Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Grand Central in Baltimore is Up for Sale

Grand Central nightclub, a mainstay of Baltimore’s LGBT community for over a quarter century has been put on the market.  Citing his age and health issues in addition to the fact that he lives in San Antonio, TX, owner Don Davis is trying to sell the business.  The property and business is a turnkey operation listed with KLNB retail and commercial realtors for $1,850,000.  

“It has a thriving business with potential growth,” Davis told me. “It is a historic corner prime property with just under 15,000 sq ft. I priced this with a bottom line turnkey sold as is, with an LBD- 7 on or off premise LGBT / Alternative nightclub and sidewalk cafe license and a entertainment license.” 

He said that if the business remained a bar, it would need an owner/operator who would be hands on.   Any new owner would have a variety of options, says Davis. “Keep it the way it is and market and promote it as a business that has so much more potential or keep the pub and make the dance club side a nice restaurant.”

Grand Central, located at 1001 N. Charles Street in the heart of the Mount Vernon neighborhood, has been a popular gay establishment since its opening as a pub called Central Station in September 1991.  Davis later purchased the adjacent north building in February 2003, and reconstruction was undertaken adding a double bar disco with state-of-the-art dance floor, sound and lighting systems, and an additional upstairs lounge.

In keeping with the major improvements and new facilities, the club was renamed Grand Central, and the expanded complex opened May 29, 2003.  

Diagonally across the corner was the iconic Club Hippo, the largest dance bar in the state.  It closed two years ago leaving the “gayborhood” with Grand Central and two longstanding gay bars, The Drinkery and Leon’s. 

Anyone interested in purchasing the property can contact Matthew Copeland of KLNB LLC retail and commercial real estate brokers, 100 West Road. Suite 505, Towson, MD 21204. The telephone number is 443-632-2051; FAX is 410-321-1029; and email is mcopeland@klnb.com.

“I cannot continue living my life away and have no structure in the place,” Davis says.  “I have always been extremely grateful for a good staff and extremely thankful for the support that Baltimore has given me.  It’s time to pass the torch. I’m 66 years old with some health problems. It’s now for me to relax.”

Monday, October 16, 2017

Crazy Cool 'Cry-Baby' at Silhouette Stages

Lindsey Litka and Michael Nugent  Photo: Stasia Steuart Photography
Wouldn’t you like to escape for a couple of hours from the current tumult in the world and head back to the 1950’s when polio shots were mandatory, kissing with tongue seemed like hitting a triple, and air raid drills were routine?

If so, then head to the Slayton House Theater in Columbia to see “Cry-Baby the Musical” presented by Silhouette Stages. Director and Choreographer Tommy Malek and Assistant Director Matt Wetzel guide a terrific group of performers under the musical direction of Nathan C. Scavilla and John Keister in what is an extraordinarily executed, gorgeously costumed production.

With a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan and songs by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, the musical version of John Waters’ 1990 film of the same name doesn’t contain the vulgarity normally associated with Waters’ past films.  And this particular work, though it received four Tony Award nominations in 2008, didn’t endure on Broadway past the 68th performance. 

The hope was that the show could match the theatrical success of “Hairspray” that had been adapted by Mr. Meehan from another famous Waters film. While “Cry-Baby and “Hairspray” deal with class warfare in Baltimore, “Cry-Baby” does not contain the provocative social messaging within the storyline of “Hairspray” (racial segregation) or match its potent score.

Nonetheless, Silhouette Stage’s production of “Cry-Baby the Musical” knocks it out of the park. The prevailing campiness and the quirkiness of the characters that are a hallmark of Waters’ portfolio are evident throughout, and a youthful enthusiastic cast seems to have a great time performing.

You can easily notice the influence of Waters on Javerbaum and Schlesinger’s songs by just the titles, such as “Anti-Polio Picnic,” “Watch Your Ass,” “I’m Infected,” and “Screw Loose.”  Name one other Broadway musical with song titles of this ilk. While I don’t find the melodies in most of the rock, soul and doo-wop numbers particularly memorable, the songs are lyric-driven and are a key contributor to the hilarity of the show.   #hocoarts

Rachel Sandler and her four-piece orchestra situated at the back of the stage do an excellent job of supporting the vocals without overwhelming them.  And you can credit Alex Porter for superb sound design allowing every note, every lyric and every spoken word to be heard with great clarity. He and Mr. Malek designed the set, which consists largely of scaffolding and stairs with an assortment of set pieces to denote scene changes.

Photo: Stasia Steuart Photography
Costume Manger Clare Kneebone assured that the cast is fitted in spot on period garb including colorful dresses and sweaters for the richer kids as well as leather jackets, tee shirts and jeans for the others. 

Specialty costumes for the eccentric characters add to the laughs.

Set in Baltimore in 1958, “Cry-Baby the Musical” pokes fun at the early James Dean and Elvis movies and the rockabilly music that surrounds the plot. The story centers on Allison Vernon-Williams (played charmingly by lovely Lindsey Litka), a never-been-kissed, upscale society girl who would like to cross those proverbial tracks to become a “drape” (delinquent). 

She does so when she connects with a drape Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker (Michael Nugent), a cool, good-looking, aspiring rock ‘n roller who is not anywhere as bad as his reputation.  He is orphaned as his parents were wrongfully convicted of a crime and executed.  Be patient; there are loads of laughs to be had.

Allison has to overcome two obstacles: her pious, wealthy protective grandmother, Mrs. Cordelia Vernon-Williams (played superbly by Conni Ross), and her corny, squeaky-clean, square boyfriend, Baldwin Blandish (played sprightly by Matt Sorak).  Allison wants to leave the bland Blandish behind and find a new adventure with Cry Baby.  It’s not that simple though.

As Allison, Ms. Litka demonstrated strong acting skills conveying a wide range of emotions. This ability effectively wins the audience over with everybody rooting for her. Ms. Litka’s pitch perfect singing voice is golden and performed well in such numbers as “”I’m Infected,” and “Nobody Gets Me.”

