MU’S ‘The Drowning Girls’

25 Jul

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Brutal, eerie, disturbing and at times unexpectedly poetic, The Drowning Girls is a personal invitation to spend an hour and five minutes in the presence of pure evil. And unlike many killers in our own recent events, there is little to no sense that the murderer here is “disturbed” or “mentally ill.” No, in the real-life England of 1915, George Joseph Smith was convicted of marrying three different women under three different names, taking all their money and buying life insurance on them, and then murdering each in a bathtub in a manner that passed for accidental. Almost. Smith was hanged just over a month after his conviction, still claiming to be innocent.

This play about the three women (indeed, Smith himself is never seen) was actually written by three women for, naturally, three women to perform. That, however, doesn’t limit its storytelling to three characters. Patricia Duran, Courtney Lomelo and Miranda Herbert Aston also play everybody the victims come in contact with – friends and family, their killer husband, police investigators and, in one of the show’s finest moments, a pair of doctors called in to assess the women’s conditions while they’re still alive. With Cockney accents on overdrive, these moments are funny – but also dark and frightening considering that we all know the outcome.

As directed by Jon Harvey with set design by Jodi Bobrovsky, lighting by Greg Starbird and costumes by Lindsay Burns, the Mildred’s Umbrella production is as gutsy in its minimalism as in its subject matter and treatment. There are simply three antique bathtubs with showers that actually work overhead, water in the tub from which the victims emerge and to which they return repeatedly, and a ghost-white backdrop that evokes a trio of weathered tombstones. The set is all about function, but it ends up being a moving, unforgettable form as well.

There is a political edge to The Drowning Girls, a kind of inevitable and natural feminism speaking of a time shortly before most of the advances in the history of women’s rights started being made. While, most assuredly, nothing can probably protect any of us from a single madman bent on our destruction, had these three women possessed more options, more freedom and more societal meaning in their lives, they would never have been such easy prey.

The University of Tamarie

19 Jul

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For the 18th time, come hell AND high water, Houston’s own Tamarie Cooper is trotting out her bag of tricks and neuroses for all to see. Maturity, marriage and motherhood (yes, Tamarie actually does have a real life) have taken their toll on her once-subversive subject matter – but none of those things has made her the least bit shy.

Unlike her earliest original musicals, which went by the iconic names Tamalalia I, II,III, etc., her latest is called The University of Tamarie. It takes as its starting point, as her own daughter gets ready for kindergarten, Cooper pondering the fact she dropped out of college several times without benefit of degree. The show playfully allows her to go back and make it all right again. Except, of course, you can’t. Except, of course, you probably don’t really want to. The premise is only a premise anyway, a loose-fitting pole from which to hang colorful, mostly outrageous outfits crafted from comedy, song and dance. As such, University should please Tamarie newcomers as well as this talented performer’s cult-like following, presumably the ones entering the theater with the most bottles of beer.

Just as University isn’t at all a one-woman show, it’s not a one-woman creation either. Over the years, Cooper has knitted together a network of talent and friendship (sometimes going back to her high school days at HSPVA). There’s something soothing about reading the bios – filled with other shows too of course, as with other, sometimes larger companies than Catastrophic Theatre or the Infernal Bridegroom that preceded it. Still, it’s almost always part of each narrative: Tamalalia 3, 6, 8, 9, plus Tamarie Cooper’s Old as Hell and The United States of Tamarie. These are artists who know each other, good times and bad. The clever, cutting-edge book this time is by Patrick Reynolds, with music by Miriam Daly and Joe Folladori, and lyrics by those two plus Cooper and Reynolds . Presenting Cooper’s world is a team effort, to be sure.

To say a Tamarie show is “uneven” seems so obvious as to not bother. Both in terms of material and live performance, these things work as wild-eyed revues anyway, not as unified or stable plays night after night. Certainly, the two showstopping numbers this outing are “Sex Education” (featuring longtime Tamarie star Kyle Sturdivant as a kind of Chris Farley in PE teacher drag), and “Here Comes the Texas State Board of Education.” Epecially as Cooper’s own daughter enters The System, this last is a pointed and hilarious mashup of all things anti-educational about Texas education, from Moses joining the Founding Fathers to Jesus turning up with his best friend the dinosaur. Again, it’s Sturdivant who explains in song why these and other “facts” are the perfect antidote to all the lies spread by liberals all these years. There is even a brilliant bit about how and why pre-Civil War slaves really loved being slaves. Talk about funny – and pretty damn sad.

