Alley ‘Dracula’ @ UH

11 Oct

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For once, in the current Alley Theatre production of the “original vampire play” Dracula, the set is attracting more attention than the actors. For one thing, it’s a re-creation of the eye-popping design by artist Edward Gorey for a Broadway production in the 1970s. And for another, it’s the first Alley Theatre set in memory that’s not actually in the Alley Theatre.

Dracula opens the season for a company whose downtown space is being updated and renovated top to bottom, and thus is performing in the Wortham Theatre at the University of Houston. The Wortham is somewhat smaller than the larger of the Alley’s two spaces downtown, but comfortable and state-of-the-art in any way an audience might want. It will be hard to break the habit of heading for the Alley downtown. Beyond that pain, however, there is considerable gain. When the Alley returns, it will surely have been worth the wait.

As reinvented on Broadway, first for Frank Langella (making him a star) and later by Raul Julia, Dracula is a fun romp through the vampire legend. Based on Bram Stoker’s surprisingly frightening epistolary novel, the first go-round by Hamilton Deane and the rewrite a few years later by John L. Balderston point clearly toward all the ghosts of Count Draculas past. Indeed, it was Balderston’s occasionally tongue-in-cheek script that became a stage hit and eventually a 1930s Hollywood breakthrough for an unknown Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi. By the 1970s, and therefore by today in spades, the tongue-in-cheek elements of the narrative have taken on even greater prominence – not least in the Alley’s revisionist hands, which tend to camp up any play older than day-before-yesterday.

As with all previous versions, of the original Dracula if not always its many Hollywood spinoffs, there is a core of horror that catches us by the throat despite the laughter. This is helped along by the black-and-white Gorey designs, which had apparently been lost, forcing scenic coordinator Hugh Landwehr on a detective journey equal to searching out the Count’s six boxes of Transylvanian soil in which he gets a good day’s sleep. The sets are bizarre and evocative, thus setting the audience off-kilter immediately, ready for strange doings in the country home of an “alienist” (early psychiatrist) named Dr. Seward and his lovely daughter Lucy.

As directed by Gregory Boyd, the cast includes many of the Alley’s usual suspects, including Jeffrey Bean as Dr. Seward, James Black as Van Helsing, the Dutch scientist who is (in all things Dracula) the first to figure out what’s going on and how to fight back, and Elizabeth Bunch as Lucy. Chris Hutchison labors to make John Harker less of a whiny, spoiled brat – but maybe that’s just who Harker is. Fine, mostly comic twists are served up by Melissa Pritchett as Lucy’s lady in waiting, Todd Waite as a kind of guard around Seward’s sanitarium and, especially, Jeremy Webb as the bug-eating Renfield, always the play’s most over-the-top character.

Jay Sullivan provides a different but ultimately satisfying take on Dracula himself. Sidestepping any major effort at the now-cliché Transylvanian accent, he becomes “merely” an eerie, handsome and temptingly exotic man-about-castle who would, with or without vampire powers, lure an overprotected Lucy away from her over-entitled Harker to be his undying (and undyingly sexual) bride. Sullivan gives up, as it were, the wilder, wink-wink comic extremes of the role right along with the wilder, blood-snarling scary extremes. He gives us a Count who is that oddest of oddities – restrained. Still, his is a Dracula who does register as the essence of quiet, timeless evil, essentially the face that launched a thousand fangs.

Catastrophic’s ‘Detroit’

27 Sep

photo: Anthony Rathbun -


I’m not sure why Lisa D’Amour’s play currently on view in Houston is called Detroit, since I don’t think I heard the troubled Michigan city mentioned once during the 90-minute, no-intermission production. But thanks to a super cast fielded by Catastrophic Theatre, you won’t miss knowing what the title means, says or refers to. The show is funny and entertaining, riveting enough to keep your eyes from wandering, and at least a little thought-provoking after the non-curtain has gone non-down.

D’Amour takes us into two backyards in someplace that, of course, might be Detroit – there is a definite sense of economic hard times but, I think, more like the hard times suffered almost everywhere during  the Recession rather than in a city with lasting financial woes and bankruptcy lurking at every turn. These financial troubles serve as a kind of metaphor for lives lived in “quiet desperation,” until the desperation gets loud (and X-rated) indeed. This is, obviously, some effort to show the dark side of the American Dream, since much of the content involves houses, furniture, backyards, lawns, decks and barbecue pits. These people should be happy, we’d be tempted to say, watching them laugh and cook and eventually dance in the sunshine – except we sense they’re not.

