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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

A look back at my work with the LGBTQ community. I first became active in the gay rights movement in 1980 when I launched my LGBTQ jo...

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Morella Spins a Spirited ‘Christmas Carol’ at Olney

Paul Morella

There is no shortage of Christmastime traditions: Santa Clause, gift-giving, Christmas trees, caroling, eggnog, wreaths, poinsettias, and parties, just to name a few. There is still another tradition: Paul Morella performing his one-man show, A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas at the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at the Olney Theatre Center. #hocoarts

Celebrating his 10th anniversary of staging this unique presentation at Olney, Mr. Morella, who adapted the Dickens classic, seems to always add a fresh layer to his performance. In this version there is more of a ghostly theme and a more in-depth exploration of the characters. #hocoarts

Any accomplished actor will tell you that playing a role is not simply memorizing lines from a script and following the play’s director. One needs to conduct research and delve into the character’s qualities and persona and for a couple of hours lose one’s own identity and virtually become that character. 

In a tour-de-force, multiple Helen Hayes Award nominee and Olney stage veteran Paul Morella does exactly that.  Except there is a major difference: he does not portray a singular character; he plays dozens of characters in this heartwarming, imaginative adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic novella A Christmas Carol.  And for good measure, Mr. Morella directs his own performance.

Mr. Morella’s hand in this one-man show stretches out from not only performing the myriad roles but is also the theater’s usher welcoming audience members with a warm smile and handshake.  Prior to the presentation Mr. Morella advises the audience that he is not to be seen as an actor performing this play but instead a “guide” to the story whereby the audience is urged to let their imagination run free. He is too modest, however, as Mr. Morella conducts an acting clinic and turns in a virtuoso performance as a storyteller that indeed provokes the audience to imagine.

Surrounded by an assortment of early Victorian furnishings on the cozy stage including a period desk, chairs, fireplace, Persian rugs; a scattering of clocks, books, candles. spectacles and the like, Mr. Morella spins the fabled yarn that centers on the miserly-turned-loveable Ebenezer Scrooge (Bah! Humbug!) who finds redemption and becomes an admirable chap at play’s end.

As the sole performer Mr. Morella recites Dickens’ prose as they were intended, and Dickens, at times, actually performed the novella by himself.  Therefore, along with the charming set that also displays a foggy vapor at various points in the story, there is a great deal of historical authenticity that enriches the experience. 

"Mr. Morella conducts an acting clinic and turns in a virtuoso performance as a storyteller..."

Adding to the genuineness, many of the characters’ good attributes as well as shortcomings in A Christmas Carol related in some manner to Dickens’ own life’s experiences that included struggling to make ends meet.  Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas Eve to Christmas Day evolution from when he began as a mean, arrogant and friendless soul to one that ended up as a caring, generous human being embodies the true meaning of the Christmas holiday spirit.

This extraordinary transformation in Scrooge’s personality was accomplished through the eerie appearance of the ghost of Scrooge’s late partner Jacob Marley followed by the nocturnal visits from three other ghosts: one representing Christmas Past, one from Christmas Present and one from Christmas Future.  These ghosts pointed out Scrooge’s failures, the effects of his actions, and the consequences that could occur in the future.

Besides narrating the story as Dickens, Mr. Morella deftly switches characters with amazing fluidity using all the acting tools in the toolbox.  He accomplishes this competently not with tedious wardrobe changes but with voice inflections, facial expressions, gestures and mannerisms unique to each character.  Mr. Morella is in constant motion on the stage as he relates the story.

At one moment he is Scrooge and then he seamlessly switches to either Bob Crachit, Tiny Tim, each of the three ghosts and a host of other characters including females and children.  When reverting back to Scrooge or another character, there is solid consistency.

Adding substantial texture to the play is Edward Moser’s excellent sound design that creates echoes when the ghosts speak, the ringing of church bells, folks laughing in the background, cats scratching on a door as well as other effects.  Sonya Dowhaluk’s superb lighting design contributes to the gothic atmosphere by employing light fades and keeping the stage illuminated at a subdued level (but not too low) to simulate candlelight. Patrick W. Lord is the Projection Designer, and Josiane M. Jones skillfully directs the overall production.

Mr. Morella’s ability to tell this classic story is captivating and is theatre at its best.  This would make a great pre-holiday gift or a stocking stuffer for anyone who loves theatre and appreciates the skills of a superb actor (and guide and usher).
____________

Running time: Two hours with an intermission.

A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas runs through December 29 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. 

Performances are Thursday-Saturday evenings at 7:45 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3:00 pm. There are additional performances on Wednesday, December 18 at 3:00 p.m. at 7:45 p.m., Monday, December 23 at 3:00 p.m. and 7:45 p.m., Tuesday, December 24 at 3:00 p.m., and Thursday, December 26 at 3:00 p.m. No performances on December 4 & 5, Wednesday, December 11 and Wednesday, December 25. No evening performance on Wednesday, December 26.

Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 301-924-2654 or visiting online .

