin Calhoun performs with flair and joy as the conceited, gloating, swaggering Shakespeare fresh off his hit play “Romeo and Juliet.” He is the rock star of his time; men and women alike adore him, except, of course, Nick Bottom.  He delivers the numbers “Will Power” and “Hard to Be the Bard” with gusto.

As the sensitive romantic Nigel, Ben Ribler, successfully making his Toby’s debut, looks up to Shakespeare though he tries to work with his brother on producing the musical.  However, his love interest, a golden hair Puritan named Portia (Marina Yiannouris), convinces Nigel, a poet, that he should write from his heart. Somehow, co-writing “Omelette” doesn’t feel right to him.   

Demonstrating a smooth tenor voice, Mr. Ribler clicks in duets with Ms. Yiannouris, the ballad “We See the Light,” and with Mr. Shankle, “To Thine Own Self.”

Another of the show’s scene stealers is Janine Sunday who plays Bea, Nick’s wife. Realizing her husband’s struggles and a desire for a better life, Bea wants to help out any way she can.  That includes acting as a part of Nick’s acting troupe though it is illegal for a woman to appear on stage.  She even takes on physical jobs for men disguising herself as a man. Ms. Sunday delivers splendidly in “Right Hand Man,” a duet with Mr. Shankle.

As the strict father of Portia, Brother Jeremiah (Adam Grabau) seems to be the father of all Puritans.  Bible clinging, intolerant, set in his beliefs, Brother Jeremiah has a habit of slip-of-the-tongue oops moments revealing that perhaps he’s hiding something.  If so, he’s not hiding it too well.  Mr. Grabau deliciously plays this role to the hilt.

Another deft performance is turned in by Robert Biedermann as Shylock, the Jewish moneylender—the only job a Jew can hold during that era—who cannot legally invest in the musical.  Dropping Yiddish words during the dialogue, Mr. Biedermann is such a mensch.

Then there is David James, Toby’s master of the multiple roles, who plays Lord Clapham and the Master of the Justice with his usual relish.

Shane Lowry as the Minstrel who opens up each act with “Welcome to the Renaissance” does a fine job in setting the tone for the show and performs well as a member of The Troupe. The other talented Troupe members include Brandon Bedore, Patrick Gover, Ariel Messeca, and Vince Musgrave.

Rounding out the Ensemble are MaryKate Brouillet, Tina DeSimone, Lydia Gifford, Amanda Kaplan, and Patricia “Pep” Targete. They provide superb support for the leads with their energetic, precise dancing and strong vocals.

Sure, Something Rotten! is a silly farce. But it is a gorgeous spectacle in every respect.  The wonderful music, hilarious lyrics, zany story, well-placed satire and an amazingly talented cast and crew make this a must-see show.  As the production continues through its run, I wish all the performers well and to break an egg.

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

Something Rotten! Runs through March 19 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 Toby's website as well as Ticketmaster.

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography

The full Menu is shown here, and the specialty drink is “Bottoms Up.” 

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Classic ‘My Fair Lady’ at the Hippodrome

Madeline Powell as Eliza Doolittle

My Fair Lady was my first Broadway LP album, and I must have played it a hundred times, loving each song like it was the best of the best. The musical presents an enjoyable storyline woven together by a lush score, wonderful lyrics, lavish costumes and eye-pleasing sets. 

As part of Broadway’s Golden Age of musicals, it’s been a wildly popular and successful 6-time Tony Award winning show for over 60 years played throughout the world in dozens of languages. The 1964 film adaptation was a multiple Oscar winner and box office smash.  In short, My Fair Lady is a classic and has been appropriately dubbed by many as “the perfect musical.” It has been and continues to be my favorite musical of all time.

The Lincoln Center Theater revival of this masterpiece directed by Bartlett Sher that is now touring nationally is a welcome addition to the Hippodrome Theatre’s 2022-23 Season. As has generally been the case, the touring shows at the Hippodrome have been stellar, polished productions, so it was not a stretch for me to have lofty expectations about Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady given its pedigree and the theatre’s history of excellence.

At its core, the production stayed true to the original, and that is a major sigh of relief. After all, there is no need to mess with success, and Sher did little in the way of tinkering. This is evident during the uncomfortably obvious sexist scenes and songs that were acceptable in the 1950’s but are offensive by contemporary sensibilities.

The music by Frederick Loewe and the utterly outstanding lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner are the centerpiece of My Fair Lady.  Lerner’s book was based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.  The talented leads and the orchestra led by director David Andrews Rogers are excellent in delivering the iconic songs.

Nonetheless, the opening night production experienced some technical issues, which are fixable and most likely won’t be evident in future presentations. Part of the set would not move forward downstage resulting in an unusual interruption of the presentation that lasted for about 10 minutes. In addition, there were some mic/sound problems in the first act that need to be addressed.

