Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Rooting for a Recession???

The desperate GOP accuses Dems, media for craving an economic downturn.

You have to hand it to the Republicans for their ability to create excuses when things aren’t going their way.  President Trump, seeing his re-election prospects dimming by the findings from a FOX News poll,  has started to re-launch one of his favorite B.S. excuses: voter fraud.  It is a metaphysical certainty that should Trump go down to defeat in 2020, he will state without equivocation and without evidence that voter fraud turned the election against him. And Lord knows what else he might do or say.

Following the recent gargantuan stock market drop that included a striking 800-plus loss from the Dow, talk of the R-word (recession), started to surface.  The prospect of a recession in the not-too-distant future emanated from numerous well-respected economists. But because the media covered these alarm signals, the media as well as Democrats and other opponents of Donald Trump are being targeted by Trump supporters for as they see it, rooting for this to happen.  Why? A recession would hurt the chances for Trump’s reelection.  #hocopolitics

Simply put, a recession is an economic phenomenon when there is negative economic growth for two consecutive quarters.  Consumer confidence is down; consumer spending, which is the principal driver of the economy, is sharply reduced; the stock market heads south; the national debt heads north; and businesses tend to lay off workers . 

Coincidence or not, according to MarketWatch, every Republican president since Teddy Roosevelt has had to deal with a recession in his first term.  These are cyclical events that follow years of robust economic expansion. 

A recession or a significant downturn in the economy would eliminate the main rationale for Trump’s re-election. He has prided himself and has taken all the credit for what has been up to now--a strong economy.  Yet, as the New York Times explains,  Trump’s on again, off again trade war with China has exacerbated the uncertainty among business leaders and that has sparked the talk of a slow-down.

Knowing that, his supporters are accusing Democrats with the help of the liberal media of creating a fertile environment for a recession by rooting for it to happen. Here’s a sampling from Twitter:

To be fair, anti-Trump comedian Bill Maher has indicated on several occasions that he is rooting for a recession to hurt Trump in his re-election bid. But Maher is in the minority and he is unlikely to be severely impacted financially from such an outcome.

However, millions of other Americans will suffer.  A recession is not something to long for even if makes you feel better politically. It’s like hoping to catch the flu to avoid school or work. Recessions are caused by myriad domestic and global factors but cheering them on is not one of them.

The point is, the GOP strategy is to preemptively pin the blame of a possible recession on the Dems and the media to mitigate the political damage it would cause the president in his reelection chances.  For his part,  Trump has primarily pointed his fingers at the Chairman of the Federal Reserve for his monetary policies as the cause of a potential recession. 

From Trump's corruption, to incompetence, to racism, to whiplash reversals of policy statements through tweets, the Democrats have seemingly unlimited ways to make the case against Trump.  They shouldn't need a faltering economy to win in 2020, and they are certainly not wishing for one. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Art Exhibit in Columbia Attempts to Combat Hate

Recent tragic mass shootings have pushed the topic of hate to the forefront of our conversations. Data  indicate that in the past few years, there has been a discernible rise in hate crimes and hate bias incidents throughout the U.S. against various minority populations including those perpetrated against the LGBTQ community.

For five years, a project called Erase Hate Through Art has attempted to bring awareness to hate in general but particularly towards those actions directed against the LGBTQ community through an art exhibition in Columbia.

The sixth annual Erase Hate Through Art (EHTA) exhibition will take place on Sunday, October 6 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Columbia Art Center, 6100 Foreland Garth, Columbia, MD 21045. Admission is Free.

According to the event’s planners, “The exhibition will feature the artworks of artists exploring various themes associated with bullying and hate crimes as a means of prevention. EHTA was born of a desire to raise awareness of hate crimes and bullying against the LGTBQ community. Today the exhibition explores the impact of these crimes against all segments of society.

“Contributing artists work in all mediums to study the crimes and the impact they have on the victims and their loved ones. Net proceeds of sales are donated to The Matthew Shepard Erase Hate Campaign.”

I had reviewed the debut exhibit five years ago for the Washington Blade.  At that exhibit, there were 10 artists displaying multiple pieces that represent a wide swath of art depicting for the most part images of victims of hate and bullying. The works included multi-media art, sculpture, photography, stained glass and paintings.  

For further information, you may find Erase Hate Through Art on Facebook.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Call It What It Is: White Nationalist Domestic Terrorism

Remember how President Barack Obama was incessantly berated for refusing to utter the phrase, “Radical Islamic Terrorism.” For virtually his entire two terms, right wing radio, cable TV propagandists and conservative newspapers as well as Republican politicians jumped on the bandwagon that Obama must be a secret Muslim if he can’t spit out those words.

