Archive | June, 2009

OPERA VISTA FESTIVAL – A Look Back

22 Jun

 edalat

An Assessment by Artistic Director Viswa Subbaraman

It’s been a crazy few years since we started Opera Vista.  The Inaugural Opera Vista Festival (2007) lasted all of about 4 days.  We did one full production plus the inaugural competition.  This year, a mere two years later, the festival spanned ten days, had two full productions of operas, two nights of competition, and two chamber orchestra concerts. 

For both Opera Vista and NOVA Arts, this has been an incredible learning experience since it was the biggest event that either of our organizations has ever undertaken.  I think both organizations are stronger for having thrived through such an involved process.  Every day was a different show, a different lighting set-up, different music and musicians.  It involved 2 conductors, 3 stage directors, over 50 singers, a huge stage crew, and a mass of volunteers.  There is no way that this festival could have happened without the incredible work ethic of so many wonderful people.

The crown jewel of the Opera Vista Festival is the Vista Competition – an American-Idol style competition for opera composers.  We had an incredible jury made up of Huang Ruo, a internationally recognized Chinese composer; Leslie B. Dunner, Music Director of the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago; Rebecca Greene Udden of Main Street Theater; and Chris Johnson from KUHF.  A short excerpt of each opera was performed, and the composers then responded to questions from the jury (our own Randy, Paula and Simon).  The audience then had the opportunity to vote for their favorite opera, which is one of the operas that will be performed during the 2010 Opera Vista Festival. 

Drumroll please…. The winner of the competition this year was Line Tørnhøj of Denmark and her opera, Anorexia Sacra.  The second prize went to Camilo Santostefano of Argentina and his opera El Fin de Narciso.  The audience had an incredibly difficult task since I would have been happy to perform any of the six semi-finalists in next year’s festival.

This year’s festival was also marked by the first threatening letter that we have ever received… about an opera!  In the 2007 Vista competition, the audience chose both David T. Little’s Soldier Songs and R. Timothy Brady’s Edalat Square as the co-winners of the competition.  Edalat Square tells the story of two teenagers in Iran who were hanged for being homosexual.  The fact that we were performing this work evidently angered someone who sent our friends at NOVA a letter saying (in stencil), “You are pigs to mix Islam with gays.  You must stop!  We will not let you do it!”  Having taken the correct security precautions, the performances of Edalat went off without a hitch, and Chuck Winkler’s stage direction was truly monumental. 

I was also quite proud of our performances of David T. Little’s Soldier Songs.  This was probably one of the more difficult operas that Opera Vista has ever attempted.  The work involves distortion pedals for a violin and a cello along with mic-ing every single member of the orchestra and the singer.  As Clinton Hopper of NOVA Arts, who directed Soldier Songs told me, “Even the tiniest change in production values – electronics, lighting, timing – hugely affects the performance.”  Thankfully, there were no tiny changes, and Clinton’s brilliant vision of this piece came to life.

Both Nova Arts Project and Opera Vista are immensely proud of this year’s festival.  We had a number of international visitors for this competition, and they left Houston ready to make a trip back, so we are excited that Houston is becoming an international destination for new and interesting opera! – Viswa Subbaraman

AMY ELL’S FLIGHTS OF FANCY

22 Jun

I caught up with Amy Ell for lunch before her two big flights. And since Amy is a vegan, not to mention one of the healthiest people I know – she once boasted on my radio show she could bench-press me, and if it had been TV, she’d have had to try it on the spot – we met at the new Ruggles Green. There, amid Chef Bruce Molzan’s curtsies and bows to environmental rationality, we talked about the two ways she’d be heading up into the air in the next 24 hours.

The next day, the dancer-choreographer (often called the “dancer’s dancer” for her popularity over the years performing with other companies), would climb on a plane at IAH and fly off to London. Like so much in Amy’s life, the weeks that followed would be a mixture of teaching and learning – mostly teaching in the British capital, then mostly learning along the coast of France. And that learning was what her other flight was all about.

That evening, with a boost (I hoped) from a healthy lunch of tofu and heirloom tomatoes, Amy would perform a new work as part of the Big Range Festival at Barnevelder Arts Center. And unlike most dancers in most dances, her feet would spend relatively little time on the ground.

“I think it’s the subtleties,” Amy says, addressing the difference between the aerial work she does, wrapping and unwrapping herself with a long strand of white fabric, and the kind of act that turns up in a circus, even in Cirque de Soleil. “We slow it down. We play with the moment and the idea we’re working with. But we still have a wow factor. We still do training in basic circus – and then we play with how do we move out of this? How do we make it more like a dance and less like a series of tricks?”

