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Review of ‘Wicked’ at the Hobby Center

15 Jul

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By TESSA M. DeMERS

Before the traditional Dorothy story ever takes place, two young girls meet in the land of Oz. One – born with emerald green skin – is intelligent, fiery, misunderstood, and alone. The other – beautiful, wealthy, ambitious, popular, and entitled – is uncomfortable around the unfamiliar and therefore dislikes it. Maybe loathing is a better term for it. Wicked tells the story of how these two unlikely friends share an amazing journey and grow to become the Wicked Witch of the West and her counterpart, Glinda the Good.

The show provides a unique take on events leading up to the classic Wizard of Oz story and has a fantastic message about how it is okay to be different and special, reminding us that good things can often come from bad situations. Directed by two-time Tony Award winner Joe Mantello, and staged by another Tony winner, Wayne Cilento, this production is currently at the Hobby Center and will be sticking around until August 11.

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Based on the best-selling 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked has won 35 major awards, including a Grammy Award and 3 Tony Awards. Globally, Wicked has amassed nearly $2.9 billion in ticket sales and has been seen by 36 million people worldwide in its 9-year history.

Wicked can attribute its popularity to its ability to find and cast some amazingly talented individuals, its Tony Award winning costumes, and its magnificent and captivating score by Stephen Shwartz – whose major works also include hit musicals such as Godspell and several Disney movies, including Pocahontas and Enchanted.

Following in the footsteps of Idina Menzel, Kristen Chenowith, Norbert Leo Butz, and Joel Grey is quite a daunting task, especially since many of the fans who were around when the show first popped onto the scene might think that the original version of the show should remain unchanged. For better or for worse, this is simply not possible, as theatre is a living thing and forever in a state of flux. The stars taking on those roles in this production – Jennifer DiNoia, Hayley Podschun, David Nathan Perlow, and Walker Jones – hold their own and bring their own personalities to the characters, changing a note here and there, or delivering a line in a different tone of voice.

Beyond that, some larger changes may not be left up to the actors. Apparently, the original version of the show was believed to be too subtle for its audiences, and so lines and interactions in various scenes were added to clarify. Although these additions perhaps make the show more accessible to people who may not have been able to pick up on the meaning, it also loses something in the mystery and the social commentary that is so much a part of this show.

Also added was a kind of slapstick comedy that, while somewhat funny, seemed to be out of place and take away from both the main issues of the story and the overall tone of the show. Yes, it creates comic relief from the otherwise serious scenes concerning love, loss, friendship, frustration, and acceptance, but this relief was already in place in the show, albeit to a lesser degree. The show was meant to be tragically heart-wrenching, and most of all, thought provoking. Never was it meant to make people simply think, “Oh hey, that was a fun twist on the Wizard of Oz… Cool.”

Even with these changes, fans will love coming back to the show and enjoying the ride. The story will take you with it – up and down on an emotional roller coaster that will be both torturous and cathartic. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll feel breathless. You’ll sing the songs inside your head. It is no wonder Wicked has captured the hearts of millions of people around the globe. It is surely an experience that you will never forget.

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Photos by Joan Marcus

Review of Alley’s New Sherlock Holmes

30 May

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By JOHN DeMERS

The great British detective Sherlock Holmes can find just about anybody or just about anything. In fact, I’m beginning to think the only person, place or thing Holmes can’t find is – somebody who doesn’t love Sherlock Holmes. From the current feature-film franchise starring Robert Downey Jr. to the contemporary TV series borrowing the detective’s signature self-deprecation (“Elementary”) as its title, few characters in the English language have been given so many hoops to jump through, before, during and certainly after their creator’s death.

The Alley Theatre is no slouch when it comes to Holmes, relying in both of its recent outings on the considerable talents of company member Todd Waite. Waite has a genius for making roles his own (think of that elf in David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries, a kind of smarmy antidote to the good cheer of A Christmas Carol playing on the Alley’s other stage.) He has certainly done so with Sherlock Holmes, pouring on just enough angst and ennui in the interest of fidelity to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary original.