In fact, then candidate Donald Trump in 2016 told Fox and Friends, “People cannot—they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the ways he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable.”

Later, the horrific mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub, an establishment primarily frequented by gay people whereby 49 innocent souls were slaughtered, led Trump to reference the incident in his speech accepting the nomination for President.

“Only weeks ago, in Orlando, Florida, 49 wonderful Americans were savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist. This time, the terrorist targeted our LGBT community. As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBT citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”

The identity politics reporter Eugene Scott for The Fix pointed out in an op-ed in the Washington Post, “Cynics noted that it was [shooter Omar] Mateen’s loyalty to the Islamist terrorist group [ISIL] that led the then-nominee to address the mass murder more than his concern for the safety of gay Americans.”

The distinction is not lost on many in our country and around the world. An ISIL sympathizer murders people and is labeled a foreign terrorist.  However, in a span of 6 days, three mass shootings have occurred and very few on the GOP side of the aisle including Trump—largely the same ones who relentlessly accused Obama of not using the phrase “radical Islamist terrorists”—have called out these murders as domestic terrorism.

As people debate the reasons why Trump is not condemning white nationalist domestic terrorism with the same vehemence as he slams African-American lawmakers, majority black cities and Hispanic immigrants, it is well documented  that since Trump took office there has been a significant rise of hate crimes in the U.S. and hate bias incidents and in particular, where Trump has held rallies.

Moreover, mass shootings or other attempts to terrorize communities that are rooted in white nationalism are becoming too routine now. They have been met with no response from Senate Republicans and so far, no action has been taken on a House-passed bi-partisan sensible gun bill though they offer a plethora of thoughts and prayers and well-deserved praise for first responders.

Republicans who are aligned with Trump (just about all of them) see these incidents as mental health-related outbursts.  But not all of these perpetrators are linked with mental health problems. To kill anyone other than self-defense, to me, is a mental health problem.  Some are self-professed white nationals, virulently opposed to persons of color and yes, supporters of Trump.

It is obvious the reason Trump has yet to demonstrate any leadership on this growing problem or acknowledge that white nationalism is becoming an epidemic is that these individuals constitute a portion of his passionate and loyal base. You know how the president values loyalty; he is loath to throw them under the bus.  He is all about his base and the 2020 election.

While Trump should not be accused of directly inciting the violence we are witnessing with all-too-common frequency in the form of mass shootings, his divisive and incendiary racist rhetoric in the form of tweets, comments at press gaggles and speeches at campaign rallies, he has wittingly created an atmosphere whereby some of his ardent supporters have picked up signals and have acted upon it.

“He empowers hateful and potentially violent individuals with his divisive rhetoric and his unwillingness to unequivocally denounce white supremacy,” writes Frank Figliuzzi, a former assistant F.B.I. director for counterintelligence and a national security analyst for NBC News, in an op-ed  in the New York Times.

“Mr. Trump may be understandably worried about the course of congressional inquiries, but his aggressive and race-baiting responses have been beyond the pale. He has chosen a re-election strategy based on appealing to the kinds of hatred, fear and ignorance that can lead to violence.”

In Trump’s recent racist tweets and his combustible campaign rally in North Carolina where the unimpeded “send her back” chants reverberated among the foaming-at-the-mouth Trump cultists, white nationalists or those close sympathizers of the cause have applauded him even if they were not in the arena itself.   ADL, a leading anti-hate organization, documents  the validation by these folks resulting from Trump’s communications.

For his part, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney disputes Trump’s role in the violence. On the August 4 edition of Meet the Press, he argued that the blame lies squarely on the “sick” people who “pulled the trigger.”

“I get the fact that some people don’t approve of the verbiage the president uses, I get that,” Mulvaney said. “But even if they did … people are going to hear what they want to hear.”

As we navigate through another tragic carnage-filled crime scene, we desperately continue to seek answers. The loved ones of the innocent victims are faced with these horrific losses and no amount of thoughts and no amount of prayers will mitigate their grief.

Gun restrictions will not stop many of these incidents though background checks are the right way to go for starters. And still, I cannot fathom why semi-automatic assault weapons and high capacity magazines should be obtained so readily. 

But we also need to hear from our leaders to confirm that much of the recent atrocities have been committed by white nationalist bigots.  Dialing back the divisive rhetoric would be a good first step.

Calling these crimes white nationalist domestic terrorism is what is needed, and efforts by law enforcement should be undertaken with the same zeal as they attempt to check foreign terrorism. 

