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Biloxi Blues – A Loving Memorial to Neil Simon  

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Michael Rizzo, DJ Gleason, Luke Bradt, Ryan Hagan, Zachary J. Chiero, BILOXI BLUES,

Michael Rizzo, DJ Gleason, Luke Bradt, Ryan Hagan, and
Zachary J. Chiero star in Act II Playhouse’s production of Neil
Simon’s BILOXI BLUES, now extended until Sept. 30. Photo by Mark
Garvin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can think of no more fitting memorial to the memory of the late, great playwright, Neil Simon, Broadway’s own, than this production of “Biloxi Blues” which opened last night at Act II Playhouse. A semi-autobiographical reminiscence of Simon’s early days in the U. S. Army during World War II, it is masterfully directed by Artistic Director, Tony Braithwaite. 

Anne Wechsler, DJ Gleason

Anne Wechsler and DJ Gleason Photo by Mark
Garvin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Biloxi Blues” is the second part of Simon’s Eugene trilogy (the first chapter being, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and the third being, “Broadway Bound”). It premiered at the Ahmanson Theatre, in Los Angeles, then ran at the Curan Theatre in San Francisco and made its debut on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre in 1985 winning the Tony Award for Best Play.

Andrew Criss, Luke Bradt

Andrew Criss, Luke Bradt Photo by Mark
Garvin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eugene Morris Jerome is an eighteen year old, innocent from Brooklyn who is drafted into the army and sent to Biloxi, Mississippi for his basic training.  There he encounters a diverse platoon of soldiers along with the eccentric platoon leader Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey. Befriending the intelligent and defiant soldier Arnold Epstein, Eugene witnesses the struggle for power between his friend and the overbearing Sgt. Toomey. Along the way, Eugene manages to lose his virginity and fall in love – but with two very different women.

What is most remarkable about this production is the ensemble acting. What is also notable is that every joke lands in the most satisfying way due in no small part to Mr. Braithwaite’s impeccable ear for comic timing. But the production doesn’t fall short in its grasp on the essential bit of heart that is at the core of the play and most importantly at the core of all of Simon’s characters.  We love to laugh at them because we love them with all their flaws and foibles. 

Years ago when I was an undergrad at Penn State, I had a professor (whose name I have justly forgotten) who claimed that Neil Simon was nothing more than a cheap, hack playwright. I was too timid to speak out against this uninformed pedant, but had I had the forethought to speak – I would have said, “No, sir, you are wrong.  Mr. Simon is the Moliere of our day. His characters are funny and human at the same time.”  And now, he is regarded as one of the most prolific and performed playwrights in the world and has received more Academy Award and Tony nominations than any other writer.  So “smoke on your pipe and put that in,” professor. 

Luke Brandt is most poignant as the irritatingly rational Arnold Epstein. At first he seems aloof and weak but as the play progresses we see his indefatigable determination to stand by his principles and is transformed into a hero in our eyes. D. J. Gleason, the youngest member of the cast, as Eugene Jerome, is nebbishy, goofy, funny and totally disarming as our budding writer-to- be. Andrew Criss inhabits the role of the gung-ho Sgt. Toomey.  He is frighteningly domineering with his prodigious muscular anatomy and the almost crazed look in his eyes when he is humiliating his men. Heather Plank is sexy and funny as the prostitute, Rowena, who only works on the weekends as opposed to Anne Wechsler’s sweet and very virtuous Daisy Hannigan, Eugene’s first real love. And Zachary J. Chiero’s physical comedy adds to the merriment.

The set, by Adam Riggar, is a clever configuration of what looks like corrugated steel boxes that are slid around by members of the cast. They conveniently create a train compartment, a barracks and a hooker’s cozy digs. And the incidental music by John Stovicek will put you in a nostalgic 1940’s mood.  If you’re a Neil Simon fan, you will love this production.  If you’re not a Simon fan, you will be one after seeing this show.

