Monday, August 22, 2016

Lively 'Man of La Mancha' at Beth Tfiloh Community Theatre


Photo: Rina Goloskov
If my memory serves me correctly, and it’s been quite awhile, the Spanish Inquisition was not a pleasant period. There was an abundance of greed, cynicism, hostility, violence and yes, torture.  That era during the 16th century serves as the backdrop for the five-time Tony Award winning musical Man of La Mancha that first produced in 1965.  The quest to better the world against all odds is the central theme.  #hocoarts
Man of La Mancha, a favorite production among professional and community theatres alike, is making an all too brief appearance at Beth Tfiloh Community Theatre.  Through the years, Beth Tfiloh has been consistent in mounting well-performed musicals drawing on a wide swath of mainly young talent from the Baltimore area.  Under the direction of Diane M. Smith, the current production is no exception.

Noted for its popular standards, “The Impossible Dream” and “Dulcinea,” Man of La Mancha with music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion and a book by Dale Wasserman, is a play within a play. 

Tax collector Miguel de Cervantes and his manservant are tossed into a dungeon “common room” awaiting trial by the Inquisition. They were charged with foreclosing on a church for not paying taxes.  Lugging all their belongings down the stairs into the room, the other prisoners ferociously seized them but Cervantes pleaded with them not to destroy a carefully wrapped package containing a manuscript. 
A mock trial is to take place where his guilt is presumed and all the possessions would be turned over.  As a defense, Cervantes proposes that he enacts a play with the help of the other prisoners.  One of them, The Governor, agrees, and that sets in motion the primary storyline.

For this play, Cervantes creates the character Alonso Quijana, an elderly man so filled with idealism he becomes a bit “mad”.  He sees himself as a knight-errant and renames himself Don Quixote. Along with his loyal sidekick Sancho Panza, Don Quixote obsessively sets out to find the good in a world filled with darkness and pessimism. 
During this journey, the delusional but well-intentioned Don Quixote mistakes a windmill for a giant and a roadside inn as a castle. There he meets a broken and bitter harlot named Aldonza whom he calls Dulcinea.  He woos her with kindness and chivalry but she is too jaded to appreciate the gestures. 

The obstacles Quixote has to navigate from cynical individuals to abusive muleteers form the core of the story with a beautiful array of songs and a dose of comedy to carry the plot to its sad ending.
As the lead, Jim Knost performs lustily and with feeling. Don Quixote is an underdog, and Mr. Knost elicits empathy for the character with his acting skills. His big number “The Impossible Dream” where he lays out to Dulcinea his dream, his mission in life, is delivered with a tuneful richness using his strong baritone voice.

Perhaps symbolic of his character’s challenges throughout the plot, Mr. Knost’s “unbeatable foe” was the flawed operation of his mic during the first half of the show and then again in the final 10 minutes.  This was an unfortunate development especially for the lead, but undoubtedly it will be remedied in the subsequent productions.

Jim Knost as Don Quixote Photo: Rina Goloskov
An outstanding performance is given by Kerry Jungwirth as Aldonza/Dulcinea, a prostitute who is abused by the local muleteers.  Her self-esteem barely exists until she meets Don Quixote.
Musically she is top rate showcasing her lovely soprano voice in “It’s All The Same,” “What Does He Want of Me,” and “Aldonza” among others.  Ms. Jungwirth’s acting prowess is quite evident as her character runs the gamut of emotions in her encounters with Quixote.  Clearly a polished performer, Ms. Jungwirth adds quality to the production.

As Sancho Panza, Carl Oppenheim plays the loyal squire effectively. He performs several solos including the cute number “I Really Like Him,” where he tries to explain to Aldonza why he doggedly follows Quixote.
A fine performance is turned in by Allie McLoughlin as Antonia, Don Quixote’s niece.  She shines in “I’m Only Thinking of Him” using her bright soprano voice.

The entire company help make this an enjoyable production with some playing multiple roles.  Among them are Anthony Case, Hillel Strutman, Dylan Margolis, Patrick Chaney, Noah Broth, Ethan Cuttler, Ian Smith, Dorian Smith, Josh Schoff, Hannah Elliott, Yehudit Varon, and Sharon Byrd.  
All are fitted in splendid, imaginative period costumes (including horses) deftly designed by Nicole Smith. The mirror shield costumes worn later in the show stand out.

