Monday, June 29, 2015

'The Producers' is no Flop at Olney


In a turnabout from its previous musical that offered the relatively sober Carousel, the Olney Theatre Center, in the midst of its 77th season, is currently mounting the gregarious, laugh-a-minute production of The Producers.  It is clear from the get-go why this musical captured a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards in 2001 and spawned numerous other productions worldwide as well a successful film in 2005.  The hilarity, high-jinx and gags keep the audience laughing throughout with never a dull moment to be had.  #hocoarts

Michael Kostroff, Jessica Jaros and Michael Di Liberto  Photo: Stan Barouh
Mel Books and Thomas Meehan adapted the musical from the 1968 movie with the same name. The music and lyrics were composed and written by Mr. Brooks who turned 89 the day following the opening night performance at Olney.  His comedic genius along with Mr. Meehan’s assistance on the book is stamped on every line, every lyric, and every movement.

Under the expert direction of Mark Waldrop, who stays true to the original show (and why not?), the company and crew does this iconic show justice in every facet and is among the very best productions that Olney has staged in years.  The Producers is unapologetic in its irreverence towards Nazis, gay people, the elderly, and Broadway folks especially producers.
To read full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Extraordinary 'Pippin' at the Hippodrome


If there is one word that describes the production of Pippin that is currently gracing the Hippodrome Theatre stage is “spectacle.”  And if I add a second word, then it would be “extraordinary.”


Sam Lips as Pippin and Company Photo: Martha Rial
The enchanting musical that captured four Tony Awards in 1973, and 40 years later the 2013 revival added four more including Best Revival of a Musical, has been touring the country for nine months and now Baltimore audiences can enjoy this outstanding theatrical experience. 

With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Roger O. Hirson, Pippin, is a fanciful tale about a young man, Pippin (played exceptionally by Sam Lips), who is searching for the meaning of life and in the process is seeking fulfillment. 

As the son of Charlemagne (King Charles, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire), one would think that Pippin would have all that he needs.  In his mind he doesn’t, and his journey to be “extraordinary” is the central plotline.

Pippin is unique in that it features a traveling theatre troupe of circus-style performers, known as The Players.  Among them are acrobats, clowns, dancers, illusionists and gymnasts who perform a wide array of daring aerial stunts, pole climbing, and a host of other athletic body-contorting feats that are eye-popping. 
Expertly directed by Diane Paulus, this musical has a charm that separates it from the others.  It’s a play within the musical whereby a character named Leading Player (performed superbly by Sasha Allen, a top 5 singer from Season 4 of The Voice) who is, as you’d expect, the lead performer of The Players.  She directs and produces the play as well as acts as a narrator for the audience, and has a definitive interest in Pippin.  In the original production of Pippin, that role was played by Ben Vereen, who came away with a Tony.



This production of Pippin excels in every area

Ms. Allen excels with her dancing and vocal skills, comedic abilities and commanding presence on the stage.  Her rendition of “Glory” and her duet with Mr. Lips, in “On the Right Track” showcases the talents of both.
#hocoarts
Sam Lips, possessing striking good looks and a lithe, athletic physique, demonstrates multiple talents as the lead.  On stage for most of the scenes, Mr. Lips delivers a high-octane performance throughout with his movements on the stage and even in the circus sequences.  His rich tenor voice with a wide range is evident in the moving “Corner of the Sky” as well as “Morning Glow,” and “Extraordinary.”

As Pippin’s father, Charlemagne, John Rubinstein totally enjoys his role.  Mr. Rubinstein, who played Pippin in the original Broadway production, returns as the King who believes war is essential to holding the throne.  After he is killed by Pippin in an effort to seize the throne, The Leading Player resurrects him.  That tells you something about the zany plot.
Another scene stealer is the accomplished Adrienne Barbeau as Pippin’s free-spirited, fun-loving, dirty-minded, trapeze hanging, exiled grandmother Berthe.  Sassy and campy, Ms. Barbeau delivers a mighty theatrical punch in her main scene and scores with her number “No Time at All.”

Other cast members who turn in solid performances include Erik Altemus as Pippin’s half-brother Lewis; Kristine Reese as Catherine, a widow who brings Pippin into her home and soars with her song “Kind of Woman”; Sabrina Harper as Fastrada, Pippin’s conniving stepmother; Stephen Sayegh who works alternatively with Jake Berman as Catherine’s son Theo; and, of course, the skilled and acrobatic Players. 
The set, designed by Scott Pask consists of a whimsical circus tent with all the equipment needed to carry out the amazing stunts.

Larry Hochman and his orchestra ably supports the excellent vocals. Chet Walker’s Bob Fosse-style choreography is superb. Dominique Lemieux fitted the company in dazzling eclectic costumes especially those worn by The Players. Kenneth Posner’s vivid lighting and Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm’s crystal clear sound design contributed to the joyful experience.
This production of Pippin excels in every area and should not be missed.  Its only flaw is that it’s only here for a short time. 

Running time: Two hours and 35 minutes with an intermission.
Pippin runs through June 28 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Beware of the Haters


The tragic murders in Charleston, SC drove home the point that there is much hatred in this world, and there is little reason to believe it’s going away anytime soon.  Racial hatred is percolating, creating a deep fissure in our society—a troubling situation even a half century since the civil rights bill was signed into law.   There is also an abundance of hateful anti-Semitism, anti-Latino, anti-Asian and yes, homophobia out there, and we need to be concerned.  Very concerned.

Within the past month, two separate anti-gay attacks on young male couples in Baltimore both startled and angered those community members who became aware of them.  The victims were beaten up pretty badly but are now recovering. 
The couple that was robbed along with the beating, not only lost money and cell phones, but also had to endure the painstakingly bureaucratic process of obtaining new driver’s licenses and other forms of identification as well as reporting stolen cell phones, credit and ATM cards. 