After one show called simply Sherlock Holmes and another called The Crucifer of Blood, the gifted detective is back at the Alley with a completely new play by Jeffrey Hatcher, who made a lot of people around here like him with Mrs. Mannerly a few seasons back. For this “new” story titled Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club, you might say Hatcher glues together two old stories – the central characters from the Conan Doyle canon (Holmes, Dr. John Watson, housekeeper Mrs. Hudson) with the content of a story titled “The Suicide Club,” which is not by the same writer at all. “Suicide” is one of the darker stories by Robert Louis Stevenson – which, considering he also penned “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” means it’s dark indeed.

I do not believe Hatcher’s Suicide Club is, as storytelling, Holmes at his best. At least in the Alley version, there’s a kind of tiredness hanging about the plot and characters, which otherwise seem interesting enough. As directed by Mark Shanahan and Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd, there never truly is the sense of looming danger that makes the original tales so much fun to read or watch. What we end up with is a standard-issue who-done-it with more than a few red herrings pursued upstream, but not ultimately a whole lot of suspense.

Waite delivers, without ever phoning it in, his well-refined portrayal of Holmes, the character’s proclivities toward cocaine and solitude now reduced to something like nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Holmes in his hands is certainly likable enough underneath all the attitude that we understand, as we must, why Watson keeps coming back around. As the good doctor, Sidney Williams is far less comically flustered than many who’ve handled the role, so that comes down to a matter of personal preference. Assuredly he tries to function as a frame or narrator for Hatcher’s and Stevenson’s story, though I’d still prefer to read an original in which every word, thought, observation and Holmes-ism is filtered through Watson.

A slew of Alley regulars fill a slew of lesser roles, led off by Jeffrey Bean as Suicide Club member Mr. Henry, who spends 99% of the play in a wheelchair, James Belcher as Mr. George, James Black as Mr. Richards and Melissa Pritchett as Mrs. Hudson. Elizabeth Bunch does a solid job of the basic acting as the allegedly French Christiane de LaBegassier, as does Jay Sullivan as the allegedly Russian Prince Nikita Starloff. Both had their accents come and go in a mildly annoying way, but then again, so did some of the actors playing British roles. Josie de Guzman labors mightily as the Suicide Club’s bizarrely coiffed Secretary, but with each new twist and turn of Hatcher’s plot she seems less and less believable.

If you love Sherlock Holmes, you really should see the Alley’s current production, running through June 23 on the Hubbard Stage. Whatever was your favorite Holmes thriller before now – and indeed, whoever was your favorite Holmes – seems an odds-on favorite to remain so.

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Our Review of ‘Jersey Boys’ at Hobby Center

21 Mar

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By HOLLY BERETTO

Before those denizens of Jersey Shore took over our TVs and made a mass-market splash for everything from self-tanners to scents (all apologies to my sweet second-cousin, DJ Pauly D), there was another Jersey bunch creating a storm in the rock and roll tea cup. And, in another in an endless stream of musicals that string together a bunch of hits (think Mama Mia, Rock of Ages, Movin’ Out et al) hinged on however thin a plot, Jersey Boys tells the story of The Four Seasons. They’re the ‘60s sensation that was never out of the Billboard Top 20 from 1962 through 1967 and charted three straight number-one hits, introducing us to Sherry and reminding us that big girls don’t cry and imploring guys everywhere to walk like a man.

The show bounced into the Hobby Center amid a swirl of candy-coated pop lyrics and fun, flirty melodies that predictably brought the audience to its feet. And a good time was had by all.

That’s the short version. The longer one, is that Jersey Boys makes for the musical equivalent of an E! True Hollywood Story, with less jump-cut editing and vastly more heart. Each member of the group, lead singer Frankie Valli, keyboardist /vocalist /lyricist Bob Gaudio, bass guitarist Nick Massi and lead guitarist Tommy DeVito takes a turn telling the tale of how this ragtag bunch of star-wannabes went from singing on Jersey street corners and seedy lounges to becoming a 1960s hit machine. Along the way, marriages crumble, gambling debts accrue, there are breakups and make ups; but through it all, there is the music – and a brotherly loyalty to each other that consumes nearly everything in its path.

