Saturday, June 29, 2019

Colin Cunliffe presents It’s a Gay Gay World

Can I Be Fierce celebrates Pride Month

© Austin Ruffer
Colin Cunliffe puts the Gay in Pride
by Stephen Mosher

I was 17 the first time I went into a gay bar. I paced the street outside for what seemed forever before getting the nerve up to go in, and once inside, I was terrified. That terror lasted for years. Once I was in college I tried to hide who I was, afraid of being judged, afraid of being rejected, afraid of being hurt. Even when, a few years later, I found a man who helped me inch my way into the light, I was afraid. It was the early 80s. We had to behave a certain way in public. We couldn’t hold hands at the movies or in restaurants, we would have to surreptitiously brush up against each other. We couldn’t kiss in public or say 'I love you'. We were out but in the shadows. 

I remember going into my first adult bookstore. I paced the street outside for what seemed forever, terrified I would be seen going in, terrified I would see someone I knew there, even though they would be doing the same thing I was doing. I was living in the gay neighborhood of Dallas and, still, I was terrified every time I walked into a gay bar, every time I walked out of a gay bar, and almost every minute that I was inside that gay bar.

It took time before I was able to let go of the terror and live in the light.

But it’s a new mutherf*cking day, baby.

Gay people of 2019 are still discriminated against but they will not be kept in the shadows. Since 1969, the year of the Stonewall Riots, the month of June has been hailed as Gay Pride and all around the world people have pride celebrations. They do this to protest, to remember, to celebrate. The people who participate in Pride are many and they go by many labels. Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Nonbinary, Gender Fluid, the list goes on. There is a group of people who celebrate called Allies - they are the people who celebrate and support, even though they themselves are not part of the queer community. There are, in short, many people who participate in Gay Pride.

And a lot of them were present recently when the nightclub at Pangea hosted Colin Cunliffe presents It’s a Gay Gay World.

If you had told terrified 17-year-old me that 38 years later I would be married to a man whose hand I would hold in public, and that there would be a nightclub show where I would watch a man with a lumberjack beard and eyeliner wearing a leather jockstrap, harness and cap singing to a room packed with people about being queer, I would have called you a liar. But I didn’t know, then, that activism actually works and that my people would not only be living in the light, we would BE the light. And it feels good in the light, which is exactly where Colin Cunliffe and company belong.

A veteran of six Broadway shows, Cunliffe entered the theatre at Pangea wearing a black onesie with a sequined heart on the front, harlequin cutouts on the sides and a crotch that rode so high that there was every chance that, at any moment, the audience would be knowing Colin more than they had anticipated. Over the onesie, he wore a kind of ringmaster/bandleader jacket in bright red with gold trim, and on top of his head he wore a top hat with a feather longer than King Kong’s arm. His face was made up in high glamor and sported blue mirror steampunk sunglasses. It was fabulous and uncomfortable at the same time. Fabulous because of sheer fabulosity and uncomfortable because I know I would never have the bravery to wear so audacious an outfit myself. With a metaphysical embrace of his willing audience, Cunliffe launched into what I can only describe as an LSD inspired version of 'Strawberry Fields', complete with a story about his Gay Uncle Jack - this is no Broadway chorus boy; Cunliffe is a raconteur, a poet, a showman, an activist, and an inspirator. He declared this night the night of Gay Pride when he and his family will gather to 'Get as gay as we possibly can', pausing to make the audience 'Clap as gay as you can' and teaching all how to properly say 'YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAASSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!' Setting my discomfort to one side, I settled in for the ride.

Cunliffe’s guests were all members of the New York theatre community, each of them beautiful and accomplished, some less flashy than others, some more trashy than the others; and each of them brought to the tiny cabaret stage a passion for life and love and living in the light.

© Austin Ruffer
Daniel Reichard’s take on a gay Mr. Rogers was charming and funny, balancing naughtiness and bawdiness with a message about loving your neighbor and yourself, 'There’s no person just like you', and wrapping up his appearance with a mash-up of ‘It’s You I Like’ and ‘It’s Such a Good Feeling’, including a sing-along, which should cast a light on the average age of the audience. The choice to bring the Jersey Boys alum up first was a smart one because once the life-threateningly handsome charmer had finished his number, the audience truly did feel at home in this Beautiful Gayborhood.

© Austin Ruffer
Jonathan Ritter took the place of the show’s maestro extraordinaire, Lance Horne, to present his own composition after sharing a personal story about growing up and struggling to reconcile Gay with God, a journey to which many can relate. With a lovely, mellifluous voice, Ritter brought forth that song you listened to in high school that always broke open your heart - it was sublime.
© Austin Ruffer

Emma Sofia Caymares simply flew up on the stage the moment her name was called, bedecked in a beaded brassiere, rhinestone studded belt and a take no prisoners lust for life. 'I decided to be subtle today cause that’s what I do!' and she was subtle enough to sneak a horn player into her smashing mash up of 'Born This Way' and 'Express Yourself'. For Pride. Madonna and Gaga. Um. Yes, please. When it was time for the Fosse/Verdon veteran to turn the stage over to the next performer, a grinning Cunliffe took hold of the mic and cried out 'She’s stupid!' Duh, he meant stupid with talent.

© Austin Ruffer
My heart skipped a beat when the dreamy star of Broadway’s Pippin took over at the keyboards to play his self-penned 'Backrooms'. Before starting the song, though, Erik Altemus dedicated the performance to the victims of PULSE almost three years later to the day, offering that 'without community, we really don’t have anything.' I loved that, in a celebration of being gay in your own personal way, Mr. Altemus appeared in modest dress, lit sage and brought us all into the deepest place of our hearts with a singing voice reminiscent of our own voice in that place where we are at our most introspective and vulnerable. How nice to get to go to that place, without actually having to go there.

© Austin Ruffer

Andrew Fitch took some time off of Waitress to open a vein for an appreciative crowd by singing a lovely little ballad called 'Brave', written by that girl who wrote Waitress. In Fitch’s hands, the Sarah Bareilles anthem became a lovely lullaby of hope and dreams, and where he went with his heartfelt performance, the audience was sure to go.

