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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Sunday, December 27, 2015

2015: A Transformative Year for the LGBT Community

When it comes to LGBT history and its ongoing struggle for equal rights, every year, especially recent ones, has produced landmark accomplishments and setbacks.  Yet 2015 seems to have outdone past years as victories and defeats have taken on new shapes with longer-lasting effects.
Nationally, we witnessed the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country—a decision rooted on Constitutional grounds.  Following that epic 5-4 ruling, attempts to quell the victory were met with resistance and ultimately defeat. 
The discriminatory religious freedom law in Indiana whereby corporations joined with activists to thwart that attempt and the Kim Davis saga in Kentucky proved that gays’ influence even in red states is increasing.  You know there is progress if conservative NASCAR joined hands with LGBT activists in stopping the Indiana law.
These were just a couple of significant developments in the movement, but what happened in LGBT Baltimore and Maryland all in one year is simply mindboggling.
Shifting directions of organizations
For all intents and purposes we lost Equality Maryland (EQMD).  Technically, the organization is still alive with only a board of directors, but it’s on life support.  Funding shortfalls doomed EQMD thanks in large part to the achievement of marriage equality in Maryland.  Donations needed to staff the organization and its initiatives simply dried up.
In June the board laid off Carrie Evans, the executive director.  Then it relinquished its Sharp Street office space.  Not long after that the acting executive director Keith Thirion parted ways as he found new employment. 
So, for the first time in decades, the Maryland General Assembly, which will begin next month, will not have a viable EQMD presence.  This is sad as the organization, warts and all, worked hard on behalf of Marylanders with plenty of less glamorous and money-attracting work remaining. 
FreeState Legal's executive director Patrick Paschall
Photo: Bob Ford
Fortunately, a rising organization, Baltimore-based FreeState Legal Project, will attempt to fill that void by continuing to be a watchdog on behalf of the LGBT community and as an advocate for policies and legislative actions at the state level.  Under the capable leadership of its executive director Patrick Paschall, FreeState Legal, a non-profit that provides legal services to low income LGBT community members, will assume a greater role in the near future.
One organization in flux, however, is the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB).  The 38 year-old LGBT Baltimore institution has experienced a multitude of leadership and board changes over the past few years, and 2015 was no exception.  The instability created by these changes has damaged its brand as many wonder what the GLCCB’s purpose is other than running the annual Pride events.  And a criminal trial to begin in late January 2016 against the former Pride coordinator Paul Liller could drive a wedge into the community at a time when fence-mending and sustainable fundraising are crucial to its success. 
Regardless of the outcome, the GLCCB is pinning the hopes on board president Jabari Lyles and the remainder of the new board to stabilize the center, assert its relevance, and resume its program mission moving forward to help attract a steady stream of much-needed revenue. 
The emergence in 2015 of the LGBT Health Resource Center (LHRC) at Chase Brexton under executive director Nate Sweeney has been a breath of fresh air.  The fledgling group, among other objectives, focuses on LGBT health and wellness and linking community members with competent service providers.
Through a partnership with SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders), LHRC launched the SAGECAP program that addresses the needs LGBT folks who provide eldercare services and also focuses the needs of LGBT elders who are becoming a growing segment of the LGBT community.
A new culture of activism
Bryanna Jenkins  Photo: Brian Gaither
As older, established organizations are becoming less relevant today to a younger group of impatient activists, a new wave of leaders are emerging to try to create visibility and support to help reach the goal of equality for all.  Inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests that followed a spate of police-involved killings of unarmed African-American men including Freddie Gray in Baltimore, transgender advocates—mostly but not entirely African-Americans—banded together, took to the streets in protest marches and formed a #BaltimoreTRANSUPrising movement to air a list of grievances. 

Much of the disquiet centers on police relations with transgender individuals and unsolved murders of transgender victims.  Other issues include homelessness among transgender people, better access to health care in general as well as trans-specific health care, and other forms of discrimination, particularly towards transgender people of color. Led by Bryanna Jenkins, Ken Jiretsu, Monica Yorkman and others, many trans folks believe that they have been ignored during the fight for marriage equality and their concerns have been brushed aside.
Last Call
Photo: Bob Ford
Arguably the most crushing change in 2015 was the closing of the Club Hippo on October 3.  The announcement in May sent shockwaves throughout Baltimore’s LGBT community and beyond.  As the acknowledged anchor of the Mount Vernon “gayborhood” and the state’s largest gay bar, hundreds of thousands of people had passed through the doors of the Hippo over its 43 year-old history.  The final night of the dance bar occurred September 26 with an emotional crowd experiencing the last dance.
For many the Hippo was the first gay bar they ever patronized.  It was a safe space for those first coming to grips with their sexuality but the nightclub was also a favorite of straight patrons.  The community felt disappointed that the building is being converted to a CVS drugstore.  A large number of people are questioning if the LGBT community is indeed losing its identity.
Undoubtedly this was a year of change for our community—good and bad.  Time will tell what 2016 will bring, but it will be hard to top 2015.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

'The Sound of Music' Visits the Hippodrome at the Right Time

For decades The Sound of Music has enthralled audiences worldwide with its superb score and its uplifting message that the power of love can prevail against all odds during a dangerous period in our history.  It is fitting that in these precarious times this classic musical is on display at the Hippodrome Theatre, albeit briefly, to shine a bright beam of hope through its charming story as well as its delightful music and performances. 
Kerstin Anderson as Maria leads the von Trapp children in song
Photo: Matthew Murphy
Under the meticulous direction of three-time Tony Award winner Jack O’Brien, the talented cast and adept crew bring to Baltimore a sparkling production of The Sound of Music.  O’Brien’s goal was “to tear off the varnish of the past and reveal one of the great, fresh glories of musical theater.”  #hocoarts

The mounting of this classic is a beauty to behold—both visually and through its superb score that was penned by the legendary team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The book, written by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, was based on the memoir of Maria von Trapp, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers.

