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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Awake and Sing! at Olney Theatre Center

Anyone who had lived through the Great Depression could tell you how difficult and scary that time was.  Not only was there real concern that one day you would lose the roof over your head or not being able to put food on the table but that these real fears and pressures could tear a family’s fabric to the point that dreams are tossed aside in order to live for the day.  The Depression meant a severe economic downturn but it also meant a state of mind that resulted from it.
Rick Forcheux (L.) and Alex Mandell  Photo: Stan Barouh
Such was the backdrop in Clifford Odets’ potent Depression-era drama-comedy Awake and Sing! that is now playing at the Main Stage of the Olney Theatre Center.  In 1931 Odets, as an actor, was a founding member of the Group Theatre, a highly influential New York theatre company led by Lee Strasberg.  Group employed a new acting technique in U.S. theatre that eventually was called “Method Acting.”  Odets became the Group Theatre’s principal playwright, and in 1932, experiencing the financially bleak conditions during that period, began working on I Got the Blues, which turned into Awake and Sing!
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

No Mediocrity in Center Stage’s 'Amadeus'

Some people spend their lives searching for fame and fortune only to find out disappointingly that they are merely mediocre as such lofty goals become elusive.  Others find that such gifts are natural and their fame comes easy and enduring. When such people intersect in their life’s journeys, it may not always be pleasant.
That is in essence the core plotline of acclaimed British playwright Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus now playing at Center Stage.  It revolves around18th century Vienna Court composer Antonio Salieri (played by Bruce R. Nelson) who was having things go his way until the child prodigy of Salzburg, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, (Stanton Nash) comes on the scene.        
Shaffer is known also for his award-winning work Equus—a completely different type of play from Amadeus though the psyches of the main characters of each are explored.  The latter captured the 1981 Tony Award for Best Play, and the 1984 movie collected four Oscars including Best Picture.
It seems as though Center Stage Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah, who also directed this fine production of Amadeus, has an affinity for attracting works that cogitate how real people would interact with others had such exchanges actually occurred. 

Last year’s The Mountaintop contained such imagination regarding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s conversations with God following the civil rights leader’s assassination.  In 2015, Center Stage will present One Night in Miami, which speculates how Cassius Clay would spend time in a Miami hotel with the likes of Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke and footballer Jim Brown after he won a boxing title.
Shaffer’s Amadeus and the relationship between the title character and Salieri is also a fictional account.  Though a definitive cause of Mozart’s early demise has yet to be established, he attributes the composer’s death to Salieri’s poisoning him, or does he really do it?

Salieri loves Mozart’s music but is resentful of the talent in which he believed was bestowed upon Mozart by God.  As a devout Catholic, Salieri assumed God would have rewarded him with that gift instead of the uncouth Mozart.  The resentment builds and Salieri, searching for weaknesses in Mozart’s personality and life, is determined to destroy him while Mozart is convinced he is on his side all along.   Salieri realizes his mediocrity but flourishes while the prodigy declines.
Any play that features celebrated Baltimore actor Bruce R. Nelson is sure to be an immediate upgrade.  He envelops such diverse characters in Center Stage productions as well in performances in other local venues.  Mr. Nelson’s chillingly dark portrayal of Edgar Allen Poe and his depiction of the loony, hilarious Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers are examples of his versatility.

The part of Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, though somewhere in between the aforementioned roles, provides yet another vehicle for Mr. Nelson to showcase his acting chops.  As the narrator for the story, Mr. Nelson changes wigs and clothing tops onstage to journey back and forth from present-day 1823 when he is old and supposedly on the verge of death to the 1780’s when his life changed with the arrival of Mozart. 

Mr. Nelson is the anchor of the play delivering several long soliloquies—a difficult challenge for most actors—with seeming ease.  Though the play is not a comedy per se, Mr. Nelson brings home the few witty retorts through his commentaries adding lightness to the plot.  He pretends to be an ally of Mozart but all the while plotting his demise.  Salieri attempts to seduce Mozart’s wife Constanze (Kayla Ferguson) in an attempt to undermine his rival with Mr. Nelson relishing that role with mischievous enthusiasm.
Any play that features celebrated Baltimore actor Bruce R. Nelson is sure to be an immediate upgrade.
His counterpart, Stanton Nash as Mozart, is wonderful.  His part calls for more action, more physicality than Salieri’s, and Mr. Nash rises to the occasion.  Playing the rather childish, and at times, vulgar Mozart, he come through superbly employing exaggerated voice inflections and mannerisms to amplify his churlish persona. 

