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Wednesday, June 28, 2023

No Wasting Away at Toby’s ‘Escape to Margaritaville’

It is summertime and you’re lying on a striped chaise lounge on a pristine Caribbean beach watching the calmness of the azure ocean. The palm trees sway softly in the light breeze and as you relax and mellow out to the tunes of one of the most popular folk storytellers of all time. There’s a tacky little bar nearby where it’s always Five O’clock.   

But you don’t need to spend a ton of bucks to head to this tropical paradise for that type of diversion. Rather, you can come to Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia to chill during its jukebox musical production of Jimmy Buffett’s Escape to Margaritaville.

You won’t find any sand.  There isn’t much of an ocean in the theatre.  And there’s certainly no lost shaker and salt. But under the meticulous direction and choreography of Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick and scenic design and lighting by David A. Hopkins as well as Janine Sunday’s costume design, the atmosphere is just right. And with a volcano to boot. (Recall Mount Humongous from SpongeBob SquarePants?)

“Margaritaville,” Buffett’s most popular song of all, spawned a chain of restaurants and bars that has kept that word in the lexicon of American culture. Expectedly, it is performed in Toby’s production of Escape to Margaritaville along with other popular tunes, such as “Fins,” Five O’Clock Somewhere,” “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw” (a title you won’t find anywhere else),”Changes in Lattitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “Come Monday” (as part of a medley) and a host of others.

To be sure, Jimmy Buffett is a cult-like figure and has been so for over five decades. His fans, known as Parrotheads, are as devoted to an artist as anyone can be. Yet, Buffett’s work transcends those loyal fans as his music has broad appeal in the pop-rock, country-rock, calypso and easy listening genres. His music often conveys an island escapism mindset, and that is evident in the show’s storyline. The performers’ attire as well as that of much of the audience reflects that, too.

Ross Scott Rawlings (alternates with Nathan Scavilla) ably leads the six-piece orchestra split up in two locations in the theatre in backing up the talented lead vocalists and ensemble. Mr. Minnick’s choreography, which is manifested in most of the performed songs, offers the energetic cast the opportunity to strut their stuff. A memorable tap-dance number during the song “Grapefruit, Juicy Fruit” excels. Another well-choreographed number that stands out is the amusing song “Fins.”  

Some jukebox musicals are biographical like Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons), Tina: The Tina Turner Musical and Ain’t Too Proud (The Temptations). Others use an original story as a vessel to convey an artist(s) work, such as Mamma Mia! (ABBA), and Jagged Little Pill (Alanis Morrisette). Escape to Margaritaville falls into the latter category. The 2017 musical is based on the music of Jimmy Buffett with a book by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley.

The plot, which brings the music to life, is light and heartwarming. It centers on Tully (Patrick Gover), a singer-musician at the bar in the Margaritaville hotel on a small Caribbean island. He performs his music at night and woos the lady vacationers during the day. When scientist Rachel (Kathleen West) joins her bestie Tammy (Anna Phillips-Brown) from Cincinnati just prior to Tammy’s wedding on a bachelorette vacation, Tully sees in Rachel something different, and after a few days of intimacy, he falls in love. But Rachel is not in love with him.

The engaged Tammy who was warned by her crummy fiancée back home Chadd (Brandon Bedore) about “land sharks” and adhering to a diet so that she loses weight before the wedding, meets Brick (Jordan B. Stocksdale), a bartender at the Margaritaville. Brick believes that Tammy is beautiful just as she is but her engagement to Chadd is a major complication.

A wild volcano eruption (why have a volcano if there isn’t an eruption?) sends the vacationers packing and the Margaritaville staff escaping. What ensues, and there is a lot, will not be divulged here so that you can enjoy the twists and turns as you are treated to some wonderful music and performances.

I will say that a bunch of words taken from Buffett’s lyrics find their way into the plot. Examples include sponge cake, tin cup or chalice, shrimp, carrot juice, porch swings. You get the picture.

As the confident and talented ladies’ man Tully, handsome Patrick Gover (Rocky, Ghost, Grease) portrays the role convincingly. Guitar-strumming virtually throughout the production, Mr. Gover’s flat abs provides eye candy for the audience and can sing up a volcano eruption. Exuding charm and passion, Mr. Gover delivers in his solo “King of Somewhere Hot” and in duets with Ms. West in “”Son of a Son of a Sailor” and “Coast of Marseilles.” He also performs in the group opening number, the vibrant “License to Chill.”

