Tuesday, October 11, 2016

'FRENZY' Takes on Gay Domestic Violence/Abuse

With his novel entitled Nothing Can Tear Us Apart—FRENZY! (gay/ethnic) that is now available, gay/SGL journalist, motivational speaker and author Wyatt O’Brian Evans paints a striking and realistic portrait of Intimate Partner Violence/Abuse (IPV/A), commonly referred to as domestic violence/abuse in the LGBTQ community.   In many instances, IPV/A is stigmatized and “swept under the rug.”  And it occurs much more than is reported: for example, statistics show that each year, over 500,000 gay/SGL men are battered.
Mr. Evans has researched and written extensively about this issue for print and on line media outlets including Huffington Post Queer Voices, The Rainbow Times, Baltimore Gay Life, Wyattevans.com and Baltimore OUTloud.  Himself an IPV/A survivor, Mr. Evans conducts seminars and workshops on this issue.  

“Nothing Can Tear Us Apart—FRENZY!” is the story of Wesley and Antonio:  two masculine, openly gay/SGL men of color who must confront serious and daunting challenges and obstacles to their monogamous relationship.  Intimate Partner Violence and Abuse is the overarching theme of “FRENZY!” 
Because IPV/A tends to be a taboo subject in the LGBTQ community, the author felt that “Nothing Can Tear Us Apart—FRENZY!” would break through more as a novel--as opposed to a work of nonfiction.  “As fiction, the issue is more palatable, and not such a ‘bitter pill to swallow’,” states Evans.   

The themes addressed in Nothing Can Tear Us Apart—FRENZY!” certainly are universal; therefore the novel strongly resonates with the reader.  Both men and women—be they lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual or transgender—can fully identify with and relate to the journey of the novel’s two protagonists.
According to Mr. Cyrus Webb, host of the internationally popular “Conversations LIVE!” radio program, “Nothing Can Tear Us Apart—FRENZY!” is “deeply engaging and keeps your attention from the first chapter.  This is one of those books you can read and though the main characters are two men, you can see it fitting any situation where love is at the heart of the matter.”

And according to Rev. Sandy Rodgers, author, educator and national radio personality (“Life, Love, Wellness: The Sandy Rodgers Show”), “‘Nothing Can Tear Us Apart – FRENZY!’ is a delectable read. The story deals with so many relevant current day issues of child abuse/violence, unresolved emotional traumas and the solid love in a relationship between two people.
 “The gripping dialogue kept me spellbound in the explicitly-narrated scenes. It was hot, steamy, sexy and mesmerizing while dealing with the pains of childhood abuse and bullying. Unresolved issues will always creep its ugly head back into our adult lives as clearly illustrated by the character of Wesley/Walker. 

 “Intimate Partner Violence and (IPV/A) is alive and well in all segments of society, and every human is affected in some way--either directly or indirectly.  ‘FRENZY!’ deals with this communal issue in a raw yet provocative style. It grabs your attention and maintains it throughout the entire manuscript. Well- written, the story pulls you in like quicksand and never lets you get away. You are caught, hook line and sinker. Masterfully detailed and beautifully written. You get to know each character intimately: I felt like I was present as the story unfolded!   I was totally entwined in the happenings, literally living every word and unable to abandon the work until the end.

 “Wyatt, thank you so much for taking on the task of dealing with such an important topic, adding ‘real life’ to it, and also showing us the beauty of true LOVE between two people. My deepest admiration.”

The release date for “Nothing Can Tear Us Apart—FRENZY!” was October 1.  The book can be purchased online.

 Mr. Evans is available for interviews and appearances.  For booking presentations, media appearances, interviews, and/or book signings, contact: bookings@wyattevans.com .

Monday, October 03, 2016

Sadness, Resignation Linger One Year After Hippo Closing

As the renovated Baltimore Eagle is poised to re-open after being shuttered for four years, there remains a feeling of melancholy and resignation within Baltimore’s LGBT community concerning the Club Hippo’s closing its doors for good. Last October 3, the end of a 43-year icon in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon gayborhood became a reality.
The popular disco and saloon, which had been a must-see Baltimore destination for LGBT and straight people from all over, closed as owner Charles Bowers decided to retire.  The building, which he still owns, has been leased to CVS Health, whose brightly-lit store opened a couple of weeks ago.

Several members of the community expressed nostalgia when it comes to the Hippo but also a feeling of inevitability regarding gay bar closings in general and a concern for the profitability of these establishments.
“For me, the departure of the Hippo from My Vernon signaled what I already knew - that the LGBT community was too well established in Baltimore to not be constrained to just one neighborhood. I can feel comfortable by myself or with my LGBT friends anywhere in town,” explains Mara Drummond, a transwoman who points out she began going to the Hippo in 2006 when she first began her transition.

The grand disco finale on September 25, 2015     Photo: Bob Ford
“The decline of Mount Vernon as the hub of the LGBT community is both sad and joyous,” she says.  “The community has lost some of its self-identity but at the same time has blended comfortably into a much larger community.”
Don Davis the owner of Grand Central, which is situated diagonally across from the building where the Hippo had stood, notes the migration of LGBT folks to other areas and also sees the predictability of gay bars closing because the culture is changing.