Then there is the trauma resulting from these incidents that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.  They acknowledge, however, it could have been worse.  They are living.  Not everyone who had endured such brutality survived.
Both attacks occurred after returning from a bar or club at night.  And in both instances, the attackers launched anti-gay slurs while committing their assaults.  In one case the victims were called “bitches” and “queers” and in the other one, “f*****g faggots.”  This indicates, at least to me, that the attacks were hate crimes.  We know that in one of these incidents, police are investigating it as a possible hate crime.  Police did not confirm if such an investigation will be pursued for the other one.

Whether technically they are found to be hate crimes or not, they were acts of hate.  The anti-gay slurs and the vicious beatings would lead me to that conclusion.  The robbery of both members of the couple took place during the beating; it was not your routine street robbery in that the victims were not held up at gun or knifepoint initially and told to fork over their valuables.  While they were punched and stomped on, one of the attackers went through their pockets to retrieve wallets and phones to top off their heinous mugging. 
The other attack on a couple did not involve a robbery but one member, Steven Lemmerman also known by his DJ name, DJ Lemz, was severely roughed up  following an altercation with a motorist who came within an inch of hitting him in a crosswalk.  His partner escaped without injury.

Baltimore can be a rough city; we should be vigilant for possible attacks.  This is especially true if the U.S. Supreme Court rules favorably on marriage equality in the coming days.  Yes, there will be celebrations galore should we win the case. 
However, there will also be a backlash, and no one knows exactly how that reaction will manifest itself.  Anti-gay attacks are likely to result though the extent is unclear.  There has been so much overt acceptance of LGBT folks and support for same-sex marriage that people can be fooled into believing that life will move merrily along down a rainbow path.

This is far from the truth.  Many people have not bought in on the equality concept.  Most won’t go out and beat up “queers” as if it was a sport—and I know that some who participated in those activities viewed gay bashing as just that: recreation.  Some may, though.  They simply don’t like us, some even hate us, and much of this bigotry is tied to religious dogma and generations of homophobia within their families.  Taken a step further, the haters out there are potentially violent.
These recent gay bashings could be instructive.  The important safeguard is not to draw undue attention to yourself in this current environment.  Lemmerman told me less than a week after the assault, “I do not believe the attacker was driving around specifically looking to attack gay couples, but I believe us having fun and being ourselves set him off in an awful way.”

There are other common sense approaches, such as try not to walk alone on a street; walk where the streets are well-lit; do not display or use a cell phone or show any cash while walking; and do not get intoxicated.  The last point is very important because if you are impaired, you cannot be observant of your surroundings.  And if you are attacked, your condition will not enable you to make a clear, indisputable identification of the attacker.
As a victim of a brutal attack, Lemmerman added his insights: “Please be aware of your surroundings and who is around you. If you are out at the clubs, try and travel with at least one friend if on foot. If Stu [his partner] was not with me screaming for help, I shudder to think how much worse it could have gotten.

“If someone tries to provoke you, do your absolute best to not give them a reason to go after you. No matter how awful what they say or do is and how mad you might get, be the bigger person and walk away from the situation as safely and fast as you can. It can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time.”
You can find more safety tips from the Baltimore Police Department here.    
 
In addition, we do have an LGBT Liaison with the Baltimore Police Department if you experience any difficulties in dealing with the police.  His name is Sgt. Kevin Bailey, and he can be reached at 443- 984-7411 or by email at Kevin.Bailey@BaltimorePolice.org.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

'Jumpers for Goalposts' Victorious at Studio Theatre


What better way to get a jump on DC’s Capital Pride than to see Tom Wells’ Jumpers for Goalposts at the Studio Theatre, which is what I did the afternoon on June 13 just prior to the parade.  This charming, endearing, and often funny play that is making its U.S. debut was written skillfully by British playwright Tom Wells. Jumpers has been so enjoyed by audiences that the run has been extended at least through June 28.  #hocoarts

From left: Zdenko Martin, Liam Forde, Jonathan Judge-Russo,

Michael Glenn and Kimberly Gilbert.  Photo: Igor Dmitri

Director Matt Torney and his talented cast are to be given high-fives for bringing Mr. Wells’ script to life in such a touching and entertaining way.

The story concerns an LGBT pub football (soccer for us Americans) team in the working class town of Hull in England.  Their games are played on Sunday while the season lasts, and after each encounter, the players return to their normal lives.
Aptly named Barely Athletic, the hapless five-person team in this five-team league consists of three gay men, a lesbian and a “token straight.” As an example of its futility on the field, it narrowly defeated a transgender team playing in gowns and stilettos.  

While the team’s ineptitude is the backdrop of the play, the characters make the story rich, real and full of heart.  They are all everyday folks who have had problems in the past, and despite these challenges, at the end they find a way to move on. 
Most of us can relate to the ordinariness of their existence, the problems they encounter and the battles to overcome them.  This disparate group of characters in Jumpers allow us to reflect on our own lives in a way that causes our issues to seem mundane. 

The window that allows us to peak into the characters’ lives is the masterful set designed by Debra Booth.  All the action takes place in a grimy municipal locker room that mimics the gritty town in which it resides.   The details—from the bulletin board, filing cabinets and benches to the entrance to the shower room—are realistically displayed and form the perfect setting for the play.
Viv, a lesbian pub owner, played robustly by Kimberly Gilbert (2015 Helen Hayes Award recipient), is the mouthy self-appointed coach of the squad who was kicked off the lesbian team for being too bossy.  She can’t stand the constant losing on the field, and she pleads with each member to find a way to score a goal and for the goalie to stop a shot. 

Viv implores her teammates to at least “give it a go” even if they don’t emerge as victorious.  She even purchased three different sized trophies as a way of inspiration.  She was willing to settle for third place if the other two pegs in the standings were unachievable.  Viv may have showed off her bluster but she demonstrates a tender side as well.

Her sister had passed away and was the wife of another player on the team, the “token straight” and oldest member of the team, Joe, who is still grieving his loss.  He is played movingly by Michael Glenn. 
Beardy Geoff, a large man—a  bear, if you will—who insists on playing the game donned in  colorful patterned trousers and a childish woolen knit cap with bear ears, is one of the three gay male characters.  He has a penchant for having sex with members of the opposition and is the conduit between the other two gay men on the team.  Jonathan Judge-Russo performs admirably in this role and tenderly delivers the surprise ending.