Jersey Boys excels when it’s ebullient, tossing out chart-topper after chart-topper in rapid-fire succession, showcasing the four-part harmony of the cast, Brad Weinstock (Valli), Brandon Andrus (Nick Massi), Jason Kappus (Bob Gaudio) and Colby Foytik (Tommy DeVito). The arrangements here are darker than Baby Boomers will recall, lending a little heft to songs that danced along like so many puppy-lovelorn teenagers. Beneath that, where the demons lurk, the show is thinner, though it tries really hard to bring gravitas to counter all the levity.

Weinstock is a terrific Valli, his voice ringing in falsetto up above the rest of the team, and Kappus lends a stabilizing force – both in song and acting – to the storytelling as Bob Gaudio, especially up against the pugnaciousness that is Foytik’s Tommy DeVito. Watching the tension that swirls around the inevitable arguments over lyrics, structure – even the band’s name – turns out to be more captivating than you’d ever imagine.

Klara Zieglerova’s industrial scaffolding set acts as a blank canvas, easily evoking everything from Vegas hotel suites to recording studios, although the projected screen shots above it that occasionally resemble Roy Lichtenstein prints don’t add much. Jess Goldstein’s costumes perfectly capture the polish of The Four Seasons’ (and the mid-1960s) look, and Howell Binkley’s lighting occasionally steals the show, especially during “Dawn (Go Away),” where we go from backstage to rock concert with the flip of spotlights.

Make no mistake: the fun here is always going to outweigh the flaws. So what if “My Eyes Adored You,” Valli’s first solo hit that charted in 1975, is used entirely out of context and chronology? You get to hear Weinstock sing it with sweet sincerity. Sure, the vignettes of mobsters and messed-up teenage daughters seem dropped into the storyline just to have something in between songs. What does that matter when they’re spaced around “Sherry” and “Let’s Hang on to What We’ve Got?” It’s a ride you’re just happy to be along for. By the end of it all, as you’re walking out of the show, you will inevitably hear yourself saying, “Oh, what a night.”

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Our Review of TUTS ‘Man of La Mancha’

2 Mar

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By JOHN DeMERS

In the same way The Crucible funnels 1950s Cold War paranoia through the Salem Witch Trials, Man of La Mancha funnels what I’d have to call 1960s idealism through one of literature’s most enduring and endearing idealists, Don Quixote de la Mancha.  The result, which seems both brief and spare compared to today’s blockbuster musicals from the marketing and merchandizing departments at Disney, is a reminder of what a long way a “little” can actually go.

Man of La Mancha was either the first or second musical I ever saw on Broadway, in November 1970 – yes, that’s 40-plus years ago – and I’m convinced that Fiddler on the Roof was the other. With all the musicals from any era that have disappeared, it intrigues me that the first two I saw (or chose to see, more accurately) are still alive among us. Fiddler lives on as a great movie, of course, as well as the occasional stage revival. La Mancha became a movie too, though a less memorable one, and is now being revived by Theatre Under The Stars at the Hobby Center. Based on two historical periods no longer our own, the Spanish Inquisition and the 1960s, it seems more than current enough to merit our attention.

The original set design’s single bow to majesty was the heavy stairs that are raised or lowered into a dungeon by clanking chains, letting the powers-that-be in Spain (namely, the Inquisition) come and carry off prisoners for interrogation and probable torture. One of these prisoners, on the day we visit the dungeon, is the writer and actor Miguel de Cervantes, who has (we gather) been scribbling away at a thick stack of pages about a “knight errant” named Don Quixote. The  tough, angry and violent prisoners sharing the cell threaten to burn the manuscript that arrives in a trunk unless the “new kid” tells them a story in his defense. Thus, Man of La Mancha’s play-within-a-play is deftly and believably established.

The TUTS production captures perfectly the tragi-comic dynamic of the Don Quixote yarn. The old man is indeed a bit nuts, though today we’d surely have longer, more scientific names for his various dementias. He sees giants when there are only windmills, he pictures a world of honor, sacrifice and glory; and in this tale, most of all, he imagines a virginal model of womanhood where only a strumpet from the streets stands before him. No, you are not Aldonza, my lady. I know you in my heart, and you are… the fair Dulcinea. We, of course, enlightened realists that we are, see only Aldonza.