Note that foreign terrorism is a federal crime. Domestic terrorism is not.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Howard Co. High School Students to Hold First Rainbow Conference

In June Howard County successfully held its first ever LGBTQ+ Pride whereby an estimated 10,000 people joined in the celebration. In 2020, the first ever Rainbow Conference for LGBTQIA+ students, parents, Howard County Public School System staff, community members and allies is scheduled for May 15 at Hammond High School.

According to the event’s website , “The Rainbow Conference came about as…an idea that arose from a need to connect with others who share a similar story, similar values, and a similar struggle. It is our hope that this first Rainbow Conference is the first of many conferences of its kind in our school system.”  This idea ostensibly originated from students and staff at Hammond H.S.

The conference will take place from Noon to 4 p.m. on May 15 and will include three concurrent workshop sessions. While some presenters have already been lined up, there is an opportunity for others to lead a concurrent session. Broadly, the topics may include literary focus, self-awareness, creative expression, activism, health curriculum and instruction and others. Those who may be interested in being a presenter should visit the Contact link of the website and complete the form.  

Planners are also seeking sponsors to cover the costs of the conference. If interested, please complete the Rainbow Conference Donation Form.

To request a table at the Exhibition Hall, the form to complete is here

Openly gay Mikah Meyer has already been selected as the Keynote Speaker.  He traveled on a record-breaking 3-year road trip to all 419 National Park Service sites making him the first to experience all those parks in a single journey.  For good measure, he took photos with the Pride flag at each of the sites.

In addition, there will be a literary component of the conference called Rainbow Vision 2020. Students who are currently attending a Howard County high school are encouraged to submit original art, poetry, essay or story on such matters as being an LGBTQIA+ teen or ally.  Selected submissions will be part of a countywide literary magazine, which will be distributed at the conference. The rules and methods for making a submission are included here

“The HoCo Rainbow Conference is going to be a great opportunity for members of the LGBTQ community in Howard County schools to come together to share experiences, show their unity, and continue to advocate for inclusive, accepting, and supportive school environment for all,” says PFLAG-Columbia Howard County President Max Crownover. “Our chapter is excited to be able to support the efforts of the conference’s planners.”

Adds local librarian Sarah Cooke, who is a scheduled presenter at the conference on the topic of LGBTQ+ authors and/or characters in a variety of genres:  “Having this conference in HoCo is significant on so many levels. First and foremost it shows our LGBTQ+ students that we see them, we love them and we support them.  Representation and visibility is so important, as is more education of our history and the celebration and respect for the LGBTQ+ community.”

Indeed, bringing high school students together to learn about issues that affect them and network with others is a positive and needed step.  LGBTQIA+ teens nationally continue to be bullied and harassed in schools and online. 

According to GLSEN’s 2018 National Schools Climate Survey  the environment for such students has not improved. In one key finding, the vast majority of LGBTQ students (87.3%) in 2017 experienced harassment or assault based on personal characteristics, including sexual orientation, gender expression, gender, religion, race and ethnicity, and disability. Seven in ten LGBTQ students (70.1%) experienced verbal harassment at school based on sexual orientation, more than half based on gender expression (59.1%) or gender (53.2%).
“This report should serve as an alarm bell for advocates and a call to action for anyone who cares about students’ wellbeing,” said Eliza Byard, GLSEN Executive Director. 

“Fortunately, the evidence continues to show that key interventions are working to improve students’ lives. We must continue to push to see them implemented in more schools, and support students who are organizing to improve their communities. LGBTQ-affirming supports in our schools reduce violence, improve academic achievement, and help save lives. Who wouldn’t want LGBTQ youth to feel safe and do better in schools?”

The upcoming Rainbow Conference is akin to the recent “B’More Proud” series of conferences at the collegiate level involving Baltimore area colleges and universities. This inaugural conference of high school students in Howard County is similarly on the right path to success.

As additional information about the Rainbow Conference becomes available, I will provide updates. You can also email or follow the Rainbow Conference on Instagram @hcpss_pride. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Should Trump Feel Optimistic About 2020?

The president is banking on a lot to break his way to overcome his unpopularity.

We’re more than 16 months away from the presidential election and the Democratic field of challengers exceeds 20. Therefore, so much can happen in that time span that could alter the political landscape one way or the other. 

I make no predictions as to who the eventual Democratic nominee will be nor do I speculate on whether or not Trump will ultimately be impeached. (It’s not because I don’t want to, it’s because I simply can’t.) These are all fluid developments. The one constant has been Donald Trump’s job approval ratings, which have ranged from the low- to mid- 40’s throughout his presidency. 