Two couples living next door meet casually, noting that neighbors never meet anymore. Mary (played by Mischa Hutchings) and Ben (Jeff Miller) look more normal, though maybe a tad too all-American in their smiles and alcohol consumption, with her working a real job so the recently laid-off Ben can start a home-based financial business that requires nothing more than a presence on the Internet. Sara Jo Dunstan and George Parker play a stranger – and more strangely lovable – couple, though they reveal they’re actually squatting in an empty house owned by a relative because they just got out of drug rehab, where they either did or didn’t first meet. We sense shadows haunting each couple, not to mention each of the four as individuals.

Things are not at all what they seem, even as much of the time in the play is spent having fun, concocting short- or long-term schemes, and dreaming dreams. An old relative (evocatively played by Jim Tommaney) turns up near the end, after the disaster, to remind Mary and Ben how nice the neighborhood used to be – and probably, by suggestion, how nice human existence used to be, though we, as usual, don’t know when.

This is not a new narrative or a new message – I think of American short stories by Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others from the 1920s (before the Crash), and of course Death of a Salesman and other Arthur Miller plays, in which we watch a decent guy naïve enough to believe the promises America has made him slowly stripped of his last illusion. Here, however, there is nothing so certain or doctrinaire, nothing so Greek. Thanks to spirited direction by Troy Schulze and evocative design by Kevin Holden, what we have is a wild and wildly entertaining ride that just might haunt the corners of our minds the next time we think things are going so well.

Photo by Anthony Rathbun.

Houston Symphony a la Andrés

15 Sep

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The Houston Symphony kicked off its 2014-2015 season at Jones Hall with a special opening night gala and concert led by the organization’s fifteenth music director, Andrés Orozco-Estrada.

Columbian-born and Vienna-trained, Orozco-Estrada is one of the most sought-after conductors of his generation. Born in Medellín in 1977, he is also the first Hispanic music director the Symphony has ever had. Pronounced to rhyme with “undress” (insert audience giggles here), Andrés is very passionate about his work. His first conducting lessons were at the ripe old age of 15.  By the time he was 19, he had moved to Vienna to continue studies at the renowned Vienna Music Academy.  In interviews, Andrés praises the Germanic culture for teaching him precision, respect of the musical score, and structure.

This year’s opening concert featured the award-winning and extremely talented British trumpeter, Alison Balsom. She studied trumpet at the Paris Conservatory, and with Håkan Hardenberger.  Alison has performed all over the world with some of the greatest conductors and orchestras.  Alison was most recently named 2013’s Gramophone Artist of the Year, is a three-time winner at the ECHO Klassik Awards and also a three-time winner at the Classic BRIT Awards.

The official start of this inaugural season was nothing short of unexpected. The first piece of music in which he led the orchestra was our very own national anthem.  While the audience stood and applauded his arrival on stage, he motioned to the audience to remain standing, proceeded to turn around with his chest held high, and The Star Spangled Banner begun to play.  A sound of surprise and delight went through the audience, and everyone begun to sing.  Once the audience had quieted again, Andrés got down to business.

The program opened with Mozart’s Overture to Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), K. 492 which always delights.  This is where the audience was able to experience the uniqueness that is Orozco-Estrada.  He moved in such a way as to try to physically interpret the sounds from the orchestra with his body, like a kind of language, to physically communicate the music to the audience in real time.  Everyone really seemed to enjoy the performance for the eyes as well as the ears.

Next, featured artist Balsom performed Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat major, Hob. Vlle: 1 (I Allegro, II Andante, and III Finale: Allegro).  This went over smashingly well.  “Bravo!” was heard many times through the roar of the audience.  As quickly as Alison and Andrés left after the standing ovation to go backstage, they both came back out and Alison announced that they had suddenly decided to play an encore. With all the musicians onstage joining in, the pair served up a lively Latin piece that had the audience on its feet swaying and coming close to dancing. The spirit of the performance was nothing less than infectious.

