Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Smokin' Music Rocks Toby's Baltimore

The production of Smokey Joe’s Café at Toby’s Baltimore is not your typical musical. There is no story line to keep track of that binds the musical performances. There is no acting. There is no dialogue. And so unconventional is this musical that the performers don’t have character names. Rather than adhering to a chronological structure or any kind of plot (and some might find fault with that), Smokey Joe’s Café is a musical revue.

What is presented on Toby’s stage is a lightning bolt of energy that brought back to life over three dozen pop, rock and blues standards—some huge hits, some lesser known— mainly from the 1950’s by the prolific composing tandem of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. In producing their own songs, the duo took control of their material, as did the Beatles, for example. We don't write songs,” Leiber famously said. “We write records.”

The album, Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller, won a Grammy in 1996 for Best Musical Show album. The show’s earlier performers garnered several Tony nominations. It had opened on Broadway in 1995 and closed nearly five years later after 2,036 performances. In 1996 the touring company paid a visit to the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore.

It is a sparkling display of fast-paced, high-tempo performances from the talented young ensemble. There are ten performers in this group, which is an increase over earlier iterations of the show. The nearly forty songs were performed with varying combinations of the cast. Overall, the ensemble offered scintillating, lively performances and was true to the Lieber and Stoller score.

They belted out such favorites as “Kansas City,” “Poison Ivy,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Potion #9,” “Hound Dog,” and a host of others that will make you clap your hands and tap your feet. They crooned to such popular and melodic ballads as “Stand By Me,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “There Goes My Baby,” “I (Who Have Nothing)” and “Spanish Harlem.”

Under the direction of Kevin McAllister and musical director Cedric Lyles, the strengths of the cast members were well utilized to maximize the performances. Each one had something to offer and their talents were well integrated to create a beautiful tapestry of song and dance.

From the soothing bass voice of Marquise White to the powerful soprano Kelli Blackwell, the numbers they performed were superb as exhibited in their duet in “You’re The Boss.” The other cast members’ vocals were also joyful.

If a performance required some comical body language, then the directors turned to Bryan Daniels, who was a crowd pleaser. His rendition of “Treat Me Nice” treated the audience nicely.

And if choreographers Ashleigh King and Anwar Thomas sought an energetic, versatile dancer to lead in several numbers, then they struck gold with Toby’s veteran Derek Tatum (“Hairspray,” “Chicago,” High School Musical”). His shirtless performance in the song “Don Juan” elicited some shrieks from some audience members who admired his taut physique. Tatum’s Elvis-like dance routine in “Jailhouse Rock” also stood out. In general, the choreography from the cast was as harmonious as the tunes.

The pace of the show was breathtaking. Nearly 40 songs were performed in just over two hours. No pauses, no gaps, no respite in between selections. The performers for the next number were onstage virtually as the previous song ended. As such, the changes to Janine Sunday’s appealing period costumes were executed rapidly and smoothly—a credit to the stage production staff and the performers.

The set was spartan, which did not add or subtract from the quality of the production. Nor did it create a mood harkening back to the 50’s. A blank screen hung behind the performers and reflected some images from time to time but served mainly as a partition between the ensemble and the excellent orchestra. However, nicely designed stairways were used on both sides of the stage in a number of selections. It was clear that the performances were central to the show’s value, not the scenery.

While the musical revue overall doesn’t tell a story, most of these Leiber and Stoller songs do individually. If you’re old enough to remember these tunes, you will truly appreciate this production and bring back those memories. But if not, you should simply relax and enjoy the remarkably talented cast and musicians and tap your feet, which is hard not to do.

Smokey Joe’s Café runs through March 18 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5625 O’Donnell St. (in the Best Western Hotel), Baltimore, MD 21224.. For schedule and ticket information, call 410-649-1660 or visit tobysdinnertheatre.com.

Photo: Chris Christiansen

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Question of Motivation

Just as the 2012 General Assembly was about to begin, Maryland Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller said on the Marc Steiner radio show that “a coming together of Evangelicals, Catholics, African-Americans” will oppose the marriage equality measure. “If it goes to polls, the other side is more motivated, and I think they will get their voters out, and I think it goes down to defeat.”

Like him or not (I don’t), Mike Miller, who opposes same-sex marriage, is an astute politician. The conservative Democrat has served as Maryland Senate President for a quarter century—longer than any counterpart in the country. Miller has represented his district (Calvert and Prince George’s counties) as Senator since the Ford Administration after being elected to the House of Delegates during Nixon’s term.