Mr. Nash effectively becomes dramatic during the second act to convey Mozart’s desperation for trying to impress the Emperor Joseph II (Kevin Orton) and the court so that he (as is the situation for Salieri) receives salaries and enjoy the freedom to compose music.
Ms. Ferguson plays the role of Mozart’s fiancé then wife nicely as she must contend with his behavior but at the same time, pushing hard for his success.

The remainder of the large cast (by Center Stage standards) does well in their roles.  Jay Russell and Lucia Spina stand out as Venticelli—the court’s local gossips, adding a fun touch to the proceedings with their banter.
Mr. Kwei-Armah’s technical crew shines in this production. David Burdick outfitted the cast in colorfully lavish period garb. 

The set designed by Timothy R. Mackabee presents an ornate drawing room complete with, two large crystal chandeliers, light blue patterned wall paper and gilded door frames.  The cast uses all the entrances and exits in Center Stage’s Pearlstone Theater to keep the action paced well and flowing.  A scaffold above the main stage is designed to simulate the back of an opera stage but is used sparingly.  Mr. Mackabee also transforms the theater’s lobby into the Court of Vienna to add more to the experience.
Michelle Habrick’s lighting design beautifully illuminates the stage and is employed effectively during dramatic moments.  Victoria Delorio provides good use of sound effects especially when coordinating with lighting changes during selected stage entrances through the main door—a clever device.

This production under the direction of Mr. Kwei-Armah sparkles with all the moving parts meshing well.  The performances of the two leads alone are worth a visit.  But you will also enjoy the work of the entire cast and crew.  It is far from mediocre.

Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.#hocoarts
Advisory: The play contains profanity and is not recommended for children.
Amadeus runs through October 12 at Center Stage, 700 North Calvert St. in Baltimore.  Tickets can be purchased by calling 410-332-0033 or online .

Monday, September 15, 2014

Racial Taboos, Rock and Blues at Toby’s Memphis

As was the case throughout the South during the mid-1950’s white folks in Memphis referred to African-Americans as coloreds and by the N-word.  Radio stations played either white music or black music—not both.  People dared not set foot in an establishment whose ownership and clientele were of another race. Interracial relationships were forbidden and dangerous.

Greg Twomey as Huey and Ashley Lauren Johnson as Felicia
While things have improved significantly but not entirely over the years, these conditions provide the backdrop for the hand-clapping, toe-tapping musical extravaganza, Memphis the Musical, now playing at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia.
Under the direction of Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey, the musical direction of Ross Scott Rawlings with choreography by Christen Svingos, the extraordinary cast more than did justice to the four-time 2010 Tony Award-winning show that included Best Musical.  With all the superb performances and technical precision, Memphis joins a growing list of elite productions at Toby’s famous in-the-round theater.

David Bryan’s music and lyrics and Joe DiPietro, who co-wrote the lyrics and penned the book, brought the message of love, ambition and race home through a score brimming with rhythmic gospel, R&B and rock numbers along with melodic ballads. 
The story revolves around Huey Calhoun (played by Greg Twomey) a rather poor good ‘ole boy ninth grade dropout who loves R&B music.  One night he saunters into an underground black dive club where he was far from welcomed.  He meets Felicia Farrell (Ashley Lauren Johnson), the sister of the owner Delray Farrell (Sayne-Kharyi Lewis). Upon hearing the young black woman sing, Huey promises to find a way to get her noticed.

Huey, a braggart and a self-promoting conniver, manages to get himself a trial audition as a DJ on a white radio station playing “race music.”  In Memphis, no one had ever attempted this before.  Huey’s unique style and personality (he uses the nonsensical “Hockadoo” as his signature word on the air) plus his playing this type of music, which was the foundation for the upstart Rock ‘n Roll genre, endeared him to the listening audience much to the chagrin of the skeptical and resistant station manager Mr. Simmons (Robert John Biedermann 125).
"Adding all the ingredients together—the story, the music, the expertly directed well-cast and -performed production of Memphis is one that should not be missed." 

Nonetheless, Huey’s popularity leads him to a local television gig whereby he can showcase Felicia’s vocal talents.  As Huey’s interest in Felicia grows, he has to overcome the defiant opposition of his racist mother Gladys Calhoun (Lynne Sigler) who clings to old-time prejudice.  Her brother Delray is not too keen on this relationship either.  Though Felicia herself understands the dangers, she moves closer to Huey but wants to do so in secrecy.