The relatively short piece Amy performed that evening was enough to show what Amy’s style of aerial dance was all about – and also what makes it the world of the few, the proud among dancers. According to Amy, the tendency in most forms of dance is to live from your waist down. The strength of your legs becomes paramount – to leaping, to twirling, even to just standing in one pose for a really long time. Not so with her take on aerial dance.

This stuff is all about the arms and shoulders, about what she describes matter-of-factly as “upper-body strength.” And yes, all you have to do is watch her to know that’s the case. There she is on the ground, and a moment later she’s most of the way to the ceiling. Between the two places there is little to move her except her arms.

“I am extremely strong, even though I’m not very big,” she observes. My first thought is: she’s lucky she’s not very big. My second thought: I have both parts of that equation wrong. “I now use my entire body. I can probably out pull-up any man in town.”

Which means, as far as I’m concerned, Amy can do more than half of one.

For the Barnevelder performance, Amy is joined by two other dancers doing aerial – representing the mere handful of local dancers who blend interest with physical prowess in a way that makes this even possible. The three women perform more or less in tandem in the air, raising and lowering themselves, turning within the fabric to create a multitude of harnesses and swings, then suddenly falling in a controlled way to be caught in lovely fashion by the web they’ve woven. Oh the webs we weave!

Amy makes clear, however, over our last bites of lunch, that she has no plans to abandon dancing on solid ground, or for that matter, to give up the dark, relationship-rich choreography that has baffled and haunted Houston audiences for years. This aerial work is simply another piece of the puzzle that is Amy Ell – and in artistic terms, another color for her already stuffed paintbox.

She’ll need, apparently, all the colors she can get.

Even as prep for Big Range was reaching a fever pitch, word was leaking out that Amy and Tony Leago Valle, another local dancer with a following and a highly personal style, were each forming official  companies with plans for a double-bill performance next spring. Amy’s company will be called Vault, which probably won’t come as any big surprise. Toni’s will enter the world as 6 Degrees, an appropriate reference for a choreographer-memoirist-performer much concerned with the way our lives fit together, for good or for ill.
The two companies will remain separate, Amy insists before heading off to the first of her two flights.

“This is not a collaboration,” she says. “Toni and I are both starting our own companies. We are very different in our styles. She tells stories, and her work has a very personal side to it. My work also has a personal side, but it’s more abstracted. Between the two of us, we will create an evening of very different dance. It’s be a night of something for everyone.”

Of course, if there’s any need for an encore, I volunteer to be bench-pressed. – John DeMers

TUTS ‘CABARET’ – A Fresh Look

22 Jun

This interview by regular contributor Nancy Wozny originally appeared at www.dancesourcehouston.org.

It’s a whole new Kit Kat Klub over at TUTS. Based on extensive research of Weimar Germany, Bill Berry and his creative team at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre are bringing their newly envisioned Cabaret to Houston. Apparently, the cabarets of Weimar era Berlin were considerably more lavish than the original show revealed. New York Choreographer Bob Richard fills is in.

Dance Source Houston: How did you get involved in this project?

Bob Richard: Through Bill Berry at the Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre; I have worked there in the past, and he asked me to come along.

DSH: Did you have any previous experiences with Cabaret?

BR: I have seen the movie and several versions of the stage production. I even danced in a summer stock show, but this is the first time I have ever choreographed Cabaret.

DSH: Was Cabaret a personal favorite?

BR: It’s an amazing piece of work, I wanted to explore it and see what I could do with it. When an opportunity like this arises you jump on it.

DSH: So many choreographers have put their stamp on this piece from Ron Field’s original Broadway production to Bob Fosse’s film. Did you consider all that was done before or take an original approach that better gels with the show’s concept?

BR: I looked at what they have done and I appreciate it. I am trying to make my own statement in keeping with the vision of the show. That’s what Berry was going for.

DSH: How involved were you in the re-conception of this production, which is based on more historical evidence of the Weimar culture?

BR: Completely. The director came to me with this immense amount of research on Weimar Germany. As a very visual person, I found the photographs especially revealing. It was really quite a different process. My job was to make the choreography fit the vision of the director.

DSH: How do you get Weimar into movement?

BR: You will have to come and see for yourself. But you will see evidence of the lavish productions that cabaret culture was famous for. These were the best performers in the world.

DSH: In reading 5th Avenue Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director David Armstrong’s blog I got the feeling that some might be a bit skeptical about changing the down and out look of the Cabaret we all know and love. True?

BR: Most people have seen the movie or various stage versions so they have a certain expectation. Often they want to see a person that looks like Liza Minnelli. It helps to come in with a clean slate and see the show from a completely different perspective.

DSH: I notice in Houston there’s been a hefty dose of education about the approach, with photos, events and writing. I don’t often get a reading list from the PR staff at theater organizations. There has been an extraordinary effort to explain the basis of this re-imagination. That’s pretty unusual don’t you think?