The seven-piece orchestra led by Chris Rose is excellent in executing the rich score and not overwhelming the vocalists.
Evan Margolis designed the set consisting mainly of stone walls to denote the dungeon’s stark common room.  Yet, with the movement of a few props and furniture pieces and Elan Hamburger’s well designed lighting, the multiple scene changes are seamless and efficient.

The presentation of Man of La Mancha by Beth Tfiloh Community Theatre is expertly directed, well staged and performed competently by an energetic cast with some standout vocal performances.  Using beautiful melodies, the story exemplifies the human spirit with one man’s quest against all odds to right the wrongs of which there were many.  It is worth a visit, but hurry, and follow that star.
Running time. One hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.

Man of La Mancha runs through August 24 at the Mintzes Theatre/Rosen Arts Center located at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, 3300 Old Court Rd., Pikeville, MD 21208.  Tickets can be reserved by visiting online Tickets will also be available at the door.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Chase Brexton CEO, Firings Assailed at Protest



Photo: Bob Ford
Ten days after the fifth manager at Chase Brexton Health Care was abruptly fired, a spirited protest and rally was held in front of the headquarters building on Charles and Chase Streets.  The crowd that numbered well over a hundred crammed that corner on a sun-baked late August 19 afternoon, waving signs and chanting slogans, such as “Patient Lives Matter.”
Prior to the rally, Chase Brexton had closed its doors to patients without advance notice.  “I was here to pick up medication and have lab work done, but when I showed up, the center was closed because of the protest,” said Dave Spellman.

The grievances leveled at Chase Brexton’s CEO Richard Larison and the organization’s management team centered on the firings of five long-standing professional managers because, according to the protesters, it was an attempt to intimidate other employees leading up to a union vote, which management opposes.  In addition, these individuals who were terminated had provided quality health care services to a multitude of patients, many of whom are low income transgender individuals who have no other access to health care.
The crowd consisted largely of Chase Brexton patients and clients, employees, representatives from the Service Employees International Union 1199 (SEIU), activists and supporters.  Speaker after speaker from various connections to the care provided at the 38-year-old institution—originally  founded as a health clinic for gay men—and perspectives on the situation were consistent in aiming their remarks at the removal of Larison, the rehiring of the five managers and deploring the potential poor quality of health care and services stemming from these terminations.

Organizer Kate Sumiko Bruce  Photo: Bob Ford

The speakers, which included such elected officials as State Senator Rich Madaleno and Delegate Mary Washington, were mostly clients or patients at Chase Brexton and told personal, often moving stories of how Chase Brexton’s providers gave them hope.

Some were particularly effective in firing up the crowd.  Monica Yorkman, a transgender activist, warned that the direction Chase Brexton’s management was taking would turn the institution into a “generic-ass hospital.”
Kate Sumiko Bruce, who is a patient at Chase Brexton, started organizing the protest, and the SEIU and Baltimore Transgender Alliance contributed to the organizing. Kate’s spouse, Reece Bruce, a transgender man, is also a patient.  
 

“I organized the protest after discovering that my provider had been one of the employees fired for attempting to organize a union at Chase Brexton,” Kate, who emceed the rally, said. “I am hoping to get the attention of not only the community and media, but also of the board. I want those with power within Chase Brexton to know that the current CEO must be replaced, that those fired need to be rehired, and that bullying and union busting will not be tolerated in Baltimore. We patients love our providers and the staff at Chase Brexton and want to support them. They have been there for us so it's our turn to be there for them!”

Two of the fired five: Jill Crank (L.) and Catherine Fowler
Photo: Bob Ford
SEIU organizer Brian Owens agreed. “We’re bringing the community and patients together to bring pressure on the Board of Directors to stop their intimidation against the workers and rehire the fired workers.”
The previous day, Becky Frank, Chase Brexton’s Vice President of Development and Marketing, issued a statement “acknowledging the period of rapid change in order to ensure our long-term viability” and does not believe that “the SEIU is the right long-term solution for Chase Brexton.”  No mention was made of the five fired workers in the statement.  

