Archive | February, 2012

Our Review of ‘Million Dollar Quartet’

29 Feb

By JOHN DeMERS

I’ve never been much for talk about reincarnation, one way or the other. But if three of rock n’ roll’s four greatest early superstars found themselves reincarnated for one night only (and then “cousin” Jerry Lee showed up, just to raise some hell), the result probably would be a lot like Million Dollar Quartet.

The raucous musical event, in which real musicians play a real concert of hits by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, just for us, was at the start no guaranteed hit. Broadway, we’re told, was sick of “jukebox musicals” and had turned thumbs-down on the last several to open. Still, the sheer audacity of Million Dollar won folks over night after night, presumably before the producers’ bank accounts ran dry, and now the show packs ‘em in nightly in several cities. Thanks to a national tour, that means Houston and the Hobby Center, which for a little over 90 minutes gets turned into Sun Records in Memphis on a Tuesday night shortly before Christmas 1956.

On that night, according to a small footnote to rock history, the four greatest stars to get their start from Sun’s redneck visionary Sam Phillips gathered and sang together for the first and only time. It was a sign of the times, when gas was only 25 cents of gallon, that Phillips didn’t call the impromptu house band his Billion Dollar Quartet. Each of the artists went on to bigger and better than little ole Sun Records; but they (and now we) never forgot the night they, almost by accident, honored the birth of modern American music.

Think tribute band on steroids. Think impersonators and then some. Think solid acting on the level of Michelle Williams in “My Week with Marilyn.” Think about all those things, and then let yourself get blown out of your seat by the youthful whirlwind that is this music. There’s a satisfying little plot weaving the songs together – about the night itself, about the moves each musician was making to build his career, about the sadness we now know awaited all of them – but when you’re in the theater with Million Dollar Quartet, it’s the music that matters.

Cody Slaughter may have the toughest job, being an “Elvis impersonator” in a world full of them. Still, by setting Elvis as an already-disillusioned young man visiting Memphis from Hollywood in 1956, Slaughter is able to sidestep virtually all of the older, fatter, more pathetic clichés that most impersonators build their acts around. Lee Ferris is at the other end of the spectrum as Carl Perkins (he of “Blue Suede Shoes”), since not many remember what the guy looked or acted like. In fact, his character seems to fear that will happen in the course of the show.

If it’s possible to have even more bass in a man’s voice than Johnny Cash did, Derek Keeling brings it to his singing and acting as the Man in Black. And what can you say about Martin Kaye as Jerry Lee Lewis? He’s wild? He’s crazy? He’s a tad possessed and satanic? Anything you can say about Kaye playing the role is exactly what most folks in 1956 were saying about The Killer himself. There are sly insider references to the controversy and tragedy that awaited Lewis in his personal life, and several knowing asides about the Good Book as preached by his cousin Jimmy Swaggart; but all the things we know that came later are gauzed over by the musical mists of time.

Million Dollar Quartet works because it runs on a single, simple belief: We’re born and later we die, and in between we make our music. Still, if the music we make is incredible enough, it lives on for generations after us. Trust me, the music these guys play each night is more than that incredible.

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Review of Last Night’s ‘Dinner with Friends’

24 Feb

Stark Naked Theatre Company, Studio 101 thru March 11 

By JOHN DeMERS 

If you’ve ever been in a romantic relationship for more than 10 minutes, there’s sure to be somewhere between one and a hundred moments in Stark Naked Theatre’s Dinner with Friends that will startle you, remind you and quite possibly indict you. The two-act play by Donald Marguiles works against its innocuous title to lay bare the large and small warfares that exist at the heart of being lovers, being friends, and growing older every damn step of the way. 

Dinner with Friends is the second production by Stark Naked, founded by local actors Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl, who happen to be a married couple themselves, following on the heels of their dark, violent, relationship-driven outing with Strindberg called Debt Collectors. Equally and perhaps more importantly, it’s the first show produced in the Studio 101 theater space within Spring Street Studios that’s now being shared by Stark Naked, Classical Theatre Company and Mildred’s Umbrella. It’s hard to imagine a spot with more talented and passionate theater people working inside it. 

Directed with precision by Kevin Holden, himself the founder of yet another company called Horse Head, Dinner with Friends delineates the loves, hates, fidelities and infidelities of two couples – as sometimes is the case, a married man and woman who twelve years earlier introduced two friends of theirs and now have to watch the demise of the marriage they helped engineer. The fact that both couples have kids who have grown up together only makes matters worse. If it accomplishes nothing else, Dinner is masterful in the way it moves the calculation of the “toll” from a marital breakup far beyond the two people actually breaking up. As someone says quite logically, divorce is “like a death.” And despite all the talk of “friends,” this one is clearly a death in the family. 

The play is organized – a tad too neatly perhaps but hey, this is theater – into a sequence of conversations, most one-on-one. We see the intrusion of The Bad News, followed by a selection of angry-sad-hopeful-resentful-boastful conversations about it. Marguiles does a convincing job of making his men and women totally different and ultimately foreign organisms, along lines that are by now all too familiar. The woman hug, kiss, resent, complain and talk about (or around) everything. The men joke, drool about sex, high-five and only seldom talk about anything meaningful at all. The gulf between those two types of lives is, of course, a major subject of the play. 