Michael Nugent as the title character puts on a tour-de-force performance.  Commanding the stage, handsome Mr. Nugent rocks a pair of tight jeans, leather jacket and a tee-shirt like it’s nobody’s business. His acting is strong without going over the top, and he delivers the comedic lines with skill and good timing.

Mr. Nugent is blessed with a solid singing voice and performs extremely well in a duet with Ms. Litka in the clever “I’m Infected” and as a solo in “Do That Again”—one of the few conventional song titles. 

In another duet with Ms. Litka, “Girl, Can I Kiss You…?” he tries to introduce French kissing to the innocent girl and the number is totally hilarious with John Waters’ affinity for the outrageous all through it.

Photo: Stasia Steuart Photography
There are the eccentric drapes that form Cry Baby’s posse and who encourage Allison to transform her upscale persona to theirs.  Pepper Walker, Cry Baby’s switchblade-toting pregnant 16 year-old sister is played hilariously by Amy E. Haynes.  So pregnant is she, I thought she was about to give birth to a DeSoto.

My favorite character—the one I relate to the most—is Mona “Hatchet-Face” Malnorowski, a disfigured soul who was told when she was younger that she could rob a bank just by using her face!  She proudly brags that she is equally ugly on the inside.  Hatchet-Face is played exceptionally by Parker Bailey Steven.

Another drape is Wanda Woodward played by Clare Kneebone.  It’s not a major role, but she performs well in several group numbers throughout in addition to her duties as the show’s Costume Manager.  The trio score in the funny “A Whole Lot Worse.”

Monique Cheryse Wilson plays Cry Baby’s best male friend Dupree W. Dupree and sings well in the solo “Jailyard Jubilee” and the group number “A Little Upset.”

Then there is Lenora Frigid, an odd girl whose engine apparently does not contain all of its spark plugs.  Played superbly by Bailey Wolf, she wants to be a drape and is smitten with Cry Baby.  Her rendition of the hilarious “Screw Loose” is one of the show’s comedic highlights.

Back across the tracks, Conni Ross deliciously plays the role as Allsion’s wealthy, protective, moralistic grandmother, Mrs. Cordelia Vernon-Williams (Allison’s parents, too, are dead), who desperately tries to keep her young granddaughter away from that bad-boy Cry Baby. She excels in the solo “I Did Something Wrong Once” and what she was referring to was a biggie.

Matt Sorak as Baldwin Blandish, the conservative square who plays a key role in a plot twist that will not be revealed.  He is completely campy and fun.

Baldwin is a part of a doo-wop group called The Whiffles, always dressed alike, who hopes to make a record.  The members played by Johnny Dunkerly, Jacob Hale and Jeff Miller do a fine job with their vocals and dancing.  Their numbers “Squeaky Clean” and “This Amazing Offer” hit the mark.

Rounding out the talented cast are Richard Greenslit as Judge Stone and Officer O’Brien, Christopher Kabara as the Bailiff, Mr. Woodward and DJ, the male ensemble Bradley Allen, Derek Anderson, , and the female ensemble Maddie Bohrer, Libby Burgess, Ty’Aira Johnson, Lauren Romano and Jamie Williams.

Silhouette Stages’ presentation of “Cry-Baby the Musical” is a lively, well-staged production with a splendid cast and is community theatre at its best.  The show is not here long so hurry up and catch it.  The only tears you will have will be from laughing.

Running time. Two hours with an intermission.

Advisory: “Cry-Baby the Musical” contains adult language and situations and is not recommended for children under 12.

“Cry-Baby the Musical” plays on weekends through October 29 at the Slayton House Theatre, 10400 Cross Fox Ln, Columbia, MD 21044. For tickets, call 410-730-3987 visit online 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Baltimore LGBT Ally Surprised at Ellen Show

Wyatt Oroke, a Baltimore teacher for five years, appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show this past week to receive a series of surprises.  Oroke, who had been invited to the studio, was led to believe he was being recognized for his work in the East Baltimore City Springs Elementary Middle School with a pre-recorded clip praising his work with his students, who call him “Mr. O”.  Suddenly, he was told he was going to sit in that famous chair on the set to talk live with Ellen herself.

Clearly emotional and taken aback by the unexpected appearance in front of the lights, cameras and live audience, Oroke participated in a brief interview with Ellen.  Then he was stunned and became teary-eyed when a significant number of students appeared live by remote from Baltimore to offer praise of the young Humanities teacher, how he has inspired them, and how, in one student’s case, he provides the needed support since she lacks a support system at home.

If that wasn’t enough, a check for $25,000 from Shutterfly was presented to the school, again shocking Oroke.

Oroke points out that the East Baltimore school is “under resourced and underserved for centuries based on political decisions that were made, segregate housing, or redlining for neighborhoods. ” This resulted in the fact his “students come from the highest poverty rates of any school in Baltimore City.”  Moreover, Oroke notes there have been homeless students every year, one lost to gun violence, some have given birth to children. 

He says he tries to show as much empathy as he can and encourages his students to read by purchasing independent reading material for his students.  Oroke explains that the students need “access points” to give help provide them with equal access to opportunities. He instills the idea that “if you fill the classroom with love today, you’re gonna will fill the world with love tomorrow.”

Oroke is an ally of the LGBT community and a member of the Board of Directors for GLSEN  Maryland. 

“Mr. Oroke represents the kind of teachers we all want in our schools,” says Jabari Lyles, executive director of GLSEN Maryland. “Kind, compassionate, knowledgeable about vulnerable populations and willing to go the extra mile. Mr. O once led the GSA club at NAF (National Academy Foundation) Middle School in Baltimore City, and joined our board of directors last year to broaden his impact. We are very happy to have him on our team.”

Lyles states that Oroke’s students raised thousands of dollars for the recovery effort in Puerto Rico despite being from some of the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore.

The video of the segment is shown below:

Oroke told me, “As a proud board member of GLSEN Maryland I am always happy to be an advocate for all students in our state.”

