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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Equality Maryland's Endorsement Gamble

‘Twas two nights before Christmas,
When all through the state
Not a person was stirring,
Be it LGBT or straight.

Then Equality Maryland said
That its PAC made some choices,
From governor to delegates,
That led to raised voices.

Many were surprised
That their top pick was Brown,
Bringing Gansler and Mizeur folks
A Christmastime frown.

Choosing the front runner
Is easy to handle,
But is dividing the community
Worth such a gamble?


The Equality Maryland Political Action Committee raised some eyebrows with the first round of endorsements for 37 races in Maryland’s 2014 primary elections to take place in June.   Their revelation that the PAC chose the Brown-Ulman ticket caused pre-Christmas stirring from Takoma Park to Baltimore and all around the state, garnering much media attention. 
The announcement, which occurred just days before a scheduled January 4 fundraiser for the Brown-Ulman ticket at the City CafĂ© in Baltimore which Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland is among the hosts, elicited swift and sharp reaction on social media. 

Not to be overlooked by the gubernatorial choice is the mystifying fact that none of the lesbians in the House of Delegates were endorsed in this round.  They include Maggie McIntosh who finished in second place as the Baltimore Sun’s Marylander of the Year in 2012, Mary Washington, Bonnie Cullison and Anne Kaiser.

“Equality Maryland just lost their last shred of credibility,” commented a transgender rights advocate from Baltimore kicking off a spirited discussion on Facebook.

But at the moment, the endorsement for governor is creating the most buzz.   Although Attorney General Doug Gansler has a strong LGBT following given his record on marriage equality—a core factor in the PAC’s evaluation that consisted of questionnaires and interviews—many support Del. Heather Mizeur’s quest to be the first woman and openly gay person to be governor of Maryland. Others see Lt. Governor Anthony Brown as the only viable candidate who could defeat a Republican in November.
“We’ve made great progress over the past seven years, achieving marriage equality and strengthening domestic violence services for LGBT residents, while working to ban discrimination based on gender identity,” Brown said in a statement.

For her part, Mizeur characterized the choice as “puzzling.” She said, “No one in this race has done more for the LGBT community than the Mizeur-Coates ticket. I’m not sure what more we could have done to earn their support.”
Bob Wheelock, a spokesman for Gansler wrote in an email, “We are confident that Doug’s record on fighting for and protecting the rights and safety of the LGBT residents of Maryland will factor into the voters’ decision in the Democratic primary and on Election Day.”

“I suppose any candidate that doesn’t get an endorsement feels snubbed,” said Evans. “Equality Maryland is confident the Brown/Ulman administration will provide the leadership Equality Maryland needs in our next governor and has the relationships we need to move LGBT issues forward in our state.”
All three Democratic candidates and their running mates have solid records on LGBT issues, and to say one is better than the others is questionable.  Gansler was the first statewide official to endorse marriage equality in 2008 and had been an unwavering supporter.  His opinion in 2010 as Attorney General that Maryland can recognize the lawful same-sex marriages from other states helped pave the way for the ultimate victory in 2012.

Heather Mizeur, a lesbian with a wife, has also been a vigorous proponent of marriage equality.  I testified along with her at a House committee hearing for a bill that was aimed at pre-empting Gansler’s eventual opinion.  Mizeur’s testimony was sincere, persuasive and effective, and one could see great potential for her.
While I had met Anthony Brown, I never had the opportunity to speak with him on LGBT issues.  Nonetheless, a very credible source told me that Brown was an early supporter of marriage equality—even before Governor O’Malley—but worked behind the scenes especially in Prince George’s County to help make it happen.  In addition, Brown had been a vocal advocate for the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and appeared on national television in that regard.

With all three candidates possessing strong credentials and leadership, Equality Maryland chose to ride the perceived front runner.  Brown has racked up most of the endorsements so far, has a formidable war chest and the backing of the Democratic establishment.  Early polls indicate Brown with a robust lead over the other candidates.
By backing Brown, should he prevail, Equality Maryland could stand to receive at a minimum access to the O’Malley-Brown mammoth donor list to help finance the organization as it evolves to a post-marriage equality mission that will entail a broader scope.

However, the primary is six months away and much can happen in that timeframe.  Brown’s success (or failure) will undoubtedly be linked to O’Malley’s popularity, which is often volatile.  Moreover, should he win the nomination, the actual election is by no means a lock (see above re: O’Malley).
It is indeed a gamble for Equality Maryland, but is it a good one?  The front running horse may have the probability of a win but it also yields the smallest payoff.  Preferring one candidate now over two with strong LGBT pedigree, Equality Maryland stands to alienate a significant number of Gansler and Mizeur supporters—many of whom live in cash-rich Montgomery County and have been a major source of contributions to the organization over the years.

Equality Maryland should have taken a safer course and remained neutral through the primary and not risk dividing the LGBT community. It would also be better served if it channeled its energy and whatever resources it possesses towards finding and funding candidates to defeat anti-LGBT Democratic legislators.  Sen. Anthony Muse who has blocked progress for LGBT folks comes to mind.
Equality Maryland’s PAC rolled the dice with Anthony Brown and will reap the benefits of this action or pay a steep price.  Time will tell.  But like all gambling activities, it’s always about money.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Ducking the Real issue

The fact that so much progress has been occurring with marriage equality and how the majority of people in the U.S. now support it must be bugging the crap out of the remaining homophobes.  They’ve witnessed a parade of states undoing existing bans on same-sex marriage or the states’ approving it on their own that these bigots are so irate their blood pressure is probably setting record highs.
It’s perfect timing for the latest media kerfuffle involving the TV reality show “Duck Dynasty” on cable’s A&E network.  As most folks already know, the patriarch of this clan, Phil Robertson, 67, made some unkind comments about blacks and gays in an interview with GQ magazine.  He said that the blacks in his home state of Louisiana were content and happy during the pre-civil rights era and that gays were sinners and worse.