Other ache-producing laughfests include the ESPN-style narrated TV “battle” of private schools, public schools and home schooling – as usual in a Cooper summer musical, you probably can’t think of a cliché or stereotype left un-dredged – and near the beginning, the seemingly simple but heartfelt plea against the pressures on kids these days, “Welcome to Kindergarten,” featuring Sara Jo Dunstan in the first of multiple impressive outings. The entire cast works, acts, sings and dances with enthusiasm all show-long, and always seems to be having the time of their lives. Or, at the very least, they’re having the time of Tamarie Cooper’s life. I expect we’ll all keep showing up for that.

Beatles Exhibit at the LBJ

22 Jun

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If you’re heading to Austin between now and the new year, you might check in with arguably history’s most impactful Texan to learn more about history’s most impactful rock band. The usual fascinations of the LBJ Presidential Library form an intriguing backdrop to a traveling exhibit called Ladies and Gentlemen… The Beatles! After all, the most critical developments of Beatlemania took place while the gruff, profane, manipulative and unexpectedly idealistic Lyndon Baines Johnson was remaking parts of America as its president.

Put together by no less than the GRAMMY Museum, and therefore reverential to the band’s then-unprecedented success selling records, the exhibit pulls together some 400 artifacts large and small, from iconic films and photographs down to silly products coughed up to bank on the Beatles’ surely-shortlived day in the sun. The fact that the sun stayed out for years (and, for many, still shines) is a testament not only to the charisma that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr brought to their stardom but to the revolutionary nature of their music itself. The exhibit stops short of being geeky about that; there’s no mention of new chord progressions, new instruments, new harmonies or, in more than an occasional gloss, new recording techniques that defined later albums like Rubber Soul and especially Sgt. Pepper. Still, the accompanying text makes clear that The Beatles were something more than four P.T. Barnums with Liverpool accents.

Ultimately, the music lives on because of itself. From the simplest moon-June love rhymes of teenagers to angst-ridden and mature meditations on politics, war, protest and peace, the Beatles were the ’60s before the ’60s even knew what they were. As such they both chronicled and created one of American history’s most debated yet also most fascinating eras.

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Stark Naked’s ‘Stage Kiss’

1 Jun

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Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss, currently performed by Houston’s Stark Naked Theatre Company as a regional premiere, is a play about kissing on stage. But then again, we have it on the Bard’s authority that all the world’s a stage, don’t we?

This romantic comedy – which it is, though grittier and more insightful than that genre tends to be at the movies – asks questions right and left about what it means when we kiss someone. Onstage, of course, a kiss is technical, delivered without meaning deeper than the scene, often choreographed by a third party. It is, after all, mostly or even all about the paycheck. What happens, though, when the male and female actors giving that stage kiss had been wildly, youthfully in love many years before? And what happens when such passions reignite, despite dramatically different circumstances, one of them happily-enough married with a teenaged daughter?

Make no mistake: Stage Kiss delivers a ton of laughs, with its clever dialogue, its wry observations about the types of modern love, its sometimes-slapstick physicality and, most of all, its not-one-but-two (or three?) plays-within-plays. Both official set-pieces have themes that echo Ruhls’s main ideas, as they should: one a formal drawing-room melodrama from the 1930s, the other an allegedly realistic Lower Manhattan tale of a Northern Irish terrorist and a Brooklyn hooker. Both abound in ridiculous situations and over-the-top flights of dialogue, and both tend to support another of Shakespeare’s contentions: What fools these mortals be.

As directed by Brandon Weinbrenner, Luis Galindo and Stark Naked co-founder Kim Tobin-Lehl play the long-ago lovers, who initially have more trouble kissing onstage than strangers would but eventually, well, far less trouble. Galindo manages to be one of those intense physical forces, the kind it’s convincing that a woman would not forget even when she knows she’d been right to pack up. Tobin-Lehl carries the weight of the show’s changes and epiphanies. After all, she’s the one with the marriage and child to lose, she’s the one who’s been haunted by memories, and she is (for sure) the only one of the two capable of making a nuanced, grownup decision for a future in which the past makes you smile instead of cry.

Josh Morrison is excellent as a couple  versions of the staid but oh-so-stable husband (an archetype for women, to be sure), and Jennifer Laporte is dead-on hilarious as the couple’s teenaged daughter with wisdom beyond her years. Finding her mother in a down-and-out NYC hovel with an actor-lover from her youth, she glances back and forth between them and simply scowls, “You people are assholes.” In many ways, that could be this play’s second title, except delivered by playwright Ruhl with sympathy and some affection.

Molly Searcy, Philip Hays and Stark Naked co-founder Philip Lehl fill out the cast with enthusiasm, Lehl in particular having fun flitting about the stage as The Director. His lines are a virtual lexicon of not-very-helpful directing clichés. In a kind of inside-baseball play-within-another-play, the Stark Naked actors are clearly taking delight in skewering those as long as they’re in the neighborhood.

Photo by Gabriella Nissen

TUTS’ ‘The Music Man’

9 May

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“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

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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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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


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