Photos: Teresa Castracane Photography

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road


A look back at my work with the LGBTQ community.

I first became active in the gay rights movement in 1980 when I launched my LGBTQ journalism career. It was very clear to me that religion-inspired discrimination was not the only problem facing our community. That and the prevalence of hatred, violence and marginalization that exist even today got my attention.

While considerable progress was achieved over these four decades, much work still needs to be done regarding such areas as LGBTQ-related suicides, bullying of LGBTQ youth, foster care injustices, LGBTQ youth homelessness, violence directed at transgender individuals and other members of our community, discrimination against and harassment of the aging LGBTQ population, combating HIV/AIDS, among other issues.

Then there are problems stemming from inside the community. Racism is a significant concern. Divisions within the LGBTQ components are also palpable. I’ve always maintained and still do that we can never advance unless we are united. That is our number one challenge as we face a hostile president, a hostile vice president, a hostile attorney general, virtually all Republican members of Congress and potentially a hostile U.S. Supreme Court. 

Another challenge impeding progress has been a prevailing degree of apathy within our own community. My mission has been to educate those who are apathetic so that they understand the issues that affect them and help motivate these folks to be more engaged. Those who were and are currently active in these efforts still need to be informed so that they can be more effective in their activism.

Moreover, I have endeavored to shed light on those topics that have been relegated to the background, not covered in the mainstream media and not apparent to the average LGBTQ individual. 

I took on this journey for little or no monetary compensation to engage our community as well as our straight counterparts through Journalism, Activism and Education.  These areas are discussed below.

JOURNALISM
Over these four decades I had written well over 2,000 articles covering a wide swath of subjects
Fromer Equality Maryland Executive Director
Dan Furmansky addressing media outside Maryland Court
of Appeals following arguments on marriage equality
including hard news, commentary, the gut-wrenching struggle for marriage equality and transgender rights, politics all levels, a host of rallies and demonstrations, the all-too-sad vigils for fallen members of our community, culture, books, theatre, art, television, sports, travel, antiques and other areas as they pertain to or of special interest to members of our community.

I was an editor of the Baltimore Gay Paper, a subsidiary of the then Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore (now called The Pride Center of Maryland), and co-chair of the Newspaper Committee. Later, I became the Senior Political Analyst, Managing Editor and Local News Editor for Baltimore OUTloud. For a decade I was an opinion writer and ultimately wrote a weekly summary of LGBTQ news involving Baltimore and its surrounding suburbs for the Washington Blade—the oldest LGBTQ newspaper in the country and considered by many as “the paper of record.” I also provided a local news summary to Gay Life prior to its cessation.

Through this period I was an eyewitness to many of the significant developments with respect to LGBTQ matters—good and bad—on the national and local scenes. I spotlighted individuals and LGBTQ organizations that were instrumental in the growth of our community and who did good deeds. 

I have written about the unique issues facing bisexual individuals who rightly feel left behind. Accordingly,  I tried to publicize support groups that service the bisexual community. 

I also attempted to hold individuals and organizations accountable through my opinion-oriented OUTspoken column that was initiated while at Baltimore OUTloud and continues on this blog  today. My belief is that if organizations seek donations from our community, its leaders and governing bodies must be held accountable as to the manner in which resources are spent and safeguarded. At the same time, I made every effort to publicize and promote these organizations’ fundraisers, events and programs believing that the success of LGBTQ organizations only strengthens our community.

Sen President Mike Miller, Governor Martin O'Malley
and House of Delegates Speaker Michel Busch
at historic signing of marriage equality into law
While I covered the standard LGBTQ news, such as crime, gay bar openings and closings, many local Pride celebrations, key legislation at the national, state and local levels, dozens of published interviews of LGBTQ leaders and personalities as well as other newsworthy developments, I also reported on and written stories that I believe produced tangible, consequential results.

Examples:

♦ There was a story on three members of the Maryland House of Delegates who backed an amendment to the state constitution that would bar same-sex marriage. That by itself is not shocking. However, these three represented a district that includes Charles Village and surrounding neighborhoods that comprise the highest density of LGBTQ persons in the state, and their opposition was largely unknown to their LGBTQ constituents. 

One of these delegates, through an on-the-record interview with me, cited religious beliefs. Another claimed “gays were never helpful to me.” When the story was published on the front page of Baltimore OUTloud, I was told that their offices received a high volume of calls complaining about their stances. While one passed away prior to the legislature taking up marriage equality, the other two reversed their positions.

♦ Another story titled “Bodies for Bucks” focused on the police crackdown on male prostitutes and their “johns” in the Patterson Park area of Baltimore. With the help of a local attorney, I emphasized the legal jeopardy and physical dangers posed by this activity. Eventually, the hustling scene abated in this area and relationships between gays and the principal local community association improved significantly.

♦ In an investigative report, I had written about the homelessness crisis in Baltimore involving LGBTQ individuals. This group constituted a disproportionate share of the overall homeless and runaway population in the city with transgender individuals comprising an even more disproportionate share. 