Jill Crank, Assistant Medical Director and Nurse Practitioner, was one of the fired five and the provider for many in the crowd.  They  gave her as well as Catherine Fowler, another fired manager, a rousing ovation at the end of the rally.

“The act of firing five compassionate and dedicated employees singlehandedly destroyed the trust between Chase Brexton and the community it serves,” she said. “It sent a signal that employees are disposable and replaceable, as well as the relationships they built with their patients and community organizations.”
She added, “Dedication to the LGBT community and Chase Brexton’s mission means recognizing the talent and energy of the people who work on the ground level, and respecting their voices at the workplace negotiating table. After all, it is these individuals who have earned the trust of our patients, one by one.”

The Baltimore Transgender Alliance, led by executive director Ava Pipitone, summed up the sentiments of the protesters in a statement.

“On August 19th, the Baltimore Transgender Alliance and our allies are joining forces to rally in support of the Chase Brexton workers’ right to unionize. The rally’s purpose is twofold: both to lift the voices of Chase Brexton employees and the communities that Chase Brexton serves, and to stand united as transgender residents of Baltimore and demand the services we deserve.

“Chase Brexton is one of the only places where low-income transgender and non-binary people in Maryland can access care. However, for two years, CEO Richard Larison’s policies have undermined worker’s efforts. As we face systemic injustice based on intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality, we need and deserve quality care.

“In response, Chase Brexton workers are unionizing. After Larison became aware of these efforts to organize, he and his administration laid off five employees. Some of these workers have decades of experience working with clients; they are integral to HIV care and essential to transgender care. Many people lost providers that they had been with for years, and that trust is not easily re-earned.

Photo: Bob Ford
“This is an attack on the workers of Chase Brexton, and that is an attack on our community. Firings and policy changes in care for marginalized communities replicates the very systems of oppression Chase Brexton was founded to address. This rally follows the Department of Justice’s damning report on the Baltimore Police Department’s systemic dehumanization and harassment of transgender persons, especially transgender women of color. We have to fight for what seems a given to non-marginalized communities. We are fighting and standing strong with those who support us.

“We demand that Larison be removed as CEO. We demand that the “fired five” are rehired. We demand that Chase Brexton workers are given their right to unionize. We demand that Chase Brexton’s policies prioritize the quality of care that we deserve.”

Throughout the rally, dozens of cars and trucks driving up Charles Street honked their horns in support of the protesters.  In addition, a letter signed by ten Maryland legislators denouncing the firings was delivered to Larison and his management team just prior to the rally.
A vote for those eligible employees to join the union will take place August 25.

The next day, Kate Sumiko Bruce told supporters on Facebook, “Yesterday was not the end. We're gonna keep fighting until the protest demands are met.”

UPDATE:

By a vote of 87 to 9 on Aug.25, employees of Chase Brexton Health Care voted to join the 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East labor union. 

An attempt to postpone the vote by Chase Brexton management was unsuccessful as the National Labor Relations Board did not act on a request to investigate charges by the health care nonprofit that management and supervisors along with the union had interfered with the election process.

I am overwhelmed, crying tears of joy,” said Kate Sumiko Bruce, who is a patient at Chase Brexton and who helped organize the protest against Chase Brexton last Friday.
 
I look forward to positive changes for staff and patients and hope for rehiring of those fired.”
 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Why Trump’s Purple Heart Comment is the Most Disqualifying


During Donald Trump’s quest to become the next President of the U.S., he has said a cornucopia of things and acted in such ways that would have disqualified any normal candidate for the highest position in the land.  By now we are aware of his misogynist and anti-Hispanic comments that darkened the sky at the outset of his campaign that should have disqualified him. We witnessed his boorish, self-centered behavior during the primary debates that exhibited a profound lack of even basic knowledge of government and policy that should have derailed his bid.  #hocopolitics
Yet, during and since the conventions—a period that should have been used to remedy his gaffes and his obvious flaws and to make himself viable—Trump has succeeded to be breathtakingly unfit for the office.  His convention was an ego-driven bunch of nonsense capped off by a searing, anger-laden speech that depicted an America that is on par with North Korea.

