Sunday, March 26, 2017

"Legally Blonde The Musical" Now showing At James F. Dean Theatre--It Is Walkaway Feel Good Entertaining

In 2001, the film Legally Blonde, starring Reese Witherspoon, was released. For the most part, the consensus from the critics was positive based not on material, but performance, stating "though the material is predictable and formulaic, Reese Witherspoon's funny, nuanced performance makes this movie better than it would have been otherwise." Despite receiving positive reviews, I would not have paid the price of a ticket to see it at the theater, and my reason is a simple one, it just isn't my genre of movie.

Then, in 2007, Legally Blonde moved to the stage and opened on Broadway as Legally Blonde The Musical. Now, we have a curtain of a different color. As an avid theater goer, my interest was stirred. By the way, the color is Elle Woods' signature color, pink, and it will be splashed all over the stage of the James F. Dean Theatre in Summerville for the next three weekends.

In 2007, the original release of Legally Blonde The Musical, music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, received seven Tony nominations and ten Drama Desk nominations but did not win any. In 2010, it moved to the Savoy Theatre and The West End production was nominated for five Laurence Olivier Awards and won three, including the Best New Musical award. In drawing a comparison between the movie and the musical, one critic wrote, "It is, of course, preposterous: an LA fashion student conquers Harvard law school and becomes a courtroom star. But, for all its absurdity, I found this Broadway musical infinitely more enjoyable than the 2001 Hollywood movie on which it is based."

The opening night presentation of Legally Blonde The Musical at the James F. Dean Theatre was everything I expected from a Chrissy Eliason and David McLaughlin collaboration, even exceeding my expectations. Director Chrissy's penchant for relevant subtleties was unmistakable from set change to set change and David Mclaughlin's high energy approach to vocals as Musical Director supercharged the theater atmosphere with high spirited zing leaving the full house gushing in the pink with joy. The duo, with the assistance of Choreographer Ethan Goodman and Dance Captain Tiffany Eliason, squeezed every bit of immonium thygocolate from the plays talented and substantially youthful cast.

The cast more than willingly complied as they bent and snapped to the lighthearted and glitzy-ditzy script with Red Bull infused enthusiasm. From the opening number of "Omigod You Guys" to the appearance of the Delta Nu Queen of the Show, Elle Woods, the audience was primed and readied for what was yet to come, and Taylor Ann Spencer delivered the goods, or should I say, won the case. From head to toe the perfect Elle, her Disney influence was unmistakable. With clear vocals and striking body language complimented by dazzling wardrobe changes (designed by herself), Ann sang and danced her way into the hearts of everyone present.

The capable supporting cast includes accomplished musician John Henry Braun as Warner--Elle's I'll follow you anywhere, in this case Harvard, ex-boyfriend, sassy S. E. Coy as Vivienne Kensington--her antagonistic rival for Warner, Charleston native Matthew Walker as the corduroy wearing Emmett--the geeky student lawyer who takes Elle under his wing and helps her realize that she is more than a pink dress, Starbucks Manager Carlos Nieto as the self important and scumbag Callahan, Rebecca Wetherby as I've got a secret Brooke Wyndham, Jennifer Kliner as the under appreciated Enid Hoopes--Elle's dowdy lesbian classmate with extreme feminist views, and vocal powerhouse Sarah Daniel as Paulette, the lovable love-bruised manicurist with a heavy accent and new best friend of Elle at Hair Affair.

Carlos Nieto, rivaled only by John Henry for neatest head of hair, shined in the musical number "Blood in the Water," while Sarah Daniel blew the roof off the theater in her finale of "Ireland." Dustin Lack garnered uproarious laughs for his brief appearances as Paulette's trailer-trashed ex-boyfriend, Dewey and as her new Irish love interest, delivery man Kyle. Rebecca Wetherby whipped up a wicked routine of jump-rope and still had enough breath to sing. Tiffany Eliason, Allison Lee Zobel Brower, and Melissa Frierson, Elle's overjoyed sorority sisters, were vivacious and vibrant. I have to add some parts of the play went to the dogs, and their names are Bruiser and Rufus--two canines with stage presence.

Baily Gaines as Chutney
Truth be told, in time, I did unintentionally see the movie on TV, and after viewing the Flowertown Player's production of Legally Blonde The Musical, omygod, I have to agree with the critic's assessment, it is infinitely more enjoyable, and the cast and crew made sure of that. Despite the plays perfumed plot, buried under all the pink is a moral to the story. Elle's own words, "Don't judge a book by its cover," repeats an old adage warning not to a judge people based on looks, but she adds, "books with tattered covers stay on the shelf." Then, there is the "bend and snap"--a cheer leading move with real world applications. Apparently, it is a knock-out of a move to get the attention of a guy, but it also catches criminals. Don't know what I am talking about in either case, see the play. You will not regret it. It is walkaway feel good entertaining and you just may throw in a couple steps from the Irish River Dance.