The physical safety and health of these individuals are at risk as is the need to engage in criminal activity just to survive while the exposure to being victims of crime increased. This story may have had an indirect impact on the eventual establishment by AIRS/HOME of an apartment facility called Restoration Gardens in northwest Baltimore that houses homeless LGBTQ individuals.

Byron Macfarlane, first out LGBT to be elected in
Howard County, being sworn in as Register of Wills
♦ Then there were stories concerning open LGBT individuals who were running for office. Principal among these were Mary Washington who is now a State Senator and is a candidate for Mayor of Baltimore and was the first openly LGBT African-American elected official in Maryland and only the second such state legislator in the country; Luke Clippinger who is a State Delegate; and Byron Macfarlane who, when elected as Howard County Register of Wills, became the first openly LGBTQ person to be elected in Howard County.

Each of these was profiled in front page coverage of their nascent candidacies in Baltimore OUTloud and have acknowledged that the stories helped galvanize support, monetary contributions and volunteers from our community for their ultimately successful campaigns. 

♦ Another was the revelation that the Harford County public school system in 2010 blocked LGBT websites from the schools’ computers. Public outrage resulting from this article led to the school board backing down.

♦ A report for the Washington Blade indicated that two individuals were attacked and robbed by a person using Grindr to lure them to a particular location in Baltimore. The article served notice to users of Grindr to be extra cautious in arranging liaisons.

♦ More recently and over a two year period, I wrote a half dozen articles on the emergence and progress of the first Pride celebration to take place in Howard County (HoCo Pride) as well as a media advisory and press release while being a member of the Pride Planning Committee. Clearly, the surprisingly large attendance at the first such event in 2019 was boosted by the publicity gained by these articles.

Other Highlights:

♦ Covering the historic signing ceremony in Annapolis after the bill legalizing same-sex marriage was passed the Maryland State General Assembly.

♦ Covering the first ever legal same-sex marriages in the state that took place in Baltimore City Hall.

♦ There was my story, also published in Outsports.com, about former Duke University basketball star JJ Reddick who was erroneously perceived as gay by some fans and how he, a devout Christian, handled that pressure.

The first legal same-sex marriages officiated at City Hall
on New Year's Day 2013
♦ Covering the announcement of the closing of Baltimore’s iconic gay bar, the Club Hippo, as well as reporting on the establishment’s final events.

♦ Conducting an exclusive interview of a bartender who was on duty the night the Stonewall Inn was raided and whose account comports with more recent historical research.

♦ Breaking a story of an incident that took place in M&T Banks Stadium at a Ravens game in 2010 where two lesbians were ejected from the stadium because of what they believe was a result of kissing. The official explanation from security hired by the Ravens’ organization was that one of the members of the couple was accused of pilfering an empty paper cup at a concession stand. This explanation defied credulity, and the story received wide local and even national media attention.

♦ Writing about the emergence of a new LGBTQ community center in Frederick, Md. called The Frederick Center and highlighting its mission and how well the group is organized. While TFC does not have a dedicated physical space for their operations, they have managed to provide key programs for the LGBTQ community in and around Frederick and have demonstrated exceptional partnering with business leaders and government officials on many projects and goals.

♦ Exclusive coverage of several BMore Proud Leadership conferences whereby LGBTQ college students and allies from the Baltimore area convene to participate in workshops, listen to addresses by leaders and discuss common issues.

ACTIVISM
A prevailing rule is that either you are a journalist or an activist but you can’t be both. I ignored this rule as the times and issues dictated that direct action must be taken. There is no substitute for being on the front lines to fight for a cause.

Most of my activism occurred along with my partner who eventually became my spouse as member
Participating in demonstration against homophobic
Westboro Baptist Church who was protesting near
Towson University
s of the PFLAG-Howard County chapter. While I was the chapter’s media coordinator and a member of the Steering Committee for several years, we were also members of the organization’s Advocacy Committee. My efforts focused largely on the quest to achieve marriage equality and codifying protections based on gender identity in Maryland.

Members of this committee engaged in discussions with local elected officials from both political parties. We told our stories and explained why marriage equality will not undermine the institution of marriage; in fact, it would strengthen it. Many of these politicians were sympathetic to the cause in that their hearts were with us, but some were hesitant because of the potential political risk it may cause. This was explicitly apparent during a one-on-one meeting I had with a U.S. Representative.

Over time, and as we continued to share our stories and make strong arguments, most came around, and some emerged as strong vocal advocates. We were most appreciative of their evolution.
To bolster this effort, I participated in and covered just about all of the Lobby Day rallies and discussions with lawmakers in Annapolis that were organized by Equality Maryland.

Appearing on the late Dennis Lane's (l.) podcast
I had testified on marriage equality before the Howard County delegation during a hearing on pending bills in the General Assembly and testified at a House of Delegates committee hearing on the same subject. I also appeared on a local podcast in 2011 hosted by the late Dennis Lane extolling the virtues of marriage equality just prior to a new General Assembly that was about to begin.

