Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Hillary Should Thank Her Lucky Stars


Should Hillary Clinton go on to become the first President in U.S. history, she can look back at this campaign and count her lucky stars.  There have been three fortunate situations that will have propelled the former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State to the position she has coveted for decades.  Without all three, her chance of winning in November would have been a longshot.  In no particular order:
The non-indictment indictment.  When FBI Director James B. Comey announced on July 5 that Hillary would not be recommended for indictment as a result of her use of private email servers while Secretary of State, a major burden was lifted off the shoulders of the Clinton campaign.  This led to a collective sigh of relief among Democrats and anger and disappointment by Republicans.    

In a public, straightforward speech, Comey excoriated Clinton for multiple misdeeds but mostly determined the former Secretary of State was “extremely careless” in her handling of classified information contained in emails.  The main reason the FBI did not recommend punishment was that there was no evidence to indicate “intent” to misuse the email system or that she was grossly negligent.  This does not mean there wasn’t intent; it means there was insufficient evidence to support it.

By the thinnest of margins, Hillary escaped the legal morass that would have all but killed her chances of being elected though this “scandal” will be kept alive by her opponent and the GOP throughout the remainder of the campaign.  Moreover, a poll showed that 56 percent opposed her exoneration, and that’s not good.  Nonetheless, the threat of indictment has vanished and is clear to run.

He’s with her. Bernie Sanders effectively ended his underdog campaign on July 12 when he, for the first time, publicly endorsed Hillary for President.  The Clinton camp had to concede several left-leaning issues contained in the Democratic Platform to basically win the peace.  Had she not, Sanders and his followers would have likely made some form of trouble at the upcoming Democratic National Convention with floor fights, demonstrations and other tools to rain on Hillary’s parade.  That was never explicitly stated but the implied threat was there and Hillary complied with the majority of Sanders’ demands.

Then there was the worry that Sanders would launch a third party campaign (after all, he's not a true Democrat), which would doom Hillary's chances for sure.
With their joint rally in Portsmouth, NH where the endorsement took place, those circumstances have been obviated.  The hope is that Bernie’s supporters would now work for or at least vote for Clinton in the fall.  It’s not clear that will happen among some Sanders hold-outs. But with Bernie on board, Hillary will not feel compelled to choose a running mate to the left of her, such as Sen. Sherrod Brown or Sen. Elizabeth Warren, to appease the enthusiastic Sanders backers.  She could now select a running mate based on other factors that are more comfortable to her.

Donald Trump.  The third lucky star is Hillary’s opponent, Donald Trump.  Without going into the myriad reasons of how a Trump presidency would be a disaster on so many levels, Hillary lucked out by drawing an opponent even more disliked than her.  Her trustworthiness polling is alarmingly low for a presidential contender and her negatives among voters are high, except Trump’s are even higher.  Once an opinion is formed about trustworthiness, it is near impossible to reverse that.  And the email matter did not help.  #hocopolitics

photo courtesy of theduran.com
For his part, Trump is doing everything possible to help Hillary.  Every day, it seems, he opens his mouth and bad things come out of it.  He reinforces the narrative Hillary has embarked on that he does not have the temperament, experience or skill set to be Commander-in-Chief.  Trump’s bullying antics on Twitter and at rallies, the juvenile name-calling, the oversimplification of complex issues, his gross narcissism, and bigoted pronouncements render him a scary choice.  It’s hard to say if any other GOP candidate would have defeated Hillary because many of them had their own flaws.
Even with a fractured Republican Party heading into the convention and what seems to be a relatively unified Democratic party bolstered by the support of President Obama and other Dem leaders as well as Sanders, the race seems too close for comfort at this point.

There is much more ahead with the conventions, the VP picks, the debates, the long campaign, and unexpected events that are sure to transpire between now and November that will determine the final outcome.
Regardless, Hillary Clinton should definitely thank these lucky stars for at least being in the game.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

You’ll Flip Your Wig at Toby’s 'Hairspray'


Most of us can relate to being an underdog during points in our lives. Overcoming challenges can be fulfilling and exhilarating especially if the results are unexpected.  So when we see others do it, we cheer and cheer hard because we can relate; we’ve been there.  Who doesn’t love underdogs who triumph against the odds?  #
Photo: JeriTidwell Photography
Hairspray, which is playing at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia for the next two months, is a vibrant feel-good musical that allows the audience to fight the fight alongside the underdogs.  Under the meticulous direction of Mark Minnick, this Broadway-caliber production blends high-quality singing, dancing, comedy, dazzling costumes, and tackles serious social issues to boot.  #hocoarts
Mr. Minnick, who is also the show’s accomplished choreographer, is blessed to work with an incredible cast who clearly enjoy themselves on Toby’s in-the-round stage as much as the audience does.  The technical crew, creative team, and the musical direction of Ross Scott Rawlings enhance the performances even more.

Hairspray with a score by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman and a book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, based on the 1988 John Waters film Hairspray, copped eight Tony Awards in 2003. 
The songs from the opening iconic number “Good Morning Baltimore” to the final “You Can’t Stop the Beat” are eclectic. From 60’s-style dance music to rhythm and blues—upbeat high-tempo to soft emotional ballads—the music and lyrics are outstanding.