For Oscar Hammerstein II, The Sound of Music represented his final production as he died nine months after the show debuted on Broadway in November 1959 with Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel as the leads. It closed in 1963 after 1,443 performances.
Several revivals both on Broadway and London followed and, of course, the Oscar-winning 1965 film based on the musical starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, went on to become a spectacular box office success and is presented on television regularly. Two years ago, the live version of The Sound of Music was performed on NBC that attracted tens of millions of viewers.

The Sound of Music possesses a catalogue of well-known songs, such as, “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Sixteen Going On Seventeen,” “So Long, Farewell,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “Edelweiss” as well as the title song, “The Sound of Music.”  Musical Director Jay Alger leads the outstanding orchestra through the exquisite score.
In the familiar story, The Sound of Music is set in Salzburg, Austria in 1938.  The inevitability that the homeland will fall (Anschluss) to Nazi Germany forms the backdrop for the musical, and the improbable love between two disparate individuals is the focus.

Paige Silvester as Liesl and Dan Tracy as Rolf
Photo: Matthew Murphy
Maria, performed superbly by Kerstin Anderson, is a former postulant, who has been sent by the Mother Abbess (Ashley Brown) to be the governess of the seven children of Captain Georg von Trapp (Ben Davis), a widower and former Austro-Hungarian Navy Captain.
He treats his children like military underlings.  However, Maria teaches them to sing and a whole new world opens up to the kids and Maria as she is conflicted by her devotion to God and her growing love for Georg.

Simply put, Kerstin Anderson, making her tour debut, nails it as the plucky Maria.   Radiant throughout the show, her crystal clear soprano voice does justice to such songs as, “My Favorite Things,” Do-Re-Mi,” and “Something Good.” Ms. Anderson’s chemistry with the loveable children is a joy, and she displays the romantic connection to Captain Georg with eye-watering tenderness.
As Captain Georg von Trapp, Ben Davis commands the stage with the vigor of an authoritarian father whose icy demeanor slowly melts upon meeting Maria.  There have been sterner versions of the character to be sure, but Mr. Davis portrays the role admirably.  His muscular baritone voice is on display when he joins the children in “The Sound of Music.” And he particularly shines in the moving number “Edelweiss.”

Ben Davis as Captain Georg von Trapp
and Kerstin Anderson as Maria
Photo: Matthew Murphy
Teri Hansen competently plays Baroness Elsa Shraeder, a wealthy socialite who the Captain had originally intended to marry.   But differences in the way they see the imminent Anschluss and a growing affection for Maria doom the union.  
As Max Detwiler, a mutual friend of the Baroness and the Captain whom the kids refer to as Uncle Max, Merwin Foard convincingly plays a pushy music promoter. Max persuades the Captain that the children should perform at the upcoming Salzburg Music Festival as a means to escape in the climactic, tense conclusion.

Handsome Dan Tracy plays Rolf, the love interest of Liesl (Paige Silvester), the von Trapp’s eldest daughter.  Rolf gets soaked up in the Nazi movement and provides a key piece of the drama.  Their duet, “Sixteen Going On Seventeen,” is excellent.
Every great musical has a blockbuster showstopper.  In The Sound of Music “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is that number.  Ashley Brown as The Mother Abbess with back-up from the Nuns, brings that song home in a truly virtuoso performance that concludes the first act on a high note in more ways than one.

The remainder of the cast supports the leads proficiently.  And, of course, three cheers for the adorable and talented von Trapp children who are on stage throughout most of the show: Paige Silvester, Jeremy Michael Lanuti, Maria Suzanne Knasel, Quinn Erickson, Svea Elizabeth Johnson, Mackenzie Currie and Audrey Bennett.
Douglas W. Schmidt designed a gorgeous set that shifted seamlessly for scene changes from the Abbey to the Villa’s great room to exterior sets—all designed with artistry.

Natasha Katz does a wonderful job with the lighting design that is well-coordinated with the scene changes.  Also, Jane Greenwood’s costumes are spot-on.
The Hippodrome’s dazzling presentation of The Sound of Music brings the classic musical to life and is sure to lift the spirits of theatergoers during this holiday season.

Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.
The Sound of Music runs through December 13 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or click here ticketmaster.com or click here for Hippodrome information. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Republicans' Biggest Nightmare

Still reeling from consecutive losses in the contest for the White House, the Republicans are setting themselves up for a third consecutive defeat.  That dismal reality for the GOP has the face of Donald Trump all over it.  #hocopolitics

Donald Trump rails against 'political correctness'
Back in August when Trump-mania started to take hold, I opined how his candidacy would affect the rest of the race up until the first votes for the caucuses and primaries are cast in February 2016.   Few thought that Trump and his blustery showmanship will prevail and he would vanish like other flavors-of-the-month have done previously.   I said then and I will repeat: Trump is not going anywhere voluntarily unless he can get knocked off the pedestal he has stood since he first announced his candidacy. 
Political numbers guru Nate Silver noted that only 25 percent of the country identify as Republicans while Trump has garnered merely 25 percent of GOP voters (enough to currently top the leader board).  Silver’s inference is that Trump is not making sufficient inroads to worry Dems in the general election.  Should Trump be the nominee, he will muster far more than the 25 percent currently supporting him as most Republicans will galvanize behind him in the hope of defeating Hillary Clinton.

