HGO’s ‘A Little Night Music’

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By JOHN DeMERS

I love it when “grand opera” takes the night off. Indeed, whenever it does, it becomes possible to see how wonderful the art form actually is – or can be, if liberated from the layers of definitional straightjacket that tell it what it’s allowed and not allowed to do. The current Houston Grand Opera production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is a shimmeringly beautiful example of what happens when opera opens its mind and our eyes.

So yes, A Little Night Music is a Broadway musical – as in, not an opera. And Sondheim is a Broadway composer and almost unbearably smart Broadway lyricist. The result is a show that only “sounds like opera” at the Wortham Center because opera singers are singing it. Yet, by the end of this dazzling, heartfelt and rather heartbreaking production, it has done what all the best operas try to do. We have met and cared about a set of characters, we have entered their joys and sorrows more profoundly than we do in most operas, and we have taken their lives (for a while) as our own. A Little Night Music is deeply moving theater, unforgettable visual art made of set, costume and light, and moment after moment of glorious vocal expression.

For starters, the show is nothing short of gorgeous to look at. Somehow HGO managed to snag superstar designer Isaac Mizrahi to handle the sets and costumes, and the whole package transports us back in time to shows like My Fair Lady and Gigi, which were fashion festivals along with everything else. Lighting designer Brian Nason gets in on the fun, giving the versatile, outdoor-indoor set  - a green forest I want for the next Midsummer Night’s Dream I see – a golden glow that evokes the same sunset many of the lyrics describe. Though the romantic loves chronicled here happen at many ages onstage, they are certainly seen from an older, wiser and more saddened perspective. From a sunset, as it were.

The story, based on a Swedish art film by Ingmar Bergman, seems complicated but happily ends up not. It serves up what Sondheim does best: the contrast and occasional conflict of our tireless, indeed undying romantic fantasies with the often-cruel realities of living our stories. Yet we believe, he says. And yet we embrace. By the time the lead character, a much-loved stage actress appropriately named Desiree, sings the musical’s mega-hit “Send in the Clowns” near the end, the song we’ve heard by itself a few hundred other times finally makes sense. And it, without question, reminds us of ourselves, breaking our hearts at the same time.

Operating (on purpose) without percussion, the HGO orchestra conducted by Eric Melear paints the show’s emotional landscape with the same golden glow the lighting uses on the stage. Soprano Elizabeth Futral is irresistible as Desiree – it’s easy to imagine any man who sees this actress onstage wishing to leave his wife and run away with her, at least for the weekend. HGO favorite Chad Shelton is terrific as Fredrik, the widowed-then-remarried man with an almost-grown son, who discovers that his memories of a younger Desiree pack more romantic punch in the present tense than he ever understood. Equal praise is due the others involved in this very oddly shaped triangle: Andrea Carroll as Fredrik’s too-young wife (in a marriage unconsummated after eleven months), Mark Diamond as the stuffy, obnoxious military man who is Desiree’s current lover, and Carolyn Sproule as that officer’s charming but decidedly long-suffering wife.

A Little Night Music increases its emotional reach through commentary from outside these entangled  characters: from Desiree’s wheelchair-bound mother remembering her own loves (wonderfully played and sung by Joyce Castle) and from Desiree’s young daughter (Grace Muir) – whose name Fredricka may or may not hint at her paternity. Alicia Gianni enlivens the strange role of Petra, a kind of lady-in-waiting, with a sublimely earthy, world-weary nobility, especially in her Act II number about the course of any marriage.  Lastly, the stage is filled with other beautifully costumed and lit beings, who climb trees and ladders, sing bits of choral music, move set pieces on or off, and most compellingly, serve up Sondheim’s commentary. No magical moments of love are allowed to stand without older, wiser, more cynical comments. Yet, in Sondheim’s world as in our own, the moments happen all the same.

Mildred’s Umbrella’s ‘Rome’

11 Mar

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BY JOHN DeMERS

Plays by John Harvey are never pretty, sweet or uplifting. Drawing on many theatrical forces of the late 20th century, the playwright based at the University of Houston seems to major in cruelty with unrelenting sexual tendencies, degradation and dark observations about the human animal. In general, you’d do well at a Harvey play to focus on the word “animal,” letting the word “human” fend for itself.

The man’s latest play, produced by the local company called Mildred’s Umbrella and directed by MU’s own Jennifer Decker, is titled Rome. Yet it seems it’s not actually set in Rome, since there’s much talk of going there – just as it seems that several of the characters, onstage and at least one offstage,  are actually brother and sister. This fact has not prevented several of them from having sex, apparently, never in the sense of falling in love or even making love, always in the sense of dominating, conquering, punishing and destroying. The lead female character even wears a floor-length, slinky black dress, bringing one pop-culture reference unavoidably to mind. It’s as though The Addams Family had been rewritten, sexually abused Morticia and all, by Sigmund Freud.