Zdenko Martin, a hunky well-muscled chap plays Danny, who is clearly the most athletic of the male teammates and is the assistant coach.  He has an attraction for the overly shy, sheepish and squeamish Luke, played by Liam Forde.  Luke is a slender lad who keeps a diary consisting of rather uninteresting entries, needs to take a bus to and from the field so he can perform his job in a library, and has difficulty in opening the locker room door.
Danny and Luke make progress in their budding romance until Beardy Geoff convinces Danny to reveal to Luke the truth Danny has long-harbored.  Needless to say, it wasn’t well received. Mr. Martin and Mr. Forde turn in sterling performances especially during this exchange, which provides the most potent dramatic scene.

Under Mr. Torney’s direction, the play is staged with precision and energy.  Countless changes of costumes designed realistically by Kathleen Geldard are needed to reflect the passage of time while retaining the focus on the locker room.  The actors carry out these tasks perfectly without missing a beat.
Jumpers for Goalposts describes the challenges, struggles and triumphs of ordinary folks, exposing each of the character’s weaknesses and inner strengths alternately in funny and sad moments.  They may not win on the football field but they champion the stage.  This excellent play by Tom Wells should not be missed.

 Running time: Approximately One hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: The play contains adult language and is not suitable for children.

Jumpers for Goalposts is playing through June 28 at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20005.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 202-332-3300 or visiting online .

Monday, June 08, 2015

Bullying Not Peanuts at Spotlighters


If there is anything wrong with Burt V. Royal’s play, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead currently playing at the Spotlighters Theatre, it is that not enough people will catch this important work.  An “unauthorized parody” of Charles Schultz’ Peanuts comic strip whereby the Peanuts characters have grown into adolescence, Dog Sees God, which earned a GLAAD media award for Best Off-Off-Broadway Play in 1984, takes on serious issues that adolescents continue to grapple with today.  Mr. Royal’s characters’ names are different from the Peanuts crowd because of intellectual property rights.

From left: Reed DeLisle as Beethoven, Sean Dynan as CB, and Dennis Binseel as Matt
Photo: Chris Aldridge
#hocoarts
The play poignantly focuses on teen bullying, but suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, and sexual identity among others also factor in.  With these many issues to contend with in a one-act play lasting just over an hour and a half, time could not be spent on all to delve deeply enough to do them justice.  Nonetheless, they are touched on to some extent, and bullying and suicide emerge as the central topics.
Under Director Fuzz Roark, the talented cast of young actors brings Mr. Royal’s work to life with intensity, power and energy.  The play is constructed with over 20 scenes that are well-staged and well-paced.  The cast implements smooth transitions with the use of Al Ramer’s effective lighting design, and background music is piped in during these moments.  Many of these scenes are highly dramatic and pivotal to the plot; they are executed well.

The actors make effective use of the square stage in the center of the in-the-round theater using moveable benches and tables as props in Alan Zemia’s simple but functional set.  In addition, a piano, which plays a significant part in the play’s drama, sits in the corner along the runway.

Sean Dynan, as the principal character CB (Charlie Brown), turns in a splendid acting performance.  Handsome but conveying uncertain teenage-awkwardness at the same time, he moves about the stage with the weight of the world seemingly on his shoulders.  CB’s dog had died, and CB was looking to find out if there was an afterlife.  His friends consist of a pothead (Van, played by Adam Michael Abruzzo); two boozers who think they are the cool kids (Marcy and Tricia played convincingly by April Airriona Jones and Melanie Glickman, respectively); a sex-obsessed homophobe Matt (Dennis Binseel); and  CB’s sister who has varying philosophies on life (forcefully acted by Parker Bailey Steven), provide no good answers. 

a must-see thought-provoking and entertaining event

CB had at one time physically hurt Beethoven, the school’s outcast because he is gay, and during his attempt at reconciliation kisses him, then falls for him.  Beethoven (Schroeder in Peanuts) incurs the hateful wrath of Matt whose homophobia is so extreme that it ultimately and predictably raises questions as to why. 
 
Beethoven is played touchingly by Reed DeLisle.  He finds solace from the bullying and harassment by playing classical music on the piano.  His cowering movements around the stage and his restrained dialogue are a function of his constant fear and anger.  Mr. DeLisle delivers a moving performance in this role.
Hunky Dennis Binseel as Matt (Pig-Pen in Peanuts) is the play’s main antagonist.  His persona is similar to a ball of rubber bands tightly wound up whereby the slightest provocation sets him off.  Matt is menacing (and violent).  Mr. Binseel carries this off superbly with powerful intensity. 
Rounding out the cast is Autumn Rocha, Van’s sister, who is institutionalized for setting a red-haired girl’s hair on fire.  The scene between her and CB is outstanding.
The remainder of plot will not be divulged because the highly dramatic ending but is climaxed by an emotional letter to CB from a pen-pal.
 
To his credit, Fuzz Roark, as the Spotlighters Theatre’s Executive Director, added an insert to the program containing important information concerning bullying and suicide that had been furnished by PFLAG-Carroll County and The Trevor Project.  These pages include the warning signs that people should notice, actions that can be taken, statistics, hotline numbers and other useful information.  In addition, the lobby of the theatre displays a range of brochures covering the issues that surfaced in the play. 
Also, the brief after-play discussion by cast members with the audience caps off the experience very fittingly.  Following the performance for this review, Melanie Glickman ably led the discussion.
 
Dog Sees God is mostly a serious play with a few chuckles sprinkled about.  Mr. Royal’s script captures teenage angst and the serious problems that adolescents face at school each day.  It scrupulously informs the audience as to the consequences of bad decisions or the lack of guidance from others. 
Those critical issues covered by the play are reasons enough to attend.  However, it is a well-directed and well-staged work that is performed by a talented cast and makes it a must-see thought-provoking and entertaining event.    
 