“It’s sure a different world. So much of the change with the Internet’s hook up sites and apps, gays are now feeling comfortable with hanging out with their straight friends at the straight places,” says Davis, who had been the Hippo’s bar manager for a brief stint in the seventies.  “It breaks my heart to see the Hippo of 43 years and 27 other gay bars close in the 30 years that I have been in business.”
Davis believes this cultural shift as well as other challenges associated with owning a bar has made such businesses unprofitable.  “I am off almost $25,000 from the same period that I had done last year,” Davis states.  “And this is with the Hippo closing.”

Shawnna Alexander, a drag personality who had performed at the Hippo on and off for 20 years and a former Miss Hippo, is resigned to the bar’s closing but is still sad when is reminded of it.  “It's strange because just as I’m getting over it as everything must change, a Facebook memory will pop up 😞😞and I get a little sad,” Alexander says. “A bigger part of me says it was a smart business move and wish Mr. Bowers nothing but the best.”

The final last call - 1:40 a.m., October 4, 2015
Many drag performers launched their careers at the Hippo yet feel the loss of the bar has not impacted them too negatively.  Danny Carbo, a former employee and a drag performer who goes by the drag name Pamela de la Cruz, says, “The Hippo was not only my place of employment and favorite spot for a night out, it was also Baltimore’s best drag venue. In the year since its closing, we’ve seen several venues, new and old, step up to keep the party going.”
Carbo offers an example. “The standout queen, Brooklyn Heights, has worked tirelessly to keep drag alive in Charm City and has brought new shows to Steampunk Alley, The Depot, and a new drag brunch at Points South Latin Kitchen. Ottobar and The Crown continue to regularly include female illusion in their eclectic events as well.”

Still, Thomas Groves, another former employee, laments the Hippo’s closing.  “This past year had been all about going after my goals and dreams in life. The bar’s closing definitely left a hole in the gay community in Baltimore.”
He adds, “Without the Hippo the community has had a huge void in somewhere to go and unwind, enjoy a show or just hang with friends.”

Sunday, October 02, 2016

There’s a ‘Party’ Going On With Iron Crow

Cast of The Wild Party   Photo: Rob Clatterbuck
I’ve attended some wild parties in my day, but The Wild Party currently being presented by Iron Crow Theatre at their venue at the Baltimore Theatre Project takes the cake.  Decadence rife with minimal clothing worn by some of the guests, abundant booze, love making, sexual ambiguity, a developing dangerous love triangle, jealousy and violence would certainly count as wild.  I bet the chips and dip were spicy, too.  And it’s mostly done to song!
Sean Elias, the new artistic director and CEO for Iron Crow, directs a young talented company in this eccentric musical, which is only the second one since Iron Crow’s inception in 2009 (Hedwig and the Angry Inch).  #hocoarts

Iron Crow, Baltimore’s only queer theatre, prides itself on being edgy and mysterious, dark and unconventional with a strong infusion of queerness.  Kicking off its 2016-17 Season, The Wild Party encompasses these characteristics for sure, and with the level of talent displayed and remarkably creative burlesque-like costuming by Aaron Barlow a.k.a. Betty O’Hellno, it is one of their more entertaining productions. 
The Wild Party is adapted from Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 poem of the same name.  The show in which Andrew Lippa, wrote the book, music and lyrics, opened Off-Broadway in 2000 and received the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music and the the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical.

Though other characters play significant roles, the principal story takes place in the 1920’s and centers on Queenie and Burrs—her abusive and violent lover. They decide to hold this epic party in the hope of escaping, albeit briefly, their own problematic relationship.  Queenie decides to make Burrs jealous, and when Kate shows up with a mysterious man named Mr. Black, trouble brews, a love triangle drama unfolds, and we’ll leave it at that.
The colorfully odd guests are attired in an eclectic array of costumes that challenge gender norms including young men wearing red stilettos.  Some guests are barely dressed at all.  What a party!

From the entrance in the rear of the stage, they descend down the four steps into a lower level—a metaphor for the debauchery that awaits them. Ryan Haase’s clever set is a bit off center, and I’m sure purposely so, to offer the audience yet another metaphor. Lighting Designer Janine Vreatt’s effective use of dim illumination that creates a foggy, dreamlike quality, underscores the mood.
Though there is some dialogue, most of the plot is carried out by music—a strong attribute given the quality of some of the songs and the vocal prowess by the cast.  Unfortunately, there had been opening night issues concerning evenness with the sound and mics, and hopefully this will be resolved in subsequent performances.

Mr. Elias keeps the action hopping (it is a wild party) and effectively ensures that the actors not featured in a particular scene are still engaging in some form of activity in the background though not distracting.  This adds to the quality of the production.
A few of the songs don’t possess the kind of memorable melodies that one would hum exiting the theater.  But the lyrics from most are quite effective in weaving the story together.  Among the better numbers are, “Raise the Roof,” “Out of the Blue,” “Poor Child,” “A Wild, Wild Party,” “Of All the Luck,” “What is it About Her,” “I’ll Be Here” and “Come With Me.”

Ben Shaver ably conducts the five-piece orchestra situated in the rear of the theater.
There is some dancing under Robert Mintz’s choreography.  However, the relatively small stage containing a number of props and furnishings as well as a sizable cast does not allow for extravagantly free-wheeling moves.

As the tormented Queenie, Allison Bradbury is riveting.  She acts and sings with proficiency and is called on to perform in most of the show’s ballads as a solo or in groups with her sultry soprano voice holding up well by the end.  Her moving song, “Maybe I Like it This Way,” is excellently performed as she reflects on why she puts up with Burrs.
Justin Mazzella turns in a stunning performance and is convincing as the violently passionate Burrs. He displays solid acting skills and range as well as strong vocals in portraying this demanding role.  He performs particularly well with Ms. Bradbury in "Out of the Blue."

