Monday, July 27, 2015

Into the Woods at Toby's is a Good Choice

If there’s one thing you can say about Into The Woods, the Tony Award winning musical whose score and lyrics were brought into the world by the genius of Stephen Sondheim and the book by James Lapine, is that the production playing at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia was perfectly cast.  With every one of the show’s 22 characters popping up at a frenetic pace throughout the musical donned in dazzling old-time costumes by Eleanor Dicks, it is clear that there is no one better who could have performed each of the roles.   #hocoarts
Photo by Jeri Tidwell
Co-directors Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick ably took advantage of this abundance of talent and helmed an entertaining, message-laden, family-friendly spectacle.  The technical crew is also commendable particularly Lynn Joslin’s Light Design, which is effectively used to illuminate the characters that appear at different locations in the in-the-round stage while blacking out parts of the stage so that others seamlessly exit.

When we were kids we remember that the characters in fairy tales “lived happily ever after.”  That’s not necessarily the case in Into The Woods.  In this magical and sometimes dark musical, real choices found in adulthood—not necessarily childhood—and the consequences of these choices are brought to the fore.
Into The Woods is not just one fairy tale; we get to enjoy four from the Brothers Grimm—“Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Rapunzel”—whose plots are interwoven and linked with the original story of the Baker and his Wife played superbly by Jeffrey Shankle and Priscilla Cuellar, respectively.  Russell Sunday with his deep resonant voice is the Narrator who ties everything together, and there’s a lot to tie.  He also performs admirably as the Mysterious Man.

In order to break a spell from an ugly Witch (played zestfully by Janine Sunday) that had prevented the couple from bearing children, The Baker and his Wife needed to venture into the woods to find four items the Witch demanded: a slipper as pure as gold, a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, and hair as yellow as corn.  
"perfectly cast"

During their arduous journey, they encounter Cinderella (Julia Lancione) for the slipper, Jack (Jimmy Mavrikes) for the cow (Alex Beveridge), Little Red Riding Hood (Sophie Schulman) for the red cape and Rapunzel (Katherine Riddle) for the hair.  They, too, had wishes of their own as they meandered through the woods in search of those dreams.

Act One conforms to what we expect: all the characters had their wishes fulfilled and “lived happily ever after”—or did they?  In Act Two we get a glimpse of what can transpire beyond “happily ever after” endings and the consequences of the characters’ wishes. Without revealing the storyline, this act is darker than the first with its murders, terror, lies, adultery, betrayals, accusations and revenge.
Serious problems must be addressed, such as dealing with the angry vengeful widow of the Giant. In tackling this and other challenges, the four surviving characters discover they can find strength in their interdependence with one another.

As mentioned earlier, all members of the company were suitably cast as if the roles were written specifically for each.  Their vocals excel during Sondheim’s lyrically solid numbers and backed ably by the robust sounds of Ross Scott Rawlings’ six-piece orchestra.
As the determined Baker, Jeffrey Shankle mixed his acting and singing ingredients to form a delicacy of a performance.  Working with Priscilla Cuellar as the Baker’s Wife, the duo exhibits excellent onstage chemistry and performs well in “It Takes Two.”  Mr. Shankle also does very well in the group number “No One is Alone.”

Ms. Cuellar with her lovely voice in top form sings beautifully in her solo “Moments in the Woods” among others.
Another stellar combo are Jimmy Mavrikes as the simple boy Jack whose friend was his cow Milky White and veteran actress Jane C. Boyle as his struggling mother. Nimble and energetic, Mr. Mavrikes is in constant motion playing the youthful and rather dim-witted Jack.  His solo “Giants in the Sky” soars.  Ms. Boyle performs at a high level in her attempts at parenting.

As Cinderella, Julia Lancione demonstrates her superb vocal skills in a duet with Ms. Cuellar in “A Very Nice Prince” and her solo “On the Steps of the Palace.”
If you have a Grimm fairy tale then you need a handsome Prince Charming, and Jonathan Helwig as Cinderella’s Prince checks that box.  He and his brother, Rapunzel’s Prince, played by Justin Calhoun, provide much of the campiness in the show.  Their comical duet “Agony” whereby the two muse about the women in their lives hits the mark.

Ms. Sunday as the Witch sparkles in the ballad “Stay With Me” and later after her youth and beauty were restored but her powers were stripped by the potion comprised by the sought after ingredients in “Last Midnight.”
Other favorites performed by the company include the title song as the prologue and “Your Fault.”

The remainder of the cast also turns in stirring performances, notably Heather Marie Beck as Cinderella’s Stepmother, Lawrence B. Munsey as Cinderella’s Father and the hungry Wolf, Sophie Schulman as Little Red Ridinghood, Katherine Riddle as Rapunzel, Scott Harrison as Steward, and Katie Keyser and MaryKate Broulliet as Cinderella’s stepsisters Florinda and Lucinda.  And last but not least, a pat on the rump is in order for Alex Beverage’s strenuous work as Milky White.
The show takes on serious and complex subjects in a creative and artful way.  Sondheim’s music and the cast’s sterling performances make the trek Into The Woods worthwhile.