Numerous politicos and journalists believe that Miller is the most powerful person in the state, even more so than the Governor. Heck, they named the Senate office building after him and he’s not even dead.

Miller knows Maryland, and he knows politics like no other. Is he on target, however, in predicting doom for the bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland? Is he correct declaring that the “other side is more motivated”?

He may have a case. A recent Gonzales poll taken this month indicates a 2-percentage point edge favoring same-sex taken among registered voters in Maryland—well within the margin of error and thus a statistical tie. But many folks rightly believe that on social issues, people tend to respond more progressively in these polls, which could have artificially upped the pro-equality numbers.

Moreover, the survey did not target likely voters. The same groups that Miller mentioned, including African-Americans who are expected to turn out in large numbers because of the presidential election, are not yet convinced that marriage equality is good for the state and families or does such a change comport with their religious beliefs. Older citizens, who more likely oppose same-sex marriage, tend to vote proportionately higher in their demographic than younger voters do—once again tilting the scale against marriage equality.

Based on this analysis alone, the marriage equality scenario in 2012 is not as rosy as some believe, thereby validating Miller’s assessment.

And there are other factors. Rather than waiting for marriage equality to be legalized in Maryland, many gay and lesbian couples tied the knot in Washington, D.C. or in the other states that allow it. Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler’s opinion in 2010 that said Maryland should recognize those valid marriages conducted in the other states influences couples to marry elsewhere. So the motivation may not be as strong as it once was.

Although the total increased by 50 percent, the estimated number of gay and lesbian couples—17,000 according to the 2010 census—is a fraction of the entire LGBT population in Maryland. (In Baltimore City and Montgomery County, there are approximately 2,900 such couples in each.)

But among those couples, not all are seeking marriage for a variety of reasons. And many of those who are unattached do not ever expect to be married. This also tamps down the motivation of the pro-equality side.

On the other hand, the opposition is indeed very motivated. Well-organized and well-funded groups like the National Organization for Marriage exist solely to deny gay and lesbian Americans the right to civil marriages. NOM has so much clout that Republican presidential candidates signed a pledge to support a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between one man and one woman. Other groups representing Catholics as well as African-American mega-churches are also eager to thwart the bill or overturn it in a referendum.

This is not to suggest that the pro-equality coalition under the banner Marylanders for Marriage Equality is not motivated. There are a considerable number of dedicated individuals and organizations working hard to secure marriage equality in the state.

Delegate Luke Clippinger (D-46th District) told me, “The coalition has field organizers in key districts. The coalition also has the benefit of polling, of media advisors, of people with state-wide political experience, and of a finance committee that has already raised a considerable amount of money. All of these things…are essential parts of a successful campaign and they are already in place.” But it is going to require a high level of volunteerism and financial contributions by LGBT individuals and allies to win the battles ahead.

As we have observed on the national political stage, motivation can be crucial. To that point, the Republican Party will likely be nominating a candidate who is flawed and not loved by their base but he is perceived to be best positioned to defeat Barack Obama.

“The opportunity to beat a polarizing incumbent is a powerful motivating force,” wrote Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com in the New York Times.

We need to get motivated here—even those who don’t see marriage in their future— to do what’s right and just, and ultimately to prove that Mike Miller’s assertions are nothing more than hot air.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

2012: Not for the Faint of Heart

The confetti from New Year’s Eve has long been swept up, and as we open our new 2012 calendars—the ones that charities routinely send us—we notice that each month contains a majestic photo of an exquisite landscape from around the U.S. It’s nice but the political landscape nationally and here in Maryland promises to be anything but serene and beautiful. Rather we should brace ourselves because calendar year 2012 is going to be ugly.

Bruising Presidential Campaign

We are less than ten months away from either re-electing Barack Obama or we will decide that his opponent should reside in the White House for the next four years. And that opponent, barring a miracle, will be Mitt Romney.

Based on the tried and true fundamentals; i.e. ability to raise money, organization and name recognition, needed to carry out such a campaign, it would be a major surprise if anyone but Mitt Romney emerges as Obama’s foe. Assuming no credible third party candidate surfaces leaving the stage to the two principals, this campaign will be tantamount to extreme cage fighting.