The vibrant Kate, who mightily attempts to seduce Burrs, is played effectively by Jessica Bennett.  She performs well in her solos “Look at Me Now,” “The Life of the Party” and the group number “Poor Child.”   
As Black, the man who falls for Queenie, Sylvern Groomes, Jr. does well and is particularly strong in the smooth ballad “I’ll Be Here.”

Valerie Holt plays the lesbian Madeline True, one of the guests, who is searching for love at the party. Her solo “An Old-Fashioned Love Story” was unfortunately marred by audio problems caused by either having a defective mic or she was not mic’d at all.  From what was heard, Ms. Holt has a nice voice.
Allison Bradbury as Queenie and Justin Mazzella as Burrs
Photo: Rob Clatterbuck
Another guest, Eddie, is played energetically by Jesse Marciniak.  He enjoys pugilism and is not shy about flexing, adding an amusing touch.

The lover-brothers Oscar D’Armano (Adam Cooley) and Phil D’Armano (Brice Guerriere) with their flower-laden wigs also add comedy to the already intense party. Appropriately, they perform well in the fun number, “A Wild, Wild Party.”  
Other fine cast members include Emily Small as Delores, Katheryne Daniels as Mae, and Fred Fletcher-Jackson as Sam.

And then there are Terrance Fleming as Eddie and Nick Fruit as Max who look impressively athletic in their um, skimpy costumes.  I told you this is a wild party.
Not all wild parties end well, and this is no exception.  However, it would be wise to get a ticket and attend this party.  You have to provide your own costume though.
Iron Crow’s 2016-17 Season is off to a good start with this well-directed and well-performed production.  It should give all involved something to crow about.

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

Advisory: Contains sexual situations, partial nudity and profanity and is not recommended for children.
The Wild Party plays weekends through October 9 at the Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit online

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Oh, What a Night! 'Jersey Boys' Rocks the Hippodrome

It could have just been a concert that played The Four Seasons’ numerous hits and the audience would have been enthralled.  Yet, Jersey Boys, kicking off the 2016-17 season as part of the CareFirst® BlueCross BlueShield Hippodrome Broadway Series for a limited engagement, is just that—a concert but also with a gritty biographical story that weaves together those fabulous songs and the roller coaster lives of the band members.  #hocoarts

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

This production, as part of a national tour that has been in progress for two years, shines by every measure. It is a cornucopia of nostalgia with its hand-clapping songs that bring those of us who vividly recall that era to eye-welling moments throughout.  Had the intervals between many of the numbers and the beginning of dialogue not been so short, the thunderous ovations following those that allowed for applause would have extended the show to four hours.
That should come as no surprise. Jersey Boys with music by Bob Gaudio, lyrics by Bob Crewe, and book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice has been a Broadway success capturing four Tony Awards in 2006 including Best Musical and a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album in 2007.  It brings to life the story of the creation of The Four Seasons through its ups and downs—and there were many of them—not unlike many popular musical groups who have experienced huge success but also internal splits, money issues, mistrust, individual tragedies, romantic tensions, and run-ins with the law.

The Four Seasons was among the most potent pop rock groups of the sixties. This despite the fact it had to compete with iconic groups like the Beach Boys, the advent of Motown, myriad superstar solo performers, and the historic British invasion, the band still sold 175 million records worldwide. 

Much of their popular catalogue of hits is included in this masterpiece of a production. “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Rag Doll,” “Walk Like A Man,”, “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” “My Eyes Adored You,” “Dawn (Go Away),” “Stay,” “Let’s Hang On,” “Rag Doll,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off  You” and many others are among them.  All told, 33 songs are in the show, including 5 Number 1 hits.
The core performers—Matthew Dailey as Tommy DeVito, Keith Hines as Nick Massi, Cory Jeacoma as Bob Gaudio and Aaron De Jesus as Frankie Valli (the October 1 matinee and October 2 evening performance will be played by Miguel Jarquin-Moreland)—are spot on in their vocals and excel in their acting skills.  They also replicate the group members’ characteristic dancing moves during their numbers attired in vintage suits and ties designed by Jess Goldstein that add more realism to an already realistic production.  
Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Each member of the group share their own personality, history, goals, values, problems and achievements distinct from the others, which are carried out with supreme excellence.

Two-time Tony Award director Des McAnuff helms this rich, expertly executed production that is divided into four “season” segments with each member of the band narrating their perspective of their own lives as well as the group during their particular season while those wonderful songs are performed.
A “Fifth Season” could have been given to Lighting Designer Howell Binkley, a Tony Award winner for the Broadway production. Mr. Binkley’s creative use of vivid hues to illuminate the stage and on the LED board above and at the rear of the stage is simply masterful.

One of the production’s highlights is The Four Seasons singing on The Ed Sullivan Show during the apex of the group’s success.  Black and white footage of Ed introducing the group: “For you youngsters in the audience, here are The Four Seasons!” shown on the LED board then the group on stage performs “Dawn” with an actual TV camera rolling; their images on the board.  Cleverly, those images cut away to Ed’s audience in full swoon mode and back to The Four Seasons singing. 
If that isn’t enough, ultra-bright lights turn on the audience; the group faces the back of the stage giving the illusion that the audience is seated behind the performers facing the TV lights.  It’s a crafty, magical moment.