Since then Trump was even worse.  His ill-advised scrap with the sympathetic Khan family was, in my view, the turning point of the campaign.  This is when leaders of his own party as well as conservative operatives and opinion writers began an exodus from his camp.
Then there was more.  His supposed sarcastic suggestion that Russia, an adversary, hack into Hillary Clinton’s emails.  If a Democrat would have encouraged such action, Trump would have been sure to charge treason. 

His 2nd amendment cure to stop Clinton’s appointing judges he does not favor was beyond irresponsible as well as dangerous given the hatred embodied by his dwindling number of supporters.  
Trump’s ridiculously stupid assertion (again he claims he was sarcastic or maybe not) that President Obama was the founder and Hillary Clinton the co-founder of ISIS was another gem.

All of these and so much more (and I haven’t even mentioned his temperament, pathologically narcissistic personality and dubious business history plus his unwillingness to make his tax returns available and his notion that nukes are mere playground toys) are disqualifying enough to be Commander-in-Chief and President of our nation.  However, the one single faux pas that should have immediately disqualified him was his comment about his always wanting the Purple Heart.
The other examples indicate he is a bigoted jerk.  The Purple Heart comment proves he is a stupid one as well because he clearly doesn’t know what the Purple Heart means.
The honor, which actually had its roots during the American Revolution under Continental Army Commander-in-Chief Washington, has been awarded to nearly 2 million Americans since April 5, 1917 who had been wounded or killed in combat against our enemies. It is the oldest military award still given to U.S. service members.

On August 1, Trump said in Virginia after a vet gave him his Purple Heart, “Man that’s like big stuff. I've always wanted to get the real Purple Heart. This was much easier,”  
Trump, who successfully avoided to military draft on five occasions, according to a report in the New York Times, never had the opportunity “to get the real Purple Heart.” 

But wanting one? You have to be wounded or killed in combat!  Who wants to be shot or injured by explosives? That’s akin to “I always wanted to be in a car accident” or “I’d like to experience how it feels to be water boarded (a tactic he strongly endorses).
As someone who fought for our country in Iraq, was injured, and was awarded a Purple Heart, I can tell you, no one should ever wantto get a Purple Heart,Sean Barney, who was shot in the neck in Fallujah in 2006, posted on Facebook.

With so many other Americans receiving the medal for their sacrifice, Trump’s flippant remark displays his arrogance and stupidity all at once. 
He doesn't know what the Purple Heart is for. That alone should disqualify him.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Firings at Chase Brexton Anger Community


From Baltimore to San Francisco, the aftershocks of the firing of five long-term professionals by Chase Brexton Health Care are being felt. The terminations that began August 8 were alleged to be retaliation for their desire to help unionize doctors, social workers and other medical staff within the company or to intimidate workers.  The push to organize is ostensibly related to poor working conditions and increased workloads that hamper patient care.
These actions have set off a wave of anger within the LGBTQ communities with at least one online petition drive underway.

“Chase Brexton fired five employees in an effort to intimidate workers leading up to a union vote,” says the introduction to the petition started by Sam Williamson and has over 1,500 supporters. “The workers are organizing against poor working conditions and policies that threaten patient care. As those patients, we are outraged that the people we depend upon to keep us healthy are being treated in such detrimental ways.”
The statement continues, “Right now, CEO Richard Larison and the executive team of Chase Brexton are failing our communities.”

An official comment from Chase Brexton’s management has not been released, but Becky Frank, vice president of development and marketing, told the Baltimore Sun, “We are fully aware of what is going on here with the union trying to come in. We are fully focused on continuing to provide quality patient care.” 

The workers were seeking to join 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.  The union filed a complaint with the National labor Relations Board accusing Chase Brexton of firing the workers to intimidate other workers.
Quality patient care is the core issue which concerns the community as many low-income transgender individuals would be impacted. 