For tickets call 215-654-0200 or go to www.act2.org

“Biloxi Blues” by Neil Simon

Scenic Design by Adam Riggar  Costume Design by Janus Stefanowicz

Directed by Tony Braithwaite

Act II Playhouse 

56 East Butler Avenue, Ambler, PA 19002

Playing now through September 30, 2018  

For Tickets call 215-65400200 or go to: www.act2.org

Opening photo  J Gleason and Michael Rizzo Photo by Mark
Garvin.

 

Broadway

Can’t Wait For Boop To Come To Broadway

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At the CIBC Theatre in Chicago, BOOP! The Musical, the new Broadway-bound musical extravaganza is making its debut . Actress Jasmine Amy Rogers is currently bringing her to life in Chicago, as she proves in this exciting song “Where I Wanna Be”.

The show is created by Tony Award®–winning director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots, La Cage aux Folles, Hairspray) who brings the Queen of the Animated Screen to the theater with celebrated multiple-time Grammy®-winning composer David Foster (“I Have Nothing,” “After the Love Is Gone,” “The Prayer”), Tony-nominated lyricist Susan Birkenhead (Working, Jelly’s Last Jam), and Tony-winning bookwriter Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone, The Prom).

I am obsessed with the songs already. First was “Something To Shout About” and now “Where I Wanna Be”.

For almost a century, Betty Boop has won hearts and inspired fans around the world with her trademark looks, voice, and style. Now, in BOOP!, Betty’s dream of an ordinary day off from the super-celebrity in her black-and-white world leads to an extraordinary adventure of color, music, and love in New York City—one that reminds her and the world, “You are capable of amazing things.” Boop-oop-a-doop!

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Out of Town

“The Father and the Assassin” Enlightens and Questions at the National Theatre, London

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Weaving together a memory play with a psychological study of epic historical proportions, the National Theatre delivers a mystery revolving most dynamically around a murder up close and personal. Three bullets fired, we are told by our engaging narrator, Godse, portrayed most cleverly by Hiran Abeysekera (RSC’s Hamlet), all by him, but he says it almost triumphantly. “Even you could turn into me,” he also explains, and in that moment I realized that I knew so little about that sad chapter in India’s political history. Other than the headlines, I might add, but more so that there had to be another side to the assassination story of one of the greatest and most well-known Indians who ever lived, Mahatma Gandhi, and I couldn’t stop myself from leaning in to see and understand just what playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar (When The Crows Visit; The Snow Queen) has in store for us.

Let’s not exaggerate,” but those three bullets changed history and shocked the whole world, mainly because of the confusion it elicited. Set against the backdrop of the tumultuous conflict between India and its colonizing oppressors, the British Empire, The Father and the Assassin attempts to both outline the political journey towards Indian independence and give us a closer more intimate look at the man who fired those shots. Chandrasekhar has noted that thousands of books have been written about Gandhi in an attempt to understand and know every aspect of this famed philosopher and political public speaker and writer, yet very little about his assassin, particularly his upbringing and what would bring a man like him to this violent moment. This was the play’s intent.

Any dramatization of history requires a degree of imaginative license,” she tells us in her notes, and here on the grand Olivier Stage of the National Theatre, this epic tale revolves forward revealing an upbringing of disorder and subtle discourse. To understand, or at least attempt to understand the central figure and our narrator, we have to peer back into Godse’s upbringing when his parents, and try to look beyond the act itself. You see, after losing three other boys in their infancy, Godse’s parents sought a somewhat odd religious solution to their situation and his birth. They decided, in order to sidestep what they thought was a curse on their family, to raise their boy as a girl. They would pierce his nose and deliver him into the world as a daughter, forever setting up a conflict that may have caused Godse to be quite lost in his own personal identity, possibly making him far more susceptible to father figures who might give him a structural meaning of self and acceptance.

This is Godse’s conflict story, of inner and outer divisions and betrayal of the father, played out in identity politics of a different order, resulting in some trauma and childish animosities that have their roots in personal relationships as well as, metaphorically speaking, political colonialism. At least, this is what Chandrasekhar tries to deliver forth in this psychological study alongside a complex paradigm for Hindu nationalism, all located in the central figure’s cracked psyche, which, in essence, may have resulted in the 1948 assassination of Gandhi.