© Austin Ruffer

The entire room at Pangea had their hands in the air, cheering and mouthing the words to 'Colors of the Wind' as Sapphire Hart delivered the lyrics that have a different meaning as an adult than they did as a child, as a reply 'to everyone who’s ever told you you are not okay being who you are.' It was like being at a Big Gay Tent Revival, and if they had passed a plate, I would have put money in it, that’s how good it was.

© Austin Ruffer
A new trio of singers made their debut on this night and, with it, 3rd Vers made a room full of people happy, sending them home fans of their tight harmonies, entertaining girl-group-ography and powerful vocals. This self-proclaimed 'little faggot brotherhood' declares that they are 'three queer loving, sex-positive, gay men', a statement backed up by their leather wear, their camp fierceness, and their unapologetic mission statement to stay absolutely true to who they are. There were no cheers for 3rd Vers when they finished singing ‘Hang With Me'. There were screams.

© Austin Ruffer
Returning to the stage for another number, Cunliffe shared the story of his Red Ringmaster jacket, a gift from the famous Richard Simmons, who met Colin one night after Pippin when, in a moment of boldness, Cunliffe asked for Simmon’s jacket and the exercise guru told him 'Give me your address and I will send you a coat you will never forget.' The coat arrived with a note reading 'Never make a promise you can’t keep.' And having told this story, Cunliffe changed, right before our very eyes (with a little coverage from some friends) into a leather jockstrap, a harness and cap, before mashing up Tori Amos’ 'Leather' and Bette Midler’s 'Knight in Black Leather'. Cunliffe brings it all center stage and then leaves it there. We don’t need our imaginations when he is around because the rock star voiced Cunliffe has nothing to hide. It’s all on his sleeve -- if he had a sleeve to put it on. 'It’s about community,' says Cunliffe, 'We are all family.'

© Austin Ruffer
The next member of the family to hit the stage was the voice-like-a-trumpet, sequin sheathed Jack Bartholet, whose natural way with a crowd brought us all into the past with the question 'what does the gay world mean to you?' before telling us his answer with the fascinating 1920 tune 'The Lavender Song'. It was a thrilling performance worthy of Piaf, and it made me anxious to check out his show Lady With a Song at Pangea on June 27th.

Time to wrap it up, so Cunliffe, wishing to 'honor all of the ghosts who left us - it is important that we remember them' brings back Mr. Reichard for a lovely little ballad: the Disney classic 'Baby Mine', taking on a new meaning in this moment of introspection and retrospection.

However. It’s Gay Pride. It can’t end with a ballad. It has to end with a bang.

Enter Michael 'Bucky' Buchanan, probably the greatest male singer I have ever witnessed up close, capable of vocal pyrotechnics people only dream of being able to craft, for a sexy as f*ck mix of 'Make Me Feel'/'Kiss'/Sylvester. With a little request for the audience that 'we collectively participate' in the insane arrangement, this magical presence with a one-of-a-kind voice showed everyone how little it actually takes to live authentically. With audience and actors alike helping him along with our self-made percussions, he wailed the roof off of Pangea, bringing the entire room to its feet. It was a brilliant way to bring the entire cast onstage for an encore of 'Freedom' by the late, great George Michael, a perfect ending of a night celebrating being gay, being as gay as you can, being as gay as you want, being as in love with yourself and your life as you can be, and Just. Living. OUT. Loud.

Somewhere, in my past, in the long past, twinkie, terrified, 17-year-old Stephen felt a shiver run through him because there was, in some parallel universe, going to be a day when he felt, when he knew, it was okay to be gay. In fact, it would be more than okay. It would be Fabulous!

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Agents of SHIELD S06E06: Inescapable

SHIELD has an Inescapable good time!

Just watch it already...
by Brandon Coulson

Did we just get one of the best episodes of Agents of SHIELD ever? I think we may have. 'Inescapable' was a very small episode with some big ideas. Literally taking place over six minutes in the real world the episode took place mainly inside the joined minds of Fitz and Simmons.

I was nervous at first as the introduction into the episode was very exposition heavy. We got the stage set and basically our duo has been plugged into a virtual world, think of Morpheus’s White Room in The Matrix. Every tool at their disposal as well as all of each others memories.

After an adorable yet sad second proposal from the still out of the loop Fitz, we started to see where the drama would come from. As confronted about what happened in the future, Gemma regresses to a child state and retreats to her childhood bedroom. I loved the way we got to finally see a bit more on what makes her tick in this episode. The bedtime story she asks Fitz to read is adorable, and while avoiding the memory of future Fitz’s death we get a series of flashbacks detailing the arc of their relationship.

These scenes were sweet, informative, and incredibly well acted. Drifting in and out of memory and commentary, both actors impressed me with the smoothness they transitioned from their naive selves to mature personalities. I also have to say the direction and something in the writing made me think of the final season of Angel in all the best ways. The emotional beats just hit in all the right ways.

The first meeting was perfectly awkward and nerdy, the first meeting with Coulson struck just enough of sadness for his passing as well as reminding us of Season 1 FitzSimmons. Then in a turn to absolute horror, their worst selves coming out in the form of Fitz’s framework Nazi self and Gemma’s repressed rage in the form of, as Fitz put it,'A Ringu monster.' I found moments creepy and disturbing one second and then laughing at the bickering back and forth. Fitz’s 'You are so English' line just beautifully delivered and the whole thing just weaved from horror to comedy to action without feeling a bit jumpy.

If anything, the weakest part of the episode was when they called for mental backup conjuring their friends into the world. If only because the two of them, playing four roles total, were far more interesting and compelling to watch than Mack and Quake just being badasses. Also for the same reason every time we cut to Altarah and Enoch, however briefly, I found myself just wanting to get back to the main event. Also because the Chronicoms are idiotic and dull to boot.