Nineteen sixty-two Baltimore is the backdrop for the story that centers on the main underdog, plucky Tracy Turnblad played marvelously by Christie Graham.  In most versions of Hairspray, Tracy is “pleasantly plump.”  In this production, Ms. Graham is not as rotund as other Tracy Turnblads but her level of talent overcomes that slight inconsistency and is never a detriment.  Her mother, however, Edna, a drag role played with panache by the ultra-talented Lawrence B. Munsey, is a plus size for sure.
Photo: JeriTidwell Photography

Against the odds, our heroine Tracy seeks to be a dancer on the local Corny Collins TV show and winds up being a star, successfully covets the heartthrob Link Larkin in an unlikely match, and rallies against racial segregation.
There are many clever references to the Baltimore area and culture in 1962.  On the night this production was reviewed there were an unusual number of young people in the audience.  Quips about the Gabor Sisters, Eddie Fisher and others from that era may have blown over their heads like misaimed squirts from a container of hairspray.  But for the adults who remember that time, they hit the mark.

Though Hairspray brings to life the good times of that period, nostalgic it’s not.  Baltimore was a segregated city then, and racism that is associated with that blight, becomes the main force in the show.  In the end, there are heroes galore as The Corny Collins Show is ultimately integrated led by the persistent Tracy who had been jailed for being a “rabble rouser.”
Toby’s resident performers Jeffrey Shankle as Corny Collins, Lawrence B. Munsey as homebody Edna Turnblad,  David James as Tracy’s encouraging father and Edna’s adoring husband Wilmer Turnblad, and Heather Marie Beck as one of the villains, Velma Von Tussle all reprise their roles from the production of Hairspray at Toby’s Columbia six years ago.  With much experience under their belts since then, it is no surprise they handle their roles with stunning proficiency and flair. 
Mr. Munsey, in particular, turns in a tour-de-force performance.  Mr. Shankle is perfectly cast for his role.  Darren McDonnell, playing several “authority figure” roles, also shines with the appropriate dose of campiness.

Sophie Schulman who plays a rather dim Penny Pingleton, Tracy’s closest friend, is excellent and serves up many of the comedic lines.  Penny falls in love with African-American Seaweed J. Stubbs played by Andre Hinds who has a big part in the integration effort. 

Photo: JeriTidwell Photography
Mr. Hinds, using his lithe physique, is an exceptional dancer with grace and power.  He sparkles with is jaw-dropping flips and spins during several of the dance numbers.  And he can act quite well displaying ample passion without going over the top.
Overall, the choreography directed by Mr. Minnick is exceptional, high-energy and precise.  The members of the talented ensemble execute the dance sequences superbly.  As an example, the number “The Big Dollhouse” that opens up the Second Act is sensational in its choreography.

Handsome Justin Calhoun as the heartthrob Link who is one of the protagonists, plays the role to the hilt with his swagger and occasional preening.  Possessing a solid voice as well, Mr. Calhoun shines in his duet with Ms. Graham in “It Takes Two.”

The Turnblad couple played by Mr. Munsey and Mr. James reminisce in “You’re Timeless to Me” and  is one of the show’s many highlights. The ballad is an adorable love song oozing with emotion and camp that will make you smile. These two outstanding performers nailed it.
Another highlight and probably worth the price of admission besides the scrumptious buffet is the performance by Kelli Blackwell as Motormouth Maybelle, the mother of Seaweed and Little Inez (played by cute Nowelle Robinson).  Her powerful rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been” whereby she  recalls the fight for equality is almost guaranteed to make your eyes well up in tears.     

Another strong performance is turned in by Gabriella DeLuca as Amber Von Tussle, the reigning Teen Queen vying for the title “Miss Hairspray 1962” and Tracy’s chief rival.  #hocoarts
The Dynamites is a background singing group that adds a Motown feel to the show.  Talented vocalists Renata Hammond, Ashley Johnson and Samantha McEwen comprise the group.  I can imagine Ed Sullivan introducing them on his show: “Right here on our stage…the sensational Dynamites!”

Other talented members of the company who make this production work so well include Sean McComas, Rachel Kemp, AJ Whittenberger, Erica Clare, Joey Ellinghaus, Amanda Kaplan, Coby Kay Callahan, Solomon Parker III, and Gerald Jordon.
Mr. Munsey along with Mary Quinn designed the glorious costumes that are right on target especially that red satiny gown Mr. Munsey wears at show’s end.  With tongue and cheek, he said, “I made it myself.”  Oh, and those bountiful, big-hair wigs!  Love ‘em.

The set designed by David A. Hopkins that featured photos of Baltimore houses along the theater’s walls aided by Lynn Joslin’s lighting design and a multitude of props provide effective scene changes and texture.
 I would like to see a prototype of a TV camera used during the Corny Collins Show sequences similar to the one employed at Toby’s production of Memphis in 2014 to give it a TV studio identity.

This production of Hairspray succeeds on all fronts that entertains and delivers a powerful message.  Mr. Minnick directs these extraordinary performers with great skill and is a sure-fire crowd pleaser.  This is a must-see show without question. 
You can’t stop the beat, and why would you want to?

