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.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Dial 'M' for Marvelous

Classic thriller at Olney will keep you at the edge of your seat

A perfect murder is hard to achieve.  Lord knows I’ve thought about it.  In Frederick Knott’s gripping play, Dial ‘M’ for Murder, which in 1954 was adapted to the screen with Alfred Hitchcock at the helm, it appeared that the perfect murder had been crafted…but not so fast. Nothing is perfect, just like nothing is for free.   #hocoarts

Alan Wade, Nisi Sturgis and Cameron McNary  Photo: Stan Barouh
The Olney Theatre Center is presenting Knott’s classic play in a taut, well-staged and performed mystery under the masterful direction of Jason King Jones.  Dial ‘M’ is not the typical whodunit since the audience is already primed on how and why the crime was committed.  Its strength lies with how Inspector Hubbard (played superbly by Alan Wade, a 44-year veteran of the Olney Theatre Center) puts the pieces together to eventually solve the case.

Even if you saw the movie version, the building drama and tension will leave you at the edge of your seat.  The play has its share of blackmail, greed, jealousy, deception and a considerable amount of brandy consumed by the characters.  Keys, love letters, stockings, hand bags, an attaché case, scissors, and a rotary telephone all play a hand in this edgy mystery with a little dose of well-placed comedy sprinkled throughout.
Set in 1952 London, ex-tennis pro Tony Wendice (Ashley Smith) plots to off his cheating wife, the wealthy socialite Margot Wendice (Nisi Sturgis) to inherit her money.  He follows an acquaintance from Cambridge University Captain Lesgate or the alias C.A. Swann (James Konicek) to gather the goods on him so that he can blackmail him into killing Margot in an intricately detailed scheme.

Of course, the murder doesn’t go off as planned.  If it had, the play would have ended in less than an hour.  The twists and turns, the circuitous route Inspector Hubbard takes to solve the case and the outstanding technical support make this a must-see occasion.
All the action takes place in the mid-century modern living room of the large London flat belonging to the Wendices.  Charlie Calvert designed an attractive and functional set whereby every piece of furniture, every lamp, every door and, of course, the bar, has a role in the play’s visual appeal and action.  There is a secondary set consisting of a staircase outside the front door that serves as a “key” part of the plot.

Then there is Sonya Dowhaluk’s lighting design, which effectively utilizes fading, blackout and brightening techniques as well as the mysterious silhouette effect outside the front door to augment the dialogue and action.   
Adding to the dramatic atmosphere is the mystery-style background music similar to what is heard in cinema.  It’s a great touch and Sound Designer Roc Lee pulled it off brilliantly.  Mr. Lee also provided the sound of off-stage voices including those from the other side of the phone.  The performers are mic’d well with their lines heard with clarity.

A good play with superior technical elements deserves solid acting, and the ensemble cast of Dial ‘M’ for Murder does not disappoint.  Thanks to dialect coach Zachary Campion, the performers consistently maintain British accents throughout their on-stage adventures.
Ashley Smith convincingly plays the antagonist Tony.  His exchange with Captain Lesgate/ (James Konicek) when he conjures up one Lesgate/C.A. Swann misdeed after another to blackmail him is one of the play’s highlights.  Mr. Konicek is splendid in that scene, which helps to make it work so well.

On stage through most of the play, Mr. Smith demonstrates the poise and confidence of the former professional athlete that he plays and a command of virtually every scene with his dialogue and movements.
Nisi Sturgis, as Margot, wins the audience over. Though she had been involved in an extramarital affair with American murder mystery novelist Max Holliday (Cameron McNary), Ms. Sturgis’ Margot elicits sympathy as the intended victim in this caper and the one who is ultimately wrongly accused.  Mr. McNary does a good job as Max.