The Republicans are indeed worried, however, and with good reason.  This is due to the horrific possibility that Trump may end up being the party’s standard-bearer. 

The so-called base is fed up with the GOP that put forth John McCain whose inability to articulate a solution to an economic crisis without threatening to bomb a country and Mitt Romney whose opulence created a narrative that he is out of touch with ordinary Americans.  These nominees lost to an African-American with little Senate experience, who had alleged ties to some questionable figures and whose place of birth was constantly questioned.  And they did so twice.
Republicans, especially in the House and Senate, were so ticked at these outcomes that they would go way out of the way to derail as much of President Obama’s agenda.  Though many of these lame efforts, such as repealing the Affordable Care Act over 40 times and shutting down the federal government reflected the GOP’s petulance, Obama’s creativity and the use of executive orders—a tactic that had been employed by presidents of both parties in the past—enabled him to secure significant accomplishments for the country and his legacy.

Following Romney’s defeat, the Republican establishment performed an “autopsy” in an effort to end the two-cycle presidential defeats.  They surmised that for the Republican Party to regain control of the federal government, they will have to broaden their reach, recognize the changing demographics and expand their base outside the tea party crowd.
To do so would mean the party would have to woo African-Americans, Latinos and women and would, in the process, gain much needed independent voters who comprise the fastest growing bloc.  This would certainly serve the Republicans well in swing states.

Not so fast: Donald Trump is single-handedly undermining that effort in a big and loud way.  Starting off with his assault on Mexicans as rapists, his determination to build a “nice” wall at the Mexican government’s expense and deport over 11 million undocumented immigrants, he turned off Hispanics big time.  Trump’s misogynous verbal shots at Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly and his adolescent barb directed at Carly Fiorina’s face certainly didn’t help with women.
Trump’s call for surveillance of Syrian refugees and certain mosques and a national registry of Syrian refugees.  Adding to that was his blatant lie that he witnessed thousands of Muslims in Jersey City rejoicing at the attacks on 9/11. This anti-Muslim rhetoric likely failed to win over independents.

Then there was the recent incident  in Birmingham, Ala. in which a Black Lives Matter protester was roughed up and forcibly ejected from a Trump rally and the candidate going on record supporting such actions.  African-Americans thinking about joining the GOP now?  Highly unlikely.
With all these episodes and  likely more on the way, the GOP establishment is squirming big time.  Trump’s supporters who have kept him on top in the polls except for a brief love affair with Dr. Carson, consist of the angry folks who adore Trump’s bullying style.  

My guess is that most of his supporters prefer that the U.S. be a Christian country consisting solely of white, native-born, non-Hispanic, heterosexual, anti-refugee, gun-toting, pro-life but at the same time pro-death penalty, misogynistic, climate change deniers, and military hawks who either have not served in the armed forces or would oppose a draft to force their sons and daughters into combat. They intently hate Obama and deny his record of accomplishments.  Trump answers their bell.
The trouble is, the above profile could match most of the GOP contenders’ core supporters.  It explains, perhaps, that Trump’s rivals are loath to criticize him forcefully lest they be on the receiving end of his flame-throwing.  He won’t hesitate to unleash his venom.  Ask Ben Carson.

This approach is effective for primaries but suicidal for the general.  Democrats should use Trump’s bombast whether he is the ultimate nominee or not.  By Trump’s rivals’ relative silence in criticizing him (except for a recent Kasich commercial), Democratic strategists should use Trump’s words and paint the whole Republican Party with them.  Their silence equals acquiescence. 
Right now, Trump is the Republicans’ biggest nightmare and no one in the party knows how to deal with it.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Guys and Dolls at Olney is a Good Bet

In Guys and Dolls there are a number of quaint references to slices of New York life from yesteryear: Klein’s, Saks, Wanamaker’s, the Roxy, the A&P, floating craps games, a casual day trip to Havana, and the list goes on.  The beauty of superior musicals, however, is that they are timeless in that they are as captivating and entertaining today as they were in say, 1950, when the original production opened on Broadway.  #hocoarts

Tobias Young leads company in "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat."
Photo: Stan Barouh
The current iteration of Guys and Dolls that is now playing at the Olney Theatre Center restores the nostalgia of 1950 New York while delivering a bravura musical extravaganza under the impeccable direction of Jerry Whiddon, choreography by Michael J. Babbitt and the musical direction of Timothy Splain.  An exceptional, perfectly cast company and technical crew carry out the vision of these directors in a way that will render your hands raw from all the applause-worthy moments.
Contributing to this effort is the show’s superlative material.  With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, Guys and Dolls captured so many awards in both its original rollout and the subsequent revivals that there are too many to list. 

Needless to say, the music catalogue, which is outstanding and varied from top to bottom, plus the clever book, places Guys and Dolls in the same category of brilliance as the Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and Jerry Herman musical classics.  As in the case of those shows, Guys and Dolls withstands the test of time.
The music is delightfully entwined in the zany plot involving gambler Nathan Detroit (Paul Binotto) who needs $1,000 for a venue to stage a crap game—“The Oldest Established Floating Crap Game”—with all the big-time gamblers in town, whom he cannot disappoint for the sake of his own reputation, and yes, safety.  He also has been avoiding marriage as he has been the fiancé of Miss Adelaide (Lauren Weinberg), a lovely blond nightclub singer, for 14 years and counting.