Matthew Dailey is scintillating as bad-boy Tommy DeVito, the guy who formed the group.  In addition to his singing and guitar playing skills, he ably conveys the gruff character who has been in and out of jails, plunders the group into debt with a dangerous loan shark, hides unpaid taxes from the group and hits on Frankie’s girlfriend.
Keith Hines does a good job as Nick Massi is The Four Seasons’ bass player.  He is the one who helped train Frankie with his vocals.  His role is mostly comedic whereby he adroitly displays dead-pan humor.

As Bob Gaudio, the songwriter and keyboards player who previously experienced success with the hit “Short Shorts,” Corey Jeacoma, is excellent. Driven to write hit songs and delves deeply into his music, Gaudio doesn’t pick up on the band’s troubles.  Mr. Jeacoma gets to highlight a strong singing talent in “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”
Then there is Aaron De Jesus as Frankie Castelluccio, the Four Seasons’ lead singer who eventually changes his name to Frankie Valli at the suggestion of his wife, Mary Delgado (Kristen Paullcelli). If you close your eyes and listen to him sing, you’d swear you’re hearing Frankie Valli.  Even if you open them, you’d think it was him.  That’s how authentic Mr. De Jesus’ performance is.

Frankie had to cope with keeping the group together, bailing Tommy out of his debt, dealing with marital strife and enduring an unimaginable tragedy.  Mr. De Jesus’ acting prowess comes through during these moments while he perfects Valli’s signature vocals.
Barry Anderson is splendid as Bob Crewe, the producer and lyricist for the group.  He is campy and flamboyant and the band recognizes he is “a little off” in the manner of Liberace but he delivers the hits. 

Other good performances are turned in by the remainder of the company including the aforementioned Kristen Paullcelli as Valli’s first wife and Thomas Fiscella as mobster Gyp DeCarlo.
This production excels in its sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy, Steve Orich’s orchestrations and Scenic Design by Klara Zieglerova.  The latter’s simple set consists of two metallic staircases running up to a scaffold.  However, the LED board in the rear is the destination for a multitude of imagery including cartoon frames that keeps the show even livelier than it already is.

Jersey Boys is a thoroughly entertaining masterpiece steeped in nostalgia and wonderful music that reminds us so genuinely of the good old days.  Hurry and buy tickets fast before the show moves on to Boston.
Running time: Two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: Jersey Boys contains profanity and sexual situations and is not recommended for children.
Jersey Boys runs through October 2 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 online or the Hippodrome .

Monday, September 19, 2016

Riveting ‘Diary of Anne Frank’ at Olney

The families received hopeful news of the invasion of Normandy
Photo: Stan Barouh
One could only imagine the horror, the terror and the heartbreak experienced by those who suffered and perished during the Holocaust. We are reminded of those atrocities through personal accounts, historical documentation, images and footage contained in Holocaust museums and other venues.   #hocoarts
We also have artifacts such as a diary from a young Jewish girl from Amsterdam named Anne Frank who described in vivid detail the ordeal of spending nearly two years hiding in small upper rooms of the annex at the back of her father’s company building with eight people—three other family members, another family of three and later a stranger—hoping and expecting that they will be liberated from the Nazi takeover of Holland.   

That diary, which was published as Diary of a Young Girl but later known simply as The Diary of Anne Frank, became a book by Wendy Kesselman and was adapted into a play by Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett, premiering on Broadway in October 1955.
Fortunately, this play is now being presented at the Olney Theatre Center, and as such, is one of the most gripping dramatic plays I’ve seen in at least ten years.  Director Derek Goldman (Grounded) and an exceptional cast and skilled technical crew bring this diary to life. 

This is a taut and poignant drama with all the moving parts completely in sync, and through the actors’ superb performances under Mr. Goldman’s direction and Misha Kachman’s outstanding set, it seems so real. 
Adding to the authenticity is Zach Blane’s effective lighting design. Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design includes sound effects of sirens blaring outside, the chants from Hitler and his followers, and reports from the radio.  Also, costume designer David Burdick’s period attire hits the mark.

Carolyn Faye Kramer as Anne Frank
and Paul Morella as Otto Frank
Photo: Stan Barouh
Olney’s black box theatre that is the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab offers the audience a degree of intimacy not found in many other venues. The aisle running through the center of the audience stands as the stairway linking the outside danger on the streets below to the secret annex space above.
It’s July 6, 1942 in Amsterdam.  Hitler’s forces have taken over the city.  The Frank family—Otto, Edith, Anne, 13, and her older sister Margot—trudge up the stairs first led by Mr. Kraler, an employee of Otto Frank’s business, the one who is providing the sanctuary.    

The Franks are followed by the arrival of Peter van Daan the teenage son of Otto’s business partner. Then Mr. van Daan shows up with his wife and the seven are assembled.  All removed their outer clothing soaked from the rain with each wearing a yellow Star of David identifying them as Jews. 
Miep Gies, also an employee, and Mr. Kraler will deliver food daily to the group. 

Small makeshift bedrooms are assigned. Otto barks out the rules.  While workmen spend the day below, no noise can be made until 6 p.m.  Shoes must be off, no coughing, no use of water, no flushing toilets.  Their very lives depend on not being discovered.
Miep brings another member to the group who needs to hide out—a dentist named Mr. Dussel who is allergic to Peter’s cat and shares a tiny bedroom with Anne.