Even as I watched Fitz and Simmons get funneled into the containment cell, I knew we were getting a call back to the trapped in the ocean plot but it still worked even with my expectations. The capper of course was after they triumphantly overcome their doubts and fears and head out to confront their inner demons given shape, we get the greatest/most disturbing twist as their evil selves are also quite compatible and are in the throes of evil passion outside the cell. Their comments of 'Didn’t know you’d like that' and 'Didn’t know you’d do that' could have played cheesy but they have just the right chemistry together to sell it.

After it was all said and done Enoch saves the day at the last second in a disappointing turn after so quickly betraying Fitz so recently and now his people. Enoch needs to defragment or something cause that bot is bipolar. So they get saved and whisked away to another place for presumably another adventure and we are left to wonder if the remaining Chronicoms will reboot and come after them.

The ninety percent of the episode that centered on Fitz and Simmons was damn near perfect and made me remember why I loved them when this series started. It almost refreshed what had become a bit old hat and repetitive. The other ten percent of the episode was frankly kind of boring but with so much good a little bland can be forgiven.

Agents of SHIELD airs Fridays at 8:00 PM on ABC.

What did you think of this episode? Tell us in the comments section below!

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Monday, June 24, 2019

Liz Callaway: Sets in the City review

Liz Callaway’s Sets sets the night right

Sets In The City: Stories of a beautiful city
by Stephen Mosher

When I moved to New York there was a night when Peggy Lee was singing in the city. I didn’t go. Over the years I read that Nancy Wilson was singing in town. I didn’t go. In fact, a number of times in my life I had a chance to go see one of the greats live and I didn’t go. I have learned from my mistakes and, now, when one of the greats is singing in Manhattan, I go.

Liz Callaway is one of the greats.

I considered Liz Callaway to be the female voice of Broadway in the 80s. Nobody was like her, and everything she sang was executed to perfection. I absolutely loved her, but the only time I ever saw her live was when she was playing Grizabella in Cats at the Winter Garden Theatre. For a reason passing explanation, I have never seen her do her club act. I have broken that pattern and gotten my butt in a seat at 54 Below to see her new show Sets in the City. You know that happy face emoji with the big toothy smile that people use? That was me all night long.

Sets in the City is Liz Callaway’s tribute to New York City, to her life here, to the songs about this place, and to the people who live here. And the show is simply dazzling. 

Callaway appears to be unchanged by time, physically and vocally. She looks spectacular and spectacularly fit, her voice is as powerful and nuanced as it has ever been, and her onstage persona is as winning and endearing as a person singing in a nightclub should be. When I go home from a show I like to feel like I’ve gotten to know the performer a little, and thanks to some marvelous tidbits about her life and the way those stories are matched up with the songs she sings, I feel like I actually do know Callaway personally. I already know her career, so I loved the inside nods to shows she has done, like starting the evening singing 'Who wants to live in New York, who wants the worry, the dirt, the heat, the noise…' from Merrily We Roll Along, a play she was in on Broadway, or songs she has sung, like mentioning that a reviewer once said she fared well with Stephen Schwartz songs, and that there is one Stephen Schwartz song she will never stop singing, and I knew it was ‘Meadowlark’. It’s like having an inside joke between you and the artist when they bring out the songs you know, and know them for, and the room must have been filled with fans because people around me were reacting the same way as I when they caught on to a clue.

The evening wasn’t only songs previously associated with the Tony Award nominated actress. Ms. Callaway shared a sweet story about trying to find a way to include the Flaherty and Ahrens tune ‘Something Beautiful’ in this show, to no avail, until Lynn Ahrens told her what inspired the story, bringing the pieces all together (no spoilers here, I’m afraid). In fact, while I could listen to Liz Callaway sing for more than the 75 minutes to which I was treated, I could also sit and listen to her tell stories for another 75 minutes. The comfortable way with which she discusses her family, her life as an actor, her courtship and marriage (to Dan Foster, who directed this show) was akin to listening to a performer at The Moth tell one of their stories. Callaway is honest about herself, poking fun at her youthful ambitions, sharing stories about celebrity encounters she’s had and journalist’s appraisals of her early work, and sincerely praising people like her idol Marilyn Maye (who was in the house and able to hear, first hand, the tributes Callaway paid her). It is very clear that Liz Callaway has a good time doing this work, and though I miss seeing her on the Broadway stage, I am happy to turn up at any nightclub where she is singing and catch her act again, anytime.

Musically speaking, the evening was filled with highlights for me. As a fan, hearing her sing her number from the musical Brownstone, ‘Since You Stayed Here’, was a tearful, yet smile-inducing moment for me, while my husband, sitting beside me, saved his tears for her totally in the pocket version of ‘Tell Me On a Sunday'. With mash-ups and medleys peppering the evening, it is easy to see why Callaway works with musical director and arranger extraordinaire, Alex Rybeck, because his own work on this show was swoon-worthy. An epic medley of songs about singing had the audience cheering, while a wonderfully sexy and strong-rhythmed performance (courtesy of bass player Jared Egan and percussionist Ron Tierno) of Chuck Mangione’s ‘The Land of Make Believe’ had me chair-dancing. The evening was a perfect blend of storytelling in the bright, and the quiet places where our hearts live, especially people like me who, when Callaway says she is nostalgic for a 'New York that isn’t there anymore,' know whereof she speaks, and are willing passengers on the ride of reverie that reminds us of the things we love, and have loved, about the magical city we have chosen to call home.

So You Think You Can Dance S16E03: Judges Auditions #3

A night of rising to the occasion on SYTYCD
by Stephen Mosher

The third Audition episode on the new season of SYTYCD dropped, and boy, was it chock-a-block with memorable moments, starting off with some very silly judges acting up backstage, doing some ballet barre warmups that warmed up viewers’ hearts. But with only an hour for each episode, there is little time for fun and games (and, irritatingly, little time for Cat, and I miss the amount of time we used to spend with America’s Best Reality Competition Show!), so without further ado, they dove right into the evening’s dancers, each one more endearing than the last, and each one overcoming an obstacle of some kind - a physical limitation, a rejection of some kind, or separation from a loved one or passion.

