Monday, April 15, 2019

Why Not, for Pete's Sake

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg announces historic candidacy for President.

Pete Buttigieg officially announcing his candidacy on April 14
“The horror show in Washington is mesmerizing, all-consuming. But starting today, we are going to change the channel. Sometimes a dark moment brings out the best in us, what is good in us, dare I say, what is great in us.”

Those words were spoken by South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (pronounced Boot-edge-edge) or as he is affectionately referred to simply as Mayor Pete as he officially announced his candidacy for President of the United States.  The widely anticipated event took place on April 14 at a partly rebuilt former Studebaker factory in South Bend during a chilly, rainy afternoon.

In doing so, Buttigieg, 37, made history as the first open LGBT person to contend for the U.S. presidency. If elected, he would also be the youngest president ever. 

With his husband Chasten on hand as well as his mother, Buttigieg gave a superbly written and delivered speech that mixed solemnity, humor, charm and resolve. He informed an enthusiastic throng (and the thousands of viewers watching this moment on cable television) his background, why he is qualified to be the 46th President of the U.S, his rationale for running and the contours of his progressive policies, which are encapsulated in the basic themes of freedom, security and democracy.

Buttigieg embracing his husband Chasten following kick-off speech.
Considered once to be the longest of shots, Buttigieg has gained much attention and momentum by hitting the TV interview circuit and impressing folks with his earnest, intelligently expressed nuanced policy proposals.  He raised $7 million in the first quarter of the year—an impressive haul given his then lack of name recognition.

Vying to emerge from the “flavor-of-the-month” label, Buttigieg is picking up supporters and has been a powerhouse on social media. He has risen to number three in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire behind Bernie Sanders and yet-to-declare Joe Biden and ahead of big name contenders Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris among others.

People see him as a major antidote to President Trump. Examples include:

Buttigieg possesses a sunny optimism and faith in the sustainability of American values; Trump sees American "carnage."

Buttigieg is a Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford; Trump refuses to reveal his academic records from high school and college.

Buttigieg speaks seven language; Trump barely speaks one, and with his breathlessly limited vocabulary he recycles the same adjectives, like "great," "strong," and "terrific."

Buttigieg is a Navy Reserve veteran and served in Afghanistan; Trump allegedly paid a doctor to state he had bone spurs to avoid military service. (Here is what I think of Trump's relationship to the military.)

Buttigieg, a millennial, is 37 while Trump’s age is nearly the reverse.

Buttigieg is born into humble means while Trump was a millionaire before he had his first sip of milk.

Buttigieg is a devout Christian (he even has the gravitas to challenge Vice President Pence on how religion is being used to discriminate against people); Trump rarely attends a church service.

Buttigieg as a mayor boasts that he has more government executive experience than Trump and Pence and more than many of his fellow contenders.

There are many other contrasts between the two especially in disposition, compassion, ethics and morality but I would wear out my keyboard if I try to list them all.

Mayor Pete appearing on The Ellen Show.  Photo: IndyStar
I like Pete Buttigieg for many reasons. While I don’t agree on every detail of every single policy prescription, there is sufficient agreement for me to be in his corner.  (Democrats would be served well if they abandon the check-every-box requirement and ideological purity litmus test for a candidate and instead, back the winner of the nomination process or we are sure to have four more years of MAGA.)

His being gay is not the primary reason to support him but that fact is a huge plus.  To those young kids grappling with their sexuality and gender identity as well as the decision to come out, having Mayor Pete Buttigieg as an out role model is inspirational.  With LGBTQ kids continuing to be bullied in schools and on the internet, suicide rates among this group are higher than their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts. Seeing one of their own as a possible President will do wonders for these kids and their families.

Of course, his sexuality will be a target by the bigoted right. Already a conservative outlet is labeling Buttigieg as a “sodomite.” Maybe they’re worried.  But I’m not.  Pete could handle it.

I have no doubt Buttigieg will use it to his advantage.  All he has to do is point to Trump’s cheating on all three of his wives, the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct by Trump and the paying off hush money to porn stars to keep his adulterous affairs quiet.

I will support any Democratic candidate who eventually becomes the nominee regardless of their race, age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic background or policy prescription. But for me, Mayor Pete is my guy and I will help him any way I can. Just watch him on the debate stage.

For more information, visit his campaign website

A video following his announcement speech is shown below.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ at Toby’s is a Bell Ringer

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography

As Disney animated films go, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not your typical treat for children and others who crave magical moments with happy-ever-after endings, such as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Frozen.  Rather, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, is on the darker side of the Disney spectrum with few jolly and uplifting moments.  

Nonetheless, the 1996 film was a commercial success, and its rich score with music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz (the only time these iconic composers collaborated on a project) earned an Oscar nomination.  Peter Parnell penned the book.  #hocoarts

In spectacular fashion, the animated film comes to life at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia.  Co-directed by Helen Hayes Award winners Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick with the music direction of Ross Scott Rawlings, the scrupulously staged and wonderfully performed production should position this show for Helen Hayes recognition next year.