Though we know the sorrowful ending, we are able to watch and listen to the hopes and dreams of these individuals as the months go by unaware of their fate and how interactions among family members and between the others in the annex are affected by their hiding out in such close quarters.  Nerves get frayed.  Yet some relationships even tighten. Food is shared but one of the people is caught cheating.
They carry on as one big family, even celebrating Chanukah with Anne doling out improvised gifts to her family.  However, along the way, we learn that their secret may have been compromised.

When Miep runs up the stairs to announce Normandy has been invaded and liberation may be near, the occupants all rejoice and celebrate.  By contrast, not long later, that suspected betrayal was realized when two Nazi storm troopers barged in, clicked their heels, and without anyone saying a word, the occupants raised their hands and followed the uniformed troopers down the stairs in an absolutely chilling scene.

Photo: Stan Barouh

As stated earlier, the performances by the actors are high quality.  Playing the role of the perky and optimistic Anne Frank, Carolyn Faye Kramer is phenomenal.  She is the focus of the play, of course, but her relationships with other members of her family and the van Daan family provide much of the drama and dialogue. 

Anne is at one time jealous of her older sister Margot, played by Dani Stoller, but then grows closer during their period of hiding.  Inevitably, she develops an attraction for the reserved Peter van Daan (Alex Alferov), a slightly older teenager, who lacks self-confidence and questions his Judaism.
Brigid Cleary as Anne and Margot’s mother Edith is a standout.  Edith outwardly worries about the fate of the family more than anyone and that concern is evident throughout. Ms. Cleary conveys these emotions realistically in her dialogue and movements on the stage.  

Also very strong is Olney veteran Paul Morella as Otto.  He is the leader of the group and tries to keep it all together.  Mr. Morella gives an incredibly moving epilogue whereby he explains how Otto was the sole survivor; everybody including Anne died when they were in various concentration camps.   He delivers this soliloquy with unbridled emotion—eyes tearing, lips quivering and voice shaking. 
As the van Daan parents who are involved in more of the conflicts, Eric Hissom and Susan Rome portray their roles well.  Their scene in which Mr. van Daan insists that his wife relinquish the fur coat her father gave her because they are in dire need of money and her reluctance to do so is potent.

Rounding out the cast are Michael Russotto as Mr. Dussel, Kimberly Schraf as Miep Gies, and Edward Christian as Mr. Kraler.
Anne’s final words on the stage represent her final entry in the diary dated July 15, 1944:

“It's difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
This, in essence, sums up the positive spirit of Anne Frank that is communicated so adeptly in this exceptionally well-directed and performed play. It should not be missed.

Running time.  Two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.
The Diary of Anne Frank runs through October 23 at the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting online .  

Saturday, September 17, 2016

A Divine ‘Sister Act’ at Toby’s

Cast performing "Take Me to Heaven"
Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Many musicals contain broad societal themes or historical events as the backdrop for the production.  Sister Act is not one of them. Instead, the musical takes the audience on a jolly, at times silly, feel-good journey that demonstrates how people can change for the better if given the right environment and support.
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 in 2009 and received five Tony Award nominations in 2011.

Under the meticulous direction of Lawrence B. Munsey (who also teamed with Mary Quinn for the glorious costumes); solid musical direction of Ross Scott Rawlings; imaginative and clever choreography of Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick; and a high-energy, talented company, Sister Act, currently playing at Toby’s The Dinner Theatre of Columbia, serves up a tasty production that is matched only by its scrumptious buffet. 

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 skilled vocalists.  Mr. Rawlings’ six-piece orchestra is well-balanced in support of the performers without overpowering them.
Set in 1977 Philadelphia, the Whoopi Goldberg in this production is Ashley Johnson as Deloris Van Cartier, an aspiring disco diva who ends up in hiding at a convent when her married club-owning gangster boyfriend, Curtis Jackson (DeCarlo Raspberry) and three buffoon-like accomplices Joey, Pablo and TJ (talented Russell Sunday, Moses Bernal and Tobias Young, respectively) find out she’s squealed to the cops about his murdering one of his cronies.  And the quest for Curtis to find her is on.

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.  This is significant because the financially-strapped church in need of repairs is being coveted by an unseen “bachelor couple who deals with antiques and lean on each other for support.” (Well, it IS musical theatre!)

Deloris also 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 they are not much different from her.
Without question, Ms. Johnson (Memphis, The Wiz, The Color Purple) as Deloris turns in a star-quality performance.  She offers the right amount of sass in her dialogue, showcases her comedic skills with spot-on timing and body language, and Lord, can she sing!

Commanding a rich soprano voice that grew stronger as the show progressed the night it was reviewed, Ms. Johnson excelled 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 Hasani Allen, a dorky, klutzy (sometimes a bit too much) policeman whom she knew in high school.  Eddie is assigned to protecting her from Curtis.  His big number “I Could Be that Guy” is strong and emotional and well-delivered.  That number is enhanced by a wonderful double-breakaway costume.

Ashley Johnson singing "Raise Your Voice"
Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
As the deadpan Mother Superior, Ms. Sharp-Spears is the perfect foil for Deloris.  Their repartee provides many of the laughs in the show with each feeding off each other proficiently. “Here Within These Walls” and “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” ably showcase Ms. Sharp-Spears’ solid soprano voice.
Mr. Raspberry 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 Teresa Danskey, 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 the revival-like finale, the reprise of “Raise Your Voice.”