While their careers rise their relationship is challenged by personal ambition and the lack of acceptance of their relationship by the outside world.  To find out how this plays out, you should see the show.
Although the entire ensemble can sing, dance and act like it’s nobody’s business, Twomey and Johnson soared high as the leads.  It was difficult for me to believe that Twomey hadn’t performed on stage for over three years prior to being cast in the role of Huey.  His performance is so refined, so adroit in every way, one would think he is a seasoned veteran with a mantle full of trophies. 

In that regard Twomey’s acting skills demonstrated more gold than rust.  Playing the role of a fellow who is paradoxically big-hearted and self-centered, his movements on the stage, facial expressions, body language, posture and Southern drawl demonstrate he was perfectly cast as Huey.
Besides his solid acting performance, Twomey proves he can sing and he can dance.  Though there were no solos for his part, Twomey excels with his smooth, pitch perfect voice in such numbers as “Music of My Soul,” “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Kiss,” and “Tear Down the House.”

Photos by Kirstine Christansen
For her part, the lovely Ashley Lauren Johnson is also perfect for the role of Felicia.  Performing in her tenth show at Toby’s, her acting skills shine throughout, and her strong onstage chemistry with Twomey is palpable.  In addition to possessing superb vocal chops, Johnson delivers a beautiful solo rendition of “Colored Woman,”  and she hit the mark in “Love Will Stand”—an outstanding number she performs with the company.
Also notable in the cast is Lynne Sigler as Huey’s bigoted mother who eventually transforms her attitudes towards race.  Her number “Change Don’t Come Easy” is a virtual show-stopper.  Wait until you hear that final note!

Sayne-Khayri Lewis as Delray, the over-protective brother of Felicia, also turns in a fine job. His duet with Twomey, “She’s My Sister” is emotionally strong and well performed.
Tobias Young, a Helen Hayes nominated veteran of Toby’s sparkles in the role of Bobby, a janitor and a friend of Delray’s who helps the illiterate Huey to read a beer commercial.  That scene, by the way, is the funniest moment in the show.  Young’s performance of “Big Love” is joyful.

In the role of Gator, Jonathan Randle’s rendition of “Say a Prayer” is superb as it is moving.  Robert John Biedermann 125 as the cranky Mr. Simmons performs splendidly.
The talented ensemble proficiently supported the leads, performing in most of the numbers.  They sang and  danced expertly and added a high-octane presence.   Give credit to choreographer Christen Svingos for the well-designed dance numbers with some of them infused with breathtaking acrobatics.

Ross Scott Rawlings six-piece orchestra coordinated effectively with the on-stage performers, allowing their vocal talents to stand out. Set and  Light Designer David A. Hopkins and Sound by Drew Dedrick provided the technical support to keep the production glowing.
The period props are great part of the production.  They consisted of old phones, a television camera, actual vinyl records, 50’s-style kitchen furniture, microphones and radio equipment.  To go along with these, Larry B. Munsey outfitted the ensemble in representative 1950’s southern costumes including lovely robes for the church choir.

Adding all the ingredients together—the story, the music, the expertly directed well-cast and -performed production of Memphis is one that should not be missed. 
Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: The show contains profanity and is not recommended for children.
_____________       #hocoarts
runs through November 9  at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets can be purchased by calling 410-730-8311 or online.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Domestic Violence Hits Us Too

The infamous video showing Ray Rice punching his then fiancée Janay Palmer in an elevator of a now defunct Atlantic City casino hotel and its ugly aftermath triggered a firestorm of anger and recrimination throughout the country.  One positive effect, however, was that the horrific incident shed light on the shadows of silence concerning the ongoing problem of domestic violence or intimate partner violence and abuse (IPV/A).

IPV/A had been seen by many as a heterosexual problem.  Yet statistics gathered from studies indicate that same-sex relationships have been afflicted by IPV/A at similar rates to straight couples. 
A spokeswoman for Baltimore-based House of Ruth Maryland, an organization whose mission, in part, is to provide safe shelter to abused women, children and men and have recently expanded to include LGBT clients, said, “Rates of physical partner violence victimization are higher among gay male and transgender relationships and happen equally as often in lesbian relationships when compared to IPV in heterosexual relationships.”

This is backed up by the Center for American Progress,   which notes, “One out of four to one out of three same-sex relationships has experienced domestic violence.  By comparison, one in every four heterosexual women experiences domestic violence in her lifetime.”
At this point, there aren’t any available IPV/A police statistics in Baltimore pertaining to same-sex situations.  “We track all domestic violence and domestic disputes. We do not break those statistics down by orientation,” said Lt. J. Eric Kowalczyk, a spokesman for the Baltimore City Police Department. “We are now in the process of building a system to do just that.”

