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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

‘The Wiz’ Stunningly Brings it Home to Baltimore

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wiz runs through September 30 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advisory: Strobe lighting and fog effects.

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

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

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography

The Menu appears here.

Drink Special: “The Van Cartier”

Monday, September 04, 2023

The Other Mr. Splash

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

Orioles owner John Angelos dousing the fans with his nonsense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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