Set in 15th century Paris, a deformed baby is born to carefree Jehan Frollo (played by Justin Calhoun) and a gypsy named Florika (Louisa Tringali).  The baby is handed off to Jehan’s brother, Dom Claude Frollo (Russell Sunday), the powerful and devious Archdeacon of the famed Notre Dame Cathedral, who reluctantly agrees to take care of him.  Because of his new charge’s grotesque looks, Frollo confines the boy to the cathedral’s bell tower and names him Quasimodo.

As he grows up, Quasimodo (Sam Kobren) becomes physically strong and is the cathedral’s bell-ringer but experiences a deep sense of loneliness and isolation.  His imagination allows for gargoyles and statues in the bell tower to come to life and urge him to find his own path.  

While Paris revels in the Feast of Fools, Quasimodo escapes his imposed imprisonment to enjoy the festivities for one day.  At first, he is innocently gawked at for his appearance but then things turn nasty as the crowd humiliates him. Quasimodo is eventually rescued by a beautiful gypsy dancer Esmeralda ( Jessica Bennett). Frollo, who is on a mission to rid Paris of gypsies, sends Quasimodo back inside the cathedral.

Quasimodo becomes enchanted with Esmeralda and her free spirit but he has competition. Dashing Captain Phoebus (Jeffrey Shankle) who is Captain of the Guard falls for her as well as Dom Claude Frollo who is conflicted by his religious beliefs and his desire for Esmeralda.  Quasimodo emerges as the unlikely savior for all.

The story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is relatable today: certain groups of people are scapegoated and treated harshly; individuals who are different are marginalized. During their ordeals, they attempt to find their inner strength to fight back. What transpires are the manifestations of these conflicts, and I will leave it there for the audience to experience.

Jessica Bennett and Sam Kobren Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
In the end, we are all people who seek love and acceptance regardless of our religion, race, physical ability, gender, sexual orientation, or country of origin. The story in The Hunchback of Notre Dame reinforces this truth.

Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins provides the appropriate atmosphere for this production.  Bells hanging from the ceiling complete with sand bags for balancing are a fine touch.  Stain glass windows and candelabras as well as Gothic-designed banisters and other accessories add more flavor.  Then you throw in fog effects and the environment is complete.

Under the co-directors' guidance, the staging of the show is superb.  Scene changes occur swiftly and seamlessly as large set pieces are moved in and out without any distractions.  Every nook and cranny of the available in-the-round space and on two levels are utilized by a large cast that is perpetually in motion. This effect allows members of the audience to feel they are right in the middle of the action.

Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin offers the right illumination for scene changes and dramatic moments, but despite the fact there were no high levels of incandescence in the 15th century, the lighting during many moments in the production seems a bit on the dark side. 

Corey Brown’s sound design is perfect as the cast is well-mic’d.  The seven-piece orchestra ably supports the performers without drowning them out.

Janine Sunday fitted the company with an array of extraordinary  period costumes from the gypsies to the soldiers to the clerics. However, the costumes for the gargoyles and the statues could be more identifiable. If you are not familiar with the story, it would not be obvious that the initial dialogue between Quasimodo and these characters were imaginary.  Other than that small quibble, the costuming is fantastic.

This production is very well-cast, and the individual and collective performances alone make the show a must-see event. While dancing is not a major feature of the show, it is executed meticulously, guided by choreographer Mark Minnick in the high-tempo numbers “Topsy Turvy (Part 2)” and “Tavern Song.” Moreover, the large cast is constantly moving around the stage, which requires expert choreography. Mr. Minnick and the company deliver impressively.

When songs are performed by the entire 24-person cast, you will get goose bumps, I promise. Perfect pitch and harmony with resounding finishes are displayed in these group numbers, which comprise most of the selections. You will really feel you’re in a large cathedral.

Individual performances shine as well. Sam Kobren reprises his role as Quasimodo from his performance in The Hunchback of Notre Dame presented by the Toby Orenstein-founded and -directed Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts production a couple of years back.  He is even better today. 

An exceptional tenor voice carries him through such challenging songs as “Out There” and “Heaven’s Light.”  Mr. Kobren’s outstanding acting skills are also evident exhibiting a wide range of emotions from melancholy from being lonely to joy when in the presence of Esmeralda to rage when he confronts Frollo. He is a stunningly versatile performer.

As the gypsy Esmeralda, Jessica Bennett is also excellent. A Helen Hayes Award nominee, Ms. Bennett effectively conveys the compassionate and free-spirited nature of her character.  Her soprano voice is silky and performs beautifully in such numbers as “Top of the World” and “Someday.”

Russell Sunday as Frollo  Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Jeffrey Shankle, as the rather cocky but charming, Phoebus de Martin, brought his talent to a new level. Always dependably strong in Toby’s productions, his powerful tenor pitch-perfect vocals soared like I’ve never previously heard.  Most of his selections are part of group performances, and he is particularly solid in “Rest and Recreation,” “Rhythm of the Tambourine” and the sparkling duet with Ms. Bennett in “Someday.”

Russell Sunday does a creditable job as the villain Dom Claude Frollo who becomes Quasimodo’s caretaker and attempts to wipe out the gypsies.  His attempt to woo Esmeralda leads to a tragic conclusion.  Mr. Sunday’s solid baritone is featured in the duet with Mr. Kobren “Out There” and in the solo “The Assault.”