Running time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission
Advisory: The play contains profanity and sexual situations and is not suitable for children under 13.
Dog Sees God runs through June 28 at the Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St., Baltimore, MD 21202.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-752-1225 or visiting online.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Pride is Bustin' Out All Over

Pride used to be solely a June thing.  When the Stonewall uprising of 1969 was commemorated beginning in June 1970 gay and lesbian folks started to speak out forcefully against mistreatment and discrimination and at the same time pushing to achieve the same rights held by others.  Steadily that theme faded away as the years rolled along, not because all the rights for LGBT individuals have been achieved, but Pride evolved into more of a spectacle that took on a less political character. 

Pride became a huge enterprise that brings in needed dollars to organizations running the events   that usually feature a parade and a festival at a minimum but also for corporate sponsors who display their support for LGBT rights.  This involvement benefits those gay-friendly businesses as LGBT folks will remember seeing their logos on promotional materials. 
There’s nothing wrong with this at all; it’s the way our economy works.  Sponsors support a celebration that LGBT people crave and they get the benefit of advertising.

Whereas most Pride festivities took place in the month of June, they are now spread over a season, if you will.  Locally, that’s certainly the case.  Hagerstown Hopes Pride occurred in May.  June will see a number of Pride happenings including Capital Pride in DC and Frederick Pride as well as the big one in NYC. 
Because of a scheduling conflict this year, Baltimore had moved its annual event to July for the first time—the 25th and 26th to be exact.   The Pride Festival of Central PA in Harrisburg will also take place on July 25.  And the Chesapeake Pride Festival in Mayo Beach Park in Anne Arundel County normally occurs in August but this year it was cancelled because of financial shortcomings.  Organizers say it will return in 2016 if the needed funds can be raised.

Thus, our Pride season touches four months giving LGBT  folks and allies opportunities to check some neighboring festivals over this period and not have to feel that it’s one and done.
This is going to be an interesting Pride season for sure.  Heck, they all are but 2015 could be historic.  The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of the month whether or not same-sex marriage will become the law of the land.  Everywhere throughout our interconnected world will find out soon enough if this potentially enormous victory will be realized.

It is what marriage equality advocates have been hoping for over a decade.  Our relationships could lead to a societal equivalency when gays and lesbians tie the knot.  No longer would we be considered second class citizens in the U.S. should the Justices rule that the states do not have a Constitutional right to ban same-sex marriages.  
And it’s not just here. With Ireland’s unprecedented vote by its people last month, a whopping 19 countries now permit same-sex marriage, and the U.S. is poised to be number 20 with a few more on the immediate horizon.  Go back as recently to the 2004 presidential campaign where Karl Rove and George W. Bush led the charge against same-sex marriage.  Fast-forward to the present and soak in what changes have taken place in these 11 years.  It’s utterly amazing.

Think of the celebratory atmosphere at Pride events amped up by such an historical decision should it come to pass.  True, most Pride attendees ignore politics even if they are directly affected; they prefer to party and carouse.  When was the last time you heard political speeches from the Pride stages in Baltimore? 
Those who remember or at least pay homage to the true reasons for celebrating Pride are resigned to the fact that the torch has been passed on to a new generation.  Many in this new generation are oblivious to the sacrifices others have made in the past and the numerous hills that were climbed with still many left to conquer.  Nonetheless, if the rainbow stars are aligned, this should be some helluva Pride.

A good number of LGBT people believe that the establishment of full marriage equality is another step towards mainstreaming—a fear or acknowledgement ignited by the closing of gay bars over the past two to three years.  Most of these closings were business decisions in one form or another; not a surrender to some inevitable social ailment that will eventually make gay bars extinct.  It’s not going to happen—not if there’s money to be made.
...if the rainbow stars are aligned, this should be some helluva Pride.
While these folks fear this loss of identity, keep in mind that homophobia is alive and well.  Despite any court rulings, we are not fully accepted, not by a long shot.  For example, the nation does not have a federal anti-discrimination law in place and will not do so for years to come under the current composition of Congress.

The hateful antigay rhetoric you read on the Internet is chilling.  The Republican presidential hopefuls so far have yet to ease up on their homophobic rants as they foolishly try to appeal to their extremist bigoted base and then wonder why they can’t win a general election.
And not all homophobia is overt.  Little comments here and there from those who deny they are homophobic are, in fact, homophobic even if accompanied by their phony smiles.  People you think are accepting put on a façade but their inner selves think otherwise.

As we celebrate Pride for whatever reasons, just know we are not there yet.  We still have an important identity that is not going to evaporate because of gay bars shutting down. Plus, there is much work left to do; marriage equality doesn’t end our quest, it provides the momentum to march on.
There are ample opportunities and incentives to celebrate this Pride season.  But we have to keep it real.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Are Gay Bars the Next Dinasours?


When the Hippo announced its impending closing, there was a lot of collective hand-wringing.   Many in Baltimore’s LGBT communities saw this as a disaster and perhaps the final nail in the coffin for LGBT identity.  They feel the gay bar will go the way of the phone booth, record stores, and liberal Republicans.
The soon-to-close Hippo
To be sure, we have witnessed the closing of local gay bars with The Eagle in 2012 and the Quest in 2014.  The Hippo’s last dance is expected later in 2015, Grand Central may be up for sale in 2016, while another bar south of the city is teetering on closing in the very near future.  Jay’s on Read, while not technically a gay bar but popular among LGBT folks, faces an uncertain future.
Bars shut down for a variety of reasons, but for the most part it’s because of financial considerations resulting from a falloff in patronage.  The most popular reason discussed is that younger gay people are frequenting straight bars with their straight friends.  Baltimore icon John Waters believes that tendency is why gay bars are eventually going to vanish. 

“The coolest gay kids today don’t want to go to a gay bar.  They want to go to a hip bar where straights and gays are mixing,” Waters said during a recent WYPR interview . 

Grand Central owner Don Davis agrees. In that same interview Davis observed that gay people are feeling more comfortable with going with straight friends to a straight bar.  He feels the change in “demographics” will sustain this trend.
There are other factors in play.  Men don’t cruise at the bars as they once did, using phone apps and the Internet to replace hooking up through personal contact at bars.  It’s cheaper since less alcohol is consumed (or needed) and rejection is less painful.  Still others are bored by the bar scene and prefer alternative sources of amusement.