Congratulation to the entire cast.

Dates and showtimes: March 24, 25, 30, 31, April 1, 6, 7, 8, 2017 at 8PM
March 26, April 2 and 9, 2017 at 3PM

Purchase tickets.

Crew not already mentioned:
Kelsey Palmer-Stage Manager/Props Master
Caitlin Skowronski-Assistant Stage Manager/Sound Operator
Nicole Harrison-Costume Design
Technical director-Ernie Eliason
Robert Venne-Set Designer/Painter
Lighting Designer/Light Board Operator-Jean Gaston
Spot Light Operator-Jeff Wolf
Artistic Director-JC Conway

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Ghostly Tales Of Charleston's Mills House Inn--Which One?

To say some of Charleston's oldest hotels have tales of the ghostly kind connected with them would be an understatement. After all, the Holy City is one of the oldest metropolitan in the country with a well heeled and notorious history. Why would Mills House Inn be an exception. Both employees and former guests describe seeing Confederate soldiers running up and down the halls searching for water to put out the fires ignited by the Great Fire of 1861, and to top it off, one of the apparitions seen was said to resemble one of the South's most beloved generals, Robert E. Lee.

According to Mills House Inn's documented history, these spectral manifestations make perfect sense. In 1861, Gen. Robert E. Lee came to Charleston to tour the city's harbor defenses. On his visit, he checked into the Mills House. While there, a fire erupted on Hasell Street at the Russell and Co.'s Sash and Blind factory and rapidly spread to Institute Hall and the Circular Church on Meeting Street, nearly a half-dozen blocks south of Hasell Street. Robert E Lee and his staff had climbed to the roof to witness the devastating inferno. When they returned to the hotel's parlor, they found a group of ladies and their babies preparing to leave. Lee took one baby and another officer took the other, and they hastily exited through the cellar into the smoky chaos outside. Back in Mills House, the staff valiantly fought the fire by using wet blankets to smother the sparks and embers that blew onto the roof and window ledges, saving the building from annihilation.

After the fire and Civil War 1865
Herein resides a proposed paradox. The Mills House Inn gracing the corner of Meeting and Queen Streets today was constructed in 1968 and registered its first guests on October 9, 1970, over a 109 years after the devastating fire of 1861. The last buyers and owners of the original Mills House of 1861, Charleston Associates, Richard H. Jenrette, Charles D. Ravenel, and Charles H. P. Duell, planned on renovating the seriously dilapidated building, but efforts proved impractical and decided to demolish it and replace it. The new Mills House Inn would replicate the old with one notable difference, it would have seven stories instead of the original's five. So you see, if we are to believe these ghostly sightings, the Confederate soldiers would be running up and down hallways not familiar to them (maybe that's why they can't find the water) and Robert E. Lee would be in a place he never stayed at.

Today's 7 story Mills House Inn

The history of old Mills House and its property has twists and turns as numerous as the estuary waterways of the Charleston Lowcountry. Part of the Archdale Square, names like Grimke house, St. Mary's Hotel and The Planter's Hotel preceded it. During the early 1840s, the United States Courthouse had offices there and from 1848-1852, there was the Mansion House hotel. The property was owned by the Grimke family until 1827, the year Plowden Weston purchased it. In 1836, Weston's sons sold the Mansion House hotel to wholesale grain merchant, Otis Mills, who continued acquiring neighboring parcels all through the 1940's. With these purchases, Otis Mills now owned a 130'x275' lot on the southwest corner of Meeting and Queen Streets, large enough to carry out his ultimate plan--build a five story hotel bearing his name.

In 1853, the original Mills House was built. Designed by architect John E. Earle and built by contractors James P. Earle and R. Earle at an estimated cost of $200,000, it had an iron balcony across the facade, ornate terra-cotta cornices above the windows, and an arcaded entryway. Much of the architectural trim was imported. The ironwork, marble mantels, and chandeliers were from Philadelphia, stoves and furnaces from New York, and furniture from Boston. However, the stone and marble work for pavement and exterior steps were locally supplied by W. B. White. The hotel boasted a dining saloon, a gentlemen's dining room, a second-floor ladies "ordinary" with tables for 160, and 180 guest rooms. Gas lighting illuminated every room and on each floor were eight "bathing rooms" for ladies; similar rooms for gentlemen were found on the first floor. Water for the baths, steam heating system, and in-house laundry were supplied by wells and cisterns on the property.