Intimate partner violence is defined by House of Ruth as “a pattern of coercively controlling behaviors used by a current or previous partner to gain or maintain power and control over the other partner.”  This could include physical, psychological and/or emotional abuse and intimidation.
Baltimore area resident R.J. Ladd lived together with his boyfriend on and off for three years.  The boyfriend had a tendency to get drunk and to fight. “I’d try and walk away from him with no success,” explains Ladd who believes IPV/A is an important issue and from which the LGBT community should not feel they are immune.

“We were in multiple fights, three of which I lost teeth that are still evident to this day.  I would just try and do things his way and just agree even when he was wrong. It still didn’t work, and we would continue to have fights.  He would assume I was sleeping with all my friends—I wasn’t—but the fighting still continued.”
Victims of IPV/A who are in same-sex relationships encounter issues that are distinctive from IPV/A in heterosexual relationships.  For instance, an abusive partner may threaten to “out” a partner’s sexuality to family, friends, or co-workers as a tactic to get that person to stay in a relationship or to coerce the victim in order to get what he or she wants.

“I’d try and walk away from him with no success.  We were in multiple fights, three of which I lost teeth that are still evident to this day.”—R.J. Ladd

LGBT individuals whose families/friends don’t support their sexuality have fewer sources of support, increasing isolation and making it hard to end abusive relationships.  Abusers use this to keep a relationship going; they remind the victim how alone he or she will be if he or she leaves.
Additionally, the Center for American Progress points out that lesbian and gay victims are more reluctant to report abuse to legal authorities. Survivors may not contact law enforcement agencies because doing so would force them to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Gay and lesbian victims are also reluctant to seek help out of fear of showing a lack of solidarity among the gay and lesbian community. Similarly, many gay men and women hide their abuse out of a heightened fear that society will perceive same-sex relation- ships as inherently dysfunctional.

Gay and lesbian victims are more likely to fight back than are heterosexual women. This can lead law enforcement to conclude that the fighting was mutual, overlooking the larger context of domestic violence and the history of power and control in the relationship.
Abusers can threaten to take away the children from the victim. In some states, adoption laws do not allow same-sex parents to adopt each other’s children. This can leave the victim with no legal rights should the couple separate. The abuser can easily use the children as leverage to prevent the victim from leaving or seeking help. And in the worst cases, the children could end up in the custody of the abuser.

House of Ruth, which is now partnered with the Baltimore Ravens and has received an increase in donations as a result of the Ray Rice matter and who has a 24-hour Hotline, 410-889-RUTH (7884), offers the following tips:
●Plan for your physical safety

●Inform those closest to you about what's going on

●Establish a code word to check in with friends or family

●Take threats seriously

●Consider applying for a Protection Order and carry it with you at all times            

●Plan for your cyber safety

●Screen your calls and save all voice mails, emails or texts s/he sends

●Do not use apps like Snapchat

●Do not use mobile apps that track your whereabouts such as Foursquare or “tag” on Facebook

●Turn the GPS function of your phone off

IPV/A strikes people of all races, age groups, socio-economic status, sexual orientations and identities.  It is critical to be on guard against possible IPV/A and to take the necessary steps to deal with the situation.  Clearly, IPV/A has been around forever and is not going away soon.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Colossal Scores Early and Often at Olney

The timing of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere production of Colossal could not be better.  The play is about football (the new season has just begun); it’s about a gay male player dealing with the macho world of organized sports (the journey of openly gay football player Michael Sam has caught the nation’s attention); football injuries (constantly in the news); and it’s about love and family (always timely).   #hocoarts

Photo by Stan Barouh
Colossal, written by Andrew Hinderaker, makes its debut at the Olney Theatre Center before the new play appears in three other venues in the country.  Director Will Davis guides the talented all-male cast with great skill accentuating the physicality of football and dance and how these conflicting elements can sometime be fused.  The visuals are as much a part of this unconventional play as the dialogue.

If a set could define a production, Micha Kachman’s design clearly does.  Olney’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab was converted into a miniature football stadium consisting of four rows of grandstand seating the length of and on opposite sides of the black-box stage with an overhanging electronic scoreboard and functional clock.  The latter is used to denote the play’s structure that contains 15-minute quarters, a pre-game and a halftime and is a metaphor for how the time in our lives is precious and finite.  There is also a dance barre and mirror at one end and lockers on the opposite end.
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

History Will Have to Wait

It was the day the entire sports world was watching.  Would Michael Sam, an openly gay man, survive yet another round of cuts by the St. Louis Rams and in the process make history?  No other player on the “bubble” received such national scrutiny.  As NFL teams were mandated to trim their final rosters to 53 by 4 p.m. EDT on August 30, all eyes were on the St. Louis Rams who drafted Sam in the seventh and final round this past May. 