However, The Baltimore Eagle didn’t close because leather men and leather women took flight to straight establishments.  The previous owner passed away and the estate sold the bar.  If the new ownership of The Baltimore Eagle fails to have a controversial Liquor Board ruling overturned, the bar will remain closed.
The mixing of straights and gays at bars became more evident during the period when there was a Guerilla Gay Bar movement between 2009 and 2011.  To provide an alternative to the gay bar scene, monthly outings consisting of an “invasion” of gays at selected straight bars and clubs around Baltimore were scheduled with prior notice given to the bar’s management and staff.  


The Baltimore Eagle is already closed but for how long?
With one exception, because of a failure to communicate effectively, these events were hugely successful with no incidents or any other ostensible problems.  The bars’ staffs were eager to take in our money and the other patrons enjoyed or at least put up with our presence, which often numbered in the hundreds.
  
The following year marriage equality passed by referendum in Maryland confirming the increased acceptance by the straight folks.  Nationally, polls indicate that same-sex marriage is favored by a 3 to 2 margin.  Yet, even if those results are accurate, there are still 2 out of 5 who oppose marriage equality.  That’s a significant number, if not the majority.
Therefore, by no means is our acceptance universal or complete.  A gay couple in Chelsea in NYC can attest to the fact that there are haters out there who would do us harm as they were brutally attacked.  The Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, if favorable as it appears likely, will cause a backlash among many groups.  And the Republican candidates in the presidential clown car are falling all over each other in an effort to appeal to their bigoted base by raising the temperature on strident anti-gay marriage rhetoric. 

I don’t believe that the gay bar will become a dinosaur any time too soon.  Sure, younger gays and lesbians may be frequenting straight establishments.  But do male couples actually dance at these places, holds hands, or are affectionate? I certainly would not feel comfortable or safe dancing or being affectionate with my husband at a straight club.  Or, will these guys dance with their female friends as closeted gay men once did in the past while out in public? 
A gay bar does provide a secure space where one can be him or herself.  You’re with folks with more common interests, and that’s a boost towards the social benefits.  If you’re holding the hand of your gay or lesbian partner or spouse in a gay bar, you don’t have to look around to be sure the person behind you won’t break a bottle over your head.  Of course, it can happen but much less likely in a gay bar.

Regardless, existing gay bars need to step it up. Though there will be fewer gay bars around, those remaining should do well at least in the near term.  It would behoove bar owners to be more innovative and creative to keep the customers entertained and interested in patronizing their establishments.   They ought to listen to their customers to see what they would like.
As Don Davis noted on WYPR, Grand Central offers special events to keep things interesting and exciting in order for him to compete.  He unapologetically encourages a straight crowd to join in the festivities and stresses that Grand Central is an “alternative bar” and not a gay bar per se.

It is apparent that further acceptance by society fueled by the younger generation may ultimately obviate the need for gay bars or even LGBT organizations.  That would be a tangible sign of progress though we still have a ways to go.  Until then the gay bar will continue to be an integral part of LGBT social life and will not vanish altogether, at least not yet.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Magical Ride Through Orioles History


If you are or have been a Baltimore Orioles fan for over a half century or became one just recently, 60 Years of Orioles Magic is a must read chronicle from the birth of the Birds through the exhilarating 2014 season.  The coffee table-sized book with tons of extraordinary vintage and color photos of virtually everybody whoever put on an O’s uniform presents a superb accounting of all the ups and downs the franchise has experienced since its 1954 move to Baltimore from St. Louis.
Jim Henneman, a former sports journalist for the Baltimore News American and Baltimore Sun for over 50 years and who attended the first Orioles game in Baltimore in 1954, shared his wealth of knowledge of Orioles lore throughout the 276-page book. The best all-time Orioles pitcher, Jim Palmer, penned the introduction drawing on his astounding photographic baseball memory that he often displays on TV citing specifics of a game from decades past (who pitched against him, which batter he retired with men on base, the score, etc.).

The book contains 14 chapters that chronologically depict key “eras” over the 60 years.  Enhanced by countless vivid photos—many full page in size and of the action variety—and detailed captions, the story of the Orioles history unfolds in what must be considered catnip for Orioles fans in particular and baseball fans in general.  There are also replica ephemera, including old-time tickets, scorecards, posters and more among the pages.

From a description of the poor-performing Orioles teams early on in the 1950s to the emergence of a contender and then champion team in the 1960’s, Henneman effectively rekindles the memories of how the team evolved from oblivion to become one of the elite squads in baseball.
He continues this journey in the subsequent decades with the team’s peaks and valleys, which were numerous, and  covering the multitude of players who wore the orange and black, the ownership, the front office, trades—good and bad, the various managers, the new ballpark at Camden Yards and much, much more.  In particular, Henneman describes so well the exciting “Why Not?” season of 1989 that captivated the baseball world and Orioles fans. 

Several Orioles are highlighted in full page tributes, such as Earl Weaver, Brooks Robinson, Doug Decinces, Eddie Murray and the phenomenon known as Cal Ripken, Jr. especially his “iron man” streak.
60 Years of Orioles Magic includes a feature that is absolutely wonderful and a delight to baseball addicts.  Following each era, Henneman recounts a bunch of “Memorable Games” that were usually significant, odd or ironic.  For instance, this section shows Hoyt Wilhlem becoming the first Orioles pitcher to throw a no-hitter, which occurred on September 20, 1958. 

Or when on June 21, 1966, Frank Robinson hit a 451-foot blast off Luis Tiant of Cleveland that became the only home run hit out of Memorial Stadium.  On July 27, 1973, the Orioles defeated the White Sox 17-0 for the largest shutout victory in club history.  Then there was Tippy Martinez picking off three Toronto runners in the 9th inning of a tie game on August 24, 1983.  And more recently, there was Robert Andino’s astounding game-winning hit on September 28, 2011 off Boston’s impervious closer Jonathan Papelbon to effectively knock the Red Sox out of the playoffs, setting the stage for the O’s revitalization beginning in 2012.    
What I liked to have seen included in this otherwise exemplary trip down Orioles memory lane is more depth in describing some situations.  For example, illumination on the exploits of Earl Weaver and his numerous on-field skirmishes with umpires and some insight into Weaver’s storied “love-hate” relationship with star pitcher Jim Palmer would have been welcome with a photo or anecdote or two. 