Other notable performers include the comedic Robert Biedermann 125 as Monsignor O’Hara, Jeffrey Shankle as Ernie, Amy Haynes as Sister Mary Patrick, Lynne Sigler as Sister Mary Lazarus, and the always enjoyable Jane C. Boyle as Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours.
Rounding out the company are Mary Kate Brouillet, Coby Kay Callahan, Erica Clare, Andre Hinds, David Jennings, Rachel Kemp, Santina Maiolatesi, Darren McDonnell, and Elizabeth Rayca.  The swings are Tina DeSimone and A.J. Whittenberger.

David Hopkins’ set and lighting design works well in Toby’s in-the-round theater.  There are a fair amount of scene changes from bars to the convent utilizing a variety of moveable props. The staging for the scene changes is smooth and seamless.  The best set is the depiction of the church’s chapel complete with stained glass windows along the walls of the theater as well as candles and candle chandeliers.
Costumes designed by Mr. Munsey and Ms. Quinn are fabulous.  From tight disco dresses to various sets of habits for the sisters (black, white and red) and even pajamas to polyester suits, the costumes hit the mark.  #hocoarts

Sister Act is an enjoyable, uplifting musical that, praise the Lord, will surely entertain you.  Don’t miss it.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission.

Sister Act at Toby’s The Dinner Theatre of Columbia runs through November 13.  For tickets and information, call 410-730-8311 or visit online.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Transgender Woman Murdered in Baltimore

Crystal Edmonds  Photo Courtesy of WBAL-TV
Crystal Edmonds, 32, a transgender woman, died the afternoon of September 16 from a gunshot wound she received to the back of her head at 3:18 a.m.   She was found on the sidewalk at the 3600 block of Fairview Avenue in Northwest Baltimore, according to T.J. Smith, Baltimore City Police spokesman, and taken to a hospital where she died.
Police do not know the motive or why Edmonds was in the area at the time and will investigate.  Police are canvassing the area.

With Sgt. Kevin Bailey, the police liaison to the LGBT community, at his side, Smith said at a news conference at the scene that day that anyone who could commit this heinous crime could do it again.  Bailey has already met with and spoken to advocates of the LGBT community concerning this crime.  Smith said  that the “transgender community is sometimes a vulnerable community, sometimes targeted by people.”
Local activist Merrick Moses posted on Facebook, “Anyone in the community feeling overwhelmed by the violent loss of another of our sisters can reach out to Hearts & Ears. Black Transmen Inc. member Ken Jiretsu has volunteered to keep the doors of Hearts and Ears open for extended hours t​o ​provide peer support from 6-9 p.m. this evening for community to process. A counselor will be available during those hours for added support.​ Hearts & Ears is located at
611 Park Ave​nue, Suite A​, Baltimore, MD​ 21202​. “

Police are asking for the public and community’s help. A reward of up to $2,000 is being offered for information that leads to an arrest and indictment. Anyone with information is asked to call police at 410-396-2100 or Metro Crime Stoppers at 866-7LOCKUP, or text a tip to 443-902-4824.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

County Executive Balks at Transgender Guidelines

A.A. Co. Executive Steven R. Schuh
While acknowledging that all students in Anne Arundel County public schools deserve the support to reach their potential, County Executive Steven R. Schuh along with Education Officer Amalie E. Brandenburg sent a letter  to Stacey Korbelak, President of the Board of Education stating the board went too far in establishing guidelines to support transgender students.
“We believe that all students facing challenges should be offered reasonable accommodations, and we support several of the accommodations proposed by the board for transgender students, including use of preferred names and alternative bathroom arrangements,” the letter stated. “However, we do not support unnecessary and extreme accommodations that would have negative impacts on other students.”

Schuh is particularly concerned about guidelines that allow for transgender students to participate in single-sex athletic teams, use locker rooms and bathrooms and sleep in overnight situations with the gender a student identifies with rather than their biological gender.
He accused the board of “extreme overreaction” to a letter from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education issued in May that directed public schools to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.  Last month, a Federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked that directive. Schuh pointed out that such guidance is not binding.

“What Trans kids need most is to be included and treated like any other kids of their gender identity,” said Mary Moore, President of PFLAG-Annapolis/Anne Arundel County. “The county executive is promoting fear of hypothetical situations which are ridiculous.  We see through this smoke screen for bigotry against the Trans community and the supportive, inclusive guidelines published by AACPS.”
Students have also pushed back against the county executive’s criticism of the guidelines. “We are offended that anyone could ever think that the contents of a child's ‘underroos’ constitutes a situation of concern or an appropriate topic of political discussion,” Scott Howarth, an Arundel High School student and president of the Chesapeake Regional Association of Student Councils, told the Board on September 7.

“We applaud the school system’s bravery in the face of controversy and gloominess to do the right thing, even if a noisy minority insists it’s not the popular thing to do,” Howarth said.   

Saturday, September 03, 2016

It Ain’t Over Till it’s Over!

Politics is like sports in so many ways.  We have seen a boxer glide through a match racking up wins each round only to let his guard down and be clocked by his opponent and knocked out in a later round.   #hocopolitics
In baseball recently, the Colorado Rockies were on the way to a three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers, pummeling the National League West leaders 7-1 and 8-0.  In the third game, the Rockies were up 8-2 going into the 8th inning.  They thought they had it nailed down.  The Dodgers had different ideas and scored 3 in the 8th and 5 in the 9th to pull out an astounding and unexpected 10-8 victory.