The remainder of the cast with most playing multiple roles turn in superb performances especially vocally.  They include: Justin Calhoun, Louisa Tringali, David Bosley-Reynolds, DeCarlo Raspberry, Noah Beye, Matty Montes, Adrienne Athanas, Heather Beck, Brandon Bedore, MaryKate Brouillet, Coby Kay Callahan, Camille Capers, Samantha Deininger, Crystal Freeman, Sylvern Groomes, David James, Santina Maiolatesi, Christian Montgomery, Beth Rayca and Taylor Witt.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Toby’s is an extraordinary production that captures your imagination from centuries past while serving as a reminder that many of the same human issues exist today.  The performances and staging are stellar, the buffet scrumptious, and the experience is fulfilling on all levels.  Don’t miss this one. It's a true bell-ringer.

Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame runs through May 19 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

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Prepping Students for Their First Big Interview

Daniel (not his actual name) walks over to the round table where I’m seated, introduces himself as we shake hands. I invite him to sit down as he slides his resume over to me. 

The young man in business attire is a junior at Centennial High School.  Clearly, he is already accomplished in his 16-plus years and perhaps a bit too much to fit on a single page of his resume. 

Beneath his name and contact information, Daniel lists his goals, academic achievements, job experiences, extracurricular activities and skills.  I explain to him that he needs to prioritize his listed experiences and offer suggestions to do so.  He should emphasize achievements and tailor his resume to the type of interview he will be engaged in; i.e. college admissions or job. For example, if the purpose is for a college admission, emphasize academic achievements sports teams and other extracurricular activities before listing his part-time jobs.

I stress the importance of confining his resume to one page as interviewers prefer single-page resumes and tend to see these documents as snapshots of the applicant’s life with any questions to be covered by the interview itself.

Meghan (also not her actual name) has her resume in fine order but when the interview begins, I notice her eyes wandering around and not focused on the interviewer.

The 8 to 10-minute interview consists of a series of questions to determine the student’s aspirations, how others would describe them and how they would describe themselves, his or her accomplishments and challenges, their favorite subjects in schools and least favorites and why and other pertinent questions likely to appear in an interview such as this.  At its conclusion, I go over an evaluation form and critique the student’s responses, the delivery, appropriateness of attire and demeanor and offer suggestions.

In Meghan’s interview, I stress the importance of maintaining eye contact with the interviewer.  By doing so, it displays interest in the proceedings, confidence, trustworthiness and honesty—character traits that are highly coveted and revered by personnel specialists who are evaluating a plethora of candidates. I urge her to practice in a mirror as that exercise will serve her well.

To meet the state’s career development requirements for high schools, Howard County schools mandate juniors to go through this process as a necessity for graduation. Over two dozen volunteers from various walks of life conduct the mock interviews and resume assessments. We offer valuable advice and where necessary, criticism, to help prepare the students for the real world experiences.

The program is typically organized and coordinated by the school’s guidance office. Through English classes at Centennial High School, all participants have completed their resumes that they may use for summer employment, internships, and college applications. 

In a competitive world every students needs an edge to make them stand out among the others. The junior interview program at Howard County high schools has for decades provided the students with this needed tool to help realize their full potential.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Gay Christian Delivers Heavenly Performance on ‘Idol’

Catonsville’s Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon inspires while earning the gold ticket to Hollywood.

The production staff at American Idol knew what they were doing by saving the best for last. On the March 10 audition episode, lanky red-headed, square-jawed Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon was introduced as a contestant before the three-judge panel consisting of Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan.  He connected immediately with Perry as they both are PK’s—pastors’ kids. 
Just prior to his performance in New York, viewers saw a beautifully filmed profile package showing Harmon sweeping and mopping floors and singing in empty rooms in a Catonsville, Md. church where he is a janitor. His father is the pastor of that church.  

During this segment it was revealed that he is gay and coming out to his family three years ago did not go too well. “The consensus seemed to be that this is not a path that I should follow,” Harmon said.  He first realized he was gay when he was 9 years old when he had a crush on another guy in youth camp.

Growing up as a pastor’s kid presented a significant challenge for Harmon, now 26. “There are certain parts of me that do belong and there are certain parts that don’t belong.”

He added, “There’s times when I do feel alone. The hardest part for me is seeing how difficult it is for my family. I’m hopeful that it’s an experience where we can learn to grow together.”

Harmon told of the song he wrote called “Almost Heaven,” which was performed at the audition. “Almost Heaven is about questioning if there’s a place for me and people like me in Heaven,” he explained.

He sat behind a piano and performed this poignant ballad displaying his vocal prowess that spans multiple registers. The judges enthusiastically applauded him. “Those were some serious chords,” Perry declared. “You know how good you are?”

“You need to lose the broom, my friend,” Richie advised as he compared Harmon to Billy Joel.

“I’ve got a loft in Nashville. You can just live there for a year,” said Bryan.

Incredulous that he actually wrote the song himself, it was clear that the judges would unanimously vote him on to Hollywood handing him that coveted gold ticket for the next round of the competition.

As stated earlier, Harmon had to pursue his musical interests and hone his talents amid the tension of growing up gay in a devout Christian household. “My parents considered reparative therapy when I came out to them,” Harmon told me during a telephone interview.