So, in this dungeon waiting to be interrogated, Cervantes the writer finds inspiration and courage to face his trials in the story of Don Quixote, his own knight errant. And we, who are privileged to watch him find those things, find them also within ourselves. Don Quixote remains one of the quirkiest heroes on one of the quirkiest hero’s journeys in all of Western culture.

Directed with spirit by TUTS artistic director Bruce Lumpkin, the current production hews close to its stark and dramatic forebears, with Cervantes and his fellow prisoners “building” the Quixote narrative from objects they find at hand and, naturally, portraying all the characters. Special kudos go to choreographer Michelle Gaudette, for finding so many ways and places to insert flamenco, since the intense dance style that came to Spain with the Arab conquest remains one of the most “Spanish” things we know this side of paella.

The book by Dale Wasserman – a true and fully realized play, not just a storyline to hang a bunch of songs on – places a huge burden on the actor playing Cervantes/Quixote, since for him it’s most of the way to being a one-man show. Broadway veteran Paul Schoeffler does a fine job with the acting, from middle-aged Cervantes to senile Quixote, and on to the timeless ideals both men come to embody. Schoeffler’s singing voice, however, is solidly placed in the pop repertoire, certainly lacking the heft of Richard Kiley in the original and especially the thunderous operatic bass-baritone of Brian Stokes Mitchell in the most recent big-budget revival.  Composer Mitch Leigh and lyricist Joe Darion gave their man one hell-of-a-song, “The Impossible Dream,” and it takes more than a dramatic bit of pop styling to impale our hearts upon its vision.

Michelle DeJean, an HSPVA grad who later taught at TUTS’ Humphreys School, is a wonderful Aldonza, banging out the strumpet’s sex-charged bookends “It’s All the Same” and “Aldonza” while slowly coming to realize that the pure Dulcinea of the old man’s dreams is indeed the truest self she carries within. Josh Lamon shines as Sancho Panza, Quixote’s comical squire and sometimes-reluctant enabler, as do Tom Alan Robbins as the Innkeeper/Governor , Michael Brian Dunn as the Barber and Laurent Giroux as the Padre. Longtime TUTS standout Michael Tapley makes a solid contribution to the ensemble, along with the cast’s other locals: Ceasar F. Barajas, Danny Dyer, Julia Krohn, Katelyn Johnson and Kristin Warren.

TUTS Photos by Bruce Bennett

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Our Review of TUTS’ ‘Camelot’

25 Jan

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By JOHN DeMERS

Each night that Robert Petkoff steps onto the Hobby Center stage to portray King Arthur in Camelot, he has some intimidating royal shoes to fill. After all, Richard Burton handled the role on Broadway early in his career and returned to it late in life, and honey-voiced Richard Harris looked sufficiently wounded to handle the close-ups in the big-budget movie version. Both men were exemplary British actors, and Harris sang compellingly enough to later enjoy his own Top 40 hit slipping and sliding through the notes of “MacArthur Park.”

In the new Theatre Under The Stars production, Petkoff shows himself unintimidated by (though apparently aware of) his predecessors. One of the tricks of staging a classic like Camelot, it seems, is being a little different from what came before but – under pain of death – never too different. Petkoff’s acting is convincing and likable (a big deal when you have to balance idealism with a personality that’s as likely to call for “Merlin!” as some scared, immature men might call out for “Mama!”) By the time Petkoff’s Arthur has created Camelot as an unprecedented kingdom of law and civility, and especially by the time he has loved and lost his queen to his favorite knight, he makes sure we care deeply about what happens to this guy.

Long before Broadway had “songbook” or “jukebox” musicals, Lerner and Loewe pretty much gave us one in Camelot. It’s just that they wrote all the songs. We already can hum most of them, from the title ditty that’s so well used at the start and again, so movingly, at the end to the lovely, often-overlooked “How to Handle a Woman.”  “C’est Moi,” a love poem by Lancelot to himself, reminds us just how smart and acerbic Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics could be and how little new was needed to create Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Still, as though in penance for having too much fun at his expense, the creators give Lance “If Ever I Would Leave You,” which original knight Robert Goulet was probably still singing on his deathbed.