For blacks under Jim Crow laws, “They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
For gays, well here’s what the biblical scholar replied to the question, “What is sin?”: “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

For these quotes and more, Robertson was indefinitely suspended by A&E based on his failure to properly represent the network with his comments.  That raised the ire of the conservative anti-gay crowd who claim his right to free speech was infringed by the liberal media.
Whoa!  Not so fast.  Robertson’s right to free speech was never infringed.    He spoke freely and was never apprehended and incarcerated as would be the case had he not been protected by the First Amendment.  Such actions are commonplace in other countries around the globe, not here.

But with free speech there are responsibilities and consequences.  You can’t falsely shout “fire” in a movie theater, for instance.  Or, if you should curse out your boss, good luck with using the freedom of speech defense if fired.
The backlash from this controversy was not about free speech or espousing biblical beliefs and the teachings of Christ.  His references to Scripture are inaccurate, and Jesus never condemned homosexuality—at all.

Robertson backers, angered by the suspension, rallied on his behalf.  They ranged from GOP politicians to homophobic organizations to those supporters establishing a Twitter account and a Facebook page, “Stand with Phil Robertson” that has over one and a half million “Likes” and counting.

Robertson’s anti-gay beliefs did not just surface during the GQ interview. In 2010, he addressed diners at the Berean Bible Church in Pennsylvania with a similarly homophobic, non-Biblical nonsensical rant.  “They’re full of murder, envy, strife, hatred. They are insolent, arrogant God-haters. They are heartless. They are faithless. They are senseless. They are truthless. They invent ways of doing evil.”  In the Bible?  I think not.

During the anti-gay tirade he added, “They will dishonor their bodies with one another, degrade each other. Is that going on in the United States of America? Look around. ... Boy, is there some immorality going on around here.”
I don’t know which version of the Bible Robertson has been reading (or thumping) but those who condemned his suspension based on religious expression and free speech are blowing smoke.  The real targets of their fury—though they won’t ever admit it in this “PC” world they loathe so much—are the gays themselves.

When MSNBC’s Martin Bashir condemned Sarah Palin for suggesting U.S. foreign debt is comparable to slavery, he was forced to resign. Um, excuse me, but where were those champions of the First Amendment defending Bashir’s right to free speech?  Where were they when the Dixie Chicks were excoriated for speaking out against George W. Bush and the War in Iraq?
Only anti-gay bigots seem to receive that level of support.  Recall in 2012 when it was discovered that the CEO of Chick-fil-A opposed marriage equality and contributed to anti-gay organizations, the pro-equality activists called for a boycott?  Remember how the right wing homophobes responded by staging a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” with all those sympathizers stuffing their mouths with greasy chicken to demonstrate that the gays can’t push them around?

As that event was purportedly a huge success, sympathizers have recently launched a new Facebook page.   They are pushing a national “Chick-Phil-a Day” on January 21 to “stand for free speech and sit for good food” and to encourage support of “two of the biggest brands to have, in recent history, come under fire for sharing an opinion on personal faith-based beliefs:” Chick-fil-A and Phil Robertson. The page urges folks to “wear cam/Duck Commander gear to eat at a Chick-fil-a.”  Note that Chick-fil-A denied coming up with the idea though the chain will reap the rewards.
What these folks are up in arms has little to do with Scripture and free speech.  It has more to do with the right to publically condemn gays for their “sinful” behavior with impunity while society continues to recognize and support LGBT folks, much to the chagrin of Phil’s fans. 


UPDATE: On December 27, A&E reinstated Robertson.  In a statement, A&E said: “So, after discussions with the Robertson family, as well as consulting with numerous advocacy groups, A&E has decided to resume filming Duck Dynasty later this spring with the entire Robertson family.”

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Piano Bar Returns to Grand Central

Matthew Kenwothy at work
Immediately following the multi-vehicle accident in September that sent white paint splattering onto the exterior of Grand Central and damaged the front entrance, owner Don Davis used this opportunity to make extensive renovations to the bar. 
One of the changes was to install a piano bar on the street-level pub side, which made its debut on December 18.
Grand Central, one of the region’s most popular clubs and a fixture in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, had been without a piano bar for 10 years.  When it existed, it was located on an upper level—a steep vertical climb—that now houses the Sappho’s bar.  Don said that following the death of his pianist Carl Barnwell in 2003, there was a succession of pianists who were “not so good, and it was not the same.” The crowd dwindled as a result of those pianists as well as from the formidable stairs leading to the second floor.

Now he feels the time and the new pianist are right. “After all the years of not having a piano, I am real excited to have the piano in the pub,”said  Don.  “And we are so lucky to have a friend and excellent pianist and entertainer to perform here at Grand Central, Matthew Kenworthy.”
Kenworthy, a self taught pianist and vocalist from Richwood, NJ, is no stranger to Baltimore as he performed at Jay’s on Read and other venues.  He has also appeared in New York, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Chicago, D.C., Rehoboth Beach, and just completed a two-year stint at Resorts Casino in Atlantic City.

Matthew performs a broad range of music that caters to a more diverse and demanding audience. He offers selections from nearly any genre from Rock ‘n’ Roll to Broadway, Jazz, Pop, and, of course, the standards.
 “I am more than excited to return to Baltimore’s music scene,” said Matthew.  “In sixteen years of performing, I never had a more warm, supportive, and caring audience as I have in this city. My audience there doesn’t allow for a lack of intimacy; they demand the opposite, and returning to such open arms is just about the best gift I could have imagined for this holiday season.” 