It’s an exhilarating explorative adventure, laid out majestically (and somewhat typically) on a set on that grand Olivier stage. Rust-colored and ramped in the round, designed well by set and costume designer Rajha Shakiry (NT’s Trouble In Mind) with grand lighting by Oliver Fenwick (Audible’s Girls and Boys) and a solid sound design by Alexander Caplen (Royal Court’s Over There), The Father and the Assassin unpacks the complicated quest of a young boy to find purpose and an identity that would bring him, first to Gandhi (Paul Bazely) and his unifying movement of peaceful resistance. This dynamic laid out a fatherly framework that would be their undoing, as that relationship was followed by the divisive politics of Vinayak Savarkar (Tony Jayawardena), who built the foundations of the Hindu Mahasabha party pushing a strongly formatted idea of Hindu nationalism as a political ideology, all while serving out a life sentence in the Cellular Jail as a prisoner. It was a switch that changed the world, but one that seems to have been drawn from paternal inclinations and rejection, rather than political identifications.

The large cast of twenty does the piece grand service, as we play along with Godse as he, as a child, supports his family by channeling the goddess as a village fortune teller. It’s a captivating first engagement, as it weaves and rotates into view a childhood filled with obedience, and respect, followed directly by rebellion and political and personal debate.

The Father and the Assassin.
The cast of National Theatre’s The Father and the Assassin. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Hope smells a lot like sandalwood,” we are told, and the play unfolds with precise non-linear structuring that digs us deeper inside this fractured mindset. As directed with clarity and vision by Indhu Rubasingham (59E59/Round House’s Handbagged), the story sings on a whole other range, playing with our sensibilities and understanding of an event that shook the foundations of our world. With a staging that conjures up multitudes of complex psychological images, as well as dialectic themes of political style and belief structures, Godse becomes something of a childlike shell, trying desperately to control his narrative while batting away childhood trauma, embodied well, in contrast, with the peaceful qualities of his open-hearted childhood friend Vimala (Dinita Gohil) and the games they once played.

The play lives and breathes through the essential performance of Abeysekera as Nathuram Godse. The way he moves about is both delicate and angry; aggressive and casual, allowing playfulness to be weaved within the construct of empowerment and weakness of character. His desperation for fatherly and an authentic understanding of his own identity is at the center of this dynamic new play. His put-upon strut of childish resentment and ultimate vindictiveness delivers in the end, with the pulling of the trigger. The Father and the Assassin ends on a note of complications, energizing the room to seek for more clarity and understanding. It’s a complicated ending, leaving you questioning its stance, and making us want to know more. Which I think is precisely the point.

National Theatre’s The Father and the Assassin. Photograph: Marc Brenner

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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A Tap Happy White Christmas

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Running now through December 31st at the Bucks County Playhouse is a new version of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas – The Musical. Based on the 1954 American musical film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, the original stage adaptation of White Christmas opened on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre in 2008 after several successful engagements throughout the United States.

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas from Bucks County Playhouse on Vimeo.

Following a stint in the army, song-and-dance men, Bob Wallace and Phil Davis become one the hottest duos in show business. After a chance meeting, they follow The Haynes Sisters to Vermont where they discover a nearly bankrupt inn run by their former Army commander. With no snow in the forecast, and no tourists in sight, can Wallace, Davis and the Haynes Sisters pull off a yuletide miracle?

A very clever book by David Ives and Paul Blake makes this rather sentimentalized story not seem so sappy. And the addition of some of Irving Berlin’s greatest songs, such as “I Love a Piano”, “Blue Skies”, “Let Yourself Go” and “How Deep is the Ocean?” makes for an evening of humable, memorable tunes. But the most entertaining parts of the show are the dazzling tap numbers choreographed with creative exuberance by Richard Riaz Yoder which keep the leads and the entire ensemble tapping their veritable toes off.