Alan Wade shines as the intrepid Inspector Hubbard.  Toying with his suspects (first Margot then Tony) and feeling them out as the investigation proceeds, Mr. Wade elicits fond memories of TV’s Columbo character (“One more question, please”).  Tenacious and clever, Mr. Wade gives heft to Hubbard. 
All in all, the Olney presentation of Dial ‘M’ for Murder is a riveting experience and patrons are sure to have a jolly good time even with a killing on the stage.

Running Time:  Two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.

Dial ‘M’ for Murder runs through May 1 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting here.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

With Trump, the GOP Got What it Deserved

We’re in the “OMG” phase of the 2016 presidential election cycle.  Nobody thought that Donald Trump was a serious aspirant for the presidency; that it was merely a show to stoke his already oversized ego.  How did virtually everyone get it wrong?

Well, had Trump lost a few early contests he probably would, as a good business man should, cut his losses, call it a day and return to his gilded palaces.  That was not the case as we know. 
In fact, he is steamrolling to the Republican nomination, much to the chagrin of the so-called party establishment, and they are wringing their hands trying to figure out how he can be stopped before or during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July.  Failing to do so would deprive the Republicans the golden opportunity from re-taking the White House in what could have been a victory against one of two vulnerable Democrats.

How did this uncontrollable monster get created?  The GOP brought it upon themselves, and they deserve what they got.

Since Trump’s announcement to join a large but weak field of Republican candidates, he essentially verbalized what many in the “base” of the party had been thinking all along but felt restrained from doing so.  Trump used the failure to enact immigration reform to throw Mexicans under the bus—literally.  “I’m gonna build a huge wall, a beautiful wall because right now we’re a country without borders and if there are no borders, we don’t have a country,” he repeated over and over.  #hocopolitics

That sparked the heretofore latent xenophobic instincts from many within the party to rally around the man who “tells it like it is”.  He tapped into the misogynist characteristics of Republican voters and those who had never previously voted with his verbal insults hurled against Megyn Kelly and Carly Fiorina.  Trump lampooned a disabled person and essentially called Vietnam POW Senator McCain a loser for being captured, and that’s just the beginning. 

These missteps alone should have done him in.  The media, the more sensible Republicans and the American people in general should have recognized the seriousness of his candidacy and expressed sufficient outrage to derail his march.  They never saw it coming.

Trump exposed his racist leanings when he spoke harshly against Black Lives Matter demonstrators.  It was his Sister Souljah moment, and the numerous racists in this country floated to the surface like earthworms after springtime rainstorm.  Then there is Trump’s support for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country making religion a test for immigration.

Courtesy of
They found a home with Trump, and when the Donald encouraged his adoring minions to “rough up” demonstrators—mostly black—at rallies combined with his “I’d like to punch him in the face” comment, it was easy to see how he has incited the more violent nature of these rallies and unfortunately they are likely to escalate.

As I indicated before, the Republicans have nobody to blame but themselves for this phenomenon.  Through dog whistles and other subtle forms of bigotry, the party became a home to racists (“Go back to Africa,” said one at a recent Trump rally) and anti-Semites (“Go back to Auschwitz,” snapped another—both on video).  Trump’s hesitation to disavow the KKK and David Duke in particular reinforced that notion.

As Bill Maher correctly points out, obviously not everyone in the Republican Party is a racist but if you are a racist, you are comfotable in the Republican Party.   They now have cover with Trump, and the candidate has done nothing to tamp down the vitriolic rhetoric. The 2008 campaign between McCain and Obama set the tone for the toxicity that exists today.  Though McCain is not directly responsible for it, he did select the village idiot Sarah Palin to be his running mate. 

At rallies during the campaign, Palin accused Obama of being a terrorist, a socialist and more by dint of his past associations.  The GOP did nothing to quell that incendiary rhetoric.  They also did nothing to counter the Trump-led “birther” movement that claimed Obama was born outside the U.S. and is not eligible to be president.

The negative discourse continued after the rather lopsided 2008 election victory for Obama when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell infamously stated his goal to make Obama a one-time president.  And there was South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson shouting “You lie” during a speech the president made in 2009 to a joint session of Congress.
It had become rather obvious that the loyal opposition was bent de-legitimizing Obama and preventing him from carrying out his agenda.  Had the Democrats acted like this to a Republican sitting president, there would be cries for treason.