The dancers moving forward:

Bailey 'Bailrock' Munoz, hip hop. The 18-year-old from Las Vegas is shown in his profile package talking about having been born premature, which affected his health for a lot of years -- it is not clear if being a premie is responsible for it or not, but the B Boy is only 5-feet-tall and, being teased for years about it, he turned to dance for solace and strength. Well, strength is what he has because the judges went wild for his fast footwork and tricks. The affable young man is a complete joy to watch and audiences surely fell in love with him after his performance to ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ by Calvin Harris & Disciples. Dominic: 'You’re the newest generation of B Boy.' Bailey: 'You’re never too little to dream big.' The Judges: 'You’re going to the Academy!'

Luke Romanzi, contemporary. The Brooklyn native works in his father’s bagel shop, which dad wishes he would take over, but the 18-year-old longs to dance, having auditioned for the famed Julliard, who turned him away. Dad may be disappointed the family business won’t stay in the family, but he clearly wants what his boy wants, crying during the interview and throughout Luke’s performance to ‘The Crumbling’, which was a compelling 'lesson in control' (Mary). While watching Luke dance I said, out loud, 'Oh, he brought a story!' and then 'He brought Martha Graham!' His technique and athleticism were admirable and while Laurieann said, 'There is something about Brooklyn that produces a fighter,' and Dominic told him, 'Julliard messed up,' it was also noted that there was an emotional disconnect. Nevertheless, he is advancing with the full support of all four judges.

Victoria Neukom, 19, contemporary. Dustin Payne, 27, hip hop. Jay Jackson, 30, contemporary. All three are returning dancers (Dustin is here for the 3rd time) and in a montage of clips all three are shown giving performances good enough to land them in The Academy. In a particularly satisfying moment we see Jackson, who danced in drag last year, admit that last season changed his life, a fact substantiated by this year’s focus and technique. When he got the news he was moving forward, tears rolled down his face and, frankly, down mine as well. Go, boy!

Jordynn and Elan Lurie, 20 & 24, ballroom. Like the last three dancers, this brother and sister dance team returned after a trick gone wrong last season sent them home. They have, clearly, worked during the last year because their salsa furioso to ‘Baila Como Es’ set everyone ablaze, landing them on the Hot Tamale Train. Jordynn garnered most of the praise, perhaps rightly so, but both were given Golden Tickets after Nigel insisted their 80-year-old grandfather dance with Jordynn. Their tricks this year were astonishing and they executed, perfectly, the move that got them kicked off last season.

Sophie Pittman, 18, contemporary. The high GPA’d recent high school graduate confesses she will be skipping college in order to pursue her dream of dance by moving to Los Angeles from small town Tennessee. Her profile package showed her at home with her younger sister and it was easy to see why they are best friends, a fact Sophie admitted through tears during the interview, and why she needs to move away from home to show her that 'she can chase her dreams'. Sophie’s performance to ‘Girl Crush’ had some proficiency but each of the judges was clear with their respective criticisms and the young woman took their critiques with grace, listening and thanking them. Laurieann used my favorite new turn of phrase when she told Sophie she would like 'one more level in your conversation'. The cameraman worked overtime getting her teary-eyed sister on camera but it paid off big when the judges put Sophie through to the Academy because the younger sibling was thrilled for her bestie, and that’s the kind of thing we want to see when the SYTYCD dancers aren’t actively dancing.

Frank 'Ghost' Crisp Jr., 27, hip hop. The incredibly charismatic one-time mascot for The Harlem Globetrotters works in administration now for the famed basketball players but he misses, terribly, his performing. So he brings all 500% of his personality to the stage, whether he is dancing or not, and he wins over the hearts of all with an audition to ‘Pump it Up’, and while I found his dance to be in need of more dance and less comedy, there is no denying he belongs on the show. The judges thought so, too, because they gave him a Golden Ticket, reducing him to tears for a long while after his departure from the stage.
Lauren Luteran, 19, contemporary. In the heartstrings story of the night, an inspirational young woman with cystic fibrosis discusses her illness and how dance has changed her life. Her parents are, naturally, emotional as they share that their daughter will not outlive them, and viewers see Lauren using her CF Vest to help her breathe. It’s an emotional story and the young dancer’s spirit completely wins over the judges, all of whom shower her with praise for her braveness. 'There is a cure coming and I hope I can spread awareness.' It is clear she is not up to the skill level of other contemporary dancers but, in absolutely the right move, all four judges send her through to The Academy. Well done, judges.

The only dancer from the evening not advancing was the charming Maria Babineau, a 21-year-old Canadian neuroscience/biology college major who admits to never having had one dance lesson before blowing the minds of the judges with her hip hop robotic audition to ‘The Devil’s Den’. Dominic told the YouTube taught dancer that he was simply speechless, and while everyone admits to having been entertained by her, she is kept out of The Academy by the men, both of whom vote no, while the female judges said yes. Back to the classroom, Maria - only make it a dance class and come back next season and show them you mean it.

One of the things I am noticing about the season, as these auditions continue, is that with only five or six dancers being put through to The Academy on each episode, viewers are getting to develop a relationship with a limited number of contestants. There won’t be a whole lot of suspense when it comes to picking who will be on the shows when they go live, will there? But that’s okay by me because I don’t need suspense when the competition begins.

I only need more Cat Deeley.

What did you think of this episode? Give us your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Monday, June 17, 2019

Agents of SHIELD S06E05: The Other Thing

SHIELD takes care of The Other Thing

You can go make a sandwich during this one.
by Brandon Coulson

This week on SHIELD we got a lot of things done. People were reunited and pulled apart. Battles won and lost. The pieces set up for the rest of the season. All necessary steps and done in a fairly entertaining way.

All this being said, the episode itself was very, very ... okay. There were some great moments sprinkled throughout, mainly our MVP May, but the exposition and a flashback framing device felt forced and old hat. It was jarring enough to make me wonder who directed 'The Other Thing'. I was surprised to find actor Lou Diamond Phillips was in the big chair this week and with only ten directing credits to his name it became clear there might have been a weak hand guiding the ship.