Mills House and brick house next to Hibernian Hall 1864
Thomas S. Nickerson, an experienced hotelier, leased the completed Mills House from Otis Mills. Their five-year agreement covered the hotel and outbuildings; Nickerson paid separately for the furnishings, wine, liquor, and other supplies. In mid-1857, Otis Mills negotiated a new three-year contract with Joseph Purcell for $7,500 annually, half of what Nickerson had committed to. Purcell had use of the Mills House and outbuildings, as well as the brick house next to Hibernian Hall, which was fitted up and used as a bar room and billiard saloon. He paid another $17,000 for all the furniture on the premises. It turned out Purcell and Nickerson possibly had a previous working relationship despite their separate agreements with Mills. In 1862, after the 1861 fire, the two were joint proprietors of the Mills House. In 1863, Mills sold the Mills House to Joseph Purcell and T. D. Wagener for $13,500 Confederate dollars. The hotel was sold at auction in 1873 and in 1874, George W. Williams sold it to John Hanckel, Robert Douglass, Eri H. Jackson, and Merritt P. Pickett.

Next, Rosa Lawton Douglas, the niece of James Island dairy farmer, St. John Alison Lawton, set her sights on the Mills House with an idea to take it in a different direction. Soon after purchasing it in 1901, Lawton and architect Rutledge Holmes solicited contractors' bids for remodeling the building into an apartment house. The plans were not executed. Mrs. Douglas sold the property to Cecilia Lawton, her grandmother. The elderly Mrs. Lawton, owner of Battery Dairy--a successful downtown bottler and distributor of the family's milk, renamed the Mills House after her son. The new name was St. John Hotel. President Theodore Roosevelt visited the South Carolina and West-Indian Exposition in 1902 and stayed at the St. John Hotel. She sold the property in 1907 and it remained in the next buyer's family for decades.

Despite Charleston's growing tourism industry, the St. John Hotel suffered from competition. New arrivals on the scene, the Francis Marion and Fort Sumter hotels, opened in 1924. Surviving into the 1960s, eventual lack of revenue needed for modernization and routine upkeep doomed it. The dilapidated structure was sold at public auction to the Charleston associates mentioned earlier--the builders of today's Mills House Inn and the place of the ghostly sightings. One element familiar to the confused phantoms would be the original iron balcony. It was salvaged for reinstallation.

The Mills House story, the old and the new, is another fragment in the Charleston narrative past and present. Stand on any tourist filled street corner from the Battery to King Street and you will hear this narrative espoused enthusiastically to visiting listeners by those who live off its elegance and enchantments. As to my proposed hypothesis, I am not intentionally or unkindly trying to cast any dispersions on the claims made by employees and former guests as to what they have seen in the softly lit hallways of the Mills House Inn. After all, seeing is believing, so it is said. In conclusion, as is often the case, the legend is but a shadow of the reality and occasionally, the realty is but a shadow of the legend. Either way, if the stories are a fanciful way of remembering the actual history, success has been achieved.

The Mills House Wyndham Grand Hotel
115 Meeting Street, Charleston, South Carolina
Phone: 843-577-2400
Room and rates

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Summerville's Famous Spring Azalea Bloom Originated Just A Stones Throw Down The Ashley River

In Summerville, azaleas are as abundant--dare I say--as the pine pollen. I apologize for the analogy, but as quantity goes, I think you will afford me some latitude and forgive me. I could have said mosquitoes. None-the-less, all Summervillians will appreciate my candor. Now, let's get back to the beloved azalea. Every March/April, thanks to the azalea, the town and its surrounding landscape comes to life with a cache of vibrant color at every turn of its winding roads. Although, with the recent milder winters, it seems more like February/March--unfortunate for the Flowertown Festival. However, the present day spring-time azalea exhibition everyone has come to know and enjoy at one time in the not so distant past was not the case, particularly for a certain variety that had its beginnings in the Ashley River Lowcountry.

Azaleas are members of the heath (Ericaceae) family, an ancient group of plants dating to 70 million years ago. They are related to rhododendrons, blueberries and pieris (also known as the Lily of the Valley shrub). According to one source, there are at least 26 species of azaleas native to North America, but most azaleas we are familiar with today are descended from Asian shrubs.

The Asian azalea came to the United States via England. Seeds of the Rhododendron luteum were transported to England from the shores of the Black Sea where they became parent to many of the well known azalea hybrids.

