Monday, July 27, 2015

Into the Woods at Toby's is a Good Choice


If there’s one thing you can say about Into The Woods, the Tony Award winning musical whose score and lyrics were brought into the world by the genius of Stephen Sondheim and the book by James Lapine, is that the production playing at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia was perfectly cast.  With every one of the show’s 22 characters popping up at a frenetic pace throughout the musical donned in dazzling old-time costumes by Eleanor Dicks, it is clear that there is no one better who could have performed each of the roles.   #hocoarts
Photo by Jeri Tidwell
Co-directors Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick ably took advantage of this abundance of talent and helmed an entertaining, message-laden, family-friendly spectacle.  The technical crew is also commendable particularly Lynn Joslin’s Light Design, which is effectively used to illuminate the characters that appear at different locations in the in-the-round stage while blacking out parts of the stage so that others seamlessly exit.

When we were kids we remember that the characters in fairy tales “lived happily ever after.”  That’s not necessarily the case in Into The Woods.  In this magical and sometimes dark musical, real choices found in adulthood—not necessarily childhood—and the consequences of these choices are brought to the fore.
Into The Woods is not just one fairy tale; we get to enjoy four from the Brothers Grimm—“Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Rapunzel”—whose plots are interwoven and linked with the original story of the Baker and his Wife played superbly by Jeffrey Shankle and Priscilla Cuellar, respectively.  Russell Sunday with his deep resonant voice is the Narrator who ties everything together, and there’s a lot to tie.  He also performs admirably as the Mysterious Man.

In order to break a spell from an ugly Witch (played zestfully by Janine Sunday) that had prevented the couple from bearing children, The Baker and his Wife needed to venture into the woods to find four items the Witch demanded: a slipper as pure as gold, a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, and hair as yellow as corn.  
"perfectly cast"

During their arduous journey, they encounter Cinderella (Julia Lancione) for the slipper, Jack (Jimmy Mavrikes) for the cow (Alex Beveridge), Little Red Riding Hood (Sophie Schulman) for the red cape and Rapunzel (Katherine Riddle) for the hair.  They, too, had wishes of their own as they meandered through the woods in search of those dreams.

Act One conforms to what we expect: all the characters had their wishes fulfilled and “lived happily ever after”—or did they?  In Act Two we get a glimpse of what can transpire beyond “happily ever after” endings and the consequences of the characters’ wishes. Without revealing the storyline, this act is darker than the first with its murders, terror, lies, adultery, betrayals, accusations and revenge.
Serious problems must be addressed, such as dealing with the angry vengeful widow of the Giant. In tackling this and other challenges, the four surviving characters discover they can find strength in their interdependence with one another.

As mentioned earlier, all members of the company were suitably cast as if the roles were written specifically for each.  Their vocals excel during Sondheim’s lyrically solid numbers and backed ably by the robust sounds of Ross Scott Rawlings’ six-piece orchestra.
As the determined Baker, Jeffrey Shankle mixed his acting and singing ingredients to form a delicacy of a performance.  Working with Priscilla Cuellar as the Baker’s Wife, the duo exhibits excellent onstage chemistry and performs well in “It Takes Two.”  Mr. Shankle also does very well in the group number “No One is Alone.”

Ms. Cuellar with her lovely voice in top form sings beautifully in her solo “Moments in the Woods” among others.
Another stellar combo are Jimmy Mavrikes as the simple boy Jack whose friend was his cow Milky White and veteran actress Jane C. Boyle as his struggling mother. Nimble and energetic, Mr. Mavrikes is in constant motion playing the youthful and rather dim-witted Jack.  His solo “Giants in the Sky” soars.  Ms. Boyle performs at a high level in her attempts at parenting.

As Cinderella, Julia Lancione demonstrates her superb vocal skills in a duet with Ms. Cuellar in “A Very Nice Prince” and her solo “On the Steps of the Palace.”
If you have a Grimm fairy tale then you need a handsome Prince Charming, and Jonathan Helwig as Cinderella’s Prince checks that box.  He and his brother, Rapunzel’s Prince, played by Justin Calhoun, provide much of the campiness in the show.  Their comical duet “Agony” whereby the two muse about the women in their lives hits the mark.

Ms. Sunday as the Witch sparkles in the ballad “Stay With Me” and later after her youth and beauty were restored but her powers were stripped by the potion comprised by the sought after ingredients in “Last Midnight.”
Other favorites performed by the company include the title song as the prologue and “Your Fault.”

The remainder of the cast also turns in stirring performances, notably Heather Marie Beck as Cinderella’s Stepmother, Lawrence B. Munsey as Cinderella’s Father and the hungry Wolf, Sophie Schulman as Little Red Ridinghood, Katherine Riddle as Rapunzel, Scott Harrison as Steward, and Katie Keyser and MaryKate Broulliet as Cinderella’s stepsisters Florinda and Lucinda.  And last but not least, a pat on the rump is in order for Alex Beverage’s strenuous work as Milky White.
The show takes on serious and complex subjects in a creative and artful way.  Sondheim’s music and the cast’s sterling performances make the trek Into The Woods worthwhile.

Running time: Approximately two hours and 50 minutes with an intermission.
Into The Woods plays through September 6 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling 410-730-8311or visiting online.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

There'll Always Be a Place For Pride


All that talk of mainstreaming, assimilating, acceptance, the loss of gay bars, and the potential loss of LGBT organizations, one has to wonder why there is even a need for LGBT Pride anymore.  Given these shifts in our own culture as well as society as a whole, I posed that very question to one of our popular LGBT leaders while we were discussing Pride.  She set me straight, so to speak.

“We most certainly need Pride to gather as a community and celebrate our identity at least once a year,” she stressed without any hesitation.  And upon further contemplation, she is absolutely right.
I guess I had been soured by what Pride has evolved into. The notion that Pride is aimed at celebrating the Stonewall uprising and the fight for gay rights is a quaint one.  It’s no longer the case.