There are magnificent moments throughout this Camelot, directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford with a set and some costumes from the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, and many of the best happen when Arthur and his Guenevere are onstage together. From their endearing accidental meeting in the forest (yes, Arthur is hiding from his future bride while Guenevere is running away from her future husband!) through their almost-mutual creation of the kingdom to their almost-shared suffering as it all comes crashing down, Petkoff and Margaret Robinson are wonderful together. Her singing of the “Julie Andrews songs” like “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” “The Lusty Month of May” and especially “I Loved You Once in Silence,” is terrific as well.

As Lancelot, Sean MacLaughlin brings less physical heft to the role than some others but makes up for it with his rich, rounded baritone singing, while in Act II Adam Shonkwiler is Lance’s virtual evil twin as Arthur’s bastard son Mordred, who hates and sets out to destroy the lofty notions Camelot is built upon. Though all of the show features dashes of wry humor, two important roles run on the stuff: Merlin as played by local veteran Charles Krohn and old King Pellinore portrayed by Broadway’s Tony Sheldon. All in all, the humor is perfectly balanced with romance and tragedy in this production, and the whole thing moves along briskly. After all, you really never want “one brief shining moment” to feel like it goes on forever.

TUTS Photo by Bruce Bennett

Our Review of HGO’s New ‘Showboat’

19 Jan

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By JOHN DeMERS

At first blush, Showboat seems one of those artifacts of the Old South that neither deserves nor is likely to be heard again – a Song of the South without benefit of cuddly animated animals. Yet as happens so often in opera and/or musical theater, great music and a loving heart lift it above dozens of similar works to give us a gift that glimpses the eternal.

Last night, at the opening of Houston Grand Opera’s dazzling new co-production, anybody with a brain and especially with a heart could step through the visions of “darkies” on the Mississippi to sense the same metaphors that always inspired Mark Twain – not to mention the work’s single grandest song, “Ol’ Man River.” The production turns a deft hand to all the best and worst impulses from our shared history, to inspire rather than offend. As the company that, in the late 20th century, gave perfect pitch to both Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Joplin’s Treemonisha, HGO is the only opera company I want singin’ and dancin’ on the levee.

So rather than quibble, let’s simply state: Showboat was not written as an opera. Unlike either of those two other works, it was in no way a lofty aspiration to show the world (meaning Europe) that America could produce “grand opera.” It was written as a Broadway musical – even worse, a Broadway musical in an age that tossed out frothy stage shows (and also movies) that no one should ever stage or have to watch again. Yet with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II – before he found Richard Rodgers and changed the world – the entertainment product called Showboat was, and still is, as good as the genre can get.

What’s intriguing here, even after film versions in the 1930s and the 1950s, is what a full-on opera production brings to this tale. First and foremost, it brings a much larger orchestra than any Broadway show is likely to have, which in turn gives us shimmering rollercoasters of glorious sound. As conducted by HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers, the orchestra never sounded better with Verdi, Mozart or Wagner than it does with Kern. On many numbers, filled with hip-swaying, jazz-tinged, almost-New Orleans rhythms, Summers looks like he’s having the time of his life.

And then there are those “opera voices.” While not always a fan of the “Birgit Nilsson Sings Harry Nilsson” style of crossover album (and yes, I made that one up), I admit that many of Kern’s best numbers in Showboat take on new dimensions when baptized with opera.  The love duets “Make Believe” and “You Are Love” achieve a ringing intensity seldom heard, since love duets are one of the things opera does best. The torch-song anthems “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill” keep their breathy splendor while reaching musically toward something a bit more highbrow. And yes, of course… “Ol’ Man River” allows very bass Morris Robinson as the typically first-name-only “Joe” to bring down the house whenever nobody else is singing something.