BR: Yes, and it’s been great. Information that gets people talking is always a good thing.

DSH: Do you think the show will arouse a new wave of interest in Weimar Germany?

BR: I think so. We are keeping their memory alive.

DSH: For me personally as a dance critic, somatics researcher and writer, it’s fascinating to have the German body culture movement surface. Body Science, now called the Somatics profession, emerged all over the world at about the same time. We had F. M. Alexander, Rudolf Laban, Moshe Feldenkrais and many others. In America, we had Bernard Macfadden, who founded the precursor to Dance Magazine, and was involved in the early fitness movement. The German contribution to this rich history is the least well known, probably because of the war, and the dispersement of its leaders. How does the body culture movement appear in the show?

BR: The body culture movement embraced the human body through art, physicality and even nudity. They were interested in what the body could become. We tried to push that idea in “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” by using a solo male dancer who expresses that extreme physicality. He’s shirtless to show the sculpted form of the body.

DSH: How would you describe the variety of what we will see dance wise?

BR: There’s a ballet piece, a strip number, an S & M number, vaudeville numbers, a kick line and more.

DSH: A kick line? I just had a wild idea. Do you know that dance teams originated here in Texas, which was in part, settled by Germans. Is there any way that a dancer left Germany before the war to connect with family already here in Texas and ended up influencing the development of dance teams?

BR: That’s a great through line.

DSH: You will be the first to know when I get to the bottom of that story. I understand we are going to see a more Vegas-like production. Is there any possibility that members of the Weimar culture ended up in Vegas, and that truthfully Vegas is really Weimar-y?

BR: Could be.

DSH: What do you hope the audience takes home from this show?

BR: Expect an evening of entertainment where you will be moved one way or another. You can’t not have an opinion when you see the show. – Nancy Wozny 

Theater Under the Stars presents Cabaret, June 16-28, at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Call 713-558-8887or visit www.tuts.org

SWAN LAKE – Houston Ballet

14 Jun

swan nancy pic

ANOTHER REVIEW

There’s nothing quite like finding out your girlfriend’s day job is being a swan. Siegfried and Odette, in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake, have the ultimate “it’s complicated” situation, making the trauma of their doomed love the central nexus for his ballet.

Choreographers have been putting their individual stamp on Swan Lake since it premiered at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in 1877.  The ballet was a notorious flop; still, a long line of choreographers have wanted to dance in their own lake. Houston Ballet is already on their third version. All that said, Welch’s 2006 version, inspired by Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse’s 1888 painting The Lady of Shalott, updates the story, bringing it more into the realm of the fantastic, with surreal settings and glittery costumes by the late Kristian Fredrikson, and highlighting a love affair with a strong emotional center. 

Here, our prince meets Odette as a maiden, so there’s a certain rhythm to the various transformations from human to swan back to human. Welch also plays with the structure of the ballet, giving Act I and II some rousing new dancing by the various princesses and the sea of men, known as the prince’s friends, or various guards. There’s some re-conceiving of Rothbart and his band of glamorous hawk-like swans. Rothbart, equal parts reptile, bat and Darth Vader, is one dark villain, so it follows that he should have a gang of sexy black swans in glittery tutus to keep him company.

Whether you like the updates or long for more tradition, the dancing is what keeps you glued to your seat. Sara Webb concludes her stunning season with a riveting performance as Odette/Odile. Her subtle grace bestows Odette with a contemplative edge. Webb takes a demure approach, allowing a tenderness in her relationship to Siegfried. She’s all air in Act I, almost watery in her fluid torso and liquid arms. As Odile, Webb stretches her wings in Black Swan, letting her bravura come out full force. Connor Walsh has grown in maturity since his last Siegfried. He’s more confident, assured, and well, princely. Walsh and Webb also demonstrate a chemistry that has been a few years in the making, giving added heart to their performance.

Other stand outs include Joseph Walsh as one of the Prince’s friends. Walsh has had a great season and is most certainly one to watch. The always elegant Barbara Bears is a portrait of coy restraint as the Princess of Russia. When Bears dances, it’s not only about what she does, but what she withholds. It’s quite magical and never fails to galvanize the audience’s attention. Whether it’s a turn of her chin or the flip of a wrist, she captivates. Jaquel Andrews gives the Princess of Spain an ample dose of flash and sass. Kelly Myernick’s Princess of Hungary emphasizes old world Slavic charm. Emily Bowen’s lively performance as the Princesses of Naples succeeds in its precision and quick-footed vitality. As Rothbart, Nicholas Leschke holds the stage with the presence of a true fantasy villain, creepy and enticing. Even the red-eyed dragon seemed to be more comfortable in his scaly skin.