Thursday, October 12, 2017

G•A•Y Lounge to Close

G•A•Y Lounge closing its doors.  Photo courtesy of OpenTable.com

After less than six months in operation, the owners of Baltimore's G•A•Y Lounge decided to close the Mount Vernon establishment.  The reason for the closing is not due to a lack of popularity; instead, the owners—Robert Gay and Joshua Persing—believe they could not comply with the contract.

“Unfortunately, when we entered into this venture, we entered with what we thought, was a concrete contract with the previous owner,” according to a statement posted on the bar’s Facebook page on October 11.

“Contract and legal jargon aside, the bottom line is that this contract has become more fluid than we are comfortable with, and at this time, we do not have the ability to keep up or comply with the ever-changing demands and expectations. After much deliberation and with sadness in our souls, we have been forced to make the difficult decision to close G•A•Y.”

G•A•Y Lounge opened on April 28 to much enthusiasm within Baltimore’s LGBT community who had seen the loss of gay bars in recent years.  Its venue at 518 North Charles Street was the same building that had previously been inhabited by Louie’s Book Store and subsequent businesses. 

Prior to its opening, Pershing touted G•A•Y Lounge’s concept and "chic, eclectic style" and believed it "would stand out as an icon within the community."  

"It is with heavy hearts, but full glasses that we toast to the official closing of G•A•Y. We toast to you – the community that immediately embraced us, supported us, defended us and made us an absolute success here in Mount Vernon. Opening G•A•Y was our dream. It was a dream that came to fruition, and that was because of you, our loyal and steadfast patrons - Thank you. You have made us feel more welcome and wanted than we could have ever imagined."

Disappointing as the closing may be, the owners vow to re-emerge in the future.

“While today we announce that we are closing our doors, we also make a promise for the future – This is not the end,” the statement reads. “We want you to know that we have every intention of coming back, and coming back better than before. When the time is right and the cards fall back into place, we plan to recreate this dream of ours and rekindle the spark that ignited so quickly here in a small corner bar in Mount Vernon.”

They can take solace in the fact that few people thought the Baltimore Eagle could overcome a series of daunting obstacles and return, but it has, and it’s thriving.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Trump is Winning at Flag Football

Photo courtesy of lowellsun.com.
While millions of people in Puerto Rico were beginning to reckon with the demolition of that beautiful island at the ferocious hands of Hurricane Maria, President Donald Trump was using his tiny grabby hands for other reasons.  #hocopolitics

Instead of responding with leadership to assure U.S. citizens there are at the very least receiving basic essentials, the President decided to go to his refuge—Twitter—and deflect again from a string of losses to create an issue of NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem at the games played last weekend.

Instead of calling the Mayor of San Juan Carmen Yulín Cruz four times during the week to determine the immediate needs of those victimized citizens, he called Dallas Cowboys owner and his friend Jerry Jones four times to insist that his players stand for the National Anthem.

When he eventually tweeted about Puerto Rico, he did so with the pettiness, narcissism and immaturity that have characterized his presidency so far: blaming others for missteps, taking credit for things he did not accomplish, exaggerating his abilities, and disclosing that Puerto Rico is an island in a very big ocean.


This pathetic, callous and rather un-American response is appearing as his own Katrina albatross and would add to another hard-to-swallow loss.  However, if he was ever looking for a win to stem this descent, the football angle appears to be what his doctor ordered.

Last year, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took it upon himself to protest the all-too-frequent occurrence of police officers gunning down unarmed African-American men and wind up getting away with it.  These incidents have unquestionably been a stain on our society and Kaepernick, a black man, felt compelled to “take a knee” during the national Anthem prior to games last year.  He was booed mercilessly by fans and excoriated on social media with few of his peers demonstrating support.

Kaepernick was eventually let go by the 49ers and has yet to find a new team despite the fact he is better at this position than some of the current starting QBs and clearly better than many of the backups.  He is still awaiting that call.

So Trump lambasted players for not standing during the Anthem and told owners to fire those protesting players because they are disrespectful to the flag.  In a rebuke to Trump last weekend, teams around the NFL  joined in the protests, and it took different forms—kneeling, joining locked arms, remaining in the locker room while the Anthems were played.

Seizing the opportunity to demagogue and to deflect from his troubles, Trump took to Twitter and blasted the protesters.  He cast the kneelings as a disgrace and an affront to the flag, the Anthem, the military and our country.  He and his supporters maintained that our servicemen and women fought and died in combat to defend our flag and Anthem.

To be clear, we have never gone to war, never shot a bullet, or never bombed a target to protect our flag or the National Anthem.  Nobody died in defense of these symbols. In fact, our troops have always defended our Constitution, which includes Freedom of Speech and the right to protest peacefully. This is hyperbole at its worse, using the casualties of our military conflicts as props in a cynical political effort to feed  red meat to the frothing-at-the-mouth base.  

As an aside, Trump has no standing as far as military appropriateness is concerned regardless of his title as Commander-in-Chief.  He dodged the draft on five occasions, took on a Gold Star family for political gain, and is clueless as to the meaning of the Purple Heart.  

Nonetheless, Trump turned this legitimate protest into a question of patriotism and what he did what he does best, divide the country on race.  He riled up his mostly white base so that they have adopted his logic and has couched these protests as nothing short of treason.

To a large extent, it has worked.  
Fans burned various teams' jerseys, caps and what-not. They threatened to cancel season ticket subscriptions.   (Note that most if not all of those anti-protesters don't stand for the National Anthem in their living rooms regardless of the sport, but who cares about hypocrisy?)  The anti-protesters grabbed the momentum and seem to be winning the argument.

Accordingly, NFL games this week saw less players taking a knee during the Anthem than last week. When players knelt to pray for kindness and equality in our country prior to the National Anthem, fans at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium booed vociferously even though the public address announcer explained what they were doing. Then the players rose when the Anthem began.