“They gave me resources about various centers but I chose not to do it. I know I wasn’t going to change and didn’t want to change. I was accepting myself and all aspects of my personality and sexuality.” Harmon, who is in a relationship, said his parents were disappointed by his decision not to change.

His experience at the audition in New York was not met with any negativity.  Harmon was accompanied by his boyfriend throughout the day, and he hung out with other contestants who treated him like anybody else.

Followers of Harmon on social media have been heaping praise upon him for his stunning performance and his courage in revealing his sexuality in front of a national television audience. Many such comments came from young LGBTQ kids who saw his bravery and the judges again weighed in.

“I see myself as an artist and want to be transparent about my emotional circumstances,” says Harmon. “Whatever I’m going through now will be received by other people through my music.”

“I cannot express enough how proud I am of Jeremiah,” said Elliot Hefty, a student at the University of Maryland and a friend of Harmon.  

“When I first met him he was a heartbroken, grief-stricken gay Christian young man who shared his story, which I could very much relate to. We met at a monthly LGBTQ Christian dinner group in our local area of Howard County, Md. But what’s so spectacular about his heart is his undying love for his family.

“To me Jeremiah represented all the broken-hearted PK’s and queer church boys through his boldness and letting the music flow from his soul. He is bringing awareness to this issue and healing to the LGBTQ Christian community. I’m so glad to call him my friend. And his talent is self-evidently incredible.”

"I know I wasn’t going to change and didn’t want to change."

Rod Snyder who at the same age as Harmon was a contestant on Season 4 of American Idol but came out as gay a decade afterwards. He grew up in a fundamentalist church in West Virginia.  Snyder saw himself as he watched Harmon during the audition. 

“Nearly 15 years later, I’m watching a young man start his own Idol journey, and I couldn’t be more moved by his story and his courage to tell it,” wrote Snyder on Facebook. “It requires an immense amount of grace to go on national television and communicate so clearly about faith, sexuality and family.

"Jeremiah says, 'All of my religion has been stripped down to I love you no matter what.’ What I would have given to hear those words at age 25, let alone speak them. Jeremiah is already my American Idol.”

As he proceeds through the various stages of the competition, Harmon has a chance to make history.  Acknowledging there has never been an out LGBT winner on American Idol, Harmon points out, "I think I have just as good a chance of winning as anyone."

By the reaction to his magnificent audition, I wouldn't bet against him.

The video of Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon’s American Idol audition is shown below.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Road to LGBTQ Equality Has More Miles to Travel

When marriage equality—the ultimate political dream for gay and lesbian folks—became the law of the land in 2013 people figured the hard-fought struggle for equality was over. 

Moreover, in Maryland, a non-discrimination law that protects people on the basis on gender identity was passed and signed into law the following year, and ostensibly that was all that was needed, some believed. 

Locally, we are fortunate that additional laws protecting individuals from discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and lending practices on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity exist. And we are grateful for all those measures.

Nonetheless, codifying non-discrimination is one thing; changing people’s archaic and bigoted attitudes is a whole different matter. While it is true that polling has indicated there has been a growing acceptance of same-sex marriage as well as more general acceptance of LGBTQ people, the road to equality does not end with those important victories. Rather, there are bumps in the road and dangerous potholes that still need to be navigated.

Hate crimes against all targets have accelerated nationally since the election of Donald Trump, The Southern Poverty Law Center  notes that there have been anti-LGBT groups proliferating throughout the nation and with that, an increase in anti-LGBT rhetoric and a rise in anti-LGBT hate crimes/bias incidents.

This disturbing trend has hit home in Howard County. According to the Maryland State Police in partnership with the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center (MCAC) , reported hate crimes and hate bias incidents have increased in the county from 33 in 2016 to 43 in 2017, a 30 percent jump. Incidents against LGBTQ individuals ranked third after race/ethnicity/ancestry and religion, in particular, anti-Semitism.

Since that report was released, a representative from the Howard County Police Department told a meeting of the Maryland Coalition Opposing Violence and Extremism (COVE) in December that the 2018 number of hate crimes/bias incidents jumped to 64 in the county with more days left in December.

Keep in mind that these incidents were only the ones that were reported. There is an unknown number in which folks were victimized but were not reported to police for one reason or another.

Anti-LGBTQ attitudes are still pervasive in the schools, which is a troublesome situation given that much of the hopes to alleviate this bias have fallen to the youth. Although there are no statistics available for Howard County in particular, GLSEN a national organization aimed at ensuring that LGBTQ students are able to learn and grow in a school environment free from bullying and harassment, indicated in a 2017 report  that secondary schools in Maryland “were not safe for most lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students.”

Furthermore, there have been anecdotal accounts from Howard County students who not only have been victims of bullying and harassment in the local school system but have witnessed such incidents. And one gay student reported that while he was not a victim per se, he had to endure other students routinely and frequently using the word “faggot” unabated in his school gym’s locker room.

The situation is not being helped by adults who have targeted transgender students in their overhyped rhetoric regarding the use of bathrooms. In a recent effort to discriminate against these students, an online petition was circulated to thwart what the petitioner saw as the promotion of the “LGBT agenda” in Howard County schools. 

The fear-mongering petition was rife with inaccurate stereotypes and unfounded bigoted statements that among other things, confused sexual orientation with gender identity. The petition was removed by because community members reported the vile language and bigotry contained therein and it was determined that it did not meet the site’s community standards.