Running time: Approximately two hours and 50 minutes with an intermission.
Into The Woods plays through September 6 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling 410-730-8311or visiting online.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

There'll Always Be a Place For Pride

All that talk of mainstreaming, assimilating, acceptance, the loss of gay bars, and the potential loss of LGBT organizations, one has to wonder why there is even a need for LGBT Pride anymore.  Given these shifts in our own culture as well as society as a whole, I posed that very question to one of our popular LGBT leaders while we were discussing Pride.  She set me straight, so to speak.

“We most certainly need Pride to gather as a community and celebrate our identity at least once a year,” she stressed without any hesitation.  And upon further contemplation, she is absolutely right.
I guess I had been soured by what Pride has evolved into. The notion that Pride is aimed at celebrating the Stonewall uprising and the fight for gay rights is a quaint one.  It’s no longer the case.

Back in the day, that was the motivation for the parades and rallies.  Gay liberation was the battle cry.  People of all ages, genders, walks of life and ethnic backgrounds held up signs and chanted slogans.  It was indeed an assertion that gay people should not be relegated to second class citizenship and that we are proud of who we are as human beings who just happen to be LGBT.  We were not about to go back into or remain in the closet because straight society would like us to.  It was a day to proclaim our identity, and we demanded the rights that others enjoyed.
Ironically, these demonstrations proved to be counterproductive.  Opponents of such rights were aided by the media’s coverage of Pride parades with their ratings-conscious focus on the more flamboyant and exhibitionists among us.  This served to feed the stereotypes to information-starved heterosexuals who found comfort in this selective portrayal.  It reinforced their beliefs; their bigotry had been validated.

As key victories began to amass, the political and emotional impetus for the Pride celebrations that was so evident in the first three decades following Stonewall have all but dissipated.  No longer do you see numerous placards and banners with compelling messages.  No longer do you hear political speeches from officials clamoring for equality. 
Sure, there are folks going around soliciting donations or asking people to sign up on organizations’ mailing lists and perhaps sign a petition or two.  But it is no way the same as the grass roots movement that carried us through those difficult years.

“Where can we drink?” is the operative question.
Instead, our Pride festivities, especially the block parties, have become similar to other events that celebrate ethnic or national identities.  We get the crowds, the music, the food vendors, the entertainment and the booze.  No political speeches and no serious subjects are engaged publicly.  Make no mistake it has become a party, plain and simple. 

This is no one’s fault, mind you; it is now what most attendees want and expect.  The GLCCB, which runs Pride and who needs it to succeed to keep that organization afloat, is simply satisfying the demand.  “Where can we drink?” is the operative question.  If there was a ban on alcohol, how many would still show up?

I may be old school in that I appreciate our LGBT history and try to understand how our movement has been shaped.  But I love a party just like anyone else.  I just need to recognize that the current generation does not see these celebrations through a historical prism.  It’s sad because of the sacrifices made by our LGBT pioneers and that these folks and their efforts are not recognized at Pride events.

Nonetheless, I will continue to celebrate Pride by acknowledging the distance we have traveled and the progress we have achieved.  Nobody thought five years ago that marriage equality would be the law of the land but it is.  Nobody thought we would see a transgender person making a speech to primarily a sports audience on national television that received a standing ovation and the degree of widespread praise it garnered despite a pushback from within and outside the LGBT communities.
We must acknowledge, however, that much work remains.  We need a federal all-inclusive anti-discrimination law.  We need to address the disproportionate amount of LGBT youth who are homeless and bullied and to deal with the reasons why these kids are still unaccepted by their families and schoolmates.  We need to strive to end the harmful outdated nonsense called reparative therapy.  We must convince our younger generation that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is far from eradicated and risky sexual behavior remains dangerous. 

We must also be wary of the backlash stemming from our success on the marriage front, and expect that we will be used by Republican presidential candidates during the campaign to appease their bigoted voters.  
A little less division within our own community would be helpful.  When one part of our community succeeds, we all succeed.  When one part fails, we all fail together.  Strong leadership is required to help galvanize our communities the way it once was in those early post-Stonewall Pride celebrations.

Pride should be an opportunity to reflect upon these challenges.  But it’s a party now, so having some fun is not all that bad either. 
Happy Pride!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Higher Praise for 'Altar Boyz' at Spotlighters

It might be seen as a miracle, but the cozy Spotlighters Theatre has been transformed into a spacious Baltimore concert hall where screaming fans of the 5-member Christian boy band Altar Boyz stomp, clap and cheer at the band’s final concert of their Raise the Praise tour.  Well, maybe not exactly, but the performances from the band themselves spew enough energy and talent to fill any venue, and it clearly works well at Spotlighters.  #hocoarts
Photo: Chris Aldridge/CMAldridgePhotography
Altar Boyz, with music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker and book by Kevin Del Aguila, spoofs Christian dogma and its Christian-themed music as well as boy bands’ popularity without a heavy touch and keeps you laughing with the satirical, clever lyrics contained in the songs.  Altar Boyz, which ran from 2005-10, became the 9th longest running off-Broadway show and received several awards including the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical.

