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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

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.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s Impact on Baltimore’s LGBT Community

Like many other citizens of Baltimore and beyond, members of the LGBT community were stunned by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s announcement on September 11 that she would not be seeking re-election next year.  The news follows months of turmoil in the city in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray and a subsequent spike in violent crime. 

With the Mayor during Pride 2013
The Mayor’s handling of the crisis had been criticized by many as was her decision to pay $6.4 million as a settlement to Freddie Gray’s family a month before the trials of the six police officers accused in Gray’s death.  As these developments were unfolding, the field of candidates seeking to defeat her in 2016 was growing.
“It was a very difficult decision but I knew I needed to spend time, the remaining 15 months of my term, focused on the city’s future and not my own,” Rawlings-Blake, 45, said at a City Hall news conference. “The last thing I want is for every one of the decisions I make moving forward at a time when the city needs me the most to be questioned in the context of a political campaign.”

Rawlings-Blake took office as Mayor in 2010 and prior to that as a city councilwoman, she had endeared herself to LGBT folks in and around Baltimore.  From marching in Baltimore’s Pride parade each year, to being the first to host a Transgender Day of Remembrance at City Hall, Rawlings-Blake made her mark in the community.
She was a staunch supporter of marriage equality and spoke openly on its behalf when other elected officials were reticent.  Rawlings-Blake appeared at fundraisers during 2012 to help finance the effort to defeat the ballot initiative that would have overturned the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act signed by Governor O’Malley in March of that year.

When same-sex marriage ultimately became legal on January 1, 2013, Rawlings-Blake officiated the first such ceremony in Maryland at the stroke of midnight at City Hall—in the same room in which she made her announcement not to run—where several other gay and lesbian couples also tied the knot.
"The LGBT community is fortunate to have her as a fierce ally."--Carrie Evans

“Words cannot express my feelings. I was beyond elated to officiate the City’s first official same-sex marriages at midnight on New Year’s Day in City Hall,” said Rawlings-Blake my interview with her in 2013.  “It was beautiful, amazing, loving, and gave me a sense of pride knowing that same-sex couples, including one of my staff members and his significant other, were able to be married legally. It was an historic moment in my career that I will always cherish.”

During the Pride celebration six months later, Rawlings-Blake performed a mass wedding ceremony at Druid Hill Park in which 20 same-sex couples were married in front of hundreds of cheering witnesses.
“The concept of civil rights for all was instilled in me from a very young age,” she said.  “It is an innate part of me and has made me the person who I am today. It was and still is, a part of my family’s belief system. If any person’s rights are being denied based on race, creed, ethnicity, gender identification and expression, sexual orientation, age, disabilities, religious beliefs, or national origins, then it affects all of us.”

Advocates of marriage equality appreciated the efforts of Rawlings-Blake during the referendum battle but noted her commitment to the cause was evident even before.  “The Mayor was an early and unequivocal supporter of marriage equality,” Carrie Evans, former Executive Director of Equality Maryland, told me.  “In 2008 as Council President she helped shepherd through a resolution from the City Council in support of the state bill. The LGBT community is fortunate to have her as a fierce ally.”
In addition to her efforts for marriage equality, Rawlings-Blake demonstrated her support for the community in other ways.  She established an LGBT liaison who reports directly to her.  That person also sits on the LGBT Police Advisory Council that was created by former Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts.

Rawlings-Blake traditionally celebrated her birthdays by playing bingo at the Club Hippo, Maryland’s largest gay bar.  She recently honored the Hippo’s owner by re-naming the intersection where the bar is located “Chuck Bowers Way.”  The bar is due to close by the end of the year as Bowers will be retiring.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fighting for marriage equality in 2012
The city and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) have worked closely together especially in coordinating the annual Pride celebrations.

“The GLCCB has always enjoyed a great working relationship with Mayor Rawlings-Blake,” Paul Liller, Acting Executive Director of the GLCCB, told me. “She has been not only an LGBT advocate but a friend and member of our extended family. We wish her and her family the best of luck as she moves forward to new and exciting things, and look forward to continuing the work we are already doing during the rest of her term as Mayor.”
Rawlings-Blake said in 2013: “I want to applaud the LGBT community for their perseverance and strength to withstand the challenges they face on a daily basis. The LGBT community inspires and gives me hope that our society can overcome fear and bigotry with love, compassion and understanding. Continue to be the beacon of strength. Together, we are strong. Apart we are weak. I know at the end of the rainbow, there is something more valuable than gold and that is love.”

And now many in the LGBT community offers her encouragement.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Don’t Make Kim Davis a Martyr

While it may give marriage equality supporters a degree satisfaction that the defiant Rowan County (KY) clerk Kim Davis was sent to the hoosegow, this development, though inevitable, may backfire to some extent.  Davis, as we know, refused to follow a ruling by a federal court that required her and her staff of six deputy clerks (including her son) to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples based on her belief that such marriages don’t follow the word of God.  However, to demonstrate that she is not anti-gay or anti-lesbian, her office refused to grant marriage licenses to all couples—gay or straight.

Kim Davis says no to issuing marriage licenses
“I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will,” said Davis, an Apostolic Christian, in a statement this week. “To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God's word.”
Davis, who is on her fourth marriage, had opportunities to change her mind.  But when she appeared on September 3 before U.S. District Judge David Bunning, a George W. Bush appointee and son of former Senator and star pitcher Jim Bunning, she refused to uphold the law she had sworn to do.  The judge found her in contempt and off she went.  She will remain incarcerated until she changes her mind or allows the other clerks to issue the licenses.  Five have agreed; her son has not

 “God's moral law conflicts with my job duties,” Davis said.
“Her good faith belief is simply not a viable defense,” responded Bunning, who also said it would set a bad precedent.  

Davis is an elected official who cannot be fired for not following the law.  She can be impeached by the legislature but few believe that is possible.  Or, when she defies a court order as in this case, she forfeits her freedom.
Cartoon by Bruce Garrett - Baltimore OUTloud
Here we go again with the debate over religious freedom versus the law.  Many homophobes and/or religious conservatives are still piqued over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June that legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country.  This episode will serve to drive deeper into the divide, which reflects a 60% - 40% edge for those on the side of love, according to recent polling.

The plaintiffs in the suit—a gay couple—did not want her to go to jail if found in contempt; financial punishment would satisfy them.  They know what this could turn into.
The longer Davis remains in the slammer, the more she will be urged to hold firm and she will be transformed into a martyr for opponents of equality.  Even if she’s released, which is likely, she could still be a poster child for anti-gay marriage.  That could fuel more backlash and anti-gay sentiment and embolden opponents of anti-discrimination measures to dig in their heels.

Nothing good will come of that.