Prior to opening night, Matthew Kenworthy promised, “We are going to sing until they fall over from exhaustion, or cocktails, or both. This I guarantee!”
In front of Grand Central’s packed pub on December 18, Matthew, playing a new piano backed by a solid sound system, made his Baltimore return to enthusiastic cheers.  Starting off with such favorites as “Good Morning, Baltimore,” “New York, New York,” and “Downtown,” he shifted into the Broadway genre with familiar tunes from A Chorus Line, Rent, A Sound of Music, Chicago and others while the audience cheerfully sang along with him. 

An hour into his set, Matthew, donning a Santa hat, pivoted to holiday favorites including “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Jingle Bell Rock.” He has this unique knack of substituting his own personal lyrics in certain numbers giving the performance a naughty edge.
Matthew generously allowed a series of “guest” singers to perform solo numbers to his accompaniment and for the most part they were quite good.

Matthew’s fans and other customers, some wearing Christmas attire, were loving every minute of opening night.  It’s a great show,” said Charles Village resident Gene Fedelli.  “Glad to have him back.”
The crowd on opening night was a bit more mature than one usually sees at Grand Central as piano bars in general have always been a favorite among this demographic.  “As a mature person I feel comfortable,” said Yaz Ali, 45, an immigrant from Somalia and now lives in Baltimore. “The piano player is amazing.  I’m glad to be a part of opening night.”

Some didn’t travel from as far as Africa to partake, but there were several folks from out of town.  Lori and her husband came in from Greencastle, Pa. and knew Matthew from his work in Philadelphia.  “The show is absolutely fabulous as Matthew always is,” she beamed. 
Don Davis stated that the piano bar entertainment will be featured every Wednesday and Sunday, 8 p.m. to Midnight.  “Real soon we will be doing a Jazz night every Thursday from 8 p.m. to Midnight,” he said.

Grand Central is located at 1001 N. Charles St., Baltimore 21201.  For more information, call 410-752-7133 or visit here .

Will Next Year Top 2013?

Clearly significant progress was made in 2013 for many in the LGBT communities.  There were some surprises in the mix that added more shine to an already glossy year.  Coming out revelations, the first openly gay candidate elected to the U.S. Senate, increased popular support for marriage equality, and even a Super Bowl trophy for our beloved Baltimore Ravens were part of this intriguing year.
Immediately after midnight on New Year’s Eve, the tone for the rest of 2013 was already set.  Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, already a proven advocate and supporter for LGBT issues, officiated the first legal same-sex marriage ceremony in Baltimore and was among the first in the state where dozens celebrated their nuptials on that glorious day.

Following that historic occasion, hundreds of other couples in Maryland tied the knot throughout the year, and marriage equality, unfathomable just three years ago, became almost routine.  During Pride, the Mayor officiated the first mass same-sex weddings to loud cheers by hundreds of family members, friends and onlookers.  This joy of marriage equality spread across the country as the year closed with 18 states and D.C. legalizing same-sex marriages.

We also celebrated the announced retirement of state delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr. and the political ruination of fellow homophobe delegate Donald H. Dwyer, Jr. who did little during their terms other than attempt to block progress on LGBT rights.
While delivering the State of the Union Address in January, President Obama became the first president in U.S. history who called for equal rights for gays.  That indicated we had clearly turned the corner in the debate over LGBT rights.  This was followed by a parade of elected and other officials across the country publicly favoring marriage equality.

The biggest news on the marriage front was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in June that struck down Section 3 of DOMA.  By doing so the Court paved the way for the federal government to recognize legally wed same-sex couples, which would, among a plethora of rights and benefits, entitle couples to file taxes jointly and receive such federal benefits as Social Security and veterans pensions.
The U.S. Senate made history with its bipartisan vote on a trans-inclusive ENDA—the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act.  President Obama already said he would immediately sign the bill into law if the House approves it.

Of course, not everything was so rosy.  By a vote of 6-5, the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee struck down SB 449—a measure that would have provided protections in employment, housing and public accommodations on the basis of gender identity or expression—thus killing the bill for the 2013 legislative session.

All things considered and recognizing there is a ton of work to do in the way of HIV/AIDS prevention, LGBT homelessness, transgender non-discrimination at the state level, bullying, hate crimes and other issues, this was a very good year—particularly for gays and lesbians. 
But will 2014 offer reasons for jubilation?  Sadly, no.

We all like to view any New Year through the lens of unfiltered optimism.  I sure do.  But there is that pesky thing called reality that manages to be the skunk at the picnic.  Some years are better than others, but there is little cause for unbridled optimism in 2014.
On the positive side, we will see several new states join in the marriage equality parade.  New Mexico, Oregon even Pennsylvania and Ohio could legalize same-sex marriage through various means.  Certainly, the Supreme Court ruling has provided clarity and precedence for future discrimination cases brought before lower courts.  This could be a major story.

On the other side of the ledger ENDA most assuredly will not be brought up during 2014, not with elections taking place in November and Republican incumbents fear of being “primaried” for not being more like the Tea Party voters. Still kowtowing to that faction, Speaker John Boehner said he will not allow a vote (even though head counters say it would pass) because there is “no basis or need” for federal employment nondiscrimination protections.
At the state level, transgender non-discrimination legislation is not likely either given that it’s an election year.  This looks like it would have to wait until 2015 when the chances for passage would seem brighter.  With a shift in the make-up of the Judicial Proceedings Committee by Senate President Miller or one of the members changing his/her mind, the bill could get through and pass in both chambers.  A targeted strategy directed towards the JPR and/or Miller is really what’s needed to make the bill a law.  But again, being an election year complicates matters.

The upcoming year should not be totally dismal for LGBT folks because so much could happen either way.  Nonetheless, progress on key issues will be stalled.  There were surprises in 2013 and we could see some more—good or bad—this time around.
One thing I believe will occur is that there will be interesting developments in at least one major LGBT organization in 2014.  Stay tuned, and have a Happy New Year.

Monday, December 09, 2013

ENDA the Line for the GOP?

