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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Lazaro Haters Are Missing the Point

With the elimination of Devin Velez on March 28's American Idol, the blogosphere has lit up with "why hasn't Lazaro been eliminated yet?" mantra.  People opine that Lazaro Arbos is not a top-notch vocalist (in fact, many say he's horrible), there are better singers than him who have been eliminated, and that American Idol is a singing competition whereby only the best singer should win the title or at least advance to the finals. 

They also argue that Lazaro's success so far in avoiding eleimination is attributable to "the cute factor" and "the pity vote" ostensibly because of his severe speech impediment and his penchant to shed a tear or two when things don't go right for him.

These folks are completely missing the point.

American Idol does bill itself as a singing competition.  However, the real purpose of the show is to find a new artist who is popular and potentially successful commercially.  That's what it is all about: to discover someone who can sell records and make record producers, songwriters and studios even richer than they are.

The idea that Elvis Presley was technically the very best singer in America for three decades is laughable.  That The Beatles were the best vocalists technically in the world is also comical.  They weren't, and they even knew that.  The true great singers in this world are not being discovered and hence, do not have huge careers in commercial music.

What these superstars had was a unique ability to record a song with sufficient studio assistance to amplify their vocals and cover up any weaknesses and perform in such a way that girls from all over--the ones who drive the record industry--would go nuts over them. 

In essence, that is what American Idol is seeking: "the wow factor. " The winners of this so-called singing competition with a few exceptions had lesser careers so far than those who failed to make it to the top.  Clay Aiken, David Archuleta, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, Adam Lambert and others did not win the competition outright and were better vocalists than the ones who had won.   Yet they have launched successful recording careers.  But David Cook, Lee DeWyze, Kris Allen and Taylor Hicks did win.  Where are they today?

So how valid is the voting that allows up to 50 votes per person?  If this is, in fact, a pure singing competition that ignores the popular appeal of the contestant no matter the reason, then only qualified judges should decide the outcome and leave the viewers out of the selection process.  Of course, that would negatively impact ratings and advertising dollars.

To suggest that Lazaro Arbos has survived the Top 7 because of sympathy or his appeal to young tweens is not incorrect.  But it is exactly what the producers are looking for--a popular artist who can sell records.  With coaching and professional handling, Lazaro could be successful in the industry given that he already is popular in key demographic blocs.   See: Justin Bieber. 

These fans have been completely loyal to Lazaro.  How long that loyalty will hold out is speculative.  But  denouncing him because he is not a great singer completely misses the point of the show. hocoblogs@@@

Monday, March 18, 2013

'American Idol’s' Lazaro Inspires Us All

In what has been shaping up as a rather ho-hum 12th season for the hit TV show American Idol, one narrative stood out early on and appears to be holding.  It’s the back story surrounding Lazaro Arbos, the utterly adorable 21 year-old ice cream scooper who has made it to the Top 9 despite a severe stuttering problem. 

During the course of the series’ run there have been plenty of sob stories related to particular contestant’s health, finances, family and loss.  These emotional stories may have helped individuals advance in the short run and have endowed those auditioning for a record contract and fame with real humanity.
For some reason, Lazaro’s courageous attempt to overcome his speech impediment through song has inspired not only those who are afflicted with the condition but the viewing public in general.  Moreover, he inspires those young students who have been shunned by other kids or even bullied.

Lazaro was born in Cuba and developed the stuttering problem at the age of 6.  His family moved to Naples, Florida when he was 10, and instead of the problem subsiding, it grew worse.  His parents sought treatment but to no avail.  So when Lazaro appeared in Chicago for the first audition of this season in January, he captured the hearts of America.
At the audition, when introducing himself to the judges, Lazaro struggled to get the words out.  The judges were sympathetic but seemed a tad uncomfortable.  Then he applied his rich, sweet voice to the Grammy Award-winning “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and wowed the judges not only with his solid rendition of the mega-hit but also the fact his stuttering vanishes when singing.

