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‘Art must lead’

Olney, Md.-based company plans diverse stage repertoire

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Avenue Q, gay news, Washington Blade
Avenue Q, gay news, Washington Blade

Jason Loewith, right, with Bobby Smith in rehearsal for ‘Avenue Q.’ Photo by Sonie Mathew; courtesy Olney Theatre Center)

‘Avenue Q’

 

Through July 13

 

Olney Theatre Center

 

2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road

 

Olney, MD

 

$32.50-65.00

 

301-924-3400

A year and a half after taking the helm as artistic director of the Olney Theatre Center, Jason Loewith is still figuring out his audience.

“We rely on a particular audience to keep us going and those are the folks who love Agatha Christie’s ‘Mousetrap,’” he says. “But all of Montgomery County and including the area around Olney have become increasingly vibrant and younger. We want to keep the Christie crowd, but I’ve been finding that there’s a lot more we can do.”

For Olney’s summer musical, Loewith has selected and staged “Avenue Q,” the funny 2004 Tony Award-winning musical send up of “Sesame Street.” But unlike with the kid’s show, these Muppet-like puppets (manned by seen actors) and humans sing side-by-side about more grownup stuff including prolonged adolescence (“I Wish I Could Go Back to College”), porn (“The Internet Is for Porn”), political correctness (“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”), being in the closet (“My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada”), and their own inadequacies ( “It Sucks to be Me”).

“The show is such a machine,” says Loewith, who is gay. “You just need to find the right funny people. Get out of the way and not fuck it up.”

For his production he’s assembled a cast that includes Sam Ludwig, Rachel Zampelli, and the reliably excellent Stephen Gregory Smith. He’s tapped popular out actor Bobby Smith for associate director/choreography, and the talented Christopher Youstra for musical director and onstage accompanist.

But not everything that does well in New York is an automatic hit on the leafy campus of Olney Theatre. A director’s point of view is important.

“My approach is to not let the heart imbedded in the show get lost in its snarky humor and satire. In the suburbs, a play must have a way into the heart as well as the mind. ‘Avenue Q’ has that,” says Loewith who lives with his partner on Capitol Hill. “It’s about why you need to love people. Ambition and success mean nothing if you can’t share it with those you love. And that’s a path that I follow and believe in.”

When Loewith lived in New York, he worked at the Classic Stage Company just two blocks from the Vineyard Theatre where “Avenue Q” was created.

“It really spoke to me at that moment. I’m the same generation as its creators (author Jeff Whitty and composers-lyricists Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx.).Ten years ago I was 35 and, like the characters in ‘Avenue Q,’ was still trying to figure out my place in the world. I also happen to be very snarky myself, though not as snarky as some in show biz.”

He believes it’s the perfect follow-up to last summer’s “A Chorus Line,” another smart with heart, which won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Resident Musical, Olney’s first such award since “Lucky Stiff” won in 1990.

In September, Loewith plans to open Olney’s fall season opens with “Colossal,” a new play that he expects to resonate with LGBT theatergoers. Penned by Andrew Hinderaker, “Colossal” is the story of Mike, a disabled man who became paralyzed after taking a bad hit for his co-team captain and first lover Marcus in a college football game. Seated in his wheelchair, Mike (to be played by Patrick Thornton, who is disabled) repeatedly watches the video of the bad hit. On stage, the hit is recreated by actors through movement and dance.

“Colossal” is slated to be staged by Will Davis, a transgender director. “When I hired Will he was a she. Now he’s a he and it’s upsetting my male-female ratio of directors. But that’s OK.”

Loewith brings energy and innovation to the job. He meets his challenges with a sense of humor. And perhaps most importantly, he holds the company to a high standard: “I don’t care if we’re doing ‘The Little Mermaid’ (which Olney is mounting for the holidays), we’ll attack the project with artistic rigor and that means working with the best directors, designers and actors in town.

He cites Broadway director David Esbjornson, best known for directing Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” on Broadway, as an influence, especially his mantra that “art must lead.”

“That means if it takes another thousand dollars to bring the right person to make the cast work, you have to do it,” Loewith says. “A theater will not stay alive by sending out another appeal letter or making a cut in the marketing budget. A theater survives by putting excellent work on the stage.”

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Photos

PHOTOS: Superstar Drag Review

Bombalicious Eklaver leads the show at Selina Rooftop

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Superstar Drag Review (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Bombalicious Eklaver held a Superstar Drag Review at the Selina Hotel Rooftop on Friday, Nov. 25. DJ Juba provided the music.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Books

Memoir reveals gay writer’s struggle with homelessness, rape

‘Place Called Home’ a powerful indictment of foster care system

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(Book cover image courtesy Legacy Lit/Hachette)

A Place Called Home: A Memoir
By David Ambroz
c. 2022, Legacy Lit/Hachette
$30/384 pages

For David Ambroz, 42, author of the stunning new memoir “A Place Called Home,” one of his childhood recollections is of himself and his siblings walking with Mary, their mother, on a freezing Christmas morning in New York City.

Today, Ambroz, who is gay and a foster parent, is a poverty and child welfare expert and the head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon.

But, on that morning, Ambroz remembers, when he was five, he and his seven-year-old sister Jessica and six-year-old brother Alex were freezing. Mary, their mother was severely mentally ill. They were homeless.

Ambroz draws you into his searing memoir with his first sentence. “I’m hungry,” he writes in the simple, frightened, perceptive voice of a malnourished, shivering little boy.

As it got dark and colder, Ambroz recalls, he walked with his family, wearing “clownishly large” sneakers “plucked from the trash.” 