Kathleen West as Rachel demonstrates her fine acting skills during her interactions with Anna Phillips-Brown playing Tammy and with Mr. Gover. Her vocal talents shine in the aforementioned duets and in her solo “It’s My Job.” Her duet with Ms. Phillips-Brown in the popular “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” is very well done.

For her part, Ms. Phillips-Brown delivers a knockout performance, and in the second act she literally delivers a knockout punch. Possessing extraordinary vocals, Ms. Phillips-Brown soars in the duet with Mr. Stocksdale “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”

As the bartender Brick, Jordan B. Stocksdale is not just likeable, he is loveable. He conveys authenticity, humor and warmth that has the audience rooting for him. He appears in several group songs and excels in the tap-dance group number “Grapefruit, Juicy Fruit.”

"[Buffett's]music often conveys an island escapism mindset, and that is evident in the show’s storyline."

Veteran actor Robert Biedermann turns in a moving performance as JD, an aging one-eyed pilot who spends his days drinking at the bar (who doesn’t know someone like that?). He adds warmth and humor to the show and sings well in “Grapefruit, Juicy Fruit.” “He Went to Paris” performing with Mr. Gover and Mr. Stockdale and in other group numbers.

Brandon Bedore effectively plays Chadd, the villain of the show, as the boorish fiancée of Tammy who is obsessed by her weight. As a member of the Ensemble as well, Mr. Bedore performs in all of the group numbers and is particularly fun in “Fins.”

Marley is the owner of the Margaritaville and is played deliciously by Asia-Ligé Arnold. She brings a frozen concoction of sass, humor and playfulness to the show and appears in several group songs.

Similarly Anwar Thomas, who plays Jamal, the busboy, adds a lot of joy and energy to the production.

Other members of the cast and Ensemble include Valerie Adams Rigsbee, Joey Ellinghaus, Angelo Harrington II, David James, Amanda Kaplan-Landstrom, Shawn Kettering, Alexis Krey-Bedore, Dustin Perrott, Cassie Saunders, Jeffrey Shankle, and Patricia “Pep” Targete.

Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins and Properties Designer Shane Lowry turned the in-the-round theatre into a realistic looking tacky bar with overhead multi-colored string light and numerous set pieces and props. It added neatly to the atmosphere.

This is an enjoyable production and a wonderful escape for a few hours. Great music, an energetic and talented cast and delicous food make this a nice summer experience. Don’t miss this show. If you do, there is no one to blame, and as the song says, it’s your own damn fault.

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

Jimmy Buffett’s Escape to Margaritaville runs through August 20 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311or visiting online.

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography

The menu is shown here.

The specialty drink is "The Coconut Telegraph".

Patrick Gover as Tully

Friday, June 09, 2023

Disney’s ‘Frozen’ Turns on the Warmth at the Hippodrome

Caroline Bowman as Elsa. Photo: Deenvan Meer

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines spectacle as “something exhibited to view as unusual, notable, or entertaining especially an eye-catching or dramatic public display.” The dictionary should also list Frozen, the 2018 stage musical adaptation of the 2013 Walt Disney Oscar-winning animated film now playing at the Hippodrome Theatre, as another definition of spectacle. That is because spectacle is what this show is.

Under the direction of Michael Grandage, choreography of Rob Ashford and musical direction from Conductor Faith Seetoo, the production is well-performed by a talented cast and incredibly staged.

With unbelievable lighting design (Natasha Katz), special effects (Jeremy Chernick), projections (Finn Ross), magnificent scenery design and construction as well as the scintillating costumes (Christopher Oram) the word spectacle is an understatement. There were moments that I simply said, “wow.”

Creating ice and snow on a theater stage is no easy task. Sure, the animated film with its artistry and technical prowess can do that with aplomb. For the stage, Disney’s magic takes over, and the audience is treated to a visual display that must be described as breathtaking.  At one point in the show, there was so much sparkly ice depicted in the scenery and on the stage, I expected a Zamboni to roll across it.

The stage version, making its North America tour, provides additional depth to the characters and expands the song catalogue from 8 to 20. With music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, and book by Jennifer Lee, the songs from the original film are wonderful. The added songs are pretty good and are primarily bolstered by the splendid vocals that bring them to life.

"...a visual display that must be characterized as breathtaking."