Now let me say again I enjoyed the episode overall, it wasn’t boring per se, the action moved and was well choreographed. There are even some really well done scenes between May and Sarge that get intense. Those scenes are without question the strongest part of the episode, credit to the actors and the director for that.

We set up that Sarge and company are trying to stop the parasitic bat things and that they share some similarity / connection to the obelisks from seasons past. We also got teased on a big bad who created these things.

On the other side of our story out in space, Enoch’s people have come for Fitz to get the secret of time travel because their world has been destroyed by some mysterious force. My guess is the same threat currently on Earth. Through Enoch’s multiple stupid comments we end up with Fitz and Simmons staying to design a device under duress while the rest of the crew go home.

With this setup there are a few theories moving forward. The number one floating around that struck me as well was that Fitz will end up inadvertently creating the threat on Earth in the past with time travel being the catalyst. I will say I’m a bit bored of the 'Evil Fitz' idea we keep getting pushed towards (spoilers per the previews, next week his evil side resurfaces). If it isn’t Fitz though, the vague way Sarge talks about the big bad seems to be setting up for some kind of big reveal, otherwise why not give him/her/it a name? So we have to think about who else might be a big surprise reveal. Another doppelganger, perhaps evil Simmons this time? Or, god I hope not, Ward? It will be tough to wow me on this reveal but I want them to succeed.

Largely though outside of May’s close quarter combat and all of her scenes with Sarge I was not terribly invested in the other scenes. Mack and Yoyo’s talks about last week’s death felt flat and emotionless, and the professor's discovery about the parasite was literally telling us the same info May got from Sarge, serving only to make sure all parties are aware of the threat and what Sarge’s crew are doing, but it felt repetitive.

Again back to May her fight with one of the parasites was fantastic, the effects and stunt work top notch. But marring May’s sections were these strange flashbacks to her time with Coulson before he died. Feeling forced and not in keeping with May’s character they should have been removed entirely.

Then Quake barely got to kick and butt at all. In fact all of stuff with Altarah, Enoch’s former lover apparently, was just odd tonally. Their weird robotic sex talk was supposed to be funny but I just found it creepy, and her personality was non existent.

This was very much a bridge episode. Setting things up to hopefully pay off bigger things down the road. While not the worst the series has had to offer definitely the weakest of this season so far.

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

So You Think You Can Dance S16E02: Judges Auditions #2

So You Think You Can Dance Has a Family Night

Toddlers and Mothers and Babies, Oh My!
by Stephen Mosher

Episode two of Season 16 of SYTYCD was filled with beauty, both in the performances and the performers. It is really refreshing to be treated to positivity instead of the insanities and insults of past seasons. It must be a new mission statement from the front runners and producers of the show: only happy stories and pretty things. What a relief from all the ugliness in the world, and with the episode I fell more in love with the two new judges, Laurieann and Dominic, whose love of dancers definitely shows, as more dancers traveled to Hollywood and the SYTYCD Theatre to chat with Cat and dance their feet off in a night filled with family matters.

The dancers moving forward:

Sumi Oshima, hip hop. The 26-year-old native of Japan explained her parents put her in dance school because she was a troublemaker, which endeared her to Laurieann, who proceeded to leave the judges chair and join the gum chewing, endlessly smiling contestant, post performance, smack her on the ass and say 'Bad Girl!', her own personal way of applauding her, because Sumi crushed it dancing to ‘Koto’. 'You have stolen our hearts' was Nigel’s endorsement of her Golden Ticket winning skills.

Caroline Del La Rocha, contemporary. The Knoxville native shared the sad story of not being spiritually supported by her father, sparking a moment of personal sharing from Mary, whose father did not speak to her for two years when she went into dance. The 18-year-old followed up her therapy session with the world by performing a powerful piece to ‘Bird Set Free’ before the judges pointed out the haphazard and uncontrolled way she danced. 'Turn off your brain so your facilities can live' offered Dominic. It looked like Caroline would not be put through but with Laurieanne’s compliment that 'You make me FEEL something', she got enough votes to get a Golden Ticket to Academy

Samuel Sweetser, hip hop. Perhaps the happiest contestant of the night, the B Boy shared that '24/7 my entire family is dancing', even sharing his pride about his two-year-old dancing son, Koa, who Nigel insisted on bringing to the stage. The father and son dance duo warmed everyone’s hearts and, after, the father set the stage on fire with humor, athleticism, musicality and swag, dancing to ‘Squeeze Me’. Four immediate yesses.

Gianna Newborg, contemporary. This 19-year-old who works with bff/mom in the family hoagie shop brought theatricality and darkness to the dance floor with a piece about kidnapping. Her 'dark as it can get' solo to ‘Rescue Me’ inspired a huge response from judges and audience alike and she was instantaneously bestowed with a Golden Ticket.

Nazz Sldryan & Stefan Yeritsyan, ballroom. 21-year-old Nazz and 23-year-old Stefan used to compete against each other but recently decided they make better allies and joined forces to do SYTYCD. With only two months of dancing under their belts, they did a cha cha cha that wowed the judges and caused Mary to say 'Hell Yes', and put them on the Hot Tamale Train. Their number to the song ‘Bailar’ was laden with chemistry and connection, one hopes they will find the same chemistry with other dancers at The Academy.

Kaeli Ware & Brandon Talbott, contemporary ballroom. Ware, 18, and Talbott, 19, quickly shot down Nigel’s question 'are you a couple', but the truth is that they ARE a couple - a dance couple. They move onstage as a married couple moves through life: with total trust and confidence in one another. They relate to each other so well it is clear how much the really like each other. It was a dazzling dance performance to ‘Torn’, landing each of them in the next round.

In quick snippets we see contemporary dancers Tra Wilson, Howard Johnson and Abigail Hau being put through to The Academy.

In a special SYTYCD moment, 'Korra' Obidi Dean walked onstage in an advanced state of pregnancy. Sharing the story that she is a Nigerian Princess who moved to the states to be with the love of her life, she gave a surprising dance to ‘Bad Man’ that combined her native culture and belly dance, leaving the judges screaming with her drop split. The judges all loved her, praised her ('There is so much purpose in your choices' said Laurieann), and then sent her home. The glowing and grateful Princess said her goal was 'to create a shift for my people' and for 'every girl in Nigeria to see you can do anything you want.' It was a moment of magic on Episode 2.