They undermined him at every turn including bringing in a head of state (Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu) against Obama’s wishes to speak before Congress to lobby against the Iran deal. Now they want to deny the president the Constitutional responsibility of filling a Supreme Court vacancy.

All this disrespect, all this vitriol planted the seeds for Trump to march through the primaries and vanquish his opponents through personal insults and victories.  Here is a man who has wafer-thin knowledge of policy, little or no understanding of how the government should be run, who publicly said he loves the poorly educated, and convinces himself he can make deals to solve our problems. Trump makes this race all about himself and believes if elected he will be king or a dictator in that  he can do whatever he pleases.  He even admitted recently that he gets his information from the Internet and his advice from himself.

As such, he is poised to damage the Republican Party for years, and all the hand-wringing by conservatives who dislike Trump for his failure to follow conservative orthodoxy and sensible pragmatic Republicans who see defeat being snatched from victory, will unlikely stop this stupid train to November. All they can say now, to paraphrase Trump, is “Get him the hell outta here!”

Monday, February 15, 2016

Southern Discomfort

Religion and Sexuality Clash in Southern Baptist Sissies

The saga of four choir members growing up in the “Buckle of the Bible Belt” and dealing with their sexuality forms the basis for Southern Baptist Sissies that is currently playing at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre.  This powerful play by Del Shores that premiered in Los Angeles in 2000 received the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding LA Theater Production among other honors.

TJ (l.) played by Dennis Binseel rejects Mark (Michael MaKay)
Photo: Spotlighters Theatre/Chris Aldridge, CMAldridgePhotography 
By no means is Southern Baptist Sissies an uplifting work. It realistically depicts homophobia in the conservative religious community and the effect of religion’s rejection of homosexuality on young people. The messages are hammered home through frequent fiery monologues and exchanges between the characters that under the direction of Fuzz Roark, the production is hallmarked by extraordinary performances by the cast.

The four boys—Mark (played by Michael MacKay), TJ (Dennis Binseel), Andrew (Dan Romeo) and Benny (Tommy Malek)—offer intense individual revelations on each one’s coping with his sexuality in the Dallas Baptist Church.  ##
Narrated by the idealist Mark, the story jumps back and forth in time using his memory of events and his own attempts at trying to figure out why the Baptist Church preaches love and forgiveness but lambastes homosexuality.  He is enraged by this situation and frustrated even more over his childhood friend, TJ, with whom he had a sexual relationship as teenagers.   That led to Mark’s falling in love with him, but TJ, influenced by the Scriptures, denied his gayness and tried the straight path towards redemption.   He eventually enters into a relationship with a woman.  #hocoarts

On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, Benny fully embraces being gay, at least on the surface, brushes off the Church’s teachings, and becomes a flamboyant drag queen.
In between is Andrew, who is conflicted by his sexual urges and the demands of his faith in the hope of finding acceptance by God.

The Dallas Baptist Church’s anti-gay teachings are brought home by the fire and brimstone preacher, Reily (John Sadowsky) who does not temper his anti-gay rhetoric even after a tragedy at the play’s end.
Melanie Eifert as Odette and Greg Grenier as Peanut
Photo: Spotlighters Theatre/Chris Aldridge, CMAldridgePhotograph
To provide comic relief, two barflies, an older gay man, Preston “Peanut” LeRoy (played deliciously by Greg Grenier), and a self-described alcoholic Odette (Melanie Eifert) engage each other at a piano bar at various intervals within the play.  They gossip about the other bar patrons, discuss their lives, make funny quips (Peanut: “I’m a social drinker.  You’re having a drink, social I”) and create a bond that is endearing.  Both actors are superb and convincing in their roles.
These segments in the play do not have a direct relationship to the core plot of Southern Baptist Sissies—that of the journey of the four boys—other than the fact that the characters are Baptists.  Yet, the comedic exchanges are a welcome respite from the intensity of the remainder of the play.