The Idol interview shown during this segment tugged at our hearts.  “No one wanted to hang out with me in school because I had no friends to go out with, so I had to stay home,” Lazaro confided as his voice was shaking and tears filling his eyes.  I’m pretty certain the viewers’ eyes filled up as well.
Realizing that he was always alone, Lazaro turned to music.  Even his Mom told him to “sing it to me” when he needed to say something to her but couldn’t get the spoken words out. 

His stuttering pushed him into the job of ice cream scooper following his 2009 Gulf Coast High School graduation.  “It’s the only job I can get where I don't have to do ‘smart people’ stuff like talking.” Lazaro points out.

It is not clear if Lazaro was ever overtly bullied in school but he was shunned, which is a form of bullying.  When kids continue to taunt or bully other kids based on the child’s race or religion, or for being overweight, having acne, wearing glasses or braces, being short, or being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, it is not a stretch to believe Lazaro was bullied because of his severe stuttering. 

As we know, bullying (including cyberbullying) has led to too many suicides among teens or pre-teens.  It has even led to mass killings when the victim’s back is against the wall.  Statistics indicate that LGBT kids are the most common victims of bullying. People are becoming more aware of the effects of bullying and action, albeit insufficient in most cases, is being taken. 
Lazaro’s story is inspirational and should bring more awareness to bullying.  He makes other people feel good through his talent and courage.  I know he has attracted a large following that includes gay fans, which has helped propel him to advance as of the March 14 results show to the Top 9.  In fact, decked out in splendid South Beach-like pastels that remind me of a front man of a swing band,  Lazaro was ranked 4th that week and received the highest number of “votes” of all the male performers.

When asked about his success so far, Lazaro was direct. “I loved the reaction towards me, I loved that they loved me for what I love, so that is the most amazing thing,” he told the Hollywood Reporter about being selected as a Top 10 finalist.
With the female talent so formidable this season, it is unlikely Lazaro will be the next American Idol. His singing is solid but may not be sufficient to topple Candice, Angie and other strong vocalists.  But American Idol is a popularity contest and voting is propelled by tweens using cell phones to vote dozens of times for the contestant of choice.  Therefore, who knows what the outcome will be?  Lazaro already said his goal is to make the Top 5 so he can receive a trip to Disneyworld.

For all the gay kids and others who have been victims of bullying or simply cast off by others in school, take heart.  Lazaro Arbos is your new champion and your next American Idol regardless of the official results.  He stood there in front of a camera on a widely watched television program and bared his soul to all.  He displays his talent undeterred by his speech impediment and admitted his sad loneliness in school.
And to his detractors who avoided him and kept him lonely even though he had no control over his condition, Lazaro is too modest and sweet to say it, but I will:  “Look at me now, you ________ (fill in the blank).  I’m on national television and could very well come away with a record and/or book deal.  Where are you now in your life?”

[UPDATE - March 21: Lazaro survived the judges' bashing of his March 20 performance ("In My Life") as well as Jimmy Iovine's statement that he was "the bottom of the bunch" and "by far the worst singer of the night" to advance.  In this contest, it's the voting public that counts more than the judges' evaluations.]

[UPDATE - March 28: Again, Lazaro survived the night after singing Stevie Wonder's "For Once in My Life."  The judges said he was much better than last week but it came off as a backhanded compliment.  On Results Night, Jimmy Iovine predicted (incorrectly) that Lazaro will be sent home.  Devin did instead after an emotional "save" performance of "It's Impossible."  That was an apt title as the judges will not save anyone until there are 5 or 6 contestants remaining.  Meanwhile, Lazaro lives to sing another night in the final 7.]

