Saturday, January 30, 2016

'The Phantom of the Opera' Delights at the Hippodrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.
Phantom of the Opera runs through February 7 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or click here or click here for Hippodrome information. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Should Fans COME OUT at the Ballgame?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

A New Marriage in Maryland

Merger between FreeState Legal and Equality Maryland is a good match

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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