The cast assembled by HGO (mostly opera singers, except for one guy with Dr. Frank’N’Furter in The Rocky Horror Show among his credits) is first-rate. Soprano Melody Moore is terrific as Julie, the tragic mixed-blooded figure who disappears oddly in Act II but leaves a huge impression of sadness whenever she’s around, as is mezzo Sasha Cooke as the young woman named Magnolia. Early on, in fact, I found Cooke’s full, mature voice inappropriate to what seemed an ingénue, but as many years pass during the show’s narrative, you might say the character grows into the voice. Tenor Joseph Kaiser shines as bounder-with-a-heart-of-gold-and-ridiculous-name Gaylord Ravenal, and so does Lara Teeter in the lovably high-energy comic role of Cap’n Andy, Magnolia’s father and master of the Cotton Blossom.

Every aspect of this production is as lovely to look at as it is to hear: the sets by Peter J. Davison, the decades’ worth of historical costumes by Paul Tazewell, the luminous lighting (more along the Mississippi in Act I than in Chicago in Act II) by Mark McCullough and the deliciously folk-inspired choreography by Michele Lynch. For once with an HGO production, dancing is one of the highlights, borrowing moves from all sorts of African and African-American traditions. As director, Francesca Zambello does a marvelous job of keeping things moving – indeed capturing the intimacy over great chasms that blacks and whites often experienced in the Old South. She understands deeply the interplay of light and dark, the shifting emotions of love and loss, that mark our time here set against the river’s timelessness.

HGO Photo by Felix Sanchez

‘Show Boat’ Sails onto HGO Stage

13 Jan

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By HOLLY BERETTO

When Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat premiered on Broadway in 1927, it ushered in an entirely new era for American musical theater. Prior to Show Boat’s realistic displays of racism in America and the fallout faced from loving the wrong man, theatergoers were treated to the fun frivolity of operetta and a parade of musical revues.

Based on Edna Ferber’s novel of the same name, Show Boat changed everything.

So, if you’re looking to see one of the touchpoints for the American musical, you’re in luck. Houston Grand Opera mounts a new production of the show, opening this Friday. And if you’re thinking, “What’s an opera company doing presenting a musical?” HGO Artistic Director and Music Director Patrick Summers offers a primer:

Show Boat is a unique hybrid work for the musical stage, that sits directly between what became the great era of American musical theater, and the grander European operettas that proceeded it,” says Summers, who is conducting the production. “Show Boat is best revealed today in an opera company with a great orchestra that is the same size that Kern would have encountered in his career, and great singers with radiant and beautiful voices which were the style of singer in that era, and a production that is on the scale of any grand opera.”

It’s an epic piece following the lives of those living and working on and for the Cotton Blossom, a riverboat that sails along the Mississippi. The action follows nearly 40 years, from the opening scenes in the Gilded Age of the lat 1880s to the pre-Depression in 1927. The musical that gave rise to the classic “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” Show Boat tackles American themes in a distinctly American voice. Summers says audiences will have no trouble connecting with the show’s messages.

“It tells the story of a single mother who chose the wrong partner, but yet had a very passionate relationship for a time with that partner, and that is an ongoing story of human kind.”

He says, too, that it offers a window on a world that’s lost to us today. “Now we bridge rivers and they are just encumbrances for us to get to the other side, but in the era of the great show boat, rivers were the source of everything, and Show Boat tells that story in a remarkable way, and this is a work in which the music tells the story to a far greater extent than one encounters in most musicals.”

A co-production with Chicago Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera, Show Boat is directed by Francesca Zambello, who made her American directing debut at HGO in 1984 with Fidelio, and is renowned for her work in both opera and theater. The cast features several singers making their debuts on the HGO stage, including Sasha Cooke, Joseph Kaiser, Lara Teeter, Melody Moore and Morris Robinson.

Its very hybrid nature should appeal both to opera lovers who enjoy the richness of opera singing, as well as those who may never have been to an opera but are familiar with Broadway musicals.