Back in the day, that was the motivation for the parades and rallies.  Gay liberation was the battle cry.  People of all ages, genders, walks of life and ethnic backgrounds held up signs and chanted slogans.  It was indeed an assertion that gay people should not be relegated to second class citizenship and that we are proud of who we are as human beings who just happen to be LGBT.  We were not about to go back into or remain in the closet because straight society would like us to.  It was a day to proclaim our identity, and we demanded the rights that others enjoyed.
Ironically, these demonstrations proved to be counterproductive.  Opponents of such rights were aided by the media’s coverage of Pride parades with their ratings-conscious focus on the more flamboyant and exhibitionists among us.  This served to feed the stereotypes to information-starved heterosexuals who found comfort in this selective portrayal.  It reinforced their beliefs; their bigotry had been validated.

As key victories began to amass, the political and emotional impetus for the Pride celebrations that was so evident in the first three decades following Stonewall have all but dissipated.  No longer do you see numerous placards and banners with compelling messages.  No longer do you hear political speeches from officials clamoring for equality. 
Sure, there are folks going around soliciting donations or asking people to sign up on organizations’ mailing lists and perhaps sign a petition or two.  But it is no way the same as the grass roots movement that carried us through those difficult years.

“Where can we drink?” is the operative question.
Instead, our Pride festivities, especially the block parties, have become similar to other events that celebrate ethnic or national identities.  We get the crowds, the music, the food vendors, the entertainment and the booze.  No political speeches and no serious subjects are engaged publicly.  Make no mistake it has become a party, plain and simple. 

This is no one’s fault, mind you; it is now what most attendees want and expect.  The GLCCB, which runs Pride and who needs it to succeed to keep that organization afloat, is simply satisfying the demand.  “Where can we drink?” is the operative question.  If there was a ban on alcohol, how many would still show up?

I may be old school in that I appreciate our LGBT history and try to understand how our movement has been shaped.  But I love a party just like anyone else.  I just need to recognize that the current generation does not see these celebrations through a historical prism.  It’s sad because of the sacrifices made by our LGBT pioneers and that these folks and their efforts are not recognized at Pride events.

Nonetheless, I will continue to celebrate Pride by acknowledging the distance we have traveled and the progress we have achieved.  Nobody thought five years ago that marriage equality would be the law of the land but it is.  Nobody thought we would see a transgender person making a speech to primarily a sports audience on national television that received a standing ovation and the degree of widespread praise it garnered despite a pushback from within and outside the LGBT communities.
We must acknowledge, however, that much work remains.  We need a federal all-inclusive anti-discrimination law.  We need to address the disproportionate amount of LGBT youth who are homeless and bullied and to deal with the reasons why these kids are still unaccepted by their families and schoolmates.  We need to strive to end the harmful outdated nonsense called reparative therapy.  We must convince our younger generation that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is far from eradicated and risky sexual behavior remains dangerous. 

We must also be wary of the backlash stemming from our success on the marriage front, and expect that we will be used by Republican presidential candidates during the campaign to appease their bigoted voters.  
A little less division within our own community would be helpful.  When one part of our community succeeds, we all succeed.  When one part fails, we all fail together.  Strong leadership is required to help galvanize our communities the way it once was in those early post-Stonewall Pride celebrations.

Pride should be an opportunity to reflect upon these challenges.  But it’s a party now, so having some fun is not all that bad either. 
Happy Pride!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Higher Praise for 'Altar Boyz' at Spotlighters


It might be seen as a miracle, but the cozy Spotlighters Theatre has been transformed into a spacious Baltimore concert hall where screaming fans of the 5-member Christian boy band Altar Boyz stomp, clap and cheer at the band’s final concert of their Raise the Praise tour.  Well, maybe not exactly, but the performances from the band themselves spew enough energy and talent to fill any venue, and it clearly works well at Spotlighters.  #hocoarts
Photo: Chris Aldridge/CMAldridgePhotography
Altar Boyz, with music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker and book by Kevin Del Aguila, spoofs Christian dogma and its Christian-themed music as well as boy bands’ popularity without a heavy touch and keeps you laughing with the satirical, clever lyrics contained in the songs.  Altar Boyz, which ran from 2005-10, became the 9th longest running off-Broadway show and received several awards including the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical.

The fictional concert customizes its material to relate to Baltimore (or wherever the musical runs) whereby the boyz from Ohio passionately deliver the messages of Christianity, try to save the burdened souls of the audience, and confront (or confess) their own vulnerabilities.  Though gimmicky, a device called the Soul Sensor (monitors above the stage) is used to count down the number of burdened souls remaining in the audience with the expressed goal of reducing the number to zero.
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Are We Victims of Our Own Success?


When we first learned that the Hippo planned to close later this year, many in the community attributed that development to a cultural transformation.  Gay bars, according to these folks, aren’t as important as they once were, and with the growing acceptance of LGBT people by society as a whole, more gay people are finding their entertainment and social networking at straight establishments or online. 
This acceptance, although far from universal, has always been a goal of LGBT advocates who do not want to be considered second class citizens by the larger straight community.  In effect, one could point to this shift as a success, and if the trend continues, we could be seeing the end of gay bars and similar businesses—the results of this success—though I maintain they are still needed and have a place in our society.   

One such achievement that is causing financial problems for LGBT organizations is marriage equality.  For over a decade, same-sex marriage proponents have made the quest for marriage equality the centerpiece of the movement, which would bestow the over 1,100 benefits, rights and responsibilities that are conferred upon heterosexual married couples. 
While not every gay and lesbian considered marriage to a same-sex partner something they personally coveted, they still had that option should such nuptials become legal. It was a worthy goal, to be sure, and those organizations at the forefront of the battles in the state legislatures and governors’ offices reaped the benefits of this movement that gathered steam after same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts in 2003.