You can’t demand a lot of clarity or certainty, or indeed a lot of plot resolution, if you’re going to enjoy watching Rome. I must not demand such things, since I did enjoy its 90 minutes served up at Studio 101 without an intermission. There is much to admire in Harvey’s dark poetry: his creation of a world in which all reassurances and protections have broken down. Image after image floats through the air of nocturnal spaces outside this single drawing room, of creatures slinking carrying weapons (or body parts?), of riots over food, of the entire machinery known as civilization creaking and clanking to an exhausted halt. It’s hard to tell if Harvey’s vision is real and physical in time, or whether it’s metaphorical – exploring the darkest places that have always lurked within us. In Rome, he seems to be picking with gruesome curiosity at both.

Decker fields an ensemble of actors willing to be as fierce as Harvey’s language. All are excellent. Since every second of the play takes place in a single drawing room, we are continually reminded of all those English dramas in which keeping a stiff upper lip seems to be the main action – unless of course, it’s an Agatha Christie mystery, in which this propriety is shattered by some terrible murder. Some stretches of dialogue seem to be philosophical just to be philosophical, yet others hint at mean-spirited and hurtful doings buried deep in the past, as when Georgina remembers for her sister Fanny the night their father showed up to molest one of them, and then chose Fanny. Sympathy mixes disturbingly with jealousy in the telling.

Bobby Haworth and Patricia Duran are first among equals in the cast, their characters (and her sheer Morticia beauty) marking them as central to whatever passes for a traditional plot. The two are apparently married, though none too happily. Each is suspicious of the other’s every move, every motivation, past, present and future. Haworth and Duran are masterful at this sniping and suffering, yet they are almost equaled by H.R. Bradford and Christie Stark-Guidry as sexually charged brother and sister George and Georgina, their very names evoking some kind of matched pair. Jon Harvey and Amy Warren portray friends caught somehow in this same drawing room, each with sexual fireworks both together and separately.

Just as the play’s setting is ambiguous, just as the characters relationships are ambiguous, so is what we’re supposed to make of or take away from the denouement, involving the arrival of soldiers directed by an S&M “Captain” played with ice-in-veins by Courtney Lomelo. Unlike at the close of Hamlet, it’s hard to picture the arrival of these particular soldiers bringing anything resembling order to John Harvey’s chaos.

Photo by VJ Arizpe.

Three Terrific Plays

9 Feb

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SEXY LAUNDRY

Stages Theatre

Through March 16

If you can see only one of the three plays covered in this review, I’d like to suggest this one that opened last night at Stages. If you are in a long-term relationship up to and including marriage, if you’ve ever been in one, or if you think you might like to be in one, this mostly-comedy by Canadian playwright Michele Rimi will make you laugh until you cry. And then, occasionally, vice versa. Long-marrieds Henry and Alice have checked into one of those sleek, sexy, modern hotels with a one-letter name to re-ignite their romance. And while the notion seems straightforward enough, both bring the residue of the past twenty-plus years into the process of re-ignition. Sexy Laundry is getting some of the loudest and longest belly laughs we’ve heard in a Houston theater in quite some time. Yet when you least expect it, the ghosts of little things done and undone remind us that marriage is a pretty dicey business after all. As directed by Stages producing artistic director Kenn McLaughlin, veterans Susan Koozin and Josh Morrison are magnificently looney and ultimately quite touching as Henry and June.

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DOCTOR FAUSTUS

Classical Theatre Company

Through February 16

The story of Doctor Faustus, or simply Faust as the man is known in opera houses around the world, is reasonably well known. Yes, he’s the guy who sells his soul to the devil, a device that’s been used on stage and screen ever since Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe penned this version way back when. The tale and its many lessons still resonate, partly as being the absolute flipside of what happened when Satan tempted Jesus in the desert. This is how it works, Marlowe seems to be telling us, if the one being tempted isn’t Jesus and just happens to say Yes. Even with updates, the language here can be dense but also rich and wonderful, and the striking production is never difficult to follow. It sticks closely to the Classical Theatre mantra of treating such plays with respect but not necessarily wearing handcuffs either. Faust makes his deal – signs a contract, no less – and then spends the rest of the play enjoying himself, until the fatal debt comes due. Philip Hays draws the most from his cast, which includes Adam Gibbs as the Not-So-Good Doctor and longtime Alley star James Belcher as a beguiling but heartless Mephistopheles.  Reall now, what other kind would there be?