So far the season is shaping up to be a pretty good ride, life affirming and happy, filled with joy and humanity. And lots of family.

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Saturday, June 15, 2019

Celebrating Sweet Sixty with Sally Mayes

The sexy, swinging Sally turns sixty with style
by Stephen Mosher

The great thing about staying in show business your whole life is that you get to know everybody, you get to work with everybody, your friends become your collaborators and your collaborators become your family. That’s what was on display recently at famed NYC nightclub Birdland when Tony Award-nominated actress Sally Mayes celebrated turning 60. A room full of family, friends, and fans convened to watch Miss Sally put on a show, inviting some of her greatest and most intimate of colleagues to share the stage with her, including her always present husband of 28 years (their anniversary was the day before) renowned bass player Bob Renino. Sitting in the audience one could spot luminaries of the New York entertainment community like Karen Akers and David Zippel, and it wasn’t a far stretch of the imagination to wonder whom from the house the birthday woman might call upon to lend a voice to the proceedings of the night, a concert titled After All.

'Motherf*ckers I’m Sixty!' was the cry of The Warrior after finishing her opening number, 'Danny’s All Star Joint', to thunderous applause. 'I’m always relaxed after I drop the F-Bomb, so now I can relax and have some fun,' explained the petite Texas chanteuse, looking svelte and sexy in her black sequin slacks and sparkly black sweater, looking every bit of 40. Dudes, if this is sixty, sign me up. Mayes is in magnificent shape vocally and physically -- 'I haven’t had a carb in three years' -- and the prowess that, in the 80s, labeled her one of the great jazz vocalists is not only still there, it has gotten better. With sassy confidence and complete ownership of the stage, her age and the glittering evening, she shared stories about her friends (the late Carol Hall whom, Mayes recounted, coined the saying 'she’s just a slut, bless her heart'), her career ('my husband got tired of me complaining about the treatment of Southern people in musicals and told me to write one of my own -- so I did!') and her family ('I never loved my mother more, even though she didn’t recognize me'). This was no mere cabaret act put together for people to hear a supreme artist execute their craft; this was a welcome window into the world of Sally Mayes, a chance to know her better than they had before, an opportunity to share herself, the most important thing of all.

Throughout the 75 minute intimate entertainment, Mayes bounced from her signature scat-singing infused jazz style to country western themed show music, from 70s pop with virtuoso arrangements to wailing Rock 'N' Roll. People only familiar with her performances in Broadway musicals or on her jazzy CDs were surely surprised to learn that her abilities include such wide-ranging genres of music. And for each style of music, Miss Mayes had a guest artist to help her along. Dueting on some Paul Simon with Jeff Harnar, her co-star in the cabaret Double Take, Mayes welcomed her first guest artist of the evening and together they charmed with their simultaneous scat-stylings before she invited a delightful Wendy Lane Bailey for some laughs with the comedic 'Round', penned by Amanda McBroom who sent a birthday message along with Ms. Bailey. The evening being a family oriented show with many of Mayes’ extended family in the audience, it was only right that the people on the stage be comprised of family as well, and not just husband Renino, because Mayes vacated the stage at this point to bring her brothers onstage - at least her artistic brothers, because the diva has been knowing and singing with Birdland host Jim Caruso and maestro Billy Stritch for almost as long as she has been singing. Together her fellow Texans and naturalized New Yorkers serenaded her with a mash-up of 'Come Rain or Come Shine' and 'You Are My Sunshine'. Caruso and Stritch have worked together many times, and it was like watching one of the great duos from the history of crooning, like Sinatra and Crosby doing 'Well Did You Evah', as Caruso belted and howled while Stritch purred and growled. The effect was mesmerizing, particularly if you took your eyes off the stage to look at Mayes, seated ringside, laughing and clapping along. Mayes traded places with Caruso to do a couple of duets with one-time singing partner Stritch (from the Montgomery Mayes and Stritch days back in the 80s), and while the quirky 'When I Take My Sugar To Tea' was fun to watch, the money was in 'A Song For You'. Now, this has been my favorite song since my youth, with my preferred versions being by Helen Reddy, Karen Carpenter and Diahann Carroll but after this performance by Sally Mayes all other recordings of the Leon Russell classic can gracefully step down, there’s a new favorite in town. It is rare and it is lucky to see a singer open up their heart for an audience to this extent. In this moment, we were all Sally Mayes’ family.

One of the highlights in Miss Mayes’ career was an off-Broadway musical called Pete N Kelly. Produced in 2001, the popular musical was revisited in a one-night concert version last year that went over so well that Mayes and co-star George Dvorsky are bringing it back to The Birdland Theatre for a sit-down run in November, and what a perfect time to celebrate that development by having the unbearably handsome leading man join her onstage for a little comedic singing in the form of a nightclub rendition of 'Battle Hymn of the Republic' that had the audience shrieking with laughter. In fact, much of the night was filled with laughter as Miss Sally brought forth her comedic chops; but there comes a point in every nightclub performance when things get really personal as the entertainer and the audience sit down for some very honest interfacing.

This was that moment.

Sally Mayes has written a musical. It is a Southern musical that will show the people of the South in an amiable and intelligent, in a loving and respectful, in an honest light. And though Contradiction of the Southern Soul is not an autobiographical story, as Mayes points out, it is informed by aspects of her life, which is how all great art is created. The show has had some positive feedback after being workshopped and is moving forward into the light, and it’s a good thing, too, because the two numbers Sally sang from the play are beautiful examples of what happens when poetry is put to music. There is a feel to Southern writing that is unique, that is unto itself, that is unlike anything else. Note the lilt and lyric in the works of Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor and my personal favorite, Truman Capote. Sally Mayes’ lyrics to the songs 'Whiskey Lullaby' and 'Like A Child' made me feel the way I feel when re-reading The Grass Harp. These aren’t songs she has written, they are intimate pages taken from her personal diary and set to music by Ethan Fein and Alex Rybeck, respectively. With Fein, Jessica Wright and Cooper Baldwin joining Renino to give Mayes a fully orchestrated band on these most personal numbers, an audience filled with southerners was given a mind-trip back home to see their Mamas and Daddys once more. It was incredibly moving, especially for this writer whose mother, likes Mayes’, suffers from dementia, an experience perfectly captured in 'Like a Child'. This was a perfect way to close the night.