Whether or not gay or lesbian individuals were partnered, many bought into the marriage equality movement, and combined with supportive allies, wrote out checks to those organizations leading the way.  Locally, that organization had been Equality Maryland, which fought hard to push a bill through an overwhelmingly Democratic but politically timid legislature and an unyielding Governor Ehrlich followed by a vacillating Governor O’Malley who finally threw his support for the measure in 2011 after advocating for civil unions.
Despite the uphill climb, Equality Maryland prevailed, and along with others, succeeded in persuading the legislature to pass the bill, which O’Malley signed into law in 2012.  Equality Maryland joined other groups under the auspices of Marylanders for Marriage Equality to defeat a referendum put forth by marriage equality opponents including Maryland’s Catholic Archdiocese.

Just four days after the June 26 historic Supreme Court ruling that paved the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states, the chairs of Equality Maryland’s two boards released a statement warning of the organization’s potential demise. 
“Funding from individuals and major donor sources dropped significantly after securing marriage equality,” the statement read.  “The Board believes passionately that Equality Maryland ought to continue to play a critical, central role in the coming years for our community, but is facing one of two possibilities for the future: drastically scaling down operations, with a reduced capacity to serve its many constituencies across the state, or suspending operations entirely.

“Unless and until we secure adequate revenue to sustain the organization, the important services, oversight and advocacy it has consistently provided to the Maryland LGBT community will cease to be.”  
Carrie Evans, its executive director, had been let go because of the financial crisis.

It was always my impression that Equality Maryland was never awash in cash.  The organization nearly imploded a few years ago over financial matters and a lack of oversight by their board.  Morgan Meneses-Sheets, the executive director at the time, was fired in an ugly controversial mess. 
Equality Maryland’s finances had historically been held close to the vest.  Indeed, when the Washington Blade recently conducted a survey of national and local LGBT organizations concerning their financial status and the salaries of the respective executive directors, Equality Maryland did not respond to multiple requests to provide such information.  I always believed that organizations that raise money from the community ought to be more transparent regarding how the funds are being spent, but that was not the case with this one.

Clearly, the success of marriage equality here and nationally has removed the largest and most appealing magnet from which to raise money, and organizations like Equality Maryland could fall victim.  It would be a shame if that comes to pass. 
There is so much work ahead especially efforts to address bullying in schools, suicides among LGBT youth, homelessness whereby LGBT youth are disproportionately at risk, LGBT youth in the foster care and the juvenile justice system, the continuing fight to address discrimination and violence directed towards transgender individuals, banning conversion therapy, combating an increase in HIV infections in the African-American community in addition to the seemingly endless fight nationally to secure a Federal all-inclusive non-discrimination law.

Many of these issues require legislation, and Equality Maryland is in the best position to work its political acumen to achieve results.  However, they are not sexy issues as marriage equality was and, therefore, not likely to build their fundraising efforts around them.
Realizing that this was a real possibility, I strongly advocated for Equality Maryland to re-tool its mission and use its expertise to help launch local organizations in various parts of the state.  These “Balkanized” iterations of Equality Maryland would be in the best position to deal with local brush fires in schools, businesses, law enforcement and other areas where neighbors could have more of an impact than a central organization.

It’s something that Equality Maryland should still consider if it’s not too late.  Selling that idea to a public who helped financially to secure marriage equality is do-able.  Unless that happens, Equality Maryland as well as all of us will have been victims of our own success.

Monday, June 29, 2015

'The Producers' is no Flop at Olney


In a turnabout from its previous musical that offered the relatively sober Carousel, the Olney Theatre Center, in the midst of its 77th season, is currently mounting the gregarious, laugh-a-minute production of The Producers.  It is clear from the get-go why this musical captured a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards in 2001 and spawned numerous other productions worldwide as well a successful film in 2005.  The hilarity, high-jinx and gags keep the audience laughing throughout with never a dull moment to be had.  #hocoarts

Michael Kostroff, Jessica Jaros and Michael Di Liberto  Photo: Stan Barouh
Mel Books and Thomas Meehan adapted the musical from the 1968 movie with the same name. The music and lyrics were composed and written by Mr. Brooks who turned 89 the day following the opening night performance at Olney.  His comedic genius along with Mr. Meehan’s assistance on the book is stamped on every line, every lyric, and every movement.

Under the expert direction of Mark Waldrop, who stays true to the original show (and why not?), the company and crew does this iconic show justice in every facet and is among the very best productions that Olney has staged in years.  The Producers is unapologetic in its irreverence towards Nazis, gay people, the elderly, and Broadway folks especially producers.
To read full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Extraordinary 'Pippin' at the Hippodrome


If there is one word that describes the production of Pippin that is currently gracing the Hippodrome Theatre stage is “spectacle.”  And if I add a second word, then it would be “extraordinary.”


Sam Lips as Pippin and Company Photo: Martha Rial
The enchanting musical that captured four Tony Awards in 1973, and 40 years later the 2013 revival added four more including Best Revival of a Musical, has been touring the country for nine months and now Baltimore audiences can enjoy this outstanding theatrical experience. 

With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Roger O. Hirson, Pippin, is a fanciful tale about a young man, Pippin (played exceptionally by Sam Lips), who is searching for the meaning of life and in the process is seeking fulfillment. 

As the son of Charlemagne (King Charles, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire), one would think that Pippin would have all that he needs.  In his mind he doesn’t, and his journey to be “extraordinary” is the central plotline.