Another comic sequence is the exceptional drag performance by Benny’s “Iona Traylor.”  Singing live as opposed to the all-too-common lip synching device, Mr. Malek’s voice is spot-on and his well-delivered “bitchy” comments hit the mark.  
Though the play was written at the beginning of the millennium, Mr. Roark, updated it by invoking the names of several homophobic elected officials and presidential candidates into the dialogue—an amusing touch.

Other than these lighter moments plus brief stripping appearances by Mr. Binseel showcasing his well-toned physique, the play is serious with a poignant, thought-provoking theme.

From left: Michael MacKay, Dennis Binseel, Dan Romeo and Tommy Malek
Photo: Spotlighters Theatre/Chris Aldridge, CMAldridgePhotography 
The Peanut character, however, accurately portrays the plight of older gay men in bars back in 2000 and continuing today whereby they engage in gossipy banter, are often ignored and marginalized by younger gay men, and their loneliness could lead them to having to pay for sex.  Peanut’s advice to the younger Andrew, drawing on his experiences, provides one of the play’s sweetest moments.
This is a well-cast production with the all the actors performing very competently in their roles. Most notably, Michael MacKay, as Mark, the principal character, ably conveys the wide expanse of emotions required from this part.   Tommy Malek as Benny stands out as does John Sadowsky as the Preacher.  Dennis Binseel, already a Spotlighter’s veteran of six productions, brings much passion to his character for the tense scenes. Christina Holmes does a good job playing the boys' mothers.

Credit Accent and Dialect Coach Sherrionne Brown for helping the cast with their authentic deep Southern drawls, which are delivered consistently throughout.  Also, Al Ramer deserves a nod for his lighting design that creatively augments the scene changes.
And while this play is not a musical, there are frequent hymns sung by the four main characters whose voices blend beautifully in each number.  William Georg is excellent playing organ music in church scenes and piano music in the piano bar.

Southern Baptist Sissies is a serious play about serious issues despite the comedy in the mix.  It primarily sheds light on a subject that touches the lives of many gay people coming to grips with their sexuality while religious leaders and their followers disparage them whether they are in Dallas or anywhere else. 
Yes, there are times the dialogue gets a bit too overwrought and the play does not leave any of the characters truly happy.   However, the overarching message of the need to love one’s self no matter who you are is an important one.  

This well-directed, well-performed production at the Spotlighters should not be missed.
Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: The play contains profanity and sexual situations and is not recommended for children.
Southern Baptist Sissies plays through March 6 at the Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-752-1225 or visiting here.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Is Any Presidential Candidate Electable?

As we move to the next phase of the primaries season, it is interesting to note that “electability” was not the number one factor on the minds of both Democrats and Republican primary voters in New Hampshire.  Other issues had priorities above electability, which is understandable. 

However, the importance of electability cannot be overstated with so much at stake.  In assessing the current crop of candidates, it is a real challenge to see where any of them are electable given their weaknesses and the history of presidential campaigns.
On the Democratic side, the field is down to just two hopefuls, which will make decision-making on the part of Democratic voters more clear-cut.  However here are the challenges facing each one.

Bernie Sanders occupies the left flank of the party highlighted by his ideas to end corruption and influence by big corporations in elections.  He also favors some form of wealth distribution through increased taxes on the rich and taxing equity transactions.  Sanders also advocates free tuition for public colleges and health care for everybody using a single payer system. 
They are noble causes to be sure but impractical given today’s hostile and dysfunctional Congress.  Sanders is counting on a “political revolution” to pressure Congress to enact these proposals. 
Unfortunately for his supporters, these ideas will be mocked by opponents when they will hammer home the point that he wants to hand out free food, houses and automobiles as well.  You know how they operate.  #hocopolitics

Sanders’ arguments play well in states like New Hampshire but he will be slammed by a Republican opponent, should he win the nomination, as one who wants to raise taxes—a proposition that never works in presidential elections.  They will likely hurt him in important battleground states, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado.  His supporters believe working people will rally around him.  We’ll see.
He and the media have portrayed Sanders as an outsider, but with over a quarter century in the Congress, that may be a hard pill to swallow.  At this point, his electability is an issue.