Despite what has been characterized as a good economy, his numbers do not portend success in the election as he has shown to be president of his base only and not the country as a whole. The failure to expand upon his base is his likely undoing, but after 2016, who knows?  He won the Electoral College with some 46 percent of the vote. 

Accordingly, Trump is banking on a number of conditions to exist up to the election to overcome his being the most unpopular president in a more than a generation.  Some of these are legit but others are far-fetched.  I handicap each of these with “diamond” ratings—one diamond being next to impossible and five being a slam-dunk certainty—in no particular order.

The Economy. Most any incumbent president would see their reelection chances soar if the economy is good (“It’s the economy, stupid.”). However, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While certain statistics like growth, unemployment and the stock market appear to be favorable, not everyone in the country is benefitting directly. Wages are stagnant necessitating people to work multiple jobs to keep up with rising prescription drug prices among other expenses.  Factory jobs continue to be lost, and the Trump-created trade war has hurt many farmers.

As for the stock market, most people in the know understand that the law of gravity is king here.  The markets are due for a correction and could tank at any time between now and November 2020.  A recession is certainly possible as well, according to some economists..

So, will the economy remain favorable to Trump as election nears?  ♦ ♦

Democratic Infighting. Make no mistake there is considerable tension among Democrats regarding priorities.  Is it more important to defeat Trump or push for policies that bend leftward?  Is a single payer for health insurance and scrapping private insurers preferable to massaging Obamacare?  What bold policies are desirable versus what can actually be accomplished?  Should Congress impeach the president based on evidence contained in the Mueller Report or should it assume such an action would benefit Trump in the general election? And, of course, the conflict between Speaker Pelosi and four freshman women of color still festers.  These are just a few of the issues that divide Democrats at this time.

Nonetheless, I believe 2016 is fresh in the minds of Democrats.  We saw what happened when the party was not unified.  Dems now understand the inherent hazards of Trump being re-elected, and they will likely get behind the eventual nominee. But you never know what the Dems are capable of when it comes to elections.

Should Trump bank on a Democratic circular firing squad?   ♦ ♦ ♦

The Socialist Label. Trump is a master of messaging and name-calling, and it helps to keep his supporters in line.  More precisely, Republicans in Congress are so terrified of Trump and the power of his tweets that they have sold their souls to him.

There is no secret Trump plans to roll out the “Socialist” brand on Democrats regardless of the nominee.  Radical, left, socialist Democrats will be the mantra.  Even Trump lapdog Lindsey Graham referred to the four women of color involved in the Pelosi controversy as “Communists” underscores how low they will go.

Though popular programs such as Medicare and Social Security can be considered socialist by some definitions, the moniker is treated now as a weapon.  To be clear, the term socialist was used against Barack Obama in 2008 without success.

Can this scare tactic be successful? ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Image: American Prospect
 Us Against Them: Donald Trump’s continuation of his long-held racist and xenophobic beliefs is a winning strategy, according to people in Trump’s orbit.  

Immigration will likely be a major issue in the general as Trump stokes fear, resentment and division.  But images are more powerful than anything Trump can tweet, and the footage showing inhumanely overcrowded cages on the border and children separated from their families are devastating.   

His tweet that that Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Talib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” is yet another manifestation of Trump’s ignorance and desire to divide Americans.  Believing that incendiary tweets like this will firm up the bigoted elements of his base is safe to assume. 

However, Trump did not expect the blowback to be so harsh (though hardly a peep from the Trump-intimidated GOP Representatives and Senators) from the media, Democrats and independents that it seemed to have backfired and caused feuding Democrats to close ranks in unity against the profound racism emanating from Trump.

Remember Trump claimed that U.S.-born Judge Curiel could not be fair in presiding over a case involving Trump University because of his Mexican heritage. Then there are these:  “Mexicans are rapists”, the Gold Star Khan family, Charlottesville comments, the attack on some African-American celebrities as “low IQ”, "shithole countries",  etc.  Nevermind his examples of racism prior to his running for president. The racism and xenophobia are palpable and ongoing.  Yes, his bigoted base will be motivated to vote, and this serves to keep them enthused.  But will it work in the general election? ♦ ♦

Russia, Russia Russia! In my view, Trump doesn’t become president if Russia hadn’t interfered by particularly shaping and reaffirming people’s attitudes against Hillary Clinton and for Donald Trump.  Robert Mueller was very clear about that after the multi-year investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Trump had the audacity to side with Putin’s version of events over that of our intelligence community (some patriot!). He doesn’t take the interference seriously because he knew it helped him and other Republicans as well. Even worse, he has done next to nothing to prevent a similar attempt by Russia to plant doubts in the minds of Americans regarding the reliability of the election results.