The book would have been even more nostalgic if some of the quirks the fans loved were mentioned, such as John Denver’s iconic “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” played during the 7th inning stretch for many years, or the fans’ screaming “O” during the National Anthem, or a special tribute to the beloved announcer Chuck Thompson.  They were part of the Orioles tradition as well.  
Moreover, since baseball and statistics are inexorably entwined, an appendix presenting the year-to-year performance of the team, their cumulative records versus opposing teams, or a list of team leaders by category would have been the icing on the cake. Though statistics are laced throughout, a separate section is warranted.

Nonetheless, 60 Years of Orioles Magic through its extraordinary images and writing about those who wore the Orioles uniform brings to life a history, identity and a tradition that is clearly enduring.
Baltimore Orioles: 60 Years of Orioles Magic (Insight Editions/ $50.00/May2015, Hardcover, 276 pages, ISBN: 978--1608873180)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Marley Be Jammin' At Center Stage

Center Stage’s 2014/2015 season comes to a close with the world premier production of the new musical Marley, which weaves together the life and songs of reggae music legend Bob Marley. The lobby of the theater has been transformed with a dirt floor, a Jamaican shanty town, domino players, performances and dancing by ensemble members beginning 30 minutes before the show. Posters for the two opposing Jamaican political candidates Michael Manley and Edward Seaga line the walls and show the divisions in the country.  #hocoarts

From the raising of the proverbial curtain to the jammin’ hand-clapping celebratory concert at the conclusion, the audience is treated to a simply thrilling theatrical experience thanks to superb direction, outstanding lead performers, a talented energetic ensemble and a technical crew that is exceptional.
Rather than covering Marley from his birth in 1945 to his untimely death from cancer in 1981 at age 36 the show focuses on a period when his career exploded. It is bracketed by the 1976 “Smile Jamaica” concert before which he was almost assassinated and the 1978 “One Love Peace” concert, which followed a two-year self-exile to London where much introspection occurred.

For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The LGBT Press is Needed More Than Ever


Two years ago, on the occasion of Baltimore OUTloud’s 10th anniversary, I marveled how so much has changed over that time in terms of progress for LGBT individuals locally and elsewhere while at the same time acknowledging there was plenty of work remaining.  I expressed my gratitude for the opportunity to be an eyewitness to those historical developments.


Displaying copies of Baltimore OUTloud  Photo: Bob Ford
Now as we celebrate the paper’s 12th anniversary, more progress has been noted and much work still needs to be done.  What should be considered somewhat remarkable is the fact we are still here as a publication and not only hanging in there against strong headwinds, but expanding.
That’s right, expanding.  Baltimore OUTloud with its new Out in the Valley section has turned into a regional publication that will now cover LGBT news and events from Frederick west to the West Virginia panhandle and southern Pennsylvania.  This has traditionally been an underserved area as far as LGBT newspapers are concerned, and the hope is that Baltimore OUTloud can fill that void.

Despite the mainstreaming of LGBT news (a welcome development in that past coverage from the straight press had been focused on the more controversial elements of our communities) and the onset of mobile devices to find and receive news in an instant, LGBT publications remain useful and valued.
Lest we forget, consider how the gay press stepped up when mainstream media chose not to report on such huge points in our history.  Examples include: Stonewall (mainstream press coverage at the time marginalized those who participated in the uprising), the AIDS epidemic, key court rulings, anti-discrimination efforts, the repeal of don’t ask- don’t tell, the battle for marriage equality (though mainstream coverage has improved considerably in the last few years), trans* equality, hate crimes, international oppression, the fight for sexual freedom, and so on.

While these were covered by the LGBT press, the mainstream media portrayed homosexuals in a negative light, focusing on stereotypes.  Gays were seen as unhappy, lonely, flamboyant, promiscuous and incapable of having relationships.  Society’s attitudes towards gays and lesbians were negative; the media simply reinforced them. 
“There was a ‘setting straight of the record’ energy in the early days of the gay press,” says Tracy Baim, Editor of Gay Press, Gay Power and Publisher/Editor of Windy City Media Group.  “It was all about representation and making sure that we were heard and seen. The straight media forced the formation of the gay press just like they forced the need of an African-American press because they stereotyped or ignored blacks and gays.”

The LGBT press was needed then and it’s needed now more than ever. When a mainstream media outlet does a story on us, it doesn’t always seem to be complete.  LGBT newspapers tend to provide more depth to a story and offers added context.

“The role of gay media continues … because there are ... many cases where the mainstream media are simply parachuting into a story and therefore providing an incomplete and thus inaccurate picture for their readers,” said Baim.
Michael Lavers, a reporter for the Washington Blade, agrees.  “The LGBT media brings a unique perspective and insight to an LGBT-specific story that mainstream media simply cannot,” he explains.  “For example, the first issue of the [Washington] Blade was published in October 1969 – four months after the Stonewall riots. We have continuously reported on LGBT-specific stories that directly impact the community here in D.C. and beyond since then. The LGBT media shed light on these issues long before the mainstream media ever did.”

Some of these topics would include holding our LGBT leaders accountable and providing useful LGBT-specific health information and news about HIV/AIDS and the latest treatment regimens.  Rarely is that found in the mainstream press.
We explore intra-community homophobia, transphobia and racism with greater candor than you would find elsewhere.  On the positive side, we shine a spotlight on the good works of LGBT individuals and allies as well as the organizations that serve our communities.

"The LGBT media brings a unique perspective and insight to an LGBT-specific story that mainstream media simply cannot."--Michael Lavers, Washington Blade

Moreover, with our diverse communities, the LGBT press provides a platform for community members to air their views so their voices could be heard.  
“There will never be a dearth of stories for us to do. There is always going to be more news for a particular community than can be had in a generalized newspaper,” Baim points out. “I feel very strongly that there will continue to be a need for the gay press. The challenge is for us to do a better job of it.”