During the period the law that legalized same-sex marriage was challenged by a referendum, I participated in numerous rallies, fundraisers and events, most notably in an effort called the “Light Brigade.” This is where a bunch of us—mostly PFLAG members and supporters—held up lit panels with each representing a letter to spell out messages like “Vote Yes on (Question) 6” at overpasses and intersections in various areas of Maryland.

Still believing that the pen is mightier than the sword, I have written numerous letters to the editor on a variety of subjects related to the LGBTQ community. They were published in the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier, the City Paper, the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, USA Today, and TIME.  In addition, I wrote articles for The Business Monthly that highlighted the work of PFLAG.

Presenting at BMore Proud Conference at JHU
I served on the previous County Executive’s LGBTQ Round Table and represented the LGBTQ community in the #OneHoward committee. In the latter capacity, I analyzed the county’s Master Aging Plan noting the absence of LGBTQ-specific issues regarding the aging population and, accordingly, no remedies to deal with those concerns.

EDUCATION
My involvement with PFLAG has enabled me to help educate the community through coordinating a variety of programs for the chapter’s general monthly meetings. Among those I coordinated or led included a panel discussion on the intersection of Black and Gay; talks by the editors of the Washington Blade;  a panel on “Expanding Rainbow Families; a discussion on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’; Authors Night whereby LGBT authors discussed their latest works; and a panel on LGBT Homelessness.

As a member of PFLAG’s Speakers Bureau, I made presentations at Howard County government Diversity Day events, spoke at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, and spoke to employees at the Carroll County Times.  

I represented PFLAG at the GLSEN Youth Summit in Towson and the Howard County Leadership U, the Youth Development Coalition, Employment Day at Oakland Mills H.S. and Breaking the Silence Youth Summit.

Other speaking events:

♦ Addressed National Honor Society  students at a River Hill H.S. and students at Centennial H.S. on Diversity Day.

♦ Spoke at Baltimore City Community College, which was hosting a conference of statewide human resources managers.

Presenting at the GLSEN Youth Summit
♦ Made a presentation to Baltimore City 9th grade history teachers at a diversity conference at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

♦ Participated with Equality Maryland staff to educate WMAR personnel on acceptable terminology in covering LGBT news.

♦ Appeared on a BlogTalkRadio program,

♦ On multiple occasions spoke before the Prime Timers of Baltimore.

♦ Presented at several collegiate BMore Proud conferences at Johns Hopkins University, U.M.B.C. and Stevenson University principally on the topic of how best to utilize the media to advocate on issues of interest and the role of and need for the LGBTQ press.

♦ Participated on numerous panels on LGBTQ issues. 

_______________________

My journey down the rainbow road has been, like most roads, smooth at times but also fraught with obstacles, potholes and detours. It has been worth it, however, and the main constant has been that my husband Bob Ford has been by my side with unrelenting support and attempted, with varying degrees of success, to keep me out of trouble. The journey continues.

________________________

As a postscript, I want to point out that I have written non-LGBTQ articles for other publications and sites.  They include:

♦ Writing about antiques in The Jeffersonian.

♦ Writing on a variety of subjects in The Business Monthly, such as eco-friendly and "green" building construction in Howard County,  the advent of women entrepreneurs, the emerging attention to financial literacy and others.

♦ Political commentary in JMore Magazine.  

♦ Theatre reviews for MD Theatre Guide, DC Theatre Scene and this blog.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

‘A Christmas Story’ at Toby’s Takes You Back


As you are aware, the moment we pass Labor Day we are on a fast track to the Christmas season. The charming A Christmas Story, The Musical, now playing at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, ushers in the final leg of this race to the magical date. #hocoarts

A Christmas Story, however, is as much about nostalgia as it is about Christmas. Sure, there is the hilarious Santa scene in a department store complete with elves and eager kids plopping on Santa’s lap to share their hopes for presents. Yes, the story centers on a nine year-old boy longing for a particular Christmas gift as if his life depended on it. And, for good measure, there is the final scene at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve where the waitress sings a Christmas carol.

Yet, through dialogue and lyrics contained in the musical, the picture of a simpler time, not necessarily better, but definitely simpler, comes across loud and clear from the action that takes place in Hohman, Indiana during December 1940.  The central family of the show—the Parkers—is traditional by those standards with the patriarchal father, a stay-at-home mother and two small kids.

Venerable messages like don’t run while holding scissors; never use a cuss word; a BB gun will shoot your eye out; the notorious triple-dog-dare is the ultimate attempt to coerce someone to do something involuntarily; and teachers imploring students to mind their punctuation, conjugation and stay within the margins flow throughout the story.

This wonderfully staged, well-cast and fast-paced production under the meticulous direction of Shawn Kettering and choreographed so ably by Mark Minnick and Tina Marie Desimone is a sparkling snow globe full of enchantment, sweetness, eye-watering humor, pleasing songs and an abundance of talent to make your Christmas season bright.  It couldn’t come at a better time.

