Friday, November 30, 2018

Splashy ‘Little Mermaid’ Surfaces at Toby’s

The cast of "The Little Mermaid" playing at Toby's Dinner Theatre
Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography

Holy Mackerel! With the arrival of Disney’s The Little Mermaid at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, it is tempting to bombard this review with a school of fish puns.  But if you think I am going to take the bait, well, you are floundering up the wrong pike.  

I don’t mean to carp on this but there are enough fishy lines dropped throughout the show that with any more from me and you’d be up to your gills in them, wind up with a haddock, and eventually tuna me out.

Not to go overboard, but under the superb direction and choreography of Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick, the perfectly cast, impeccably staged, ultra-colorful, splashy production that kicks off a promising 2018-19 Season reels in a great catch with this presentation of The Little Mermaid.   #hocoarts

Based  on  one  of  Hans  Christian  Andersen’s  most  adored  stories  and  the  1989  classic  animated film, it was no fluke that Disney’s  The  Little  Mermaid netted two Tony Award nominations in 2008. It features music  by  eight-time  Academy  Award  winner,  Alan  Menken,  lyrics  by  Howard  Ashman  and  Glenn  Slater  and  a  book  by Doug  Wright.

It conveys the fairytale love story of a beautiful young mermaid (Ariel) who at first is infatuated with “human things” like a fork and other items discarded at sea and falling to the ocean floor where she resides and then infatuated by a human being—a handsome prince (Eric) who is on a boat at sea. Prince Eric hears her lovely voice and he, too, becomes spellbound.

What then transpires and how they ultimately hook up (oh, dear!) is the essence of the plot and is a joy to behold.

Toby’s imaginative artistic team originally wanted to fill the theater with water up to the ceiling so that all the aquatic characters in the show can move about freely in their natural habitat. But with the luscious food at the buffet (seafood and all) getting soggy, the audience drenched if not drowning, and the cast with their mic’s affixed to them getting electrocuted, the show’s run would be limited to one performance, if that.

Abby Middleton, Jeffrey Shankle and Jacob Hale 
Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Rather, a more conventional approach was adopted and it worked magic.  Costumes by A.T. Jones & Sons are magnificent and colorful beyond belief. The aquatic characters including a variety of sea life, such as a flounder, a crab, a couple of eels, other fishes, a flock of seagulls and, of course, a bevy of mermaids replete with extended tails are decked out in creative attire that are sure to please the young children (and adults) attending the show.

The costumes for the sailors above the surface, King Triton, the villainess sea witch Ursula, and the ensemble are similarly outstanding, lavish, intricate and creative.

Another triumph is David A. Hopkins’ vividly chromatic lighting design, which is clearly worthy of a Helen Hayes Award nomination. The spectacular mixing of hues with a blue-green accent to depict the underwater action is first rate.  Mr. Hopkins employs four spotlights from above with each casting simulated sun rays peering down from the sky through the depths of the sea. It is a gorgeous touch.

Mr. Minnick’s choreography is detailed and fluid working the in-the-round stage to near perfection.
Grouper, I mean group numbers, such as “Daughters of Triton,” the clever “Positoovity,” the hilarious “Les Poissons,” “She’s in Love” and the show stopper “Under the Sea” are expertly performed.  This is no small achievement given the bulky costumes worn by the cast members, and the precise execution avoids collisions. Well done!

More top notch choreography is on display in “Sweet Child” and “Daddy’s Little Angel.” Here, two green-clad eels, Flotsam (Taylor Witt) and Jetsam (Joey Ellinghaus) who are loyal subordinates of the sea witch Ursula perform while on rollerblades.  Using synchronized strides and shifting upper body movements, both gracefully and deliberately slither around the stage in artistic, electric performances.

The cast is 'Under the Sea'  Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
 Alan Menken’s score is melodic and delivered exceptionally by Music Director Ross Scott Rawlings and his 6-piece orchestra—even without a bass.

Abby Middleton as Ariel, the youngest mermaid daughter of King Triton (Russell Sunday), the ruler of an undersea country, does a laudable job in conveying her yearning for Prince Eric. Possessing a sweet melodic soprano voice, Ms. Middleton excels in one of the show’s popular songs “Part of Your World” and in other solos like “The World Above” and “If Only.”

Her onstage chemistry with Russell Sunday as her father and Justin Calhoun as Prince Eric offers believability to this make believe tale.

Ariel’s love interest, dashing Prince Eric is played outstandingly by Justin Calhoun.  I am pleased to see Mr. Calhoun in a leading role whereby he can showcase his pitch-perfect tenor voice.  His convincing swashbuckling demeanor throughout the production exhibits his fine acting skills as well.