So uptight about the week-long debate was Ravens’ management and sensitive about being labeled anti-military, they included every military trapping they could muster before the game including a flyover by military aircraft.  I was surprised not to see members of the 101st Airborne Division parachuting to mid-field for the coin toss.

“It’s not about the ... flag,” Randy Lynn, an accountant from Baltimore who said he served seven years in the Army, told the Baltimore Sun. “It’s about killing black people.”

 “It’s not against the flag. It’s against the injustice that the police are killing unarmed black people and getting away with it.”

But others disagree and see the protests as disrespecting our national symbols and country.  Trump pounced on this controversy to once again stoke divisions while the people of Puerto Rico stand in lengthy lines in oppressive heat for food, water, fuel and access to cash.

We see where the President’s priorities lie.

UPDATE: The clock ran out and apparently Trump won this game.  Here is an explanation in Politico.

Timeless ‘Cradle’ Rocks at Iron Crow Theatre

Cast of  'The Cradle Will Rock'   Photo by Rob Clattwerbuck
Sometimes history has a way of repeating itself.  Imagine a musical from 80 years ago having relevancy in the present.  That is the focus of Iron Crow Theatre’s presentation of The Cradle Will Rock kicking off their 2017-2018 season themed “Season of Identity” at the Baltimore Theatre Project.

The Cradle Will Rock is a pioneering work with book, music and lyrics by Marc Blitzstein. Brechtian in style, the musical takes a swipe at wealth, corruption, capitalism and the political power they bring while poor people struggle to get by.  @hocoarts 

Ably directed by Tony Award-nominated Sean Elias, Iron Crow’s Artistic Director, and assisted by Robert Corona, this tight, well-paced production moves Iron Crow another step forward in exploring issues of identity, class and power and the inevitable conflicts they produce. 

A sizable, spirited ensemble and an imaginative and functional set designed by Chris Miller are effective under Mr. Elias’ guiding hand in bridging the issues confronting the nation decades ago with the current state of affairs.

The Cradle Will Rock perhaps will be remembered mostly as the first show ever to be shut down by the federal government.  In 1937, the federal agency Works Progress Administration (WPA) oversaw the Federal Theatre production, which had been in rehearsal for weeks.

The WPA hurriedly canceled the production at the Maxine Elliott Theatre under the guise of budget cuts and sent armed guards to keep any costumes or sets from being removed from the theater. Many believed that the musical had been censored because the pro-union plot was “too radical.”  Moreover, Actors’ Equity barred cast members from performing the show onstage.

Undaunted, Mr. Blitzstein, Producer John Houseman, and Director Orson Welles found the Venice Theatre and a battered upright piano.  They along with the cast and hundreds of onlookers marched 21 blocks uptown to the theater garnering a bonanza in publicity. As Mr. Blitzstein launched into the introduction, Olive Stanton, who played the character Moll, stood up in her seat and sang the opening number from the audience. The rest of the cast followed suit.

While it is doubtful the federal government would try to stop Iron Crow from presenting this musical, Mr. Elias strives to connect this piece with the corruption and bullying tactics of our president and his administration and the income inequality that exists in our society.

"The Cradle Will Rock is a direct response to and protest against the current administration, the evils of unregulated capitalism and the dangers of an imperial presidency,” says Mr. Elias in a statement.

Indeed, there are similarities, and the use of ephemeral projected images of President Trump, Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and others on four small screens at the rear of the stage visually fosters that connection.

Eduard Van Osterom (L.) and Patrick Gorirossi
Photo: Rob Clatterbuck
The ten-scene, single act musical is narrated both musically and verbally (announcing scenes) by the sole musician, pianist Mandee Ferrier Roberts, who expertly performs virtually throughout the show. The piano, which includes a repository for props next to it, is moved about the stage for the various scenes and the back of it is used at times as a bar or a judge’s desk in the courtroom.

Though the score is not all that melodious, the lyrics are the vessel for the story as little dialogue transpires.  A few numbers stand out but mostly for their comedic qualities.  Others are moving and well performed. However, at times, the piano drowns out some vocals and dialogue, which could be remedied if the principals are mic’d.  The problem is not noticeable in group numbers,

The Cradle Will Rock is set in the fictional town Steeltown, USA during 1937 while the Depression was still in high gear.  The story centers on Larry Foreman (played powerfully by Terrance Fleming whose rendition of the title song is superb) and his attempts against the odds to unionize Steeltown’s workers. 

He must contend with the town bully, greedy, authoritative, anti-union Mr. Mister (not to be confused with the 80’s pop rock band of “Broken Wings” fame) who controls institutions including the factory, the newspaper, the clergy, the arts, the university, even a physician.  His role is portrayed smoothly by theatre veteran Greg Grenier, though I would like to see him, as the antagonist in the story, come off a little meaner.

Most of the characters in this ensemble production are either victims of Mr. Mister, such as Harry Druggist (played emotively by Jonathan Jacobs) who have sold out to Mr. Mister one way or the other, or members of the Mister family including Mrs. Mister (I love that name) played by Allison Bradbury and their son Junior Mister (effectively played by Mark Quackenbush). He’s an incompetent Eric Trump-like figure who, as a result of the reluctant compliance of the newspaper’s editor to Mr. Mister’s demand, is deposed to Honolulu as a correspondent.

Editor Daily, the aforementioned editor, is also coerced by Mr. Mister into writing damaging pieces against the union and Larry Foreman.  Justin Johnson does a splendid job showcasing his strong acting skills and vocals in that role particularly in the song “The Freedom of the Press.”

Reverend Salvation (played by Brandon Love) delivers sermons paid for by Mrs. Mister to advance her husband’s interests.  He performs well in “Hard Times/The Sermon.”

Photo: Rob Clatterbuck
Patrick Gorirossi as the musician Yasha and Eduard Van Osterom as the painter Dauber, click well in the campy numbers “Don’t Let Me Keep You,” “Ask Us Again” (with Ms. Bradberry) and “Art For Art’s Sake.”  These songs, which take place in one scene in a hotel lobby, provide the most laughs in the production. There should be a video made of this duo performing in “Don’t Let Me Keep You.”

