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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

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.”