Mr. Calhoun’s romantic solo ballad “Her Voice” and his duet with Ms. Middleton in “One Step Closer” are beautifully performed. 

Mr. Sunday hits the mark as the widowed King Triton, the strict but caring father of his youngest daughter Ariel. Attired in a nautically-themed lavish costume including a wild, eye-catching crown, the King opposes Ariel’s ascent to the surface and her collection of human things as he views all humans as fish-eating threats to his undersea kingdom.

Commanding on stage, Mr. Sunday’s muscular baritone is displayed in “If Only (Triton’s Lament)” and later he is featured in a quartet with Mr. Calhoun, Ms. Middleton and DeCarlo Raspberry as Sebastian in “If Only (Quartet”).

Mr. Raspberry as Sebastian, a crab, is comical and campy. A veritable scene-stealer, Sebastian is a servant of King Triton and is assigned to watch over Ariel and helps Ariel charm Prince Eric.  His spot-on tenor is evident in group numbers “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.”

The aforementioned evil Ursula is played mischievously by Lynn Sharp Spears (a great name for the theme of this musical).  She lures Ariel into trading her beautiful voice for legs so she can rise to the surface and reel in Prince Eric. Ms. Spears effectively delivers the song “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and the reprise of that number towards the end in a dramatic, action-packed scene.

Justin Calhoun and Abby Middleton  Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Jeffrey Shankle as Scuttle, a gull, does his usual strong performance in this comic role. Scuttle can’t quite get his facts or his words quite right but Mr. Shankle sings well in the group number “Positoovity” and again in “Positaggity.”

The always fun David James portrays Grimsby, a loyalist to Eric. His mission is to see that Eric fulfills a promise made to his deceased father—a king—that he will marry a princess. Mr. James performs admirably in the group numbers “Beyond My Wildest Dreams” and “The Contest.” He's such a cod!

Jacob Hale energetically plays Flounder who is Ursula’s companion and who accompanies her on searches for human artifacts. He performs well with the Mersisters—Ariel’s siblings—in a wonderful song and dance number “She’s in Love.”

And then there is David Bosley-Reynolds as the comical Chef Louis. In a hilarious scene, he tries to capture Sebastian and cook him for dinner. During the action, Mr. Bosley-Reynolds sings “Les Poissons.”

Rounding out the excellent cast are Elizabeth Rayca, Maggie Dransfield, Rachel Kemp, MaryKate Brouillet, Coby Kay Callahan, Louisa Tringali, Noah Beye, Sylvern Groomes, Ariel Messeca, Brook Urquhart and AJ Whittenberger.

The Little Mermaid at Toby’s with its talented performers and crew under Mark Minnick’s excellent direction is a lighthearted musical for all ages where you will enjoy this production and the buffet hook, line and sinker. I said that just for the halibut.

Running time. Two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission.

The Little Mermaid runs through January 13 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311 or visiting online

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Having Our Seat at the (Round)Table


Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman convenes LGBTQ Roundtable
in June 2016     Photo: Office of the County Executive
On November 26, the final County Executive’s LGBTQ+ Roundtable took place whereby several diverse members of the community participated in a discussion on what has been accomplished so far and what needs to be addressed moving forward amid the uncertainty that is inevitable with a change in administration.  The architect of this confab, outgoing Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman, was not present for this installment but his mark had already been made.

The LGBTQ+ Roundtable is not a formal group or a commission; it is a periodic listening session for members of the LGBTQ+ community to bring issues to the County Executive’s attention. The Roundtable began in October 2015 fulfilling a campaign promise  made by Mr. Kittleman in 2014, and the meetings have been held on a quarterly basis since.  #hocopolitics

“As County Executive, I convened the LGBT Roundtable to ensure that I continue to have open lines of communication with the LGBT community and to better hear and understand the issues that are important to the community,” Mr. Kittleman told the Washington Blade. “In this way, we can ensure that County government is doing all it can to promote acceptance and inclusiveness of all people, and work to eliminate discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or sexual identity.”

Participants typically include representatives from PFLAG, Chase Brexton Health Care, Howard County government, a member of the Human Rights Commission, members of the Board of Education, as well as other LGBTQ+ advocates.

At the initial meeting topics discussed included de-gendering single stall restrooms; training for first responders and other County employees; ways to make both County government and private businesses more LGBT-friendly; and generally encouraging greater social acceptance through education and institutional change.

In the next meeting in March 2016, topics covered how senior centers treat LGBT elders and the interaction between transgender individuals and County service providers.