Matt Winer passionately and energetically plays Stevie, the son of Harry Druggist, who gets killed in a car bombing intended to murder Gus Polock, the newly elected member of the union (Mark Quackenbush) and his wife, Sadie (Monica Albizo who also plays the role of Sister Mister).

Caitlin Weaver is wonderful as Moll, a prostitute arrested for not succumbing to the demands of a corrupt detective, Dick (competently played by Matthew Lindsey Payne), and who hears the story of Mr. Mister’s antics from Harry Druggist.  Her voice is in fine form in “Moll’s Song” and “Nickel Under the Foot.”

Ian Andrews as Virgil, a clumsy-ish policeman, is comical with his Keystone Kops movements.

Felicia Akunwafor as Ella Hammer, the sister of a killed steelworker, performs the show-stopper number “Joe Worker.” In this emotional song she futilely pleads with Dr. Specialist (Roxanne Daneman) not to state that her brother was drunk causing his accident as pushed by Mr. Mister but in fact he was murdered.

Rounding out the cast are Barbara Madison Hauck as President Prexy, Chelsea Paradiso as Professor Mamie, and Meghan Taylor as Professor Trixie.

Chris Miller’s set has been touted as Iron Crow's largest ever.  It has an industrial feel to it given the locale is Steeltown.  It includes a scaffold with three sets of stairs leading from the stage and sets of industrial looking lights on the sides and rear.  

As mentioned earlier, four small projection screens are mounted on the back, and a few chairs are also in the rear where performers not featured in a particular scene are situated.  The omnipresent piano shifts positions depending on the scene.

Janine Vreatt’s lighting design is outstanding and works cohesively with the set and the music.  And Matthew Smith’s costumes accurately portray the attire from the period.

At a time when a large segment of our country is railing against the disproportional power the top one percent of income earners accrue at the expense of the working class and when a significant part of the country currently sees our president to be dictatorial and unfit for office, the historic The Cradle Will Rock provides frightening similarities.

A talented and enthusiastic ensemble under the solid direction of Sean Elias gives Iron Crow Theatre a welcome boost as it launches its new season.

Running time: One hour and thirty minutes with no intermission.

Advisory: The Cradle Will Rock contains mature themes, adult language, sexual content and violence and is not suitable for patrons under age 18.

The Cradle Will Rock” runs through October 8 at The Baltimore Theatre Project, Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit online .

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Trans Students, Allies Fighting for Safe Schools in Frederick

Lawsuit takes aim at protections passed by school board

Mark Procopio, Executive Director of FreeState Justice
Kaden is a 27 year-old transgender man (FTM) who works in Frederick, Md.  As part of the transgender student-led “Support FCPS [Frederick County Public Schools] Trans Students” Facebook page , Kaden posted that trans people from all over the U.S. face difficult challenges, such as “violence towards the community, employment discrimination, bullying” among others. 

He feels that these issues “stem from the mindset that trans people are the ‘other’ and maybe we don’t need to respect them or we can view them as inferior because they are different.” 

Visibility, advocacy and education, says Kaden, are the keys for Frederick residents to support their transgender neighbors.  This is especially important for transgender students.

To help foster this visibility as well as educate the public and build support, the “Support FCPS Trans Students” Facebook page has served as a platform to launch a campaign last spring called #IAmFrederick. The effort is aimed at bringing together trans students, family members, and allies to work towards better safe schools for transgender students.

    Kaden urges visibility.
Photo courtesy of Facebook
Kaden is among a diverse group of people—trans students, allies, family members, educators and counselors—who have participated in this campaign on both Facebook and Instagram whereby supporters are photographed holding up a certificate labeled #IAmFrederick and underneath write why they support trans youth.

This alliance successfully lobbied the Frederick Board of Education for Policy 443, a policy which would protect trans and gender non-conforming students by affirming their student rights.  More specifically, the policy allows students to choose the restroom based on their gender identity as well as participate in sports that are consistent with their gender identity. It would also allow students the opportunity to room with others according to their gender identity. The Board saw to it that privacy rights for all students are protected.

With overwhelming community support, Policy 443 was approved in June. 

“This policy, one of the most affirming of any county school system in the state, protects students from bullying, supports student privacy, and ensures that Frederick schools are safe and welcoming for all students,” said Mark Procopio, Executive Director of FreeState Justice, a legal advocacy organization that seeks to improve the lives of low-income LGBT Marylanders.  “It is a great victory for the student leaders who led the effort.”

A trans youth. Photo courtesy of Facebook
As I reported in the Washington Blade in August, a federal lawsuit in response to this action was filed in the District Court of Maryland by a 15-year-old girl under the pseudonym Mary Smith, and her mother, identified as Jane Doe against the Frederick County Board of Education and Superintendent Theresa Alban.

The lawsuit argues that the policy approved by the Frederick County Board of Education violates the girl’s fundamental right to bodily privacy, and her mother’s fundamental parental rights regarding the care and upbringing of her child.

The content of the complaint is filled with vitriolic hype that lacks a basic understanding of what it means to be transgender.

For example, the suit’s language compares the School Board to a totalitarian regime and likens the School Board’s adopted policy to “child pornography” and “Nazi death camps.”  It also specifically maligns the sexual orientation of a School Board member.

It must be pointed out that the attorney representing the plaintiff, Daniel L. Cox, Esq. of the Emmitsburg, Md.-based Cox Law Center admits to be affiliated with the ADF—The Alliance Defending Freedom .  That fact is stated on the firm’s website(See image below.)

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society, the Alliance Defending Freedom has been identified as a national anti-LGBT hate group. 
SPLC states that the Alliance Defending Freedom “supported the recriminalization of homosexuality in the U.S. and criminalization abroad; has defended state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people abroad; has linked homosexuality to pedophilia and claims that a ‘homosexual agenda’ will destroy Christianity and society.”

Undaunted, allies and advocates are determined to see that the policy is upheld.