Hillary Clinton is by far the most qualified and best prepared candidate to occupy the Oval Office.  She is smart and savvy and is fully knowledgeable about domestic and foreign policy.  Her strategy of aligning herself with President Obama and his policies is wise for the primaries as the President is popular within the Democratic Party.  She would have to loosen that grip, however, in the general should she be the nominee as Obama’s approval rating is still below 50 percent.

With all that is going for her,  Clinton is burdened by scandals—real or imagined—that plays into the narrative of a potential Republican opponent.  To his credit, Sanders has eschewed the email flap, donations to the Clintons’ foundation, paid speeches made to Wall Street corporations, her body of work as Secretary of State and other areas of concern, but her Republican opponent would have a field day.  Plus there is the problem of “Clinton fatigue” and her inability thus far to connect with young people and women who are under age 65.  These groups are essential if there is any chance for the nomination and the general election going forward. 
The Republican candidates, now winnowed to a somewhat manageable list, had been derisively called by Democrats a “clown car” and for good reason.  Few had shown any potential to be the president and commander-in-chief because of their extreme right wing views on domestic and foreign policy and their inability to demonstrate that they have a grasp on the issues.  Some haven’t even presented their policies in a coherent way.  They are good at bashing Obama and Clinton and for the most part, they are scary.

Leading off is the giant who has sucked all the political oxygen out of the GOP race: Donald Trump.  Aside from his brash bravado, which is totally obnoxious, he has insulted women, Mexicans and other Hispanics, the disabled, Muslims, the list goes on.  He has not presented himself as presidential and gets his foreign policy information from TV shows. Trump shrugs off unemployment statistics gathered by a non-partisan entity as phony but believes the rate of unemployment could be as high as 42 percent. 
The trouble with Trump is that he says what many Republicans (including candidates) believe but they have enough of a filter to prevent such outlandish statements in public.  Right now, Trump is the one to beat, but it is extremely unlikely he is electable in the general.

Ted Cruz has the challenge of being born in Canada, which Trump will use to cast doubt on his electability.  Moreover, he has the unique position of being reviled by both Democrats and Republicans.  He comes off as sleazy as much as frightening given his ultra-right wing views.  His leading the shutdown of the federal government cost the taxpayers $24 billion so that will work against him, too. He’s not electable.
Marco Rubio, if he recovers from his near-fatal robotic performance on the debate stage, is somewhat plausible but I see more meltdowns down the road.  He comes off as lazy and misses too many Senate votes.  Rubio has a penchant for running more against Obama who is not a candidate than trying to knock off the frontrunner Trump.  He would make a decent vice-presidential candidate but nothing more.

Jeb Bush is the biggest underachiever given the size of the war chest that is financing him.  Bland and burdened with the Bush name, he is not going anywhere.

John Kasich is the most moderate in the field but is no moderate and would make a good addition to Trump’s ticket should the reality star prevail.   His over 100 town halls in New Hampshire garnered only 16 percent of the votes cast in a second place finish.  How can he muster the same amount of energy in the remaining contests?  He can’t and won’t.
Dr. Ben Carson is hanging in there but his precipitous drop in the polls is a reflection of his bizarre comments and stunning lack of knowledge.