Of course, there have been thousands of other examples of come-from-ahead losses in sports as well as politics.  In Maryland, the 2014 gubernatorial race had the Lieutenant Governor, Democrat Anthony Brown, fresh off a decisive primary victory, and in this very blue state, his campaign felt it was a lock.
He took off a month after the June primary, employed a ridiculous campaign strategy, and elevated a little-known Republican who never held an elected office in his life to become a credible candidate.  The upshot was that many Democratic voters stayed home allowing Larry Hogan to win in shocking fashion, which impacted at least one key down ballot race.

The lesson in all this is never assume anything, never take anything for granted, work your butt off, and never let up.  Because as the great philosopher Yogi Berra famously said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Hillary Clinton, please pay attention.  You are giving the real impression, correct or not, that you are coasting and that could be costly—not only in terms of your losing your last shot to make history but by allowing the most unfit, dangerous, bigoted, ill-informed, erratic, insufferable, self-absorbed, unqualified con artist to take the reins of our nation.  So it is not just about you, Secretary Clinton. All of us who love our country have a stake in not allowing this man, Donald Trump, to ever become president.

Ever since the conventions, Trump as stolen most of the news. His campaign is the lead in most broadcasts when they move from weather disasters to politics.  That’s not always a good thing for him because of his numerous unforced errors of which many are cringe-worthy.
Nonetheless, he is giving the impression that he’s trying hard and making some inroads in polls as you have remained in the background.  Any news about you is tied to controversies over “those damn emails” and the Clinton Foundation entanglements with the State Department.

Of course, fundraising is crucial. By staying largely out of sight, however, you’re feeding into the ludicrous, fabricated narrative that you lack stamina and are in poor health.  Don’t let the Trump camp “swift boat” you on that one. 
To right the ship and to prevent an utter disaster, for what it’s worth, I have some suggestions for you and your campaign.

Be visible. You have the lowest favorability rating in your career and fortunately Trump is considered even less trustworthy.  It’s hard to repair such damage but engaging with the voters and presenting a positive rationale for your presidency could help. 
Also, hold a press conference or two.  They are making hay with a countdown of how many days you have gone since the last one.  Why should Trump be the only one to receive free media?

You’re a seasoned pol who has ably withstood tough questions from the press (and investigators).  By avoiding such encounters, it reinforces the trustworthiness problem.  This is an example of how being too cautious could backfire. Surely, if Trump is described as being “presidential” (by his own spinmeisters) just for ambling up to a podium, you can demonstrate your gravitas by taking on the media.   
Debate prep.  I understand that much of your time spent out of camera range has been devoted to preparing for the debates.  It’s a good idea to be ready as these confrontations will undoubtedly be the best chance for either candidate to seal the deal.

I do hope you’re not spending too much of your valuable time on policy. As we know, Trump is weak on all areas of policies and if pushed to deal with them, he will come off as a high schooler who didn’t do his homework.  You will clean his clock on all matters of policy because you are coherent and have deep knowledge in all facets.
However, this is not a policy election; it is a personality election. Many people who say they’re voting for Trump are doing so not because they like him, but they detest you.  The same goes for your supporters including high profile Republicans.  They will vote for you because they don’t want to see Trump as President.  This has more to do with the individuals involved and not so much differences in policy.

The one strategy that you are employing that is extremely effective is to continue to paint Trump as unfit to be commander-in-chief.  During the debates you should work on getting under Trump’s skin.  Senator Elizabeth Warren has been successful in that regard so you should consult with her.
Trapping Trump during the debates and plucking his nerves will play into your strategy.  He will be frustrated, and because he can’t control himself without a script, he will likely implode in front of tens of millions of voters.  You will then have several “there you go again” moments to reinforce his unfitness for office.

I realize your schedule will get busier on Labor Day and beyond and we will see more of you.  The election is too close for comfort to assume you will win.  A lot of things can happen between now and November that can change on a dime.  History has shown that it ain’t over till it’s over.
Therefore, my advice is to assume you are tied and go gangbusters to grab the win.  The country needs you to win. The world needs you to win. 

Good luck.

Friday, September 02, 2016

DOJ Report Spurs Baltimore Police LGBT Advisory Council

“In 2013, I was sitting on the steps on the 2000 block of Maryland Avenue drinking lemonade. A Baltimore police officer asked me where I lived and asked for ID, which wasn’t with me at the time.  She said that if I were lying she’d take me in.  She then asked my name and if it was an alias.  I asked the officer questions but she wouldn’t answer. The officer said that she was going to ride around the block and if I was still there, she’d take me in.”

Monica Yorkman, a black transwoman and activist, has told this story and others many times before.  The point of this account is that the police assume if one is a transwoman of color, she must be a prostitute. 
This lack of respect towards transgender individuals and the way police interact with this group was echoed in the Department of Justice (DOJ) report issued last month that heavily criticized the tactics of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD).

Yorkman, 62, related this incident to members of the Baltimore Police Commissioner’s LGBT Advisory Council on August 31 during a community listening session at Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse in Baltimore’s Station North neighborhood. The meeting was impelled by the findings in the DOJ report with the main goal for community members to speak directly to the Council regarding their concerns and ideas for improvement.
Co-chaired by Mark J. McLaurin and Laura DePalma, the Council posted on its new Facebook page announcing the meeting, “We will use information gathered from the community to better prepare the Commissioner and command staff to be responsive to the needs of the LGBTQ community.”