Jeremiah James as Bob Wallace possesses a most mellifluous voice and puts it to good use in “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep”. He also manages to make his curmudgeon of a character appealing. Ashley Blanchet is terrific as Betty Haynes and is exceptional on “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me/How Deep is the Ocean”. Jarran Muse as Phil Davis, the wolf, is funny and charming and shines in “I Love a Piano” along with Kaitlyn Frank as Judy. Ruth Gottschall is a stand out on “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy”, and is the young Mackenzie Reff who sings the reprise as Susan Waverly. (This role is shared by Tara Rajan who alternates with her.)

Kudos to the small orchestra of seven musicians who under the direction of Jeffrey Campos (who re-orchestrated the score) sound like a full Broadway pit band.

And kudos to the Bucks County Playhouse for having live music in this age of pre-recorded tracks.

Most notably, Hunter Foster must be commended for making this big, behemoth of a show move along at a speedy clip.  

For tickets please visit buckscountyplayhouse.org, call 215-862-2121, or visit the box office at 70 South Main Street, New Hope, PA.

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas – The Musical: Running now through December 31st  at the Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hopes, PA  18938

Book by David Ives and Paul Blake

Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin

Choreographed by Richard Riaz Yoder

Directed by Hunter Foster

 



 

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Entertainment

Teatro ZinZanni Soars Again in Chicago

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When you come to downtown Chicago, there are a few “must see” destinations. There’s the Art Institute. There’s the mirrored Chicago Bean. And now, there’s Teatro ZinZanni. This enthralling, acrobatic, variety show, which originated over twenty years ago in Seattle, is in its second incarnation here in Chicago, post-pandemic, and flying high again.

Aerialist Lea Hinz Photo Credit Samuel Rose @duorosetrapzee

Their new show, Love, Chaos and Dinner, expertly combines  music, circus, arial acts, acrobatics, juggling, and magic. I made my first ever visit to Teatro ZinZanni Chicago this week, and was blown away by the talent and professionalism of this group. It is a dazzling roller coaster ride of non-stop entertainment, not to be missed. Hop on!

The organization of the experience itself is a marvel. Every member of the staff, from the greeter at the door to the servers who dance as they bring you your food between circus acts, is as well rehearsed and professional as the acts themselves. The staff sweeps you through the evening with friendly, polite efficiency. Kudos to the management for assuring that there isn’t a single element of the Teatro ZinZanni experience which isn’t a complete joy.

Aerialist Danila Bim Photo Credit Samuel Rose @duorosetrapzee

The show is presented in a round structure resembling a circus tent, fitted inside the 14th floor of the Cambria Hotel in downtown Chicago. Although it looks large in some ways, it is remarkably intimate at the same time. The tables encircle the performance area, and the performances spill out into the crowd. The clowns and comedians weave through the tables all night as the acts change, making sure there’s never a dull moment.

The individual talents in this show are universally remarkable. Collectively they make a perfect ensemble.

Ulzii Mergen Photo Credit Samuel Rose @duorosetrapzee

The Ringmaster, Michael Evolution, is a master spinner and juggler of basketballs. Ulzii Mergen is a mind-boggling contortionist who seems to be made entirely of very beautiful rubber. Danila Bim hangs from her hair and spins faster than a dental drill. Lithe and lovely Lea Hinz works a large hoop with fluid grace. Cassie Cutler and Oliver Parkinson, known collectively as Duo 19, are a breathtakingly sexy arial duo. Ms. Cutler also does a wonderful job earlier in the show as the show’s featured clown, in a washer woman character resembling Sarah Silverman doing Carol Burnett.

TrapezeDuo 19 Photo Credit Samuel Rose @duorosetrapzee

When I saw the similarly styled Cirque du Soleil, I was impressed by the physical talents of their acrobats. But the work often felt posed, and I was somewhat distanced from the experience by the vastness of the theater. The talented artists of Teatro ZinZanni engaged me in their experience far more. They spin, twist, leap, and contort at speeds and in ways that nearly seem impossible, always surprising, with unerring precision, and unforgettable beauty. It also helps that the performers are so close to you. The intimacy of the experience will make your heart race non-stop with excitement.

