Monthly Archives: April 2016

Beautiful, Not Beastly

Beauty and the Beast Old School


I know it’s not Disney, kids, but this picture is from a book with the original story. Check it out some time!


Becky and I went to see Manassas Park High School’s production of the musical version of Beauty and the Beast Friday evening, and as I wrote on Facebook, “I’ll write a longer review later, but for now, I have four words for everyone: Go. See. This. Musical.” We were overly familiar with the animated film which came out in 1991 since our younger daughter Alyssa, who was ten years old at the time. played the songs incessantly. Fortunately, we liked the film and sang along…particularly with “Be Our Guest” and the lovely title song. After Alyssa had seen the movie, Becky asked her who sang the song, and she replied, “The teapot.” This didn’t make a whole lot of sense until we saw the film ourselves and everything fell into place. The folks at Disney created a world then that was by turns charming, witty, touching and instructive.

I expected the musical would have the same plot as the movie, but Alan Menken added some songs to the show, including one (“Human Again”) cut from the original film. The cast of about 48 high schoolers and few adults sang, danced and acted their hearts out, showing remarkable sensitivity to the nuances of the story with incredible props and sets, beautiful costumes and strong support from the orchestra. Nina Tripodi portrayed Belle as a sweet and feisty young woman of will and intellect who will not tolerate injustice and prejudice wherever she finds it. Garrett Alexander (the Beast) understood the conflict raging within the heart of the transformed prince, bringing to the role a lyrical and sensitive tenor voice. Gaston, played by Shane Limer, swaggered and sneered all over the stage, an outrageous portrait of narcissism run amok, while Joshua Hernandez perfectly played the comic role of Gaston’s fawning sidekick LeFou, taking Gaston’s abuse and admiring his ceaseless bragging, smiling all the while. Ben Kemmerly portrayed Maurice, Belle’s inventor father, with attention to the eccentricity of the old man and his obvious affection for Belle.

The students animated the enchanted servants in the castle with wit and energy. Mandy Ayers (Mrs. Potts the tea pot, a role requiring her to hold her right arm up as a spout the whole time she was on stage) minced about pushing a cart housing Chip (Izabel Sprague), her teacup son.  Carlos Vargas as Cogsworth the clock fussed incessantly at the other characters, trying to keep things in order to great comic effect. Madame De La Grande Bouche (Rayza Arevalo), an opera diva turned wardrobe, was properly imperious and comically self-centered but kindly as she strutted around recalling her days on stage. Wendy Nguyen as Babette (a French maid turned into a feather duster) flirted and simpered all over the stage, playing up to Lumiere the candlestick and enchanted maître d’ played by Jenna Osorio. She held up what looked like lampshades representing candles the time she was on stage (and she was on stage a lot), and told me after the show how heavy they were. Principals and supporting actors alike sang with energy and attention to nuances of the songs and their place in the story.

The supporting cast played various roles with enthusiasm and concentration. Including a beautifully choreographed dance number as plates, knives, forks, and other assorted household items. The cast included Chanel Ellerbe, Diana Mullins, Kayleigh McCann, Victoria Osinski, Michelle Pollack, Tesha Randolph, Cindy Watson, Malia Hayes, Mike Kelly, Krista Kelly, Colin Kelly, Lillian Kelly and Nicole Sarich as villagers, Allan Jones (D’Arque/Bookseller/Crony), Eileen Tran (Silly Girl #1/Wolf) Katherine Canales (Silly Girl #2/Wolf), Maya Hankins (Silly Girl #3/Enchantress), Joanna Woo (Aristocratic Lady) Kayleigh Brown (Lady with Baby), Helena Schenck (Sausage Curl Girl/Wolf), Terra Bailey (Fish Seller/Wolf), Christina Wesdock (Hat Seller/Wolf). Destiny McKenzie (Milkmaid/Wolf), Dave Ferrell (Candle Seller/Crony), Sarah Taylor (Egg Seller/Wolf), and Blixa Pardee-Spreemann (Baker/Crony).

Kristina Schenck, Choral Director at Manassas Park High School, directed the show, while Kiana Davenport acted as Assistant Director; Trinity Sullivan as Stage Manager; Lynette Vidal, Choreographer; Doug West, Set Director; Shannon McAteer, Costume Director; and Claude LeGrand, director of the orchestra.