The prevailing problem of bullying in the schools and online is dangerous.  According to The Trevor Project  suicide accounts for the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10 through 24. The rates among LGBTQ youth are disproportionately higher than non-LGBTQ youth.

Recognizing the devastation that youth suicide can cause, Howard County government in partnership with the school system launched a new suicide prevention program  on February 28 called “It’s OK to Ask.”

Despite legal gains, LGBTQ adults continue to feel the sting of homophobia and transphobia.  Same-sex partners, even those who are legally married, cannot enjoy the simple and benign gesture of holding hands in the mall, a park or other public venues without the fear of hurtful slurs or worse, physical attacks, such as the recent attack in Arundel Mills.

Additionally, there is discrimination in the foster care and juvenile justice system, and individuals and organizations may discriminate if such action is founded in their religious beliefs. They can deny a service to a member of the LGBTQ community but their religious convictions won’t motivate them to deny a similar service to say, an adulterer.

For all these reasons, LGBTQ individuals still don’t entirely feel the sense that we are equal. We cannot thoroughly and peacefully pursue a quality of life that other county residents take for granted.
Accordingly, we must keep forging ahead on the road to equality in Howard County and beyond.

We look forward to our community rallying around the county's first LGBTQ Pride event this June, HoCo Pride. Another good step would be for the continuation of the LGBTQ Roundtable or a variation of that vehicle that existed under the previous administration.  This informal quarterly gathering had been an effective mechanism to bring concerns by LGBTQ community members to Howard County leadership and the various government departments, agencies and school board.

The road to equality in Howard County and beyond must continue to be traveled in order to truly move forward.

Monday, February 18, 2019

A First Class ‘Pygmalion’ on Display at Spotlighters

Phil Gallagher and Linae' C. Bullock

Gender and class are issues that permeate throughout much of today’s political discourse. Yet, in 1912 when famed controversial Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw penned arguably his most beloved work, Pygmalion, he saw the play as a vehicle to shed light on those very topics, which took aim at the mores of London society during the Edwardian era.

In a superb presentation at the Spotlighters Theatre, Shaw’s views through Pygmalion come to life with a potent drama laced with razor-sharp wit and humor.  Spotlighters veteran director Sherrionne Brown aided by Assistant Director Phil Gallagher who is also the Dialect Coach and for good measure plays a leading role, helms a sterling iteration of the play that is performed by a talented cast.

Pygmalion was the inspiration for the Broadway classic musical and Oscar-winning film My Fair Lady. The play, of course, does not contain the majestic score of Frederick Loewe or any score for that matter, but some of the dialogue is recognizable to those familiar with the musical in that it is incorporated in Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics while the plot is very similar in both versions.

Named after a Greek mythological figure, Pygmalion fell in love with one of his sculptures which came to life. That is the symbolic journey in the play whereby Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics takes in a poor London flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, with even poorer speaking skills and mannerisms.  She had initiated the contact so that she can learn to improve her speech in order to better sell flowers.

Linae' C. Bullock and Hillary Mazer
Through the resolute efforts of both he and his cohort, Colonel Pickering, a gentleman who also shares an interest in phonetics, they gave her new clothes and took on the challenge of improving Eliza’s speech and her mannerisms with the goal of transforming her into a duchess worthy of the company of high society. Pickering bet that if they can triumph, he would pay for all the expenses.

However, after this experiment was successfully completed, Higgins showed no further interest in Eliza and appeared ready to discard her without the slightest concern for her future. If Higgins had a soft spot, it was well hidden.  Eliza wondered wistfully what’s to become of herself.

But in the play’s denouement, Eliza finally stands up to the boorish professor and establishes her own independence—the more significant transformation in the story—and in the process, gained the respect of Higgins and perhaps winning his heart.

The aforementioned Phil Gallagher is sterling as Henry Higgins, the play’s Pygmalion.  Polished and accomplished, Mr. Gallagher dominates the stage with a powerful resonance that would make the late Rex Harrison applaud. Moreover, his facial expressions, body language, voice inflections and purposeful movements around the stage are on target in portraying this loutish character.  Mr. Gallagher is excellent in delivering the comical sarcasm and insults leveled at Eliza as well as demonstrating his exasperation and frustration.

Equally strong is Linae' C. Bullock who is first-rate as Eliza. She conveys the smart-mouth, shrieking “guttersnipe” as Higgins labeled her and demonstrates the ability to carry off the conversion to a potential duchess to a tee changing accents adroitly. Her passionate stance to declare her self-worth and independence near the play’s conclusion is a master stroke of acting on the part of Ms. Bullock.

Randy Dalmas does a fine job in playing the more reasonable and compassionate Colonel Pickering. Where Higgins berates and bullies Eliza, Pickering is more thoughtful and considerate to her and is the personification of a gentleman. He is the perfect foil to Higgins, and Mr. Dalmas pulls it off.

Phil Gallagher, Hillary Mazer and Randy Dalmas
As Higgins’ housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, Jennifer Grundy Hollett performs convincingly without going over the top. Seen mostly during the first half of the five-act play, the character at times consoles Eliza and on other occasions threatens her with delicious campiness. Not intimidated by her boss Higgins, Ms. Hollett’s Pearce demonstrates her independence and strength and chastises Higgins’ own foibles that include, among other things, his frequent and ill-timed swearing and sloppy table manners. It’s a fun-filled role and Ms. Hollett nails it.