There is Sarah Brown (Jessica Lauren Ball) who is under pressure to save the souls of sinners in the mission she runs.  Any thoughts she may harbor of romance take a back seat to her mission. 
Nathan who is desperate to come up with the grand in which neither he nor his employees Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Tobias Young) and Benny Southstreet (Evan Casey) have or the credit to rent space at the Biltmore garage—a place selected to avoid the watchful eye of policeman Lt. Brannigan (Ron Heneghan) who is relentless in his quest to stop the gamblers.

As a last-ditch effort to raise the money, Nathan places a $1,000 bet with a more successful gambler Sky Masterson (Matt Faucher) that he will not be able to convince Sarah—so committed to saving souls at the sacrifice of her personal life—to go with him to Havana.  He accepts the bet, and she is lured to Havana based on Sky’s promise to deliver 12 sinners to her mission. The rest of the hilarious tale will be up to the audience to enjoy.

Paul Binotto as Nathan Detroit and Lauren Weinberg as Miss Adelaide
Photo: Stan Barouh
As pleasing and endearing the book is, it’s the music that makes the show a classic.  Songs like “A Bushel and a Peck,” “Guys and Dolls,” “If I Were a Bell,”  “Luck Be a Lady,” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” are famous.  But all the numbers in Guys and Dolls are gems.
The Olney cast did these great songs justice with outstanding vocals throughout.  As Miss Adelaide, Lauren Weinberg performs “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Adelaide’s Lament” in the way Mr. Loesser had imagined.  The beautiful vocals of Jessica Lauren Ball who shined so brightly in Olney’s production of The Sound of Music when she garnered a Helen Hayes Award nomination are on display again as Sarah when she performs “If I Were a Bell” and in the bouncy duet with Ms. Weinberg in “Marry the Man Today.”  

Matt Faucher as Sky Masterson brings home the iconic number “Luck Be a Lady” with his strong bass-baritone voice.  He also delivers “My Time of Day” in style.
The poor schnook Nathan Detroit is played with spirit by Paul Binotto.  He skillfully executes all the comedic scenes in which he is featured and his performance in the duet with Ms. Weinberg “Sue Me” is spot on.

 Then there is Tobias Young as Nicely-Nicely Johnson.  Mr. Young demonstrates his comedic props in several scenes with well-timed lines, facial expressions and body language.  Vocally, he is off the charts.  He performs well in several numbers including “Fugue for Tinhorns,” “The Oldest Established,” and “Guys and Dolls” with other cast members.
However, his lead in “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” represents the show-stopper that every great musical must have.  Mr. Young and the rest of the company sing the up-tempo number with gusto while the precise choreography is amazing. 

So spectacular was this number on the night this show was reviewed, that the raucous ovation was extended well beyond the norm. It was akin to a baseball player hitting a home run and the crowd’s cheers continue so long in quest of a curtain call from the batter.  This number was the production’s home run.
Choreography throughout the production is dazzling thanks to choreographer Michael J. Bobbitt.  As an example, the vigorous dancing in “Luck Be a Lady” soars.

The “Havana” number that is highlighted by a fight scene is simply sensational.  Executed to near perfection, the ensemble manages the high-energy dancing and fighting while they seamlessly clear the stage of the props and furniture at the scene’s end.  Ben Cunis is the fight choreographer for this amazing scene.  
Kudos goes to Ron Heneghan as Lt. Brannigan, the intrepid policeman, who maintains his Irish brogue as a throwback to New York’s Irish policemen.  On that point, all the actors consistently display New York accents without any slips.

Also, a nod goes to Richard Pelzman who convincingly plays Big Jule, the tall fear-invoking gangster from Chicago thirsty for the craps game.
The remainder of the company is proficient in their acting, dancing and vocals that add strong support to the leads.

Rosemary Pardee does a fine job is fitting the cast in 1950’s attire from suits for the guys and dresses for the dolls to missionary uniforms and costumes for assorted street characters.
Scenic Designer Dan Conway conveys an image of the New York City skyline with lights in the windows as the background while drop-down scenery above the stage is used to denote scene changes.

Sound Designer Jeffrey Dorfman who allows the audience to hear street traffic noises prior to the opening to set the mood and Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills do a fine job. 
The Olney production of Guys and Dolls is first-rate with all the pieces fitting together expertly.  A talented cast and crew under superb direction will result in one of the most memorable shows you will see.  You can bet on it.

Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes.
Guys and Dolls runs through December 27 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832.    Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting online.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Solid 'Footloose' at Rockville Musical Theatre

Footloose, the four-time Tony Award-nominated 1996 musical that was adapted by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie from the mega-popular 1984 movie of the same name is on display at the Rockville Musical Center (RMC).  An energetic volunteer cast provides a couple of hours of nostalgic foot-stomping numbers embedded in a plot that tugs at your heart. 

Serena Dib and Derek Tatum in FOOTLOOSE  Photo: Dana Robinson
Heart, yes, but this musical, is mostly about the feet as in dancing, which is the show’s hallmark.  It becomes the focus of a bunch of teenagers who try to persuade the recalcitrant Reverend Shaw Moore (Paul Loebach) and other adults in the fictional rural town of Bomont to allow the kids to hold a dance despite the fact dancing had been previously banned by Moore. #hocoarts
Ren McCormack (Derek Tatum), a high school student who loves to dance in Chicago’s clubs heads off to Bomont with his mother after his father abandoned them and financial difficulties ensued.  They stay with his aunt and uncle as he attempts to adjust to his new life.
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

An Irreverent 'Book of Mormon' at the Hippodrome

You know that once the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer, Adolf Hitler, Lucifer, Johnnie Cochran, and Genghis Kahn make their way into a musical, you better be ready for non-stop laughter.  The Book of Mormon, currently running at the Hippodrome Theatre as part of a national tour, is a spicy extravaganza with a heavy dose of salt that will please the palate in this hilarious irreverent spoof of religion that takes no detours in offending everyone.  #hocoarts

In fact, nobody is safe from the comical silliness that defines this show: Blacks, Christians, Mormons, Jews, all organized religion, Chinese, gays, women, true believers and others are all targets in a rather good-natured way that is not intended to be mean-spirited.  Nevertheless, such barbs along with body function descriptions are cringe-worthy in some instances, and if you have not seen The Book of Mormon before, be prepared. 