We understand in this modern age that more folks, especially the younger generation, receive their news from online sources or are sent links to articles via social media.  With the changing technology, newspapers need to be nimble to keep up with these changes and trends.  News travels fast, and no one can afford to be left behind.  To that end, Baltimore OUTloud has, besides its website, a Twitter account and a Facebook page to satisfy the thirst for instant news.

Nonetheless, when someone opens a link to a particular story, he or she tends to stop there.  The remainder of the publication, which contains useful and informative stories, commentary and ideas to improve the reader’s quality of life, is not necessarily read.  By not opening and perusing a newspaper, people will miss those.
There is no substitute for experiencing all the information contained within a newspaper.  Knowledge is important especially information that is provided to LGBT readers and allies that you won’t see elsewhere.   

That is why there is tremendous value in publishing newspapers, such as Baltimore OUTloud, for 12 years and counting.  As the old adage goes, “We here,. We’re queer. Get used to it.”

Monday, May 11, 2015

An End of an Era: The Hippo is Set to Close


After 43 years, the Club Hippo, one of Baltimore’s oldest and most iconic LGBT institutions, is poised to close its doors.

As confirmed at a meeting with employees on May 9, Hippo owner Chuck Bowers has negotiated to convert the building at the southwest corner of Charles and Eager streets into a CVS store.  
The negotiations between CVS and Bowers began early in 2014.  Under the arrangement Bowers will retain ownership of the building and lease it to CVS.  There is no date certain for the anticipated last dance, but it will likely take place sometime after the summer at the earliest.

Upon completion of the deal with CVS, it would mean an end of an era for an establishment seen by many as the epicenter of Mount Vernon’s “gayborhood.”  Recently, that area has also been jolted by the expected closing of Jays on Read, a piano bar that had a loyal LGBT following and Comprehensive Car Care, a long-time staple on Eager Street.
The Hippo, which opened on July 7, 1972, possesses one of the largest dance floors of any club in the state.  During disco’s heyday, the Hippo flourished with huge crowds dancing to the beats of vintage and newer disco hits on its spacious rectangular floor bathed in glimmering, colorful lights.  As musical tastes changed in succeeding years, so did the music.  The Hippo kept up.

The club also features a popular video bar where karaoke and weekly show tunes video presentations occur and a saloon area that had been renovated several years ago.  Those renovations dispensed with the two pool tables near the bar’s large glass windows and added more seating at tables within the saloon.     
Through the years, the Hippo, whose motto is “Where everyone is welcome,” hosted such extravaganzas as the Miss Gay Maryland pageants and Mr. Maryland Leather contests as well as Twelve Days of Christmas, an annual affair that benefits local non-profit organizations. The Hippo had also served as the venue for Gay Bingo—a weekly event whereby non-profit organizations shared in the proceeds.  To broaden its appeal, the Hippo has held well-attended weekly Hip-Hop nights the past 11 years.

There have been numerous specialty events held at the Hippo with well-known DJs and drag performers entertaining the masses.  Many of these individuals began their drag careers at the Hippo.  
The club’s Halloween celebrations are legendary showcasing the community’s vast cache of creativity, and the Hippo’s annual New Year’s Eve gala has always been a popular stop to herald in the New Year that frequently attracted local celebrities—LGBT and straight—to the club.
Though the Hippo does not have a large political footprint, it had been the host venue for fundraising events throughout the referendum battle in 2012 in an effort to secure marriage equality. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who had appeared at some of those events, customarily spends her birthday at the Hippo for one of their charitable Bingo nights.

For his part, Bowers, who recently turned 70, has donated sizable amounts of money to LGBT non-profits, primarily to Baltimore Pride and its sponsor, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB). The Hippo has been one of the focal points for the annual Pride block parties along Eager Street.  
In addition, he has allowed other organizations to hold fundraising events at the club.  Early in the 1980’s when the AIDS crisis began, Bowers was one of the first to help raise money to fight the disease.


"Gutting it for a CVS just doesn't seem fitting.”

Other than special events, there has been a decline in gay bar patronage over the past few years for a variety of reasons, and the Hippo was impacted by that trend as well.  Nonetheless, many folks in and out of Baltimore’s LGBT communities view the Hippo as more than just a bar with so many stating that the Hippo was the first gay bar they patronized.  It had also been a strong visitors’ destination whereby out-of-towners discovered Baltimore as a gay-friendly city.

Chuck Bowers on the evening of the Hippo's 40th Anniversary
To others, it meant much more. “The Hippo is an anchor of LGBT openness in Baltimore,” Tree Turtle, a Baltimore resident, told me  “It routinely brings together a broad cross-section of Baltimore of all colors and creeds. Regardless of the progress of LGBT human rights, regardless of the mainstreaming of queer people, and no matter how tough the economic climate is, we still need community havens! We still need people to love us for our difference. Yes: we are both same and different!”
She adds, “Where would we be but for the openness and distinctiveness of the leather daddies, the drag queens, and the drag kings? That's why we need to be accepted for our work as well as our play. That's why we need the Hippo, the Baltimore Eagle, the GLCCB, and all LGBT refuges in Baltimore!”

A person identified as 1/619K commented on Baltimore Brew, an online daily news journal, “With The Hippo’s presence on Baltimore’s major artery, straight Baltimore has had a slice of gay life mainstreamed into their everyday experience for 40 years. Early on, that really mattered. Chuck Bowers’ vision and tenacity created something groundbreaking and important. Gutting it for a CVS just doesn't seem fitting.”
As for Chuck Bowers, there is much nostalgia.  “When I come into the bar on a daily basis it’s quiet, no one is here yet. I walk through the building and look around. I hear the music, I see the lights, I hear the glasses clinking…..and then I stop,” he said in a statement. 

“And then I see the people whom I have met over the years.  This is to me, the most valuable asset this club provided me.  Their laughter, their smiles and more importantly their friendship over these years.   I want each and every one of you to know how much you have meant to me and for your ongoing support and friendship that has encouraged me to keep the club open for you.”