The story centers on a young Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, literally plucked from the streets of London during the early part of the 20th century by erudite phoneticist Professor Henry Higgins in a seemingly uphill battle to turn her speech patterns around and ultimately make her pass as a lady as part of a bet with a colleague Colonel Pickering.  Their relationship takes on an interesting dynamic as the show proceeds, and whether or not Eliza and Higgins turn their love-hate relationship into love is ambiguous at best.  All this transpires with the clear division, values and conflicts between the upper and lower classes of London as the backdrop.

"At its core, the production stayed true to the original..."

With most musicals, if there are three or four songs that are memorable, that would be considered a success.  In My Fair Lady’s first-rate catalogue there are well over a dozen such songs, each distinct and blessed with wonderful melodies and clever lyrics.  The songs don’t just serve as filler or interruptions; they move the action forward and maintain an integral place in the story. Lerner’s lyrics are as good as it gets in musical theatre, and many leave a smile as the numbers are performed.

The iconic “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “The Rain in Spain,” “On the Street Where You Live,” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” are favorites for sure.  But even the others, such as “I’m an Ordinary Man,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “You Did It,” and “Show Me” are also examples of tuneful numbers that always please.

Madeline Powell plays the part of the ornery Eliza Doolittle with sass and class.  Possessing a soaring soprano voice, Ms. Powell delivers excellent renditions of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “The Rain in Spain,” and “Show Me,” and she truly triumphs in the big number “I Could Have Danced All Night.”  Ms. Powell is outstanding as a vocalist, and her acting is spot on as Eliza with all the voice inflections, facial expressions and body language required by the part. Her character evolves from being a meek, angry street woman to a proud person who demands self-respect and kindness.

As the pompous, chauvinistic bully Professor Henry Higgins, Jonathan Grunert hit it out of the park aided by a superbly strong speaking voice—perfect for theatre.  His onstage chemistry with Ms. Powell is fantastic and essential for the production to be successful.

Jonathan Grunert, Madeline Powell and John Adkison

Solid all around and executing his songs with the appropriate amount of flair, Mr. Grunert, a younger version of previous Henry Higginses, is a man in perpetual motion in virtually every scene.  It’s not that he is dancing, but his precise high energy movements on the stage, especially during his vocal performances, are well choreographed and executed.

During the course of “I’m an Ordinary Man”,  however, I would have liked Mr. Grunert to emphasize the word “BUT” as was done in the original by Rex Harrison for a dramatic transition.  “BUT, let a woman in your life and your serenity is through…” It would have been a good touch to deliver it in that manner.

Another quibble is that in his zeal to demonstrate his utter exasperation with Eliza and reinforce his dominance over her, Mr. Grunert’s dialogue is occasionally rushed, rather than letting each word sink in. Regardless, he was well cast for the role.

Higgins’ sidekick is Colonel Pickering, also a phoneticist, who wagered that Higgins could not turn the disheveled Eliza into a lady to pass as such in London’s upper crust society.  He lost the bet but is pleased to see the results.

John Adkison ably plays Colonel Pickering authoritatively trying to rein in Higgins’ impatience and coldness towards Eliza.

In a comedic role, Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, is an unmarried working-class boozer. Michael Hegarty plays the part to the hilt with a muscular voice and excellent dancing. He allows Higgins to house Eliza in exchange for five pounds and is always eager to find money.  “With a Little Bit of Luck” and the show-stopping, a little bawdy number “Get Me to the Church on Time” are his featured songs, and he along with the energetic ensemble under the choreography by Christopher Gattelli, perform these numbers exceptionally.

Nathan Haltiwanger plays Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Eliza’s suitor with whom she has little interest.  His one number, “On the Street Where You Live” (and reprise) was performed very well with a rich tenor voice and was an audience pleaser.

Notable performances are also turned in by Madeline Brennan as Higgins’ stern housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, as well as Becky Saunders who plays the role of the socialite Mrs. Higgins, mother of Henry, who clearly has issues with her son.  The remainder of the cast and ensemble support the leads with great talent and energy.

There are numerous scene changes throughout the show, and Michael Yeargan’s set design is a combination of a fixed set, such as Higgins’ lavish study, and moveable set pieces. 

That study is the venue for many of the musical numbers features wood paneling, a ceiling high window, a couple of desks and chairs, and an ornate wooden spiral staircase. As noted earlier, the set was unable to move downstage in the first act necessitating some repairs.

The staging and hence the pacing of the production were hampered by large set pieces including three street lamps and other objects. Scene changes were not executed as fast as we’ve seen in other touring productions.

Nonetheless, the period costumes designed by Catherine Zuber are superb. They are manifested in the Ascot scene where the upper crust women wore lavish gowns and oversized feathered hats.

Despite sound snafus in the early part of the show, designers Marc Salzberg and Beth Lake did a fine job. In particular, the sound of horses racing during the Ascot event sweeping through the theater was effectively executed.

Overall, this version of My Fair Lady scores high marks for not only staying true to the classic work but also for enabling a talented, energetic cast to do justice to this magnificent musical. 

With a little bit of luck, with a little bit of luck, you should find the time to see this show.

Running time. Two hours and 55 minutes with an intermission.

My Fair Lady runs through January 15 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 or the Hippodrome.

Photos: Jeremy Daniel