This should come as no surprise as the book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone are familiar with this brand of biting satire. Parker and Stone are the four-time Emmy Award-winning creators of the animated series, South Park. Tony Award-winner Lopez is co-composer and lyricist of the long-running hit musical comedy, Avenue Q and the Oscar-winning Frozen#hocoarts
The Book of Mormon is brilliantly choreographed by Tony Award-winner Casey Nicholaw (Monty Python’s Spamalot, The Drowsy Chaperone) and is directed expertly by Nicholaw and Parker.  A winner of nine Tony Awards in 2011including Best Musical, The Book of Mormon burst on the theatre scene coincidentally at the time Mitt Romney—the only Mormon candidate to run for president—was gearing up for his 2012 run. 

The story centers on two young LDS missionaries who were sent to Uganda rather than the desired Orlando to share the Book of Mormon with villagers in a remote part of northern Uganda.  The challenge is complicated by the fact that only one of the missionaries, Elder Price, played strongly by David Larsen, actually read the book. The other, Elder Cunningham, played deliciously by Cody Jamison Strand, had not done so, and instead has a habit of “making things up” to fill in the blanks.
Moreover, the villagers had other things on their minds besides religion.  Poverty, famine, AIDS and a despotic warlord offer hopelessness to the good people of the village.  The ensuing efforts to get the villagers to buy in to the teachings of the Book of Mormon against all odds constitute the essence of the plotline.

Scott Pask’s superb set design provides the background for all the action.  His depiction of the Ugandan village complete with mud huts, and the seamless transformation to the scene from hell—literally—that served as the locale for the Mormon’s hell dream where all the aforementioned villains appeared, is simply spectacular.

Candace Quarrels as Nabulungi and Cody Jamision Strand as
Elder Cunningham
Adding to the flavor are Ann Roth’s exquisite costumes, Brian MacDevitt’s energetic and imaginative lighting design and Brian’s Ronan flawless sound design.
Under the musical direction of David Truskinoff and the solid work of the nine-member orchestra, the cast both individually and in lively tap dancing production numbers danced and sang wonderfully to the score and the clever lyrics.  Most of the high-tempo songs and ballads are excellent and the standouts include: “Hello,” “Two by Two,” “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” the side-splitting “Turn It Off,”  the rousing conclusion of Act I “Man Up,”  another hysterical number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,”  “I Believe,” “I Am Africa,” “Joseph Smith American Moses,” and “Tomorrow Is a Latter Day.”

As Elder Price, the handsome Mr. Larsen shines as an actor and demonstrates his rich vocals throughout.  Price takes his mission seriously but later experiences self-doubt about the religion and his ability to succeed.  He is the straight man to the comical Elder Cunningham in which Mr. Strand delivers a tour de force reminiscent of Josh Gad in the original Broadway production. 

Elder Cunningham, who has a problem with telling the truth, attempts to teach the villagers about Mormonism.  But since he never read the book, he inserts various characters from Lord of the Rings and Star Wars in his teachings. 
Rotund with a high-pitched voice, Cunningham is set up with most of the comedic lines and actions.  He eventually takes the mission seriously but all he seemingly wanted to do when he began is to find a friend—any friend—and wound up with Price who didn’t share that goal but put up with him until he couldn’t take it anymore.  Cunningham also uproariously demonstrates a new twist on what a Baptism ritual is. 

Besides acting, both Mr. Larsen and Mr. Strand can sing and dance and are paired up nicely in the duets “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” and “I Am Here for You” and perform quite capably in several production numbers.
Another superb performance is turned in by the lovely Candace Quarrells as Nabulungi, a young villager, who desires to go to Sal Tlay Ka Siti.  She sings the song with that title beautifully.

Other strong performances are delivered by David Aron Damane as the brutal General Butt [something] Naked and Daxton Bloomquist as Elder McKinley, a fellow who suppresses his attraction to men but can turn it off like a switch.
The remainder of the company are outstanding in their supporting roles as well as dance sequences and clearly have a lot of fun performing in this musical.

Great staging, great performances, great songs and great technical elements show why The Book of Mormon is so highly regarded, and the deafening standing ovation it received the night this performance was reviewed reflects that.
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: the show contains profanity and is not suitable for children
The Book of Mormon runs through November 15 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or click here ticketmaster.com or click here for Hippodrome information. 

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

October's Oddities

It wasn’t enough that this past Halloween brought out the strangest, most creative and unique costumes ever. However, the entire month of October saw its share of odd events and scary people that would make the entire month Halloween-esque for all its nuttiness.
We had such unlikely events like a rogue blimp wreaking havoc along the Pennsylvania countryside. 

There was a wild inflatable pumpkin terrorizing residents in Arizona.
The Baltimore Ravens hadn’t won a home game through October (they won Sunday, though, to kick off November).  

Someone actually wrote a published letter to the Baltimore Sun bemoaning the large number of advertisements apparently oblivious to the fact that the media depends on advertising for revenue. 
After a devastating drought, Texas was pelted with flooding rains of biblical proportions.

