Archive | January, 2010

UN BALLO IN MASCHERA – A Review

31 Jan

By JOHN DeMERS

Someone might ask you someday: What, in terms of story, is the stupidest Verdi opera? And the answer might come to you: With the exception of a few, later, mostly Shakespearean adaptations, it’s whichever one you happen to be watching right now. 

Still, the even more important question is: How could this Italian composer take such clunky plot lines built on mistaken identity, betrayal, witchcraft and “fate” – and imbue them with some of the most magnificent music ever written? You may well find yourself pondering this question while enjoying the first-rate Opera in the Heights production of Un Ballo in Maschera, with remaining performances at intimate Lambert Hall this Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. 

Fact is, the plot is smoother (that is to say, less stupid) than many. Man Loves Woman, Woman is Married to Man’s Best Friend, Best Friend Finds Out and Kills Man, Everybody Still Alive Feels Real Bad About It. You could almost make a movie with such a plot – and surely, some people already have. You’d simply have to throw out most of what Verdi put in, starting with a young boy played by a woman who sings super-catchy but meaningless songs whenever he/she walks on stage. 

OK, enough. That’s Un Ballo in Maschera (often presented in English as A Masked Ball, but not at Opera in the Heights). And honestly, when it comes to the drama, director Matthew Ferrara does a fine job. As much as Verdi’s score lets him, he avoids having people just standing around signing (“park and bark,” he called it during an interview) and has actual relationships forming before our eyes. Verdi, apparently, lived and composed long before the storytelling dictate “Show me, don’t tell me” came into vogue. He tells, and tells, and then tells some more. Ferraro, himself a former ballet dancer with an intense understanding of things visual, worked with lighting designer Kevin Taylor and costume designer Dena Scheh to create one of the most atmospheric OH productions we’ve seen. At its best, this Ballo really does look like a movie – a great-to-look-at David Lean movie at that. 

Maestro William Weibel works his usual magic, filling Lambert Hall with wonderful sounds from his smallish orchestra. Every OH production burnishes his reputation a bit more, not only for making a lot out of a little but for conducting in an intelligent manner that helps even listeners who seldom do so appreciate the score. Many times throughout Ballo, intriguing and unexpected touches Verdi put in come out in ways that are satisfying. This is particularly true behind the major arias, when our tendency is simply to listen to the singing. Weibel and Lambert’s excellent acoustics conspire to let us settle for that no longer. 

OH is, by mission statement, mostly about singers. And in that sense, Ballo does not disappoint. As always, there are two casts, with different principals sharing duties over a total of six performances. The Emerald cast, which we caught Saturday night, featured the ringing high notes and passionate emoting of tenor Jonathan Hodel as Count Riccardo (we’re now sorry we missed him in 2009’s Pagliacci, just imagining his “Vesti la giubba”!) and the wonderful, long vocal lines of soprano Kirsten Hoiseth as his Amelia. She offers a convincing portrayal of this woman “torn between two lovers,” the other lover being the tormented and eventually murderous Renato as sung by Douglin Murray Schmidt. His rendition of the famous “Eri tu” is everything we could hope for. 

Soo-Ah Park shines as Oscar, that young boy character we wish would go away. Her singing is utterly delightful, however, as are her ever-expressive eyes behind Buddy Holly glasses and overall comic acting – even when comedy seems just about the least appropriate thing in the world.  And while the scary “witch” or “fortune-teller” Ulrica has the dramatic curse of appearing in Act I and then never turning up again, mezzo Kristin Patterson serves up singing so unforgettable we almost don’t notice that she’s gone for good. As always, the OH chorus is a treasure, benefiting in this instance (if hardly always in opera) from Ferraro giving them lots of believable things to do. 

Perhaps most strikingly, Ferraro and his design team deliver Un Ballo in Maschera from its confusing roots somewhere sometime in the vague past (Sweden, or even stranger, some silly Italian’s idea of Boston) to “a European country” in what appears to be the 1930s. Almost-modern dress, in other words, with some even more modern pieces of U.S. Marine uniforms on the soldiers. At the very least, not having to look at men in puffy striped bloomers lets Verdi’s brilliant music rescue the stupid story once again.