Five-year-old Ambroz remembers that the night before his family got lucky. They had dinner (mac and cheese) at a church “with a sermon on the side.”  

“We heard the story of the three kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus,” Ambroz writes.

But the next day they’re still homeless and hungry. Talk about no room at the inn.

Young Ambroz doesn’t know the word “death,” but he (literally) worries that he and his family will die. Frozen, hungry and invisible to uncaring passersby.

Ambroz’s mom, a nurse, is occasionally employed and able to house her family in dilapidated apartments. But she’s soon ensnared by her mental illness, unable to work. Then, her family is homeless again.

Until, he was 12, Ambroz and his siblings were abused and neglected by their mother.

Ambroz doesn’t know as a young boy that he’s gay. But, he can tell he’s different. Instead of playing street games with the other kids, Ambroz likes to play “doctor” with another boy in the neighborhood.

Mary tells him being gay is sinful and that you’ll die from AIDS if you’re queer.

His mother, having decided that he’s Jewish, makes Ambroz undergo a badly botched circumcision. At one point, she beats him so badly that he falls down a flight of stairs.

At 12, Ambroz reports this abuse to the authorities and he’s placed into the foster care system.

If you think this country’s foster care system is a safe haven for our nation’s 450,000 kids in foster care, Ambroz will swiftly cut through that misperception.

From ages 12 to 17, Ambroz is ricocheted through a series of abusive, homophobic foster placements.

One set of foster parents try to make him more “macho,” rent him out to work for free for their friends and withhold food from him. At another placement, a counselor watches and does nothing as other kids beat him while hurling gay slurs.

Thankfully, Ambroz meets Holly and Steve who become fabulous foster parents. Ambroz has been abused and hungry for so long he finds it hard to understand that he can eat whatever he wants at their home.

Through grit, hard work and his intelligence, Ambroz earned a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, was an intern at the White House and graduated from the UCLA School of Law. Before obtaining his position at Amazon, he led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television.

But none of this came easily for him. Coming out was hard for many LGBTQ people in the 1990s. It was particularly difficult for Ambroz.

In college, Ambroz is deeply closeted. He’s ashamed to reveal anything about his past (growing up homeless and in foster care) and his sexuality. 

At one point, he’s watching TV, along with other appalled students, as the news comes on about Matthew Shepard being murdered because he was gay. Ambroz can see that everyone is enraged and terrified by this hate crime. Yet, he’s too ashamed to reveal anything of his sexuality.

Over Christmas vacation, Ambroz decides it’s time to explore his sexuality.

Telling no one, Ambroz takes a train to Miami. There, he goes home with a man (who he meets on a bus) who rapes him.

“I run in no particular direction just away from this monster,” he recalls. “When I get back to my hotel room, I’m bleeding…I order food delivered but can’t eat any of it.”

“A Place Called Home” has the power of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Ambroz’s writing becomes less powerful when he delves into the weeds of policy. But this is a minor quibble.

Ambroz is a superb storyteller. Unless you lack a heartbeat, you can’t read “A Place Called Home” without wanting to do something to change our foster care system. 

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Books

New book explores impact of family secrets

Her father was hiding his sexual orientation

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(Book cover image courtesy HarperOne)

The Family Outing: A Memoir
By Jessi Hempel
c. 2022, HarperOne
$27.99/320 pages

Don’t tell the children.

For most families in America in the last century, that was the maxim to live by: the kids are on a need-to-know basis and since they’re kids, they don’t need to know. And so what did you miss? Did you know about familial philanthropy, rebellion, embarrassment, poverty? As in the new memoir, “The Family Outing” by Jessi Hempel, did secrets between parent and child run both ways?

“What happened to me?”

That’s the big question Jessi Hampel had after many therapy sessions to rid herself of a recurring nightmare. She had plenty of good memories. Her recollection of growing up in a secure family with two siblings was sharp, wasn’t it?

She thought so – until she started what she called “The Project.”

With permission from her parents and siblings, Hempel set up Skype and Zoom sessions and did one-on-one interviews with her family, to try to understand why her parents divorced, why her brother kept mostly to himself, how the family dynamics went awry, why her sister kept her distance, and how secrets messed everything up.

Hempel’s father had an inkling as a young man that he was gay, but his own father counseled him to hide it. When he met the woman who would eventually be his wife, he was delighted to become a husband and father, as long as he could sustain it.

Years before, Hempel’s mother was your typical 1960s teenager with a job at a local store, a crush on a slightly older co-worker and, coincidentally, a serial killer loose near her Michigan neighborhood. Just after the killer was caught, she realized that the co-worker she’d innocently flirted with might’ve been the killer’s accomplice.

For nearly the rest of her life, she watched her back.

One secret, one we-don’t-discuss-it, and a young-adult Hempel was holding something close herself. What else didn’t she know? Why did she and her siblings feel the need for distance? She was trying to figure things out when the family imploded.

Ever had a dream that won’t stop visiting every night? That’s where author Jessi Hempel starts this memoir, and it’s the perfect launching point for “The Family Outing.”

Just prepare yourself. The next step has Hempel telling her mother’s tale for which, at the risk of being a spoiler, you’ll want to leave the lights on. This account will leave readers good and well hooked, and ready for the rest of what turns out to be quite a detective story.

And yet, it’s a ways away from the Sherlockian. Readers know what’s ahead, we know the score before we get there, but the entwining of five separate lives in a fact-finding mission makes this book feel as though it has a surprise at every turn.

Sometimes, it’s a good surprise. Sometimes, it’s a bad one.

A happily minimized amount of profanity and a total lack of overtness make “The Family Outing” a book you can share with almost anyone, adult, or ally. Read it, and you’ll be wanting to tell everyone.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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