John Boehner's reluctance to bring up ENDA will hurt GOP
Republican strategist Mike Murphy was practically giddy in his recent commentary in TIME magazine.  The title said it all--“A GOP Jackpot: The Obamacare mess is an unexpected gift—but can the Republicans seize the moment?”  After the Republicans have been out of the White House since 2009, Murphy, known for his snarky sarcasm and rapid-fire speech syntax when he is a panelist on news shows, strongly believes the bumbled rollout of the Affordable Care Act and other concerns about the law will pave the way for the GOP to not only retain control of the House of Representatives, but also regain control of the Senate in 2014 and ultimately take back the White House in 2016.
Keep dreaming, Mike.

One thing we learned from the 2012 elections is that the Republican Party is going to have to shift gears in a big way to appeal to an electorate that is steadily becoming younger, less white, more empathetic towards women’s issues, and more accepting of marriage equality and LGBT rights in general.  Party leaders held a post mortem following President Obama’s decisive victory over Romney and agreed that with changing demographics, the GOP needs to change its thinking and policies accordingly or they will be relegated to wilderness status despite the gerrymandering that will keep them in control of the House for a good number of years.
Therein lies the problem for the Party of Lincoln: the House of Representatives.  With its historic lack of productivity these past few years and record-breaking low approval ratings, the GOP-controlled House is a major drag on the Party brand.  You can toss in the increasingly unpopular tea party contingent, the generally unlikable and weak Speaker of the House, John Boehner, the brinkmanship tactics that shut down the federal government and almost threw the country’s creditworthiness over the cliff, one can see the red flags facing the Republicans.

The tea party faction has been the root of the problem.  Their take no prisoners ideology supersedes common sense governance, and compromise is a dirty word—akin to (gasp!) raising taxes on the very wealthy one percent of the population.  Mr. Boehner is beholden to this group lest there be an uprising within the Party whereby he would experience the humiliating process of being replaced.  His better political instincts have been held in check by this fear, and the country as well as the GOP has suffered.
Despite polling that suggests that a majority of Americans support passage of an Immigration reform bill, it’s stalled in the House.  In addition, failure to enact a Farm bill because of the tea party’s opposition to the food stamp program could result in Americans paying $8 per gallon of milk soon.  There is also the potential that in the coming weeks another budget impasse will result in yet another government shutdown and perhaps a failure to extend the debt ceiling.  These aren’t exactly items that Mike Murphy should crow about.

And then there’s ENDA—the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act that has been languishing in Congress since forever, it seems.  A comprehensive bill that would protect LGBT folks in employment (with the obligatory exclusions for religious organizations) has received increasing support among voters over the years.  So much so that the U.S. Senate easily passed the measure last month on yes, a bipartisan basis.  Nobody openly favors discrimination so that people lose their jobs, fail to get hired or fail to be promoted based solely on whom they love or how they see themselves. Right?
So, here you go, GOP.  Pass the bill so it is signed into law.  Demonstrate you’re not the homophobic lot we think you are and show the world that finally you can take that one step forward you’ve been urged to do so that you may possibly be electable once again.

Nah.  That same Mr. Boehner won’t have it.  It’s not needed, he says.  It would result in “frivolous litigation in the employment area.”  Never mind a law always has an enforcement mechanism, but the Speaker of the House seems to have forgotten that critical component of legislation.
Earlier this month ten members of Congress—five from each party—sent a letter to the recalcitrant Speaker.  “Job discrimination against any American creates an uneven playing field that runs contrary to the basic notion of equality and our economic efficiency,” the lawmakers wrote. “What matters most is not that we share the exact same beliefs as our co-workers or employees, but that we take pride in our work, respect our co-workers and customers, and get the job done.”

There are 201 co-sponsors of the bill, and observers believe there are enough votes to gain passage.  But Mr. Boehner remains stuck in this fear-the-tea-party mode and so far, is opposed to bringing it to the floor.  Most polls are showing that at least 70 percent of Americans nationally favor such legislation.  More importantly to Representatives, a majority exists in each of the 50 states and most who identify as Republican back it as well.  This measure should fly given the level of popular support it receives.
A coalition of the logical should put pressure on Mr. Boehner to almost embarrass him to bring the legislation to a vote.  His refusal to see the light on this issue in addition to the other antics of the GOP-controlled House could very well make the Republican Party virtually irrelevant in national elections for years to come.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

A Labor of Love: A Silver Anniversary Cabaret

A joyous, tuneful 25th anniversary cabaret called A Labor of Love took place at the Smith Theatre of the Howard Community College Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center on December 2, 2013.  As in past years, all the money raised will support an Emergency AIDS Fund, by the Howard County Health Alliance. Some of the money will be given to the Howard County Healthy Families fund that helps individuals living with HIV/AIDS, or those at risk, meet their daily needs.  The event also celebrates those people who have worked towards the cause since its inception. 
World AIDS Day is usually commemorated on December 1, but since that day fell on a Sunday, events are also celebrated on the 2nd as was this one.  Significant news emerged on this day as President Obama announced that the National Institutes of Health plans to redirect AIDS research funds to expand support for research directed toward a cure for HIV. NIH plans to invest an additional $100 million over the next three fiscal years on this increasingly promising area of HIV/AIDS research.

A Labor of Love began in 1988 when too many young entertainers from the theatre community were being lost to the scourge of AIDS.  Through improved medication and treatment, a significant number of people living with HIV have been able to extend their lives.  But with tens of millions with HIV, clearly the job is not completed. 
A Labor of Love creator Carolyn Kelemen and other organizers of the event acknowledged the job is not over and hoped that someday there would no need to hold such fundraisers. This one was masterful.

Director Carole Graham Lehan, with artistic support from Toby Orenstein, founding director of Toby’s Dinner Theatre, and Jenny Male, who is coordinator of musical theater at Howard Community College, put together this cabaret themed “A Homecoming.” A large roster of professional performers from Hollywood to New York as well as local artists combined with the deft piano artistry of Patty Hammer, who, along with others in the ensemble had been part of this event from the beginning, put on an outstanding show.  All volunteered their talents for this event.
You knew you were in for a treat from the get-go when Mike Tillford backed-up by several vocalists who appeared later in the revue covered the Turtles’ big 1967 hit single “Happy Together.”  Mr. Tillford then continued on as a smooth, jovial emcee, introducing the remaining 18 acts.

Performing a wide array of music but with a solid Broadway presence, every one of these performances was stellar, but some should be highlighted as exceptional.  The Young Columbians, a musical ensemble founded by Toby Orenstein in 1975, keeps regenerating through the years and have performed at such venues as the White House and Disneyworld, soared with a medley of well-known Broadway show stoppers with some singing solos and others participating in group numbers. 

Winner of the 2012 Catch a Rising Star competition that seems to always discover new local talent, the always radiant Samantha McEwan delivered a smooth, soulful rendition of “I Got it Bad.”
Broadway performer Ric Ryder, who resides in New York City, explained a very personal connection to friends who died from AIDS.  With outstanding vocals, he proceeded to sing “Somedays.”

Delores King Williams performed the Broadway standard, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” followed by a stirring rendition of “Summertime” by Patty Hammer who sang at her piano along with Rick Aspel.  Mr. Aspel was excellent on the horn later on during the “Boogie Woogie” number.
Larry Friedman was the front man for a rousing version of the Mamas and Papas classic hit “California Dreamin’” with about nine other back-ups.  He later performed in “This is the Army, Mr. Jones” and “Grateful.”  In the latter song, Mr. Friedman was accompanied by the graceful dancing of Charlie Abel and Elaine McHale. Mr. Friedman has a magical tenor voice that is simply amazing.  He reminds me of a young Michael Crawford; his voice is that good.

Robin Baxter presented perhaps the most unique act in this cabaret: a very emotional, intense version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” with Hippie Lou on guitar.  There isn’t a note too high for Ms. Baxter’s voice to reach.  This was followed by Patrick Prebula singing “Why?” from Tick Tock Boom.
Betsy True performed an original light-hearted novelty song “Paper or Plastic.”  Broadway performer Alan Wiggins did a nice job with “They Live in You” from The Lion King.

A wonderful duet from Maria Rizzo and the cabaret’s director Carole Graham Lehan performed the medley “Get Happy/Happy Days.”
The ninety-minute show ended up with “All Good Gifts” led by Ray Hatch backed up by the company. 

Other performers included Betsy True, Tico Wells, Mark Staggers, Carol Tilford, Cathy Mays, Danny Mays, Laura Fetters, Janelle Broderick,  Grace Anastasiadis, Santina Maiolatesi, Kurt Boehm, Bill Diggle, and Maria Egler.
While the audience cheered loudly throughout this high-quality cabaret, the real winners of this benefit are the folks in Howard County living with AIDS and receiving the daily necessities to keep on living until that elusive cure can be found.


Monday, November 25, 2013

'Into the Woods' You Should Go

Photo: Ken Stanek Photography
I was a little skeptical that the intimate, in-the-round stage at the Spotlighters Theatre would be able to do justice to the action-packed musical production Into the Woods. Failing to learn from the past, I always had those misplaced reservations when Spotlighters ambitiously tackles a grand splashy musical only to discover the creative team and performers manage to pull it off and then some.  The same trepidation I had for Into the Woods going in, with 17 cast members wearing over 100 costumes, singing over three dozen songs, numerous scene changes and the like, was put to rest quickly as Director Fuzz Roark with a fine ensemble and crew delivered a delightful and thoroughly entertaining production.
Into the Woods, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, is a multiple Tony Award winner. The show opened on Broadway in 1987 and ran for 765 performances. Sondheim had won eight Tony awards in his prolific career–more than any other composer.

As kids we all remember those fairy tales where the characters lived happily ever after. With the Spotlighters’ presentation of Into the Woods, we get to enjoy four such fairy tales—“Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Rapunzel.” Their plots are interwoven and linked with the original story of the Baker and his Wife in this magical, entertaining, and sometimes dark musical that confronts real issues found in adulthood, not necessarily childhood.

For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Charming Little 'Miracle at Toby's

Photos: Kirstine Christiansen

Right on cue for the holidays, Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia is presenting Miracle on 34th Street—not the black and white classic Christmas  movie from 1947 shown every December on television but a live, sweet musical adaptation in living color.  Miracle on 34th Street, whose book, music and lyrics were penned by Meredith Willson of The Music Man and The Unsinkable Molly Brown fame, debuted on Broadway in 1963 under the title Here’s Love.
No one will confuse the music in Miracle with the richness of the score in The Music Man or even recent productions at Toby’s, such as Les Mis and Fiddler as few of the numbers in this one are memorable, save for “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas,” a holiday favorite.  But the strength of Miracle on 34th Street and the reason people should buy tickets the sooner the better rests with its charming and tender family-oriented storyline and the outstanding performances by the cast as well as the work of creative team under the guidance of Director Shawn Kettering and Musical Director Douglas Lawler.

The holiday atmospherics are certainly in place: Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins constructed a nice Christmas-themed set with trees all around on walls and other fine touches added to the ambience.  He employs several small video screens on the side of the theater to show black and white footage of a Thanksgiving parade to coincide with the live action of the show-opening parade on stage.  It worked well. The sleigh on wheels that Santa occupies is gorgeous.  And it wouldn’t be a Christmas show without snow.
Set in New York City before and after Thanksgiving in the late 1940s, the story focuses on a white-bearded man named Kris Kringle (played superbly by Robert Biedermann125) who claims to be the real Santa Claus.  He brings about a genuine “Miracle on 34th Street,” spreading good cheer and good will among men throughout New York City, encouraging camaraderie between the arch-rival department stores Macy’s and Gimbel’s, and convincing a divorced, cynical single mother, Doris Walker (Heather Marie Beck), her daughter Susan Walker (played on the night the show was reviewed by the too-cute-for-words Ella Boodin) that Santa Claus is no myth.

Skeptics saw otherwise, and poor Kris Kringle had to appear before a stern Judge (very well played by David Bosley-Reynolds) at a hearing in New York State Supreme Court to determine if he should be committed.
As these events unfold, Doris finds her neighbor Fred Gaily (Jeffrey Shankle) an ex-Marine and inexperienced lawyer who develops a father-daughter bond with Susan, falls for Doris and eventually represents Kris Kringle at the hearing, leading to a lovely conclusion.
Mr. Shankle clearly brought his “A-game” to this production.  In terrific tuneful voice, he performs “My Wish,” with Ms. Beck and is simply stellar in his solo “Look, Little Girl.”  The veteran actor portrays his role flawlessly and with ease, turning in a wonderful performance.

Garnering the best ovation of the night was young Ella Boodin as Susan who alternates with Sadie Herman during the run.  Never missing a line, never missing a cue, never missing a note or a step, adorable Ella,(who played young Cosette in Toby’s presentation of Les MisĂ©rables, showed the audience that she definitely has a bright future in musical theatre.

Not quite as young as Ella but always excellent is Toby’s mainstay Lawrence B. Munsey as R.H. Macy, the owner of the department store. Commanding on stage and with his strong baritone, Mr. Munsey excels in “That Man Over There”—a highlight number during the courtroom scene, which in itself, is a highlight in the show. 
Mr. Munsey’s propensity to master his role in a Toby’s musical is consistent and reliable, but he also takes on other duties, such as costume designer and did so in Miracle.   Authentic 1940’s suits and dresses as well as Santa outfits were donned by the cast lending a realistic visual to this enchanting production. 

As Doris, Heather Marie Beck was suitably cast and delivered a pretty solid performance.  Her vocals were good in such numbers as “You Don’t Know” and “Love, Come Take Me Again.”

Veteran performer Robert John Biedermann 125 excels as Kris Kringle.  He adroitly exhibits the sweetness and kindness that all children believe Santa to be.  Everybody rooted for him.
Other notable cast members are Darren McDonnell as Marvin Shellhammer and Will Emory as Mr. Sawyer.  Also David James, David Little and Nick Lehan performed very well.

In fact, the entire ensemble including some little children chipped in with proficient singing, dancing and acting.  The number “Here’s Love” brought out some dexterous footwork under the direction of choreographer Mark Minnick.
It is noteworthy that the charm of the production is representative in many of the elements that are true to the time period—from costumes to props including a 1940’s telephone.  On the other hand, there was no attempt to scrub the sexist language in the dialogue and song lyrics, such as the term “little girl” as conveyed to an adult woman.  Some in the audience were taken aback.

The myriad scene changes had to be executed swiftly especially in the in-the-round venue of Toby’s.  Most of the time it works but on occasion there is some overlapping between scenes, which could be a bit distracting.  But that is a minor quibble.
As stated earlier, the music does not leave one humming exiting the theater.  But the vocalists who performed them and Douglas Lawler’s six-piece orchestra (Mr. Lawler rotates with Pamela Wilt) backing them up does justice to the rather bland melodies.

Miracle on 34th Street is highly recommended.  Strong performances and attractive visuals plus a mighty charming story (and a great buffet) make this a seasonal must-see, which will be enjoyed by the young and the young at heart.
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.
Miracle on 34th Street runs through January 5, 2014 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 410-730-8311or visiting online.

Monday, November 18, 2013

‘The King and I’ at Olney is Worth Getting to Know, etc., etc., etc.

Photos: Stan Barough
The classic musical Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I concludes the Olney Theatre Center’s memorable 75th season, and under the direction of Mark Waldrop, this rendition is clearly worth seeing. Based on the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Lan, the original production opened on Broadway in 1951 and spawned countless revivals, national tours plus a hit movie, garnering bushels full of awards and accolades along the journey.  It is arguably one of the most popular musicals of all time.  
Set in 1862 Siam (the former name of Thailand), The King and I tells the true moving account of a young English widow Anna Leonowens and her son Louis who travel to tutor the King’s many children and tries to open their eyes to a world beyond Siam. While there, she encounters an unfamiliar world full of majestic beauty, but seemingly stifled by Old World traditions.  

Anna finds the King to be rigid beyond imagination, authoritative, and demanding that all his subjects including his multiple wives and children kowtow to him so that their heads must not rise above his even if it means they lay face down on the floor to bow.  He also reflects 19th century attitudes towards women to the point where he cannot bring himself to obtain advice from them.
As the King (based on the actual King Mongkut) eventually decides how to bring his country into a new age and resist the charge that he is a barbarian, a reputation that provokes English leaders to consider taking over Siam as a protectorate, he and Anna begin to see beyond traditions and prejudices into what makes people special and what makes a man a true king.

Embedded within the production is the play “Small House of Uncle Thomas” that is performed to impress the visiting representative from the British government who visits Siam to evaluate the situation.  With its strong anti-slavery message, the play, fittingly narrated by the Burmese slave Tuptim (played by Yoonjeong Seong), is presented in a Siamese ballet-inspired dance that is performed beautifully onstage. 
The thrust of the production, however, centers on the up and down relationship that is forming between Anna (Eileen Ward) and the King (Paulo Montalban), and that’s where The King and I flourishes. 