Toby’s spared no expense in providing a plethora of props and sizable set pieces to create the atmosphere of Christmas season in 1940 Indiana. David A. Hopkins, who designed the superbly effective lighting sequences, created a lovely set with lit painted panels on the upper walls of the theater depicting neighborhood houses in the winter and assorted Christmas lights and other decorations to augment the ambiance.

Under Mr. Kettering’s direction, the cast members efficiently moved these set pieces, such as living room furniture, school classroom desks and even a car to seamlessly effect scene changes. Despite the cozy nature of Toby’s in-the-round stage, this production played large utilizing all available space including the upper level where the Parker kids’ bedroom is located.

Adding to the technical success of the production, Mark Smedley’s sound design is crystal clear, and A.T. Jones designed perfectly classic period costumes. Nathan Scavilla conducted the able six-piece orchestra directed by Ross Scott Rawlings.

Based on the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, the musical adaptation, which premiered on Broadway in 2012, earned several Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Circle nominations.  The duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul crafted the music and lyrics, and the book was penned by Joseph Robinette based on the writings of radio humorist Jean Shepherd as well as the film.

The story of young Ralphie Parker’s determined quest to receive the only gift he wants—an official Red Ryder BB gun—is as endearing as it is comical. This zany saga is packed with mishaps, disappointments, and fulfillment throughout. 

You have this tawdry lady’s leg lamp that was won by Ralphie’s father (The Old Man, played by Jeffrey Shankle) in a contest, which he is so proud and protecting of but Ralphie’s Mother (Heather Beck) deplores.  You have bullies, who if they push the right buttons, can be beaten up themselves. There are flying lug nuts and a wayward cuss word that results in a bar of soap snack.  You have neighbors’ hounds running amok through the Parkers’ yard and house and devouring their Christmas turkey. 

"...a sparkling snow globe full of enchantment...to make your Christmas season bright."
There is a cranky and increasingly intoxicated Santa (Russell Sunday) who frightens the children more than giving them Christmas joy.  A down-to-earth teacher (Jessica Bennett) breaks out of character to perform a stunning dance number in a glitzy red gown. You have a tongue freezing on a flagpole incident resulting from the dreaded triple-dog-dare.   

Regardless of who Ralphie encounters to lobby for this special rifle, whether it is his mother; his old man, his teacher Miss Shields, even Santa, Ralphie is told one thing: “You’ll shoot your eye out.”

David Bosley-Reynolds does a truly splendid job as the now deep voice of Jean Shepherd, narrating the often hilarious story in the first person as a grown-up Ralphie with an onstage, non-intrusive presence throughout the production.  He recalls and shares the younger Ralphie’s thoughts as the boy navigates through each caper. His closing soliloquy about love is touching. This is a terrific device and makes the show click.

As the central character, bespectacled Ralphie, played by Evan Christy for the performance this production was reviewed, performs proficiently with his acting and comedic skills, timing very strong vocals and dancing.  He is particularly adept in one of the show’s highlight production numbers, the frenetic “Ralphie to the Rescue!” whereby he imagines he’s a cowboy using his rifle to thwart bank robbers and assorted other scoundrels.

The remainder of his family unit is also appealing exuding its Midwestern charm.  Jeffrey Shankle as The Old Man is spot-on and delivers an outstanding performance as he always does in Toby’s productions.  The father is strict with his children and cursing is verboten (except when he does it).  A hardworking man who exasperatingly receives bills on a daily basis and struggles with the house’s furnace and his Olds, he found a degree of satisfaction and solace in winning that lady’s leg lamp.  Gruff as he may be at times, you still root for him, thanks to the performance of Mr. Shankle.

His best songs are “The Genius on Cleveland Street,” a duet with Heather Beck and “A Major Award,” a phenomenal dance number that evolves into a clever can-can with he and the ensemble dancing with lady legs lamps.   

Heather Beck as Ralphie’s sweet mother is the perfect counterpoint for her husband.  She is the sensible one of the two and protective of her children.  Ms. Beck’s rendition of “What a Mother Does” is moving with her gorgeous voice in typically great form.

For this performance, Sonny Huza adorably plays Ralphie’s timid younger brother Randy who is averse to eating unless he mimics a pig at a trough.   He, too, performs admirably in several of the dance sequences.

Jessica Bennett in the role of the teacher Miss Shields shines, and other youngsters in the ensemble are flawless tap dancers in “You’ll Shoot You’re Eyes Out.”  

About those kids. The young performers who appeared in this production are outstanding and offer a glimpse into their potential in musical theatre.  I have no doubt that the alternative bunch will be as skillful. One of the numbers in which they excel is the one I can identify with most, “When You’re a Wimp.”

A special shout-out goes to Jack Patterson who plays the town bully Scut Farkas for his acting abilities and stage presence. But he also shines as a solid tap dancer in that “You’ll Shoot Your Eyes Out” number earning thunderous applause from the audience.  His future in musical theatre, should he pursue it, looks very bright.