[UPDATE - April 4:  Lazaro stunned the "experts" by landing in the Top 3 this week after last week's Bottom 2 finish.  the night before he covered Queen's "We Are the Champions" and did not get reamed by the judges this time (Jimmy, yes, as for the 2nd consecutive week his prediction of a Lazaro defeat went unfulfilled).  In fact, Randy sort of apologized (seemingly aware of the blogosphere's blasting Lazaro) when he said, "I gotta call 'em as I see 'em" when he said that Lazaro's performance was better than the previous week.  The young fellow is the last man standing of the final 6.  Nobody would have predicted that.  I beleive next week is the last opportunity for the judges to save someone--an option they would most certainly have to use even if it is Lazaro or the season would be finished a week too early.  It's an interesting dynamic and a conundrum for the producers as well as the judges.]

[UPDATE - April 11:  The journey ends.  After two dismal performances the night before, the legions in Lazaro Nation were not enough to prevent the inevitable--much to the relief of Jimmy Iovine, the judges and the producers of FOX who saw his remaining while others were eliminated as a farce.  Good luck Lazaro, whatever you decide to do.  You took the pounding better than most would have.]

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Everyman Offers Laughter and 'Carnage'

Photo: Stan Barough

Deborah Hazlett as Veronica, Christopher Bloch as Michael, Megan Anderson as Annette and Tim Getman as Alan
The story of God of Carnage starts before the play begins with a pair of 11 year-old schoolboys involved in a playground altercation with one of them using a stick to knock out two teeth of the other.  By play’s end, the audience wonders who really behaved like children—the kids in that fight or their parents.
The Pulitzer prize-winning French play written by Yasmina Reza and translated into English by Christopher Hampton debuted on Broadway in 2009 after a run in London and copped three Tony awards including Best Play.  It was since made into a film Carnage directed by Roman Polanski. 

God of Carnage is the second production to grace the Everyman Theatre’s sparkling new Fayette Street location, and it’s a hoot.  It centers on the uproarious, if not insane, interactions of two Brooklyn, NY yuppie couples who are the parents of the combatants.

Alan Raleigh (Tim Getman) and Annette Raleigh (Megan Anderson) are the parents of the attacking boy.  They were invited to the home of Michael Novak (Christopher Bloch) and Veronica Novak (Deborah Hazlett) to discuss the fight and resulting damage to the Novak kid in a futile attempt to resolve the dispute in a civil manner through a simple apology.
Starting off well with gentle pleasantries, sharing French pastries and having agreed (after some lawyerly-style debate) that the aggressor was not “armed” with a stick but instead was “furnished” with one, the tranquility was compromised by alcohol-fueled honesty and continual annoying interruptions from cell phone calls.  The meeting devolved into a verbal slugfest. 

Playwright Reza once said in an interview:  “What motivates me most about writing about people who are well brought up and yet, underneath that veneer, they break down.”  That’s what occurs in God of Carnage.
The characters exhibited what most parents’ instincts direct them to do: defend their own children regardless of the circumstances.  As soon as Veronica states that her son was “disfigured” from the fight and points out repeatedly the teeth lost were incisors, Annette recoils and argues there must have been a reason for her son to strike the other boy.

The play then becomes a runaway brakeless truck rolling faster and faster down a hill. Civility turns into calamity as each character reveals their weaknesses and vulnerabilities we all have but won’t ever admit to.  
Shocking scenes such as Annette throwing up all over the coffee table and books, her ripping off the tops of expensive tulips and the inevitable fate of that obnoxious cell phone interspersed with the ever-increasing profane but hilarious dialogue, elicited strong audience reactions. 

Eleanor Holdridge, possessing a solid resume of directing stage plays, made strong use of the actors’ skills in displaying precise comedic timing, facial expressions and movement around the stage.  
Bruce R. Nelson, an Everyman staple, was originally tapped to play Alan.  An unfortunate injury prior to the play’s run sidelined Nelson, and he was replaced by veteran actor Tim Getman.  That substitution worked out quite well. 