Lucy Darling

The “special guest” of the show is the delectable Lucy Darling, the theatrical alter ego of lovely young magician, Carissa Hendricks. She has performed in Chicago several times before, at the Rhapsody Theater and Chicago Magic Lounge, but I’ve always missed her. I became a fan of hers on Fool Us, and was excited to see her live. Her character of Lucy Darling is a modern Mae West with a touch of Marilyn Monroe for good measure. Sly, sexy, seductive, and deceptive, Lucy Darling keeps us laughing and delightfully off balance as she slips into her magic, which is all built around cocktails and bar paraphernalia. You will get drunk on her smile. A toast to her talent!

My only criticism of this show is that they don’t give Ms. Darling a magical enough entrance. In fact, it takes a bit too long before you even know she’s supposed to be a magician. Later in the show, she magically appears from an empty chair in what is otherwise a throwaway transitional moment between acts. It would make a lot more sense if they were to incorporate this magical appearance into her entrance.

Last but not least is the outstanding music which envelops the evening. The central character of Madam ZinZanni, normally played at evening performances by Sa’Rayah, was embodied at the performance I saw by matinee performer Tina Jenkins Crawley. She is a powerhouse singer whose soulful performances were all a delight to hear.

Another musical treat is the live band, lead by the fast-fingered keyboard stylings and expert musical direction of local jazz legend, Theodis Rodgers, Jr. He is matched and supported by top notch performances from Jose Martinez on drums, Jon Negus on woodwinds and keyboard, Phil Seed on guitar, and Chuck Webb on bass guitar. It would have been worth the price of admission just to hear them play.

Finally, this is a dinner theater show. Remarkably, the meal also is quite excellent. It starts with a generous assortment of crudités. The wait staff will suggest a yummy appetizer to keep you going for an hour until the entrees are served. I had the salmon, and my friend had pork, both of which were well prepared. But nothing prepared me for the amazing desert, which featured the most unusual cheesecake and best chocolate mouse I’ve ever had.

I’m someone who likes value for his money, and Teatro ZinZanni gives you that across the board. In every aspect, Teatro ZinZanni delivers a tasty and tasteful experience which you will remember happily long after you leave.

As soon as the show was over, I was ready to come back and see it again. I don’t say that very often!

The next time you are in Chicago, make Teatro ZinZanni your first stop.

Teatro ZinZanni continues open ended Wednesdays through Sundays at the Cambia Hotel, 32 W. Randolph Street in Chicago.  (312) 488-0900.  Chcago-info@zinzanni.com

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Prophecy Fog Asks Some Big Rock Questions at Coal Mine Theatre. Toronto

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For as long as I can remember, I would scan whichever beach I was walking upon looking for that one stone that would, basically, leap out at me, asking to be taken home and cherished. It could only be one, I would tell myself, so I really had to pay attention to which one called out to me the loudest. And once I had it firmly in hand, I would hold it tight as I continued on my way. It was a warming idea, yet I wasn’t really sure why I started doing this, or when. I have more stones than I can count though, scattered around all the places I currently call home, and even more at the house I grew up in. I felt their importance, somehow, intuitively. Maybe it had something to do with my indigenous heritage; being half Mohawk, or something about memory, but I knew I had no real logical connection to it. It was purely emotional. Or something close to it.