There is a lot of energy in the show though there are moments when the action slows down because of extended dialogue. And at times the volume for some of the dialogue could be dialed up a notch. But these quibbles don’t detract from what is otherwise a superb production.

 Frozen is an endearing fairy tale that the young and the not so young will enjoy. The story focuses on two orphaned sisters, Elsa and Anna, who are princesses in a Scandinavian kingdom. Their relationship is torn apart when Elsa cannot control her powers in which she can turn everything into ice. When Elsa accidentally hurt her younger sister Anna while building a magical snowman Olaf, that’s when the problems become real.

Years later, Elsa is depressed because she cannot rein in her powers, which left the town of Arendelle (not to be confused with Arundel) in a state of eternal winter.  She remains guilt-ridden for hurting Anna and fears she has become a monster. Elsa heads to the icy mountains and builds an ice palace in order to cope with the situation.

Anna with the help of three friends, the kind-hearted Kristoff; Olaf, the adorable, crowd-pleasing snowman (puppet) whom the sisters built; and Sven, the equally adorable reindeer (also a puppet), go on an adventure-filled trek to find her sister to help restore summer to Arendelle.

Prior to that journey, Anna had fallen for Hans, a handsome prince, who becomes an important figure at the show’s end. But it is the love and bond between the two sisters that warms the heart enough to melt the prevalent ice.

A native of Fulton, Md. in Howard County, Caroline Bowman excels as the adult Elsa. An experienced and polished performer in such Broadway and touring shows as Wicked, Grease, Spamalot, Evita and Kinky Boots among others, Ms. Bowman demonstrates solid acting skills and powerful mezzo-soprano vocals in conveying her burdened character. She belts out the first act finale, Oscar winning “Let It Go,” the popular girl-power anthem, to perfection. Ms. Bowman hits it out of the park with another quality number in the dramatic song “Monster.”

Lauren Nicole Chapman is wonderful as the adult Anna who is determined to find her sister and renew their love for each other. She falls in love with Hans (Will Savarese) only to be betrayed later on. Not all princes are princes apparently. Their duet in the comical “Love Is an Open Door” with its terrific choreography is one of the show’s best. Ms. Chapman and Ms. Bowman hook up well in the emotional “I Can’t Lose You,” a song added to the stage version. The chemistry between the two sisters is amazing.

As Kristoff, the ice harvester who joins Anna on her quest to find Elsa, Dominic Dorset is excellent. With his loveable reindeer Sven (Collin Baja who alternates with Dan Plehal in a physically demanding role) in tow, Mr. Dorset’s character finds himself increasing attracted to Anna.  He performs well in “Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People,” “Kristoff Lullaby,” and a duet with Ms. Chapman in “What Do You Know About Love?”

Jeremy Davis is superb as the puppeteer for the snowman Olaf. Both Olaf and Sven are clear audience favorites, especially for the kids in attendance, and provide much of the comical moments throughout.

Christine Bowman as Elsa & Lauren Nicole Chapman as Anna
Photo: Matthew Murphy

Will Savarese does a fine job as Hans. With his matinee idol looks, Mr. Savarese is convincing as the prince that Anna falls for. But his dark side emerges later, leading to a dramatic conclusion. His strong tenor voice is notable in “Hans of the Southern Isles” and the aforementioned duet with Ms. Chapman in “Love Is an Open Door.” He also performs well with Ms. Bowman and the company in “Monster.”

Also, excellent performances are turned in by Avelyn Choi (alternates with Norah Nunes) as Young Anna, Sydney Elise Russell (alternates with Erin Choi) as Young Elsa, Belinda Allen as Queen Iduna, Kyle Lamar Mitchell as King Agnarr, Gretel Scarlett as Head Handmaiden, Tyler Jimenez as Pabbie, Taylor Marie Daniel as Bulda, Jack Brewer as Bishop, Evan Duff as the comedic Weselton, and Jack Brewer as another comical character Oaken. The members of the Ensemble are also talented and energetic.

If you pay close attention, you can identify components of the show that are reminiscent of such Broadway standouts as The Wiz, Into the Woods, Spamalot and Beauty and the Beast, and that’s a good thing.

There is no question that Frozen is geared towards children.  In fact, there were many young girls in the audience dressed as Elsa and Anna, and the lines to the Disney and Frozen merchandise in the lobby were long. However, there is sufficient humor, warmth, songs, dancing and dazzling scenery and costumes to entertain adults as well. And entertain it does.

Go see the spectacle known as Frozen. It will melt your heart.