Photos: (above) Jonathan Hodel as Riccardo; (middle) Kristin Patterson as Ulrica with OH Chorus; (below) Kirsten Hoiseth as Amelia, in Opera in the Heights’ Un Ballo in Maschera.

Advertisements

THE DYNAMIC DUO: LUTHER & REBEKAH

30 Jan

By JOHN DeMERS 

The only bad thing I can think of to say about last night’s first cabaret-style performance of Luther Chakurian and Rebekah Dahl in LOVE (with themselves) is that tonight’s second and final performance is a sellout. And before any children of the ‘60s get upset, I mean “sellout” in the best possible way. 

Sure, there were quibbles, especially early on. The show is being given in a (barely) glorified meeting room at the Houston Club downtown, where some audience members arrive just in time to watch other audience members have their mostly empty dinner plates carted away. After the fully produced musicals these actors star in for Masquerade Theatre at the Hobby Center, the room is utterly lacking in magic. At first, in fact, the desire for some form of stage lighting was severe – something to focus attention away from the blah venue and the still-laboring service staff. By the end, however, I’d made my peace with the surroundings – and even gave the performers extra points. They were acting and singing in our own living room, and they truly had nothing up their sleeves. 

Fact is, Masquerade and founding artistic director Phillip Duggins have high hopes for these smaller, more intimate cabaret evenings. While the company went with its two biggest guns for this initial salvo – Chakurian and Dahl could hold their own in any theater company on earth – Duggins told the audience he’d like to put on several more such evenings next year. Surely, Masquerade has ample depth of theatrical talent. It remains to be seen whether its other stars can pile on the charisma mixed with self-deprecating humor mixed with genuine pathos that Chakurian and Dahl brought to opening night. 

One of the more impressive aspects of this show (unofficially dubbed “Two Diva Bitches You Can’t Live Without”) was the performers’ ease talking about themselves. Theater, in general, is a way to hide from yourself, to disappear into and behind a fictional character. Yet whether it was Chakurian’s nearly debilitating childhood shyness or Dahl’s ludicrous wild-child inappropriateness for one Christian theater company (“They prayed over me several times,” she recalled), they spoke with comfortable affection of their pasts, their victories and stumbles along the way, and most of all, each other. The two have starred side-by-side in some of the best shows Masquerade has done – Chakurian for 13 years, Dahl for 10. In this cabaret act, with Michael Ammons at the piano, they reprise some of their finest moments from Sweeney Todd, Jekyll & Hyde, Sunday in the Park with George, Songs for a New World, Chess and Guys and Dolls. 

Dahl got to revisit the two roles that made her a Houston stage celebrity, belting out showstoppers from Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy. And just when you thought that was as intense as the evening could get, Chakurian shared his memories of his mother’s death to cancer before knocking her favorite song right out of the Houston Club, “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha. Dahl united with her friend in the next moment, dedicating her own passionate rendition of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” from Evita to the mother of her stage Che. Applause became standing ovation for these two remarkable talents, and many eyes were less than dry. Especially their own.

NEW ‘DELICIOUS MISCHIEF’ IN AUSTIN

28 Jan

Delicious Mischief, the popular food and wine radio show that began in New Orleans more than 20 years ago and moved to Houston eight years ago, has a bright new sibling coming to Austin’s TalkRadio 1370 beginning Feb. 6. The program, hosted by veteran journalist John DeMers and showcasing Austin’s best chefs and restaurants along with winemakers and master distillers from every corner of the globe, will air Saturdays from 10-11 a.m. Like its older brother in Houston, this new Delicious Mischief is a presentation of Spec’s Wines, Spirits and Finer Foods, which now operates seven stores in the Austin area. 

The first Austin show features two important Austin chefs: Tyson Cole of Uchi, who has done so much to celebrate Japanese culinary influence deep in the heart of Texas, and Terry Conlan of Lake Austin Spa – who cooks delicious food that’s actually healthy. In between those bookends, there’s an extended Grape and Grain segment devoted to “winetales,” the hip new spin on cocktails that use wines where the booze used to be. Upcoming Austin broadcasts include behind-the-scenes visits to Lockhart, the officially legislated Barbecue Capital of Texas, as well as to the international chili cook-off way out in Terlingua, complete with an extended tasting of Austin-based Republic Tequila. Well, at least the company is based in Austin – the tequila, of course, is “based” in the state of Jalisco in Mexico.  