Alley Theatre-"Freud's Last Case"

FREUD’S LAST SESSION

Alley Theatre

Through February 23

So, asks playwright Mark St. Germain, what would have happened had one of the 20th century’s greatest atheists, Sigmund Freud, ever crossed verbal swords with one of its greatest believers, C.S. Lewis?  It might have happened in London, says St. Germain, probably with the young Lewis visiting the dying Freud about, well, something or other. And it would have to take place during the London Blitz, if only as reminder that whatever happens when you meet your Maker, if there is one, matters quite a lot. Last Session is a tour de force of cleverness and occasional profundity, though it’s unclear whether even as fictional characters either man benefits from their exchange. Still, with Alley stalwart James Black as Freud and Jay Sullivan as Lewis, this might be one of the most intellectually stunning evenings of theater we’ve seen in a long time. Tyler Marchant directs the actors within the Alley’s lovely book-lined study of a set.

Stark Naked’s ‘Faith Healer’

26 Jan

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By JOHN DeMERS

It’s pretty gutsy to write (or produce or perform) a play entirely without character interaction or dialogue, in which the three characters involved offer only monologues addressed to the audience. It’s probably also gutsy to write (or produce or perform) a play in which the only thing that happens onstage all night has happened already – and the audience is none too sure what that was.

Such are the challenges, frustrations, fascinations and eventual rewards of Faith Healer, written by veteran Irish playwright and screenwriter Brian Friel and currently on display thanks to Houston’s Stark Naked Theatre Company. The play is directed by former Alley stalwart John Tyson and stars himself along with the co-founding artistic directors of Stark Naked, Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl. To say this is a labor of labor for all concerned is an understatement. Interestingly, for those who want more Irish-flavored talk after seeing Faith Healer, the company is about to launch The Good Thief by Conor McPherson, a one-man show also directed by Tyson and starring Santry Rush.

In Faith Healer, the three characters are Frank Hardy, an on-again, off-again charlatan who travels the British Isles conducting “healings” that sometimes actually work; Grace, Frank’s wife and apparently long-suffering partner in the not-very-successful venture; and Teddy, Frank’s colorful Cockney manager, who views these quasi-religious services as just another dog show, bird act or comedian to take on the road. As the monologues roll out (in no hurry, mind you), we hear from Frank then Grace before intermission, then from Teddy and Frank one final time. With halting authenticity, casual asides and bursts of deep emotion, the three talk about – something that happened. Indeed, we suspect over time that one or more of our narrators might, or might not, be already dead.

The mystery is delicious right along with the lush, cascading language. Not as lyrical as we think of some Irish writers of prose or poetry, Friel nonetheless gives us a lot of words: rich, evocative, usually ambiguous, often quite funny. Things darken as we spot certain moments recurring in the different characters’ stories, clearly important, life-or-death moments, even if some of the facts are different each time we hear about them. This is, in a sense, a detective story, with audience as detective arriving after the crime and interrogating witnesses to get a handle on things. In this play, as at a crime scene, this can prove to be no picnic.

Tyson retains for himself the role likely to delight most, Cockney-accented Teddy, swilling bottle after bottle of stout while intermingling tales of Frank and Grace on the road with hilarious detours into his career in smalltime entertainment. Friel was wise enough to place this entertaining monologue after the first two, when “comic relief” is certainly welcome. Tobin-Lehl gives her all to Grace, never rising from her chair, struggling with voice and especially hands to keep emotions under control, skirting the edge of some kind of breakdown that she may or may not have already had. Lehl opens and closes the show, giving voice to Frank’s own onrush of guilt, doubt and fear as the fate we slowly suspect awaits him in his Irish homeland inches nearer with each glance, each line, each word.

With its shadow-filled universe crafted by set designer Kevin Holden and lighting designer Clint Allen, Faith Healer isn’t an easy night of theater. It asks more questions than it answers. And like a detective rather than a detective novel, it has to settle for an evidence table of partial truths.

Photo by Gabriella Nissen: John Tyson as Teddy

TUTS ‘We Will Rock You’

23 Jan

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By JOHN DeMERS

The current Theatre Under The Stars production of We Will Rock You, built around the music of Queen, is light years from being the worst “jukebox musical” ever created. But mostly for the flimsiness of its book, it’s hardly the best one either. As the show goes on, as shows invariably must, and moves toward those wildly theatrical Queen anthems “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions,” it’s easy to forget this may not be the most engaging theater you’ve ever seen.