So there we have it.  I will not predict the finalists yet but I can safely say that one of these folks will be elected as the 45th President of the U.S.  I just don’t see how.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

'The Phantom of the Opera' Delights at the Hippodrome

On the heels of the largest snowstorm in Baltimore history, the most financially successful musical in history (approaching gross income of $1 billion on Broadway alone) has come to Charm City to warm the souls of theatre patrons with a brilliant, dynamic, tech-laden production of Phantom of the Opera.  The modified and re-sized revival from previous national tours, Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece at the Hippodrome Theatre remains largely faithful to the record-breaking original that had just celebrated its 28th anniversary on Broadway and still counting. #hocoarts
Katie Travis as Christine and Chris Mann as The Phantom 
Photo: Matthew Murphy
The Phantom of the Opera, which had opened on London’s West End 30 years ago, featuring the incomparable award-winning Michael Crawford in the title role, was scored by Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Charles Hart and additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe.

Laurence Connor deftly directs this touring production that includes 52 cast members and orchestra.  Pyrotechnical effects abound, amplifying the drama that unfolds. 
Paul Brown’s exquisite set design that includes the signature rising and crashing crystal chandelier allows for smooth transitions employing a turntable on the stage as well as dropdown scenery for a wide range of settings.  Among them are: the opera house stage, the manager’s office, the underground labyrinth, the Phantom’s lair, the grand ballroom and a graveyard.  

Paule Constable’s effective lighting creates the right atmospheric moods and furthers the dramatic sequences as does Mick Potter’s sound design, which is especially effective during off-stage dialogue from The Phantom.  
Costume Designer Maria Björnson brings 19th century French attire to the company with a wide range of dazzling costumes.

The love story-thriller is best known for its memorable songs, such as the rousing title number “The Phantom of the Opera,” the gorgeous and a personal favorite “The Music of the Night,” the tender ballad “All I Ask of You,” and the romantic “Wishing You Were Somehow Here.”
Under the musical supervision of John Rigby, Dale Rieling directed Lloyd Webber’s splendid melodic score with excellent balance and proper restraint so that the vocals can rise above the background.

Based on the classic novel Le Fantôme de L’Opéra by Gaston Leroux, Phantom’s familiar story that binds the glorious music together centers on a disfigured musical genius (The Phantom of the Opera played by Chris Mann) who lurks in the tunnels below the Paris Opera House in the late 19th century.  He is completely obsessed with a young innocent soprano Christine Daaé (Katie Travis) whom he had taught.  
Through the use of threats, terror and even murder, he insists that the ingénue receive lead roles in current and future opera offerings.  All the while, a former childhood friend of Christine, Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny (Storm Lineberger), falls in love with Christine as she does with him.  However, Christine is torn between her love for Raoul and her gratitude towards the Phantom for his teaching her to sing so beautifully.  This leads to the famously heart-pounding conclusion.

As The Phantom, Chris Mann, a finalist in TV’s The Voice in 2012, is up to the task.  His acting and movements on stage are solid, and Mr. Mann’s performances of such numbers as “Music of the Night” and the reprise of “All I Ask of You” are delivered with flair and passion while showcasing his strong tenor voice.
Katie Davis as Christine also acts proficiently, and her sweet soprano vocals shine throughout.  “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” and her performances in “The Music of the Night” are notable.  In the latter, Ms. Davis ably hits the highest register.

As Raoul, Storm Lineberger adeptly demonstrates his desire for Christine with his acting prowess and through song. In duets with Ms. Davis, “Why Have You Brought Me Here?/Raoul, I’ve Been There” and “All I Ask of You,” Mr. Lineberger performs well.
Jacquelynne Fontaine, as the diva Carlotta whom Christine replaced in the opera, David Benoit as Monsieur Firmin, Edward Staudenmayer as Monsieur Andre, managers of the Paris Opera House, and Morgan Cowling as Christine’s friend Meg also turn in good performances.

The entire company is excellent and energetic.  Under the choreography of Scott Ambler, the ensemble’s performance of “Masquerade/Why So Silent” is a standout.
Phantom’s visit to Baltimore is a welcome one in which great music, staging and performances do justice to the classic original that will play on with no end in sight.  The production at the Hippodrome is highly recommended for all audiences.

Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.
Phantom of the Opera runs through February 7 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 click here or click here for Hippodrome information. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Should Fans COME OUT at the Ballgame?