Other members of the talented cast and ensemble for this performance include: Nia Savoy, Justin Calhoun, Coby Kay Callahan, Sylvern Groomes, Jr., A.J. Whittenberger, David James, Gavin Lapasone, Cato Huza, Sadie Herman, Mira Cohen, Samaira Hammond, Katherine Ford, Cooper Trump, Santina Maiolatesi, Patricia Targete and Morganne Chu.

Those not in this reviewed performance include: John Poncy, Jezrael Agbor, Patrick Ford, Erin Cobbler, Jaxon Keller, Carly Greaver, Jonathan Mackrell, Sophia Manicone and James LaManna.

A Christmas Story, The Musical is a production that runs on all cylinders.  It has all the elements needed to bring holiday cheer and pure enjoyment and a nostalgic glimpse into the past with its talented cast and crew under masterful direction.  

So the question you may ask, what’s so great about a show about a kid desiring a BB-gun for Christmas?  The answer: everything.  Tickets to this show would make an even better Christmas present without the risk of shooting your eye out.

Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

A Christmas Story, The Musical runs through January 5 at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311 or visiting online

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography

Monday, November 18, 2019

Del. Terri Hill Announces Candidacy for Maryland’s 7th Congressional District



Delegate and Physician will run for Elijah Cummings’ seat in special election.

Del. Terri Hill   Photo: FriendsofTerriHill.org
State Delegate Terri Hill, M.D. announced on November 18 that she will run in the Democratic primary for the open seat in Maryland’s 7th Congressional District, which is comprised of parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County. Hill, a 50-year Howard County resident and plastic and reconstructive surgeon, has practiced in the Baltimore metro area for almost 30 years. Having been first elected to the House of Delegates in 2014, she represents Legislative District 12, which largely includes sections of Baltimore and Howard Counties lying within the 7th Congressional District.

Hill, a public school graduate, received her degree in bioelectric engineering from Harvard University and medical degree from Columbia College of Physicians Surgeons. She returned home to set up her medical practice and small business.

“Ensuring that every child has the opportunity to succeed, that everyone has access to good healthcare and every woman has autonomy over her own healthcare and that every worker receives a sustainable wage is central to my vision for the people of Maryland 7th Congressional District,” Hill said in a statement. “I understand the importance of opportunity and how it can change lives.”

Dr. Hill serves on the Health and Government Operations Committee, but her legislative successes extend to education, the environment and improving the lives of the underserved. In the 2019 Legislative Session, Delegate Hill introduced successful legislation that included improving access to prescription drugs for patients with chronic illnesses, creating programs and funding mechanisms to assist seniors wishing to age in place, providing access to HIV prevention medication to minors and ensuring better public and jurisdictional notice of contaminated rivers.

“I am uniquely qualified to represent this community in Congress,” says Hill. “Decades of clinical experience have made me an effective listener, problem solver and advocate and given me a much-needed perspective on how policies and actions impact people at the point of delivery.”

The issues, which propelled Hill to seek public office, have only intensified at the national level. In an era of growing skepticism and increasing threats to our democratic institutions, Dr. Hill’s thoughtful approach prioritizes basic American values that respect fairness, equality and human dignity. It’s more critical than ever that a voice of her experience, passion and relevance be part of the conversation.  #hocopolitics

For more information about Terri Hill’s campaign, visit TerriHillforCongress.com.

Friday, November 15, 2019

‘Aladdin’ Brings Disney Magic to the Hippodrome


If the chilly air of Baltimore in November gets you down, I will grant you three wishes to help perk things up. Among those wishes should be, “I want to see Aladdin at the Hippodrome.”

In a dazzling, glitzy spectacle, the national touring musical Aladdin, under the auspices of Disney Theatrical Productions and directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, has set up shop at the Hippodrome Theatre.  The production shines like no other.

Some may believe that Aladdin is just for kids, but their parents and other adults who are young at heart will sure to be taken in as well.  The musical, which is one of the highest grossing productions in Broadway history, is based on the extremely popular 1992 animated film by the same name. With the book by Chad Beguelin, music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Beguelin, Aladdin is an entertainment bonanza.

If the name Alan Menken sounds familiar, the multiple Oscar winning composer scored a number of Disney hit movies besides Aladdin, such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Pocahontas.  In addition, he composed the score for popular musicals like Newsies, The Little Shop of Horrors, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules among others.

Kaenaonalani Kekoa and Jonah Ho'okano on a magic carpet ride

The familiar fairy tale story is brimming with fantasy and enchantment regarding a handsome and poor street thief in the fictional Middle Eastern kingdom of Agrabah who, with the help from an oddball and comical genie and his magic lamp, fights off the bad guys and wins the heart of a beautiful princess. The good folks live happily ever after; the villains, not so much.