With the care and feeding of British writer Ben Elton (who even dared take on that sequel to Phantom of the Opera with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Love Never Dies), We Will Rock You does have some kind of story. It’s the future, and everything in life is boringly neutral thanks to the cleverly named company Globalsoft. Teenagers text and tweet blandly all day and all night, with no access to the rumored rock and roll that (as we know) was always pure, noncommercial, unique and liberating, ever since the times of a mythical King who now sleeps behind the gates of a palace that, from its first mention, sounds like Graceland.

There is, I suppose, nothing wrong with this fanciful tale of an even more fanciful history of rock, and it does let the cast get off dozens of clever one-liners about pop celebs from Buddy Holly to Miley Cyrus. It is less successful in providing a track on which to run the 24 Queen songs chosen for the show, a few obscure but most of the sort you’d have to live on Mars to not know. There are several affectionate references to late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, which bring predictable cheers from a crowd gathered for this particular memorial service.

The look and feel of We Will Rock You, designed for the London stage by Mark Fisher with lighting by Willie Williams and excellent hair and makeup by John “Jack” Curtin, is kind of Mad Max meets West Side Story meets The Rocky Horror Show, with maybe a side order of Starmites. Everything is colorful and lots of fun – so much that you might expect Elton John to join Ben Elton on the show’s creative team, except that would be very different music. As it is, Queen gets a loving tribute-band rendering from a set of young rock musicians inhabiting a platform, often in the darkness, high above the stage. Like Queen’s original music, We Will Rock You’s first achievement is being very loud. Why would you want to hear these songs any other way?

If there are failings inherent in the score – almost every song is a hard-rock anthem, perfect for the belting graduates of American Idol, ironically blamed in this show for killing “true rock” – there are no failings in the TUTS cast. Brian Justin Crum and Ruby Lewis dazzle as the romantic leads, two teens who lead a long-promised rebellion against Globalsoft – she especially with her soul-crunching, Janis Joplinesque rendition of “Somebody to Love.” Then again, Crum gets to “be” Freddie Mercury over and over, building toward the show’s big finale. He does so with careful phrasing, perfect pitch and intense physicality – just like Freddie himself used to.

Other top performances include Jacqueline B. Arnold as the Killer Queen of Globalsoft (borrowing a bit from Tina Turner in The Who’s Tommy) and P.J. Griffith as her drippingly evil henchman, who shares the name “Khashoggi” with the shadowy, real-life Saudi arms dealer. It’s the kind of role Roddy McDowell would have jumped all over, if he could sing and move like he’d just escaped from the Righteous Brothers.

The TUTS production of We Will Rock You, well worth an evening if you remember when, continues at the Hobby Center until Feb. 2.

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‘Into the Woods’ at MST

17 Jan

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By JOHN DeMERS

Quite often in life, no matter how much we know better, we hear, “Oh it was just a fairy tale wedding,” or maybe “It was like something out of a fairy tale.” And people say that, well, like it’s a good thing. In their musical Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine ponder, in each and every line and melody, what the dark side of familiar fairy tales ought to be telling us and what might happen if those fairy tales happened in our own real lives. With a lively assist from Main Street Theater, Houston can now ponder those things right along with them.

The new production with a cream-of-the-crop cast of local actors, nonstop-energy direction by Andrew Ruthven and a quirky, irreverent piano accompaniment by Claudia Dyle manages to be wildly funny when it isn’t too busy being wildly sad. That’s how Into the Woods works, whenever, however and wherever it’s performed, so that this production in Main Street’s small, intimate space with audience on all sides ends up packing most of the emotional punch of a much bigger deal on, say, Broadway.

Main Street and Ruthven set up one odd departure from the original, and then proceed to forget or ignore it. The program describes the show’s time period as “1944,” and then proceeds to open with a famous Edward R. Murrow broadcast from London, which would make it about 1940. After that, it proceeds to tell the mash-up story of various fairy tales pretty much as though it was any time period, or no time period. Which makes you wonder why they messed with the issue in the first place. Then again, efforts to use musicals to say something “profound” about some different time period often end up wasting everybody’s time. No one going to see Main Street’s Into the Woods is in danger of having his or her time wasted.

As a Sondheim musical, there are two signatures on display here: a musical score that never falls for a familiar, cute or hummable melody – and lyrics that never met a pun or unexpected rhyme they didn’t like. At the show’s hyper-literate best, it’s like the cast is singing Tom Stoppard. This makes, naturally, for some tongue-twisters, a few of which made cast members stumble briefly on opening night. This is temporary. Mostly everybody onboard is a delight, both separately and as a spirited ensemble.