The program concluded with a great show piece for the orchestra, Maurice Ravel’s orchestral version of Modest Mussorgsky’s famed piano suite Tableaux d’une exposition (Pictures at an Exhibition). For those that wish to know a little background on Mussorgsky’s composition, this suite was inspired by his late friend, Victor Hartmann, an architect and artist, who died suddenly of an aneurysm at the young age of 39. With the sudden shock of losing one of his dearest friends, Mussorgsky composed the famous Promenade and 10 movements in 1874 after attending an exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg, Russia.  The exhibit was organized with more than 400 Hartmann works.  Mussorgsky’s music depicts an imaginary tour of an art collection, ten of Hartmann’s drawings and watercolors, a wonderful posthumous tribute to a dear friend. As most of the pictures from the Hartmann exhibit have been lost, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to be sure which works Mussorgsky had in mind when composing, but this does not deter today’s audiences of the enjoyment of hearing a brilliant suite of music.

Andrés masterfully conducted the orchestra through the Promenade and the following ten pieces of music. The show was riveting… everyone on their feet after every performance.  What a way to start a season!  Andrés’ Inaugural Season will be nothing short of exciting with innovative concert experiences he wishes to share with his now-fellow Houstonians.  He believes that the symphony belongs to everybody and plans to make that happen by holding free performances throughout the season, such as the recent performances at Miller Outdoor Theatre.

Thanks to ConocoPhillips for their continued decades-long support of the symphony’s Opening Night Concert.  If you would like to experience the delight of Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Houston Symphony, please visit for more information, or call the Houston Symphony at 713-224-4240.

Too Close to the Sun

29 Aug

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I met Barbara Barnes Sims when we were both laborers in the fields of the Lord – or, at least, when we were both lecturers on cruise ships sailing the Mediterranean. And I remember her telling me once she was writing some kind of book about Sun Records.

The idea sounded interesting enough. Sun, founded in Memphis by a rock and roll visionary named Sam Phillips, was an essential chapter in the history of all modern American music. As much as anybody could be said to have, Phillips “discovered” Elvis Presley. And what he did in the process – looking mostly for white artists who captured the raw emotion of black music – would give the world virtually every musical style and every hit song that’s happened since. Maybe she mentioned it or maybe she didn’t, probably at dinner as our ship headed out to sea, but I missed that Barbara had actually worked at Sun, that the book she was writing was no mere history but a personal memoir.

The Next Elvis: Searching for Stardom at Sun Records (LSU Press, $26) is a remarkable personal memoir indeed. As Barbara signed on “after Elvis” – Phillips famously sold his contract to RCA, insisting for the rest of his life the sale kept the lights on – she missed that crazy-famous chapter but caught every bit of the next one. Her life at Sun, and therefore this book, was and is about what everyone understood to be the search for “the next Elvis.” If you’ve seen the live-concert Broadway musical The Million-Dollar Quartet, you know the basic history already. The musical, ostensibly recreating the single night that Elvis played a few songs in the Sun studio with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and a typically unmoored Jerry Lee Lewis, only sketches in some of the before and after. The Next Elvis tells us the rest of the story while weaving in the rest of the people.

Unlike the musical, this book is about a young, shy, small-town Southern woman’s journey into, through and eventually away from what was an almost entirely man’s world. Barbara did the publicity for Phillips, which at that label meant she did pretty much everything. She called distributors and DJs to pitch new records, she called music writers to interest them in new artists and, among her most fascinating duties, she met with each entertainer to decide what to say on the album covers of each new LP. The very technologies and terms of these creations, these retail products, are the stuff of sheer nostalgia now. Yet we also get an almost-secret thrill watching Barbara figure out what’s special about each artist, thus helping supply the vocabulary we use about him to this day.

There’s lots of interesting back-of-the-house gossip in these pages about Phillips (whom Barbara clearly adored, yet with mixed feelings, not least because he was her boss) and the rest of the Sun business operation. Even better, there are vignettes that tell us things we might not know about Elvis (she saw him only once), Cash, Perkins and Lewis, plus other musicians whose stars flickered briefly, at length or even more than once over many years, like Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich. In retrospect, none of these became Sam Phillips’ “next Elvis,” artistically or financially, and eventually Sun faded away. Yet in so many cases, if the talent didn’t flame out too briefly, these voices first heard in a tumbledown studio in Memphis became the soundtracks of our lives.   

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The Beatles in New Orleans

27 Aug

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On Tuesday Sept. 16 I will walk into City Park Stadium in New Orleans to hear a tribute band play all the old Beatles hits. The last time I entered the stadium, exactly 50 years ago that night, the Beatles were playing all the old Beatles hits.

Except both they and I were young.