Visually, there is an abundance of eye-popping special effects, incredibly gorgeous and colorful costumes (designed by Gregg Barnes); exceptional lighting displays that bathe the stage in every color of the spectrum (Natasha Katz); majestic scenery and props (Bob Crowley) with all the baubles, bangles and beads one could muster; and spirited and precise production numbers performed by a talented and attractive cast. 
#hocoarts
From a sound perspective, Aladdin also excels. Music Director/Conductor Brent-Alan Huffman and the sizable orchestra ably support the talented vocalists without overwhelming them. Ken Travis’ sound design assures that every spoken word and sung lyric is crystal clear throughout the production. Special sound techniques provide the right atmosphere for spooky voices and other effects.

And on top of all that there is a prodigious amount of shtick in the dialogue and in some songs’ lyrics. I mean Marx Brothers-type shtick. Puns abound, maybe a bit too much of it, but it keeps the audience laughing throughout. I’m not sure all of the young ones get some of the jokes but, hey, the adults enjoy them and they buy the tickets.  One thing is for sure: there is never a dull moment in this production.
"...a dazzling, glitzy spectacle..."
Aladdin contains many wonderful moments and of these, there are two of epoch proportions. One is the amazing production number at the end of the first act, “Friend Like Me.” It’s an astoundingly entertaining experience that takes place in the sparkling, gilded and opulent Cave of Wonders featuring the Genie played superlatively by Korie Lee Blossey, Aladdin, exceptionally played by Jonah Ho’okano, and the easy-on-the-eyes Ensemble.
"Friend Like Me"

Another highlight is an enchanting romantic scene that occurs in the second act in which Jonah Ho’okano and Kaenaonalani Kekoa, who plays the desirable Princess Jasmine, soar over the stage on a magic carpet singing the gorgeous duet, Oscar and Grammy award-winning hit “A Whole New World.”

The jaw-dropping costumes designed by Tony-nominated Gregg Barnes are a sight to behold. Brilliantly-hued lavish silky gowns adorn the women cast members in most scenes while unbuttoned vests and pastel harem pants form the main attire for many of the men in the cast.  And if you enjoy seeing buff guys in outfits like these, that could be one of your fulfilled wishes.

As the loveable and good-hearted title character, Jonah Ho’okano shines.  It’s a grueling part as he is onstage for virtually all of the production—singing, dancing, acting, constantly in motion—and he excels throughout. His vocals are top-notch in “Proud of Your Boy,”  “A Million Miles Away” and the aforementioned “A Whole New World” with Kaenaonalani Kekoa. Both performers display strong chemistry during their scenes adding to the endearment of the show.

For her part, the lovely Ms. Kekoa as Jasmine who is tired of being pressured into marrying a suitor she does not want, displays beautiful vocals in the ballad, “These Palace Walls.”

Korie Lee Blossey as Genie turns in a tour-de-force performance. Genie is a fast-talking, high-energy acrobatic, ancient dude, relegated to living in his lamp where he yearns for freedom. Comical and improvisational at times, Mr. Blossey delivers in high-octane form. His vocals soar in “Arabian Nights,” the blockbuster number “Friends Like Me,” and “Somebody’s Got Your Back.” Like Mr. Ho’okano, he is a major factor in the success of this production.

Speaking of on-stage chemistry, Jonathan Weir as the antagonist Jafar, the mean-spirited, conniving, deep-voiced advisor to the Sultan (Jerald Vincent) and Reggie De Leon as Iago, Jafar’s obedient sycophant, form a hilarious comedy one-two punch. 

Though the Jafar character is humorless,  Mr. Weir sets up Mr. De leon perfectly leading to laughs. Many of the puns and punchlines in the show come from  Mr. De Leon and are spot-on in terms of timing and delivery.  In addition, Mr. Weir demonstrates his strong baritone in “Prince Ali.”

Jonah Ho’okano as Aladdin
Then there are Aladdin’s good buddies and fellow street rats: food-obsessed Babkak (played by Zach Bencal), nervous Omar (Ben Chavez), and swole tough guy Kaseem (Colt Prattes). So glad that Mr. Prattes and many of his co-performers located gyms along the tour. Oy!

The trio along with Mr. Ho’okano dance and sing proficiently and are outstanding in the aptly titled “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim,” “High Adventure” and “Somebody’s Got Your Back” with Mr. Blossey.

Jerald Vincent does a fine job as the widowed, old-school Sultan, the ruler of Agrabah and Jasmine’s father. His one song, “Prince Ali,” is performed well.

Erik Hernandez as the Shop Owner, Bobby Daye as Razoul, Cameron Hobbs and Albert Jennings as Henchmen, Albert Jennings for the performance reviewed as Prince Abdullah, and Keisha Gilles as Fortune Teller perform proficiently.

The  singing and dancing from the Ensemble are amazing and full of energy. A special shout-out to Max B. Ehrlich, who returns to the Hippodrome following a wonderful performance in Mamma Mia!

An animated film such as Aladdin often features a palette of splashy colors and dazzling images. It’s a challenge to replicate that on a theater stage. This production, under the direction of Casey Nicholaw and an amazingly creative and innovative technical crew with a talented cast did just that.

Fulfill one of your wishes and go see this awesome show at the Hippodrome, but hurry, it closes a few days after Thanksgiving.