We know that adults find many movies intended for children meaningful, and that was certainly the case with the 1991 animation. Thanks to a sensitive and energetic interpretation of Beauty and the Beast by these students, we are able to understand better the importance of tolerance, understanding, friendship, community, and, yes, love, that it contained. Thanks to all involved in this production for a gift not only to those who saw it, but also to the community and the world.


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The Keys to Heaven


Eleanor Toll

An Appreciation of Eleanor Toll

I first met “Ma Toll,” as her students called her, in the early 1970’s on one of my trips to see Becky at East Carolina University which Becky attended, majoring in musical education. Becky told me that Ma wasn’t as flashy or well-known as some on the piano faculty, but I think there was something about her integrity and class that drew Becky to her. She reminded me of Becky’s piano teacher in Manassas, Virginia Carper, who was something like Eleanor and a local musical legend in her own right.

Eleanor was a first-class Southern lady, soft-spoken, gracious and kind. At the same time, she could be a reasonably demanding college professor, expecting the best from her students and not settling for anything else. Ma never had children of her own, but she regarded the hundreds of students she sat with at the keyboard year after year as her musical children. She was always interested in what I was doing, and sometimes we visited her in her small house just off campus. She made me feel welcome, and always had stories to share. After she retired and was under nursing home care, she told us that her father was a doctor in Georgia and because he did not want to learn to drive, she did, and took him around on his house calls starting at age 15. I believe this account illustrated another of Ma’s qualities at an early age: she saw a need and stepped in quietly and took care of it.

Her last years were not easy as her health declined and she required increasing  care. She told me. Fonda Sanderlin, Becky’s chorus teacher in high school and a student of Mrs. Toll, faithfully visited her for years, even when she could not respond. Fonda wrote this about Ma’s funeral service:

Everything went well at the graveside service today. This chapter of my life is over. I don’t have to go to the rest home and see a dear soul struggling to remember or trying to survive. I feel that she left me 10-12 years ago and this was just a shell we buried today.

Sveral former students also came to the service whom Fonda did not know. She learned that several of them took lessons from her privately at her home for a while because when she got married she had to stop teaching at the college whose rules didn’t allow husbands and wives to teach on the same faculty. The college changed the rule about six years later.

Becky, who of course knew her far better than I did, shared these words:

Today we are remembering a gracious Southern lady, a gifted teacher and mentor, a church musician, a cat lover and a friend to many.  All of these were found in the delightful person we knew as Eleanor Toll, or “Ma” Toll as many of her students called her.  Even though she didn’t have any biological children, those of us who were her students think of her as our musical mother. 

She spent extra time with us in piano lessons at ECU to make sure that we passed our juries each quarter or semester and that we did well on the dreaded jury on scales and arpeggios.  But it was more than about the music.  She shared funny and poignant stories with us, threw back her head and laughed at things that amused her and sympathized when we had concerns or weren’t feeling well. 

She taught piano to music education majors, composition majors and even non-music majors, always telling us to play expressively and to exaggerate the dynamics so our audience could hear them. She went the second mile so that as graduates of the ECU School of Music, we would be well-prepared for whatever style of music we needed to play on the piano. 

Today, the silver-haired lady has left us for a place where the music is even sweeter than here on earth.  Her smiles and laughs will be shared with those who have gone before her and her faithfulness to all she did will be rewarded with the words of her Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” 

“Ma” Toll, may you have eternal light and eternal rest.  You deserve them both.  Thank you for all that you have done, and said and been. And may you know that hundreds of former students carry on your legacy of melody and harmony in their music and in their lives. 

Henry Adams once wrote, “Teachers affect eternity; they can never tell where their influence stops.” Eleanor Toll inspired hundreds of students to become music teachers like her, affecting by her work, care, and grace literally thousands of students across generations. And I like to think that the harp is not the preferred instrument in heaven: it is the piano, and the celestial choir gained a magnificent piano player when Eleanor Toll joined its ranks. Now she does indeed hold the keys to heaven.





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Receiving the Mail

Mail Box


This quotidian happening

For all its familiarity

Serves as a ceremony

For all those of us who lack

Ceremony in our lives

Who does not look for the coming

Of the post?

The watching, the checking,

Hoping that today will be the day

When something special lies within

The plastic or aluminum regulation

Postal box: a huge unexpected check,

Or an actual handwritten letter from a friend

Almost forgotten or a package

Earnestly hoped for.