According to azalea historian Fred Galle, in the United States, Azalea Indica (specifically speaking about the group of plants called Southern Indicas) got its name because at the time it was discovered, Asia was known as the East Indies. The first hybrids were planted in Charleston, South Carolina.

In the 1830's, John Grimke Drayton imported the Azalea Indica from Philadelphia--where they were grown only in greenhouses by a nurseryman who also had a branch nursery in Charleston--and introduced them into the estate gardens of his rice plantation on the Ashley River. His garden was the first in America to plant azaleas outdoors. First-time onlookers were stunned by the beauty. By 1845, Magnolia Plantation had the largest and oldest flourishing collection of hybrid Indicas.

In the years to follow, already known as a retreat for Lowcountry residents seeking to escape the subtropical heat and disease of the summer, the newly established Town of Summerville would become recognized for its beauty and serenity. In 1888, it was named one of two most healthful places in the world for victims of lung disease due to the benefits of its pine scented mild climate. However, flourishing beneath the needled branches of the town's famous turpentine pines, Magnolia's Indica Azalea shrub was spilling its voluminous clusters of brilliance across the town's changing landscape. Since the 1890s, tourists now came to Summerville not only for its aromatic trees, but also to witness the spring phenomenon called the azalea bloom, which attributed to the local Chamber of Commerce to adopt the slogan "Flower Town in the Pines" in 1925.

In 1932, Grange Cuthbert became mayor of Summerville. He came up with the plan of taking some of the land deeded to Summerville by the "Civic League" between Central Avenue and Magnolia Street and turning it into a mid-town paradise. To turn the park into a paradise, flowers were needed, lots of flowers. This is where George Segelken, owner of the Summerville Floral Nursery, entered the story. George was very excited about the project and the opportunity of supplying the flower he was propagating on his nursery. He was a pioneer in the propagation of azaleas.

George enthusiastically agreed to donate his azaleas to the new park with the understanding that if anyone wanted to purchase the plants, he would dig them up. Through his efforts, he helped popularize azaleas throughout South Carolina--Southern Indicas were relatively unknown in South Carolina.

When the mid-town park was finished in 1935, it was deservedly named Azalea Park. In the spring, tourists flocked to the park from all over the state. Bumper to bumper traffic lines on a Sunday afternoon were a common sight. The visiting sightseers freely immersed themselves in the great sea of color unleashed by the Park's 33,000 azalea plants--a scene found in only one other place in South Carolina, the Magnolia Plantation.

Recognized as the oldest public tourist site in the Lowcountry and the oldest public gardens in America, Magnolia Plantation has been open to visitors since 1870. Their goal was to share the beauty and splendor of its famous gardens, thus affording them the opportunity to gaze upon the thousands of beautiful flowers and plants, specifically the thousands of rare azaleas that vigorously spilled their blossoms from the edges of its winding trails, ponds, and marshes.

In recent years, Magnolia Plantation has been working to locate and preserve its older azalea varieties for future generations to enjoy. In 2010, they identified 15 varieties of Indian Azaleas previously thought to be extinct. They are being propagated to share with other preservation-minded gardens across the nation.

Since azaleas were native to North America, it is difficult to say what variety of the deciduous plant was seen by the first visitors to the pine-forested ridge that became Summerville. Photography, as of yet had not been developed, so hard evidence in the way of pictures is impossible. I don't know if any old landscape paintings of the flower growing in pre-Summerville exist. However, preserved historic documentation, as outlined in this article taken from various sources, reveals 40 of the 86 original selections of the Southern Indica and their descendants, seen gracing more landscapes and byways in the Middle, Lower, and Coastal South than any other shrub, were propagated outdoor for the first time just a stones throw from Summerville.

An interesting side note:
A Chinese folktale says that a long-ago king was assassinated and turned into a cuckoo. Because of the king's violent death, the cuckoo sang so bitterly that blood came from his bill. April is the time of the cuckoo's cries and brilliant red azalea blooms, thus the legend says the cuckoo dyed the flowers red.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Bay Street Biergarten--Bavarian Inspired And Southern Made Located On Historically Solemn Ground

Remaining skeleton of the Wilmington Depot.
The location of the Bay Street Biergarten historically was at one time called the Wilmington Railroad Depot which was on the Northeastern rail line at Chapel and Alexander Streets. During the evacuation of the Confederate Army from Charleston in 1865, the depot was the scene of a horrific tragedy. Filled with powder and explosives at the time of the exodus, women and children of Charleston rushed in to see what they could get. Some of the gun powder caught on fire and the building was blown up. In the explosion, 250 of the women and children were killed and wounded. The remaining ruins was reconstructed in the late 1800's.