The Republican faithful will hold their noses and nominate the former Massachusetts governor. His strength: the myth that he fostered that he is the only candidate who is “electable” against Obama whom the GOP loathes.

Whether he possesses sufficient true conservative values or not, Romney is the darling of the so-called establishment. And as the Tea Party’s influence wanes, the establishment should win out. The ultimate motivation will be to defeat Obama, and Republican dogma may have to take a back seat. But in an effort to shore up his conservative bona fides, expect more anti-LGBT salvos from Romney especially his desire for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

Because of the Supreme Court’s ruling that opens the door to unlimited campaign contributions that can be made to Political Action Committees (PAC), both opponents will have the cash to slug it out big time. Contributors to these PACs can remain anonymous and they will be completely legal if the PACs do not coordinate with the official campaign. We witnessed the effects of PAC money when Romney’s PAC obliterated his one-time feared opponent, Newt Gingrich in Iowa.

For his part, Obama has the resources (including PACs) to counter Romney and the assaults from his PACs. Team Obama has already made it clear that they want this election to be a choice between two candidates and not a referendum of the past four years. In other words, they will surely run a negative campaign against the presumed nominee, Romney. And if history has taught us anything, the Republicans will stop at nothing to use smear and fear to win elections.

The back-and-forth will be strident and personal, so get used to the muck.

Do or Die in Annapolis

As scenic as Annapolis is as a city, the 430th Legislative Session of the Maryland General Assembly that had just begun promises to be unsightly. While the state’s budget deficit will highlight the session, marriage equality and gender identity protections will be on the docket.

Marriage equality advocates were short by a couple of votes in the House of Delegates last year following passage in the Senate. A new organization—Marylanders for Marriage Equality—is going to lead the fight this time around. It is comprised of the ACLU of Maryland, Human Rights Campaign, Progressive Maryland, SEIU 1199, NAACP — Baltimore Chapter, National Black Justice Coalition, Family Equality Council, PFLAG, Jewish Community Relations Council, Maryland Faith for Equality, Maryland NOW, Catholics for Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

The coalition is building a statewide grassroots organization—which includes weekly phone banks, post card drops, and letter-writing campaigns—to ensure state legislators hear from their constituents.

In addition, they have produced videos consisting of elected officials and entertainers in an attempt to win over Marylanders to pressure lawmakers to pass the bill and to hold off a guaranteed referendum battle should the bill pass and be signed into law. And they have the support of Governor O’Malley who made passage a legislative priority and promised to be more visible during the debate.

Should the bill be petitioned to referendum, the ongoing battle will be discordant and emotional. Will Marylanders for Marriage Equality come up with enough resources to fend it off? That’s the multi-million dollar question.

It is almost do or die, however, for the coalition to come through this session. In no way would the issue of same-sex marriage be taken up next year in the legislature or in 2014 as lawmakers are loathe to run with a hot button issue such as this on a ballot. Should the law pass this year and the referendum to defeat it holds up, it would require a court action, such as what’s happening on California’s Prop 8 situation, to overturn the referendum results. And there would be a lot of finger-pointing as well.

The gender identity non-discrimination bill will also cause a stir in the legislature. It passed the House last session but because of maneuvering by Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, it failed to come up for a vote in the Senate. Last time, “public accommodations” were struck from the language to improve its chances of passage. This time it is expected to be included.

But if a “public accommodations” provision is stripped as was the case last year and more recently in Massachusetts, some in the local transgender community will oppose the bill—a controversy that will also contribute to the foul political climate. In 2011 transgender activists were up in arms over the stripped provision banning discrimination against transgender persons in the area of public accommodations and made that opposition clear to lawmakers.

Nonetheless, like marriage equality, the gender identity measure has some momentum behind it. The worldwide video of a beating of a trans-woman in a local McDonalds underscored the need for legal protections for transgender individuals. Moreover, a legislative victory in Howard County recently occurred, which joined Baltimore City and Montgomery County as jurisdictions that have comprehensive protections in place. An additional jurisdiction in Maryland is poised to enact similar protections. These should help gain a statewide law.

With the Dream Act and the Marriage bill expected to be on the 2012 ballot, it is questionable if opponents of gender identity protections will follow that route. Regardless, advocates, who are led by a new organization, Gender Rights Maryland, must be ready for the potential onslaught.

Whether it is the national presidential campaign or the expected battles in Maryland, the landscape will not be like those portrayed on calendars.