So much drama attends this ordinary event

And even when the day’s take consists

Of bills, unwanted ads and bulk mail

Hope burns bright

That tomorrow will be the day when it

All comes in, when dreams are fulfilled

And the Promised Land is another step closer.



Dan Verner

April 1, 2016


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Uncle Artie

Art Garfunkel

Art Garfunkel came to the Hylton Center last night, and his concert was more like a holiday visit from a favorite uncle holding forth on the couch in the living room. A near capacity audience of mostly baby boomers wildly applauded every comment, song and poem that came from the mouth of this talented, gentle pop music icon.

The evening didn’t begin with much promise, as we were treated to about ten minutes of formless ethereal music before the show started. The level of conversation grew louder during this time until I could hardly hear the music, which was all right with me. But then the lights dimmed and the audience fell silent as keyboard player Warren Bernhardt and guitarist Tab Laven took their positions. A follow spot swung toward the right side of the stage, the curtain drew back and the man himself walked out onto the stage, greeted by a crescendo of applause. Garfunkel did indeed look like a favorite uncle, his famous Afro diminished by a balding crown, the sleeves rolled up on his white shirt, and holding a piece of paper in his hand.

He started not with a song but with what he called “prose poems,” soon to be published by Alfred P. Knopf. The first poem pictured himself as a young man, just beginning his climb to fame, standing on a balcony of a hotel overlooking Central Park and wondering where public acclaim would lead him. He also wrote about a large inflatable globe that he keeps in his bedroom and that his son plays with, rolling the large ball all over their apartment, and trying to talk to the world through its air valve. The poem ended with a mediation on the actual world and the people in it, and his son’s place in the universe.

Then Garfunkel sang a medley of “You Bruise Me” and “All I Know.” I was concerned that, at his age, his voice would have faded, as has happened to Gordon Lightfoot, whose songs are now delivered in a raspy whisper, but I needn’t have worried—Garfunkel’s voice still had that same ethereal quality and warm tone that it has always had. He had a cold or was suffering from allergies so that his voice faded on the higher notes, but I could close my eyes and the years dropped away and I was listening to him sing on my roommate’s cheap Zenith stereo in 1970. The audience responded warmly to Garfunkel’s efforts.

Garfunkel also talked about his famous walks. He first crossed Japan on foot in the early 1980’s, and then walked across the U.S. incrementally between 1983 and 1997. In May 1998, he began an incremental walk across Europe, starting from Ireland and ending up in northern Greece.  He went back to Ireland in early 2014 and reached Istanbul, Turkey in August of that year.

Garfunkel sang the most popular songs from his career, but he mixed in some new material. “A Perfect Moment” presented a lovely, lyrical picture of two lovers wanting to keep that moment forever, but the most striking “new” material came when he recalled recording “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” with Paul Simon. They had recorded the first three tracks of the song in July of 1966, but Garfunkel felt it needed something more. Protests against the Viet Nam War were just beginning, and he proposed that he write a counter-melody using words from a song that Simon had written earlier. Garfunkel sang that song, “On the Side of a Hill,” which depicts rain falling on a battle scene and includes the lines

War bellows, blazing in scarlet battalions

Generals order their soldiers to kill

And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten

which he wove into the ballad from England.

The remainder of the concert consisted mostly of old favorites: “Ninety-Nine Miles from L.A.,” “Kathy’s Song” and “Homeward Bound” among them, interspersed with more poems.

I expected that Garfunkel would conclude with “Bridge over Troubled Water,” and he did, but in an unexpected way. Before he and his guitarist launched into the song, he explained that they hadn’t finished the arrangement yet, so when they sang it, they stopped abruptly before the bridge and last verse. The audience didn’t mind in the least, leaping to their feet and applauding thunderously.

As an encore, Garfunkel did something very unusual. He talked about his belief in God, remembering at five years of age that he sang in the synagogue and made the old men seated before him cry. It was then he realized that God had given him the gift of his voice and of music. With that as an introduction, he said, “Now I’ll put you to bed,” by singing a lovely, lyrical setting of “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.”

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep,

Thy love go with me through the night,

And wake me with the morning light.

This was a spiritual way to end a heavenly concert. May Art Garfunkel, in the words of Leonard Nimoy, another Jewish celebrity, “Live long and prosper.”


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