Heartland Men’s Chorus teams with Dan Savage to increase awareness of bullying

Libby Hanssen | The Kansas City Star

The Heartland Men’s Chorus’ “When I Knew” production tugged at the heartstrings with an emotional and uplifting performance Saturday night at the Folly Theater.

The 160-member all-volunteer ensemble, directed by Joseph Nadeau, performed for a sold-out crowd. Presented by the Bacchus Foundation, the concert focused on issues faced in the gay community: bullying, awareness and acceptance.

They teamed up with columnist/activist Dan Savage for the latest presentation in HMC’s series of musical documentaries. Savage is co-founder of the “It Gets Better” video campaign directed at supporting and protecting gay youth.

Throughout the concert, Robert Lamar Sims provided steady, sensitive accompaniment on piano and sign language interpreter Rick McAdams added dramatic and evocative gestures.

The first half of the program addressed the problem of bullying and opened with a directed “Don’t Laugh at Me” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around.”

The chorus then launched into a presentation of the children’s story “Oliver Button is a Sissy,” written by Tomie dePaola. The half-hour musical, composed by Alan Shorter, was co-commissioned by the chorus in 2000. The story was narrated by Chris Hernandez and the title role of a tap-dancing, imaginative young boy was performed by Steven Jeffrey Karlin.

The second half of the program featured a variety of works interspersed with personal stories from chorus members and friends of the ensemble. These stories explored the individuals’ first awareness of their sexuality and included coming-out stories. Savage narrated the selections, which included his own reminiscence.

Projections cast on a scrim added dimension to the stories and songs. Witty, well-designed illustrations accompanied Savage’s words. Vintage photos of children were illuminated during “If You Only Knew;” photos of gay youth lost to suicide were shown while “All This Joy” was sung in their memory.

“When I Knew,” by Daniel Doss, was commissioned for this presentation and included voices of solidarity in prerecorded stories. It was a tear-jerker.

A brief montage from the “It Gets Better Project” was followed by rousing applause.

The program tempered the heavy emotional message with some fun numbers, like the cheekily empowering “Affirmation.”

The finale was an enthusiastic rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” The men whipped off their tuxedo jackets to reveal message t-shirts proudly emblazoned with “GEEK,” “SISSY” and “LIKES GUYS,” while joyously dancing under rainbow-colored strobe-lights.

For their encore, the chorus invited a group of teenagers to join them in performing “I Sing Out.”

The program will be repeated at4 p.m. Sunday, preceded by the panel discussion “On The Way to Better” at 1:30 p.m.