TUTS’ ‘The Music Man’

9 May

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By JOHN DeMERS

“Although Broadway shows are not traditionally rated,” the website reassures, “TUTS has determined that The Music Man would be rated the movie equivalent of a G rating”

G rating indeed! Meredith Willson’s shimmering, tuneful classic from the depths of half-real, half-wished-for America might even deserve a G+. Yes, underneath what we see and hear, it’s also the story of a not-nice guy, certainly seldom an honest one, who comes to a small Iowa town perhaps a century ago, deadset on fleecing its parents with a fraudulent boys band and removing his only likely obstacle, the unmarried town music teacher, by hustling her into bed – as he boasts (in song) of doing in town after town. Music Man is a raunchy story, really. At least it would be if it had been written the least bit that way.

Though Willson (yes, with two l’s, please) supposedly was persona non grata around his own Iowa town for portraying the people there as stubborn, petty and ignorant, Theatre Under The Stars clearly embraces the musical as a glowing love letter to River City and smalltown America in general. Everyone we see is sparkling clean in word, deed, face and feet, with nobody looking poor or destitute. There is a new pool table debuting at the town billiard parlor, the first inkling of a modernity that reeks of smutty dime novels and cigarettes, at least for the local boys. The story puts this pool table to excellent use, as “Professor Harold Hill” (actually not Harold Hill, and definitely not any kind of music professor since “he don’t know one note from another”) creates the illusion that involving the boys in a marching band would be a wholesome alternative to lives of sin.

The cast pulled together by TUTS is impressive, even though in the lead roles they have to struggle with iconic original performances on Broadway and on film. Sara Jean Ford (with the operatic Christine in Phantom part of her resume) has no trouble speaking like Shelley Long and singing like Shirley Jones as Marian the music teacher and town librarian. The mountain to climb, though, is impossibly and unfairly high for J. Anthony Crane as Harold Hill. Following Robert Preston in this role is a bit like playing the King of Siam without being Yul Brynner or Zorba the Greek without being Anthony Quinn. It can and is done, but it never entirely wipes the memory clean. Crane sings Hill’s songs with care and occasional relish, from the “Trouble” that threatens River City to the show’s iconic “76 Trombones.” His open, natural acting style (a far cry from his last Houston appearance, as over-the-top evil Scar in a national tour of The Lion King) makes us believe that Hill, gradually falling for Marian, actually is the door-to-door salesman who gets “his foot caught in the door.”

The rest of the Music Man cast is a who’s-who of local talent: Kevin Cooney (who played Hill years ago for TUTS, now showing up as comic-bombastic Mayor Shinn), Paul Hope, Susan Shofner, Brooke Wilson, Holland Vavra – if you’ve loved their singing and dancing in other shows, they’re probably hidden away here somewhere. Plenty of talented youngsters fill out the ensemble, used with skill by director Bruce Lumpkin, including many who’ve come up through TUTS’ own Humphreys School.

‘Mamma Mia’ in Houston

16 Apr

Mamma Mia Fox Theater

By JOHN DeMERS

If you’re not a fan of the hyper-hummable, foot-tapping and resoundingly shallow hits of the Swedish ‘70s rock band ABBA, you might not be the natural audience for the musical cobbled together from them, Mamma Mia, now playing in Houston as a touring show at the Hobby Center. Then again, if you’re at all like me, you might be surprised.

Given context by a not-so-silly story about a young, soon-to-be-married woman’s efforts to figure out which of three men her mother slept with on a Greek island in the late 1970s is her father, songs that made no particular (or pleasant) sense like “Take a Chance on Me” or “The Winner Takes It All” at least-at last grab onto identifiable human emptions. And since most of the people seeing the stage musical now have also seen the big-name Hollywood movie – besides knowing most of the songs by heart – there is very little pondering going on in the tirelessly delighted audience. It’s a chance to realize (again) that whenever a show tirelessly delights an audience, it is doing a lot right.

In the current production, the joys fall much closer to those of the musical Grease than might be expected. The entire running time, besides suggesting some lovely Greek island scenery that the shot-on-location movie showed better, is a sequence of “boy songs” and “girl songs,” with some energetic choreography thrown in. Think: “Summer Nights,” “Greased Lightning” and all the rest, except set to the never-raunchy tunes of ABBA. A song like “Take a Chance on Me” has to be made suggestive by a lighthearted seduction scene, since otherwise it sounds like happy circus music. Mamma Mia is simply fun, from start to finish – and what insights the show offers about life and love come more from the storyline than from the familiar lyrics.