Pippin is unique in that it features a traveling theatre troupe of circus-style performers, known as The Players.  Among them are acrobats, clowns, dancers, illusionists and gymnasts who perform a wide array of daring aerial stunts, pole climbing, and a host of other athletic body-contorting feats that are eye-popping. 
Expertly directed by Diane Paulus, this musical has a charm that separates it from the others.  It’s a play within the musical whereby a character named Leading Player (performed superbly by Sasha Allen, a top 5 singer from Season 4 of The Voice) who is, as you’d expect, the lead performer of The Players.  She directs and produces the play as well as acts as a narrator for the audience, and has a definitive interest in Pippin.  In the original production of Pippin, that role was played by Ben Vereen, who came away with a Tony.



This production of Pippin excels in every area

Ms. Allen excels with her dancing and vocal skills, comedic abilities and commanding presence on the stage.  Her rendition of “Glory” and her duet with Mr. Lips, in “On the Right Track” showcases the talents of both.
#hocoarts
Sam Lips, possessing striking good looks and a lithe, athletic physique, demonstrates multiple talents as the lead.  On stage for most of the scenes, Mr. Lips delivers a high-octane performance throughout with his movements on the stage and even in the circus sequences.  His rich tenor voice with a wide range is evident in the moving “Corner of the Sky” as well as “Morning Glow,” and “Extraordinary.”

As Pippin’s father, Charlemagne, John Rubinstein totally enjoys his role.  Mr. Rubinstein, who played Pippin in the original Broadway production, returns as the King who believes war is essential to holding the throne.  After he is killed by Pippin in an effort to seize the throne, The Leading Player resurrects him.  That tells you something about the zany plot.
Another scene stealer is the accomplished Adrienne Barbeau as Pippin’s free-spirited, fun-loving, dirty-minded, trapeze hanging, exiled grandmother Berthe.  Sassy and campy, Ms. Barbeau delivers a mighty theatrical punch in her main scene and scores with her number “No Time at All.”

Other cast members who turn in solid performances include Erik Altemus as Pippin’s half-brother Lewis; Kristine Reese as Catherine, a widow who brings Pippin into her home and soars with her song “Kind of Woman”; Sabrina Harper as Fastrada, Pippin’s conniving stepmother; Stephen Sayegh who works alternatively with Jake Berman as Catherine’s son Theo; and, of course, the skilled and acrobatic Players. 
The set, designed by Scott Pask consists of a whimsical circus tent with all the equipment needed to carry out the amazing stunts.

Larry Hochman and his orchestra ably supports the excellent vocals. Chet Walker’s Bob Fosse-style choreography is superb. Dominique Lemieux fitted the company in dazzling eclectic costumes especially those worn by The Players. Kenneth Posner’s vivid lighting and Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm’s crystal clear sound design contributed to the joyful experience.
This production of Pippin excels in every area and should not be missed.  Its only flaw is that it’s only here for a short time. 

Running time: Two hours and 35 minutes with an intermission.
Pippin runs through June 28 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Beware of the Haters


The tragic murders in Charleston, SC drove home the point that there is much hatred in this world, and there is little reason to believe it’s going away anytime soon.  Racial hatred is percolating, creating a deep fissure in our society—a troubling situation even a half century since the civil rights bill was signed into law.   There is also an abundance of hateful anti-Semitism, anti-Latino, anti-Asian and yes, homophobia out there, and we need to be concerned.  Very concerned.

Within the past month, two separate anti-gay attacks on young male couples in Baltimore both startled and angered those community members who became aware of them.  The victims were beaten up pretty badly but are now recovering. 
The couple that was robbed along with the beating, not only lost money and cell phones, but also had to endure the painstakingly bureaucratic process of obtaining new driver’s licenses and other forms of identification as well as reporting stolen cell phones, credit and ATM cards. 

Then there is the trauma resulting from these incidents that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.  They acknowledge, however, it could have been worse.  They are living.  Not everyone who had endured such brutality survived.
Both attacks occurred after returning from a bar or club at night.  And in both instances, the attackers launched anti-gay slurs while committing their assaults.  In one case the victims were called “bitches” and “queers” and in the other one, “f*****g faggots.”  This indicates, at least to me, that the attacks were hate crimes.  We know that in one of these incidents, police are investigating it as a possible hate crime.  Police did not confirm if such an investigation will be pursued for the other one.

Whether technically they are found to be hate crimes or not, they were acts of hate.  The anti-gay slurs and the vicious beatings would lead me to that conclusion.  The robbery of both members of the couple took place during the beating; it was not your routine street robbery in that the victims were not held up at gun or knifepoint initially and told to fork over their valuables.  While they were punched and stomped on, one of the attackers went through their pockets to retrieve wallets and phones to top off their heinous mugging. 
The other attack on a couple did not involve a robbery but one member, Steven Lemmerman also known by his DJ name, DJ Lemz, was severely roughed up  following an altercation with a motorist who came within an inch of hitting him in a crosswalk.  His partner escaped without injury.

Baltimore can be a rough city; we should be vigilant for possible attacks.  This is especially true if the U.S. Supreme Court rules favorably on marriage equality in the coming days.  Yes, there will be celebrations galore should we win the case. 
However, there will also be a backlash, and no one knows exactly how that reaction will manifest itself.  Anti-gay attacks are likely to result though the extent is unclear.  There has been so much overt acceptance of LGBT folks and support for same-sex marriage that people can be fooled into believing that life will move merrily along down a rainbow path.

This is far from the truth.  Many people have not bought in on the equality concept.  Most won’t go out and beat up “queers” as if it was a sport—and I know that some who participated in those activities viewed gay bashing as just that: recreation.  Some may, though.  They simply don’t like us, some even hate us, and much of this bigotry is tied to religious dogma and generations of homophobia within their families.  Taken a step further, the haters out there are potentially violent.
These recent gay bashings could be instructive.  The important safeguard is not to draw undue attention to yourself in this current environment.  Lemmerman told me less than a week after the assault, “I do not believe the attacker was driving around specifically looking to attack gay couples, but I believe us having fun and being ourselves set him off in an awful way.”