And the stock market (Dow Jones index), which usually tanks in October, climbed a hefty 8.5 percent, the most in four years.
If these happenings weren’t sufficiently Halloween-ish in their strangeness, perhaps the GOP presidential debate broadcast on CNBC met that bar.  Setting the stage is the fact Dr. Ben Carson and Donald Trump are the frontrunners—a rightfully scary prospect considering how ignorant they are of government policy and mechanics.  Yet, that’s who the Republican voters prefer right now; it’s pretty Halloween-creepy.

But the greatest October oddity came from that very debate.  The rough and tough Republican candidates who boast they can “deal with” Russia, China and other potential or imagined adversaries as well as force the Mexican government to erect a wall along the border showed the chink in their collective armor, um façade. With all their bravado, they couldn’t cope with the line and manner of questioning put forth by the CNBC moderators. 
Led by the dreaded Sen. Ted Cruz, the candidates whined about those many “gotcha” questions. 

Heaven forbid they should be asked to comment on their record or things they have said and have done in the past.  Shame on the moderators for asking them to reconcile past conflicting statements made by the candidates! 

Accordingly, the “liberal media” have joined President Obama and Hillary Clinton as the ghoulish villains of October, playing to the party’s base.  Now these candidates want to scuttle the scheduled debate originally hosted by NBC and Telemundo in favor of more sympathetic and less probing panelists. 
We’ll see what turns up as the candidates are seeking relief and going over the heads of Reince Priebus, the RNC and the Republican “establishment” in search of softballs to hit out of the park.

The first question that should be asked by whoever moderates the next debate is, “How are you going to stand up to Vladimir Putin, if you can’t handle CNBC’s John Harwood?”

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The Hippo's Last Last Call

When the lights were turned on at 1:40 a.m. on October 4, 2015, there weren’t wails or shrieks or moans or cheers.  It was a rather subdued reaction considering the curtain was finally falling down on the Hippo.  People hugged, finished their drinks and headed for the door just like any other night.  Alas, there will be no returning to the Hippo unlike all those other nights spanning its 43-year history.  This was it.
The last call moment

On this night, the saloon and Karaoke areas were packed with folks who wanted one last good-bye and enjoy one of the largest alcohol clearance sales in memory.  Patrons reminisced with one another; some who had performed drag at the club were teary-eyed; others repeated the mantra “I can’t believe it”; a few were talking about the potential re-emergence of the Baltimore Eagle; and some of the staff were melancholy but carried out their duties professionally as always.  
Yet, the sadness wasn’t as widespread as I anticipated.  True, the Hippo’s closing had been announced five months ago, and people had the opportunity to adjust to this reality.  I broke the story of the Hippo’s closing in the Washington Blade in May, which received a record-breaking number of online views demonstrating that interest in the Hippo went beyond Baltimore but also throughout the U.S. and internationally.

I also wrote about the final large fundraiser at the bar that benefitted AIDS Action Baltimore when it was also announced that the intersection of Eager and Charles Streets was re-named “Chuck Bowers Way”, the scheduled closing dates and, of course, the grand finale spectacle.  As such, I was honored to chronicle this developing story for the “LGBT Paper of Record”.  

Soon to be a CVS Photo: Bob Ford
The final night at the saloon lacked the electric atmosphere that characterized the “Grand Finale Dance Party” the previous Saturday.  Of course, dancing is far more dynamic than simply hanging around at a pub, so naturally it’s not comparable. The dance side was already being dismantled prior to this event in preparation for a spanking new CVS pharmacy poised to occupy this fabled landmark and principal destination in Mount Vernon’s “gayborhood”. 
Therefore, with all the hype and five months to digest the inevitable outcome, people may have developed Hippo closing fatigue.  One person, for instance, griped on Facebook, “The Hippo has been 'closing' now for how long?  Gimme a break and close already!”  Nice.  He may be in the minority, however; everyone I know will definitely miss what has to be described as an LGBT institution in Baltimore.

The Hippo felt as comfortable to me as a pair of old, broken-in shoes.  Other bars do as well, such as Leon’s and Grand Central. Yet, the Hippo had been a special place for Bob and I for so many years. It wasn’t the venue I came out as others did.  It wasn’t the venue where I met Bob (Leon’s).  It didn’t provide a landmark in my life’s journey as was the case for others. 

Photo: Bob Ford
Instead, the Hippo was our Saturday night go-to place to socialize, to meet up with friends old and new and have a blast.  We danced, we hung out, and we enjoyed the staff and especially bartenders Dave, “Josie” and Gary.    
For younger folks, the Hippo was a safe haven and a place to let loose; for us it was a sanctuary in a social setting as the battle for LGBT rights was waging on, and the Hippo was in the center of it with their support for so many worthwhile endeavors. 

The Hippo’s owner, Chuck Bowers, was not there on this night, and it was reported that he was too emotional to make this final curtain.  As people routinely filed out of the bar at closing, I stopped and hugged Jess, the manager, who had been a fixture at the door for years.  We both had tears in our eyes realizing the finality of this occasion. 
It was that kind of night.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

The Hippo's Grand Finale

An enthusiastic throng was amassing just prior to the 9 p.m. opening of the Club Hippo’s dance side for what was billed as “The Grand Finale Dance” on September 26.  The first dancers hit the floor almost immediately, and a half hour later, the dance floor was crammed to the sound of Rick Astley’s “Together Forever”.  At 12:40 a.m.  Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” mix played to an ear-splitting roar from the crowd with an hour still left to go.
Photo: Bob Ford
DJ Farrell Maddox, who first worked at the Hippo in the mid-1980s and then returned in 1997, explained, “I want the final moment to be energetic and exciting.  That is how I want people to remember the Hippo.” 