“Over the years I’ve been in Texas, more and more food stories take me to Austin more and more often,” John says. “In food and drink, as in the Texas blood sports of football, music and politics, Austin has a remarkable amount of fascinating stuff going on. Great drama, great personalities, great ambitions – oh, and did I mention great things for me to eat and drink? This new Austin show gives me the opportunity to say what I love about Austin, each and every Saturday morning.” 

John ate his way through 136 foreign countries before discovering he could get all the same food right here in Texas. A native of New Orleans, John grew up with parents who read cookbooks to each other after dinner while drinking cans of Dixie beer. They also cooked most meals together, a trick that John later learned from his own relationships is not the easiest thing in the world. After studying history at Boston University and earning his BA and MA in journalism at Louisiana State University, John embarked on the predictable career writing for newspapers. He had no idea how unpredictable a career writing for newspapers could be. 

Among his most formative experiences were eight years as a reporter and editor for United Press International, before being laid off as part of UPI’s regularly scheduled bankruptcies: covering plane crashes and Mafia trials, elections and oil rig explosions, Super Bowls and championship fights. And that was before he transferred to UPI’s overnight Foreign Desk in Washington or became UPI’s globetrotting food editor almost without knowing such a job existed. Asked (especially by his children) what he did at work, the best John could ever come up with was, “I go places to eat things.” 

Commerce raised its ugly head with increasing frequency. John ended up spending five years as Director of Promotions and Public Relations for the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans and then almost 15 years creating his own magazines New Orleans Hospitality, EasyFood, CoastFood and finally Texas Foodlover. Of that experience he invariably reports, “You go to bed at night an editor – and you wake up the next morning a salesman.” It was a return to newspapers, his first love, that brought John to Texas to follow the beloved Ann Criswell as food editor of the Houston Chronicle. By the time that job went away, his longtime New Orleans food and wine radio show Delicious Mischief had made it onto the airwaves here – and he saw no reason to let himself be run out of town. By then, in other words, Texas was his home. 

At present, John is the author of 40 published books, including “Follow the Smoke: 14,783 Miles of Great Texas Barbecue,” reflecting the total distance he drove to overeat in 119 different places in all corners of the Lone Star State. Upcoming books include his first mystery novel, “Marfa Shadows,” as well as “Lone Star Chefs” and “Energy Cuisine,” all from Bright Sky Press. He is a constant contributor to regional and national magazines. His article in Hemispheres about the heartbreak of seeing his hometown after Hurricane Katrina won that year’s Lowell Thomas Award for “cultural travel writing.” John insists he doesn’t know much about any other kind. 

As part of one mid-life crisis or another (or perhaps just hoping for a different way to put his four kids through various colleges and graduate schools), John rediscovered his inner musician. Decades after playing in a rock band as a teenager, John starting writing one-man shows for the stage (and even a one-woman show, for an African-American actress) and finally created two musicals about Texas. The first, a love story titled “Deep in the Heart,” enjoyed its world premiere at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts before touring Texas cities. The second, titled “Texas at Heart,” is a series of musical vignettes from 175 years of the state’s colorful history. It is currently awaiting production. Then again, asks John, isn’t almost everything?

NOT-SO-WONDERLAND – YET!

25 Jan

By JOHN DeMERS

Whenever a musical is so cleverly but shallowly cobbled together for today’s Broadway, it’s hard to concentrate on what we see on stage now, at the Alley Theatre in Houston. Indeed, in the lobby before, in-between and after this brand-new musical’s two acts, that was all anybody talked about: “Hey, you know this show is going to Broadway, right?’ “Did you hear we’re seeing it before Broadway?” And so on. 

Of course, savvy theater veterans know the darker truth, that any show not coming from Broadway is going to Broadway. Wanting to. Trying to. Angling to. Hoping to find the precise combination of acclaim and especially money (which flows from acclaim) to grab a seat at Broadway’s shrunken, star-addicted and Disney-controlled table. In that sense, Wonderland is probably as worthy as the next project. But the world-premiere edition that began in Tampa before moving straight to Houston still has a lot of lonesome highway ahead of it. 