Rich Espey plays the part of Eliza’s eccentric father Alfred Doolittle, a former dustman who eventually becomes wealthier. He’s a thinking man who “seems equally free from fear and conscience.” It is through this character that Shaw seems to convey much of his social criticism.  The complex role is played very well by Mr. Espey.

As Higgins’ upper class mother, Hillary Mazer plays the part with relish.  Stately Mrs. Higgins, very independent and a stalwart of London’s society, never bought into her son and Pickering’s experiment with Eliza and doesn’t have much respect for Henry.  Ms. Mazer’s acting skills allow this disdain to come through effectively.

Rounding out the talented cast are Melissa McGinley as Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, Carlo Olivi as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Caelyn Sommerville as Clara Eynsford-Hill, and Don Lampasone and Sarah Weissman playing multiple roles.

The cozy in-the-round square-shaped stage at the Spotlighters is perfect for a play such as Pygmalion. The inherent intimacy of the environment allows the audience to be interested eavesdroppers to the conversation with the performers merely a few feet away.  Outstanding period costumes by Jenifer Grundy Hollett reflecting the garb of both the lower class and upper crust of Edwardian Londoners contribute mightily to the presentation. 

Sherrionne Brown’s set design provided sufficient furniture and accessories to augment the scenes without causing clutter on the stage and which allow the actors to move about freely. Brad Ranno’s lighting design also enhances the atmosphere while stage manager Lady Tatum oversees the multiple scene and act changes that occur fluidly and efficiently.

The Spotlighters’ production of Pygmalion is extremely well-performed and staged and is worthy of a Bravo! It should not be missed as this is community theatre at its best.

Running time. Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

Pygmalion runs through March 10 at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St., Baltimore, MD 21202.  Tickets may be purchased by calling 410-752-225 or by visiting online

Photos: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Saturday, February 16, 2019

A Rocking ‘Rock of Ages’ Rocks the Hippodrome

Sam Harvey as Stacee Jax

It may as well have been a 1980’s rock concert sans illegal substances: mind-blowing, hand-clapping rock music with an infusion of metal; multi-hued strobe lighting; fog effects; long flowing hair and an audience totally into it and eager to sing along to the songs.  That’s what occurred during the first of only three performances of the superb production of Rock of Ages, making its way-too-brief stop at the Baltimore Hippodrome Theatre as part of the show’s 10th Anniversary tour.

Indeed, it was a raucous audience the evening the production was reviewed, the likes of which not seen at the Hippodrome in my memory. Perhaps the electric atmosphere was a bit too intense for one theatre patron who became ill necessitating a 15-minute interruption at the midway point of the first act. Undaunted, the highly professional company and technical crew resumed without missing a beat and the show rocked on with enormous intensity leading to a crescendo of cheers, howls and an explosive standing ovation by the audience at the show’s end.

There have been dozens of popular jukebox musicals—Mamma Mia!, Beautiful, Jersey Boys, Escape to Margaritaville, On Your Feet, to name a few—that showcase a particular individual or group. In the Tony Award nominated Rock of Ages, another jukebox musical, you have a show which focuses on multiple acts and performers, but in particular, an era and genre—the rocking 1980’s.

Martha Banta’s precise direction, Janet Rothermel’s rhythmic  choreography, Mike Baldassari’s stunning lighting design, Cody Spencer’s effective sound design, Cynthia Nordstrom’s period costumes, Monica Sabedra’s hair and wig design, musical arrangements and orchestrations by Ethan Popp conducted by Marshall Keating, and a visually pleasing multi-level stage with the clever use of creative set pieces and props provide the atmospherics.  

The cute love story that unwinds and often hilarious subplots from a book by Chris D’Arienzo are embedded in a catalogue of classic rock ‘n roll and heavy metal songs and performances by a stellar cast and musicians. 

Music from Journey, Styx, Whitesnake, Bon Jovi, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Starship, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister and others tie in neatly to the story. It’s pieced together so well that often the first line of a song immediately follows the last line in a dialogue eliciting laughter.
Anthony Nuccio and Katie LaMark

Set in 1987, Anthony Nuccio plays Drew, an employee in the Bourbon Room, a bar on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, who falls for an innocent girl from Kansas named Sherrie played by Katie LaMark.  (You just know that the song “Oh Sherrie” will surface at some point.)  Their desire and pursuit of a romantic relationship forms the central plot but there are other humorous storylines going on that supplement it.

Mr. Nuccio, rocking a sleeveless vest throughout most of the show, was obviously able to locate gyms in the various cities on the tour. Unlike prototypical front men rockers of the day who generally are pencil thin, Mr. Nuccio is built more like a linebacker.

He is exceptional as the vulnerable good-guy Drew with dreams of making it as a rock star.  Mr. Nuccio’s powerful tenor voice with an enormously wide range is magnificent. Such numbers as “I Wanna Rock,” “Cum On Feel the Noize,” “Any Way You Want It,”  “High Enough” and yes, “Oh Sherrie” showcase his amazing vocal talents. Yet, it is during “The Search is Over,” the romantic ballad made famous by REO Speedwagon, Mr. Nuccio holds a note that seems to last a month, that to me, makes him an elite vocal talent.