“Every child in Frederick County Schools deserves a welcoming and safe environment to learn,” says FreeState Justice’s Mark Procopio.  “Policy 443 ensures that transgender students are protected from bullying and harassment and guards the privacy of all students.  It should be defended vigorously against this frivolous suit.”

Plaintiff's graphic on Frederick social media
The Board of Directors of The Frederick Center, a non-profit organization that serves the LGBTQ community in Central Maryland, weighed in as well with the following statement:

“[Members of] The Frederick Center Board of Directors were dismayed to learn of the lawsuit filed [in August] by Jane Doe in an attempt to block the implementation of FCPS Policy 443. Policies like 443 greatly benefit our Transgender community through its affirmation of their identity. The claims in the filing against the Board of Education appear to be baseless and desperate attempt to continue allowing discrimination in our schools and against our children.”

The plaintiff is demanding a jury trial. 


From FreeState Justice, Maryland's leading LGBT advocacy group:
Today, a Frederick County transgender student filed a motion to defend his school board’s policies that seek to prevent discrimination, harassment, and stigmatization of transgender and gender nonconforming students in the school system, and that seek to ensure students are free to use school facilities in accordance with their gender identity. He is represented by FreeState Justice, the ACLU, and the ACLU of Maryland.
The student filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit currently pending in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, in which a non-transgender student seeks to overturn the Frederick County School Board’s policy protections for transgender students.
The school board’s policies, adopted in June 2017, were welcomed by community members from all over Frederick County. James van Kuilenburg, an honor student at Governor Thomas Johnson High School and the transgender student who moved to intervene today, explained that the policies “gave me the ability to finally be myself and access all parts of my education.”
The lawsuit against the Frederick County School Board was filed anonymously by a non-transgender student and her mother who claim that allowing transgender students restroom and locker room access infringes upon student privacy rights. However, the only privacy violation alleged in the plaintiff’s complaint is by a non-transgender student. The lawsuit also seeks to invalidate policies preventing harassment, and protecting the confidentiality and privacy of transgender students.
In the wake of the lawsuit, the Frederick County group “Support FCPS Trans Students” has started a social media campaign #IAmFrederick to show support for their transgender classmates.
According to van Kuilenberg, reversal of the policies would be “devastating.” “There is an epidemic of trans students feeling unsafe, depressed, and suicidal,” he explained, and a removal of the policies in place to protect them would “create a culture of fear and misunderstanding.”
“It’s important that trans students are given the opportunity to defend themselves against these shameful attempts to isolate and stigmatize them,” said Gabriel Arkles, senior staff attorney at the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project. He added, “Schools can and should provide extra privacy protections or private restroom or changing areas for any student who requests it. But no student has a right to demand that transgender students be segregated from their peers.”
“The Frederick County School Board did the right thing: they created policies that affirm and respect their students’ gender identity.” said Jennifer Kent, Managing Attorney of FreeState Justice, “We intend to vigorously defend these policies in the interests of our client and affected students in Frederick County Public Schools.”
Said ACLU of Maryland Senior Staff Attorney David Rocah, “Everyone seeking an education, including those who are transgender like James, should be treated fairly and equally under the law. Frederick is joined by hundreds of school districts around the country that allow transgender students to use school facilities based on their gender identity. These policies include transgender students as equal members of the school community while still protecting the privacy of all students.”

Counsel on the motion to intervene also include Leslie Cooper and Gabriel Arkles of the ACLU, David Rocah, and Nick Steiner of the ACLU of Maryland and John Hayes, Brian Whittaker, and Kenneth Nichols of the law firm Nixon Peabody, LLP.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Tragedy of Politicizing Disasters

Some pastors were quick to blame gays for this
As we commemorate the events of September 11, 2001 and remember the loss of innocent lives of ordinary people and first responders, it is a vivid reminder how some who have a forum to disseminate information, abused that privilege to politicize the horrors of that day. 

In a mean-spirited attempt to manipulate grief-stricken Americans to fall in line with his orthodoxy, Rev. Jerry Falwell told fellow Christian conservative Pat Robertson, “[T]he pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America,” Falwell continued, “I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.’” Robertson agreed.

A few days later, Falwell, after receiving a severe dose of backlash, released a statement saying his comments were taken out of context. “I hold no one other than the terrorists and the people and nations who have enabled and harbored them responsible for Tuesday's attacks on this nation,” he said.

For his part, Robertson denied blaming gays or atheists for the attacks.  Nonetheless, they made their points.

More recently during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump insisted that “thousands and thousands and thousands” of people in the Arab neighborhoods of Jersey City, N.J. openly celebrated the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.  This was a naked attempt to throw red meat to his xenophobic, anti-Muslim base to gain their support.  Of course, it was a blatant lie as much of what Trump says usually is; however, we are still awaiting his “correction.”

Who should we blame?
Of course, over the years, disasters—man-made or natural—have been blamed by clergy on groups as a manifestation of “God’s wrath.”  

As written by Kimberly Winston in the Salt Lake City Tribune, when Superstorm Sandy hit the New York-New Jersey region in 2012, pastors were quick to explain the phenomenon.  

“God is systematically destroying America,” the Rev. John McTernan, a conservative Christian pastor, said in a post-Sandy blog entry that has since been removed. The reason God was so peeved, he asserted, was “the homosexual agenda.”

Writes Winston, “Usually, their logic revolves around LGBT themes — Buster Wilson of the American Family Association insisted God sent Hurricane Isaac to stop an annual LGBT festival; the Rev. Franklin Graham blamed Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans’ 'orgies'; and Catholic priest Gerhard Wagner called Katrina 'divine retribution' for New Orleans’ tolerance of homosexuality.  Other times, the scapegoat is gay marriage, abortion rights or foreign policies seen as harmful to Israel.”

Many have argued that these events cannot be attributed to a vengeful God because God does not want to see people suffering.  Yet, the pastors will further their untaxed but political advocacy by using God as a weapon to punish people, activities or events anathema to them.