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Spirited '1776' at Toby's


If you think our modern Congress is dysfunctional, you should have been around when the founding fathers of our nation conducted business in the 2nd Continental Congress in the summer of 1776.  Arguments can lead to physical scuffles.  Personal insults and name calling were commonplace including branding a colleague a “landlord” or worse, a “lawyer”!  A delegate from New York had never voted on any matter because he cannot understand what the people of his state are saying.
@hocoarts#
Jeffrey Shankle as John Adams, Brendan McMahon as
Thomas Jefferson and John Stevenson as Benjamin Franklin
Photo: Jeri Tidwell
Actually, you can be around because the hilarious three-time Tony Award winning musical 1776 that puts a human face on these iconic figures is currently playing at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia.  
With music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone, 1776 the Musical is more of a play with music included (good songs at that) rather than a typical musical whereby the plot is incidental to the score.  A musical comedy would be a more apt description given the reliance on dialogue and banter.

Toby’s production under the co-direction of Jeremy Scott Blaustein (he plays Richard Henry Lee of Virginia) and Shawn Kettering, works beautifully with an incredible attention to detail and precise timing from the predominantly male company. 
Set in steamy, hot Philadelphia in what is now called Independence Hall, the story centers on John Adams and his attempts to persuade his colleagues to declare independence from the British monarchy.  Not only was Adams challenged to make the case, he had to negotiate through hundreds of wording changes as well as to cope with the southern colonies’ desire to maintain slavery.

In the 1776 version of history, Adams was seen as “obnoxious and disliked” with the phrase being repeated a number of times early in Act I to establish the character.  In one of the funnier lines in the show, Benjamin Franklin, who had been suffering from gout, told Adams that his voice is making his toe hurt more.
David A. Hopkins’ superb set design employed the in-the-round cozy confines of the Toby’s stage to the production’s advantage.  Although in reality, there were 56 signers to the Declaration of Independence, 1776 only depicted one to three from each colony.

To convey Independence Hall, the set includes tables with green table cloths to accommodate the delegates, wooden chairs, a podium where the President of the Congress John Hancock sits, feather pens for the delegates, candle chandeliers on the ceiling, a tally board indicating the vote for each colony on the main issues, and windows around. 
Costumes from AT Jones & Sons fit the company in authentic 18th century garb that include canes for the older delegates.  Period coats, waistcoats, cravats, breeches, stockings, hats, and wigs add mightily to the visuals. Hand fans are used to reinforce the oppressive heat going on that summer.


A must-see worthy of a 13-star salute.

 
In this setting, members of the audience are witnesses to the zany proceedings of the Continental Congress, the passion and pettiness from the delegates and the humor that is sprinkled throughout.  Where the issue of independence from England was debated through countless motions, each colony’s delegation had their own sovereignty in mind, which colored the discussions.  To demonstrate their approval on a matter, the delegates tapped their desks or stomped on the floor with their feet or canes as opposed to applause.
In addition to the superb setting, costuming, excellent sound design by Mark Smedley, and effective lighting by Coleen M. Foley, the production is further enhanced by the efforts from the cast, and in particular, the tour de force performance by Toby’s veteran Jeffrey Shankle.  His acting props are on display as he passionately tries to convince his colleagues to vote for independence.

Mr. Shankle’s brilliant comedic timing, movements and delivery during numerous exchanges excel.  Not to be overlooked is his fine singing voice in such numbers as “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down;” “Till Then,” a lovely duet with his wife, Abigail (Santina Maiolatesi) for whom he whom he pines and sees in a dream; “The Lees of Old Virginia,” an amusing(ly) entertaining number he performs with Mr. Blaustein and John Stevenson (Benjamin Franklin); and a group number “Is Anybody There?” 
Thomas Jefferson, played admirably by Brendan McMahon, was designated to write the Declaration.  He, too, dearly misses his wife, which is a distraction, and Adams asks her to come to Philadelphia so that he could, well, do his husbandly duties and focus on the Declaration afterwards. 

Martha Jefferson’s role played sweetly by Mary Kate Broulliet, allows her to showcase her excellent vocal talents in “He Plays the Violin.”
The musical highlight of the show belongs to Dan Felton as Edward Rutledge, the young delegate from South Carolina.  In the powerful ballad “Molasses to Rum,” Mr. Felton, who sparkled as Jean Valjean in Toby’s production of Les Misérables last year, brings fervor and dazzling vocals to the fore in defiantly challenging the abolition of slavery, which would have scuttled the Declaration had the clause remained. 

Despite Mr. Felton’s extraordinary solo, only half the audience applauded the night that this performance was reviewed ostensibly because of the message in the song, which advocates the triangular slave trade and points out northern hypocrisy.  The slavery issue is clearly the most dramatic point in the show’s storyline.
Though an orchestra conductor is listed in the program, there is no live orchestration to back up the vocals. The theatre does not have the space to accommodate the number of instruments required by the agreement to present the show.  Therefore, recorded music is used.

Toby’s stalwart Lawrence B. Munsey romps through his role as John Hancock who presides over the 2nd Continental Congress.  In a lusty performance, Mr. Munsey amusingly displays his annoyances and impatience with the delegates using an abundance of sarcasm. 
John Stevenson as Benjamin Franklin portrays a grandfatherly goofy character in the first half of the show with comedic proficiency, but Franklin demonstrates wisdom when it became crunch time to get the Declaration drafted and signed. 

The remainder of the cast is too numerous to name but they all performed superbly.  Notable among them, however, are Ariel Messaca, Chris Rudy, Darren McDonnell, Scott Harrison, Andrew Horn, David James, Ben Lurye, Russell Silber, Will Emory, and Matthew Hirsh.
1776 is not your conventional musical as evidenced by the fact the show does not end with a song or a kiss but instead the increasing din created by the clanging of the Liberty Bell as each signature is affixed to the document.  Not everyone may be interested in the arcane procedural matters of formal gatherings like the Continental Congress.  But Toby’s fabulous cast and crew make such matters comical and entertaining and a must-see worthy of a 13-star salute. 
Running time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

1776 plays through July 5 (go figure) at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling 410-730-8311or visiting online.