Running time. Approximately two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.
Hairspray at Toby’s The Dinner Theatre of Columbia runs through September 4.  For tickets and information, call 410-730-8311 or visit tobysdinnertheatre.com or ticketmaster.com.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

A Well Performed 'Evita' at Olney


As we get immersed in the political season in the U.S., one should recognize that what we have here—divisive and often angry politics—is quite tame compared to other periods in our world’s history.  The political atmosphere during the 1940’s to 1950’s in Argentina, which was at times tumultuous and deadly, forms the backdrop for the musical Evita that is currently playing at the Olney Theatre Center.  #hocoarts
Robert Ariza as Che and Rachel Zampelli as Eva Photo: Stan Barouh
Andrew Lloyd Weber’s music and Tim Rice’s lyrics powered Evita to seven Tony Awards in 1980 with the musical achieving considerable success throughout the world. The lyrics and storyline of the musical are based on Mary Main’s biography, Evita: The Woman with the Whip,
The story, told mostly through song, spans the rise to prominence of Eva Perón from her impoverished beginnings at the age of 15 to her ascent to power by becoming Argentina’s First Lady and concluding with her early death at the age of 33.  Along the way, Eva was a radio actress who had reportedly slept around to gain advantage. She met a military colonel Juan Perón at an earthquake relief concert and eventually became his wife prior to his becoming the country’s president.

For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Lesson from Orlando: We’re Still Targets


It doesn’t matter if Omar Mateen was a terrorist or an ISIS sympathizer.  It doesn’t matter if he was a closeted gay man who decided to lash out against a community that had shunned him, or that he was outraged over seeing two men kissing as his father explained, or his Muslim faith prohibits homosexuality.  It doesn’t matter if he was a deranged psychopath.  
Hopefully, the victims did not die in vain
What does matter, despite the denials by many who aren’t exactly on the side of LGBT people, this heinous act at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fl. on June 12 was directed specifically to harm members of the LGBT community.

And for those who believe that he was instead carrying out an attack in the name of ISIS consider this: Mateen could have gone anywhere to commit mass murder. 

He traveled 125 miles from Port St. Lucie to Orlando.  He could have shot up any nightclub in his home town.  If Orlando had to be a target, he could have shot up any nightclub there or gone to Disneyworld or another tourist attraction to do his deed. 

Instead, he chose this place at this time and this crowd.  He singled out Pulse since he was familiar with the establishment, and as witnesses reported, he had been there multiple times.  The people who patronized Pulse that night were his targets of choice.
For sure, the anti-gay crowd was relieved to learn that Mateen phoned the police during the massacre saying he pledged allegiance to the leader of ISIS.  To them, this rampage was simply an act of terrorism and, of course, President Obama’s perceived weakness and inability to eradicate the murderous terrorist group. 

It was not an attack against LGBT people who were celebrating Latin night at the Pulse during Gay Pride month, they concluded.  The terms “gay” or “LGBT” were scarcely muttered; there was massive denial.

President Obama set the record straight as he and Vice President Biden laid down bouquets at a memorial in Orlando.
“This was an act of terrorism but it was also an act of hate,” the President declared. “This was an attack on the LGBT community.”  He’s correct.

The aftermath of the shootings revealed America’s darkest side especially when it comes to anti-gay fervor.  It suggests to me that based on this hate, Mateen carried out what some homophobes would love to have done if they could get away with it.
It wasn't a backlash from the victories in marriage equality.  Anti-gay governors and legislatures are acting on that already under the guise of “religious freedom.” 

No, the reactions reflected pure hatred.  Some have cheered the massacre.  “Better that he killed the perverts and not the normal people,” said one a-hole on the Internet.
Less extreme are those straight people who snickered at the news and offered up what they think are clever comments about the tragedy.  Some don’t even mention it anymore, if they ever did, and want the story to disappear unless it’s couched in anti-terrorism terms.

Remember when terrorists attacked Paris and all those straight folks covered their Facebook profile pictures with French flags?  You don't see as much Orlando or gay images this time around from these people.

Others are more direct, such as the burning of a rainbow flag this past week outside a Washington, D.C. restaurant can attest.  Or this recent incident in D.C..
We’ve made considerable—almost unimaginable—progress in recent years and more and more people are supportive of LGBT people and our rights.  However, LGBT individuals, especially transgender people of color, are attacked violently or killed with chilling regularity.  Kids are still mercilessly bullied in schools.  

Yes, we made progress in recent years and some positives will come out of this tragedy so that 49 innocent people’s horrific deaths will not be in vain.  Hopefully, common sense gun reform will be among them.
As I told a reporter during a candlelight vigil in Baltimore, “We can have laws on the books to confer LGBT rights.  We cannot legislate attitudes.  This has always been the challenge in civil rights movements.”

Hate still exists.  Gay bars were supposed to be a “safe” space—a sanctuary—for LGBT people to congregate and socialize without judgment or violence.  Not anymore.  The horror in Orlando and the reaction of the anti-gay haters taught us that we’re still targets.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

A Good 'Spell' at HCC Arts Collective

How do you spell “Quirky”? Q-U-I-R-K-Y.  Quirky. 

It would be one of the easier words to spell in the awesome production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Howard Community College’s Arts Collective as it concludes its 21st season.  However, that word defines the show and its characters.  @hoc@

Kaity Krull (Schwarzy), Jordan Colea (Marcy), Cole Watts (Leaf),
Diego Esmolo (Chip), Warren Harris (Barfée),
Lauren Blake Williams (Rona),
Daniel Johnston (Panch), Gabrielle Amaro (Olive), Brandon Love (Mitch)  
Photo: St. Johnn Blondell

The popular musical whose music and lyrics by William Finn and the book by Rachel Sheinkin snared a couple of Tony Awards and three Drama Desk Awards in 2005, had a successful run on Broadway and is widely presented throughout the U.S. and the world.  #hocoarts
Anthony Scimonelli directed the Arts Collective production, which alternately induces laughter and pathos, with a sure-fire guiding hand.  He is blessed with a young talented cast and an excellent creative team that make this production a delight while staying true to the quirkiness of the plot.