Except you can’t end a nightclub act with heartfelt ballads! You have to go out with a bang! And what better way than to have multiple Tony Award recipient and raconteur Jason Robert Brown come out to share stories and songs before leaving the Birthday Woman to bring it home with that song that belongs, solely, to her. And while other women have sung the famed show tune, everyone with a grasp of musical theatre history knows that when Maltby and Shire sat down to write it, they wrote 'Miss Byrd' for Sally Mayes. And, yes, audience members throughout were mouthing the words and singing along as we got to see our dear old friend, Miss Byrd, one more time. It was a raucous way to end a perfect night at The Birdland Theatre and, like any entertainer worth their salt, Sally slipped quickly back onstage after her bows for one more taste of the talent that has made her a unique star on stages around this country. Singing the self-penned (with Tex Arnold) confection 'After All', Miss Sally Mayes waved a hearty and heartfelt goodnight to the ovating audience and, wiping a single tear from her left eye, stepped off the stage and went to get a glass of champagne and a slice of birthday cake.

Thank heaven she was born.

After All was a One-Night-Only event. To stay up to date on Sally Mayes’ performances follow her on Twitter @MayesSallymayes or check

Theatre Review: Mood Swings

Leanne Borghesi’s Mood Swings runs the gamut

© Helane Blumfield
A rollicking roller coaster in a cabaret setting
by Stephen Mosher

When I think of Nightclub Singers, my mind goes into the past to a dreamy vision of Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan, Bobby Darin or the like in moodily lit clubs singing into a smoke-filled air some songs that they like. It’s a gritty, glamorous vision captured in black and white photos of the time, photos that history buffs and music devotees like me look at and longingly wish for the invention of a time machine. There are still performers like this who sing in clubs and cabaret rooms all over New York City, and there are performers who bring to the stages of clubs an act, a story, a journey. I can get into any genre of cabaret performing, from the crooners to the comics, as long as there is a story being told.

Well there was a heck of a story told at Mood Swings, which played the Laurie Beechman Theater recently. Mood Swings is the creation of 2019 MAC award (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) nominee Leanne Borghesi, who has played this show to sold out houses in New York and San Francisco, and who will likely bring the show back due to its popularity. Mood Swings is 75 minutes of bawdy, naughty comedy and swingy, sexy, silly singing that had the audience (and I am not exaggerating one little bit) screaming one minute and sighing the next. Guests with no preconceived notions of what was about to happen were immediately clued in when Borghesi burst forth in her Stiletto Ruby Slippers, enormous hair and feather boa: this was not going to be a crooner standing at a mic singing standards. Oh, there are standards. There are showtunes. There are classics. There was, in fact, not one song that I couldn’t sing along with (remember me, the music aficionado?) - and when a club act is all songs you already know there is a risk that you might find yourself a bit bored. Not even the most cynical and jaded person could be bored by Borghesi because every song is an act in her one woman play about a madwoman getting over the departure of an unnamed paramour who left her in a state of luxurious drama, dare I even say melodrama. This isn’t just every day melodrama, though - it is high sketch comedy worthy of Bette Midler, Joanne Worley and Gilda Radner. From start to finish, Leanne Borghesi commits to this character who ought to be committed. There is no length to which she will not go to get a laugh, no depth to which she will not sink to bring her audience to her. The thing is, she didn’t need to sink to bring us to her because we went, willingly. That is the extreme of her abject charm. Whether she is crawling on the floor, lying on her back doing Busby Berkeley leg-ography or engaging in outrageous prop comedy, Leanne Borghesi proves that when it comes to winning over her audience she is equal to the task.

The laughs don’t stop when La Borghesi sings, they simply take on the added dimension of awe. Not since the days of Kaye Ballard, Karen Morrow and Eydie Gorme has there been a voice this big on a stage. There are certainly belters out there on stages in theaters and cabarets, but there is something special about Leanne Borghesi’s ability to open her mouth and fill a room with a sonic boom in F5, then immediately reel it in to a growl in F3, all the while enhancing the story her voice is telling with facial expressions worthy of a movie close-up of Bette Davis. Even at one of the funniest moments in her play, Miss Borghesi had tears welled up in her eyes, threatening to fall down a cheek made up in full opera, but defiantly not daring to, lest the onstage character unveil the pain she is in. It is a tour de force performance that would play from center stage at the Muny but that isn’t too big for the Beechman, a balancing act of epic proportion, masterfully executed by a Mistress of Mischief and Mirth.

© Helane Blumfield
Directed by Nick Minas, Mood Swings flies from brass with numbers like 'Old Devil Moon' to sass with tunes like 'Moondance', it is silly with 'Everybody’s Girl' and sexy with 'I Put a Spell on You', and the show and its star remain engaging and exciting from that first jeweled red pump hitting the stage to the last glimpse of a different kind of slipper sliding into the wings. Backed by an exemplary team of musicians named Jamie Mohamedien (bass), Jim Piela (sax/clarinet), Don Kelley (percussion) and musical director Brandon Adams, Leanne may stand front and center but it is clear that she is never alone because the adoring glances of her fellow entertainers speaks volumes and, frankly, those glances mirror the adoration rolling up to the stage from the audience.

For the moment Mood Swings has completed a run in New York City with a promise to be back, but Leanne Borghesi is an award winning actress who is continually on the move, so Mood Swings or any of her other projects might happily play a town near you. To stay up to date on Leanne Borghesi’s appearances refer to her website or her social media accounts
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Movie Review: Banana Split

Ben Kasulke shines in his first film, Banana Split
© American High / Burn Later Productions
Hannah Marks wrote a tight, but free-spirited script about friendship.