Mr. Getman flawlessly portrayed Alan, the corporate lawyer who is frequently on the phone defending a questionable drug company.  He really never bought into the need for this meeting with the Novaks and would have preferred to be anywhere but here.  But here Alan was, delivering many laugh lines. 

His wife, Annette Raleigh (Alan nicknamed her “Woof-Woof”), played by Megan Anderson, was also funny (and later disgusting).  Starting off mild, she evolves into rage as the play progresses and even yields to some homophobia.  My only gripe with Ms. Anderson’s performance is that she didn’t sufficiently project her voice especially at the beginning.  Otherwise, she was outstanding.
Michael Novak, played by Christopher Bloch, is a successful wholesaler with an ill mother.  Also armed with a plethora of gag lines and comedic gestures, Mr. Bloch came through wonderfully. 

Michael was assailed by the Raleighs and Veronica for allowing his daughter’s pet hamster to “escape” only for it to face the realities of street survival.  He was also chided by Veronica for being wishy-washy during the arguments involving his son.  

Dutifully, Michael frantically uses a hair drier to clean up the mess Annette left on Veronica’s table and precious art books.   Michael comes off as a peace-loving, liberal, open-minded soul but his inner self screams “F***ing Neanderthal.” Mr. Bloch could not have been better for this role.
Then there is Veronica, the intense and, at times, whacko mother of the victim and author of an upcoming book on Darfur.  Deborah Hazlett, another Everyman resident actor, plays the role brilliantly and realistically while displaying a full range of emotions and passion throughout. 

Timothy R. Mackabee’s set is functional if odd.  Behind the ordinary living room furniture in what is probably a brownstone apartment is a super-sized, dominating painting of a pack of dogs pouncing on a prey, which undoubtedly is a metaphor for carnage.

God of Carnage is a funny play and should not be missed. While the comedy is sometimes dark, most of us can imagine how we’d react to every one of the provocations in the play and can readily identify on some levels to these people. hocoblogs@@@
Running Time: Eighty-five minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: This show contains profanity and is not recommended for children.
God of Carnage plays through April 7 at the Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette St., Baltimore.  For tickets, call 410-752-2208 or visit everymantheatre.org.

Monday, March 04, 2013

There's No Place Like 'Home' at Rep Stage

Fatima Quander, Robert Lee Hardy and Felicia Curry 
Photo: Stan Barough
Who says you can never go home again?  In the case of Home, presented by Rep Stage which is in its 20th year, it is clear that returning home can bring a desirable outcome.  Through its main character the play mirrors the migration of African-Americans from the South to the North in the 1950s and 60s and then a migration back to their Southern roots in the 70’s and beyond. hocoblogs@@@

Home, a 1979 expressive and imaginative work written by Samm-Art Williams, was a Tony and Drama Desk Award nominee in 1981 when it was originally produced by the Negro Ensemble Company.  Under the superb direction of Duane Boutte, making his Maryland directing debut, Home, over three decades later, is performed in the round at the Studio Theatre on the campus of Howard Community College. 
…with this outstanding cast, director and crew, ‘Home’ is a good play to see.
It is normally a risky venture to stage a play in that configuration when the work consists mainly of dialogue. But it succeeds here, thanks to Boutte’s attention to details, emphasis on movement and pacing and the stellar performances from the three-person cast.

In reviewing Home on the second night of four previews one could have anticipated a few rough spots to iron out. Other than a minor fumbling of a line, little ostensibly needs to be fixed.

The story depicts the plight of hardworking Cephus Miles, played powerfully by Baltimore native Robert Lee Hardy, a farmer in the fictional rural town of Crossroads, North Carolina. Cephus is a likeable, good-natured young black man who from his early life and virtually throughout his journey can’t catch a break. He chalks up his misfortunes to “God taking a vacation in Miami”—a theory that he repeated at various turns in the play.