I can’t help but connect this storyline to another Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece: The Sound of Music, produced eight years later.  It contained similar themes, in that a woman invited by an authoritative father to take care of his adorable brood, became disrespected by the despotic master of the house and then grows closer to him with a changing world as a backdrop and a brilliant score to tell the story.  As in the case of The Sound of Music, The King and I is immortal.
A stunningly vivid mounting of this musical at Olney is amplified by outstanding acting and vocals, Broadway-caliber sets and costumes and flawless orchestration.  Directed by Mark Waldrop who helmed such excellent productions at Olney as Annie, The Sound of Music, and Little Shop of Horrors, the leads and ensemble charm you to pieces while one memorable song after another from the lush Rodgers and Hammerstein score keeps you humming.

In this production, Paolo Montalban stars as the King of Siam. While he is best known for playing the Prince in the ABC/Disney TV movie, Cinderella, Mr. Montalban’s credits also include other Broadway productions, such as the role of Lun Tha in the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of The King and I as well as various television and movie roles.
Here he is as much king of the stage as the king he portrayed.  Demonstrating a powerful, authoritative speaking voice throughout, he masterfully galvanized the plot.  His clenched fists resting on his hips and his darting paces and movements onstage, Mr. Montalban is a commanding force and is reminiscent of the iconic poses that made Yul Brynner so endearing to audiences.

Eileen Ward as Anna is equally brilliant as the King’s foil. Exhibiting a wide range of emotions throughout, from tranquility and kindness to resignation to determination to utter anger then ultimately love, Ms. Ward was the perfect complement to Mr. Montalban’s King.
Paolo Montalban (as The King) and Eileen Ward (as Anna) 
As strong as her acting is, Ms. Ward’s musical performances soar even higher.  Demonstrating a potent soprano voice, she performs those classic songs in the score with the ease that can only emanate from a talented vocalist.  “I Whistle a Happy Tune”, “Hello Young Lovers”, and the very popular song “Getting to Know You”, the latter sung to the cute children, were delivered beautifully.  And, of course, the magnificent upbeat number “Shall We Dance?” in the second act with both Ms. Ward and Mr. Montalban gliding around the palace’s big room is undeniably memorable.

Angry that the King broke his promise to allow Anna and her son Louis (played by Henry Niepoetter in this reviewed performance) to live in their own house rather than in the palace, Ms. Ward effectively displays the appropriate amount of vexation in “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You”—still hitting each note perfectly while enraged.  That’s no small trick.
Another standout is YoonJeong Seong as Tuptim who is a slave brought from nearby Burma to be one of the King’s junior wives.  Petite as she may be, she commands a big soprano voice demonstrated in “My Lord and Master” and “I Have Dreamed”—a duet with her secret love, Lun Tha, played effectively by Eymard Cabling.  But Ms. Seong’s heart-wrenching duet with Mr. Cabling in “We Kiss in a Shadow” is guaranteed to dampen your eyes a bit.  Their love, secretive and pure, sadly does not end well.

The remainder of the cast and ensemble are exemplary.  Notably among them are Alan Ariano as The Kralahome who is the King’s Prime Ministrer, Ron Heneghan playing the dual roles of Captain Orton and Sir Edward, Janine Sunday as Lady Thiang, the King’s chief wife and who excels in the song “Something Wonderful” and young Josiah Segui who plays Prince Chulalongkorn, the heir to the throne.  Also, the graceful Rumi Oyama who plays Eliza in the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet is excellent.
Overall, the performers deserve the highest of marks for their acting, singing and dancing (choreographed expertly by Tara Jeanne Vallee) as does the outstanding nine-piece orchestra led by conductor Jenny Cartney.

Although at times the sound during dialogues appeared to be uneven from the mic’d performers, (and that I hope that this minor problem will be resolved as the show progresses through its run), the creative team is stellar.
Veteran scenic designer James Fouchard did a masterful job in creating a gorgeous palatial set, complete with arches and columns to add depth, marble-like tile floors and oriental screens for scene changes.  The lighting effects, designed by Dan Covey, amplify the elegant staging.

And among the show’s highlights are the dazzling costumes designed by Kendra Rai, making her Olney debut.  The cast and ensemble were fitted in staggeringly colorful and detailed period Southeast Asian attire, adding to the magnificent visual aspects of the production. 
The King and I at Olney is an outstanding iteration of this iconic musical, and the theatre’s 75th season is punctuated by a triumphant production.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

The King and I plays through December 29 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, MD 20832.  To purchase tickets, click here or call 301-924-3400.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Cheap Shot at Gansler

Letter Published in Nov. 15, 2013 Baltimore Sun

Susan L. Burke’s letter that links Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler to enabling the culture leading to the horrible proliferation of rapes and sexual assaults  in our society is a cheap shot if I ever saw one (“Gansler’s comments reflect ‘boys will be boys’ culture, Nov. 12). 
Moreover she also besmirched the reputation of the Landon school solely because convicted murder George Huguely had attended it and a few morons maintained a “fantasy sex league”.  And by extension because Gansler’s son attended that school,  she implied he should be associated with those rotten apples.

It is outrageous that an attorney such as Ms. Burke, who understandably feels compassion towards the victims she represents and animus towards the assailants, would paint with such broad strokes on a “guilt by association” canvas.

I have  viewed a video from the point in that much-publicized party when Mr. Gansler entered the room.  From my perspective there was no definitive evidence of underage drinking going on at that particular instance; all I can determine was a bunch of kids dancing and having a good time.  It certainly wasn’t “blatant” as Ms. Burke states.

Granted ,some of those present acknowledged that drinking did occur prior to Mr. Gansler’s entrance.  But there were at least two adult chaperones present prior to Mr. Gansler’s arrival, so it would be their responsibility to exercise adult authority if such offenses occurred in front of them. 

Ms. Burke is correct in that there is a “boys will be boys” culture.  It is quite evident when parents of pre-teens and teens resist stronger measures that would curtail, if not eliminate, bullying in schools.
As we have observed, bullying whether in person, in social media or by text, has led to tragic consequences.  Don’t blame that on Mr. Gansler, too; in fact, he has made concerted efforts to stop bullying.