You might have heard Ben Kasulke’s name over the last few years. He was the cinematographer for such films as Safety Not Guaranteed and Laggies. Kasulke made the transition from cinematographer to director with his new film, Banana Split, which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival last year. I had the privilege of viewing this film as part of the Seattle International Film Festival and got to discuss the film with the director as well.

Banana Split is regarded as a coming of age story set over the course of the summer, which is something done many times before. The film offers a twist when April (Hannah Marks) breaks up with her boyfriend of two years, Nick (Dylan Sprouse) and learns that he has moved on quickly. April meets the girl that Nick is now dating and befriends her, despite still having feelings for him. Throughout the summer, April and Clara get to know each other, but vow not to discuss Nick or even let him know that they hanging out with each other.

Hannah Marks, who plays April, wrote this film alongside Joey Power. Together they wrote a tight, but free spirted film about friendship. The film explores that friendship can come in the oddest of places, just like April and Clara’s situation. Marks is hilarious in her role as someone who is insecure, but willing to try new things. She often masks her emotions with humor, which can be both funny and dark. Marks is solid in her role and balances both the writing for the film and the acting very well. With Marks writing the film, she is truly able to understand the character. A lot of the humor from Marks feels improvised, which kept me interested because I was wondering what she would do next.

I was surprised to see Dylan Sprouse as I didn’t know much about who starred in the film. It was nice to see him in something, since his brother Cole has been popping up in movies and television shows lately. He doesn’t appear a lot in the film, but his character is integral to the plot. Whenever he is in the movie, his edgy performance fitted right in with the two main leads and the story.

April was hesitant to meet Clara, who is dating her ex, but once she got to know her after a night of throwing back shots, she learns that she is actually pretty fun and they have a lot in common. Of course, the idea of Clara dating Nick is in the back of April’s mind because she still has feelings for him, but the two always focus on each other, rather than him. Both Marks and Liana Liberato have great chemistry and aren’t afraid to explore different parts of their relationship. They worked well together and I am glad their friendship started instantly instead of it being built up over time.

Banana Split was a film I couldn’t wait to finish. Not because I wanted it to be over but wanted to see how the film ended. Despite the story having a similar premise to other films, it managed to make me laugh and be interested in the story. This is done in the script by Marks and Powers and the relationship between the two ladies. For a first-time director, Kasulke was able to handle the film well and I can’t wait to see more of him in the future.

Check out Justin's interview with director Ben Kasulke.

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Hotchka Interview: Ben Kasulke

Interview by Justin Moore

Over the past 13 years Ben Kasulke has been credited 69 times as a cinematographer on IMDB. The first film he worked on was We Go Way Back, which was directed by Lynn Shelton. His resumé is quite impressive, which includes being the cinematographer for Safety Not Guaranteed, Your Sister’s Sister, and Laggies, and now he has made the transition from cinematographer to director with his first film, Banana Split. His first film showed at the Seattle International Film Festival -- Ben lives in Seattle -- and I got the chance to talk to him about his film and what it meant to him to have it shown in front of a Seattle audience.

You were born in New York, but moved to the Pacific Northwest in the late 90’s. What is it like having your directorial debut, Banana Split, show at the Seattle International Film Festival?

I could not be happier to bring Banana Split to SIFF and my creative home of Seattle. Oddly enough much of Banana Split was shot in my birth city of Syracuse, New York, and bringing it home to the Pacific Northwest is a wonderful confluence of two distinct chapters of my life.

What do you hope the Seattle film audience will take away from Banana Split?

I hope the audience can embrace some of the ideas Banana Split explores regarding gender, find some emotional common ground with young people coming of age today, to enjoy some jokes, and hopefully find some music they love.

You’ve been a cinematographer for many movies including Safety Not Guaranteed and Your Sister’s Sister. What made you want to take the leap from cinematographer to directing?

I feel like the desire to direct was always there, and as the years went on, I was able to absorb directing lessons from some of my favorite directors as their Cinematographer. As the lessons compiled over the years, I started to grow past the fear of putting myself out there as a storyteller. Last year Hannah Marks approached with the script to Banana Split and it felt like the universe was telling me it was time.

How long did it take for you to film Banana Split? Any interesting anecdotes from filming that you would like to share with fans?

We shot Banana Split in six weeks, five of them in the grey tundra of early wintertime Syracuse and one of them all over Los Angeles County. Audiences are always surprised to find that the majority of our sunny Los Angeles summer story was faked in snowed-in locations around Syracuse NY, no small feat for our Director of Photography Darin Moran, Production Designer Almitra Corey, and Costume Designer Mona May.

Hannah Marks stars in the film as April, but also wrote the film alongside Joey Power. What was it like working with Hannah? Do you always agree with the direction of the film?

Hannah and Joey cowrote such a strong script with a specific tone and style on the page. Sometimes collaborators dive into a project with a lot of homework to do just to get everyone to a start point in terms of tone and feeling, and with Banana Split that was not really an issue. Hannah and Joey pulled from a lot of autobiographical experiences and to their credit, once we were in production, they were incredibly open to thoughts and ideas. Hannah is an extremely empathetic and talented performer who has the rare ability to commit to a scene while simultaneously engaging with the writing from a storytelling level. She could prepare a huge emotional rollercoaster of a day's work and still be able to wrestle with the structural and pacing elements of the film from the script perspective. I feel very lucky that she was open to my directorial suggestions while still knowing very specifically the root of what she was getting it at with the film. I don't recall any headbutting during filming, and that may have had to do with Hannah and I being friends for almost a decade.

What can we expect from you next? Any new projects we should be looking forward to?

I have a few things in the works on the directing front, the closest one to birth is an episode of the HBO show Room 104 in the upcoming season called 'Night Shift' that I co-wrote with Mark Duplass. I have been shooting a lot between directing gigs and have a studio comedy on the way to Netflix in the fall, a top secret performance film due out next winter, and between the big gigs am always darting around on small art films that will be on the festival circuit next year.

Check out Justin's review of Banana Split.