Jani Lauzon in Coal Mine Theatre’s production of Prophecy Fog. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

So something clicked when I went in and took my place to join Prophecy Fog‘s sacred circle, created with beauty and authenticity by the multidisciplinary artist of Métis ancestry, Jani Lauzon (Soulpepper/Native Earth’s Where The Blood Mixes) at the Coal Mine Theatre, Toronto. The energy and humanity that vibrated in the room were palpable as Prophecy Fog got underway. Directed with care by Franco Boni (The Theatre Centre’s Sea Sick), the piece, as enveloped by a gentle circle of clouds and sky courtesy of environmental designer Melissa Joakim (Outside the March’s No Save Points), begins its falling, down, down through layers of ancestral memory like star-woman’s descent to the turtle. Lauzon turns round and around; a white figure rotating inside a knit sun, reaching out and moving to the hypnotic sounds of stones and rock. It’s a no-shoes sacred space, that somehow rattles my New York sensibilities while also connecting to my inner indigenous soul. She chants and sings out, filling the air and space with her warm gentle glow, drawing us in, even if our sensibilities make us want to lean out. So I just sat upright. Somewhere in between, looking to get pulled forward into the sun.

Jani Lauzon in Coal Mine Theatre’s production of Prophecy Fog. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

She pours out her soul and her stones, unpacking a shimmering stone thesis with an openness that is somehow infectious. Each stone has a story, a history that, if warmed will reveal itself, she informs us. Stones are the skin of the earth and if you touch that skin, it will touch you back, giving great tales that will sometimes make you chuckle, and sometimes it might make you weep. She encircles us with her stones to drum beats and unique projections of a vast horizon, guiding us into all the short and long stories that these rocks have collected. It’s a calming rattle, as she pours over stories scattered in the circle around that sun. One that embraced me, somehow, but not completely.

She tells us a creation story of Turtle Island and the star-woman who fell down when leaning over too far; a story I was quite familiar with and lovingly embraced. In a way, this was what I wanted from my adventure at Coal Mine; to lean forward so much that I fell into her unpacking with full abandonment. But I can’t say I ever really lost my balance and freely dove down into Lauzon’s realm. She’s a compelling performer, authentic and honest, deliberate and aware, but even as I wished for her embrace, I never fully felt it take over. The connective tissues weren’t there for me. The stories felt random, like a stream of consciousness, without the arc that makes a theatrical piece fully encompassing. Maybe I wanted a tidier bow on that rock, but that’s not what this piece is.

Jani Lauzon in Coal Mine Theatre’s production of Prophecy Fog. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

There was, in actuality, a somewhat real reason that we found ourselves gathered together in that circle, and it was to uncover a complicated answer to a complex question. Lauzon, as part of The Theatre Centre’s Tracy Wright Global Archive, went on a journey, traveling to a spiritual place in the middle of a desert to ask questions to the universe, and seek some answers. It was part of a program that “inspired artists to explore a burning question and contemplate a new direction in their work by engaging deeply with communities and locations across the globe, seeking answers to their questions and inspiring new directions in their practice.” It was a compelling and profound agenda to carry forth, and Lauzon, with her daughter in tow (who we get to meet via video), found their way to the powerful and impactful Giant Rock in the Mojave Desert, ready to ask the question, “can a site still be sacred if it has been desecrated?

’m not sure a clear answer was ever really discovered in that exploration, and in a way, the answer is almost beside the point. But love was felt in its embrace. Was that the answer we were looking for? “Truth or fog?” we are asked, and in the big rock scheme of things, I can’t quite say, other than to say that I did feel Lauzon and her daughter’s authentic presence in this circle. It seems they really did embrace the rock’s big energy as the two attempted to understand and share its significance, both historical and cultural with us. With the help of dramaturg Brian Quirt (Why We Are Here!) and Lauzon’s cultural advisors; Sam Osawamick, Pauline Shirt, and Sadie Buck, Prophecy Fog lets us in on the journey, and attempts to make us feel the power of that big rock, and all the unladylike stories those scattered pebbles had to tell. Her mother’s voice echoes through, reminding us all that we “will manage” as the Giant Rock stories give out so much love into the universe. Even if, as a piece of theatre, it never really found its way through a telling arc that attached itself to my heart or soul. But the stories were engaging, if haphazard, and spoke of stars and galaxies that shine all around us, dancing and singing their light-filled tales like star-woman on a turtle’s back.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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