The story of six idiosyncratic middle schoolers as they navigate through life’s challenges and puberty while fiercely competing in a spelling bee in Putnam County for a shot at a national title is the show’s foundation.  Four audience members who had signed up in advance participate onstage, which adds more joy and an air of unpredictability to the action. 
The back stories of each of the teens are presented as they compete hard for victory and through song and dance.  They all perform quite nicely both as solo performances or in group numbers, and with the nifty choreography by Jess Beach, they dance well.  Some in the cast are called on to play multiple roles that showcase their talents. 

The first thing the audience will notice upon entering the Studio Theatre is Mollie Singer’s clever set depicting a high school gymnasium complete with a basketball hoop above and a foul lane on the floor where the spelling bee takes place.  Add banners on the wall representing Putnam High School championships in not-so-major sporting endeavors, a two-tier row of chairs for the contestants and a table for the bee’s moderators and you have one terrific functional set in which the performers have sufficient room to execute their dance numbers.
Before we get to the pre-pubescent characters, one must look at the two adults on the stage. Lauren Blake Williams who primarily plays Rona Lisa Paretti, a top local real estate agent and former spelling bee champion.  She seems to be the most together of all the characters and becomes the anchor of the show.

Ms. Williams plays the role with ease and comfort and possesses a lovely singing voice to boot.  She performs very well in a series of “Rona’s Favorite Moment” numbers. Though Mayumi Baker Griffie’s four-piece orchestra is excellent, its close proximity to the action and the physical construct of the theater causes the sound to overwhelm Ms. Williams’ vocals at times as well as those of other performers.  A solution would be to mic the performers to create more balance.
Daniel Johnston as Vice Principal Douglas Panch effectively provides much of the comedic lines throughout.  He is the other spelling bee’s moderator whose sarcasm and zingers as well as his examples of sentences on how the contested words are used are often hilarious.

Mr. Johnston plays two other characters including Jesus, no less, and does so with mischief.  The third character, the gay father of one of the contestants, is portrayed with high camp and relish but a bit too stereotypically.
He and his partner’s (Diego Esmolo) daughter, Logainne “Schwarzy” SchwartzandGrubenierre (their sir names combined) is the youngest of the contestants.  Played by Kaity Krull, she is subject to her dads’ pressure to win the bee.  Her performance of “Woe is Me,” which is reprised upon her elimination from the competition ably reflects the stress placed on her by her overbearing dads.

Cole Richard Watts plays the homeschooled Leaf Coneybear with great charm.  Told he was not smart by his family, he overcomes that notion by his ability to spell words in a trance. Mr. Watts possesses an outstanding singing voice, which is on display in “I’m Not That Smart.” 
Another contestant is Olive Ostrovsky played by Gabrielle Amaro.  Her mother is away and her father is always working late and she is not receiving the love she needs.  While spelling one of the words in the bee, she envisions her parents being there to support her in what is the show’s most powerful and dramatic ballad, “The I Love You Song.”  Excellent vocals from Ms. Amaro bring heft to the song aided superbly by Ms. Williams and Mr. Watts who portray her parents.

Warren C. Harris ably plays another comical character William Morris Barfée (note the accent mark).  The constant mispronunciation of his last name by moderator Douglas Panch becomes a running joke.
Allergic to peanuts, another comic point, Barfée uses his foot to spell out words on the ground so he can visualize them.  He does well in several musical numbers including “Magic Foot.”

One of the more interesting characters is Marcy Park played superbly by Jordan Colea.  A true overachiever (she speaks six languages and excels in sports and classical music), she is not allowed to cry, gets three hours of sleep and attends the Catholic school, Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows.
Cocky from winning all the time, Marcy finally falls in the competition.  Her rendition of “I Speak Six Languages” is excellent.

Diego Esmolo plays boy scout Charlito “Chip” Tolentino.  His chances to win back-to-back titles suffer when puberty hit him at an inopportune time.  Mr. Esmolo is excellent in the high-tempo production number “Pandemonium.”
Rounding out the cast is Brandon Love as Mitch Mahoney, an ex-con who is performing community service to help with the spelling bee.  He is the comforter-in-chief and hands out juice boxes as each contestant is eliminated.  Mr. Love performs well in “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor.”

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a joy to experience.  Andrew Haag’s spot-on lighting design and the costumes by Robert Croghan cap off an expertly directed production performed by a wonderful cast and should not be missed.
Running time: Two hours and 5 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: There is adult material and the show is not recommended for children under 12.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs weekends through June 5 at the Studio Theatre – Howard Community College, Horowitz Center, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the Box Office at 443-518-1500 or visiting online.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

A Majestic 'Beauty and the Beast" at the Hippodrome


No matter our age, we can all enjoy a good fairy tale with a happy ending to brighten our lives.  Pleasantly, the touring production of Beauty and the Beast produced by NETworks Presentations that is making a brief stop at the Hippodrome Theatre fits that bill.