Running time. Two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.

Disney’s Frozen runs through June 18 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

Monday, June 05, 2023

Pride and Prejuduce

Seattle Mariners star Julio Rodriguez displaying his Pride for the LGBTQ
community; sign on the right not so much.

I am old enough to remember when LGBTQ Pride celebrations were mocked by opponents mainly because of the attire or lack thereof worn by the participants. Before social media took off, images were cherry-picked to illustrate the tawdriest outfits and flamboyant costumes. These photos were used to raise money by right wing religious groups and others to push their anti-LGBTQ agenda in an effort to stop the legalization of same-sex marriages, adoptions and other LGBTQ rights.

Now it seems that the opponents of Pride celebrations are not confined to religious institutions but by the far-right cluster of everyday people who are simply homo/bi/transphobic. They don’t want to see our community period; we should return to the closet so that their sensibilities are not shaken.

Of course, extreme right wing homophobic politicians cynically have seized on the bigotry in the land to win voters. They bundle their hateful rhetoric under the vague term “anti-woke.” They demean drag shows, conflating drag queens with transgender folks in an effort to frighten parents. By the way, the “anti-woke” b.s. is not restricted to LGBTQ folks, but it also is aimed at people of color, immigrants and other marginalized people.

With each year, the annual ritual of holding LGBTQ Pride festivals and parades all over the world is gaining more media coverage and popularity.  These celebrations have been taking place for over 50 years since the first one in New York City marked the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall uprising when patrons in the Greenwich Village underground bar fought back against yet another police raid.

Pride, as it is simply called, has had different meanings to different people. To me it is affirming that I will love who I want.  I also acknowledge the adversity that LGBTQ people have had to endure throughout their lives, and that we are proud that we have survived though, sadly, not everyone has.

The availability and the anonymity of the internet with its chat platforms, groups and topical pages reveal the bigotry that is still out there despite recent progress in the LGBTQ community.

Nothing is more obvious as to the extent of homo/bi/transphobia on sports fan pages. Nothing triggers these people (overwhelmingly male) when a professional baseball team announces their annual Pride Nights or Nights Out events or a hockey team wishing its fans Happy Pride Month. It gets ugly and stupid all at once.

In response to a team’s recognition of Pride, the comments on these pages typically reflect three categories to mask (not that well) the individuals’ homo/bi/transphobia:

1.     We shouldn’t mix politics and sports.

Well, you can’t always take politics out of sports. For example, there was the big-time flap over boxing champion Muhammad Ali’s virulently strong opposition to the Vietnam War. Donald Trump made political hay over football quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the National Anthem to protest racial injustice at the hands of the police.

For my part, when the “don’t mix politics and sports” refrain comes up, I reply, “People said the same thing when Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers.” And now his uniform number 42 had been permanently retired by all major league baseball clubs, and he is honored every year on April 15, the date of his first game.

Chicago Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman tweeting his support of LGBTQ Pride.

Frankly, I don’t see being LGBTQ as political. It’s who we are. Period. The opponents sounding off against us make it political.

 Just stick to baseball.

Do these people urge the team to “stick to baseball” when there is a breast cancer awareness night or a military night or Mother’s Day or other similar events? Not hardly. Team uniforms conform to these special days—Camo hats for military nights; pink bats, wristbands and caps for Mother’s Day, etc. Nobody is offended. To my knowledge, teams have not been pressured to wear rainbow uniforms during Pride Night games. It’s total nonsense.   

 There should be a “straight pride.”

This is the most comical category, and you will clearly note the absurdity. The notion that straight folks need to demonstrate their pride is ludicrous, and that’s being mild.  Every day is straight pride. 

LGBTQ Pride, as I indicated, is a celebration of who we are and enduring the myriad manifestations of hatred directed towards our community.  Straight people have not had to grapple with being straight in our society. Consider:

• No straight person has been fired from their job or not hired for being straight.

• No straight person has been kicked out of an apartment or disapproved of a lease because he or she is straight.

• No straight person has been assaulted or killed for being straight.

• No straight person has to hide their sexuality from family members, classmates, clergy, co-workers, bosses, friends and neighbors.

• Straight people are not committing suicide because of prejudice against their being straight.

Let’s be real. A few blatantly admit their bigotry because they safely hide behind an abstract identity. But others try to clumsily conceal their homo/bi/transphobia by using arguments contained in the above three categories. It doesn’t work.