In the beginning, this project sounded like a new version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, and perhaps that would have had legs enough. Frank Wildhorn has a decent track record as a tunesmith for the stage, but never more than (as in Jekyll & Hyde, which also launched with Alley assistance) working with a familiar story – a familiar brand. And if you look at other Wildhorn properties doing this or that, without benefit of Broadway, around the world, you realize the formula seems to work for him. The question, after seeing Wonderland during its first weekend in Houston, is: Does the formula work for us? 

Perhaps as a natural result of starting life as yet another Wildhorn “concept album,” Wonderland works far better as a live concert than as a play. As with a concert, there are a lot of songs. And as with a concert, some are great. Some of just songs. And some we wish would go away. But at the end, we can all say: Wow, what a great concert! And that’s the best we can say right now about Wonderland. As playfully derivative of music genres as Andrew Lloyd Webber at his best (or worst), Wildhorn’s Alice songbook serves up a sexy-steamy-funny brew of Top 40-style hits. Some approach memorability by being catchy, hummable, but almost none move the plot along or deepen our understanding of their character. And those are, we’re told, the two things a song in a stage show is supposed to do. 

The lyrics by regular Wildhorn collaborator Jack Murphy are prosaic beyond belief, the show’s “fun songs” (like the sultry R&B “Advice from a Caterpiller,” the hip-grinding South Beach Latino “Go with the Flow” and the crowd-pleasing boy-band crooner “One Knight”) all based on some ethnic, period or genre cliché. And the “serious” songs never rise above pseudo-motivational psychobabble. Be yourself. Find yourself. Love yourself. These are Homerically ancient themes, of course, but they work best if you have to slay a Cyclops or steer clear of some really sexy sirens on the rocks along the way. While the closing song “Finding Wonderland” seems assembly-line manufactured to be the show’s hit, a far better musical moment goes to someone appearing in a cameo as Lewis Carroll himself. “I Am My Own Invention” offers an insight intriguing enough that we actually care what it says, what it “teaches.” And it is sung by Lewis Carroll, after all. 

The cast of Wonderland is top-notch, sidestepping for all kinds of reasons the usual Alley resident company – who can do almost anything onstage except sing and dance. If anything, this show has too much of both. Janet Dacal shimmers as Alice Cornwinkle, the New York-based writer whose marriage is falling apart and whose daughter’s emotional escape to someplace way, way down her building’s elevator shaft gives what meager story there is its glue. One sidebar about this Wonderland has to be titled “A Star Is Born,” and that star is Janet Dacal.

Other casting highlights include Edward Staudenmayer doubling as the cellphone-obsessed Richard and the time-obsessed Rabbit, and Darren Ritchie as husband Jack, the White Knight and even as Lewis Carroll. Like a lot of things about this show, this style of Freud Lite archetypal casting (the way real people are reborn in an unreal place) feels more like “The Wizard of Oz” than any remembered version of “Alice in Wonderland.” Performing kudos should go to Nikki Snelson as the villainous Mad Hatter and Karen Mason as the ditsy but dangerous Queen of Hearts – except that these characters never make sense between moving from one allegedly show-stopping number to the next.

 The biggest challenge facing Wonderland, which seems destined to delight large audiences in Houston through Feb. 14, is to find a book that makes these songs fit together – and even more importantly, gives them some tension, conflict and forward motion. Some reason for being. The Alley’s Gregory Boyd (who also directs) worked with Murphy on the book, and in its present state, it merely keeps ‘em laughin’ with facile, TV sitcom-grade jokes. The usual mugging at the audience, wink wink, old tale with modern attitude, blah blah. The audience reaction is wild and impressive and may bode well for Broadway; but in this case, the bag you take away from any evening at the theater is empty when you open it at home.

Photo by Michal Daniel. (above) Janet Dacal as Alice in Wonderland; (below) Karen Mason and Nikki Snelson.

 

LAST NIGHT’S ‘TOSCA’: WHEN IN ROME…

23 Jan

By JOHN DeMERS 

Tosca is the middle child of Puccini’s Big Three, surrounded in his timeline by fellow immortals La Boheme and Madame Butterfly. Each, in its own way, shows a perfection of form and function that the Italian composer never achieved again. And each is now a stage property replete with traditions – you know, the kind of “tired” old ideas that younger, hipper directors can’t wait to put out with the trash. Some times, as with a Houston Grand Opera Boheme of some years back, a bit of that attitude lets us see our old friends as though for the first time – and what an immense pleasure that can be. Other times, as with the current HGO production of Tosca, we barely get to see our old friend at all. 

Let me say, right at the start, that this opera is almost always magnificently sung by its own Big Three: Alexey Dolgov as Mario, Patricia Racette as Tosca and Raymond Aceto as the evil Baron Scarpia, all working well with conductor Patrick Summers and his orchestra. Dolgov acquits himself best, gunning with flair through this tenor’s night out, between the deliciously bookended arias Recondita armonia in Act I and E lucevan le stelle in Act III. With the exception of her most famous number, Act II’S Vissi d’arte, Racette is terrific. Her first-act jealous coquette in the church is delightful. And I’m convinced that even Vissi d’arte would have worked had not, well, everything around it been utterly wrong. 

This Act II, you see, is a Tosca lover’s nightmare. Set by all logic in Scarpia’s luxurious apartment in Rome’s Farnese Palace, this version inexplicably drops the action into a crumbling concrete warehouse that might be a badly kept union hall in Detroit, or perhaps a warehouse in New Jersey where low-level mobsters keep stolen TVs. To make matters worse, the creative team led by director John Caird dresses Scarpia and his henchmen not in the frilly-frightening attire of Napoleon’s time (when the story says more than once it’s taking place) but in more modern, tailored dark suits, as though they’re reaching for Mussolini’s version of evil, minus the fascist uniforms and without informing the rest of the cast. 

Aceto does his best in the wrong set and the wrong costume, rising from Dick Tracy-style comic-book villain as much as his murky bass will allow. Following this line of non-thinking, the people in charge even refuse to let him throw Tosca to the ground before her big aria, thus depriving her of the one traditional thing that might set up her arguably ridiculous (if lovely) introspection. Without the visual aid, Racette sings the number straight through, without the many subtle changes in tone and volume that make it an opera showpiece. It might as well be a catchy tune from Guys and Dolls

By the time we reach Act III, traditionally set on the postcard-familiar rooftop of Castel Sant’Angelo, I’ve pretty much given up on any of this Roman holiday making sense. And it doesn’t, still apparently stuck in that Act II warehouse except with all the crated televisions removed. Between the body hanging by a noose through almost the entire act and the strange young girl who keeps turning up for no reason (becoming the “shepherd boy” usually heard from offstage), there is simply too much clutter for the drama to cut through. There’s a reason for spotlights in theater, and this Tosca might have done well to ponder that. 

When, in the opera’s final moments, we wait for Tosca to fling herself from the castello into the Tiber far below (as every guided tour of Rome says she does), the director comes up with one more cruel trick. Let’s see now: for drama, should our Tosca leap defiantly from the heights of an ancient castle, cursing Scarpia all the way down – or slit her throat and fall out a window like a drunk conventioneer? I’ll take that under advisement. Somebody at HGO certainly should have.

Photos by Felix Sanchez; (above) Mario and Tosca flirt with art in the church; (below) the couple later, in less happy times.

TOGETHER AGAIN, FOR THE FIRST TIME

22 Jan

Luther Chakurian and Rebekah Dahl, two of Masquerade Theatre’s longtime resident company members, have created a cabaret act. And its title reflects everything we know about the two of them, complete with a serious bit of tongue-in-cheek: Luther Chakurian and Rebekah Dahl – In Love (With Themselves).   

The two magnificent singing actors will perform at The Houston Club on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 29 and 30.  The program is built around their 10-plus years at the theater together and the direction that their lives have taken over that period.  It is not a common occurence in Houston for two people to have spent most of their careers working together in one company. 

“I was looking for a way to feature Masquerade’s company members in more intimate ways,” says founding artistic director Phillip Duggins, “and felt that a cabaret series would be the most effective way to accomplish this.  Who better to introduce this series to our audience but Luther and Rebekah?  They are both well-known, established Masquerade performers who have not only worked at length with the theatre, but also with each other.  They were the obvious choice.” 

Rebekah Dahl will be discussing the program with John DeMers on Houston ArtsWeek this Sunday 4-5 p.m. on NewsRadio 740 KTRH. There are only 100 seats available for each night of the cabaret.  Tickets can be purchased by calling Masquerade at 713-861-7045, or online at www.masqueradetheatre.com

ROBERT B. PARKER: AN APPRECIATION

20 Jan

BY JOHN DeMERS

When I finally made my way to the graceful Cambridge, Mass., home of Robert B. Parker – who long had served as my “favorite living author,” though there’s hardly a career in being that – I had no idea he’d be living no longer within four months.

Parker, who became a household word among many readers for his 37 novels featuring the Boston private detective known only as Spenser (yes, he’d always have to explain, spelled like the poet) died of a heart attack at his desk this week, while his wife Joan was out running an errand. Over the years, Parker had made it clear to interviewers – including to me that late summer afternoon, as we recorded radio about his most recent (and now last) Spenser novel, The Professional – that a huge part of his insight into the human condition came to him by way of Joan. Not to mention the intriguing, sexy, talky, mature relationship Spenser managed to enjoy book after book with a lovely Jewish therapist named Susan. 

Set before me that afternoon, I now realize, was everything I needed to know about Spenser, or for that matter, about Parker’s other popular franchise characters like haunted smalltown police chief Jesse Stone (played often in TV movies by Tom Selleck) and Sunny Randall (created originally as a film vehicle for Helen Hunt). Before I left Parker that day, I’d even vowed to read his westerns, though I pretty much always hated westerns between book covers or on any size of screen. Okay, well, maybe How the West Was Won was pretty good, along with The Magnificent Seven. The fact that the latter had morphed its way into the West from a Japanese samurai movie became clearer to me than ever in Parker’s presence, as did the link between the West and Spenser’s dangerous walks on Boston’s wild side. 

I’d read many of the 37 Spensers, plus I think all of the Stones and Randalls. But I’d never understood something until Parker told me directly: the reason he wanted me to read his westerns (beginning with Appaloosa, which became a film starring Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen) is that his main man Spenser is actually a western hero in disguise. Some might say he’s a knight in shining armor – an image that is tossed around in the novels, invariably with Spenser’s dazzling self-sarcasm. But in truth, he’s a more muscular Gary Cooper in a tough town where every day features at least one High Noon

You almost can’t understand Spenser in Boston without the tales of Parker’s two lonesome heroes wandering from town to town in the Old West, finding chaos and refusing to leave until order has been imposed. That, I now understand – too late to tell Parker the next time I see him – is exactly what Spenser does. All around him, there is corruption and cruelty, all around him there is deception and violence. And by passing through violence himself (he dishes it up to enemies without remorse, usually in tandem with his wisecracking, even larger African-American sidekick, Hawk) Spenser restores order, morality and the closest we’re likely to get to peace. 

It is essential (as Old World as this made both Spenser and Parker seem at times) that all Parker heroes represent the Good, with a capital G. In their own lives, they might be a mess, a tangle of weaknesses and uncertainties. Beset by drink. Hopeless with the opposite sex. And usually pursued by the harsh reality of remembered failure. But when push came to shove (as it did so magnificently in any Parker novel), their elemental honesty, goodness and compassion for those who are weaker came shining through. 

This isn’t the sort of story we read or see as much as we should anymore. With considerable justification, novelists younger than Parker’s 77 years show the world as they see it, full of compromise and amorality. In their novels, the bad guys often win, or slink off to be bad in some other way – and the good guys are so corrupted they have nothing good to stand on against the relentless onslaught of  evil. You finish these novels with a strong whiff of perceived reality, but a deep disappointment as well. 

What we want, no matter how realistic we are about our world, is someone strong enough to beat back the chaos, pure enough (for all his shortcomings) to impose morality, and, yes, large enough to protect all those who are small. What we want is a knight in shining armor. What we want is a Spenser. In some profound way, what we want is a Bob Parker who doesn’t die on the final page.