Archive | March, 2015

A New TUTS ‘Joseph’

19 Mar

Finale_Photo_By_Daniel_Brodie (510x285)

By AMANDA CLAIRE RICHARDS

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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Stark Naked’s ‘Midsummer’

14 Mar

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By JOHN DeMERS

I can’t be 100% certain, but I think Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first live theater I ever saw, being loaded into a yellow school bus in New Orleans and taken downtown for a touring production at the old (now reborn) Civic Theater.  I remember enjoying it, the magic and mystery of it all. And though I’ve seen most Shakespeare plays on stage since then and read all the rest, Midsummer remains my favorite – even more so after Stark Naked Theater wowed me with its rendition in Houston last night.

As “co-directed” by Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl, who also co-founded the company and “co” its artistic direction, the play tries to let the Bard’s flourishes of awesome lyrical language stand on their own (they do) and concentrate on relationships, on motivation – which is just another way of saying on “humanity.” Instead of the usual special effects, from flying fairies to one man’s transformation into an ass – not such a long journey, several women characters imply – there is simply a very tangled web of romantic love. In fact, that’s pretty much the whole idea: that it takes something akin to supernatural intervention to make any man or any woman love the one who actually loves them back. In frolicking through both medium and message, Stark Naked’s Midsummer is magnificently directed and acted by a local cast that seems to be having the time of its life.

As is understood about Shakespeare’s time, it is both a cost-savings and a theatrical effect that all the actors play multiple roles. There is a story about love set in Athens (though hardly during the Age of Pericles), a story about a group of comical more-or-less rednecks trying to put on a play, and also a story about conflict, jealousy and romance in the invisible fairy kingdom that apparently watches over everything and occasionally, in that Greek way, intrudes to make things better and often makes things worse. It’s all lighthearted and utterly luminous, helped along by several recurring Stark Naked favorites and four promising actors from the University of Houston. They change (more like adjust, really) costumes and expressions, sometimes before our eyes, to become their different characters.

The entire cast deserves (and gets) enthusiastic applause, and it’s an ensemble performance from start to finish. Most impressive, though, are Luis Galindo and Courtney Lomelo, especially when they blend flirtatiousness and sometimes outright lust as king and queen of the fairies, and Philip Hays in the beloved, mischievous role of Puck. Drake Simpson has stood out in many Stark Naked productions, both the light and the very dark, but he delivers a bit of no-holds-barred comic bravura as Bottom (the workman and incompetent actor who becomes an ass in more than metaphor, only to have the queen of the fairies fall in love with him) that I’ll remember whenever I see this play for the rest of my life.

God only knows what Shakespeare was thinking when he penned the hilarious nightmare of misguided romance in search of a happy ending that is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If he was as smart about the real life this mirrors as he was about theater, we hope he was imagining a production something like this.

Photo credit: Gabriella Nissen

‘Once’ at the Hobby Center

12 Mar

Once

By BECCA REYENGA

Opening night of Once at Houston’s Hobby Center was a tremendous success. An excellent balance of humor and depth, witty dialogue, and deeply moving music gives Once the power to make you laugh and cry – occasionally at the same time! The humor is refreshingly direct and the heart of the show is surprisingly deep, soulful perhaps.

As guests entered the auditorium on Tuesday evening ushers invited us to enjoy a drink at the bar on stage. It created a true pub atmosphere – even more so when the cast began to play jovial folk music in the center of the stage. It was charmingly unclear when the show actually started because the audience was part of creating the setting – a setting of community.

Community is a central theme to this musical. The message is that we find value in ourselves when others value us. Media for the show reads: “his music needed one thing… her”. Not only did the male protagonist, Guy, need the female protagonist, Girl, to help him see the value of his music, but throughout the show we see that members of the group find value in themselves through their affiliation with the group.

The synergy of the group is evident in the both the music and the humor they share together. Further, the mirror-covered walls on stage invite the audience to be a part of this synergy as well. The audience has a full perspective. It isn’t about one angle. It isn’t about one person. It’s about the entire group – including the audience.

Interestingly, the dichotomy is that while this is a community, the community is made of individuals. We see glimpses of each character’s individuality in the show – enough that we can relate to them and see how they contribute to the group. We of course learn most about the Guy and the Girl – and it is the connection between these two “stopped” individuals that lights up the musical. Like looking in a mirror, they recognize similar qualities in each other. And when they come together, they have full perspective. They belong and life makes more sense. One of my favorite things about this production is the reality of it. We are sad when the Guy and the Girl cannot live happily ever after, but, the reality is, we do not live once upon a time. We live once and we each have a song to sing.

The musical ends with a reprise of the Oscar winning song “Falling Slowly”. The lyrics inspire us to “take”, “raise”, and “sing”. We are compelled to take action – to find our song and sing it. Thankfully, while we only live once, “[w]e’ve still got time”. And while there is still time to see this show, I greatly recommend it.

Production photo by Joan Marcus