There are other common sense approaches, such as try not to walk alone on a street; walk where the streets are well-lit; do not display or use a cell phone or show any cash while walking; and do not get intoxicated.  The last point is very important because if you are impaired, you cannot be observant of your surroundings.  And if you are attacked, your condition will not enable you to make a clear, indisputable identification of the attacker.
As a victim of a brutal attack, Lemmerman added his insights: “Please be aware of your surroundings and who is around you. If you are out at the clubs, try and travel with at least one friend if on foot. If Stu [his partner] was not with me screaming for help, I shudder to think how much worse it could have gotten.

“If someone tries to provoke you, do your absolute best to not give them a reason to go after you. No matter how awful what they say or do is and how mad you might get, be the bigger person and walk away from the situation as safely and fast as you can. It can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time.”
You can find more safety tips from the Baltimore Police Department here.    
 
In addition, we do have an LGBT Liaison with the Baltimore Police Department if you experience any difficulties in dealing with the police.  His name is Sgt. Kevin Bailey, and he can be reached at 443- 984-7411 or by email at Kevin.Bailey@BaltimorePolice.org.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

'Jumpers for Goalposts' Victorious at Studio Theatre


What better way to get a jump on DC’s Capital Pride than to see Tom Wells’ Jumpers for Goalposts at the Studio Theatre, which is what I did the afternoon on June 13 just prior to the parade.  This charming, endearing, and often funny play that is making its U.S. debut was written skillfully by British playwright Tom Wells. Jumpers has been so enjoyed by audiences that the run has been extended at least through June 28.  #hocoarts

From left: Zdenko Martin, Liam Forde, Jonathan Judge-Russo,

Michael Glenn and Kimberly Gilbert.  Photo: Igor Dmitri

Director Matt Torney and his talented cast are to be given high-fives for bringing Mr. Wells’ script to life in such a touching and entertaining way.

The story concerns an LGBT pub football (soccer for us Americans) team in the working class town of Hull in England.  Their games are played on Sunday while the season lasts, and after each encounter, the players return to their normal lives.
Aptly named Barely Athletic, the hapless five-person team in this five-team league consists of three gay men, a lesbian and a “token straight.” As an example of its futility on the field, it narrowly defeated a transgender team playing in gowns and stilettos.  

While the team’s ineptitude is the backdrop of the play, the characters make the story rich, real and full of heart.  They are all everyday folks who have had problems in the past, and despite these challenges, at the end they find a way to move on. 
Most of us can relate to the ordinariness of their existence, the problems they encounter and the battles to overcome them.  This disparate group of characters in Jumpers allow us to reflect on our own lives in a way that causes our issues to seem mundane. 

The window that allows us to peak into the characters’ lives is the masterful set designed by Debra Booth.  All the action takes place in a grimy municipal locker room that mimics the gritty town in which it resides.   The details—from the bulletin board, filing cabinets and benches to the entrance to the shower room—are realistically displayed and form the perfect setting for the play.
Viv, a lesbian pub owner, played robustly by Kimberly Gilbert (2015 Helen Hayes Award recipient), is the mouthy self-appointed coach of the squad who was kicked off the lesbian team for being too bossy.  She can’t stand the constant losing on the field, and she pleads with each member to find a way to score a goal and for the goalie to stop a shot. 

Viv implores her teammates to at least “give it a go” even if they don’t emerge as victorious.  She even purchased three different sized trophies as a way of inspiration.  She was willing to settle for third place if the other two pegs in the standings were unachievable.  Viv may have showed off her bluster but she demonstrates a tender side as well.

Her sister had passed away and was the wife of another player on the team, the “token straight” and oldest member of the team, Joe, who is still grieving his loss.  He is played movingly by Michael Glenn. 
Beardy Geoff, a large man—a  bear, if you will—who insists on playing the game donned in  colorful patterned trousers and a childish woolen knit cap with bear ears, is one of the three gay male characters.  He has a penchant for having sex with members of the opposition and is the conduit between the other two gay men on the team.  Jonathan Judge-Russo performs admirably in this role and tenderly delivers the surprise ending.

Zdenko Martin, a hunky well-muscled chap plays Danny, who is clearly the most athletic of the male teammates and is the assistant coach.  He has an attraction for the overly shy, sheepish and squeamish Luke, played by Liam Forde.  Luke is a slender lad who keeps a diary consisting of rather uninteresting entries, needs to take a bus to and from the field so he can perform his job in a library, and has difficulty in opening the locker room door.
Danny and Luke make progress in their budding romance until Beardy Geoff convinces Danny to reveal to Luke the truth Danny has long-harbored.  Needless to say, it wasn’t well received. Mr. Martin and Mr. Forde turn in sterling performances especially during this exchange, which provides the most potent dramatic scene.

Under Mr. Torney’s direction, the play is staged with precision and energy.  Countless changes of costumes designed realistically by Kathleen Geldard are needed to reflect the passage of time while retaining the focus on the locker room.  The actors carry out these tasks perfectly without missing a beat.
Jumpers for Goalposts describes the challenges, struggles and triumphs of ordinary folks, exposing each of the character’s weaknesses and inner strengths alternately in funny and sad moments.  They may not win on the football field but they champion the stage.  This excellent play by Tom Wells should not be missed.

 Running time: Approximately One hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: The play contains adult language and is not suitable for children.

Jumpers for Goalposts is playing through June 28 at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20005.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 202-332-3300 or visiting online .

Monday, June 08, 2015

Bullying Not Peanuts at Spotlighters


If there is anything wrong with Burt V. Royal’s play, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead currently playing at the Spotlighters Theatre, it is that not enough people will catch this important work.  An “unauthorized parody” of Charles Schultz’ Peanuts comic strip whereby the Peanuts characters have grown into adolescence, Dog Sees God, which earned a GLAAD media award for Best Off-Off-Broadway Play in 1984, takes on serious issues that adolescents continue to grapple with today.  Mr. Royal’s characters’ names are different from the Peanuts crowd because of intellectual property rights.