Within a week of the report’s release and prior to the listening session, the Council held an emergency meeting to discuss “how to use the findings of the report to enact systemic and cultural change within BPD. Of particular concern to all members were the specific findings with regards to intolerable policing practices and manifest insensitivity directed towards members of Baltimore’s transgender and gender non-conforming community.”

Monica Yorkman speaking at one of the vigils for the Orlando massacre
Photo: Bob Ford
Around 20 attended the listening session including members of the council and community with several, in addition to Yorkman, sharing personal stories describing encounters with BPD that indicated the police’s desire to exercise power and control.    
The session, facilitated by Associate Professor of Law Odeanna R. Neal of the University of Baltimore, was a far-ranging discussion that covered such topics as the impending consent decree being worked on by DOJ lawyers and Baltimore to bring about police reforms, potential obstacles by the Fraternal Order of Police, the composition of the civilian review board, building coalitions with other organizations, and leveraging lawmakers in Annapolis to exempt Baltimore City from statewide police policies.

The Advisory Council was formed in June 2013 under then Commissioner Anthony W. Batts.  Though the Council met regularly, information stemming from those meetings was scarce.  The revamped Council, spurred on by the DOJ report, intends to play a more active, transparent role in helping to bring about change.
Its mission is to: 1) improve police relations with LGBT residents and communities in Baltimore City with respect to courtesy, service, fair treatment and cultural sensitivity; and 2) improve the working environment for LGBT officers and professional staff with respect to opportunity, equity and morale.

The Commissioner appears to be a willing partner.  “Kevin Davis wants to work with the community,” said Shane Bagwell, a member of the Council and a representative of the State’s Attorney’s Office.  Others on the Council concurred.   
Besides McLaurin, DePalma (FreeState Justice) and Bagwell, the Council currently consists of the following:

Lamont Bryant and Gabrielle Mnkande (Star Track at UMD), Sgt. Kevin Bailey (BPD LGBT Liaison), Merrick Moise (State’s Attorney’s Office), Vann Michael Millhouse (Baltimore Trans-Masculine Alliance), and Carlton Smith (Center for Black Equity).
A town hall meeting will be set up with Commissioner Davis and appropriate command staff in the near future.  It will afford an opportunity for community members to speak to leadership on what must be done moving forward to mend the Department’s relationship with the community.

The Council can be emailed directly at bpdlgbt@gmail.com. to bring to the attention instances of police misconduct or to provide constructive feedback on the Council's work.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Gay Businessman Coping with Losses From Ellicott City Flood

Sam Coyne helping other shop owners in the aftermath of the flood.
Photo: Sally Fox Tennant
Sam Coyne and his husband Josh Haupt were heading to their nearby home just as record-breaking amounts of rain began to deluge Ellicott City’s historic Main Street on July 30. 
Coyne, the owner of Craig Coyne Jewelers, was notified by his alarm company that his store had been flooded.  The business, which he started nearly 17 years ago in Ellicott City, was moved to a new location in 2014 at 8133 Main St. in a renovated historic stone building with Wedgwood blue doors, trimming, and flower pots on the exterior.
The couple, who were married last fall in Ellicott City, immediately turned back and ran down to help people.  “There was screaming and sparks, the smell of gas and refuse,” Coyne said.  “We were able to help three women, three dogs and a cat, which we feel really good about.”

Only recently was Coyne permitted to return to the store and assess the damage.  Before that, his access was limited.  #hococommunity
“Our building is one of the original stone structures in town and while tiny, it is made finely of granite mined in the hills of the town we call home,” he says.  “A small wooden addition and a small deck on the backside we think cannot be salvaged.  All showcases, glass, windows, doors, flooring and ceiling are in need of extensive repair or replacement.”
Customer jewelry had been secured in a 3,000 pound vault that is now standing upright on a layer of mud.  The jewelry contained in showcases is a different matter. 

Recently, Coyne was able to retrieve security footage from his store that dramatically reveals the onset of the flooding and the interior damage that resulted. The video was shown on WBAL-TV. 
Last Tuesday, Coyne and Haupt, who is also his business partner, met with the insurance inspector and structural engineer.  “The building's foundation is not damaged,” Coyne says.  “The entire first level will be gutted including the floor rafters, flooring, walls and ceiling.”

Sam Coyne
Howard County government is not allowing any private companies to do work until about September 16.  Public Utilities are shoring up everything first. Work at individual properties cannot begin until after the street is opened, according to Coyne.
They are taking a direct financial hit from this flood. “Our secondary insurance coverage is not paying, saying, ‘The first occurrence must be an insurable event before secondary coverage begins.’  So all the jewelry that washed away, the display, glass, lighting, showcases, gem equipment, computers, security system, vault, jeweler’s tools, etc. come with a direct cost to us.  We are approaching $500,000 in loss.  Our big question, raise the money to rebuild or raise the money to move on.”

To help pay for Coyne’s losses, Lori Gadola of Kelim Jewelry, launched a GoFundMe page.
“We are now questioning the economic viability of Historic Ellicott City,” Coyne muses.  “Without any answers we are unable to move forward so we continue to pay all our expenses hoping to survive until the town can be rebuilt.”