Can Trump count on Russia to help him win again? ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Friday, June 21, 2019

Straight Pride: Another Way to Mock LGBTQ Folks

Photo: Boston Globe/Boston Globe Via Getty Images
With each year, the annual ritual of holding LGBTQ Pride festivals and parades all over the world is gaining more media coverage and popularity.  These celebrations have been taking place for 50 years since the first one in New York City marked the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall uprising where patrons in the Greenwich Village underground bar fought back against yet another police raid.

Pride, as it is simply called, has had different meanings to different people. To me it is acknowledging the adversity LGBTQ people have had to endure throughout their lives, and that we are proud that we have survived though sadly, not everyone has.

To some straight folks who are not allied with the LGBTQ community, there has been a growing distaste for this traditional event and have mocked us with calling for or establishing “straight pride” parades to counter it. One, for instance, is being planned in Boston.  

Even merchants see a profit in this development and are selling straight pride t-shirts and similar merchandise online. They are the opposite of the familiar rainbow colors; they’re black, white and (perhaps 50) shades of gray.

The notion that straight folks need to demonstrate their pride is ludicrous, and that’s being mild.  LGBTQ Pride, as I indicated, is a celebration of enduring the myriad manifestations of hatred directed towards our community.  Straight people have not had to grapple with being straight in our society. Consider:

• No straight person has been fired from their job or not hired for being straight.

• No straight person has been kicked out of an apartment or disapproved of a lease because he or she is straight.

• No straight person has been assaulted or killed for being straight.

• No straight person has to hide their sexuality from  family members, classmates, clergy, co-workers, bosses, friends and neighbors.

• No straight athlete has been harassed in the locker room or denied an endorsement deal because he or she is straight.

There are more contained below in this popular meme.

People took to social media to voice their displeasure at the proposed straight pride parade in Boston.

“Straight” pride is culturally irrelevant. It means nothing, except as an insult and degradation of LGBTQ+ people. Such a statement isn’t about equality, but is an exclamation of continued superiority. It screams: Look at me! I’m insecure as hell!”

Says another, “Holy f***ing shit balls! Have you ever BEEN to pride??? This isn't even about ‘well I think I should support the LGBT’s, this is about FUN!  Just think for three seconds…how much fun do you think these ‘straight pride’ idiots are going to be having? Stomping around in their white golf shirts and Dockers khakis chanting slogans?”

And from one who is straight, “They have the right to assemble just like everyone else, but to call it a 'Straight Pride' parade is really a misnomer. They should just say what they mean, and say we are Anti-Gay Pride. Everyone knows what they are about, and trying to call it something that they think will be more politically correct doesn’t replace their underlying theme. I certainly won’t be participating no matter what they call it. It is going to be a bunch of narrow minded people who are intimidated by the idea that being gay is acceptable and that LGBTQ people should have the same rights and recognition of their relationships that heterosexuals enjoy.”

There are a number of reasons why straight folks support this.  I believe that many would like to push LGBTQ folks back in the closet.  They don’t like us out and proud.  The Pride celebrations don’t conform to their beliefs that we are inferior, different, and an abomination. Thus, there is resentment.

As we approach Howard County’s first ever Pride festival (HoCo Pride) on June 29 at Centennial Park, marking the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, opponents, I would say haters, have taken to social media to voice their displeasure. They have posted memes like this one

or comments like this one.

They can mock all they want. The LGBTQ community and its growing number of allies need to ignore the taunts by a noisy few and enjoy our special day.  As the theme for HoCo Pride states, our community and supporters should Remember, Resist and Rejoice.  

We expect a large representation of straight allies attending the festivities and to them, there is no need to have a separate, silly straight pride.  This one will be far more fun and far more meaningful.

For more information about HoCo Pride, visit the website.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Trump’s Cheatin’ Heart Could Beat on Him

Last month I argued that the Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls ignore the pundits and handlers and start going after President Donald Trump. Go on the offense, I implored. Why cede the offense to Trump?

One of the ways to do that is to fight on “his” turf and resort to nicknames as Trump does routinely.  It’s been a successful tactic for Trump because labeling and branding are key components of the modern election campaign.  If he does it, so should his opponents. Remember how “Crooked Hillary” stuck on her like a stain.  Now it’s “Pocahontas,” “Sleepy Joe,” “Crazy Bernie” or whoever becomes the eventual nominee.