From left: Reed DeLisle as Beethoven, Sean Dynan as CB, and Dennis Binseel as Matt
Photo: Chris Aldridge
#hocoarts
The play poignantly focuses on teen bullying, but suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, and sexual identity among others also factor in.  With these many issues to contend with in a one-act play lasting just over an hour and a half, time could not be spent on all to delve deeply enough to do them justice.  Nonetheless, they are touched on to some extent, and bullying and suicide emerge as the central topics.
Under Director Fuzz Roark, the talented cast of young actors brings Mr. Royal’s work to life with intensity, power and energy.  The play is constructed with over 20 scenes that are well-staged and well-paced.  The cast implements smooth transitions with the use of Al Ramer’s effective lighting design, and background music is piped in during these moments.  Many of these scenes are highly dramatic and pivotal to the plot; they are executed well.

The actors make effective use of the square stage in the center of the in-the-round theater using moveable benches and tables as props in Alan Zemia’s simple but functional set.  In addition, a piano, which plays a significant part in the play’s drama, sits in the corner along the runway.

Sean Dynan, as the principal character CB (Charlie Brown), turns in a splendid acting performance.  Handsome but conveying uncertain teenage-awkwardness at the same time, he moves about the stage with the weight of the world seemingly on his shoulders.  CB’s dog had died, and CB was looking to find out if there was an afterlife.  His friends consist of a pothead (Van, played by Adam Michael Abruzzo); two boozers who think they are the cool kids (Marcy and Tricia played convincingly by April Airriona Jones and Melanie Glickman, respectively); a sex-obsessed homophobe Matt (Dennis Binseel); and  CB’s sister who has varying philosophies on life (forcefully acted by Parker Bailey Steven), provide no good answers. 

a must-see thought-provoking and entertaining event

CB had at one time physically hurt Beethoven, the school’s outcast because he is gay, and during his attempt at reconciliation kisses him, then falls for him.  Beethoven (Schroeder in Peanuts) incurs the hateful wrath of Matt whose homophobia is so extreme that it ultimately and predictably raises questions as to why. 
 
Beethoven is played touchingly by Reed DeLisle.  He finds solace from the bullying and harassment by playing classical music on the piano.  His cowering movements around the stage and his restrained dialogue are a function of his constant fear and anger.  Mr. DeLisle delivers a moving performance in this role.
Hunky Dennis Binseel as Matt (Pig-Pen in Peanuts) is the play’s main antagonist.  His persona is similar to a ball of rubber bands tightly wound up whereby the slightest provocation sets him off.  Matt is menacing (and violent).  Mr. Binseel carries this off superbly with powerful intensity. 
Rounding out the cast is Autumn Rocha, Van’s sister, who is institutionalized for setting a red-haired girl’s hair on fire.  The scene between her and CB is outstanding.
The remainder of plot will not be divulged because the highly dramatic ending but is climaxed by an emotional letter to CB from a pen-pal.
 
To his credit, Fuzz Roark, as the Spotlighters Theatre’s Executive Director, added an insert to the program containing important information concerning bullying and suicide that had been furnished by PFLAG-Carroll County and The Trevor Project.  These pages include the warning signs that people should notice, actions that can be taken, statistics, hotline numbers and other useful information.  In addition, the lobby of the theatre displays a range of brochures covering the issues that surfaced in the play. 
Also, the brief after-play discussion by cast members with the audience caps off the experience very fittingly.  Following the performance for this review, Melanie Glickman ably led the discussion.
 
Dog Sees God is mostly a serious play with a few chuckles sprinkled about.  Mr. Royal’s script captures teenage angst and the serious problems that adolescents face at school each day.  It scrupulously informs the audience as to the consequences of bad decisions or the lack of guidance from others. 
Those critical issues covered by the play are reasons enough to attend.  However, it is a well-directed and well-staged work that is performed by a talented cast and makes it a must-see thought-provoking and entertaining event.    
 
Running time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission
Advisory: The play contains profanity and sexual situations and is not suitable for children under 13.
Dog Sees God runs through June 28 at the Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St., Baltimore, MD 21202.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-752-1225 or visiting online.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Pride is Bustin' Out All Over

Pride used to be solely a June thing.  When the Stonewall uprising of 1969 was commemorated beginning in June 1970 gay and lesbian folks started to speak out forcefully against mistreatment and discrimination and at the same time pushing to achieve the same rights held by others.  Steadily that theme faded away as the years rolled along, not because all the rights for LGBT individuals have been achieved, but Pride evolved into more of a spectacle that took on a less political character. 

Pride became a huge enterprise that brings in needed dollars to organizations running the events   that usually feature a parade and a festival at a minimum but also for corporate sponsors who display their support for LGBT rights.  This involvement benefits those gay-friendly businesses as LGBT folks will remember seeing their logos on promotional materials. 
There’s nothing wrong with this at all; it’s the way our economy works.  Sponsors support a celebration that LGBT people crave and they get the benefit of advertising.

Whereas most Pride festivities took place in the month of June, they are now spread over a season, if you will.  Locally, that’s certainly the case.  Hagerstown Hopes Pride occurred in May.  June will see a number of Pride happenings including Capital Pride in DC and Frederick Pride as well as the big one in NYC. 
Because of a scheduling conflict this year, Baltimore had moved its annual event to July for the first time—the 25th and 26th to be exact.   The Pride Festival of Central PA in Harrisburg will also take place on July 25.  And the Chesapeake Pride Festival in Mayo Beach Park in Anne Arundel County normally occurs in August but this year it was cancelled because of financial shortcomings.  Organizers say it will return in 2016 if the needed funds can be raised.