Brooke Quintana as Belle and Sam Hartley as the Beast
Photo: Matthew Murphy
In its ninth month on tour, the production, for the most part, gets it right.  Beauty and the Beast delivers a majestic spectacle of superb music (directed by Kevin Francis Finn) that is performed by strong vocals and dazzling, high tempo dancing choreographed by Matt West. 
Combine that with an imaginative striking set by Stanley A. Taylor, brilliant costumes by Tony Award winner Ann Hould-Ward (for Beauty and the Beast) that include some 580 costume pieces from wolves to silverware, effective hue-rich lighting design by Natasha Katz, precise staging, and fine performances by an energetic talented cast under the meticulous direction of Rob Roth and you have a winner.   #hocoarts

Mr. Taylor’s scenery is exquisite in its creativity and design.  With many pieces in use like the houses in the Bavarian-like town, scenes change seamlessly throughout.  This excellence in the staging is a hallmark of the show.
The one flaw is that the orchestration was over-amplified on opening night and at times drowned out the vocals and dialogue.  This was most noticeable at the outset when the Prologue overwhelmed the narrator who set the premise for the tale.  Hopefully, this blip will be resolved as the run continues.

Aside from that quibble, the production excels on many fronts.  The musical, which was based on the animated feature film with the same name and became the ninth longest ever running musical on Broadway, features the Oscar-winning score with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman, with additional songs composed by Alan Menken and lyrics by Tim Rice. The book is written by Linda Woolverton.
Show-stopping production numbers, such as “Be Our Guest” and “Gaston” showcasing the singing and dancing talents of the ensemble are audience pleasers to be sure.  Yet, it is the fairy tale itself that sweeps you away on an emotional and romantic journey.  

The story of a spoiled prince who had been transformed by an enchantress into a boorish, hot-tempered beast until he can find love and return to his human form before petals fall off from an eternal rose given by the enchantress and a beautiful woman Belle from a provincial town is tender and endearing.  This relationship has the audience rooting hard for both.  Also pushing hard for the couple to fall in love are various servants in the prince’s castle who were converted into household objects when the spell was cast on the prince.  They, too, have a stake in the spell being removed.
Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek as Gaston (c) and Ensemble
Photo: Matthew Murphy
Simultaneously, the town’s egomaniacal, bicep-flexing, bully, Gaston, rejected by Belle to be his wife, strives to make her change her mind. 
 
Lovely Brooke Quintana as Belle shines throughout.  Considered “weird” by the townsfolk because of her passion for books, Belle is strong-minded, and her eventual attraction to the beast that requires his becoming more gentlemanly for starters is tearful in its sweetness.   Ms. Quintana’s vocal prowess is evidenced in the ballads “Belle,” “Home” and “A Change in Me.”
For his part, Sam Hartley as the Beast is also effective.  He is called upon to be mean and demanding, and his on-stage transformation back to being human at the show’s end with the ingenious use of lighting techniques is spectacular.  Mr. Hartley’s pleasant baritone is evident in “How Long Must This Go On?” and “If I Can’t Love Her.”

Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek romps through his role as the superior, perfect-looking God’s gift to the world, Gaston.  His character, though an antagonist, provides most of the comic relief throughout because of his over-the-top self-centeredness with the amusing help from Matt Dasilva as Lefou, Gaston’s goofy, ever-fawning sidekick.  Mr. Smith-Kotlarek’s commanding baritone in “Me,” “Gaston” and “The Mob Song” is on display.
As mentioned earlier, the Beast’s staff had been turned into such objects as a teapot (Mrs. Potts played by Stephanie Gray).  Her rendition of the title song was performed sweetly.  Other characters in this group include Cogsworth, the clock (Samuel Shurtleff); Babette, the feather duster (Melissa Jones); Lumiere, the candelabra (Ryan N. Phillips; Madame de la Grande Bouche, the wardrobe (Stephanie Harter Gilmore); and Chip, the cup (Jake Jones in this performance).  All did well in their mostly comic roles as foils to the Beast.

Also, turning in a solid performance is Thomas Mothershed as Maurice, Belle’s inventor-father.

The Hippodrome mounting of Beauty and the Best proves why the musical has received such worldwide popularity.  It has everything one needs to be entertained including a feel-good story line that will warm your heart.  Bring the kids, too; they’ll love it. But hurry.
Running time. Two hours and 10 minutes with an intermission.

Beauty and the Beast runs through May 15 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit Ticketmaster or the Hippodrome.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

How Trump Could Win This Thing



We’re all but officially starting the general election fracas now that Donald Trump has averted a brokered convention and Hillary Clinton is on the verge of sewing up her nomination for president. Overwhelmingly, pundits give Trump zero to less than zero chance to win the election in November.
Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com
Electoral maps based on statewide polling show that Clinton should win the states Obama did in 2012 and perhaps even expand on it.  Some maps indicate that she starts off already exceeding the 270 electoral votes to nail down the victory.
Nonetheless, this has been an odd election cycle, to say the least, and accordingly, I don’t think Hillary is a lock despite the conventional wisdom.  She has major advantages given her experience and the widespread view that Trump lacks the knowledge of government.  Both she and Trump, however, have high unfavorability percentages, which muddy the waters. 
The mogul has the steepest of climbs to pull off the greatest upset ever, but it is possible and all the stars must be aligned for this to occur.
Below are several situations that should they materialize could give Trump the victory. I rate its probability by using stars: one star meaning it is metaphysically impossible for it to occur to five stars making it a certainty.
The GOP unites behind Trump.  Right now the divisions within the Republican Party are broad and deep.  None of the 16 candidates were able to stop Trump even when his candidacy was considered a joke.  He had been able to romp through the primaries despite a ton of money spent against him.  Two former Republican presidents, the Speaker of the House and the previous GOP standard bearer are among those who have not stepped aboard the Trump bandwagon.  More likely than not, the party will get behind him even grudgingly rather than allow Hillary Clinton win the election.  They can’t help themselves. ☆☆☆☆
The Sanders faction doesn’t back Hillary. Bernie Sanders has vowed to remain in the nomination battle up to the convention this summer despite the nearly impossible path needed to defeat Clinton.  Polls show that some 30 percent of Sanders backers stated that they cannot vote for Hillary.  This is problematic in key swing states where turnout will be vital.  Yet, with the prospect of Trump as president, my belief is that most will fall in line at the end if and only if Sanders is granted major influence in shaping the party’s platform.  ☆☆