Earlier in the month, a kiss between two gay men was captured on the Staples Center’s giant scoreboard while a hockey game broke out.  It was the first time that two gay people smooching had been shown on Kiss Cam at a hockey game.
Kiss Cam in LA catching two gay men  Photo courtesy of Gay Star News
Kiss Cam is a popular feature at sport venues that occurs when there is a break in the action, such as in between innings, a commercial time out or some other lull.  A camera is trained on a couple, who after recognizing themselves on the Jumbotron or whatever large screen is used, start to kiss to the approving cheers of fans in the stadium or arena. 

In the vast majority of cases, the couples spotlighted are heterosexuals.  If two men or two women were sitting next to each other, the cameraperson or director would likely bypass them rather than cause undo embarrassment if the same-sex individuals are, say, straight or colleagues at work or neighbors or clients or relatives.  Of course, the individuals involved are not obligated to kiss but would likely be laughed at or cheered one way or the other.
Therefore, straight couples are the top priorities though there could be awkward relationships there as well (see above).    

The breakthrough in Los Angeles prompted my friend Mike Bernard, who is a rabid Baltimore Orioles fan, to offer up as a discussion on Facebook the possibility of arranging for same-sex couples to be recognized by Kiss Cam at Orioles home games.  He had been told by Orioles staff that the element of surprise is a key to making this an entertaining feature.  Mike, who is the moderator for the Gay and Lesbian or Whoever (GLoW) Orioles Fans-Games Group on Facebook, thought perhaps that an arrangement could be made in advance so that a different same-sex couple could be targeted at various points in the season.
I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, it would be great that gay or lesbian displays of affection are so “mainstreamed” that other folks attending these games would think nothing of it. This would also send the message that there are gay fans in the stands supporting the home team who are equal targets for the visual prank.  Everybody regardless of sexual orientation would be vulnerable.  It would signal yet another step, albeit non-serious, towards progress.

On the other hand, I am concerned that despite gains in marriage rights and non-discrimination laws on the books locally, there are plenty of those who are not fond of LGBT people still out there. 
According to the U.S. Census, in 2012 there were roughly 200 million people living in the U.S. who are between ages 18 and 64.  Using that segment, let’s say 60 percent are OK with LGBT folks (and that may be generous).  That means, based on these assumptions, around 80 million are not on board the rainbow train in this demographic.  That’s a lot of people who are not on our side.

There are factors that may not be so cut and dry.  For example, people may support marriage equality and still not care much for LGBT people.  Conversely, there are those who do accept gays and lesbians but because of religious beliefs, do not favor same-sex marriage.
Kiss Cam at Orioles Park at Camden Yards (YouTube)

It is impossible to determine without scientific polling what percentage of a crowd at a sports venue on a given day are in the anti-gay category.  Teams market to families so there are numerous kids in attendance especially at baseball games.  I believe there would be strong opposition to same-sex individuals kissing even on Kiss Cam and would use the “family” atmosphere as justification, never mind their own personal prejudices.

Moreover, sports crowds tend to be tilted on the “macho” side—a point that probably weighs heavily in the minds of those gay athletes who would consider coming out publicly but are reluctant to do so because of the “machoism” in the stands and the locker rooms. 
Nonetheless, hockey is certainly one of those “macho” sports and the gay couple kissing during the LA Kings-Toronto Maple Leafs game received overwhelming approval that night.  It could have been the novelty of the act shown on the screen or that LA is a progressive city so people there would simply shrug their shoulders.  It’s hard to tell.  A better test of acceptance would show a gay couple kissing in venues in more conservative cities, such as Dallas or Calgary.

Then there is the alcohol factor.  Otherwise good people can turn ugly when fueled by heavy consumption of beer at these events.  In 2013, there was an incident when a young man was severely injured by two other young men at Orioles Park when he confronted them after he was taunted.  It’s an extreme case to be sure and such eruptions can involve anybody.  But they are on the upswing at sports venues around the country.
Gay men kissing could evoke similar alcohol-induced taunting or violence that could result in great harm.  It’s something nobody needs to go through. 