Thus, our Pride season touches four months giving LGBT  folks and allies opportunities to check some neighboring festivals over this period and not have to feel that it’s one and done.
This is going to be an interesting Pride season for sure.  Heck, they all are but 2015 could be historic.  The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of the month whether or not same-sex marriage will become the law of the land.  Everywhere throughout our interconnected world will find out soon enough if this potentially enormous victory will be realized.

It is what marriage equality advocates have been hoping for over a decade.  Our relationships could lead to a societal equivalency when gays and lesbians tie the knot.  No longer would we be considered second class citizens in the U.S. should the Justices rule that the states do not have a Constitutional right to ban same-sex marriages.  
And it’s not just here. With Ireland’s unprecedented vote by its people last month, a whopping 19 countries now permit same-sex marriage, and the U.S. is poised to be number 20 with a few more on the immediate horizon.  Go back as recently to the 2004 presidential campaign where Karl Rove and George W. Bush led the charge against same-sex marriage.  Fast-forward to the present and soak in what changes have taken place in these 11 years.  It’s utterly amazing.

Think of the celebratory atmosphere at Pride events amped up by such an historical decision should it come to pass.  True, most Pride attendees ignore politics even if they are directly affected; they prefer to party and carouse.  When was the last time you heard political speeches from the Pride stages in Baltimore? 
Those who remember or at least pay homage to the true reasons for celebrating Pride are resigned to the fact that the torch has been passed on to a new generation.  Many in this new generation are oblivious to the sacrifices others have made in the past and the numerous hills that were climbed with still many left to conquer.  Nonetheless, if the rainbow stars are aligned, this should be some helluva Pride.

A good number of LGBT people believe that the establishment of full marriage equality is another step towards mainstreaming—a fear or acknowledgement ignited by the closing of gay bars over the past two to three years.  Most of these closings were business decisions in one form or another; not a surrender to some inevitable social ailment that will eventually make gay bars extinct.  It’s not going to happen—not if there’s money to be made.
...if the rainbow stars are aligned, this should be some helluva Pride.
While these folks fear this loss of identity, keep in mind that homophobia is alive and well.  Despite any court rulings, we are not fully accepted, not by a long shot.  For example, the nation does not have a federal anti-discrimination law in place and will not do so for years to come under the current composition of Congress.

The hateful antigay rhetoric you read on the Internet is chilling.  The Republican presidential hopefuls so far have yet to ease up on their homophobic rants as they foolishly try to appeal to their extremist bigoted base and then wonder why they can’t win a general election.
And not all homophobia is overt.  Little comments here and there from those who deny they are homophobic are, in fact, homophobic even if accompanied by their phony smiles.  People you think are accepting put on a fa├žade but their inner selves think otherwise.

As we celebrate Pride for whatever reasons, just know we are not there yet.  We still have an important identity that is not going to evaporate because of gay bars shutting down. Plus, there is much work left to do; marriage equality doesn’t end our quest, it provides the momentum to march on.
There are ample opportunities and incentives to celebrate this Pride season.  But we have to keep it real.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Are Gay Bars the Next Dinasours?


When the Hippo announced its impending closing, there was a lot of collective hand-wringing.   Many in Baltimore’s LGBT communities saw this as a disaster and perhaps the final nail in the coffin for LGBT identity.  They feel the gay bar will go the way of the phone booth, record stores, and liberal Republicans.
The soon-to-close Hippo
To be sure, we have witnessed the closing of local gay bars with The Eagle in 2012 and the Quest in 2014.  The Hippo’s last dance is expected later in 2015, Grand Central may be up for sale in 2016, while another bar south of the city is teetering on closing in the very near future.  Jay’s on Read, while not technically a gay bar but popular among LGBT folks, faces an uncertain future.
Bars shut down for a variety of reasons, but for the most part it’s because of financial considerations resulting from a falloff in patronage.  The most popular reason discussed is that younger gay people are frequenting straight bars with their straight friends.  Baltimore icon John Waters believes that tendency is why gay bars are eventually going to vanish. 

“The coolest gay kids today don’t want to go to a gay bar.  They want to go to a hip bar where straights and gays are mixing,” Waters said during a recent WYPR interview . 

Grand Central owner Don Davis agrees. In that same interview Davis observed that gay people are feeling more comfortable with going with straight friends to a straight bar.  He feels the change in “demographics” will sustain this trend.
There are other factors in play.  Men don’t cruise at the bars as they once did, using phone apps and the Internet to replace hooking up through personal contact at bars.  It’s cheaper since less alcohol is consumed (or needed) and rejection is less painful.  Still others are bored by the bar scene and prefer alternative sources of amusement.

However, The Baltimore Eagle didn’t close because leather men and leather women took flight to straight establishments.  The previous owner passed away and the estate sold the bar.  If the new ownership of The Baltimore Eagle fails to have a controversial Liquor Board ruling overturned, the bar will remain closed.
The mixing of straights and gays at bars became more evident during the period when there was a Guerilla Gay Bar movement between 2009 and 2011.  To provide an alternative to the gay bar scene, monthly outings consisting of an “invasion” of gays at selected straight bars and clubs around Baltimore were scheduled with prior notice given to the bar’s management and staff.  


The Baltimore Eagle is already closed but for how long?
With one exception, because of a failure to communicate effectively, these events were hugely successful with no incidents or any other ostensible problems.  The bars’ staffs were eager to take in our money and the other patrons enjoyed or at least put up with our presence, which often numbered in the hundreds.
  
The following year marriage equality passed by referendum in Maryland confirming the increased acceptance by the straight folks.  Nationally, polls indicate that same-sex marriage is favored by a 3 to 2 margin.  Yet, even if those results are accurate, there are still 2 out of 5 who oppose marriage equality.  That’s a significant number, if not the majority.
Therefore, by no means is our acceptance universal or complete.  A gay couple in Chelsea in NYC can attest to the fact that there are haters out there who would do us harm as they were brutally attacked.  The Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, if favorable as it appears likely, will cause a backlash among many groups.  And the Republican candidates in the presidential clown car are falling all over each other in an effort to appeal to their bigoted base by raising the temperature on strident anti-gay marriage rhetoric. 