Two can play that game.  I can say with equal authority that the states affected by the deadly hurricanes Harvey and Irma were God’s wrath against them because they voted for Trump. 

See how silly that sounds?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Soaring to the 'Heights' at Olney

Robin de Jesús leads the talente company of 'In the Heights'
Photo: Stan Barouh
Qué gran espectáculo! 

Any successful musical offers at least one great moment for audiences to remember.  Kicking off the 2017-18 Season, the Olney Theatre Center partnering with the Round House Theatre in presenting “In the Heights,” there may have been 96,000 such moments.  A sensational cast and crew under the meticulous direction of Marcos Santana have delivered a winning musical lottery ticket to local theatergoers.

Tony Award-nominated Robin de Jesús, who portrayed Sonny in the original Broadway production of “In the Heights,” stars as Usnavi on the Main Stage at Olney Theatre Center.  Lin-Manuel Miranda who played Usnavi in the Broadway production and received a Tony nomination for that role composed the music and lyrics and won the Tony in that capacity. Quiara Alegria Hudes wrote the book. In all, the show captured four such statues including Best Musical.  Miranda’s success with “In the Heights” propelled him to mega-stardom in “Hamilton.”

The story unfolds in the gritty, largely Hispanic working class Washington Heights barrio or neighborhood of Upper Manhattan, near the George Washington Bridge during a typically sultry three-day period surrounding July 4.  Each character has his or her story, but they are all connected in some fashion. 

A youthful vibrant ensemble clad in hip street clothing designed by Frank Labovitz adds spice to this rich mixture of contemporary urban hip-hop, salsa and other Latin rhythms that tell the story of family drama, financial struggles, community spirit, love, devotion, expectations, dreams realized and those not fulfilled. And one of the characters just won a $96,000 lottery prize adding another element to the story.

All the action takes place on a magnificent set designed by Milagros Ponce de León.  The barrio depicted in the set consists of businesses, such as De La Vega Bodega (convenience store), Daniela’s Beauty Salon and Rosario’s Car Service as well as apartment buildings, entrances to the buildings and fire escapes.  The creative and functional multi-tiered set even includes the 181st Street “A” train station with the subway grate on the sidewalk, with, yes, steam bellowing out of it before the show as the sound of a train is heard barreling down the tracks underneath.

That set provides the backdrop to most of the story.  But when the scene shifts to a dance club, no problemo.  Fast and seamlessly, the transformation occurs.

So detailed is Mr. Santana’s direction that the actors not performing as principals in a particular scene are engaged in background activity or conversation in any of these businesses or meandering about in the apartments.  Cheerfully, none of this background staging becomes a distraction; instead, the subtle movements add realism and dimension to the visuals.

Enhancing the eye-pleasing set is the extraordinary lighting design by Cory Pattak.  A highlight is the fireworks display where the lighting effectively simulated this activity.
Robin de Jesús as Usnavi Photo: Stan Barouh

“In the Heights” contains many high points in the way of individual musical performances, either as solos or duets.  The main performers along with the rest of the ensemble also burnish their talents in the stirring high-energy production numbers like the title song and opening number “In the Heights,” “96,000,” “Blackout,” and “Carnaval Del Barrio.” 

Mr. Santana also choreographed the show, which presents solid, realistic urban Latino dancing to the thumping beats supplied by the superb nine-member orchestra led by Christopher Youstra.

The ensemble sing and dance with dazzling energy to the music that in some instances contains a mix of Spanish and English lyrics.  However, the songs were composed in a way that one didn’t have to know Spanish to understand their messages. 

While some of the songs are not necessarily melodious, they are all solid because of the powerful and affecting lyrics as well as the amazing vocals by the cast members. 

Numbers, such as “In The Heights,” “Breathe,” “Inútil,” “No Me Diga,” “Paciencia Y Fe,”  “When You’re Home,” “Piragua,” “Sunrise,” and “Everything I Know” stand out.  Most of the high tempo songs (and the better ones) are performed in the first act while more ballads can be heard in the second—a distinct change in mood.

Robin de Jesús is remarkable in the role of Usnavi, a Dominican-born owner of the bodega who is a central character throughout.  His passion and hopes, which include returning to his native Dominican Republic, are conveyed with great skill.  Most of his dialogue and songs are performed in rap, and he is wonderful at it.

Rayanne Gonzales is moving as Abuela (Grandmother) Claudia who practically raised Usnavi after his parents died.  She is the barrio’s loveable matriarch, the moral anchor.  Her stellar voice is evident in the tender “Paciencia Y Fe” and “Hundreds of Stories.”

Stunning Linedy Genao plays Vanessa, Usnavi’s love interest, who is looking to escape the barrio and move downtown but can’t afford it.   She possesses a glorious mezzo-soprano voice, and her performance in “It Won’t Be Long Now” shines.

Also spectacular with her vocals is Mili Diaz as Nina.  Ms. Diaz’s Broadway-caliber soprano voice is as good as it gets with memorable selections as “Breathe,” “Everything I Know” and “When the Sun Goes Down.”   

Nina was the one member of the barrio who went off to college (Stanford University) on a scholarship only to fail in her first year, deeply disappointing her parents, Kevin and Camila.  She develops a relationship with Benny much to the chagrin of her father.

Danny Bolero plays Nina’s overprotective father Kevin and the owner of Rosario’s Car Service which he feels compelled to sell to help Nina with her tuition. Mr. Bolero is sturdy in both acting and singing with his commanding baritone voice on display.  His emotional solos in “Inútil (Useless)” and “Atención” are stellar.  Vilma Gil is enjoyable as Nina’s steadfast mother Camila. Skillful in her acting, she does well in her powerful rendition of “Enough.”

Another standout is Marquise White as Benny, who is in love with Nina and an employee of Kevin’s taxi service and is the only non-Hispanic character.  Also demonstrating strong acting and musical ability, Mr. White is particularly effective in the duets “When You’re Home” and “When The Sun Goes Down” with Ms. Diaz.
Photo: Stan Barouh
Natascia Diaz as Daniela, the chatty, gossipy owner of the beauty salon, is effective in that role and also demonstrates her vocal prowess in “No Me Diga.”  Her employee, Carla, is played well by Melissa Victor.