With Sherman in control of the South Carolina rail line running into Branchville and Charleston by Wednesday, February 14, Beauregard ordered Hardee to complete an evacuation immediately before they lost the last railroad that connected Charleston with Florence to the north and to leave nothing for the Union army. Cannons were spiked, quartermaster’s stores were destroyed, and ironclads and ships were scuttled. Cotton storehouses filled with an estimated 6,000 bales waiting to be shipped were set on fire. Saturday morning, February 18, aware of burning cotton bales at one end of the depot, but unaware of the roomful of gunpowder stored next to the burning cotton, and the trail of gunpowder between the two, starving civilians entered the station and gathered what they could.

An I witness account by Lt. Moses Lipscomb Wood, of Company F, the 15th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, "The Thicketty Rifles," recorded the event in his "War Record" as follows: "I was in Charleston on the night before and the morning it was evacuated, and was put in charge of a detail of about 75 men to load what cars (of the Northeastern Railroad) we could ahead of us. We had not been out of the depot long before the women and children rushed in to see what they could get. The depot was filled with powder and explosives and caught on fire and was blown up—causing the most pitiful sight I saw during the war. Women and children, about 250, were killed and wounded, and some were carried out by where [we] were in line on the streets, with their clothing burned off and badly mutilated."

Another account written by Pauline Dufort stated, "But our trials were not yet ended, for there came another terrible explosion--louder than any yet--the smoke of which darkened the sun as its hideous folds curled skyward. It was the Northeastern Railroad depot that had been blown up, and with it a number of persons who had gathered there in search of provisions. Some were killed outright and their mangled bodies and limbs were scattered and buried under the burning ruins."

The Richmond Dispatch, Friday, March 3, 1865 wrote, "The Charleston Courier of the morning of the 20th--its last Confederate issue--thus describes the horrors of the evacuation of the city (Charleston). The terrible scenes through which this community has passed since our last issue can only be conceived by those who witnessed the dreadful reality." This preserved printed account historically verifies the story connected to the solemn ground on which Bay Street Biergarten honorably resides today.

The day I visited the Bay Street Biergarten the plan was to spend the evening on their outdoor patio listening to the jams of local singer/songwriter Chelsea Summers. A late afternoon thunderstorm moved the party indoors. It was packed out with soccer enthusiasts decked out in the colors of their favorite teams watching the games on large screen TVs located throughout. Its flag-draped, wood-beamed, high ceilings gave it the feeling of spaciousness. Booths lined one wall while larger circular tables were located on a step-up area. The communal tables were scattered about in front of the main bar.

It has 24 beers on tap behind the bar, 60 taps throughout the building, all delivered by a state of the art tap table system. With the purchase of a preloaded RFID card, you can access a selection of flavors, information about the beer, how much you are pouring and your pouring history at the stationary iPads at each communal table and Bier Wall. The beer flows from a keg cooler in the back of the building and is pumped by a glycol cooling system through 156 feet of draft lines. To help you avoid the oversized head foam, you can download information on how to make the perfect pour off of their website.

Essential to the overall experience of enjoying a good craft beer is making the perfect pour. There is nothing more frustrating to a beer drinker than having to wait for an oversized head to dissipate, and not to leave unmentioned, it is less appealing. Creating the right amount of foam head adds to the overall presentation, but even more important than the aesthetics is the proper releasing of the beer's aromatics. It is an acquired skill first time patron's of the Bay Street Biergarten soon learn comes in handy when using its forward thinking communal tap tables--tables with self serving beer taps.

The communal tap tables do not need reservations--first come, first serve. A great setting for making new acquaintances, building new friendships and sharing food. It was enjoyable watching people pour their own beer and talk about what went wrong--return customers had a bit more experience. After the rain passed and towards the end of the night, we had a couple of shots at the bar on the large, outside brick patio--skillful and friendly bartenders.

Aside from having the most progressive technology the beer industry has to offer along with giving you the experience of pouring your own beer, the Bay Street Biergarten also has its own parking lot, which gets a big "cheers" from me. No searching for quarters to put in the meters or driving into parking garages and paying high fees.

Bay Street Biergarten is as close as you can get to an authentic Munich beer hall in the south with a goal to support Charleston’s local, ever-expanding brewing, distilling and farming communities. It offers Southern food with a flavor of Bavarian inspiration paired with the finest craft beers and quality socializing. It was fresh as the bay air coming in from the nearby port. It was a stout experience. And while you are there, take a moment of silence and after, raise your glass in honor of the lives that were lost in one of Charleston's little known and most horrific event.

549 East Bay St
Charleston, SC

All Days 11am-2am