Steve Charing
Ckarkvissle, Md.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

One Year after Question 6: Revisiting, Not Revising History

Almost a year after Maryland voters upheld the law allowing same-sex marriage, there was the expected amount of celebrating at the recent back-slapping, self-congratulatory love-fest called the Equality Maryland 25th Anniversary Brunch. That victory at the ballot box deservedly was the centerpiece.
Equality Maryland’s executive director, Carrie Evans, gave a speech using a curious “House of Cards” theme in thanking virtually everybody who had been involved with the organization over the past quarter century and in the process made some interesting comments.  Evans thanked the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) for not pulling funding from the campaign in 2012 and declared that “without HRC we would not have won,” suggesting that HRC was merely a funder. 

There are two elements in play.  First, the pulled funding comment was a not-so-subtle swipe at Freedom to Marry, who had contributed needed dollars to the other statewide battles for marriage equality but had bypassed Maryland in the early stages.  The organization’s founder and director Evan Wolfson told me that it was a myth that they pulled funding from the cause.  “We never pulled out,” he emphasized.  “We never jumped in.” 
The reason was their belief that under the leadership of the campaign (Marylanders for Marriage Equality), he did not think Maryland would be successful at the ballot box and instead provided resources to the other states.  They later chipped in, however, with some $200,000 as the Maryland campaign’s end neared and confidence grew.

The other aspect of Evans’ comment about HRC’s role requires more examination.  During the festivities, the focus was rightfully about Equality Maryland but gave the impression Equality Maryland led the battle.  At one time, yes.
In celebrating its achievements, Equality Maryland should have really been rejoicing over the fact they are living to fight another day.  Shortly after the debacle in the General Assembly in 2011 where a plausible victory on marriage equality was deep-sixed in the House of Delegates from insufficient support, Equality Maryland imploded.  Its financial foundation was cracking, leaving the organization in near ruin.  The controversial, less-than-elegant dismissal of the executive director, the abrupt departure of its fundraising director, and a major shake-up of the board, left the organization in shambles in terms of finances and confidence—a dark point in their history that was conspicuously absent from Evans’ remarks. 

Following the successful initiative by marriage equality opponents to have the law voted on by referendum during the 2012 election, Equality Maryland was in no position, despite a new executive director and board in place, to carry out the fight that had been heretofore unsuccessful in every state where the voters were given the chance to decide on the issue.
In need of a victory of its own to tout and assessing the weakness in Equality Maryland at the time, HRC, with its ample resources, fundraising apparatus and personnel, seized the reins to lead the referendum battle, which eventually was termed “Question 6”.  It had already begun by assuming control of the lobbying efforts during the year’s legislative session.

To broaden its appeal, HRC formed a “coalition” of partners that consisted of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, Equality Maryland, the ACLU of Maryland, and various unions, clergy, and other progressive organizations.  Equality Maryland was only one of these “partnering” organizations, not the one driving the campaign.
Although critics have characterized the lesser members of the coalition as “window dressing”, they did have roles to fill and Equality Maryland made significant contributions.  Most importantly, Equality Maryland raised a good chunk of money using their brand, damaged as it was, and donated to the campaign.  Moreover, they helped recruit volunteers for the field operations.

But make no mistake, it was HRC’s show under the banner of Marylanders for Marriage Equality.  Even with the larger, richer organization at the helm, it was no smooth ride.  An insider with the campaign confided that Governor O’Malley, the chief lobbyist during the General Assembly to get the bill passed in both houses and a noteworthy fundraiser throughout, was “not happy” with the way the campaign was being run.  And he was particularly miffed that fundraising targets were not being met according to pre-determined timelines. Later, Delegate Maggie McIntosh was reported to have stepped in to handle decision-making in the organization.
Undeniably, Marylanders for Marriage Equality got off to a rocky start.  In April 2012, they brought in a political strategist, Josh Levin, to be the campaign manager.  But field operations were slow to develop, TV spots were not aired early on, and many activists were getting antsy over the delays. 

The announcements by President Obama and the national NAACP as well as other prominent officials in support of marriage equality gave the campaign a needed shot in the arm.  Outstanding television advertising ultimately was effective in combating the lies created by the opposition that had been so successful in California and other states.
A bit of luck also played in the Question 6 supporters’ favor.  Political observers believed that the decisive money edge to marriage equality proponents can be attributed to the Church of the Latter Day Saints’ desire not to get deeply involved that year as they had previously in California and Maine and become a focus of controversy during the Mormon Mitt Romney’s run for president.  In addition, much of the available TV advertising space was blocked largely by the moneyed casino interests on both sides of the issue, thus preventing the scare tactics from gaining traction.

All things considered, the victory a year ago was a team effort that was led by HRC through the auspices of Marylanders for Marriage Equality though no one entity deserves sole credit.  Everyone involved from donors to volunteers to the LGBT caucus in the legislature to the leadership of the Governor to the voters themselves should share in the historic victory.  And the rainbow gods, providing some good fortune, smiled on us as well.

Monday, November 11, 2013

'Breaking the Code' at the Kossiakoff Center (APL)

Cast of Breaking the Code
It is so fitting that a play about the British cryptanalyst and trailblazing mathematician, Alan Turing,  who shortened World War II by breaking Hitler’s U-boat Enigma codes and is considered the “father of the computer” would be performed on the campus of the science-oriented Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).   

Also fitting is that Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore and based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, is being presented by APL Allies in the Workplace—an APL employee group that advocates for a non-discriminatory and diverse working environment, specifically for issues of importance to LGBT community and supporters.  For as much as Turing was a favorite of Winston Churchill because of his mathematical genius in heroically helping Britain during World War II, he was a homosexual—and unashamedly so—during a point in time when such behavior was deemed illegal.

For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

UPDATE: The Queen pardons Turing