In June 2016 the Deputy Chief of Operations for the Howard County Police Department, briefed the attendees on the types of training officers are given at the entry level and annual in-service instruction including distance learning training on sexual orientation and gender identity.  The training covers such areas as sensitivity, arrest and search, hate bias recognition as well as dealing with implicit and explicit bias incidents directed towards the LGBT population as well as other groups in the county.

Also, the Director of Corrections was on hand to answer questions specifically related to the intake process including forms and the housing of transgender inmates.  Concerns had been raised (and corrective action eventually taken) on how transgender individuals are being misgendered by police and intake personnel at correction facilities and the use of solitary confinement as routine or standard protective placement for LGBT inmates to protect LGBTQ+ inmates.

This past August 20, representatives from the school system attended the Roundtable and discussed the fact they had met with students, staff, PFLAG, GLSEN to deal with myriad issues related to the transgender population in the schools. Topics, such as using the preferred name/pronoun and how students feel safe in classes, bathrooms, locker rooms, field trips, extracurricular activities, etc. were addressed.

Individuals from other departments and agencies as well as outside organizations have attended the meetings. They include but are not limited to: Office of Children and Families; Community Resources and Services; Howard County General Hospital; Department of Social Services-Foster system, Department of Human Resources, SAGE; and the Office on Aging and Independence.

In addition, the intersectionality with other marginalized groups, such as the homeless population, youth, seniors, and those LGBTQ+ individuals incarcerated has: (1) fostered better understanding of these groups; (2) taken steps to remedy any identified deficiencies; (3) proactively reviewed policies and procedures (4) incorporated concerns in departmental training; and (5) enhanced overall success in ensuring equity and inclusion in the county.

As far as I know, this executive-level gathering that focuses on LGBTQ+ issues had never been implemented in the state.  However, Baltimore City government recently established a formal LGBTQ+ commission with similar goals as the Howard County Roundtable.  

“I am so indebted to County Executive Kittleman for being the first Howard County Executive to start an LGBTQ+ Roundtable,” said Susan Garner, a retired Howard County school psychologist and former President of PFLAG-Howard County. “He initiated the idea to invite various county agencies to our quarterly roundtable meetings to increase their competence in understanding LGBTQ+ issues and to follow through on initiatives to make Howard County a safer place for LGBTQ+ individuals, their families and allies.”

Attendees of the Roundtable have found reassurance through these meetings.

“It’s amazing to live in a place where our leaders sit down to listen to the LGBT community and heed our words,” said Suzi Gerb, an educator and a member of the PFLAG-Howard County steering committee. “It becomes a great comfort to know that those who run our government are aware of our existence and take our needs into consideration.”

The group attending the November 26 meeting identified areas that need further examination in 2019.  Among them are: conducting surveys with LGBTQ+ inmates in correctional facilities to gauge the prisoner population climate; meet with state-level Department of Social Services to discuss foster care for youth and prospective parents; and coordinate with the Howard County Economic Development Authority to create a relationship with the Maryland LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce.

“The County Executive’s LGBTQ+ Roundtable is more than just a simple gathering,” explains Jumel Howard, Vice President of PFLAG-Howard County and the chair of the HoCo Pride Planning Committee. “It is a driving force for Howard County’s LGBTQ+ community. The wealth of knowledge that is brought to the table and the diversity of the group are a true testament to the excellence of our county.”

Whether or not the LGBTQ+ Roundtable will continue under the new County Executive Calvin Ball remains to be seen.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Conventional Wisdom the Loser in Local Elections

Current County Executive Allan Kittleman and new County Executive
Calvin Ball         Photo: Baltimore Post Examiner

On a chilly Election Day evening, hundreds of Howard County Democratic partisans packed Kahler Hall in Columbia, Md. to do what folks had hoped to do: celebrate victories. National and local returns were projected on screens via cable news programming and a laptop while people huddled around the screens, sat at round tables engaged in high-spirited political conversations, hitting the buffet line, mingling about, or taking selfies as polls were closing in much of the East.  #hocopolitics

The traditional venue for such occasions has been a horror show for Democrats in 2014 and 2016.  This night would be different, many of the Dem supporters hoped and believed.  And they were right.

When the Howard County numbers eventually rolled in with only a handful of precincts remaining on this November 6 night, several deafening roars exploded as it appeared that Dr. Calvin Ball, a three-term member of the County Council, was poised to upset incumbent Allan H. Kittleman as County Executive. Prosecutor Rich Gibson followed with a lusty defeat of Republican Kim Oldham as the new State’s Attorney, and most of the other offices down the ballot followed suit.  The much ballyhooed Blue Wave was indeed washing throughout Howard County.