In one of the most lovingly nostalgic acts of self-promotion I can remember, the public television station in my hometown has not only produced an entertaining half-hour special about the Beatles’ visit but has created a full-scale live concert event at the stadium featuring a tribute band called The Fab Four. I just got a preview of the TV special, titled “When the Beatles Invaded New Orleans.” That and the fact I spent eight years talking about food every Friday night on WYES-TV’s Steppin’ Out program, with the same host (Peggy Scott Laborde) and possibly the same table, sealed the deal for me.

As I recall, my younger sister fell for the Beatles before I did – probably as it should be. I was 12 and not interested in music, but after a few weeks of listening to her and her friends playing bouncy hits like “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on her tiny pink 45 rpm record player, I was ready to commit. I was watching when a national TV personality named Jack Paar (look him up, children) played a jumpy, scratchy, black-and-white film of the Beatles performing in Liverpool, so of course I was watching when the group made its first of several iconic live appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Cutting to the chase, there was nothing I didn’t think I’d like about having thousands – no, millions – of girls throwing themselves at me, body and soul. Like so many other boys across America, I started a band of my own within days. Historical note: Neither The Runaways, nor our later, mildly psychedelic rendition The Upstairs Window, ever appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.

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I took my sister to see the Beatles in New Orleans, dropped off at the gates by our parents; and as things went, that was surely my cover for liking them myself. There we were that night, up in the stands with 12,000 other screaming, shouting, crying kids, asking each other what song the band was playing because we couldn’t hear above the screaming. The night was a highlight of my life – Top Ten, surely. Many things moved and changed and grew after that night, many things began and ended, even the Beatles themselves. But when my kids, a couple years ago, gave me a colorized and framed reproduction of the City Park concert poster, I couldn’t imagine anything I’d never thought of but that made me smile more.

Only two years after City Park, by 1966, both the Beatles and I were old hands. I convinced my parents to make our annual vacation trek to Boston, where my Dad was from, in time to meet up with the Beatles at the Suffolk Downs racetrack. By then, my sister and I knew enough to shove our way down in front of the biggest (and loudest) speakers I’d ever seen. The show was great, replacing those primal hits from 1964 with the complex harmonics and ideas of “Nowhere Man,” “Paperback Writer” and “Yesterday.” A few days later, the Beatles announced there’d be no more concert tours, at least partially because more and more of their songs were created in the studio, not on any stage. Still, whenever I think back to them or those times, I almost never think of my Dad’s hometown. I think of mine.  

Ironically, between my life’s two Beatles concerts, the closest we got to each other was August 19, 1965, when they played two sold-out shows, afternoon and evening, at the Sam Houston Coliseum – in Houston. All the radio stations in New Orleans organized charter busses to these shows, and I begged my parents to let me be on one. But they, oh so parentally, said No. So yes, I did get to Texas “as quick as I could.” But it wasn’t quick enough. 

Thanks to the WYES page on YouTube, “The Beatles Invade New Orleans, ” featuring memories by Beatles historian Bruce Spizer, musician Deacon John, retired New Orleans DJ Bob Walker and broadcaster Marcia Kavanaugh (like me, a concert survivor) will be available to all after its airing this Friday at 7:30 and again at 11 p.m. Tickets to the live 90-minute concert by The Fab Four on Sept. 16 are $35 (the real Beatles were $5, but that seemed a lot more money when I was 12), with a tempting VIP package available for $150. Anything and everything about the event can be found at or by calling (504) 457-2934. I’ll see you there. And please, don’t be looking for a 12-year-old.

Photos: (top) The Fab Four tribute band; (middle) the Beatles meet the mayor of New Orleans; (bottom) the WYES-TV special hosted by Peggy Scott Laborde.

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‘Full Gallop’ at Stages

11 Aug



I hate fashion. I don’t like publishing elites. And hell, I don’t even love New York, despite a few gazillion dollars spent to make me. So I would seem an unlikely cheerleader for the play called Full Gallop, setting forth the acerbic wit and cynical wisdom of late New York trendsetting socialite Diana Vreeland, she of Harper’s Bazaar and especially of Vogue.

Still, the mostly one-woman show that opened last night at Stages is one of those rare theatrical epiphanies – when an actor so completely inhabits a role that, even if you’ve never seen more than still photos of Vreeland, you utterly believe you’re now watching her in action. Much the same thing happened with Hal Holbrook as a very old Mark Twain, whom he started playing as a very young actor. He was still the same old wonderful Twain, Holbrook let on to me backstage after one late-model performance – except he needed less and less makeup to look old.

