Bernadette @ the Symphony

15 Feb

bernadette

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.

TUTS Underground’s ‘Depp’

26 Jan

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By JOHN DeMERS

Within the first 10 minutes of TUTS Underground’s  Waiting for Johnny Depp, Brooke Wilson will have you believing there are few theater professionals on earth who can play this single character as well as she can. Currently enjoying its world premiere, the one-woman musical requires a kind of distaff Robin Williams, ever-ready to pursue a bizarre thought that’s communicated by yet another voice in her head. Houston audiences who’ve known Brook Wilson’s work all over everywhere for years would no doubt think only of her after reading snippets from this script.

Midway through the second act, however, it’s unclear who could make the role as written come alive, caught up as it is in misery overkill. Each individual misery is compelling, not least because each is something that happens to real people. And all these bad things certainly happen, in particular, to women (and men) seeking a career acting in New York City. But the stretches of misery become too intense after a bit, and definitely go on too long. In so doing, they deny us Wilson’s most remarkable skill sets – evocative singing, impressive dancing and comic timing that’s as good as it gets.

Waiting for Johnny Depp – with book, lyrics and music primarily by actor and singer/songwriter DeeDee O’Malley, has much to recommend it, even beyond Wilson’s performance, even here and now. It tells the story of an actress known as Rita Donatella (she actually has bunches of New York-y names, bouncing between Italian and Jewish) who is, unlikely as this seems, up for a major role in the latest Johnny Depp film. In the process of “doing anything” for her craft (yes, it’s a song), she balances roller-coaster phone updates from her agent with ever-nagging calls from her mother with halfhearted efforts to schedule coffee with her beloved older brother. She also carries on a shortlived romance with a never-seen man who seems too perfect and also with Craigslist, selling everything in her apartment to make ends meet while she’s waiting. And waiting…

The production by TUTS Underground, the funkier and edgier outreach of neither funky nor edgy Theatre Under The Stars, is solid, from the set and lighting by Matthew Schlief to the versatile on-and-off costumes by Colleen Grady to the sound by Andrew Harper. Jack Beetle keeps the music, including many fun songs laced with adult language, lively from his visible piano at the side of the stage.

There is absolutely no way Wilson could do a better job with this material, and she makes O’Malley’s flighty and rather irresponsible character as lovable as anyone doing this show ever will. We’re made to care about Rita, even as we view her life choices in disbelief. As Waiting for Johnny Depp moves forward from its world premiere, probably with lesser talents than Brooke Wilson in the spotlight, we hope its authors will find ways to shorten the misery of Act II so that the script’s final, flimsy “depp ex machine” will be welcomed with delight rather than mere relief.

Photo: Brooke Wilson by Christian Brown

Alley ‘Dracula’ @ UH

11 Oct

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By JOHN DeMERS

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 - www.anthonyrathbun.com

By JOHN DeMERS

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

Andrés Orozco-Estrada___Werner Kmetitsch_M2_HiRes_012 (590x393)

By STEPHANIE MIDDLETON CANNON

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 http://www.houstonsymphony.org/ for more information, or call the Houston Symphony at 713-224-4240.

Too Close to the Sun

29 Aug

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By JOHN DeMERS

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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