Fredrickson’s sets and costumes conjure an otherworldly atmosphere. Lacy white trees in Act I tell us  we are in a magical realm, while the Art Deco ballroom recalls the paintings of Gustav Klimt. Jewel-toned costumes, rich with iridescent and shimmery  fabrics, add yet another striking layer.  Houston Ballet ensemble danced with noted precision and authority. Martin West conducted the Houston Ballet Orchestra in a crisp performance. – Nancy Wozny

Photo by Amitava Sarkar: Sara Webb and Connor Walsh

MEMORIES OF SPAIN – A Preview

14 Jun

draper

It doesn’t take much to get an intelligent and engaging earful from Sara Draper. For me, it took only three questions. As the founder of Dancepatheater, Sara is staging something titled Memories of Spain at the Hobby Center’s Zilkha Hall for one night only June 20. Everything tells me we haven’t even seen the first – much less the last – of this hyper-ambitious, ongoing project.

1. What is it about Spain, its history and its interwoven cultures that intrigues you so much?

When I returned to college to complete my BA in Anthropology after years of dancing, I wrote a paper on the history of flamenco, which I have always been drawn to.  I kept reading all the way back to the pre-history of Iberia, and I kept coming across insinuations that there was an ancient mysticism of sorts associated with dance on that peninsula that still exists today.  That fascinated me.  The other thing was that I kept coming across terms like “golden age” and “legendary time” referring to part of the hundreds of years of Moorish rule in medieval Andalusia.  

I read about the intercultural scholarly exchanges, the renaissance that occurred in medieval Andalusia that set the stage for the later European renaissance, and the peace among Muslims, Jews and Christians that contrasted greatly with the rest of Europe at that time.  It was a safe haven for many people who were not tolerated elsewhere, and that example of civility, tolerance, and convivencia as the Spanish say, inspires me and, I think, is good for us to know about and remember in today’s world. Plus the vision of all those different languages and styles of music and dance mixed in the same city inspires the imagination!  Cordoba was called “The Jewel of the World” where arts and intellect flourished. 

The exchange of knowledge, culture, and arts in that time period created a great legacy for the western world, and the mix of those cultures led eventually to flamenco, too, which inspires passion, itself.  The flamencos say that el duende (the spirit) moves their singers and dancers, but I think it has touched all of Spanish music, dance and poetry.

2. Most choreographers do a work and then, well, that’s it – they go on and do the next one, often quite different. What are the joys and sorrows of an ongoing project like Al Andalus?

We have a very big ultimate vision for the Al Andalus Project, and we are a very modest size dance company.  The subject is vast.  So tackling one portion of the project at a time…the solos and duets selected for this show, for example…allows me to take time with these dances and really focus on them.  Later we can add more bells and whistles like video projection, etc.  Our first public showing of this project was a workshop sketch of the whole shebang, and it gave us a sense of the big picture.  Now, with the larger idea in mind, we can take small portions of that big picture and fill in the details. 

Meanwhile, cast members grow closer through our small events that reach out to various groups, and I’m able to continue exploring the Modern Andalusian Fusion style developing for this.  One delightful development of this long term project is the deepening sense of connection with Houston’s belly dance, flamenco, and Middle Eastern communities. Also, since this is only one suite in the Memories of Spain concert, I still have time to choreograph a premiere that is a totally different universe from Al Andalus.  So I still get to explore something completely different and new. 

One of the stresses is that dancers come and go from Houston, as do singers and musicians.  Sometimes I become very attached to a cast member, and then the next year they move to another town when I’ve been envisioning them in a certain role.  I have to find a new dancer to perform a role that I’ve envisioned for someone else…but ya know, that’s show biz.  Young performers have to move around and experience life.  It is just not always possible to keep the exact same cast together for years.  Training dancers in the fusion style takes some time, so starting over with new dancers can be a little setback.

The other challenge with doing this a bit at a time over years is patience.  The normal way is to dive into a project, be swallowed up by it, and then enjoy having achieved it and go on to the next.  I’ve had to change my thinking for this project, since doing it all in one chunk was not possible.  I think of this project as part of my lifestyle and part of the company’s identity.  It involves community, cultural exchanges, continuing education, and artistic exploration into the fusion dance style as a way of life.  It’s a different mindset.  I think I’ve finally made peace with that now.

3. What do you find most exciting about the June 20 program?

That’s tough.  I’m excited about our beautiful cast!  I’m excited about the new wonderful costumes for Scenes from Al Andalus and the way the dancers are portraying the characters.  I’m excited that we finally have Isabelle Ganz singing a Sephardic song live during one of the dances, something I’ve envisioned since about 2005.  I’m excited to finally perform The Back with live accompaniment, and to bring El Cerrojo (The Door Latch) back to the stage.  I’m thrilled that we have some authentic flamenco on the program.