Also, as in Grease, there’s room to shine onstage for both grownups and kids – even more than in Grease, really. In lieu of that 1950’s musical’s high school administrators, teachers and coaches (who always seem silly through a teenager’s eyes), the grownups in Mamma Mia grapple meaningfully with the consequences of choices made long ago, even when those didn’t feel like choices at the time. The fact that the kids – the bride, her groom, her friends and the staff of her mother’s small island hotel – are making many of those same choices now adds poignancy to the story.

All the cast impresses with energy and eternal youthfulness, especially in dance numbers that occasionally run Dirty Dancing through the filter of Zorba the Greek. Particular attention goes to Georgia Kate Haege as Donna, the woman whose romances on this island handed her a life, along with Chelsea Williams as her daughter Sophie. The audience also responds enthusiastically to Baily Purvis and Sarah Smith as Donna’s two girl-group singers from the ‘70s, reuniting with humor and songs like “Dancing Queen” for Sophie’s wedding. Since Mamma Mia is a chick-flick performed live, the guys in the cast get more singing and dancing than acting. Still, Michael Colavolpe, Jeff Drushal and Andrew Tebo handle their roles as the three possible fathers with conviction and implied decency.

Cast photos by Joan Marcus

Mamma Mia Fox Theater

A New TUTS ‘Joseph’

19 Mar

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By AMANDA CLAIRE RICHARDS

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, now playing at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, is one of the best shows I’ve seen in a while. Even now as I write, I can still feel the happy buzz you can only get from being part of a great audience at a well-executed production of a well-written show.

Despite the fact that I’ve seen many productions of this musical, (and can pretty much sing it through on my own without the CD because I’ve listened to the original recording so many times), this show is fresh and relevant, with much to offer first-time viewers and long-time fans alike. The cast of this production never misses a joke or a chance for a dance break, and their energy is contagious.

Joseph was one of the very first projects of musical theatre duo Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The show reinterprets a fairly short, 13-chapter story from the book of Genesis as a nearly two-hour, sung-through spectacle, with the songs flippantly and unselfconsciously jumping through musical genres as diverse as country, ‘60s, gogo, reggae, and the blues.

Joseph, the favorite of patriarch Jacob’s twelve sons, attracts the jealousy of his brothers by sharing the content of his prophetic dreams, in which he surpasses them in wealth and power, and by wearing his beautiful, colorful coat – a gift from his adoring father. Theatre Under The Stars’ production stars Ace Young, who brings the dream-interpreting character, most famously played by a long-haired Donny Osmond, to life. Young’s vocals are smooth with a rock’n’roll edge, and his Joseph is thoughtful, likeable and possibly a bit “adorkable.”

His female counterpart, The Narrator, helps to interpret the events and themes of the show through song. The role requires a big vocal range and even bigger acting chops, and Young’s real-life wife Diana DeGarmo is certainly up to the task. She is moving, hilarious, informative, provocative, and in all the right places! DeGarmo never misses a beat, and flawlessly belts out high notes mere seconds after dance breaks that would leave most of us gasping for breath.

The third star of this show is the male chorus, Joseph’s gaggle of dancing, singing, joke-nailing brothers. While many of the brothers have bit parts that cause the audience to laugh or cheer, three deserve special mention.

Reuben, played by Brian Golub, announces Joseph’s heroic and (spoiler alert) fake death to his father by singing “One More Angel in Heaven,” a country-western spoof song that, full disclosure, I usually skip when I listen to the CD. Most versions of this song I’ve seen are bland and one-noted, deserving of a short chuckle at the inspired concept, but then dragging on for three of four minutes the show doesn’t really need narratively. This production nearly changes my mind about this song; the twang and swagger are more “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” than Conway Twitty, and many smaller visual jokes and clever improvisations tucked into the song keep it entertaining.

In the Second Act, Simeon (Paul Castree) and the brothers join in singing of happier times in those “Canaan Days” in the style of the French cabaret. The song is packed with visual gags, jokes at the expense of the French, and an exciting and percussive dance with metal plates and silverware that is reminiscent of Stomp. “Canaan Days” is literally a showstopper, with the audience cheering for a good 90 seconds after the ending of the song, only curtailed by the narrators cheeky “so anyway….” leading into the next song.