Tobias A. Young, yet another strong vocalist, plays the role of Piragua Guy who pushes a shaved ice dessert cart in the barrio and competes with the Mister Softee truck.  He truly has one of the most beautiful voices in local theatre and is a joy to listen to. Mr. Young participates in the group numbers and sings the aptly named “Piragua” as a solo—and does it twice!

Then there is Usnavi’s cousin Sonny, who works with him at the bodega.  Played fabulously by Michael J. Mainwaring, the character provides most of the comedic moments in the show.  Mr. Mainwaring’s comedic timing and stage movements excel. Juan Drigo Ricafort rounds out the stellar cast as Sonny’s good chum Graffiti Pete whose artistry leads to an inspirational ending, tying a bow on this gift of a show. #hocoarts

There is an abundance of talent, technical expertise, a solid score, and humanity in the story that makes “In the Heights” a must-see experience.  Thank you to the Olney Theatre Center and the Round House Theatre for putting together such an extraordinary cast and crew helmed by a terrific director.

Qué gran espectáculo!
What a great show!

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

Advisory: “In the Heights” contains adult language and sexual situations and is not recommended for children under age 13.

“In the Heights” runs through October 22 at the 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 09, 2017

Living the ‘Dream’ at Toby’s

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
From the moment the proverbial curtain was raised at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia for the start of Dreamgirls, there was a burst of energy that was unabated throughout the nearly three hour production. 
This force is evident in the lightning fast and efficiently executed scene and costume changes, soulful rhythm & blues and pop music, and the enthusiastic singing and dancing by the large and talented cast who perform like their lives depended on it.

Dreamgirls tells the fictional story during the 1960s and 1970s of three friends from Chicago who wanted to make it big in the music industry. Their rise to stardom and the inevitable professional and personal conflicts closely resemble that of the Shirelles and the Supremes.

Effie White is the lead singer of the Dreamettes who has a plus-size figure and a plus-size talent. C.C. White is her brother who writes music for the group. Deena Jones is the beauty who eventually takes the lead vocals for the later-named Dreams. Lorrell Robinson is the group’s peacemaker.  She is in love with James “Thunder” Early, an R &B star for whom the Dreamettes sing backup. Curtis Taylor Jr., the manager of the group, is the hub of the story’s drama and tension.

With book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Krieger, Dreamgirls first opened on Broadway in 1981. The production was a smashing success winning six Tony Awards.  A successful movie that was adapted from the show opened in 2006.

The lively and at times intense production at Toby’s was ably directed by Kevin McAllister while Shalyce Hembey choreographed the vigorous dancing.  Under musical direction and orchestration of Ross Scott Rawlings, the seven-piece orchestra sounded lush as usual.

Inventive props are on display, and the creative scenery making full use of Toby’s in-the-round stage, designed by David A. Hopkins, offers a place for the projection of images—some actual, some abstract— on the walls surrounding the stage to augment the production.

The period costumes besides a wide array of sports clothes and casual wear feature stunningly colorful show gowns with feathers and loads of wigs for the female singers and splendid matching formal suits for the male singers,  all designed by the incomparable Lawrence B. Munsey. There must have been a thousand such costumes pieces worn by the company, but I stopped counting at five hundred.

Lynn Joslin designed the lighting which is a step above the norm seen locally and may have been the most creative use of lighting at Toby’s in my memory. With so many rapid-fire scene and venue changes, the stage has to be lit in various corners with accompanying fade-outs. The work of the technical crew in general is outstanding, and it includes the excellent sound system designed by Mark Smedley.

With the fine work of the technical crew as support, the majesty of this high-octane production revolves around the performers and the music.

Crystal Freeman as Effie is outstanding in both her strong soprano voice and in her acting.  She lends her heart, soul, lungs and entire being into the show-stopping conclusion to the first act with the immensely dramatic torch song  “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” where she laments the loss of her love and how the group is moving on without her.  She also soars with “I Am Changing.”

As Deena, Sequina Dubose looks and sounds like a Dream especially in the title song “Dreamgirls” and my personal favorite “One Night Only.” Ashley Johnson aptly portrays Lorrell as the glue that keeps the Dreams together. She shines in a duet “Ain’t No Party.”

DeCarlo Rasberry as Curtis, the driven and sometimes unscrupulous manager who makes dreams come true, excels with a strong rich voice particularly in “You Are My Dream.”  Da’Von Moody as C.C. White, the conflicted songwriter, robustly sings “I Miss You Old Friend.”  

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Bryan Jeffrey nails it as James “Thunder” Early and instantly becomes an audience favorite.  He plays Jimmy, the soul singer, with the intensity of James Brown that Curtis was trying to mold into the next Perry Como. His performance spotlighting boundless energy, comedic moments and style is a highlight of the show.

Anwar Thomas as Marty, Jimmy’s manager, is also on target with solid acting and performs well in several songs.

There are several sensational production numbers throughout in which Ms. Hembey’s precise rhythmic choreography is on display.  This is especially evident in such numbers as “Goin’ Downtown,” “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” and the reprise of “Dreamgirls” all executed flawlessly by the spirited ensemble.

Dreamgirls depicts the many highs and lows of the music business in the mid 1960’s.   The personal sacrifices of the stars, the payola, the cutthroat nature of the managers, the sexist and racist carryover from the Jim Crow era, come into focus.

Toby’s sizable talented cast will entertain you with a fusion of rhythm and blues, soul and a new pop sound from an era a half century ago, and the superb technical crew creates a dazzling spectacle worth experiencing. It is highly recommended.

Running time. Two hours and fifty-five minutes with an intermission.

Dreamgirls at Toby’s The Dinner Theatre of Columbia runs through November 12, 2017.  For tickets and information, call 410-730-8311 or visit tobysdinnertheatre.com or ticketmaster.com.