Monday, June 29, 2015

'The Producers' is no Flop at Olney


In a turnabout from its previous musical that offered the relatively sober Carousel, the Olney Theatre Center, in the midst of its 77th season, is currently mounting the gregarious, laugh-a-minute production of The Producers.  It is clear from the get-go why this musical captured a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards in 2001 and spawned numerous other productions worldwide as well a successful film in 2005.  The hilarity, high-jinx and gags keep the audience laughing throughout with never a dull moment to be had.  #hocoarts

Michael Kostroff, Jessica Jaros and Michael Di Liberto  Photo: Stan Barouh
Mel Books and Thomas Meehan adapted the musical from the 1968 movie with the same name. The music and lyrics were composed and written by Mr. Brooks who turned 89 the day following the opening night performance at Olney.  His comedic genius along with Mr. Meehan’s assistance on the book is stamped on every line, every lyric, and every movement.

Under the expert direction of Mark Waldrop, who stays true to the original show (and why not?), the company and crew does this iconic show justice in every facet and is among the very best productions that Olney has staged in years.  The Producers is unapologetic in its irreverence towards Nazis, gay people, the elderly, and Broadway folks especially producers.
To read full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Extraordinary 'Pippin' at the Hippodrome


If there is one word that describes the production of Pippin that is currently gracing the Hippodrome Theatre stage is “spectacle.”  And if I add a second word, then it would be “extraordinary.”


Sam Lips as Pippin and Company Photo: Martha Rial
The enchanting musical that captured four Tony Awards in 1973, and 40 years later the 2013 revival added four more including Best Revival of a Musical, has been touring the country for nine months and now Baltimore audiences can enjoy this outstanding theatrical experience. 

With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Roger O. Hirson, Pippin, is a fanciful tale about a young man, Pippin (played exceptionally by Sam Lips), who is searching for the meaning of life and in the process is seeking fulfillment. 

As the son of Charlemagne (King Charles, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire), one would think that Pippin would have all that he needs.  In his mind he doesn’t, and his journey to be “extraordinary” is the central plotline.

Pippin is unique in that it features a traveling theatre troupe of circus-style performers, known as The Players.  Among them are acrobats, clowns, dancers, illusionists and gymnasts who perform a wide array of daring aerial stunts, pole climbing, and a host of other athletic body-contorting feats that are eye-popping. 
Expertly directed by Diane Paulus, this musical has a charm that separates it from the others.  It’s a play within the musical whereby a character named Leading Player (performed superbly by Sasha Allen, a top 5 singer from Season 4 of The Voice) who is, as you’d expect, the lead performer of The Players.  She directs and produces the play as well as acts as a narrator for the audience, and has a definitive interest in Pippin.  In the original production of Pippin, that role was played by Ben Vereen, who came away with a Tony.



This production of Pippin excels in every area

Ms. Allen excels with her dancing and vocal skills, comedic abilities and commanding presence on the stage.  Her rendition of “Glory” and her duet with Mr. Lips, in “On the Right Track” showcases the talents of both.
#hocoarts
Sam Lips, possessing striking good looks and a lithe, athletic physique, demonstrates multiple talents as the lead.  On stage for most of the scenes, Mr. Lips delivers a high-octane performance throughout with his movements on the stage and even in the circus sequences.  His rich tenor voice with a wide range is evident in the moving “Corner of the Sky” as well as “Morning Glow,” and “Extraordinary.”

As Pippin’s father, Charlemagne, John Rubinstein totally enjoys his role.  Mr. Rubinstein, who played Pippin in the original Broadway production, returns as the King who believes war is essential to holding the throne.  After he is killed by Pippin in an effort to seize the throne, The Leading Player resurrects him.  That tells you something about the zany plot.
Another scene stealer is the accomplished Adrienne Barbeau as Pippin’s free-spirited, fun-loving, dirty-minded, trapeze hanging, exiled grandmother Berthe.  Sassy and campy, Ms. Barbeau delivers a mighty theatrical punch in her main scene and scores with her number “No Time at All.”

Other cast members who turn in solid performances include Erik Altemus as Pippin’s half-brother Lewis; Kristine Reese as Catherine, a widow who brings Pippin into her home and soars with her song “Kind of Woman”; Sabrina Harper as Fastrada, Pippin’s conniving stepmother; Stephen Sayegh who works alternatively with Jake Berman as Catherine’s son Theo; and, of course, the skilled and acrobatic Players. 
The set, designed by Scott Pask consists of a whimsical circus tent with all the equipment needed to carry out the amazing stunts.

Larry Hochman and his orchestra ably supports the excellent vocals. Chet Walker’s Bob Fosse-style choreography is superb. Dominique Lemieux fitted the company in dazzling eclectic costumes especially those worn by The Players. Kenneth Posner’s vivid lighting and Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm’s crystal clear sound design contributed to the joyful experience.
This production of Pippin excels in every area and should not be missed.  Its only flaw is that it’s only here for a short time. 

Running time: Two hours and 35 minutes with an intermission.
Pippin runs through June 28 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Beware of the Haters


The tragic murders in Charleston, SC drove home the point that there is much hatred in this world, and there is little reason to believe it’s going away anytime soon.  Racial hatred is percolating, creating a deep fissure in our society—a troubling situation even a half century since the civil rights bill was signed into law.   There is also an abundance of hateful anti-Semitism, anti-Latino, anti-Asian and yes, homophobia out there, and we need to be concerned.  Very concerned.

Within the past month, two separate anti-gay attacks on young male couples in Baltimore both startled and angered those community members who became aware of them.  The victims were beaten up pretty badly but are now recovering. 
The couple that was robbed along with the beating, not only lost money and cell phones, but also had to endure the painstakingly bureaucratic process of obtaining new driver’s licenses and other forms of identification as well as reporting stolen cell phones, credit and ATM cards. 

Then there is the trauma resulting from these incidents that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.  They acknowledge, however, it could have been worse.  They are living.  Not everyone who had endured such brutality survived.
Both attacks occurred after returning from a bar or club at night.  And in both instances, the attackers launched anti-gay slurs while committing their assaults.  In one case the victims were called “bitches” and “queers” and in the other one, “f*****g faggots.”  This indicates, at least to me, that the attacks were hate crimes.  We know that in one of these incidents, police are investigating it as a possible hate crime.  Police did not confirm if such an investigation will be pursued for the other one.

Whether technically they are found to be hate crimes or not, they were acts of hate.  The anti-gay slurs and the vicious beatings would lead me to that conclusion.  The robbery of both members of the couple took place during the beating; it was not your routine street robbery in that the victims were not held up at gun or knifepoint initially and told to fork over their valuables.  While they were punched and stomped on, one of the attackers went through their pockets to retrieve wallets and phones to top off their heinous mugging. 
The other attack on a couple did not involve a robbery but one member, Steven Lemmerman also known by his DJ name, DJ Lemz, was severely roughed up  following an altercation with a motorist who came within an inch of hitting him in a crosswalk.  His partner escaped without injury.

Baltimore can be a rough city; we should be vigilant for possible attacks.  This is especially true if the U.S. Supreme Court rules favorably on marriage equality in the coming days.  Yes, there will be celebrations galore should we win the case. 
However, there will also be a backlash, and no one knows exactly how that reaction will manifest itself.  Anti-gay attacks are likely to result though the extent is unclear.  There has been so much overt acceptance of LGBT folks and support for same-sex marriage that people can be fooled into believing that life will move merrily along down a rainbow path.

This is far from the truth.  Many people have not bought in on the equality concept.  Most won’t go out and beat up “queers” as if it was a sport—and I know that some who participated in those activities viewed gay bashing as just that: recreation.  Some may, though.  They simply don’t like us, some even hate us, and much of this bigotry is tied to religious dogma and generations of homophobia within their families.  Taken a step further, the haters out there are potentially violent.
These recent gay bashings could be instructive.  The important safeguard is not to draw undue attention to yourself in this current environment.  Lemmerman told me less than a week after the assault, “I do not believe the attacker was driving around specifically looking to attack gay couples, but I believe us having fun and being ourselves set him off in an awful way.”

There are other common sense approaches, such as try not to walk alone on a street; walk where the streets are well-lit; do not display or use a cell phone or show any cash while walking; and do not get intoxicated.  The last point is very important because if you are impaired, you cannot be observant of your surroundings.  And if you are attacked, your condition will not enable you to make a clear, indisputable identification of the attacker.
As a victim of a brutal attack, Lemmerman added his insights: “Please be aware of your surroundings and who is around you. If you are out at the clubs, try and travel with at least one friend if on foot. If Stu [his partner] was not with me screaming for help, I shudder to think how much worse it could have gotten.

“If someone tries to provoke you, do your absolute best to not give them a reason to go after you. No matter how awful what they say or do is and how mad you might get, be the bigger person and walk away from the situation as safely and fast as you can. It can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time.”
You can find more safety tips from the Baltimore Police Department here.    
 
In addition, we do have an LGBT Liaison with the Baltimore Police Department if you experience any difficulties in dealing with the police.  His name is Sgt. Kevin Bailey, and he can be reached at 443- 984-7411 or by email at Kevin.Bailey@BaltimorePolice.org.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

'Jumpers for Goalposts' Victorious at Studio Theatre


What better way to get a jump on DC’s Capital Pride than to see Tom Wells’ Jumpers for Goalposts at the Studio Theatre, which is what I did the afternoon on June 13 just prior to the parade.  This charming, endearing, and often funny play that is making its U.S. debut was written skillfully by British playwright Tom Wells. Jumpers has been so enjoyed by audiences that the run has been extended at least through June 28.  #hocoarts

From left: Zdenko Martin, Liam Forde, Jonathan Judge-Russo,

Michael Glenn and Kimberly Gilbert.  Photo: Igor Dmitri

Director Matt Torney and his talented cast are to be given high-fives for bringing Mr. Wells’ script to life in such a touching and entertaining way.

The story concerns an LGBT pub football (soccer for us Americans) team in the working class town of Hull in England.  Their games are played on Sunday while the season lasts, and after each encounter, the players return to their normal lives.
Aptly named Barely Athletic, the hapless five-person team in this five-team league consists of three gay men, a lesbian and a “token straight.” As an example of its futility on the field, it narrowly defeated a transgender team playing in gowns and stilettos.  

While the team’s ineptitude is the backdrop of the play, the characters make the story rich, real and full of heart.  They are all everyday folks who have had problems in the past, and despite these challenges, at the end they find a way to move on. 
Most of us can relate to the ordinariness of their existence, the problems they encounter and the battles to overcome them.  This disparate group of characters in Jumpers allow us to reflect on our own lives in a way that causes our issues to seem mundane. 

The window that allows us to peak into the characters’ lives is the masterful set designed by Debra Booth.  All the action takes place in a grimy municipal locker room that mimics the gritty town in which it resides.   The details—from the bulletin board, filing cabinets and benches to the entrance to the shower room—are realistically displayed and form the perfect setting for the play.
Viv, a lesbian pub owner, played robustly by Kimberly Gilbert (2015 Helen Hayes Award recipient), is the mouthy self-appointed coach of the squad who was kicked off the lesbian team for being too bossy.  She can’t stand the constant losing on the field, and she pleads with each member to find a way to score a goal and for the goalie to stop a shot. 

Viv implores her teammates to at least “give it a go” even if they don’t emerge as victorious.  She even purchased three different sized trophies as a way of inspiration.  She was willing to settle for third place if the other two pegs in the standings were unachievable.  Viv may have showed off her bluster but she demonstrates a tender side as well.

Her sister had passed away and was the wife of another player on the team, the “token straight” and oldest member of the team, Joe, who is still grieving his loss.  He is played movingly by Michael Glenn. 
Beardy Geoff, a large man—a  bear, if you will—who insists on playing the game donned in  colorful patterned trousers and a childish woolen knit cap with bear ears, is one of the three gay male characters.  He has a penchant for having sex with members of the opposition and is the conduit between the other two gay men on the team.  Jonathan Judge-Russo performs admirably in this role and tenderly delivers the surprise ending.

Zdenko Martin, a hunky well-muscled chap plays Danny, who is clearly the most athletic of the male teammates and is the assistant coach.  He has an attraction for the overly shy, sheepish and squeamish Luke, played by Liam Forde.  Luke is a slender lad who keeps a diary consisting of rather uninteresting entries, needs to take a bus to and from the field so he can perform his job in a library, and has difficulty in opening the locker room door.
Danny and Luke make progress in their budding romance until Beardy Geoff convinces Danny to reveal to Luke the truth Danny has long-harbored.  Needless to say, it wasn’t well received. Mr. Martin and Mr. Forde turn in sterling performances especially during this exchange, which provides the most potent dramatic scene.

Under Mr. Torney’s direction, the play is staged with precision and energy.  Countless changes of costumes designed realistically by Kathleen Geldard are needed to reflect the passage of time while retaining the focus on the locker room.  The actors carry out these tasks perfectly without missing a beat.
Jumpers for Goalposts describes the challenges, struggles and triumphs of ordinary folks, exposing each of the character’s weaknesses and inner strengths alternately in funny and sad moments.  They may not win on the football field but they champion the stage.  This excellent play by Tom Wells should not be missed.

 Running time: Approximately One hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: The play contains adult language and is not suitable for children.

Jumpers for Goalposts is playing through June 28 at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20005.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 202-332-3300 or visiting online .

Monday, June 08, 2015

Bullying Not Peanuts at Spotlighters


If there is anything wrong with Burt V. Royal’s play, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead currently playing at the Spotlighters Theatre, it is that not enough people will catch this important work.  An “unauthorized parody” of Charles Schultz’ Peanuts comic strip whereby the Peanuts characters have grown into adolescence, Dog Sees God, which earned a GLAAD media award for Best Off-Off-Broadway Play in 1984, takes on serious issues that adolescents continue to grapple with today.  Mr. Royal’s characters’ names are different from the Peanuts crowd because of intellectual property rights.

From left: Reed DeLisle as Beethoven, Sean Dynan as CB, and Dennis Binseel as Matt
Photo: Chris Aldridge
#hocoarts
The play poignantly focuses on teen bullying, but suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, and sexual identity among others also factor in.  With these many issues to contend with in a one-act play lasting just over an hour and a half, time could not be spent on all to delve deeply enough to do them justice.  Nonetheless, they are touched on to some extent, and bullying and suicide emerge as the central topics.
Under Director Fuzz Roark, the talented cast of young actors brings Mr. Royal’s work to life with intensity, power and energy.  The play is constructed with over 20 scenes that are well-staged and well-paced.  The cast implements smooth transitions with the use of Al Ramer’s effective lighting design, and background music is piped in during these moments.  Many of these scenes are highly dramatic and pivotal to the plot; they are executed well.

The actors make effective use of the square stage in the center of the in-the-round theater using moveable benches and tables as props in Alan Zemia’s simple but functional set.  In addition, a piano, which plays a significant part in the play’s drama, sits in the corner along the runway.

Sean Dynan, as the principal character CB (Charlie Brown), turns in a splendid acting performance.  Handsome but conveying uncertain teenage-awkwardness at the same time, he moves about the stage with the weight of the world seemingly on his shoulders.  CB’s dog had died, and CB was looking to find out if there was an afterlife.  His friends consist of a pothead (Van, played by Adam Michael Abruzzo); two boozers who think they are the cool kids (Marcy and Tricia played convincingly by April Airriona Jones and Melanie Glickman, respectively); a sex-obsessed homophobe Matt (Dennis Binseel); and  CB’s sister who has varying philosophies on life (forcefully acted by Parker Bailey Steven), provide no good answers. 

a must-see thought-provoking and entertaining event

CB had at one time physically hurt Beethoven, the school’s outcast because he is gay, and during his attempt at reconciliation kisses him, then falls for him.  Beethoven (Schroeder in Peanuts) incurs the hateful wrath of Matt whose homophobia is so extreme that it ultimately and predictably raises questions as to why. 
 
Beethoven is played touchingly by Reed DeLisle.  He finds solace from the bullying and harassment by playing classical music on the piano.  His cowering movements around the stage and his restrained dialogue are a function of his constant fear and anger.  Mr. DeLisle delivers a moving performance in this role.
Hunky Dennis Binseel as Matt (Pig-Pen in Peanuts) is the play’s main antagonist.  His persona is similar to a ball of rubber bands tightly wound up whereby the slightest provocation sets him off.  Matt is menacing (and violent).  Mr. Binseel carries this off superbly with powerful intensity. 
Rounding out the cast is Autumn Rocha, Van’s sister, who is institutionalized for setting a red-haired girl’s hair on fire.  The scene between her and CB is outstanding.
The remainder of plot will not be divulged because the highly dramatic ending but is climaxed by an emotional letter to CB from a pen-pal.
 
To his credit, Fuzz Roark, as the Spotlighters Theatre’s Executive Director, added an insert to the program containing important information concerning bullying and suicide that had been furnished by PFLAG-Carroll County and The Trevor Project.  These pages include the warning signs that people should notice, actions that can be taken, statistics, hotline numbers and other useful information.  In addition, the lobby of the theatre displays a range of brochures covering the issues that surfaced in the play. 
Also, the brief after-play discussion by cast members with the audience caps off the experience very fittingly.  Following the performance for this review, Melanie Glickman ably led the discussion.
 
Dog Sees God is mostly a serious play with a few chuckles sprinkled about.  Mr. Royal’s script captures teenage angst and the serious problems that adolescents face at school each day.  It scrupulously informs the audience as to the consequences of bad decisions or the lack of guidance from others. 
Those critical issues covered by the play are reasons enough to attend.  However, it is a well-directed and well-staged work that is performed by a talented cast and makes it a must-see thought-provoking and entertaining event.    
 