Finally, the Caribbean-themed “Benjamin Calypso” is a great “wake up” song after some of the (sort of) seriousness of the second act. As performed by Max Kumangai, the song seems fresh and memorable, instead of its usual cliché, shallow Jamaican-ness. It’s hard not to dance along.

A review of Joseph could never be complete without mentioning the Elvis-inspired Pharoah of Egypt, aka “The King.” (Hardy har!) Ryan Williams is an effortless rock-star who hits all the right notes with both his vocals and his Elvis impersonation. My only critique is that his fast moving and narratively-important song could be helped by some props or audio-visuals, since the thick Elvis accent makes it a little hard to follow the Pharoah’s recounting of his most recent dreams. (Especially for people unfamiliar with the story.) As usual, though, this Elvis part of the show is a real highlight!

This is by-far the danciest version of Joseph that I have ever seen, and I love it! From the opening number, it’s clear that dance will play a central role in telling this story, and the choreography is perfect in each of the genre-exemplifying musical numbers.  The impressive audio-visual spectacle that makes up the set of this show keeps the audience laughing at visual jokes (like the cliché “walking through the Vegas strip” gag) and, at times, is beautiful enough to be emotionally affecting.

The costumes are interesting, fun, and appropriate, save for one: the Act I finale “Go Go Go Joseph.” The all-white costumes read as somewhere between tennis outfit and Anything Goes, and are a disappointment compared to the rest of the show’s high standard.  The show ends with the iconic “Megamix,” a quick, choreography-packed re-mix of many of the show’s biggest numbers. It seems hard for the audience to stay seated and stop clapping along for even a few seconds of it. I think that’s a great sign for a show.

Photo credit: Daniel Brodie

Stark Naked’s ‘Midsummer’

14 Mar

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By JOHN DeMERS

I can’t be 100% certain, but I think Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first live theater I ever saw, being loaded into a yellow school bus in New Orleans and taken downtown for a touring production at the old (now reborn) Civic Theater.  I remember enjoying it, the magic and mystery of it all. And though I’ve seen most Shakespeare plays on stage since then and read all the rest, Midsummer remains my favorite – even more so after Stark Naked Theater wowed me with its rendition in Houston last night.

As “co-directed” by Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl, who also co-founded the company and “co” its artistic direction, the play tries to let the Bard’s flourishes of awesome lyrical language stand on their own (they do) and concentrate on relationships, on motivation – which is just another way of saying on “humanity.” Instead of the usual special effects, from flying fairies to one man’s transformation into an ass – not such a long journey, several women characters imply – there is simply a very tangled web of romantic love. In fact, that’s pretty much the whole idea: that it takes something akin to supernatural intervention to make any man or any woman love the one who actually loves them back. In frolicking through both medium and message, Stark Naked’s Midsummer is magnificently directed and acted by a local cast that seems to be having the time of its life.

As is understood about Shakespeare’s time, it is both a cost-savings and a theatrical effect that all the actors play multiple roles. There is a story about love set in Athens (though hardly during the Age of Pericles), a story about a group of comical more-or-less rednecks trying to put on a play, and also a story about conflict, jealousy and romance in the invisible fairy kingdom that apparently watches over everything and occasionally, in that Greek way, intrudes to make things better and often makes things worse. It’s all lighthearted and utterly luminous, helped along by several recurring Stark Naked favorites and four promising actors from the University of Houston. They change (more like adjust, really) costumes and expressions, sometimes before our eyes, to become their different characters.

The entire cast deserves (and gets) enthusiastic applause, and it’s an ensemble performance from start to finish. Most impressive, though, are Luis Galindo and Courtney Lomelo, especially when they blend flirtatiousness and sometimes outright lust as king and queen of the fairies, and Philip Hays in the beloved, mischievous role of Puck. Drake Simpson has stood out in many Stark Naked productions, both the light and the very dark, but he delivers a bit of no-holds-barred comic bravura as Bottom (the workman and incompetent actor who becomes an ass in more than metaphor, only to have the queen of the fairies fall in love with him) that I’ll remember whenever I see this play for the rest of my life.

God only knows what Shakespeare was thinking when he penned the hilarious nightmare of misguided romance in search of a happy ending that is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If he was as smart about the real life this mirrors as he was about theater, we hope he was imagining a production something like this.