Through his impassioned and, at times, humorous storytelling, Cephus recounts the events that shaped his life. Tragic deaths of family members left Cephus to fend for himself as a youth. There was a brief romantic relationship with Patti Mae (Felicia Curry) who left him for college, never wrote him and eventually married someone else. He lived his younger years in this town but not finding greater opportunities despite his indomitable spirit.

The turning point occurred when Cephus resisted the draft during the Vietnam War and was sentenced to a five-year term in a Raleigh jail. This portion of the play was its weakest because of Williams’ casual treatment of such a pivotal sequence. There is no convincing rationale why Cephus would refuse to serve other than quoting the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” No evidence suggested during the play that Cephus was particularly religious and even if he were, why would he not serve as a Conscientious Objector rather than facing imprisonment at the age of 19?

While in jail Cephus encountered guards and others who convinced him to go to the big city—“the promised land”—to try his fortunes there. The city is unnamed but the audience is told there is a subway. When his term ended, he meets up with unsavory characters from street hustlers, a gold-digging woman and drug addicts who swallow him up. His jail record causes him to lose his job and ultimately his apartment as well as almost losing his life to the dangers the big city presents.

Sensing a continuation of this tragic spiral, Cephus returns to Crossroads where despite his reputation as a “traitor” by some, the ending provides a much-needed smile.
Throughout this journey, Mr. Hardy is accompanied by two sterling actresses—Felicia Curry, a Helen Hayes Award winner, and Fatima Quander—who successfully play a staggering array of characters (male and female) from teasing children to dominating older folks who were part of Cephus’ life. With the simple addition or subtraction of an article of clothing—a scarf here, a hat there, a sweater, a handbag, etc. Ms. Curry and Ms. Quander transform easily into their countless roles and played them to the hilt with passion and intensity.

Director Boutte ensured there was plenty of physicality and movement throughout. Mr. Hardy trekked around the blond-wood, double-platform center stage —at times pacing, occasional sitting, and sometimes emulating working the fields. but always mindful of the in-the-round set-up.

Ms. Curry and Ms. Quander are forces in motion throughout. For example, as teasing children they energetically encircle the outside perimeter of the stage dancing and chanting. (Ms. Curry effectively conveys tenderness and innocence as Patti Mae). When not in a particular scene they wait in opposite corner platforms readying the next costume addition or a stage prop but never a distraction as Mr. Hardy during his monologues commands the stage and the audience’s attention. At times the cast gets to sing a bit; not enough unfortunately for they possess rich voices.

Credit James Fouchard for the simplistic yet very functional set. Dan Covey’s clever lighting effects are in sync with the play’s many changes of scenes and moods. And Neil McFadden did a fine job of using sound effects judiciously—blues music, wind, and a car, for instance—adding to this expertly staged play.

Home was written before the advent of personal computers and the Internet. But we all know how comfortable we are at a home page after exploring an unfamiliar website. That is the message of Home: a good, comfortable place to return. And with this outstanding cast, director and crew, Home is a good play to see.

Running Time: Two hours with no intermission.

Advisory: This show contains profanity and sexual situations and is not appropriate for children.

Home runs through March 17 at the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center on the campus of Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD 21044. Tickets may be purchased by calling 443-518-1500 or email the Box office at BoxOffice@howardcc.edu.

Friday, March 01, 2013

It's Partisanship That Should be Sequestered

There are countless worthy causes to get behind—too many to name here.  Surely, among them are: “World Peace,”  “Stop Hunger,”  “End Homelessness,” “End Poverty,”  “Eradicate Disease,”  “End Violence,” “End Racism,”  “End Homophobia,” “End Transphobia,” and (gasp!) “Promote Unity within the LGBT Community (really).” 
Good causes, right?  I fully support each one and believe humankind would benefit.  If only we can wave a magic wand and make it happen.  But none of these goals will be fulfilled in our lifetimes simply because it’s not realistic.  There will always be wars.  There will always be disease.  There will always be hatred.