As Sherrie, Ms. LaMark is spot-on who is also dreaming of being a star.  At a picnic on a hill overlooking Los Angeles, Drew drops the f-word—friends—and that was that.  She mistook his desire to be simply friends and not looking for a serious relationship. Sherrie was so disappointed she pursues other options.  This innocent young lady winds up becoming a performer in the Venus Club—a strip joint, er, gentleman’s club, as many aspiring stars wind up doing.

Ms. LaMark possesses a strong rock belt voice and excels in several group numbers. They include “More Than Words/To Be with You/Heaven,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “Here I Go Again,” “Anyway You Want It,” “Renegade” among others.

John-Michael Breen plays Lonny, who also works at the Bourbon Room and serves as the show’s narrator whereby he immediately endearing him to the enthusiastic audience. Charming and comedic, mischievous and fun-loving, Mr. Breen plays the role to the hilt.

Ryan M. Hunt plays Dennis, the owner of the Bourbon Room. A laid back former rocker, Mr. Hunt’s portrayal is excellent and a perfect complement to the Lonny character.  Together they perform well in “Just Like Paradise/Nothin’ But a Good Time” that opens the show. But it is their ultra-hilarious second act duet in “Can’t Fight This Feeling” that shines as one of the production’s show-stopping numbers.

In the role of bad boy Stacee Jaxx, a charismatic rock star who decides to leave his successful metal-rock band Arsenal to try it solo, Sam Harvey performs quite effectively with an abundance of pizzazz. Like Anthony Nuccio, Mr. Harvey also sports a chiseled physique and is not shy about flexing his biceps and flashing his abs. Stacee is one of the story’s villains who does some naughty (and illegal) things, and Mr. Harvey’s comedy and acting skills shine as he pulls it off perfectly.

His vocals are superb in “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “Here I Go Again.” But it is his performance in “I Wanna Know What Love Is” with Ms. La Mark where the two characters are copulating in a men’s room that becomes yet another show-stopping laugh-a-second number.

Andrew Tebo plays Hertz, a cold-hearted German developer who is trying to buy up the Sunset Strip to eliminate the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll lifestyle and bring in what he calls “clean living” to the area. Of course, the Bourbon Room is a target.  

His flamboyant son Franz is played  by Chris Renalds. Campy Franz wishes to open his own candy store in Germany but is intimidated by his strong father until things change over the course of the show. His line, “I’m not gay, I’m German” is uproarious in its delivery.

Proficient vocalists, they appear together in several numbers, such as “We Built This City/Too Much Time on My Hands” and “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” Mr. Renalds excels in “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” when Franz finally stands up to his father. For his part, Mr. Tebo is charming in one of the show’s rare solos, “Keep On Loving You.”  

An excellent performance is turned in by Kristina Walz as Regina (rhymes with angina) as the mayor’s assistant who, through energetic protests, is fighting to save the Strip.  She and the ensemble heartily deliver “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “The Final Countdown.”

Also performing well is Kenya Hamilton as Justice, the owner of the Venus Club.  A former performer, Justice provides soothing advice to Sherrie and demonstrates proficient acting abilities in the process.  

The remainder of the cast and musicians support the leads exceptionally.

The rousing finale "Can't Stop Believing" effectively symbolizes the entire messaging contained in the story.  And with that, hopefully, Rock of Ages will return to Baltimore in the near future to afford the opportunity to enjoy a lively, nostalgic, highly entertaining production performed by a rock-solid company.  Rock on!

Running time. Approximately two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory. Rock of Ages contains adult language and adult situations and is not recommended for young children.

Rock of Ages runs through February 16 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit online here or here,  call 800-982-ARTS, or visit the Hippodrome Box Office located at 12 N Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.

For a look at the tour’s upcoming schedule, visit the Rock of Ages tour website.

Photos: Jeremy Daniel

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Hitting the Right Notes More Than ‘Once’ at Olney

Malinda Kathleen Reese as Girl and Gregory Maheu as Guy

As the patrons file into the Olney Theatre Center’s Mainstage, they are greeted by an impromptu, high-tempo mini-concert performed on stage by a group of musicians playing and singing a few Irish folk songs and some pop tunes thrown into the mix. Their wardrobe and spoken accents leave no doubt about the setting for what was about to unfold.

Once, a quirky romantic musical by Irish film director, producer and screenwriter John Carney, is making its Residential Regional Premiere at the Olney Theatre Center. The musical, which opened on Broadway in 2012 following a brief stint at the New York Theater Workshop, was based on the 2006 low-budget indie film that was also written (and directed) by Carney. Once received 11 Tony Award nominations and corralled eight statues in 2012 including Best Musical. #hocoarts

Marcia Milgrom Dodge, Tony Award Nominee for the 2009 revival of Ragtime on Broadway, makes her Olney Theatre Center debut as Director and Choreographer. Her direction and staging of this musical is impeccable. The production is paced superbly with precise timing, and a talented cast and crew deliver in splendid fashion. 
Once is an unconventional show in that actors comprise the orchestra, play multiple instruments, and are onstage through most of the production.  There are two leads in the show, and the other cast members appear in scenes and then return to the sides or rear of the stage so they can resume their instrumental work.

Even Olney’s talented resident maestro, Helen Hayes Award winner Christopher Youstra, who serves as Musical Director for the production, emerges from his familiar locale in the orchestra pit to participate in the onstage action, playing the accordion among other instruments, joining in a dance, and has a bit of a speaking part as Emcee.  He appears to be enjoying this different facet of his repertoire.

It is indeed a challenge to find accomplished musicians who concurrently possess solid acting skills, yet their performances demonstrate that the folks at Olney responsible for casting were quite successful in meeting that challenge.

John Sygar (Andrej), Carlos Castillo (Svec), Daven Ralston (Reza),
Malinda Kathleen Reese (Girl), Somaya Litmon (Ivanka)
, and Emily Mikesell (Baruska)
As was the case with the film with the same odd name, the musical Once features music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The book for the musical was written by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, which contains a good dose of romantic sentimentality with comedic moments popping up throughout. 

There are peppy folk-rock numbers in the show but overall, the score is ballad-heavy. The Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly” plus others like “If You Want Me,” “Leaving,” “Say It to Me Now,” “Gold,” “Sleeping” and “When Your Mind is Made Up” are quite enjoyable in their tenderness. Generally, the melodies are sweet and the lyrics are quite touching in support of a sweet and touching story.

Guy, a contemporary Dublin street musician (played wonderfully by Gregory Maheu) is ready to throw in the towel on his music as the songs he wrote were directed towards a girlfriend who left him to move to New York.  The reason for the breakup is never divulged, but he continues to brood about it.

He encounters a Czech immigrant, referred to as Girl (played expertly by Malinda Kathleen Reese) who heard his guitar playing and singing and immediately becomes curious about him.  If that chance meeting wasn’t enough of a coincidence, you have the fact that Guy’s day job is a Hoover vacuum cleaner repairman and Girl’s Hoover that “doesn’t suck” is in need of repair.

Guy creates a barrier whereby Girl doesn’t get too close. But they open up to each other as the budding friendship ensues. She recognizes the beauty and scope of his talent and encourages him to not let his recent breakup prevent him from realizing his true potential.

Girl ultimately convinces Guy to share his music and she gets behind the piano.  It is clear both have musical gifts and they make each other’s music better.

She implores Guy to keep writing his music, make an album and go to America to win back his ex-girlfriend and return to his original love. It is during their quest to finish this album that Girl and Guy become closer and begin to fall in love with each other. However, Girl’s estranged husband wants to reconcile, and out of duty towards her young daughter, she wants to give it a chance.

Gregory Maheu as Guy and the ensemble of Once
As the guitar-playing musical talent Guy, sturdy and handsome Gregory Maheu is commanding and graceful on stage and portrays the brooding young man effectively while maintaining an Irish accent throughout.  Mr. Maheu’s guitar-playing abilities and baritone vocals are impressive and strong and are showcased in such songs as “Leaving,” “Say It to Me Now” and “Gold.”

His lines are perfect set-ups for the more comedic Girl character in the person of Malinda Kathleen Reese. With a Czech accent in tow, she is a loveable forceful firecracker but exhibits a vulnerability and resists the temptation to fall physically for Guy. Ms. Reese’s comic timing is spot-on in many exchanges, and her vocal prowess is on display in the duet with Mr. Maheu in “Falling Slowly.” The onstage chemistry between the two leads is outstanding as is the hilarious repartee. These are key factors in the production’s success.

They receive solid support from other performers, such as Dave Stishan as Billy who provides a comedic turn as well as Emily Mikesell as Baruska who is Girl’s mother, and Nick DePinto as Bank Manager.

Rounding out the talented cast are John Sygar as Adrej, Carlos Castillo as Švec, Katie Chambers as Ex-Girlfriend, Craig MacDonald as Da who is Guy’s father and owns the vacuum repair shop, Daven Ralston as Réza, and Brian Reisman as Eamon.  Girl’s daughter, Ivanka, is played in-rotation by Kyleigh Fuller and Somaya Litmon.

Scenic Designer Michael Schweikardt’s set, while not elaborate, is artistic and functional. The backdrop is abstract and aesthetically pleasing. A couple of lamp posts are shown to denote the street scene and chairs are off to the sides from where the musicians play.  Several large set pieces like a piano, a bed and a large wooden bar are used with the latter two being elevated from under the stage.

This setting is amplified by the warm glow from Colin K. Bills’ lighting and the exceptional sound designed by Matt Rowe. Frank Labovitz attired the cast neatly in costumes that are emblematic of  the working class neighborhood of Dublin.

Once is a different type of musical from what we’re accustomed and is highly recommended. It features a tender romantic story of looking back at what has been, how to bounce back from despair and to try anew while beautiful songs fill the theater.

Not splashy and bold as many musicals are, but Once is a performance-driven production executed by a wonderfully talented cast, a skilled technical crew, and helmed so ably by a total pro. The issue is you may not want to see the show just once.

Running time. Two hours with an intermission.

Advisory: Once contains profanity and is not suitable for young children.

Once runs through March 10 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting online

Photos: Stan Barouh