I don’t believe that the gay bar will become a dinosaur any time too soon.  Sure, younger gays and lesbians may be frequenting straight establishments.  But do male couples actually dance at these places, holds hands, or are affectionate? I certainly would not feel comfortable or safe dancing or being affectionate with my husband at a straight club.  Or, will these guys dance with their female friends as closeted gay men once did in the past while out in public? 
A gay bar does provide a secure space where one can be him or herself.  You’re with folks with more common interests, and that’s a boost towards the social benefits.  If you’re holding the hand of your gay or lesbian partner or spouse in a gay bar, you don’t have to look around to be sure the person behind you won’t break a bottle over your head.  Of course, it can happen but much less likely in a gay bar.

Regardless, existing gay bars need to step it up. Though there will be fewer gay bars around, those remaining should do well at least in the near term.  It would behoove bar owners to be more innovative and creative to keep the customers entertained and interested in patronizing their establishments.   They ought to listen to their customers to see what they would like.
As Don Davis noted on WYPR, Grand Central offers special events to keep things interesting and exciting in order for him to compete.  He unapologetically encourages a straight crowd to join in the festivities and stresses that Grand Central is an “alternative bar” and not a gay bar per se.

It is apparent that further acceptance by society fueled by the younger generation may ultimately obviate the need for gay bars or even LGBT organizations.  That would be a tangible sign of progress though we still have a ways to go.  Until then the gay bar will continue to be an integral part of LGBT social life and will not vanish altogether, at least not yet.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Magical Ride Through Orioles History


If you are or have been a Baltimore Orioles fan for over a half century or became one just recently, 60 Years of Orioles Magic is a must read chronicle from the birth of the Birds through the exhilarating 2014 season.  The coffee table-sized book with tons of extraordinary vintage and color photos of virtually everybody whoever put on an O’s uniform presents a superb accounting of all the ups and downs the franchise has experienced since its 1954 move to Baltimore from St. Louis.
Jim Henneman, a former sports journalist for the Baltimore News American and Baltimore Sun for over 50 years and who attended the first Orioles game in Baltimore in 1954, shared his wealth of knowledge of Orioles lore throughout the 276-page book. The best all-time Orioles pitcher, Jim Palmer, penned the introduction drawing on his astounding photographic baseball memory that he often displays on TV citing specifics of a game from decades past (who pitched against him, which batter he retired with men on base, the score, etc.).

The book contains 14 chapters that chronologically depict key “eras” over the 60 years.  Enhanced by countless vivid photos—many full page in size and of the action variety—and detailed captions, the story of the Orioles history unfolds in what must be considered catnip for Orioles fans in particular and baseball fans in general.  There are also replica ephemera, including old-time tickets, scorecards, posters and more among the pages.

From a description of the poor-performing Orioles teams early on in the 1950s to the emergence of a contender and then champion team in the 1960’s, Henneman effectively rekindles the memories of how the team evolved from oblivion to become one of the elite squads in baseball.
He continues this journey in the subsequent decades with the team’s peaks and valleys, which were numerous, and  covering the multitude of players who wore the orange and black, the ownership, the front office, trades—good and bad, the various managers, the new ballpark at Camden Yards and much, much more.  In particular, Henneman describes so well the exciting “Why Not?” season of 1989 that captivated the baseball world and Orioles fans. 

Several Orioles are highlighted in full page tributes, such as Earl Weaver, Brooks Robinson, Doug Decinces, Eddie Murray and the phenomenon known as Cal Ripken, Jr. especially his “iron man” streak.
60 Years of Orioles Magic includes a feature that is absolutely wonderful and a delight to baseball addicts.  Following each era, Henneman recounts a bunch of “Memorable Games” that were usually significant, odd or ironic.  For instance, this section shows Hoyt Wilhlem becoming the first Orioles pitcher to throw a no-hitter, which occurred on September 20, 1958. 

Or when on June 21, 1966, Frank Robinson hit a 451-foot blast off Luis Tiant of Cleveland that became the only home run hit out of Memorial Stadium.  On July 27, 1973, the Orioles defeated the White Sox 17-0 for the largest shutout victory in club history.  Then there was Tippy Martinez picking off three Toronto runners in the 9th inning of a tie game on August 24, 1983.  And more recently, there was Robert Andino’s astounding game-winning hit on September 28, 2011 off Boston’s impervious closer Jonathan Papelbon to effectively knock the Red Sox out of the playoffs, setting the stage for the O’s revitalization beginning in 2012.    
What I liked to have seen included in this otherwise exemplary trip down Orioles memory lane is more depth in describing some situations.  For example, illumination on the exploits of Earl Weaver and his numerous on-field skirmishes with umpires and some insight into Weaver’s storied “love-hate” relationship with star pitcher Jim Palmer would have been welcome with a photo or anecdote or two. 

The book would have been even more nostalgic if some of the quirks the fans loved were mentioned, such as John Denver’s iconic “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” played during the 7th inning stretch for many years, or the fans’ screaming “O” during the National Anthem, or a special tribute to the beloved announcer Chuck Thompson.  They were part of the Orioles tradition as well.  
Moreover, since baseball and statistics are inexorably entwined, an appendix presenting the year-to-year performance of the team, their cumulative records versus opposing teams, or a list of team leaders by category would have been the icing on the cake. Though statistics are laced throughout, a separate section is warranted.

Nonetheless, 60 Years of Orioles Magic through its extraordinary images and writing about those who wore the Orioles uniform brings to life a history, identity and a tradition that is clearly enduring.
Baltimore Orioles: 60 Years of Orioles Magic (Insight Editions/ $50.00/May2015, Hardcover, 276 pages, ISBN: 978--1608873180)