Out of step

Fitting in seems overrated in two musicals of substance

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

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ON THE BOARDS
NEXT TO NORMAL at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd.
Through July 3. UptownPlayers.org.

BILLY ELLIOT at the Winspear Opera House,
4103 Flora St. Through June 19.
ATTPAC.org.

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OUT, OUT BRIEF CANDLE | A birthday cake triggers a couple’s painful memories in ‘Next to Normal.’ (Photo by Mike Morgan)

Reality: It’s so inconvenient sometimes. For Diana, the wife and mother in Next to Normal, reality often means staying drugged to the point of catatonia; for 12-year-old working class kid Billy Elliot struggling through life in an England mining town interferes with his passion to dance. Mental illness and politico-economic upheaval — not exactly the stuff of the typical song-and-dance musical. But there is little typical about either of these shows.

For Uptown Players, the regional premiere of Next to Normal is the best show the company has ever done: The best cast, all of whom are at the top of their games; the best set; the best band (a pitch-perfect performance, led by music director Scott A. Eckert); and the best directing personally for Michael Serrecchia, who moves the scenes seamlessly as the play hits you in waves, alternatingly poignant and humorous.

It’s not the easiest material to make into a musical. Diana (Patty Breckenridge) had struggled with bipolar disorder for years, ever since a tragedy left her with a slipping grip on reality. Her husband Dan (Gary Floyd) has soldiered on, monitoring her prescription use and looking for warning signs. But what if Diana doesn’t want to feel “normal”? What if feeling a little crazy is her baseline — it’s normal for her?

At the same time we watch Dan and Diana work through their marriage, we see how their daughter Natalie (Erica Harte) and her new boyfriend Henry (Jonathan W. Gilland) mirror their relationship from 20 years ago.

These are heavy issues, but for each moment of devastation, you are simultaneously awed by its beauty and power. It helps that the score — basically a rock opera — is performed by some of the best singers around. On all her songs, Breckenridge reaches into the emotion and the musicality; nowhere is she better than on “I Miss the Mountains,” a heartfelt ballad of the Jewel-Indigo Girls variety that you can imagine hearing on the radio.

Floyd’s lilting tenor melds gorgeously with Anthony Carillo, playing Dan and Diana’s son Gabe, especially on “I Am the One” and “It’s Gonna Be Good.” Carillo imbues his performance with an impressing physicality as well, bursting out of his skin on the anthem “I’m Alive.”

Next to Normal, which won the Tony Award for best score as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama, sounds sad, and sometimes it is, but its genius is leaving the audience with the memory of the power of the human spirit. This is not a musical about depression; it is a musical about hope.
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GOTTA DANCE | A working class boy imagines a future, dancing ballet with himself, in ‘Billy Elliot.’ (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

You could say almost the same thing about Billy Elliot, now at the Winspear Opera House. This national tour of the Elton John hit about how a boy discovers ballet is perhaps an even less likely topic for a musical treatment, given its context: A strike during the Thatcher Administration that, in the mid-1980s, nearly resulted in a British civil war, and polarized the classes in a way that hadn’t been seen in a century.

Billy (played on press night by Giuseppe Basilio, but with a rotating Billy almost each performance) is growing up amid the fiercely testosterone-fueled environs of Northern England, with a father and older brother who are miners, with only the memory of his late mother and his often soused grandmother to nurture him.

Billy is forced to study boxing, but when he wanders into a ballet class led by Mrs. Wilkinson (Faith Prince), he begins to realize that being different isn’t easy, but it sure is liberating.

You know you’re in a strange world, even in musical theater, where the showstopping number in the first act (“Expressing Yourself”) is a lavish tap-dancing fantasy about the joys of cross-dressing, led by Billy’s fey companion Michael, who seems more at home in his burgeoning sexuality than his older friend.

Everything about this production is massive — the sets, the themes, the score, the dances, the talent, even the accents — except the kernel of it: The lone boy who wants to make a better world for himself. (In the show’s most moving sequence, miners contribute what they can to help fund Billy’s audition for the Royal School of Ballet, because they realize — sadly, beautifully — that Billy represents the future, their future, as their industry is being gutted by right wing bullies.)

Broadway veteran Prince demonstrates her star-power with a flashy supporting role, but Basilio is a remarkable young dancer, with fine lines and a commanding presence during a duet with his older self and on his big solo number, “Electricity.” On opening night, the audience swelled in a sustained, spontaneous ovation. It was completely deserved. It was, itself, electric.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 17, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

After losing bitter custody battle, lesbian mother Debie Hackett of Dallas takes her own life

Debie Hackett with her son, from her Facebook page

Another suicide in the LGBT community this week showed that bullying isn’t the only reason people take their own lives.