Drake Simpson and Tobin-Lehl get the bulk of the histrionics here, since they are the couple splitting open before our eyes. From the first time Beth breaks down in tears, telling her friends Karen and Gabe why her husband really isn’t at dinner, to the final scenes in which she and Tom get to gloat over their new (or maybe not so new) sexual relationships, the pair serves up an emotional rollercoaster. Their bedroom brawl in Act I, filled with screaming, cursing, pushing, slapping, punching and even spitting may prove a tad too real for those who’ve been there-done that.   

And that means that, as the “surviving” couple, Lehl and Shelley Calene-Black come off as quieter and calmer, more “married.” It’s a credit to both the brilliance of the script and the sensitivity of the performances that, quite often, they strike us as no less desperate than their warring friends. Lehl in particular gets to say some important things, a few to his wife but most to his buddy in a rare moment of finding a voice, about the sacrifices we make to make a relationship persevere till death-do-us-part. 

Dinner with Friends is frighteningly intimate, as though we in the audience are simply invisible in a very normal room with people who are more normal than we’d like to think. The fact that the Spring Street space is intimate as well only makes the experience more painful and more memorable.

Photos by Gabriella Nissen: (top) Calene-Black and Lehl; (bottom)Simpson and Tobin-Lehl.

Our Review of Chekhov’s ‘Seagull’ at the Alley

9 Feb

By JOHN DeMERS

It is a great truth of the theater – and of all other art forms, in one way or the other – that what was once “revolutionary” becomes “classic” if it’s good enough to stick around. And then, for the rest of its life on any stage, the piece surprises us, going as we are to see a “classic,” with bits and pieces of how “revolutionary” it actually is.

Certainly Anton Chekhov is the poster child for such notions, the Russian author active at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in his four great plays for a wildly avant garde troupe called the Moscow Art Theater. Today, his comedy-drama The Seagull (now on display in Houston courtesy of the Alley Theatre) has all the costumes and mindsets of an earlier day. Yet it can still surprise us with how contemporary it is, still shake us up when it wants to.

If modern plays of this sort, for a variety of reasons starting with financial, tend to have only two or three characters, Chekhov paints with a broader brush. His plays, and The Seagull in particular, are set among larger groups. What’s more, in ways we don’t always understand, these larger groups reflect several layers of pre-revolutionary Russian society, from serfs and servants up to a forming professional class, with room for students and other “radicals” along the way. At times, you almost expect Lenin himself to stroll in, even if he’d be a 14-year-old. The voices are right, the attitudes are right, the dynamics are right in these groups – at least as best we non-Russians can tell.

The Seagull is almost entirely about love, but (with apologies to Valentine’s Day) the portrait isn’t pretty. At no point, and in no relationship, is anyone particularly happy unless they’re stupid or self-deluded, and seldom is anyone actually with the one they wish they were. There are echoes here of Chekhov’s most masterful short story, usually translated as “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” about a bored and boring family man’s life-affirming fling with a younger woman at a resort town on the Black Sea.

For this production, on the Alley’s intimate Neuhaus Stage, costumes and furniture are in place – but not the typical leafy backdrops that make some Chekhov productions feel luminous, even when they’re about loss, alcoholism, social upheaval and suicide. As such, this production feels stark, at times almost post-apocalyptic. It’s like a period piece caught on film, but with all the natural backgrounds painted out. It makes things tighter, more claustrophobic.

As directed with finesse and sensitivity for the brilliant language by Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd, the cast can be divided into two basic groups. The older characters are played by company stalwarts, and played with all the style and grace they’ve taught us to expect. James Black is perfect as famous writer Trigorin, whose careless infidelity with a sensitive younger woman dreaming of life beyond this countryside drives what plot there is, as are Jeffrey Bean as the blustery old Sorin, Josie de Guzman as Trigorin’s wife Arkadina, and Todd Waite as the local doctor named Dorn. Even when little is going on, the conversations among these characters start and stop with disconnects that prefigure Becket and Ionesco, and they are worth the price of your ticket.

And while the skill level simply isn’t as high or as uniform, there’s very much a younger generation in The Seagull, and Chekhov gives them a lot of the water to carry. These actors mostly seem up to the task: Erica Lutz as Nina who comes to identify with the title’s senselessly killed seagull, Karl Glusman as the doomed young writer Konstantin, and Rachael Tice as black-clad Masha (whom Chekhov gives one of his funniest lines ever, “I’m in mourning for my life!”).

You might take that line and argue that it’s true for many Chekhov characters, in both his plays and his short stories. Yet in this sterling Alley production, as surely in all the best ones going back to Moscow Art, these tales of “mourning” are etched with fascinating detail, clear-eyed sympathy for the human condition and plenty of raucous humor. And that will always strike us as more than a little “revolutionary.”

Photo by T. Charles Erickson: The Alley “Seagull” cast, with only one member of the younger generation.