Saturday, May 21, 2016

A Good 'Spell' at HCC Arts Collective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

A Majestic 'Beauty and the Beast" at the Hippodrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 08, 2016

How Trump Could Win This Thing

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

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




Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Come to the Cabaret at the Hippodrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blaming the Messenger Will Not Fix the GLCCB’s Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Clinton-Sanders: That’s the Ticket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.