Yes, I know it’s childish. Why stoop to the level of a pre-teen?  Well, with so much at stake—our democracy, the rule of law, our standing and leadership in the world, and fighting for the middle class, climate change, and gun violence— winning back power is crucial.  If the media, who made Trump, continues to cover his inane tweets and rallies, then his opponents must get on the stage and battle him.  We can’t afford to give this lawless, corrupt and profoundly incompetent narcissist a second term with no accountability.

Let’s give him a nickname that will surely get under his skin. My suggestion: Cheatin’ Trump.  We have seen similar monikers employed on social media like “Don the Con” but that’s on social media. 

Candidates themselves must use two words and make it stick and ignore the sanctimonious objections by those who feel we must maintain decency.  It’s a different ballgame now, and like it or not, I assure you this election will be all about Trump and not Wall Street and other pet issues.
Cheatin’ Trump. That’s the message. There is so much to back it up.

► He has cheated on his 3 wives.

► His cheating is so obvious he had to pay adult film stars to keep quiet about it.

► He has cheated employees and contractors out of their payments.

► He cheated military service by concocting a fake bone spurs condition.

► He undoubtedly cheated on his taxes, which is probably one of several reasons he is fighting tooth and nail to keep his returns from the public.

► He cheated the unsuspecting with his joke Trump University.

► He cheated to win the election in 2016 by seeking and accepting help from a foreign adversary to persuade voters.

► He cheats the taxpayers as he violates the Emoluments clause in the Constitution by raking in millions from private properties while sitting in the White House.

► He cheats in golf “at the highest level” as sportswriter Rick Reilly pens in his book, The Commander-in-Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump.

There are potentially many more examples as his foundation and charities are under investigation.
Cheatin’ Trump would be a good name for him; it’s certainly accurate.  He can’t defend against it. He can only go on the offense.  Dems should, too.

Image by Murdo McCleod, The Guardian

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Power of the Music of the Night

CCTA Delights with ‘The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber’

Aficionados of musical theatre and even those who are not are well acquainted with the body of work by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. The English composer, who had collaborated with several lyricists like Tim Rice throughout his career, has been wildly successful in this genre spanning five decades with a string of some 13 musicals and 2 film scores among his accomplishments.  Several shows have run for over 10 years—a remarkable feat whether on Broadway or London’s West End.

“The Music of the Night” and “All I Ask of You” from The Phantom of the Opera, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Evita, and “Memory” from Cats are popular hit songs that have been cemented in our musical culture.  #hocoarts

On June 9, the Columbia (Md.) Center for Theatrical Arts (CCTA) and The Young Columbians Senior Ensemble & Alumni presented a magnificent offering of Lloyd Webber’s works including those and other favorites from the composer’s vast catalogue at the Smith Theatre at Howard Community College.  The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, performed by mostly middle and high school students, was a wonder to behold.

CCTA founder Toby Orenstein, the founder of Columbia’s venerable Toby’s Dinner Theatre, made brief remarks before the show in which she pointed out that the mostly student performers also included CCTA staff and alumni.  She singled out a student from her very first class, Larry Friedman, who is currently the Young Colombians’ artistic director and with Ms. Orenstein co-directed this show.

From the rocking number “Superstar” from Jesus Christ Superstar in which Mr. Friedman took the lead, to the finale “Love Changes Everything” from Aspects of Love, the performances by these artists were scintillating. The selections consisting of a combination of solos, duets and group numbers were generally organized by show.  

It was fitting that “Superstar” launched the presentation not only because the invigorating high tempo of the song and the cast’s journey up the theater’s aisles induced the audience to be involved immediately, but I have no doubt there are potential superstars among this group of entertainers.

Guided by choreographer Tina Desimone, the ensemble remained on the stage throughout each song utilizing methodical movements and a variety of positions from standing to lying down while featured performers emerged downstage to sing.  In some instances the positioning of the ensemble simulated that of the Broadway version of the numbers.

A duet consisting of Kyra Britt and Abby McDonough beautifully performed “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar.  During the rendition Ms. McDonough experienced a mic snafu. Undaunted, the young lady kept her poise, recognized the situation and increased the volume of her vocals to help compensate. Both performers deserve kudos for seamlessly overcoming a technical problem outside of their control. 

Prince Havely, an alumnus of the program, performed a stunningly moving interpretation of “The Music of the Night” from The Phantom of the Opera while the Ensemble silently stood motionless in the background.

All the other lead performers were outstanding as well. The talented list includes: Bradley Leverett and Ben Saunders (“Song of the King”) and Justin Diaz, Richard Seipel and Gavin Willard (“Close Every Door”) from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; Cade MacFee (Light at the End of the Tunnel”/”Starlight Express” from Starlight Express); Andrew Fleming, Evan Williams and Justin Diaz (“Oh What a Circus”) and Alyssa Young and Sophie Snider (“Another Suitcase”) and Caroline Otchet and Logan Dixon (“Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”) from Evita; Rachel Kohen (“Memory”) from Cats; Avery Fahey (“Anything But Lonely”) from Aspects of Love; Peyton Kern and Andrew Fleming (“Think of Me”) and Bradley Everett, Leah Reineck, Cade MacFee and Shira Seaman (“All I Ask of You”) from The Phantom of the Opera; and Gavin Willard and Ben Saunders (“Love Changes Everything”) from Aspects of Love.

The Ensemble deftly performed vocally in support of the leads and had their own selections in the group numbers “Evita Requiem” from Evita, “Jellicle Ball” from Cats, and “Masquerade” from The Phantom of the Opera.

They are: Julia Chapman, Amaya Cunningham, Ana Cunningham, Madeline Ellinghaus, Hallie Goldstein, Ally Kolp, Andrew Pavuk, Alyssa Renew, Drew Seipel, Sierra Segal, Kate Tourison, Ava Vanek, and Carly Victor.

Musical Director Todd Twining and the 5-piece orchestra were superb and did justice to Lloyd Weber’s rich and melodious score.  The production itself was stellar, but seeing how the hard work of these young people led to a successful show with tons of potential to be realized is truly inspiring.

There are two flaws I can identify, however. One, the performance was only for one night and the broader community will not have a chance to witness this terrific show. And two, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber wasn’t on hand to marvel how his work was performed in such a superb manner. #hocoarts

Ironically, this presentation took place on the same night as the 2019 Tony Awards (yay DVR!) It would not be a stretch to imagine at least one of these young performers receiving that honor someday.

CCTA is a non-profit organization founded in 1972 by Toby Orenstein. Its mission is to educate through the arts by creating theatrical experiences that inspire thought, action, creativity, and change. This performance was a fundraiser for CCTA’s outreach programs aimed at helping special needs and at-risk youth.  More information can be found on CCTA’s website.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

‘Grease’ at Toby’s is the One That I Want

Nicki Elledge as Sandy and Matt Hirsh as Danny in Toby's
production of "Grease'  Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
It’s pretty safe to say that virtually all theatre-goers have heard of or seen the American classic musical Grease in some form or another. Grease had been one of Broadway’s longest running productions. It spawned several revivals on Broadway and has played all over the world in professional theatre via tours as well as in summer stock, community theatre and in schools all over the U.S.

The 1978 movie with the same title starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John was a smashing success.  And even that led to a sequel. 

In 2007, a reality TV show was presented whereby a combination of judges and viewer voting determined who the two lead characters should be in an upcoming Broadway revival. And in 2016 a live TV presentation was aired.

Therefore, in so myriad ways through the years this beloved 1971 musical, written and composed by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, found a way into the hearts of so many. So it is fitting that the bouncy nostalgic 1950’s era production is currently playing at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia and it, too, can be characterized as a smash.

Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick directed and choreographed this vibrant masterpiece with supreme skill and vision. The precise staging and period aesthetics are matched by an utterly superb young but experienced cast whose dance moves are dazzling and whose vocals are sparkling.

Musical Director Ross Scott Rawlings’ six-piece orchestra is in total synch with the performances, never overwhelming the vocals. Janine Sunday designed a splendid array of 1950’s costumes including black jeans, black tight t-shirts and black leather jackets for the male characters and cheerleading uniforms or below-the-knee pastel-colored skirts for the female characters.

Lynn Joslin’s lighting design is captivating and creative. And Mark Smedley’s sound design brings crystal clear audio to Toby’s in-the-round theater.

Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins kept things simple allowing the audience to focus on the performers on the stage, as they should. This doesn’t mean that the stage was bare save for the cast.  Awesome set pieces from diner booths to a miniature Chevy convertible dubbed “Greased Lightning” amplified the presentation so adroitly.

" utterly superb young but experienced cast whose dance moves are dazzling and whose vocals are sparkling."

In addition, a variety of posters are mounted on the walls around the theater denoting the cultural charm of that bygone era.  You would see a poster of James Dean or an advertisement for a box of Frosted Flakes or a poster of TV shows Lassie or Howdy Doody and even cigarette ads—so commonplace during that period—like Lucky Strikes.  While the audience enjoys the fabulous buffet prior to the show, they can peruse these posters and get squarely into the mood.  So cool!