Click here for all the election results in Maryland.

The biggest loser in these local elections was conventional wisdom, which took a back seat to other dynamics that were in play. Below are examples of how conventional wisdom was shattered:

The top of ticket pulls up lower candidates. Governor Larry Hogan handily defeated his Democratic challenger Ben Jealous by a 56% to 43% margin.  Gov. Hogan, the odds-on favorite and a leader in just about every poll, was supposed to help Republican candidates down the ballot. 

It did not work in Howard County. Mr. Hogan garnered 56.7% to Mr. Jealous’ 42.2% (similar to the overall state vote) yet the Democrat Dr. Ball defeated the Republican Mr. Kittleman 52.4% to 47.5%, and most other Dems in the county won as well.

Results were similar in other central Maryland counties. In Baltimore County, Gov. Hogan handily defeated Mr. Jealous by a 61.7% - 37.3% count in that jurisdiction, but the Democrat John Olszewski, Jr. defeated Republican Al Redmer, Jr. by a 57.5% to 42.4% margin.  In Anne Arundel, the divergence was even greater.  While Gov. Hogan walloped Mr. Jealous 69.1% to 29.8%, Democrat Steuart Pittman outlasted Republican Steve Schuh 52% to 47.9%.

In all three jurisdictions, incumbent County Executive Republicans succumbed to Democratic challengers despite the Governor’s margin of victory.  Clearly, there were no coattails.

Howard Co.
Howard Co.
State
Kittleman     47.5
Hogan      56.7
56.1
Ball              52.4
Jealous     42.2 
42.8

Baltimore Co.
Baltimore Co.
State
 Redmer      42.4
Hogan      61.7
56.1
Olszewski   57.5        
Jealous     37.3 
42.8

Anne Arundel
Anne Arundel
State
Schuh          47.9
Hogan     69.1 
56.1
Pittman        52.0        
Jealous    29.8  
42.8

A favored candidate shouldn’t start off campaign attacking opponent.  One of the criticisms of frontrunner Anthony Brown’s ill-fated 2014 gubernatorial bid was that he began his campaign by immediately hitting the relatively unknown Larry Hogan with negative ads thus elevating his profile. Shrugging off that philosophy, in 2018, the Republican Governors Association launched vicious attack ads against Mr. Jealous painting him as “too extreme for Maryland” and one who is guaranteed to raise taxes to fund his programs. Mr. Jealous was slow to respond and never recovered.

It should be noted that although Mr. Kittleman had been favored to be re-elected in Howard County, he did not engage in negative attack ads, and Dr. Ball did not either, resulting in an unusual but refreshing contest.

Endorsements help candidates. Republican candidates throughout the state, sensing an easy victory for Gov. Hogan, did not hesitate to include “Hogan Endorsed” as part of their materials, advertising and signage. By and large, it did not work.  Endorsements are overrated and popularity is not transferable when other more important factors are in play.

Incumbency has an advantage.  The benefits of incumbency are clear. The candidate has name recognition. He or she probably has a residual war chest from the previous campaign to spend in the current campaign, which takes some pressure off of fundraising. The candidate has a record of accomplishments to run on. And the higher level of visibility based on the time in office serves as an additional advantage.

In Howard County, however, Republican incumbents except those whose districts spilled into more conservative terrain in Carroll County lost. Nonetheless, all Howard County Democratic incumbents won.

Calvin Ball was not predicted to win.  Mr. Kittleman had all the benefits of incumbency (see above) and money plus he enjoyed relatively high job approval and personal popularity. Moreover, a Mason Dixon poll  released merely six weeks before the election indicated Mr. Kittleman should glide to victory as he enjoyed a 16% lead. For Dr. Ball’s part, an internal poll  had forecast a much tighter race.

Dr. Ball benefitted from his own positive personal attributes, a strong ground game and solid messaging including his vision for the county that hit the target especially in the weeks leading up to the election. However, the “Trump effect” played a significant role, not only in the County Executive race but also with others down ballot.

Governor Hogan enjoyed high job approval across the board and pulled in a good chunk Democratic and independent votes. But after that, Democrats were driven to turn out to vote Democratic in part, as a protest to Trumpism and the Republican Party that has enabled it.

Mr. Kittleman, hardly a Trumpster, was caught between a rock and a hard place. With less than a third of the county’s active voters identifying as Republican, Mr. Kittleman needed to pull in Democratic and independent support. His conundrum was that if he railed against President Trump, he would alienate those GOP voters who are ardent Trump supporters.  If he was to be silent concerning the president (he largely was), then Democrats could not see him as a viable antidote to Trump’s policies and bigotry.

