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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 multiple 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!