Perhaps a test case from a willing gay or lesbian couple at Orioles Park with the cooperation from the stadium’s officials may be the way to find out.  Hopefully, few may care, and if this becomes a routine part of the Kiss Cam feature throughout the season, even less will care.  But there’s always a risk.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

A New Marriage in Maryland

Merger between FreeState Legal and Equality Maryland is a good match

For the past six months, the once prominent Equality Maryland organization was essentially moribund: cash-starved, no office, and no executive director.  Following decades of being the principal advocacy organization for LGBTQ Marylanders, Equality Maryland laid low hoping to eventually wake up from its tenuous existence.
That changed dramatically on January 6, 2016, when FreeState Legal, the Baltimore-based non-profit organization that serves the low-income LGBTQ community in Maryland through direct legal services, announced that it was merging with Equality Maryland. 

 “We are excited to better serve the LGBTQ community across all of Maryland,” said Patrick A. Paschall, Executive Director of FreeState Legal in a statement. “By combining FreeState Legal’s team of attorneys providing direct legal services with Equality Maryland’s longstanding history as the voice and political arm of the LGBTQ community, we are creating a comprehensive LGBTQ civil rights organization that will work throughout the state to end prejudice and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”   
When Equality Maryland was experiencing fundraising difficulties earlier last year, they attempted to effect a merger with FreeState Legal, but according to Paschall, the timing was not right for FreeState to undergo that change.  Now it can, and it’s a good fit.

FreeState Legal, which has existed since 2008, has been on the upswing in both effectiveness and reputation.  It recently moved to new headquarters located at 231 East Baltimore Street, but it is unclear if that move is related to the merger.
Equality Maryland brings to the table thousands of members statewide and a string of significant victories under its belt especially the passage of marriage equality and comprehensive protections based on gender identity.  Equality Maryland was a component of the Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition which withstood a referendum challenge to the newly passed law in 2012.

Patrick A. Paschall  Photo: Bob Ford
While these major accomplishments are noteworthy, there is much more work that needs to be done especially for people of color and low income LGBTQ individuals. 

Both Equality Maryland and FreeState Legal have enjoyed a working relationship in the past, so the merger should be a relatively seamless endeavor. One joint initiative that stands out is their work, as well as that of other partnering organizations, on the Youth Equality Alliance, which seeks to address the challenges of LGBTQ youth in Maryland education, foster care, and juvenile justice systems.
“Both FreeState Legal and Equality Maryland receive calls on a daily basis from LGBTQ Marylanders who continue to experience discrimination in housing, health care, employment, and public accommodations, discrimination or harassment in schools and foster care, or the risk of losing custody of their children,” said Jessica P. Weber, Board President of FreeState Legal.  

“Bringing together the expertise and experience of Equality Maryland and FreeState Legal will put us on the path to achieving the goal of full equality for all LGBT Marylanders,” said Lawrence S. Jacobs, Board Chair of Equality Maryland, Inc. in a statement.  

“This merger creates a statewide social justice organization that provides direct legal services to low-income LGBT Marylanders, implements and defends legislative protections against discrimination, engages in policy advocacy, organizes and empowers communities, educates and trains individuals and groups on LGBT cultural competence issues, and serves as a watchdog on behalf of Maryland’s entire LGBT community," he said.
The announcement on January 6 signals a 6-month-long process that will involve strategic planning and community input from all over the state to establish a combined mission and vision as well as a new name for the merged organization.  Paschall, who became FreeState Legal’s executive director last March, will remain as the executive director of the combined organization.  He said there will be no staff changes in the immediate future.

“For decades Equality Maryland has led the fight for LGBTQ equality in the state legislature,” said Paschall. “FreeState Legal could not be more excited to join forces with Equality Maryland, an organization that has such a deep history and strong track record of success serving Maryland’s LGBTQ community.”
May this marriage last.