In addition, Republican activists charged Mr. Kittleman with trying too hard to get Democrats on board and not paying enough attention to Republican concerns.

Other factors hurt the incumbent as well including the controversial mulch legislation, his opposition to Howard being a sanctuary county and the rebuilding plans following the second Ellicott City flood in three years.

The intensity of enthusiasm benefitted Dr. Ball; the lack of same hurt Mr. Kittleman. The lopsided early voting margin for Democrats conveyed excitement and proved too steep of a hill for Mr. Kittleman to climb. Hoping to eradicate the Dem lead, Mr. Kittleman only managed 142 more votes than Dr. Ball on Election Day.

The County Executive race ended with sportsmanship and civility.
The defeated candidate does not concede in person.  
Finally, as the crowd at Kahler Hall continued to cheer, hug and high-five one another, news swept among the masses remaining in the ballroom that Calvin Ball’s opponent, Allan Kittleman, was in the lobby to personally concede the election and congratulate the victor. In a stunning and classy move, Mr. Kittleman, his wife and three children, clad in their campaign yellow t-shirts, entered the building with the candidates embracing and raising their locked arms as if they both won.

They did. But conventional wisdom lost.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

When it Comes to the Military, Trump is AWOL

Image: Vanity Fair

Oh, how President Trump likes to brag about his love for the military! He was reared in a military boarding school, surrounds himself with generals, wanted his inaugural to be a remake of a Moscow military parade, and while campaigning (his perennial activity) he said he would be “so  good at the military, it will make your head spin.”

But beneath that thin façade, the real Donald Trump has been so disrespectful to the military it would make your head spin, I can tell ya.

Never mind he was a 5-time draft dodger that included his fabled excuse of bone spurs. He also had been clueless as to the meaning of the Purple Heart believing it was some form of memento or souvenir from military service.  Or that he's currently using our military as political props at the border for political purposes to thwart that menacing "caravan."  Also troubling is the fact he has yet to visit U.S. combat service members overseas. 

But there's more.

Richard Allen Smith, a military vet, penned in Rolling Stone in October 2017:

“[Trump disrespecting] the wartime POW service of John McCain, fantasizing about shooting an Army sergeant held captive by the Taliban for five years, repeated instances of military charities not receiving promised donations, smearing another Gold Star family of color, insulting uniformed leaders and pledging to fire them all, ridiculing combat veterans with PTSD, kicking uniformed personnel off the National Security Council, abdicating responsibility for troop strength in combat theaters, disrespecting the retired four-star general and Gold Star father who runs his White House, shaming the National Security Council on live television, pledging to kick transgender troops out of the armed services, blocking a prominent veterans’ group on Twitter, attacking John McCain again, waiting nearly two weeks to remark on the death of four Special Forces soldiers in combat... He referred to sleeping with models as his ‘personal Vietnam’ and his attempt to kick homeless veterans off 5th Avenue out of disgust.”

As we enter Veterans Day Weekend in 2018, Trump continues to spit on the military and especially its Fallen. On November 10, Trump cancelled his visit to Belleau Wood battlefield and cemetery 50 miles northeast of Paris because of “scheduling and logistical difficulties caused by the weather,” according to a statement from the White House. 


In other words, on the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending the war, Trump wouldn’t pay a visit to the cemetery where  over 1,800 U.S. soldiers and Marines were killed on the battlefield are buried. Some facetiously speculated it was either because his notorious hair would get wet or he still hasn’t mastered the complexities of opening and closing an umbrella.

Nonetheless, Trump received major blowback for his decision prompting a rash of criticism on Twitter. Nicholas Soames, a British member of parliament who is a grandson of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, said that Trump was dishonoring U.S. servicemen.

“They died with their face to the foe and that pathetic inadequate @realDonaldTrump couldn’t even defy the weather to pay his respects to the Fallen,” Soames tweeted.

Conservative Bill Kristol wrote: “On the Marine Corps' 243rd birthday, President Trump has cancelled, because of light rain, his long-planned attendance at the ceremony at Aisne-Marne, where Marines who fought at Belleau Wood are buried. The WH COS and JCS Chair will be there. The President couldn't be bothered.”

And former Republican political operative Steve Schmidt noting how Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participated despite the rain, “This is what dignity, leadership and duty look like. Trump debased his office, disgraced the memories of fallen American heroes and shamed himself today. He is as unfit for his office as he is weak and cowardly”

Trump can have all the military parades and trappings he wants. He can lie about his military spending vis-à-vis Obama’s, but it can’t alter the fact that this Commander-in-Chief does not understand or respect the military and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.