Every generation believes that subsequent generations will cure the ills plaguing the current one.  We’re still waiting.  Of course, I am more optimistic that today’s youth will succeed in ending homophobia and transphobia as well as putting a good dent in racism.  Yet, as in the case of wars, disease and hatred, there are other problems that seem intractable.  And one of those is political partisanship.
I admit I’m guilty of partisanship, too.  But I acknowledge certain Republicans who do good deeds and I despise some Democrats, especially a few state legislators.

The so-called “sequestration” process that was preceded by the “fiscal cliff” and other economic and political skirmishes highlight the intense political partisanship that is causing our government to be dysfunctional.  To be fair, this is not a recent phenomenon.  Such partisanship has existed throughout our history and, at times, more vitriolic than today’s combat.  Moreover, partisanship does not reside solely in the U.S.  So divided are the governments of Italy and Israel, for example, that they are finding it difficult to put together a governing coalition.
Back in the U.S.A., while it would be unfair and inaccurate to lay the responsibility on one political party, I don’t think any reasonable person would dispute the notion that the election of Barack Obama—the country’s first African-American president—touched off a tsunami of thinly veiled (if veiled at all) racist attacks and intense partisanship. 

We witnessed it during the 2008 campaign where Obama was characterized as a socialist and other provocative labels, which were patently untrue.  We saw the racist signs held by rally-goers as well as bumper stickers depicting him as a monkey.  We heard that pathetically ill-informed woman at a McCain town hall accuse Obama of being a terrorist and an Arab.  And, of course, we had to endure the “birther” movement led by the repulsive Donald Trump and other idiots who literally forced the president to prove he was born in Hawaii.
While the Affordable Care Act was being debated, more ugliness ensued as passions were easily aroused, fueled again by false information, rumors and FOX News-produced talking points.

Adding to this was the leader of the Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell, saying in an interview with the National Journal in October 2010, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”  He repeated the same point at a Heritage Foundation event two months later.  While this statement occurred after the president’s significant legislation was already passed, it signaled an obstructionist strategy that would continue throughout the remainder of the president’s first term overflowing like untreated sewage into his second.
The mid-term elections in 2010 that gave the tea party an incredibly strong hand in economic policy within the GOP contributed even more partisanship, which has led to the current impasse.  Mainstream Republicans are being intimidated by the tea party crowd from threats they will be “primaried” if they don’t fall in line. 

And so poisoned is the GOP partisan well that the most popular Republican in the country, Gov. Chris Christie, was not invited to the big conservative CPAC confab ostensibly because of his praise for President Obama after Hurricane Sandy.
Clearly, Republicans do not corner the market on partisanship.  Democrats are guilty of that, too, but not as graphically.  No one is demanding that House Speaker John Boehner prove his place of birth.

Nonetheless, when I recently posted an article from NBC News on my Facebook page that noted over 100 Republicans—some going back to the Reagan administration—had signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief supporting same-sex marriage in the Prop 8 case to be argued in the Supreme Court this month, some of my Democratic friends reacted with, um, partisanship.  They reasoned the Republicans were doing this only to moderate their image to pander for votes, even though many of them were no longer in politics.
I pointed out that people do evolve (as did President Obama) in addition to the fact that one of the lead litigators in the case against Prop 8 is former Solicitor General Ted Olson, a staunch conservative.

In fairness to these friends, there is justification for their cynicism.  The GOP has been almost universally opposed to same-sex marriage and LGBT rights in general.  The marriage stance is ingrained in the party’s platform.  Only a few legislators in blue state Maryland crossed party lines and GOP doctrinaire and supported marriage equality here.
But the times are indeed changing.  Electorally, the GOP does need to soften their hard line image on a number of issues if the party is to remain relevant—a view shared by such Republican stalwarts as Newt Gingrich. 

I believe we need a strong two-party system where debating issues should be fact-based, respectful as well as robust. The way things look now, however, any reduction in partisanship is just a dream.