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

Aladdin runs through December 1 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit Ticketmaster.com, BaltimoreHippodrome.com, call 800-982-ARTS, or visit the Hippodrome Box Office located at 12 N Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.



Photos: Deen van Meer

Friday, November 08, 2019

County Executive Calvin Ball Establishes LGBTQ+ Work Group

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball

On November 1, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball signed an Executive Order to create a LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer+) Work Group to promote the shared community values of diversity and civility. The Work Group will work with County agencies, non-profit organizations, and other community groups to facilitate an environment of inclusion, communication, understanding, and respect throughout Howard County. #hococommunity

“Our vision is to ensure that every person in Howard County, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation, can live with dignity, be unapologetically proud, and feel totally safe in our community. Our LGBTQ+ Work Group will work to eliminate discrimination, promote inclusion, and make sure that our government supports all our residents,” said Ball.

“We were so proud to hold Howard County’s first PRIDE Festival this year, and we want to continue to protect and embrace the beautiful spectrum of diversity that Howard County has to offer. To every single member of our LGBTQ+ community, know that we see you, we support you, and we stand in solidarity with you.”

“Our Office is proud to partner on this new Work Group and to continue advancing our mission of safety, equality, and the best quality of life for every single person in Howard County," said Howard County's Office of Human Rights Administrator Yolanda F. Sonnier.

Said Assistant Chief Administrative Officer, Janssen E. Evelyn, “Howard County is always working to identify best practices that will make our government responsive to the needs of every community. Our new Work Group will help us foster a more inclusive local government that can support LGBTQ+ residents in the workplace, community, and across the County.”

The new LGBTQ+ Work Group is charged with the following:

*          Conduct quarterly meetings, open to the public, which will include the members of the Work Group, the Administrator of the Office of Human Rights and designated staff

*          Organize a series of events and facilitated discussions, in partnership with community and non-profit organizations, to provide opportunities to share concerns, promote mutual understanding and foster stronger relationships to encourage a more inclusive community.  This may include things like focus groups, facilitated dialogues, summits and additional outreach efforts

*          Advise the County Executive on best practices and strategies to further protect and promote the LGBTQ+ community

*          Work with Howard County Government employees to identify best practices to affirm members of the LGBTQ+ community

*          Ensure that all meeting minutes are made available to the public on the Office of Human Rights website

*          Submit a yearly report to the County Executive by November 1st each year about the work of the Work Group, in addition to current and emerging issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community

The Work Group will include:

*          Two representatives from PFLAG Columbia/Howard County
*          One representative from HopeWorks
*          One representative from the Howard County Human Rights Commission (HRC)
*          At least two student representatives
*          At least five representatives from the Howard County community (employee and/or resident)

In addition, Office of Human Rights Administrator Yolanda F. Sonnier will provide leadership, oversight, staffing, and logistical support. Assistant Chief Administrative Officer, Janssen E. Evelyn, shall serve as County Executive Ball’s liaison for the LGBTQ+ Work Group.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Kings of the Road


The Washington Nationals defied the odds, questionable calls, and history to notch their first world championship.

In an astounding World Series, the Washington Nationals prevailed 4 games to 3 by defeating the heavily favored Houston Astros 6-2.  As such, this team managed to win the World Series without any victories on their home field. In fact, the Astros didn’t either, and since 4 games were played at Minute Maid Park, that is why the Astros fell short.

Actually, no team in the history of playoffs in Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association or the National Hockey League experienced a 7-game series where the visiting team won all the games. This was the first time, and celebrations in local bars were scant.

In the words of Vin Scully who famously called Kirk Gibson’s epic walk-off home run in 1988, “In the year of the improbable, the impossible just happened.” It should apply to this situation.

As I  previewed Game 5 of the National League Champion Series between the Nationals and the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Nats appeared to be a “team of destiny” having survived the Wild Card game against the Milwaukee Brewers in come-from-behind fashion to move on.

The Nats, the oldest in baseball, were getting some breaks along their journey until the bats cooled off and were outscored 19-3 to Houston in the 3 games at rocking Nationals Park. Game 5 may be more remembered for the thunderous booing of President Trump in attendance than anything else.  A disappointing performance by the team  to be sure, but the fans still believed they had a chance, albeit not a great one, against the 107-win Astros. 

But they did because, yes, they were returning to the road again. The Nats prevailed in Game 6 behind the magnificent Stephen Strasburg despite an absolute horrendous call by umpire Sam Holbrook on a play wherebyTrea Turner was called for interference while legging out what should have been an infield hit. 

In Game 7 they again came from behind after being shutout for 6 innings on one hit and eventually won 6-2 to seal the deal.

The Nationals were 5-0 in elimination games during this post-season and were behind in all of them. It was an amazing run, and succeeding as they did on the road, winning the last 8 games as visitors, will be a subject of conversation in the coming weeks and months.

A year and a half removed from the Washington Capitals spectacular quest for the Stanley Cup (also with dominance on the road), the Nats' success in the World Series has given the area yet another lift and a well-deserved one at that.