Last July, I wrote about Debie Hackett, who was fighting with her former partner for visitation rights with their son. An appeals court gave her the right to assert her parental rights and sue for visitation and the case was remanded to the lower court. When I spoke to her, she was hopeful that she would be able to see her son soon.

This month she lost her case.

Despondent, Hackett took her own life on Christmas Eve.

Could interpretation of laws to discount a same-sex relationship be the underlying cause of this needless death?

A friend of Hackett’s sent me an e-mail to let me know what had happened and asked that as a tribute I post suicide-prevention information.

Local counselor Candy Marcum said that, surprisingly, December is not necessarily the worst month for suicide. In Hackett’s case, the loss in court combined with loneliness on the holiday must have been too much for her.

Grieving friends and family can only wonder if there was something more they could have done. Marcum said the warning signs are not always apparent and counsels those grieving not to blame themselves.

Ann Haas of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention specializes in prevention in the LGBT community. In a November article, she listed a number of warning signs for suicide. To read them, go here.

—  David Taffet

Know suicide’s warning signs

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

Ann Haas
Ann Haas

In the recent rash of well-publicized LGBT teen suicides, bullying was identified as the cause. But experts note there are a variety of issues and circumstances that can lead to depression and possibly suicidal behavior among LGBT people. Things like being outed and family issues relating to coming out, an HIV-positive diagnosis, a DWI charge, being caught cruising in a park or some other humiliating experience, losing a job or other money problems.

And while the number of suicides among young people has been in the national spotlight lately, almost twice as many suicides occur in the 45-to-54 age group, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The highest suicide rate in the country is among elderly white males.

Many who commit or attempt suicide have a psychiatric illness that can be diagnosed and treated. Often there are warning signs that family and friends can spot.
“Any child subjected to persistent bullying is at risk for depression,” said AFSP Director of Prevention Projects Ann Haas.

The signs of depression include loss of interest in usual activities and changes in weight, appetite or sleep patterns.

She said when someone is talking about suicide or suggesting a desire for death, it should be treated as an emergency situation. Young people, she said, often express that in poetry and it should be taken seriously. Other signs of a decision to commit suicide are someone getting their affairs in order, giving away possessions and saying goodbye to friends and family.

“Someone who is outgoing who begins to be withdrawn — that can be a tip off that something’s going on,” Haas said.

If a teen’s academic performance begins to slack off, that often suggests depression, she said.

Look for any marked behavioral changes that last a couple of weeks, Haas said.

“When people who are quiet become gregarious, it could be a sign of bipolar illness,” she said.

In younger people, that’s often overlooked as a good sign that someone is coming out of a shell. But if that gregariousness is accompanied by lack of sleep and excessive energy, developing into manic behavior, it is a sign of bipolar disorder, which can lead to suicide if it is left untreated.

Haas said it’s difficult talking about mental health issues in the LGBT community because for so many years gay people were branded as mentally ill.

Local professional counselor Candy Marcum of Stonewall Behavioral Health said that warning signs are not always apparent.

And while friends and family should know warning signs, she said, “If we’re assigning blame, it belongs on the person who did it.”

“Almost everyone has thought about it,” Marcum said. But not everyone looks for ways to do it.

Some save pills or get a gun. Others are on the Internet looking at sites that graphically describe ways to commit suicide.

Marcum said to look for signs of hopelessness and helplessness. Commonly heard phrases that indicate self-loathing include talk of “no way out,” “I don’t know how I’ll ever get out of this,” “I’m worthless” or “You’d be better off without me.”

She said it was better to talk to a loved one showing troubled behavior than to ignore it and hope things will get better.

“Seeing you like this worries me,” she said is a way to approach someone you are concerned about. “Go talk to someone.”

Because the depression or erratic behavior suddenly stops, don’t assume everything is suddenly OK. That person may seem calm; friends think the person is better. And then they commit suicide. “When you make the decision, you’re very calm,” Marcum said.

Offer to make an appointment for the person and go with him for a first visit. Marcum suggested speaking to the counselor on the phone ahead of time to make sure they are comfortable and experienced with LGBT-related issues.

Marcum said that counselors in the LGBT community have no agenda other than to help someone heal. She said that some people are afraid that her goal is to help someone come out.

“We just want you to be OK,” she said. “We want you to get to the end of the book. We’re curious how the story will turn out and not interested in writing anyone’s story.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 12, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Letters • 10.22.10

Many questions on Club Dallas raid

I just read John Wright’s article about the recent raid at Club Dallas (“11 arrested in raid at Club Dallas,” Dallas Voice, Oct. 15).

What is not clear to me is this: What exactly was the “complaint” that was filed with Dallas Police Department? I did not read this in the article. I am not so much interested as to who filed this complaint (though there are many people or groups that I am sure would love to see Club Dallas shut down!). But what was the substance of this complaint that “forced” the DPD to investigate Club Dallas?