The E-mail controversy will harm Hillary.  While buttons are already out there depicting Hillary behind bars, there is little reason to believe she had done anything to break existing law that would trigger an indictment. Rather than try to defeat Clinton on policy, Trump supporters are using this diversion instead.  Expect to hear a lot of “Crooked Hillary” in the next 6 months but it is grasping at straws.  ☆☆
Making Bill a winnable campaign issue.  Though he is not a candidate, Bill Clinton is already being attacked by Trump and his forces.  Calling Hillary an enabler to Bill’s sexual “abuse” of women, Trump is re-litigating the impeachment proceedings of 1998.  Her approval ratings soared after those proceedings and Trump’s promise to bash her with this history will likely backfire because it will bring sympathy to Hillary from women voters and reinforce Trump’s challenges with that same group.  Plus, she can fire back at Trump for his three marriages as not exactly the right person to cast aspersions.
Trump will start to act “presidential”.  Some of the greatest arguments against Trump are his temperament, extreme narcissism, crassness and bullying.  All these traits and more render him unfit to lead the free world and deal with unexpected complex problems.  When told he needed to be more presidential, Trump simply mocked the idea and turned into more of a buffoon. He can never change because this is who he is and this is what his supporters wanted when they voted overwhelmingly for him. This lack of filter is costly. 
A terror attack against the U.S. Though many believe Hillary Clinton is more hawkish than Trump in most cases, the Donald’s chest-pounding bravado has convinced his supporters that he can wipe out ISIS and protect our borders.  Should there be a terror attack on U.S. soil prior to the election, this could work in Trump’s favor as he has insisted all along that the U.S. military has been downgraded, we are weak and never win. ☆☆☆
Trump will mend fences, er walls.  Donald Trump’s path to victory is predicated on the notion that he can make nice with Muslims, Mexicans, Latinos, women, African-Americans, the disabled and other groups whom he has offended this past year.  Unless he pulls this off, the number of states he can win shrinks big time.
Picking a good running mate. Though political experts will tell you that it is the top of the ticket that wins elections, Trump can improve his lot with a good choice that could offset his perceived lack of judgment.  Who that will be is anyone’s guess right now.  Keep in mind that Sarah Palin was an early backer.  Hmm. A smart choice would indeed be for him to select a woman to offset Hillary’s “playing the woman’s card.”   Is the Donald capable of smart choices? ☆☆
History is on Trump’s side. It is rare that a political party can hold the White House for three successive terms.  Trump can argue that it is time for a Republican to break the gridlock in Washington, and change the direction of the country.  ☆☆☆☆
As you can see, those stars are not likely to be aligned—Trump needed 5 stars in each—to forge an upset.  In this crazy political season, however, nothing can be taken for granted.
 

 

 
 

 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Come to the Cabaret at the Hippodrome


Like many successful musicals, Cabaret, which is now playing on the Hippodrome stage, entertains with excellent songs and staging, but navigates through a layer of darkness as part of the plot.  Historical events or serious social issues are frequent backdrops to these types of productions.  The Sound of Music, Rent, Avenue Q, Carousel and Spring Awakening come to mind as other examples.

Randy Harrison (center) stars as the Emcee Photo: Joan Marcus
In Cabaret, we have the onset of Nazi Germany hovering over the story just as the naughty Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, played extraordinarily by Randy Harrison, frequently hovers over the action from a catwalk above the stage.  All the action transpires under his watchful eye and  at times is injected into various points throughout.  It’s an interesting concept that links the story lines together. #hocoarts
The plot that encompasses several sets of relationships among disparate individuals takes place with stirring drama while the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy nightclub in 1931 Berlin provides the escape, albeit temporarily, from the stark reality, which is engulfing Germany and ultimately the world beyond its doors. 

Leave your troubles outside, exclaims the Emcee in the opening number “Willkommen.” “ So, life is disappointing? Forget it!  We have no troubles here!  Here life is beautiful... The girls are beautiful... Even the orchestra, is beautiful. 
Outside?  Not so much.  Not with the ominous political changes poised to occur.

Cabaret is a six-time Tony Award winner in 1967 that spawned many revivals on Broadway and London in addition to numerous tours (this production is being presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company) and the popular 1972 movie.  With music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, Cabaret, which was ultimately adapted from the book Goodbye to Berlin (1939) by Christopher Isherwood, is distinguished by its sterling catalogue of music. 
Well-known songs, such as the aforementioned Willkommen” as well as “Maybe This Time,” “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” and, of course, the title song, have made the show endearing, and the production at the Hippodrome is no exception.  