But ask any choreographer who’s working on a premiere what they’re most excited about, and they’ll tell you The Premiere.  That’s true for me….I have wanted to combine classical voice with dance in the way I’m exploring it now for years…and I love how it’s turning out!  I just don’t see classical singers staged with dance in the way that I want to see it…this is something I crave, and I’m so excited that we are finally getting to investigate the idea.  Working with Shannon Langman and Timothy Hester on Five Tonadillas with Elementals, along with our dancers Lydia Hance and Joani Trevino, is very exciting!  This is something very new, and I hope to do more of it in the future.

THE FARNSWORTH INVENTON – Alley Theatre

14 Jun

farnsworth

At one point near the end of Aaron Sorkin’s drama about the birth of television, RCA mogul and NBC founder David Sarnoff denies he stole the medium that changed human history from its true inventor, 14-year-old farm boy Philo T. Farnsworth. It’s a bit of grand larceny that history more of less agrees happened – and happened pretty much the way Sorkin tells it, industrial espionage and all. But in any case, Sarnoff quickly follows up directly to the audience, he stole television “fair and square.”

That bizarre afterthought, which elicited healthy laughter throughout the theater, was a capsule version of the intellectual or moral problem with The Farnsworth Invention. In his time-bending narrative, featuring Sarnoff and Farnsworth as what seem competing narrators from beyond the grave, Sorkin comes remarkably close to accepting Sarnoff’s vision. Or perhaps of simply excusing it because the man and his Russian-Jewish family had been driven from their homes by one of the czar’s many pogroms. Or perhaps forgiving it because Sarnoff keeps insisting that television isn’t about the money but about ending ignorance, hatred and war. Or perhaps, something else. 

There have, after all, been several plays – and probably even more movies – about the brave little guy fighting City Hall, battling evil corporate America to protect an honest claim on the sweat of his brow. In the most inspiring of such tales, some of which are “Based on a True Story,” the little guy wins and is allowed to enjoy the wealth he deserves for his creation, plus the satisfaction of being recognized by history. The Farnsworth Invention in not one of those tales.

Sorkin uses his immense storytelling gifts – think of A Few Good Men, think of The West Wing – to serve up a love poem to America’s creative spunk and genius. And a fairly idealistic love poem it is. The throwaway lines near the end about the true inventor of television dying unknown, drunk and broke are darkly ironic, no question. But they also seem more than a little callous, especially delivered by the character who engineered the corporate chess moves that consigned Farnsworth to his tragic fate.

Within this troubling moral ambiguity – we want more resolution, more good-over-evil, more something – there certainly is that David-and-Goliath story we also want. At a time when America’s biggest electronic companies (GE, Westinghouse, RCA, etc.) were putting their best minds and biggest budgets on scientists developing television, the greatest breakthroughs were discovered by a lovable gang of misfits working in a small lab in San Francisco. The fact that we come to know Farnsworth a little, especially when his young son dies of strep throat at a crucial moment in the experiments, only makes the final outcome more painful.

Alley regular Brandon Hearnsberger brings an aw-shucks, Jimmy Stewart purity to the role of Farnsworth, playing him as the kind of geeky, optimistic, can-do simpleton who in a thousand labs in a thousand cities gave us the modern world. We want him to win. Company member Jeffrey Bean shines with ambition and some rage as Farnworth’s nemesis Sarnoff, a driven “What Makes Sammy Run?”immigrant whose constant spouting of broadcast ideals gets lost when push comes to shove. And at this level of American business, it always does.  We want Sarnoff to lose, even though we know the history books call him the Father of Television – and most don’t bother to mention Philo T. Farnsworth at all.

Around those two antagonists, a remarkable ensemble has been assembled by director David Cromer, including many actors who take on more than one role as the story moves through the years. Paul Hope is particularly impressive as Bill Crocker, the big-business guy who backs Farnsworth financially, as is James Black as early Sarnoff radio rival Walter Gifford and later in a deft comic turn as movie idol Douglas Fairbanks.

As we’ve seen in Few Good Men and especially in The West Wing, Sorkin is great with tables full of men, and that’s what most of The Farnsworth Invention is. But he gives the Alley women some things to do too, particularly Sara Gaston as Sarnoff’s conspiratorial secretary Betty and Emily Neves as Farnsworth’s wife Pem. Filling in for Todd Waite on Saturday night, Philip Lehl pulled out a remarkably adept Russian accent as the Sarnoff scientist who rightly and wrongly got credit for completing the television puzzle, Vladimir Zworkyin. – John DeMers

Photo: Brandon Hearnsberger, Chris Hutchinson, Todd Waite

HOUSTON BALLET’S SWAN LAKE – A Review

12 Jun

swan lake 2

 

Artistic director Stanton Welch tends to see things in black and white – or at least he did in the version of this classic ballet he set on the Wortham Center last night to close the 2008-2009 season. At least he saw things, quite in keeping with the story, in terms of stark contrasts: yes, black and white (as in the color of swans), but also day and night, life and death, good and evil. Storytelling is not always easy, especially for modern, low-attention-span audiences, when it’s done in a long series of dances. But over the course of two acts and three hours, Welch made a believer of many that it can be done, even in the age of Twitter, with a whole lot more than 140 characters per tweat.

To picture Welch’s take on this ballet to Tchaikovky’s lush melodies, first performed at the Bolshoi in Moscow in 1877 but given its familiar look by Petipa and Ivanov at the Maryinski in St. Petersburg almost two decades later, picture this: Sleeping-Beauty-Meets-Dracula-With-Feathers. Or more specifically, evil prince dressed in black keeps maidens captive by making them turn into swans. Love happens to one swan and one human, then death happens, breaking the spell and setting all the maidens free.

On opening night last night, Sara Webb and Connor Walsh showed just how much they’ve grown as performers since this new Houston Ballet production debuted in 2006. Webb made the perfect woman-or-swan, depending on the place in the story, and Walsh brought his substantial acting gifts to the fore while portraying one of ballet’s most heroic yet doomed heroes. It’s a true gift when Walsh is having a “conversation” with someone in dance, and you always know what he’s saying. Nicholas Leschke made a brooding, strutting Dracula – I mean, Rothbart – and the corps de ballet performed wonderfully throughout the entire, rather long evening.

During the eight-performance run of Swan Lake, the role of good/evil Odette/Odile is also being danced by Houston Ballet principals Amy Fote, Mireille Hassenboehler and Melody Herrera, giving her first performance in the role. Other Prince Siegfrieds include Simon Ball with Fote, Ian Casady with Herrera, and Linnar Looris, making his Houston debut in the role with Hassenboehler. All are sure to be luminous on the large Wortham stage amid spectacular pre-Raphaelite sets and costumes by the late New Zealand designer Kristian Fredrickson, this Swan Lake being his final project before passing away in late 2005. – John DeMers

Photo by Amitava Sarkar: Sara Webb and the corps de ballet

GREY GARDENS – A Review

8 Jun

 

Nancy Johnston and Susan O. Koozin

Nancy Johnston and Susan O. Koozin

Held Over at Stages through June 28

 Like all the best companies (I mean in any industry, not just in show business), Kenn McLaughlin and Stages Repertory Theatre have considerable talent for survival.

 In years past, whenever a season packed with angsty, edgy, even scary relationship dramas failed to pay all the bills, there was always another edition of Always… Patsy Cline for Stages to trot out. More recently, there was The Great American Trailer Park Musical, packing ‘em in to guffaw at redneck clichés several nights a week all summer long. Well, looking on the bright side, at least it wasn’t Forever Plaid.

Now, at the start of another long, hot Houston summer, Stages has another hit on its hands. And unlike some of its precursors in this position, the regional premiere of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Grey Gardens has enough intellectual daring and emotional complexity that the main thing in the score is not the sound of bills being paid. The show has just been extended till June 28, and personally I wouldn’t be outraged if it goes on till practically fall.   

Based, at times with dazzling looseness, on the gripping 1975 documentary film by the Mayles Brothers – not known for telling light or frivolous stories – Grey Gardens seems an unlikely candidate to be a musical at all. The film, simply told in gritty black and white, is the tale of two women, a mother and daughter, living in squalor with little to no money in an old, dilapidated house. The thing that caught the nation’s eye was the fact that this particular mother and daughter had once been social celebrities, members of the Bouvier family. Yes, that Bouvier family. The blue bloods who gave the world Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

Perhaps it was the story’s intrinsic non-musicality that inspired its greatest act of poetic license, taken with apparent glee by book author Doug Wright (a native Texan), composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie. Based on one offhand statement from the documentary, that the doomed and handsome young Joseph Kennedy wanted to marry this Bouvier daughter before he went off to perish in World War II, the creative team makes that romance the turning point of their storyline. Not only does this provide love, and some requisite hoping and dreaming as song fodder; it immediately connects us to emotions we can more or less understand in a tale sorely lacking in same.

With striking originality, Wright and Co. divide the stuff that documentaries are made on into two quite distinct acts – the day of a planned engagement party for “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale and Joseph Kennedy at the Easthampton Mansion called Grey Gardens in the summer of 1941, and another day in 1972 when mother and daughter are living in filth, surrounded by cats and rabid raccoons, ducking threats from the local health department shoved under their rotting screened door. The Edies are the musical Grey Gardens: their relationship, their regrets, their constant squabbling, their efforts to liberate each other from each other against the backdrop of knowing that will never happen.

At Stages, Houston is blessed with a cast worthy of the material, all directed by McLaughlin with energy, wry humor and near-boundless love. Broadway veteran Nancy Johnston returns to this theater in the role that shoved Christine Ebersole’s career upward a notch more, playing “Big Edie” in the first act as she almost-offhandedly seeks to spoil the engagement so her daughter will stay close, and then coming back as the grown “Little Edie” in Act II. To pull of that slight of hand requires two first-rate other singing actresses, and Stages finds them in young Rachael Logue as the spirited debutante early on and Stages amazing workhouse Susan O. Koozin as the feisty old lady three decades later. Koozin shines in particular, channeling a tiny, funny bit of Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies into the heart and mind of a polished and once-privileged woman who’s watched her life disintegrate around her.

Grey Gardens is built on women, with many mother-daughter rivalries and resentments that will ring true throughout any audience. But there are a few men onboard for the ride, led by David Matranga, who couldn’t be more delightfully different as ambitious Joseph Kennedy in Act I and then as Jerry the long-haired, uncouth 17-year-old handyman in Act II. Jonathan McVay delivers as George Gould Strong, Big Edie’s self-proclaimed soulmate, the gay pianist of the mansion in its glory days who lives like some Noel Coward wannabe on Bouvier money for cigarettes and gin. And Kendrick Mitchell has fine moments as “Negro servant” Brooks and, in the second half, as his son Brooks Jr. Mitchell’s under-his-breath deadpans when the 1941 Big Edie sings and dances an African-American romp about hominy grits, fried chicken and, yes, even watermelon are, as that commercial puts it, priceless.

David Grant is cast as Big Edie’s wealthy father, J.V. “Major” Bouvier; and since I liked him as Signor Naccarelli in Main Street’s Light in the Piazza, I’m sure he does fine work here. On the other hand, the night I caught Grey Gardens, Grant was ill and the role was picked up by local favorite Jimmy P. Phillips. I don’t know what kind of running start Phillips had, but it seemed like he’d been playing The Major his whole life.  

 Unusually enthusiastic kudos for making this Stages show a hit go to musical director Steven Jones, who keeps the small orchestra hidden away but perfect – and no doubt drilled the cast like the Bataan Death March to get the score’s complicated harmonies and quirky repartee just right. And the set designed by Kevin Holden is a lovely, moving, turning joy, quite ambitious by the typically minimalist Stages standards. Having got all these pieces in place, Stages should keep using them for a good, long while. – John DeMers

GREY GARDENS – A Review

8 Jun

grey web

Like all the best companies (I mean in any industry, not just in show business), Kenn McLaughlin and Stages Repertory Theatre have considerable talent for survival.

 In years past, whenever a season packed with angsty, edgy, even scary relationship dramas failed to pay all the bills, there was always another edition of Always… Patsy Cline for Stages to trot out. More recently, there was The Great American Trailer Park Musical, packing ‘em in to guffaw at redneck clichés several nights a week all summer long. Well, looking on the bright side, at least it wasn’t Forever Plaid.

 Now, at the start of another long, hot Houston summer, Stages has another hit on its hands. And unlike some of its precursors in this position, the regional premiere of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Grey Gardens has enough intellectual daring and emotional complexity that the main thing in the score is not the sound of bills being paid. The show has just been extended till June 28, and personally I wouldn’t be outraged if it goes on till practically fall.   

 Based, at times with dazzling looseness, on the gripping 1975 documentary film by the Mayles Brothers – not known for telling light or frivolous stories – Grey Gardens seems an unlikely candidate to be a musical at all. The film, simply told in gritty black and white, is the tale of two women, a mother and daughter, living in squalor with little to no money in an old, dilapidated house. The thing that caught the nation’s eye was the fact that this particular mother and daughter had once been social celebrities, members of the Bouvier family. Yes, that Bouvier family. The blue bloods who gave the world Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

Perhaps it was the story’s intrinsic non-musicality that inspired its greatest act of poetic license, taken with apparent glee by book author Doug Wright (a native Texan), composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie. Based on one offhand statement from the documentary, that the doomed and handsome young Joseph Kennedy wanted to marry this Bouvier daughter before he went off to perish in World War II, the creative team makes that romance the turning point of their storyline. Not only does this provide love, and some requisite hoping and dreaming as song fodder; it immediately connects us to emotions we can more or less understand in a tale sorely lacking in same.

 With striking originality, Wright and Co. divide the stuff that documentaries are made on into two quite distinct acts – the day of a planned engagement party for “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale and Joseph Kennedy at the Easthampton Mansion called Grey Gardens in the summer of 1941, and another day in 1972 when mother and daughter are living in filth, surrounded by cats and rabid raccoons, ducking threats from the local health department shoved under their rotting screened door. The Edies are the musical Grey Gardens: their relationship, their regrets, their constant squabbling, their efforts to liberate each other from each other against the backdrop of knowing that will never happen.

 At Stages, Houston is blessed with a cast worthy of the material, all directed by McLaughlin with energy, wry humor and near-boundless love. Broadway veteran Nancy Johnston returns to this theater in the role that shoved Christine Ebersole’s career upward a notch more, playing “Big Edie” in the first act as she almost-offhandedly seeks to spoil the engagement so her daughter will stay close, and then coming back as the grown “Little Edie” in Act II. To pull of that slight of hand requires two first-rate other singing actresses, and Stages finds them in young Rachael Logue as the spirited debutante early on and Stages amazing workhouse Susan O. Koozin as the feisty old lady three decades later. Koozin shines in particular, channeling a tiny, funny bit of Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies into the heart and mind of a polished and once-privileged woman who’s watched her life disintegrate around her.

Grey Gardens is built on women, with many mother-daughter rivalries and resentments that will ring true throughout any audience. But there are a few men onboard for the ride, led by David Matranga, who couldn’t be more delightfully different as ambitious Joseph Kennedy in Act I and then as Jerry the long-haired, uncouth 17-year-old handyman in Act II. Jonathan McVay delivers as George Gould Strong, Big Edie’s self-proclaimed soulmate, the gay pianist of the mansion in its glory days who lives like some Noel Coward wannabe on Bouvier money for cigarettes and gin. And Kendrick Mitchell has fine moments as “Negro servant” Brooks and, in the second half, as his son Brooks Jr. Mitchell’s under-his-breath deadpans when the 1941 Big Edie sings and dances an African-American romp about hominy grits, fried chicken and, yes, even watermelon are, as that commercial puts it, priceless.

 David Grant is cast as Big Edie’s wealthy father, J.V. “Major” Bouvier; and since I liked him as Signor Naccarelli in Main Street’s Light in the Piazza, I’m sure he does fine work here. On the other hand, the night I caught Grey Gardens, Grant was ill and the role was picked up by local favorite Jimmy P. Phillips. I don’t know what kind of running start Phillips had, but it seemed like he’d been playing The Major his whole life.  

 Unusually enthusiastic kudos for making this Stages show a hit go to musical director Steven Jones, who keeps the small orchestra hidden away but perfect – and no doubt drilled the cast like the Bataan Death March to get the score’s complicated harmonies and quirky repartee just right. And the set designed by Kevin Holden is a lovely, moving, turning joy, quite ambitious by the typically minimalist Stages standards. Having got all these pieces in place, Stages should keep using them for a good, long while. – John DeMers

DEFENDING THE CAVEMAN – A Review

6 Jun

Raymond_McAnally

At the Hobby Center’s Zilkha Hall through June 14

The buzz about Defending the Caveman is correct. Rob Becker’s spot-on comic monologue about the battle of the sexes teems with hilarity, humility and human insight.

Becker wrote the play across three years in the late ‘80s, then premiered it in San Francisco in 1991, performing the role of the caveman defender himself. Defending the Caveman went on to become the longest-running solo show in Broadway history, and today, dozens of actors perform the piece in multiple languages in something like 35 countries around the world.

Houston’s incarnation of the comedy stars Raymond McAnally, who brings to the role a marvelous philosophical bent (this should come as no surprise; he earned his B.A. in philosophy at Sewanee University) and a sincere sympathy for the differences between women and men.

Caveman’s premise is that men and women are just wired differently. Always have been. Dating back to the days when men hunted with spears and women gathered berries and charted events by the phases of the moon. Problems arise when women expect men to act and think like women and when men think women will appreciate things that are appreciated by other men. Multiply that philosophy and the ensuing insanity times a little over two hours and you have Caveman.

McAnally does a wonderful job of revering women. He’s at his best in the show’s quieter moments, discussing how an about-to-be-dad is building a backyard fort for a kid who’s not even born, for example. And he’s spot on when he doesn’t talk at all, letting facial expressions and body language take over (his pantomime of a guy fishing trip is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen). But there are riotous moments in this show where he plays it just a little too laid back.

This is a show that’s boisterous and big-hearted. It’s laugh-out-loud, side-splitting funny in several places – despite the fact that you’ve heard all this before. You won’t learn anything new in Caveman, but you’ll thoroughly enjoy this repeat romp though Men and Women 101.

Besides a witty and engaging lead, though, Caveman requires an engaged audience. This is a show about us, about our quirks as men and women. And if the audience isn’t laughing, isn’t nudging each other and nodding, it doesn’t really work. So, know you need to uphold your end of the deal when you see it. And you should see it. If for no other reason than the example of the chip bowl in how women “cooperate” and men “negotiate” is one for the ages. – Holly Beretto