Surely, the DPD knows, or should have known, what the 34-year-old Club Dallas is all about, as well as all of the other adult swingers’ clubs and bathhouses in the city where nudity and sexual contact are common? Was this a person who somehow paid and entered this private club, not knowing what a bathhouse was and why many members of the community patronize this private club? Or was this simply a “noise” issue of people coming and going at all hours?

If what is going on in these clubs is illegal, why are they allowed to be open for business at all?

Is Laura Martin seriously unaware of what goes on in a bathhouse? Seriously? Is she aware of the substance of the initiating complaint? Is she OK with DPD’s follow-up investigation and subsequent arrests?

Can Laura Martin, or anyone at the DPD, give us a direct explanation as to how a private club that requires a paid entry fee and, if I remember correctly, warning signs as to the nudity that goes on in the establishment is considered a “public space”?

Isn’t by definition a public space some place where anyone, man, woman or child, can freely visit? Can just anyone walk into Club Dallas? If not, again, how is it considered by law enforcement and the courts as a public space?

Does this mean that all of the other bathhouses and any other sex clubs in Dallas will also be subject to the same type of investigations, gay or straight?
Your thoughts here would be appreciated. Again, please keep up the good work.

Ludwik Kowal
Hong Kong

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Thanks for the hot Szot

Thank you for the great coverage of Paulo Szot (“Hot Szot,” Dallas Voice, Oct. 15). It’s so refreshing to see an out gay man in this kind of role.

Gordon Yusko
Via E-Mail

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Broden’s dangerous views

Thanks for your coverage of congressional candidate Stephen Broden’s homophobic statements on Fox’s The Glenn Beck Show (DallasVoice.com/Instant Tea, Oct. 5).

It is troubling that Dallas Morning News has not covered this and would endorse this radical individual given the 30th District’s large LGBT community.
I also want to point out Broden’s close ties to a radical abortion group called Maafa 21 and his association with Life Dynamics President Mark Crutcher.

Broden holds many very dangerous views!

Michael Thomas
Dallas

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Aggie Corps more accepting of gays now

I am writing in response to the open letter Dallas Voice published online from Clint Hooper to Texas A&M’s acting commandant, Col. Jake Betty (“A former Aggie cadet comes out and comes clean,” Dallas Voice.com Instant Tea, Oct. 11).

In 2003 I became the first openly gay cadet to complete the Corps of Cadets program, and did so as an outfit commander, just like Mr. Hooper. While my interactions with some other cadets were sometimes difficult and occasionally devolved into outright harassment, I had the full support of then-commandant Gen. John Van Alstyne and his staff, which included Col. Jake Betty.

Mr. Hooper’s very public coming out is something that takes a lot of courage to do, particularly when you consider the conservative history and environment of the Corps of Cadets, and I commend him for it. However, his letter lends the impression that corps leadership, and Col. Betty in particular, do not understand what gay and lesbian cadets face and do not have an adequate sensitivity to those issues in order to address them properly.

I respectfully disagree.

Col. Betty is one of the most honorable men I know, and I could not have made it through the corps being openly gay were it not for the leadership, guidance and understanding of him, Gen. Van Alstyne and the rest of the commandant’s staff.

I can assure you and your readers that Col. Betty and the rest of commandant’s staff do indeed understand what it means to be openly gay in the Corps of Cadets and will not allow it to be an impediment to the success of any cadet. In fact, their understanding and sensitivity have helped ensure that openly gay cadets do not experience the negativity I did all those years ago.

After I served as the first openly gay outfit commander in 2003, there was an openly gay Aggie Band drum major in 2004, and another openly gay cadet served as an outfit commander just a few years later.

Our experiences and the support we received from Col. Betty and others clearly demonstrate openly gay men and women have been and will continue to be successful, strongly contributing members of the Corps of Cadets.

I am pleased Mr. Hooper’s letter has given us an opportunity to have this discussion again in the Aggie community, but I question the decision to publish it in Dallas Voice, as opposed to the A&M student newspaper The Battalion, where it might have the greatest impact among Aggies.

I think it is a discussion to be had among alumni and current students who have the greatest stake in the organization, but the broadcasting of a letter that misplaces the blame for intolerance in a statewide forum reinforces the view that the Corps of Cadets is still a harshly intolerant place for us. Trust me: It is a far better place than it used to be, and a far better organization than Mr. Hooper presents it to be

While there is still a lot of progress to be made, the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Corps of Cadets is a more welcoming place for gays and lesbians because of the outstanding leadership of Col. Jake Betty and the rest of the commandant’s staff.

Thanks and Gig ’em!

Noel A. Freeman
Texas A&M Class of 2003

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This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 22, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas