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Great balls of honesty

Singer/actor Levi Kreis finds redemption in open living and catchy pop songs

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Levi Kreis and Eric Himan

Monday at 7:30 p.m.

Jammin’ Java

227 Maple Ave. East

Vienna, VA

703-255-1566

Levi Kreis joins fellow singer/songwriter Eric Himan on the 'SideXSide Tour' at Jammin' Java Monday. (Photo courtesy of LaFamos)

In an extraordinary double-bill of gay musical talent, singer-songwriters Levi Kreis and Eric Himan perform together here for one night only — Monday — at Jammin’ Java, a music club in Vienna, in suburban Fairfax County, Virginia.

Tony Award-winning Kreis himself stands on the verge of big-time success with superstardom likely just around the corner, born of songs both tender and tough-minded, about being gay and searching for love in today’s changing America.

Kreis and Himan each have new albums fully “out” in their openness, their music videos are often in heavy rotation on MTV’s Logo Channel, and their songs are big on Sirius XM satellite radio’s OUTQ Channel. Kreis’s new album, “Where I Belong,” is “all about acceptance and surrender,” he says, while Himan, who is often compared with singers John Mayer, Ani DiFranco and Tracy Chapman, already has six studio albums including his newest, “Resonate.”

He opens for Kreis, who vaulted to mainstream recognition earlier this year when he won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical playing rock ‘n’ roll icon Jerry Lee Lewis, the Louisiana wild man famed for “Great Balls of Fire,” in the hit Broadway show “Million Dollar Quartet” about what was arguably rock’s first supergroup.

On Dec. 4, 1956, that legend was born when Lewis, also renowned for “A Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On,” and Elvis Presley, already well into his own career, and Johnny Cash came together for one time only in an impromptu jam session at Sun Records in Memphis, joining Carl Perkins, a rock original who had recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” before Elvis. Their recording session there happened purely by chance and it was lightning in a bottle. “Million Dollar Quartet” tells the story of this improbable event with Kreis in a star-making role he wolves down like a moon pie with a Dr Pepper chaser.

But at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Kreis appears on stage as himself, in “Where I Belong: An Intimate Evening with Levi Kreis.” His signature sound in what he calls a “SidexSide Tour” with Himan is all his own and far from the volcanic eruption of a Jerry Lee Lewis. Like Lewis, Kreis is also a Southern boy, but at 29, he is a soulful pop-gospel crooner whose sultry-but-smooth-as-silk voice hints much more of Harry Connick, Jr. and confessional bearings of the heart than tearing up the floor like the hyper-kinetic Lewis.

With his freshly-minted Tony award and his new album, Kreis is the proverbial overnight sensation, simply one years in the making. Now on his national tour during those Mondays when Broadway shows go dark, he seeks that connection with his audience that studio albums never provide. His fiercely loyal fan basis has long been centered in LGBT circles but now grows by new leaps and bounds, and industry insiders predict he has all the right qualities to become a big star. It’s his showmanship, they say, and those charismatic heart-throb looks and sadly soulful voice. But there’s also his catchy love songs marked with pop sensibility and laments for lost love seasoned with a counterpoint of hope, like the upbeat break-up song, “Gonna’ Be All Right.”

His messages — from “Let it rain, let it pour, this is what I came here for” in the closing refrain of his characteristically upbeat love song, “I’m Not Afraid,” to the urgent demand of “give me everything or nothing at all” — spark in listeners recognition that they too have felt these same turbulent feelings in love. Kreis has been openly gay since his debut album in 2005, “One of the Ones.”

“These were personal songs about guys,” he says, “and I decided to come out with this CD.”

Even so, sometimes his lyrics are written as if sung to a woman and others are quite gender-neutral like the gospel-styled “Nothing At All.” Many of his fans today are, he says, “35- to 40-year-old straight women.” His looks help in that department, certainly, but also his accessible songs and obvious talent — he’s also a keyboard wiz.

His origins are buckle on the Bible Belt. Born in Oliver Springs, Tenn., where he grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist home, christened Matthew, it was only later that he decided to change his name to Levi after studying the Torah, the five books of the prophet Moses. Renaming himself was a definite statement of what he calls his “amalgamated spiritual views from a lifetime of seeking.”

“I may not fit neatly into any box, and I certainly don’t fit into Christianity, but I still seek the experience of God, and that’s the bottom line,” he told the Blade in a phone interview from New York City. “I believe in a very all-inclusive God, expressing itself through you and through me just as we are.”

These days, in fact, he is starting his third year studying religion with classes offered through the United Centers for Spiritual Living, connected with the Unity Church.

His singing and his spirituality remain in their essence one and the same. He learned his gospel and country roots, he says, “when I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” and in church he says, “you learn very quickly that people sing out of conviction. They are singing to let you know that you are loved, forgiven and you can be healed.”

“I was always singing,” he says. “My grandmother would tell people how I would sing in my crib before I could even stand, holding a crayon as a microphone and going ‘ga-ga-ga’!”

Aged 6, he came home from kindergarten graduation and sat down at the piano playing the orchestral march “Pomp and Circumstance” by ear. His legs were still so short his older brother had to work the pedals for him.

His parents soon enrolled him in formal piano lessons and at 8 he began to perform in churches, touring throughout the South, and he produced his first gospel album – “Just Trust” – at age 15.  While still in high school, he studied classical piano and music theory and history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and after finishing high school he moved on to Belmont University, the largest Christian university in Tennessee.

There, he says he outed himself in confidence to his roommate who then exposed him to school officials when he was just a few short credits from graduation. After debating expelling him, they decided not to, but he says he was meanwhile “so embarrassed that it was just more than I could handle.” He had struggled with his sexual orientation much earlier in secret, in seventh grade entering what he calls “Christian counseling” for so-called “reparative” or “reorientation therapy,” and he kept this up for six years without telling his parents.

He left Belmont before completing his degree, moving to Los Angeles to begin a career in show business, and quickly was picked to go on tour with the rock-musical “Rent.” He also appeared in several indie films while trying to make a go of it as a singer, and he went through more than a few record labels before breaking with the last of them (Atlantic Records) in 2004, and with only $200 in his pocket he decided to go into a recording studio. That independently produced album “One of the Ones” came out in 2005 and it began to sell following his appearance that year on the Donald Trump reality-TV show, “The Apprentice.”

What made this album different was that he was now open about his sexuality. And not just his career but also his life began to flourish.

“My life has been so affected in a positive way by coming out,” he says. “I’m not very good at keeping secrets. I value a peaceful life, being calm, and it’s important to live transparently. I just couldn’t hold that level of grief, that weight inside my body, any more, and now I can feel truly perfect in the eyes of God.”

His next album, “The Gospel According to Levi,” was released in 2007, and one of its songs, “We’re Okay,” was written openly to his mother to try to reconcile the rift that had grown between them after he came out. He says she refused to listen to it for a long time but finally saw the music video and then called him and admitted that she had never allowed herself to just listen to the words.

“I want to thank you,” he says she told him, “for deciding to love despite the differences we have.”

He has also since reconciled with the college roommate who outed him, and Belmont University recently even invited him to return to complete his degree, something he says he may do early next year.

That same year, he also took a break from touring to join the original cast of “Million Dollar Quartet,” at first in workshops in Seattle and then in regular performance in Chicago, where it was co-directed by Eric Schaeffer, the gay artistic director of Arlington’s Signature Theatre. Kreis laughs and says “me and Eric, we were were the lone gays” in what he calls for short “MDQ,” a production that he says is highly “testosterone-filled.”

Under Schaeffer’s direction still, the show moved to Broadway in April. From the show’s beginning, Kreis’s enthusiasm to recreate the combustible Jerry Lee Lewis on stage meant he would vault over pianos to land standing-up at the keyboard, especially in what he calls “the show’s very exuberant encore, where each of the four legends comes out for one last song.” The strain of such showmanship has since required reconstructive surgery on both of his knees, he admits, and for a time he wore a full leg brace, “and now I keep my feet as close to the ground as I can.”

Kreis actually met Lewis, at 75 the only “quartet” member still alive, in September when Lewis sat in for one show, as have other stars like Melissa Etheridge and Leslie Gore. Kreis and Lewis met at his hotel room, and he says that “Jerry Lee was so gracious, so loving and supportive, so witty, and so lively.”

After Kreis laid out his own Southern Baptist credentials, “soon I felt just like family with him and an undeniable bond.” Their duet, recorded separately – a cover of the Motown song “Money (That’s What I Want”) – will appear on Lewis’s next album.

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Music & Concerts

Janet Jackson doc premieres this weekend

Remembering 10 times iconic singer was there for LGBTQ community

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Janet Jackson’s two-part, four-hour documentary debuts this weekend. (File photo by Shilla Patel)

Iconic singer Janet Jackson, a longtime LGBTQ ally, unveils her long-awaited documentary simply titled “Janet” on Friday, Jan. 28. It concludes the following night; each installment is two hours long. 

Jackson has said she spent five years compiling footage and creating the documentary, which airs at 8 p.m. both nights on A&E and Lifetime networks. It was produced by Jackson and her brother Randy Jackson and it’s timed to commemorate the 40th anniversary of her 1982 debut album. 

An extended trailer for the film reveals Jackson will talk candidly about her brother Michael and the 2004 Super Bowl incident, including the news that Justin Timberlake reached out and asked her to join him during his widely panned 2018 Super Bowl return performance. 

Prior to the pandemic, Jackson announced a new studio album and tour titled “Black Diamond,” but both were postponed due to COVID. No official word about the status of either, but speculation is rampant that she will finally release the new album once the documentary airs.

“Musically, what I’ve done, like doing ‘Rhythm Nation’ or doing ‘New Agenda’ or doing ‘Skin Game,’ creating those bodies of work with Jimmy and Terry, I feel like I’ve laid a certain foundation,” Jackson tells Allure magazine in a new cover story this month. “I would hope that I’d be able to continue if I choose to. You know what I mean? But only time will tell.”

As Jackson’s legion of queer fans awaits this weekend’s premiere, the Blade takes a look back at 10 times Janet was there for the LGBTQ community. 

1. “The Velvet Rope” project. In 1997, Jackson released her critically acclaimed sixth studio album “The Velvet Rope,” an introspective and deeply personal collection of songs that touched on her depression, but also tackled LGBTQ issues. On the track “Free Xone,” she spoke out forcefully against anti-LGBT bias. She also covered Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night,” without changing the pronouns in the love song, prompting speculation about her sexual orientation. But it was her international No. 1 hit “Together Again” that continues to resonate with LGBTQ fans. An upbeat, joyful dance song, it was conceived as a tribute to Jackson’s friends who died of AIDS.

2. GLAAD award. In 2008, Ellen DeGeneres presented Jackson with the Vanguard Award at the 19th annual GLAAD Media Awards. GLAAD’s president said, “We are delighted to honor Janet Jackson at the 19th annual GLAAD Media Awards in Los Angeles as such a visible, welcoming and inclusive ally of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Ms. Jackson has a tremendous following inside the LGBT community and out, and having her stand with us against the defamation that LGBT people still face in our country is extremely significant.”

3. Ebony magazine interview about her sexuality. In 2001, Jackson gave an interview to Ebony magazine in which she was asked about her sexual orientation. “I don’t mind people thinking that I’m gay or calling me gay,” she said. “People are going to believe whatever they want. Yes, I hang out at gay clubs … I go where the music is good. I love people regardless of sexual preference, regardless of race. No, I am not bisexual. I have been linked with dancers in our group because we are so close. I grew up in a big family. I love being affectionate. I love intimacy and I am not afraid to show it.”

4. Video support for It Gets Better, Trevor Project. In 2010, Jackson recorded a video for the Trevor Project and later appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live” to promote awareness of youth suicide. “If you’re LGBT you’re probably thinking you’re all alone, but you’re not,” she said in the video. “I can relate because I was one of those kids who internalized everything.”

5. “State of the World Tour.” Jackson’s LGBTQ support continued in 2017. Her tour’s opening sequence highlighted a range of problems facing the world, from famine and war to police brutality and included a call for justice and for LGBTQ rights.

6. “The Kids.” Jackson has always employed a diverse crew of professional dancers for her videos and tours. Some of her closest friends and collaborators over the years have been prominent out gay and lesbian choreographers, singers, dancers, makeup artists and designers. She lovingly refers to her backup dancers as “the Kids.”

7. NYC Pride performance. In 2004, Jackson performed for a packed audience at Pride Dance NYC at Pier 54.

8. “Will & Grace” cameo. In 2004, Jackson made a memorable cameo on “Will & Grace,” judging a dance-off between Jack and another dancer.

9. HRC, AIDS Project Los Angeles awards. In 2005, Jackson was honored by both the Human Rights Campaign and AIDS Project Los Angeles for her work raising money for AIDS charities.

10. Janet’s Blade interview. In 2006, Jackson granted an exclusive interview to the Washington Blade. It was one of the rare times she touched on the Super Bowl controversy and her brother Michael’s acquittal on child molestation charges, telling Blade Editor Kevin Naff, “I got all of that out of my system, that’s not what I’m feeling right now. I wrote about [those controversies] but I didn’t choose to put it out there on the album.” In the interview, Jackson also reiterated her support for marriage equality, said she’d never had a sexual relationship with a woman and revealed that she’d never met Madonna.

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Music & Concerts

BETTY holiday show rocks D.C.

Queer band returns home

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BETTY (Photo by Gene Reed, 2021)

D.C. native band BETTY kicked off its “Holly Jollypocalypse” tour with a show at City Winery on Dec. 5. 

The trio, including ally Alyson Palmer and queer sisters Elizabeth and Amy Ziff, debuted several new songs at the show like “Snow,” “Choose You” and “Mistletoe.” 

“Half this set is brand new for you people. You know why? Because we knew we were coming home,” Palmer said at the show. 

The group also played long-loved songs by their fans, like “Xmas Ain’t Coming This Year” and “Miracles Can Happen.” After many requests from the audience, the band played one of their most famous songs —  the theme song from the show “The L Word” — as an encore number. 

Throughout the show, the group expressed their gratitude to be able to perform live again, and recognized the loss so many have experienced over the past two years due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

“This really has been an unbelievably challenging time, so challenging that we can’t even really wrap our brains around the PTSD,” Palmer told the audience. “A lot of us have lost a lot. In the past two years, we’ve lost all kinds of things. We’ve lost a lot of people. And that’s a horrible, horrible thing. But hopefully those people are somehow still connected to us.”

There was a familial feel to the night — Amy brought her daughter onstage throughout the show and the band performed the song “Saylor,” which is about her daughter. 

“She’s pretty lucky to see a couple of great goddess moms,” Amy told the audience. 

The band also welcomed local queer artist Be Steadwell to perform a mashup of a an original blues tune and “Silent Night.” Steadwell will be performing her show Drummer Bois: Queer Caroling with Be Steadwell at the Black Cat this Friday. To learn more, visit besteadwell.com. 

The members of BETTY, who proudly label themselves as “rule breakers” and “equality rockers” have been touring, writing, and advocating for social change through their music since 1986. 

“We’ve been together for 35 years as independent artists, which is pretty miraculous when you consider that with a capitalist system and how hard it is to exist as independent musicians and artists,” Elizabeth said in an interview. “We’re really grateful to our audiences, in particular to our queer community, that has really supported us forever and still does.”

BETTY’s first show was at the 9:30 club, and the band was excited to return to their home, the trio said in an interview. 

“D.C. was a great place to be to come together as feminists and as queer people and as political allies,” Amy said. 

Coming back and seeing the same work done by the same people in LGBTQ and feminist spaces in the District is “wonderful,” Palmer said.

“We’ve been politically engaged for so long and socially active for so long,” Palmer said.  “We grew up playing for protests and playing for those huge Gay Pride marches and pro-choice marches. I mean, that kind of thing just stays with you forever.”

The band has been featured in shows like “Encyclopedia,” and created their own off-Broadway show “BETTY RULES.” The group also launched a podcast in 2019 where they discuss how their band came to be, LGBTQ life and current events. BETTY is slated to release a  new album in spring 2022 in honor of the band’s 36th anniversary. 

Next, the band will travel to New York City, Cincinnati, Ohio, and New Hope, Pa. for the tour. Getting back in the swing of touring has been “incredible” but a physical marathon. 

“You forget that it’s very physical kind of show … so it’s really been funny getting back into shape in that way as well.”

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Music & Concerts

Forget streaming, the holiday classics return to area stages

Bring your proof of vaccination and check out a local production this season

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A scene from a previous Gay Men's Chorus of Washington Holiday Show. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A year ago, the holiday season was streamed. But now, thanks to various protocols including masks and proof of vaccination, DMV theatergoers can come together and experience – live and in-person — both beloved classics and some promising new works. Here’s a smattering of what’s out there.

At Olney Theatre, Paul Morello is thrilled to bring back “A Christmas Carol 2021” (through Dec. 26), his solo adaptation of Dickens’ ghost story. Concerning returning to a live audience, Morello says, “While this is technically a one-person show, it’s really about the connection and collaboration with an audience, being in the same room, breathing in unison. I can’t do this without an audience and for a story that thrives on redemption, mortality, isolation, the need for community and connection, and the things that matter most, the timing couldn’t be better.”

Olney also presents “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” through Jan. 2. This musical “tale as old as time” stars out actor Jade Jones as Belle and Evan Ruggiero plays the Beast. olneytheatre.org

For the holidays, Synetic Theater at Crystal City is reworking “Cinderella” (Nov. 27-Dec. 26). Led by an all-female team of creators, this festive take on the classic fairytale is inspired by Afro-Latino music and dance. Directed and adapted by Maria Simpkins who also plays the title role. synetictheater.org

Last year, because of COVID-19, Ford’s Theatre presented “A Christmas Carol” as a radio broadcast, but now the fully produced play returns to the venue’s historic stage through Dec. 27. A popular Washington tradition for more than 30 years, the thoroughly enjoyable and topnotch take on the Dickens’ classic features Craig Wallace reprising the part of Scrooge, the miser who after a night of ghostly visits, rediscovers Christmas joy. fords.org

Another D.C. tradition guaranteed to put audiences in a holiday mood is the Washington Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” playing at the Warner Theatre through Dec. 26. Set to Tchaikovsky’s enchanted score, this charming and superbly executed offering takes place in Georgetown circa 1882 and features a retinue of historic figures along with children, rats, fairies and a mysterious godfather. Choreography is by Septime Webre. washingtonballet.org

The Folger Consort, the superb early music ensemble in residence at the Folger, will be performing seven concerts of “A Medieval Christmas” (Dec. 10-18) at St. Mark’s Church on Capitol Hill. A streaming version of the concert will also be available to view on-demand. folger.edu

At Lincoln Theatre, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. presents “The Holiday Show” (Dec. 4, 11, and 12) replete with tap-dancing elves, a dancing Christmas tree, snow, and a lot more. The fun and festive program’s song list includes “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”, “The 12 Rockin’ Days of Christmas,” and “Boogie Woogie Frosty.” Featured performances range from the full Chorus, soloists, all GMCW ensembles, and the GenOUT Youth Chorus. gmcw.org

Arena Stage is marking the season with August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” (through Dec. 26), a drama about a small group of friends who gather following the untimely death of their friend, a blues guitarist on the edge of stardom. Directed by Tazewell Thompson, the production features an exciting cast that includes local actors Dane Figueroa Edidi and Roz White. arenastage.org

Creative Cauldron is serving up some holiday magic with “The Christmas Angel” (Dec. 9-19). Based on a little-known 1910 novel by Abbey Farwell Brown, it’s the story of a lonely and bitter spinster who returns to happiness through a box of old toys. The commissioned new holiday musical is a collaboration of longtime musical collaborators and married couple Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith (lyrics and book). creativecauldron.org

In keeping with the Yuletide spirit, the National Theatre presents two feel-good national tour musicals. First, it’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (through Dec. 5), a musical take on Dr. Seuss’ classic holiday tale featuring the hit songs “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas.”

Next up is “Tootsie” (Dec. 7-12), the hit musical based on the 1982 gender-bending film starring Dustin Hoffman as an out-of-work actor who disguises himself as a woman to land a role on a popular soap opera. The show boasts a Tony-winning book by Robert Horn and a score by Tony winner David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit). thenationaldc.com

Keegan Theatre presents its annual holiday offering, “An Irish Carol” (Dec. 10-31). Set in a modern Dublin pub, the funny yet poignant original work (a nod to Dickens) tracks the changes in the life of a rich but miserable publican over the course of one Christmas Eve. keegantheatre.org

At Theater J, it’s the Kinsey Sicks’ “Oy Vey in a Manger” (Dec. 17-25). Blending drag, four-part harmony, and political humor, the “dragapella beautyshop quartet” brings its own hilariously irreverent view on the holidays. theaterj.org

And through Jan. 2, Signature Theatre continues to brighten the season with its production of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” directed by the company’s out artistic director Matthew Gardiner and featuring out actor David Merino as Angel, a preternaturally energetic drag queen and percussionist. sigtheare.org

The Music Center at Strathmore, also in Bethesda, is presenting a wide range of musical holiday offerings including “Manheim Steamroller Christmas” (Dec. 3 and 4), a multimedia holiday tradition; Sarah Brightman in “A Christmas Symphony” (Dec. 6 and 7); “A Celtic Christmas with Séan Heely Celtic Band” (Dec. 11); Washington Bach Consort’s “Bach’s Epic Christmas Oratorio” (Dec. 11); the beloved “The Washington Chorus: A Candlelight Christmas” (Dec. 16 and 17); and last but not least “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” (Dec. 20), Tchaikovsky’s classic reimagined with MC Kurtis Blow (“White Lines”). strathmore.org

And finally, something strictly for the kids: Imagination Stage presents “Corduroy” (Dec. 11-Jan. 24). Based on the beloved children’s books by Don Freeman, it’s the heartwarming story of a girl and her perfectly imperfect Teddy Bear. Best for ages 3-9. imaginationstage.org

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