Running time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission
Advisory: The play contains profanity and sexual situations and is not suitable for children under 13.
Dog Sees God runs through June 28 at the Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St., Baltimore, MD 21202.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-752-1225 or visiting online.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Pride is Bustin' Out All Over

Pride used to be solely a June thing.  When the Stonewall uprising of 1969 was commemorated beginning in June 1970 gay and lesbian folks started to speak out forcefully against mistreatment and discrimination and at the same time pushing to achieve the same rights held by others.  Steadily that theme faded away as the years rolled along, not because all the rights for LGBT individuals have been achieved, but Pride evolved into more of a spectacle that took on a less political character. 

Pride became a huge enterprise that brings in needed dollars to organizations running the events   that usually feature a parade and a festival at a minimum but also for corporate sponsors who display their support for LGBT rights.  This involvement benefits those gay-friendly businesses as LGBT folks will remember seeing their logos on promotional materials. 
There’s nothing wrong with this at all; it’s the way our economy works.  Sponsors support a celebration that LGBT people crave and they get the benefit of advertising.

Whereas most Pride festivities took place in the month of June, they are now spread over a season, if you will.  Locally, that’s certainly the case.  Hagerstown Hopes Pride occurred in May.  June will see a number of Pride happenings including Capital Pride in DC and Frederick Pride as well as the big one in NYC. 
Because of a scheduling conflict this year, Baltimore had moved its annual event to July for the first time—the 25th and 26th to be exact.   The Pride Festival of Central PA in Harrisburg will also take place on July 25.  And the Chesapeake Pride Festival in Mayo Beach Park in Anne Arundel County normally occurs in August but this year it was cancelled because of financial shortcomings.  Organizers say it will return in 2016 if the needed funds can be raised.

Thus, our Pride season touches four months giving LGBT  folks and allies opportunities to check some neighboring festivals over this period and not have to feel that it’s one and done.
This is going to be an interesting Pride season for sure.  Heck, they all are but 2015 could be historic.  The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of the month whether or not same-sex marriage will become the law of the land.  Everywhere throughout our interconnected world will find out soon enough if this potentially enormous victory will be realized.

It is what marriage equality advocates have been hoping for over a decade.  Our relationships could lead to a societal equivalency when gays and lesbians tie the knot.  No longer would we be considered second class citizens in the U.S. should the Justices rule that the states do not have a Constitutional right to ban same-sex marriages.  
And it’s not just here. With Ireland’s unprecedented vote by its people last month, a whopping 19 countries now permit same-sex marriage, and the U.S. is poised to be number 20 with a few more on the immediate horizon.  Go back as recently to the 2004 presidential campaign where Karl Rove and George W. Bush led the charge against same-sex marriage.  Fast-forward to the present and soak in what changes have taken place in these 11 years.  It’s utterly amazing.

Think of the celebratory atmosphere at Pride events amped up by such an historical decision should it come to pass.  True, most Pride attendees ignore politics even if they are directly affected; they prefer to party and carouse.  When was the last time you heard political speeches from the Pride stages in Baltimore? 
Those who remember or at least pay homage to the true reasons for celebrating Pride are resigned to the fact that the torch has been passed on to a new generation.  Many in this new generation are oblivious to the sacrifices others have made in the past and the numerous hills that were climbed with still many left to conquer.  Nonetheless, if the rainbow stars are aligned, this should be some helluva Pride.

A good number of LGBT people believe that the establishment of full marriage equality is another step towards mainstreaming—a fear or acknowledgement ignited by the closing of gay bars over the past two to three years.  Most of these closings were business decisions in one form or another; not a surrender to some inevitable social ailment that will eventually make gay bars extinct.  It’s not going to happen—not if there’s money to be made.
...if the rainbow stars are aligned, this should be some helluva Pride.
While these folks fear this loss of identity, keep in mind that homophobia is alive and well.  Despite any court rulings, we are not fully accepted, not by a long shot.  For example, the nation does not have a federal anti-discrimination law in place and will not do so for years to come under the current composition of Congress.

The hateful antigay rhetoric you read on the Internet is chilling.  The Republican presidential hopefuls so far have yet to ease up on their homophobic rants as they foolishly try to appeal to their extremist bigoted base and then wonder why they can’t win a general election.
And not all homophobia is overt.  Little comments here and there from those who deny they are homophobic are, in fact, homophobic even if accompanied by their phony smiles.  People you think are accepting put on a fa├žade but their inner selves think otherwise.

As we celebrate Pride for whatever reasons, just know we are not there yet.  We still have an important identity that is not going to evaporate because of gay bars shutting down. Plus, there is much work left to do; marriage equality doesn’t end our quest, it provides the momentum to march on.
There are ample opportunities and incentives to celebrate this Pride season.  But we have to keep it real.