The fictional concert customizes its material to relate to Baltimore (or wherever the musical runs) whereby the boyz from Ohio passionately deliver the messages of Christianity, try to save the burdened souls of the audience, and confront (or confess) their own vulnerabilities.  Though gimmicky, a device called the Soul Sensor (monitors above the stage) is used to count down the number of burdened souls remaining in the audience with the expressed goal of reducing the number to zero.
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Are We Victims of Our Own Success?

When we first learned that the Hippo planned to close later this year, many in the community attributed that development to a cultural transformation.  Gay bars, according to these folks, aren’t as important as they once were, and with the growing acceptance of LGBT people by society as a whole, more gay people are finding their entertainment and social networking at straight establishments or online. 
This acceptance, although far from universal, has always been a goal of LGBT advocates who do not want to be considered second class citizens by the larger straight community.  In effect, one could point to this shift as a success, and if the trend continues, we could be seeing the end of gay bars and similar businesses—the results of this success—though I maintain they are still needed and have a place in our society.   

One such achievement that is causing financial problems for LGBT organizations is marriage equality.  For over a decade, same-sex marriage proponents have made the quest for marriage equality the centerpiece of the movement, which would bestow the over 1,100 benefits, rights and responsibilities that are conferred upon heterosexual married couples. 
While not every gay and lesbian considered marriage to a same-sex partner something they personally coveted, they still had that option should such nuptials become legal. It was a worthy goal, to be sure, and those organizations at the forefront of the battles in the state legislatures and governors’ offices reaped the benefits of this movement that gathered steam after same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts in 2003.

Whether or not gay or lesbian individuals were partnered, many bought into the marriage equality movement, and combined with supportive allies, wrote out checks to those organizations leading the way.  Locally, that organization had been Equality Maryland, which fought hard to push a bill through an overwhelmingly Democratic but politically timid legislature and an unyielding Governor Ehrlich followed by a vacillating Governor O’Malley who finally threw his support for the measure in 2011 after advocating for civil unions.
Despite the uphill climb, Equality Maryland prevailed, and along with others, succeeded in persuading the legislature to pass the bill, which O’Malley signed into law in 2012.  Equality Maryland joined other groups under the auspices of Marylanders for Marriage Equality to defeat a referendum put forth by marriage equality opponents including Maryland’s Catholic Archdiocese.

Just four days after the June 26 historic Supreme Court ruling that paved the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states, the chairs of Equality Maryland’s two boards released a statement warning of the organization’s potential demise. 
“Funding from individuals and major donor sources dropped significantly after securing marriage equality,” the statement read.  “The Board believes passionately that Equality Maryland ought to continue to play a critical, central role in the coming years for our community, but is facing one of two possibilities for the future: drastically scaling down operations, with a reduced capacity to serve its many constituencies across the state, or suspending operations entirely.

“Unless and until we secure adequate revenue to sustain the organization, the important services, oversight and advocacy it has consistently provided to the Maryland LGBT community will cease to be.”  
Carrie Evans, its executive director, had been let go because of the financial crisis.

It was always my impression that Equality Maryland was never awash in cash.  The organization nearly imploded a few years ago over financial matters and a lack of oversight by their board.  Morgan Meneses-Sheets, the executive director at the time, was fired in an ugly controversial mess. 
Equality Maryland’s finances had historically been held close to the vest.  Indeed, when the Washington Blade recently conducted a survey of national and local LGBT organizations concerning their financial status and the salaries of the respective executive directors, Equality Maryland did not respond to multiple requests to provide such information.  I always believed that organizations that raise money from the community ought to be more transparent regarding how the funds are being spent, but that was not the case with this one.

Clearly, the success of marriage equality here and nationally has removed the largest and most appealing magnet from which to raise money, and organizations like Equality Maryland could fall victim.  It would be a shame if that comes to pass. 
There is so much work ahead especially efforts to address bullying in schools, suicides among LGBT youth, homelessness whereby LGBT youth are disproportionately at risk, LGBT youth in the foster care and the juvenile justice system, the continuing fight to address discrimination and violence directed towards transgender individuals, banning conversion therapy, combating an increase in HIV infections in the African-American community in addition to the seemingly endless fight nationally to secure a Federal all-inclusive non-discrimination law.

Many of these issues require legislation, and Equality Maryland is in the best position to work its political acumen to achieve results.  However, they are not sexy issues as marriage equality was and, therefore, not likely to build their fundraising efforts around them.
Realizing that this was a real possibility, I strongly advocated for Equality Maryland to re-tool its mission and use its expertise to help launch local organizations in various parts of the state.  These “Balkanized” iterations of Equality Maryland would be in the best position to deal with local brush fires in schools, businesses, law enforcement and other areas where neighbors could have more of an impact than a central organization.

It’s something that Equality Maryland should still consider if it’s not too late.  Selling that idea to a public who helped financially to secure marriage equality is do-able.  Unless that happens, Equality Maryland as well as all of us will have been victims of our own success.