Under the direction of BT McNicholl and original direction from Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, the Hippodrome mounting excels in an intricately staged spectacle that showcases an abundance of outstanding performances by the leads and the ensemble.
Robert Brill’s set design is not as aesthetically gorgeous as one would see in many musicals but it is very clever and functional in its simplicity.  A stage-wide but narrow-in-depth set represents the boarding house with several doors in a row denoting the main entrance and individual rooms outside of which most of the action takes place.  Other scenes away from the boarding house also occur on that portion of the stage thanks to effective lighting design by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari. 

The illumination, except for several cabaret numbers performed by the talented and limber Kit Kat Girls and Kit Kat Boys where a bright spotlight shines, is often maintained at a rather dim level to symbolize the reality of the characters’ relationships and the looming darkness of the world outside.
Above the stage is a catwalk with two spiral staircases on each side where performers use to descend to the lower stage.  That is the locale for the orchestra/Kit Kat Klub band, which is comprised, in part, of ensemble performers who double as musicians. 

In the middle of that level is a large transparent box, which serves as a frame for cabaret-style blinking lights. That box is deliberately tilted, which, in my view, signifies the world is askew and off center.  It also figures prominently in “Entr’ Acte,” a number that kicks off the second act where most of the Kit Kat Band crams the box to perform.
Unquestionably, the entire cast makes this production soar with their acting and vocal talents. The show’s lead is Randy Harrison as the puckish Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub.  Audience members may recall his role as Justin on Showtime’s Queer as Folk from 2000-2005. 

Matured but still youthful and more buff since those days, Mr. Harrison gives a tour de force performance with his astonishingly strong vocals (“Wilkommen,” “Two Ladies,” “Money,” “I Don’t Care Much”) and comedic moves including ambling into the audience at the beginning of the second act to playfully dance with a couple of audience members.   
Wearing ghoulish eye make-up and bright crimson lipstick, Mr. Harrison is called upon to don a wide array of William Ivey Long’s creative costumes from undershirt/boxers garb, to a storm trooper outfit, to drag, for his burlesque-style character.  He performs the role with relish.

Co-starring is Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles as the headlining British singer at the Klub.  Despite her singing prowess, she seems to hold a job only if she sleeps with someone.  Sally meets an American writer Clifford Bradshaw and then fall in love, it but doesn’t end well.
Ms. Goss performs two major numbers, “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret” with a resoundingly sweet voice.

As Clifford, Lee Aaron Rosen is convincing both in his acting and singing.  His muscular vocals come to the fore in the duet with Ms. Goss, “Perfectly Marvelous.”
Another love affair takes place between Fräulein Schneider, played by Shannon Cochran, an elderly owner of the boarding house where Clifford resides and Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson), an elderly fruit shop owner.  Things go adoringly well until Fräulein Schneider learns that her beau is Jewish and the conditions in Germany are too dangerous to consider marriage.  A brick thrown through his store’s window was the last straw and sadly, she breaks off the engagement. 

They play their roles with sensitivity and charm, and their performance of “Married” is done movingly.
For comic relief there is Fräulein Kost (Alisin Ewing), a prostitute who rents from Fräulein Schneider where no member of the Navy is safe from her lure. Ms. Ewing does a fine job in portraying the character with the right touch of humor.

Also, Ned Noyes as Ernst Ludwig, a man who had met Clifford and recommended him to the boarding house, does well in his role. He later is revealed as a Nazi and who warns Fräulein Schneider to drop her marriage plans.
Then there are the Kit Kat Girls and the Kit Kat Boys who sing, dance, and play instruments throughout and ably contribute visible energy to the show.  Kudos go to Michael Gibson for overseeing the orchestrations.

This is an enjoyable musical on many levels that presents outstanding performances by the well-directed talented cast and ably supported by the technical and design teams.  
So come to the Cabaret and leave your problems outside.

Running time: Two hours and 35 minutes with an intermission.
Cabaret runs through May 1 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit Ticketmaster or the Hippodrome Theatre.

Blaming the Messenger Will Not Fix the GLCCB’s Problems


I am writing this in response to GLCCB Board President Jabari Lyles’ statement concerning the article that I wrote for the Washington Blade and published on April 25.  He contends that the headline of the article—“Baltimore pride in jeopardy due to lack of funds” is “sensationalized” and the article is “irresponsibly constructed.”  
To be clear, the headline I had submitted to my editor read, “Community Center in need of funds to hold Pride.”  It was changed by the editor.  I saw nothing wrong with the revised headline because it captures the information that the GLCCB has been putting out.  I also stand by the facts contained in the article, which in actuality, is a regurgitation of what the GLCCB has said through various appeals.

When one states that “We will not be able to secure permits for Pride 2016 until this debt is paid”—in a published fundraising appeal—I and most people who can read would take that to mean, the debt must be paid for Pride to proceed.  It’s also said that “we are in desperate need of financial support.”  

On the Razoo fundraising page  a similar message is written: “Without these funds, we will be unable to move forward with Pride 2016.”  Mr. Lyles also makes the same claim on the GLCCB’s own Facebook page!
Now, Mr. Lyles is saying in effect, well this is not actually what we meant.  Really?  In his statement, Mr. Lyles contends that there is $65,000 on hand and another $35,000 due in a few weeks. The question begs, threatening that Pride cannot proceed if the outstanding debts aren’t paid was just a ruse to scare the community into giving donations?  To raise money under false pretenses is irresponsible if not fraudulent.  At a minimum, it’s not the way a 501(c) (3) organization should be running.