Standouts include David Wald on The Baker and Amanda Passananate as The Baker’s Wife, two characters who carry a lot of emotional weight, from the show’s fascination with “getting what you wish for” all the way to guilt for actions that break hearts and/or end lives of those we presume we love. Crystal O’Brien makes a nifty, if conflicted, Cinderella, while Kasi Hollowell brings a satisfying combination of naivete and experience to the role of a Little Red Ridinghood who seems likely to end up inside of more than one wolf before she’s through. Kregg Dailey is terrific as her first Wolf, and even better as the two-timing Prince (who admits he was raised to be “charming, not sincere”). The Witch, played by Bernadette Peters on Broadway, has some of the biggest songs, and these are caressed and/or belted by Christina Stroup in a way that adds to the overall effect. Even more than other characters, her ability to carry a tune while the piano score goes off on its own is impressive. Then again, it always is with Sondheim.

The show is lovely to look at, made so by Ryan McGettigan’s tight and, of necessity, efficient set design, Macy Lyne’s (fairly timeless) costumes and John Metak’s lighting. As is so often the case with Main Street, the focus is not on how much money you can trot out on stage but on how quickly and confidently you can get to the heart of the story. There is a lot of heart in Into the Woods, a very funny heart except when it’s very sad.

Photo by Ric Ornel Productions: Kregg Dailey as The Wolf and Kasi Hollowell as Little Red

Ars Lyrica for NYE

18 Dec

arslyrica-1877 Photo by Anthony Rathbun HI RES

The Grammy-nominated early music ensemble Ars Lyrica Houston continues its 10th anniversary Discoveries season with Venetian Carnival on New Year’s Eve 2013. This event begins at 9 pm on December 31 with a festive musical program in the Hobby Center’s Zilkha Hall; a gala reception follows immediately at 10:30 pm in the Hobby Center’s Sarofim Hall Grand Lobby.

In celebration of Venice and its carnival tradition, Ars Lyrica rings in the New Year with exotic music from the City of Masks.  Sopranos Melissa Givens and Blair Doerge plus Baroque flautist Colin St Martin and guitarist Richard Savino share the stage with the Ars Lyrica ensemble, led by artistic director Matthew Dirst from the harpsichord. Venetian Carnival spotlights the music of the Most Serene Republic’s finest composers, including Monteverdi and Vivaldi, in vocal duets, chamber concertos and opera excerpts. As always, Ars Lyrica’s annual holiday gala features flowing champagne plus tasty hors d’oeuvres and sweets, as well as a silent auction for beautiful baubles, luxury services, vacation homes and more. Because of this year’s Venetian theme, masks are encouraged!  Bidding is closed at the stroke of midnight, as the sounds of “Auld Lang Syne” fill the Grand Lobby.

“Where else in Houston can one find amazing music, a wonderful party and some serious swag all at the same venue on New Year’s Eve?” Dirst asks. “Artista Restaurant at the Hobby Center is even open for dinner before the concert, so you park once and spend the entire evening with us!”

Tickets for the performance only are $22 for students (with valid ID) and $35, $45 or $55 per person for the general public.  A separate ticket for the Annual Gala is $75 per person.  To experience the entire magical New Year’s Eve, tickets to both the performance and the gala must be purchased. The full evening event starts at $97 per person. Tickets for the concert and Gala may be purchased on the Ars Lyrica Houston website at http://www.arslyricahouston.org or by calling the Hobby Center Box Office at 713-315-2525. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.arslyricahouston.org or call the Hobby Center box office at 713.315.2525.  

Founded in 1998 by harpsichordist and conductor Matthew Dirst, Ars Lyrica Houston is a Texas-based ensemble that performs world-class Baroque music on period instruments. Ars Lyrica’s world premiere recording of J.A. Hasse’s Marc Antonio e Cleopatra brought the ensemble its first Grammy nomination for “a thrilling performance that glows in its quieter moments and sparkles with vitality” (Early Music America).  Ars Lyrica’s distinctive programming, drawn from the rich chamber and dramatic repertories of the 17th and 18th centuries, “sets the agenda for imaginative period instrument programming in Houston,” according to the Houston Chronicle.

The ensemble’s first commercial release, on Naxos International, features the world première recordings of Alessandro Scarlatti’s La Concettione della Beata Vergine and Euridice dall’Inferno. This disc brought international recognition to the ensemble: Gramophone, the leading journal of the classical recording industry, praised this CD for its “exemplary skill and taste,” and Ars Lyrica’s musicians for their “impassioned performance” of never-before recorded works. Ars Lyrica’s latest Sono Luminus recording of Domenico Scarlatti’s comic intermezzo La Dirindina and his chamber cantata Pur nel sonno was released in August 2012. For more information visit www.arslyricahouston.org.

Photo by Anthony Rathbun

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