Maddox had myriad choices for the final song at closing; he eventually settled on The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men” following a brief tribute to Hippo owner Charles “Chuck” Bowers.  

A video of that number shot by Bob Ford appears below. Describing Bowers as a good friend, Maddox was touched and honored when he chose him to deejay the grand finale event.  He saluted the venerable Hippo’s past with eclectic music spanning five decades.  At its conclusion, the patrons cheered and hugged one another.
After 43 years as a focal point of Baltimore’s LGBT community, a series of “last” events that stretched out over the Hippo’s final days—Last Bingo, Last Hip-Hop Night, Last Women’s Night, Last Dance Party and Last Drag Show—lowered the curtain on Baltimore’s largest and most iconic gay bar.  These special occasions on the dance side afforded opportunities for people to bid their final farewells.  The saloon and karaoke areas will close on October 3.  
Chuck Bowers (center) waving after tribute Photo: Bob Ford

To the dismay and disappointment of many in the community, the building is being leased to CVS Health as Bowers, 70, is retiring.  On this night, the multi-generational patrons and the employees reflected the paradoxical mood: celebratory yet somber with many either in denial or the truth hadn’t quite sunk in yet.

The Hippo, which opened on July 7, 1972 and was founded by Kenny Elbert and Don Endbinder, featured one of the largest dance floors in the state, a saloon and a video/karaoke bar.  During disco’s heyday, the Hippo flourished with packed crowds dancing to the beats of vintage and newer disco hits on its spacious, sunken, rectangular floor with an overhead disco ball, bathed in glimmering, colorful lights and fog effects. Many of the disco divas performed live throughout the eighties.
As musical tastes changed in succeeding years, so did the music and the Hippo’s deejays kept up.  DJ Rosie Hicks, who played the music on Hip Hop Night on Thursdays, said, “As a DJ at Club Hippo for eleven and a half years, I know firsthand that losing this venue is an emotional blow to many of us in the community. So many memories have been made inside those walls, and despite our gratitude to Chuck for sharing it with us for so long, we will all miss it terribly.”

For some, the Hippo was a life changer. Paul Hummel, the karaoke host from 2010 to 2012 as well as a customer, stated, “It was the happiest job I’ve ever had. It’s where I went when I first came out. It’s where I learned to be comfortable and proud to be me.  It’s where I met the love of my life. If any one place sums up my gay experience, it will always be the Hippo. That place changed my life.” 
Photo: Bob Ford
The club’s historic significance is not overlooked.  “The Hippo is the only bar in Baltimore that gave space and support events as varied as lesbian musical theatre, drag pageants, leather contests, fundraisers for LGBT organizations, AIDS service providers, Pride festivals and the Baltimore Justice Campaign’s civil rights triumphs,” said Louise Parker Kelley, author of the recently released pictorial chronicle “LGBT Baltimore”.

Indeed, Bowers, who bought the Hippo in 1978 and the building itself in 2005, had donated sizable amounts of money to LGBT non-profits, and he allowed other organizations, such as Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS, to hold fundraising events at the club.  Early in the 1980s when the AIDS crisis began, Bowers was one of the first in Baltimore to help raise money to fight the disease.
Operating under the motto, “Where Everyone is Welcome,” the Hippo’s major lure was that of a social and entertainment venue, which had been enjoyed by tens of thousands of people—gay and straight—including fans of drag and leather.  Numerous contests and pageants were held there; its closing elicits profound sadness but fond memories.

Drag performer and comedian Shawnna Alexander, who was Miss Hippo 2014 and had performed on the Hippo’s stage at various times for over 20 years, said, “I’m very sad to see it closing and very happy I wasn’t born yesterday and had missed the chance to experience being part of an era that was great in Baltimore City.”

Sue Nami, Miss Hippo 2008 and Miss Gay Maryland 2009, said, “The Hippo is where I started and growing in my career in this art form of female impersonator. I call this place my home and will always stay in my heart forever.”

'Chuck Bowers Way' Photo: Bob Ford
Paul Liller, a.k.a. Dimitria Blackwell, Miss Hippo 2015, found the Hippo to be an integral part of his life’s journey. “Never would I imagine that I would eventually become not only a Miss Hippo, but the last one ever.  As the doors close, I feel like a part of me will be left inside those walls. Fortunately, I walk away with memories that will last a lifetime and a love for a place I was lucky enough to call home.”

The leather community has been grateful for the many events that took place at the Hippo but noted the benefits were enjoyed beyond that community. “By allowing the leather community to hold events like Mr. Maryland and the 12 Day of Christmas, the Hippo had a hand in helping to raise thousands of dollars for charity,” said Greg King, Mr. Maryland Leather 2015.  “Chuck Bowers has left a legacy.”
Nearby businesses and even competitors recognize the impact the Hippo had as it was the primary destination in Mount Vernon’s “gayborhood.” Don Davis, owner of by Grand Central, which is located diagonally across from the Hippo, acknowledges that he and Bowers may have had their differences over the years.  However, he emphatically states that “we have always been there with support of each other.”

Davis praised the way Bowers ran the club. “Chuck has always operated a first class business and his heart has always been there for everyone. He has had the most loyal staff and customers; so many who have been there since the beginning.”
To honor Bowers and the Hippo, city officials recently named the intersection of Charles and Eager Streets where the Hippo is located, “Chuck Bowers Way.”