Photo credit: Gabriella Nissen

‘Once’ at the Hobby Center

12 Mar

Once

By BECCA REYENGA

Opening night of Once at Houston’s Hobby Center was a tremendous success. An excellent balance of humor and depth, witty dialogue, and deeply moving music gives Once the power to make you laugh and cry – occasionally at the same time! The humor is refreshingly direct and the heart of the show is surprisingly deep, soulful perhaps.

As guests entered the auditorium on Tuesday evening ushers invited us to enjoy a drink at the bar on stage. It created a true pub atmosphere – even more so when the cast began to play jovial folk music in the center of the stage. It was charmingly unclear when the show actually started because the audience was part of creating the setting – a setting of community.

Community is a central theme to this musical. The message is that we find value in ourselves when others value us. Media for the show reads: “his music needed one thing… her”. Not only did the male protagonist, Guy, need the female protagonist, Girl, to help him see the value of his music, but throughout the show we see that members of the group find value in themselves through their affiliation with the group.

The synergy of the group is evident in the both the music and the humor they share together. Further, the mirror-covered walls on stage invite the audience to be a part of this synergy as well. The audience has a full perspective. It isn’t about one angle. It isn’t about one person. It’s about the entire group – including the audience.

Interestingly, the dichotomy is that while this is a community, the community is made of individuals. We see glimpses of each character’s individuality in the show – enough that we can relate to them and see how they contribute to the group. We of course learn most about the Guy and the Girl – and it is the connection between these two “stopped” individuals that lights up the musical. Like looking in a mirror, they recognize similar qualities in each other. And when they come together, they have full perspective. They belong and life makes more sense. One of my favorite things about this production is the reality of it. We are sad when the Guy and the Girl cannot live happily ever after, but, the reality is, we do not live once upon a time. We live once and we each have a song to sing.

The musical ends with a reprise of the Oscar winning song “Falling Slowly”. The lyrics inspire us to “take”, “raise”, and “sing”. We are compelled to take action – to find our song and sing it. Thankfully, while we only live once, “[w]e’ve still got time”. And while there is still time to see this show, I greatly recommend it.

Production photo by Joan Marcus

Bernadette @ the Symphony

15 Feb

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By STEPHANIE MIDDLETON CANNON 

What a treat it is to have such an extraordinary talent as Bernadette Peters come to Houston to dazzle us with her amazing voice and keen comedic nuances.

The Jones Hall seats were filled.  The stage lights were bright purple shining up the walls and bright blue shining down on the orchestra.  The warm up began and everyone was ready in their seats and anticipating the start of the show.  Marvin Laird, the conductor, came on stage, the music began with a powerful impact, and the stage lights turned to bright orange.  They played several bars of music and then, WOW, Bernadette Peters took the stage wearing a long shimmering lilac sequined gown, her long tight ringlet hair bouncing to and fro.  “Let Me Entertain You” from Gypsy was the opening number, a very apropos start to the show.

A program was not printed for this concert, so the audience had no idea what number was coming next or how many would be performed.  The kaleidoscope of stage lights throughout the concert was beautiful and gave you a glimmer of being on Broadway.  Peters spellbound the audience by singing many favorites:  “No One Is Alone” and “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods, “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan” from Carousel, “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind” from Follies, “There’s Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific, “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” and “Being Alive” from Company, “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, “When You Wish Upon a Star” from the movie Pinocchio, “Fever” written by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport (Otis Blackwell), as well as “My Funny Valentine” in honor of Valentine’s Day.  She also gave an encore to cap off the night, beautifully singing a short lullaby that she wrote called, “Kramer’s Song.”

Bernadette Peters charmed the audience with her humor, storytelling, and comedic subtleties within some of the numbers she performed.  For instance, when she performed “There’s Nothing Like a Dame,” Peters walked down the House Left stairs right up to a gentlemen in the audience, sang right to him, and played with him a bit, making a few jokes.  He was a great sport, enjoying the attention.  Peters also told a little joke to the audience at late friend Eli Wallach’s expense.  When he was in his 90s, his family took him to celebrate his birthday at a hotel resort.  He was in his room, when his family thought it would be a good idea to hire a call girl and send her up to surprise him.  Eli answered the door and the call girl said, “I’m here to give you super sex.”  To which Eli replied, “In that case, I’ll take the soup.”