There are parallels. Sally Edmundson first performed Full Gallop at Stages 15 years ago. Though I didn’t see the show then, I’m told by those who did that the portrayal is richer now, more knowing and, in some ways, more sympathetic. She probably always nailed the physical particulars, starting with the signature mound of black hair, the endless drinking and smoking and, of course, talking dirt about other people. But it seems that something about Vreeland’s soul is onstage now that probably wasn’t there before, something more about how it feels to look out over the world from a very high, powerful place and then, suddenly, to not.

That is the basic plot of Full Gallop by Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson – or what I call, in any one-person show – the excuse. In other words, why is this person bothering to say all these things? The single evening catches Vreeland in 1971, five years after her beloved husband’s death to cancer and some time after her dismissal as editor from Vogue. She actually has very little to stand on, plus what she considers not a lot of money to do it with. She makes and receives phone calls all evening long, from prominent people in New York and on the West Coast, each time finding just the right way to reassure them that she still is a force. The conversations are hilarious, as even more so are her bitchy asides (to the audience) after hanging up. Also laugh-worthy is Vreeland’s ongoing intercom exchange about domestic matters with a French maid we hear but never see. Delightfully, the maid is played by Edmundson’s own daughter Maria, who happens to hold a BA in French.

Directed by Stages artistic director Kenn McLaughlin with a lovely Park Avenue set by Jodi Bobvrosky, lighting by Clint Allen and costumes (well, one costume) by Nara Lesser, Full Gallop is a funny, rich, complex, engaging and surprisingly touching evening of theater.

Photo: Sally Edmundson as Diana Vreeland, by Bruce Bennett

MU Premieres ‘Pollywog’

3 Aug

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Pollywog, presented as a world premiere by the small, ever-inventive Houston theater company called Mildred’s Umbrella, is an intriguing evening of theater. It’s ambiguous and eloquent, wordy yet also spare, intellectual yet wildly physical. At times it’s like a ballet with talking. And maybe vice versa as well.

As best I can tell, the play written by Keian McKee and directed at Studio 101 by Matt Huff, is “about” what goes on in the mind of a long-distance swimmer of the sort who takes on the English Channel. Still, it doesn’t take long before this swim emerges as a metaphor for each of our lives, especially as the swimmer named Polly remembers the joys and sorrows of her mother and father (a strange and strained relationship, to say the least) and even gets visits from two famous swimmers who inspired her, Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller. The latter, of course, swam a stroke or two in the movies as the greatest Tarzan of them all.

So… time is not a solid thing in Pollywog, presumably as Polly’s mind wanders stroke after stroke. We realize that her mother is now dead, and probably her father as well. Esther and Johnny are dead in real life, real time – indeed, except for on this stage, she has presumably never met either. Yet here they are, participating in scenes from throughout her life, giving her advice and correction, cheering her on toward the sand that waits at the far end of her swim.

That, apparently, is what Pollywog is “about.” But what makes it worth seeing is what we see (and to some degree, hear) as the tale unfolds. Thanks to Huff and longtime local dancer/choreographer Jennifer Wood, swimming itself becomes an act of dance. Time and again, Esther and Johnny form geometric and poetic patterns with their bodies, and sometimes even do creative things with Polly, like stretching her out across a turning chair to swim on the air, spinning her between them as she slowly pulls and kicks. It’s not necessarily complicated, but it’s something I’ve never seen on a stage before. Often, it’s nothing short of beautiful.

Two of the characters, Polly and her mother Jule, have the most serious acting to do, for each has to switch repeatedly through ages and conditions in time. In Polly’s case, that means Courtney Lomelo has to find ways to be a grown woman in quick transition with being a small child, and then quickly back again. She handles the task with instinct and skill, using her voice as a prompt particularly well. Celeste Roberts as Jule has an even bigger job, playing the mother before and after a severe stroke. This requires not only theatrics but a bit of medical understanding. The mouth that droops on one side is an especially effective key to telling us “which one” she is at any given moment and to making post-stroke Jule come alive.

Veteran actor James Belcher does fine work as husband Mort, a hard-working but argumentative sort who travels the roads selling cemetery gravestones, a none-too-subtle reminder that death lurks beside and behind every hope and dream we have. It’s not a morbid thought in Pollywog but a realistic one. Autumn Clark and Jason Duga show off their bodies and their balance impressively through the entire 90-minute, no-intermission running time.

Photos: (top) Courtney Lomelo; (bottom) James Belcher, Autumn Clark and Jason Duga, by Gentle Bear Photography.

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