The plot, probably familiar to most due to the show’s prolific exposure, has undergone some tweaking in terms of score and dialogue during its course.  Yet, it continues to center on the relationships between lead characters Danny Zuko (played brilliantly by Helen Hayes Award winner Matt Hirsh) and the Sandra Dee-like Sandy Dumbrowski (played exceptionally well by Nicki Elledge) and among their respective working class peer cliques—the Burger Palace Boys (formerly called the T-Birds in other iterations of the show) and Pink Ladies—at the fictional Rydell High School in 1959. 

While other characters emerge and their attempts at coupling form much of the comedic sequences, the focus remains on the ebbs and flows of the romantic relationship between Danny and Sandy.

Director Minnick steers the action with a light touch and keeps the proceedings breezy and fun throughout. Yet, embedded in the plot are such social issues as teenage pregnancy, peer pressure bordering on bullying, and gang violence amid the themes of love, friendship, teenage rebellion, sexual exploration during adolescence, and class consciousness. 

Although those issues are legitimate in any period, Grease is all about the 50’s in terms of music, wardrobe, culture, dialogue, and gestures. Its popularity over these many years is a testament to the show’s ability to entertain audiences of all ages and in all eras.

And entertain they do.   #hocoarts

The perfectly cast, energetic and multi-talented ensemble in the Toby’s production do the show proud.  Once the iconic production number “Summer Nights” is performed so effectively in the second scene of the first act, the tone is set and the audience is captured for the duration.
As one would expect in a musical with the pedigree of Grease, the songs are the show’s strength, and the cast delivers under the guidance of Mr. Minnick and Musical Director Rawlings.

A big dance number “Greased Lightnin” with the aforementioned hot rod rolling on the stage belonging to one of the greasers Kenickie (played strongly by handsome Paul Roeckell) is a crowd pleaser to be sure. As part of the choreography are flawlessly executed cartwheels by two members of the ensemble, the always athletic AJ Whittenberger and Shiloh Orr.

Other numbers with high-level, high-intensity choreography include the production numbers “We Go Together,” “Shakin’ at the High School Hop” and “Born to Hand Jive.”
Members of the cast of Grease  Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
“You’re the One That I Want, ” another production number, has been a long-time favorite.
Then there is the hilarious song “Mooning” performed wonderfully by Justin Calhoun and Kalen Robinson.

As Danny, Matt Hirsh excels as an actor and vocalist.  With his D.A. haircut (see if anyone remembers what that is) complete with the requisite spit curl, Mr. Hirsh does his greaser garb proud.  He has all the moves: a cocky swagger, preening and adjusting his hair frequently to make it crystal clear he is the lead greaser and attracting women is essentially a given.  Mr. Hirsh’s strong tenor voice excels in “Summer Nights” and “Alone at the Drive-In Movie.”

Nicki Elledge plays innocent Sandy to the hilt. Also equipped with strong vocal prowess, Ms. Elledge performs very well in “Summer Nights” and the lovely ballad “Hopelessly Devoted to You”—a song popularized by Olivia Newton-John in the film version of Grease and later incorporated in the stage musicals. She also performs well in the reprise of “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.”

As Betty Rizzo, the tough, gum-snapping, chain-smoking heavy among the Pink Ladies, Maggie Dransfield plays her role with relish.  She expertly performs the song “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.”

The other outstanding lead performers include Paul Roeckell as Kenickie, Justin Calhoun as Roger, Taylor Witt as Doody, Nia Savoy as Marty, Joey Ellinghaus as Sonny, Allie O’Donnell as Frenchy, Shiloh Orr as Eugene, Crystal Freeman as Teen Angel whose performance of “Beauty School Dropout” is a goose-bump-producing vocal, Jeffrey Shankle as Vince Fontaine, recent Helen Hayes Award winner DeCarlo Raspberry as Johnny Casino, Rachel Kemp as Cha-Cha DiGregorio, and Louisa Tringali as Patty Simcox.

Rounding out the cast are the ensemble members Brandon Bedore, MaryKate Brouillet, Kourtney Richards and AJ Whittenberger.

The Toby’s production stayed true to Grease’s rock ‘n roll core, and everybody associated with it deserves an ovation. Even if you spent a summer night with Grease before, drive your hot rod over to Toby’s and catch this amazing production.

Running time. Two hours and 10 minutes with an intermission.

Grease runs through July 28 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