“The closing of the Hippo is like the closing of a spectacular Broadway show,” Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said, “The performers take their last bow, the curtain comes down, and the audience departs. Thanks Chuck Bowers, staff members and patrons for making this iconic venue such a vibrant part of Baltimore’s rich history.”
In reflecting on these past decades, Bowers is gripped with much emotion. “For 37 years this has been my home, it’s been my family,” he said.  “Now that the Hippo is closing it has been an extremely emotional time for me because of all the friendships I’ve made here over these many years.  I will miss this place.”

So will many others. 

The very last event at the Hippo on Oct. 3-4, 2015 is chronicled here.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Kinky Boots Sparkle at the Hippodrome

Any pair of boots would have been welcome to deal with the copious rainfall that landed outside the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center on opening night.  But the dazzling musical Kinky Boots, currently playing at the venerable theater, turns out to the best kind of boots.    #hocoarts 
Steven Booth (l.) and Kyle Taylor Parker in
Kinky Boots National Tour Photo: Matthew Murphy

Kinky Boots with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper and book by Harvey Fierstein topped the 2013 field by receiving 6 Tony Awards including Best Musical among 13 nominations.  Ms. Lauper, in her composing debut for the stage, was the first woman alone to receive the honor for Best Score.
Based on the 2005 film Kinky Boots, which was inspired by a true story, the musical tells of a near-bankrupt British shoe factory’s owner, Charlie (Steven Booth) who had inherited the business from his father.  He forms an unlikely partnership with a drag queen named Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker) to save the business. Charlie develops a plan to produce custom footwear for drag queens to support a man’s weight, rather than the men’s dress shoes that his firm is known for, and in the process, he and Lola bond and discover that they have a lot more in common than originally thought.

Mr. Fierstein, in penning the book, brings to the fore an impressive body of work where he has written about or performed as a drag queen (Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage Aux Folles, Hairspray).  And like these others, Kinky Boots excels in its touching, uplifting message with a strong infusion of humanity. Its overarching themes center on parental expectations, battling prejudice and stereotypes, and the need for open-mindedness.  With the setting in an economically struggling British factory town, Kinky Boots is similar to other Broadway musicals like Billy Elliot the Musical and The Full Monty.
Under the impeccable direction by Tony Award winner Jerry Mitchell who also masterfully choreographed the production, this touring iteration of Kinky Boots at the Hippodrome is a scintillating, vibrant spectacle that will entertain you and warm your heart.  Mr. Mitchell also choreographed The Full Monty and Hairspray and received Tony nominations for each.  

Profoundly superb staging, costuming, scenic design, sound, lighting, and musical direction were blended with near perfection to augment the talented cast.
Big splashy production numbers with dynamite choreography add tons of energy to the already electric show.  Ms. Lauper’s “Sex is in the Heel” in the first act is a show stopper in its own right; “Everybody Say Yeah,” a stirring song that brings down the act’s curtain, matches it.  The second act’s “In This Corner,” the boxing scene and a pivotal part of the storyline, also shines.

Mr. Booth as Charlie turns in a solid performance in clumsily trying to save the factory, manage his skeptical workers, balancing his desire to save the factory with his romantic life and overcoming his initial resistance to Lola’s world to eventually see the light.  His strong vocals are on display in the snappy song “Step One”—whereby Charlie invites Lola to the factory to design a boot for a “niche market”—and in particular, the moving “Soul of a Man” as he copes with the legacy of his father.
In a tour de force, Kyle Taylor Parker sparkles as the drag queen headliner Lola.  His silky smooth voice does justice to the beautiful score in “Land of Lola” where he performs with his excellent and acrobatic backup troupe of drag dancers, the Angels, and the tender ballad “Hold Me in Your Heart,” which he sings to his wheelchair-bound father, Simon, Sr., who did not approve of his son’s world.

But the most moving of all, “Not My Father’s Son,” in which he ultimately forms a duet with Mr. Booth is my favorite.  Though they tried to be like their fathers, both characters felt the sting from their falling short of their fathers’ expectations. That formed the bonding of the two disparate men.  The stunningly emotional lyrics resonate with all those who felt they let their parents down in some way but were determined to live their lives for themselves:

So I jumped in my dreams and found an escape
maybe I went to extremes of leather and lace,
but the world seems brighter six inches off the ground
and the air seemed lighter
I was profound and I felt so proud
just to live out loud
The entire ensemble is excellent in support of the leads.  Most notable among them include Joe Coots as Don, a boorish, testosterone-oozing antagonist to Lola and Lindsay Nicole Chambers as Lauren, also a factory worker and potential love interest for Charlie.   Ms. Chambers Cyndi Lauper-ish performance in “The History of Wrong Guys” is very well-done.

The technical elements of the production are of the highest caliber.  Musical conductor Adam Souza and his 9-piece orchestra ably supported the performances and did not overwhelm the vocals.  They achieved a perfect balance.
Scenic Designer Tony nominated David Rockwell fills the stage with an extraordinary functional and flexible set.  From a brick exterior depicting the outside of the shoe factory, an office, the floor of the factory, a boxing ring, a cabaret and even a catwalk, the set allows scenes to seamlessly transform throughout the show.  Upper platforms are employed to add dimension to the set and provide a change of eye level.

Another Tony nominee Costume Designer Gregg Barnes fitted Mr. Parker in satiny gowns and the Angels in a variety of bright colorful costumes highlighted by those boots!  He also ably designed the costumes for the blue collar factory workers, adding more reality to the staging.
Lighting effects by Tony winner Kenneth Posner also brings magic to the stage splashing the set in a palette of rich hues and spotlights throughout.

It is no wonder Kinky Boots won so many awards.  This is a compelling, splashy musical with heart and is mounted expertly on the Hippodrome stage.
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Kinky Boots runs through October 4 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.