Peters has been one of the most sought-after stars in musical theatre for decades.  She began her performing career at the ripe old age of 3 with appearances in a handful of shows, her theatrical debut in This is Goggle (1958), and her Broadway debut in Johnny No-Trump (1967).  She has received numerous accolades throughout her illustrious career.  Tony Awards, Drama Desk Awards, Outer Critics Circle Awards, Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe Award to a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, just to name a few.  Peters also boasts a notable list of television credits and has appeared in 17 films.

Bernadette Peters devotes herself to numerous charitable events and causes.  Her third Tony Award, The Isabelle Stevenson Award, acknowledges an individual from the theatre community who has made a substantial contribution of volunteerism on behalf of one or more charitable, humanitarian, or social service organizations.  Peters co-founded Broadway Barks! with good friend Mary Tyler Moore.  This organization promotes the adoption of shelter animals.

You can also add author/songwriter to Bernadette Peters’ roster of achievements.  Her debut children’s book, “Broadway Barks” is a New York Times Bestseller and also includes a CD of an original song, written and sung by Peters.  Her second children’s book, “Stella is a Star” also features another of her original songs with all of the proceeds from her book sales going to various charities such as, Broadway Barks!.

Thanks to the sponsorship of United Airlines, partners Mr. and Mrs. U. J. LeGrange along with Judy and Rodney Margolis, and the support of Danielle and Josh Batchelor, Bank of Texas, and Allen and Almira Gelwich – Lockton Companies for making the Bernadette Peters Concert possible.  If you would like to experience the delight of the many concerts and performances the Houston Symphony has to offer, please visit http://www.houstonsymphony.org/ for more information, the schedule, and ticket prices, or call the Houston Symphony at 713-224-4240.

Brochu’s ‘Character Man’

1 Feb

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By JOHN DeMERS

A “character man,” as described by Broadway veteran Jim Brochu, is an actor who probably won’t play the lead in any show but plays the second- or third-fiddle in virtually every show, usually with quirky and delightful touches that make the audience remember everything except his name. Brochu should know. Like the stage heroes in the engaging one-man show he’s currently performing at Stages, he has been a “character man” for decades.

This under-90-minute, no-intermission encounter is movingly autobiographical, especially in those sections dealing with his childhood in Brooklyn, his apparently alcoholic but beloved father who always had a bit of frustrated actor in him, and his earliest work (selling orange drinks) in a theater in that magic land called Broadway. Yet Character Man is also a tribute, to the actors who either inspired Brochu or (like David Burns) specifically helped him at each point in his career. Happily, a handful of these did manage to become household names, like Zero Mostel, Jack Albertson and Jack Klugman (usually thanks to movies and TV, more than theater,) or at least household faces, like Jack Gilford. Despite a long and honored career, Gilford’s face is most familiar from a series of TV commercials for Cracker Jacks.

The show is simple enough: Brochu speaking from the heart directly to his audience, an activity made even more natural by the fact he wrote the show. What keeps things moving, in addition to near-constant laughs, are songs sung to spirited piano accompaniment by Adam Stout – loosely strung together from the shows of John Kander and Fred Ebb, Meredith Willson, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Stephen Sondheim and even a final, touching flourish of Stephen Schwartz. In some cases, Brochu makes clever effort to fit these songs into his storyline, but he is also a persuasive and endearing enough cabaret performer that we welcome each new song and sigh with delight the moment we recognize the strains of something familiar.

One of the most impressive aspects of Brochu’s performance in Character Man is how he easily channels the long-dead men he’s talking about. He seldom promises (or delivers) a fully developed impression or impersonation, but with each guy Brochu’s voice and physical presence change before our eyes. This is particularly noteworthy with Bert Lahr (yes, he of Cowardly Lion fame), since in Brochu’s anecdote he utters only one word. But it’s one word of totally Bert Lahr.

The one (and oh-so-welcome) exception to the no-impression rule is Zero Mostel. Since Brochu has created a cottage industry with his one-man show called Zero Hour about the star of The Producers on film plus onstage classics like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (with Jack Gilford, no less) and Fiddler on the Roof, he nails Mostel every time the guy’s name is even mentioned. It’s uncanny, until you realize – well, of course he can. Brochu’s near-complete rendition of “If I Were a Rich Man” places this marvelous performer before our eyes once again. It, like the show that surrounds it, is a grace note worthy of a true character man.

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