“The firings in the case management area makes up the majority of what makes Chase LGBT- focused patient care.  It very much what provides the vital parts of trans care,” says a former case manager who asked not to be identified. “Trans people have few options as it is. Getting rid of those people is a direct threat to LGBT care.  The organization would focus on addiction care and heterosexuals only without them.  LGBT care isn't profitable.”
FreeState Justice issued a statement on August 12 that was signed by a dozen local LGBT organizations in response to the firings.

“All too often, LGBTQ folks are left without service providers they can trust. As LGBTQ focused organizations across Maryland, we are deeply concerned that the termination of key Chase Brexton staff members may result in deteriorated trust from the communities we serve. 
It continues, “We also believe that workers’ rights is an LGBTQ issue, and we support the rights of all workers to form a union.  Fostering a healthy work environment is essential to recruiting and retaining the best team possible, which we believe is a key component of countering structural marginalization against the communities we serve.”

The Pride Foundation of Maryland removed Chase Brexton from their safe spaces map until the company “resolves this matter in a way that does not threaten the livelihood of LGBT employees pursuing their legal right to unionize.”
Gilles Lee Stromberg had been a patient at Chase Brexton since 2012, and it remains as the primary care provider.  Then Gilles moved to San Francisco for graduate school. 

My doctor was the last one to give me a hug and well wishes and said if I needed ANYTHING, if I was stranded over here in SF, that they’d hook me up.  At my lowest point, being able to see her I feel really saved my life.”  That person is Jill Crank, who was the fifth person to be fired this week.

A protest has been organized on social media against "Union Busting at Chase Brexton" and will take place in front of the Mount Vernon Center, 1111 N. Charles St. on August 19 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

The employees will be voting to join the union on August 25.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

New Protections for LGBTQ Youth in Foster Care Announced


FreeState Justice announced on August 4 that the Maryland Department of Human Resources (DHR) released a policy directive outlining key protections for LGBTQ foster youth. DHR developed the new directive in consultation with the Youth Equality Alliance (YEA), a policy coalition of service providers, nonprofits, government agencies, and individuals advocating for LGBTQ youth in Maryland, coordinated by FreeState Justice.

This action is expected to impact the lives of countless Maryland youth in foster care, according to Saida Agostini, Director of Community Engagement and Youth Policy for FreeState Justice, and YEA coordinator.
The directive establishes clear protections for LGBTQ youth in out-of-home care. Most notably, the directive mandates that a transgender and gender non-conforming youth’s sex assigned at birth cannot be the basis for the placement of the young person in a sex-segregated housing assignment. Rather, placement in congregate care must take into consideration the individual health and safety needs of the young person.
In addition, local departments of social services must vet all placements for all openly LGBTQ-identified youth in care to ensure that placements are LGBTQ-affirming, and may not coerce LGBTQ youth into so-called “conversion therapy” to “change” their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Among other highlights, the policy directive outlines procedures for caseworkers to assess the safety of placements as well as other resource providers, makes explicit that youth are permitted to dress and groom themselves consistent with their gender identity and expression, and provides that youth should be called by their preferred name and pronouns.

“This is an incredible moment that realizes one of our key goals as a coalition to protect LGBTQ youth,” said Agostini. “Studies have found that LGBTQ youth in care, especially LGBTQ youth of color, routinely face verbal and physical harassment in placement. This is unacceptable—our children must know that home is a safe place to go. DHR’s LGBTQ policy directive creates clear procedures and standards that will safeguard some of our most vulnerable youth.” 
DHR has coupled the release of this policy directive with a comprehensive statewide training of all county level social service employees that will begin this fall. Indeed, the directive mandates regular LGBTQ cultural competency trainings for both new and current staff members.

The new policy directive, which is titled “Policy SSA-CW #17-08: Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) Youth and Families,” is available from DHR’s website.
Formed in May 2013, YEA members include FreeState Justice, Advocates for Children and Youth, PFLAG Columbia-Howard County, The Frederick Center, Homeless Persons Representation Project, STAR TRACK Adolescent Health Program at University of Maryland School of Medicine, and the Baltimore Child Abuse Center.

For more information about the Youth Equality Alliance, and its advocacy work, visit here.

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.