He also questioned my reporting of the $200,000 Pride budget.  Well, that came directly from the published board meeting notes. (See image).  If this is not true, perhaps they should review the minutes prior to publishing them.

If there are any misconceptions, they could have been clarified by comments by Mr. Lyles before the article was submitted and published.  With his oft-repeated mantra of “transparency,” it would be helpful to the GLCCB and himself if he can learn to work with the press as so many other able LGBT leaders have done in the past. 

However, Mr. Lyles has taken a path whereby he not only eschews working with me—the only bona fide local LGBT news reporter (I have performed this service for nearly 36 years)—he simply ignores my requests for comment.  That arrogance is irresponsible and does not serve the GLCCB and its supporters well. 

I had offered to meet with him a couple of months ago to discuss a working relationship that would be helpful both to the GLCCB and my ability to inform our community, but guess what?  He ignored that offer not once, but twice!

Instead of airing his grievances privately as any competent professional would do, Mr. Lyles chooses to vent on social media believing he can rally the troops against me.  However, that won’t result in commitments from the community the GLCCB “desperately” needs (their words).
The Razoo fundraising page had shown 3 donations for about 7 weeks since it began.  Since the article was published it has doubled to a whopping 6 people—out of the entire Mid-Atlantic region who would potentially attend Pride.  The total is at the moment $6,220 with a goal of $15,000 and three days left.  Of that amount, $6,000 came from a single donor the day the drive began. Five donors and $220.  If that isn’t a red flag, then I don’t know what is.

Go ahead, blame the messenger.  It’s not going to help one cent.  Jabari Lyles, you have much bigger problems.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Clinton-Sanders: That’s the Ticket


With the battle of NY over and most pundits concluding the delegate math is too daunting for Bernie Sanders to reach the convention ahead of Hillary Clinton in pledged delegates, the talk is turning to a “what’s next?” phase.

Sanders is not throwing in the towel yet as he owes a lot to his supporters for their donations and spirited enthusiasm at rallies and to further the causes that are near and dear to him and his followers.  He will likely get to Philadelphia in July for the Democratic National Convention with a strong cache of support and tons of money remaining. #hocopolitics
As such there is widespread fear among Democrats that the Sanders team will not unify behind Clinton in a way in which she did so when Barack Obama eventually amassed the number of delegates to win the nomination.  A Democratic Party who is not fully behind the standard-bearer is something to be concerned about even if the Republican opponent is a flawed candidate like Donald Trump.

Despite the hand-wringing by GOP “establishment” types over the looming possibility that Trump will secure the nomination prior to the convention in Cleveland, most will hold their collective noses and reluctantly support Trump because he will be matched up against the dreaded Hillary with the Supreme Court balance (a huge priority for Republicans) at stake.  Though current polls indicate Clinton beats Trump in a head-to-head contest, a unified Republican Party versus a fractured Democratic Party can bring upon unpredictable results.  You can throw these early polls out the window.
What should the Democrats do to combat the catastrophic possibility of a Trump presidency?  Unless they unify and get out the vote, anything can happen (Trump winning, for instance), and that’s a risky proposition. 

The Sanders candidacy is a movement (he characterizes it as a revolution) that appeals to the left wing of the Democratic Party and has attracted independents as well.  His candidacy has energized this sector of the party like no other, and although it will not be enough to win the nomination, there are too many votes to be had if they are not mined effectively.
A way to help unify these factions would be to name Sanders as Clinton’s running mate.  While they have both been negative towards each other in recent weeks, that should not be a deal breaker.  In recent history, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson weren’t exactly best buddies but necessity forced JFK to name LBJ to help win the prize of Texas and other southern states.  They prevailed in 1960’s close election.  Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush formed an alliance, too, despite a testy primary battle.  They won in 1980.

The battle between Clinton and Sanders was not nearly as contentious as these pairings, and the differences between the two could be smoothed over if Sanders wrings some concessions from Clinton regarding the party’s platform and promises to move to the left on key areas of policy.  Giving him a major role in the Clinton administration as vice president will enhance his chances to effect these changes—infinitely more so than if he remained in the U.S. Senate.

The fact that Sanders is in his 70’s and Clinton flirting with 70 should not be a deterrent.  Both appear to be in excellent health and Sanders’ legion of young followers love him irrespective of his age.  Besides, Trump is around Clinton’s age so there is no generational chasm among the candidates.
An energized, unified Democratic ticket would demolish Trump by historic proportions even if the GOP gets behind the mega-wealthy charlatan.  If such a landslide takes place, the Democrats could regain the Senate with a veto-proof majority, thus putting them in the driver’s seat to change the leanings of the Supreme Court after over a half century of conservative tilt.

This possibility is something both camps should seriously consider. Both Clinton and Sanders would benefit greatly from the union as they both need each other to accomplish their respective goals: Clinton becomes the first woman president and Sanders, with a stronger Democratic make-up in Congress, would be in a powerful position to accomplish his goals. 
Clinton brings to the election massive support from women and minorities; Sanders contributes with younger, idealistic and left-leaning individuals.  Trump’s base of angry white men is way insufficient to counter these demographics.  

Clinton-Sanders is a winning combination that would put the Democrats in sound footing for years to come.  They should seriously consider it.