Photo by mtv.com
Instead of sacking quarterbacks Sam was sacked; he did not survive the final cut.  According to NFL rules, Sam and all those cut became available to the other 31 teams of which any of them could claim him.  None did. 
As such, Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team, not the first to play in the NFL regular season. 

The fact that Sam was drafted at all was surprising to most football experts.  Although a standout performer during his collegiate career—he was the Southeastern Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year for the University of Missouri in 2013—he did not fare well at NFL’s combine.  The combine is an auditioning process that takes place for a week in front of coaches, general managers and scouts.
Sam was picked 249th out of 256, and the news of his being drafted by the Rams reverberated around the world.  So did his passionate kiss on the mouth of his boyfriend carried live by ESPN. 

The selection by St. Louis lifted the spirits of LGBT America.  At the time, President Obama said he “congratulates Michael Sam, the Rams and the NFL for taking an important step forward today in our Nation’s journey.”
However, analysts and those in the football industry said Sam was too small for a defensive lineman position while he was too slow to be a linebacker.  It would be an uphill climb for Sam to make a team that already was deep in the lineman position.

Jeff Fisher, head coach of the Rams, gave Sam every opportunity.  In fact, it was Fisher who called Sam to give him the good news about the selection, leading to the tearful celebration with his boyfriend.  Who among us did not shed a tear or two along with him?  His number 96 Rams’ jersey became the sixth biggest seller among NFL players’ jerseys through July 17.
But Michael Sam lost out in a numbers game.  The Rams, who kept nine defensive linemen, chose to retain undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks over Sam.  While their statistics were similar, Westbrooks provided the versatility to play all four defensive line positions, while Sam had been playing virtually exclusively as a left defensive end.

Those who blog about homophobia in sports believed that Sam’s release from the team was a merely a football decision. 
“We believe Sam was cut for purely football reasons and there is zero evidence that it had anything to do with him being gay,” wrote Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com. “The Rams organization, from General Manager Les Snead to Fisher to the players, treated Sam as just another player, even though they were aware of his historic nature. Snead and Fisher even attended the ESPYs in Los Angeles in July, where Sam received the Arthur Ashe Award for courage.”

 Could it be that Sam would provide an unwelcome distraction just as the 2014 season was poised to kick off?

Coach Fisher made a point at his news conference announcing the cuts that Sam was not a distraction.  He explained he was in Michael Sam’s corner from the start and that having the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team was no distraction at all in training camp.
“Mike’s got the ability to play someplace. It’s got to be the right place, it’s got to be a fit,” Fisher explained. “He’s a much better player now than he was when he got here.”

He added, “We’re proud to be a part of [history], it was a great experience, but there were no issues. I just think there was a lot more made of it that there should have been.”
Oh, that distraction thing! Just prior to the August 30 deadline, an ESPN correspondent released a shameful ill-advised report of Sam’s showering habits and how that related to his teammates on the Rams.  Following the expected firestorm from a multitude of LGBT rights organization to comedian Jon Stewart, ESPN made a public apology.

While the Rams are deep in defensive linemen, that could not be said for all of the remaining 31 teams who passed Michael Sam up.  Could it be that Sam would provide an unwelcome distraction just as the 2014 season was poised to kick off?
That’s the million dollar question—one that is unlikely to be answered by NFL officials.  Clearly, the distraction factor from the media had to have been considered as teams evaluated the possibility of claiming Sam.  The Rams insisted the locker room culture was not negatively impacted by Sam’s presence.  The players acted professionally and did their jobs.  So did Michael Sam.  But apparently other teams are not yet ready.

Some believe that Michael Sam by declaring publicly that he is gay rolled the dice and put his chances for an NFL career at risk, though the rumors about his sexual orientation had already surfaced.
After the deadline to claim Sam passed, Hudson Taylor, executive director of Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization focused on ending homophobia and transphobia in sports, tweeted, “Beginning to think that if Michael Sam stayed silent about his sexual orientation he would currently be signed to an NFL roster or psquad.”

However, Michael Sam has been picked up by the Dallas Cowboys to play on their practice squad.  That could lead to a chance to be on the roster and play with the team but it’s no certainty.  In the meantime, and until he does play on the 53-man roster, history will have to wait.