“Our production of Show Boat will display voices that naturally radiate and fill a large space with minimal assistance from amplification, quite unlike the experience of many musicals of the current age, which are amplified like rock concerts,” Summers says. “Show Boat is everything from the grandest of opera singer to musical theater ingénue warbling to vaudeville and of course dance music in the style of the wonderful 1930s musicals that Kern wrote for RKO’s films for Astaire and Rodgers.  So what you have in Show Boat is an extra wide range of musical and performance style, and an opera company can really deliver that.”

Photo: Houston Grand Opera

Review of ‘Les Miserables’ at Hobby Center

7 Nov

By HOLLY BERETTO

When the newly imagined, 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables blew into the Hobby Center, shaking the rafters and bringing the audience to an almost simultaneous standing ovation Tuesday night, a small, snarky part of me wondered if we were cheering for the cast, the show – or our own love of the show. Twenty-seven years ago, Les Misérables swept across the earth with towering music, a cast of seeming thousands, and a production scale that made audiences collectively gasp at its scope.

This is a show that broke records, launched careers and caused rock-concert-like lines around theaters all across the globe. It is still the world’s longest-running musical, a testament to its enduring themes and rich music.

This new production keeps all of the elements that give Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil’s  send up of Victor Hugo’s classic tale of love and redemption its real soul – but the new staging takes something away that made it gusty and grand. Anyone who’s ever seen Les Misérables will notice immediately –and likely miss keenly – the absence of a massive turntable upon which the musical, well, turned. But we’ll come to that.

From the very first downbeat, this Les Misérables whisks the audience along in the epic tale of the convict Jean Valjean (Peter Lockyear), imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to save his starving sister’s child, and Inspector Javert (Andrew Varela), whose vendetta for Valjean causes him to hunt the man across nearly two decades. At its heart, Les Misérables is about the ripples we make in life, how one life touches another and how love is always the answer, regardless of the question or sacrifice. And Valjean’s life ripples forth to touch so many others: Fantine (Betsy Morgan), a factory girl forced to prostitution; her young daughter Cosette (Lauren Wiley), whom Valjean raises as his own; Marius (Max Quinlan), who wins her love; even the unyielding Javert.

The sheer singing talent is superb. Lockyear delivers Valjean’s odyssey from convict to upstanding citizen with humanity and grace, and his poignant moments, such as Act II’s achingly lovely “Bring Him Home” are as affecting as his grim determination to eclipse the clutches of the steadfast inspector. Varela’s Inspector Javert is a force to be reckoned with, especially in his two stand-out moments, Act I’s “Stars,” which sent actual shivers down my spine, and the scene in Act II where he must re-think everything he knows about this prisoner he’s pursued. Quinlan sings Marius with wonderful youth and hope, a distinct difference from any Marius on any recording of the production, where the tendency is toward over-emoting. And the award for realism in performance clearly goes to Morgan, whose Fantine fairly dazzles with the pain of loss. In fact, there’s a much more realistic – and less melodramatic – element to this Les Misérables, and great credit goes to directors Laurence Conner and James Powell for making it so.

Other cast standouts include James Zannelli as the Bishop of Digne and Jason Forbach as Enjorlas, leader of the student revolution. The innkeeper Thénardier and his wife (Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic) are generally played campy and ridiculous; here they’ve been toned down and are slightly more sinister, an excellent choice as it aligns them more closely with their characters in the original text. “Master of the House” is still a drinking-song-cum production-number, but it’s a trifle watered down. And Briana Carson-Goodman as the Thénardiers’ daughter Eponine does some lovely things with her harmony in “A Heart Full of Love” and her duet with Marius, “A Little Fall of Rain.”

And therein lies the rub. Much of the production seems watered down, but it’s not the fault of the cast, who are definitely talents to watch. There’s a loss of levels without the turntable, and much of the action feels cramped. The projection screens, inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo, are stunning and the lighting spectacular (both put to tremendous great use in Act II’s sewer scenes), so tremendous kudos to lighting designer Paule Constable and Fifty-Nine Productions, which realized the screens. But the barricade scenes lack dimension with the turntable gone.

In many ways, the barricade and the production force that made it so was another character in the show, and the choice to remove it rankles. Another choice made in this leaner Les Miz was cutting nearly half an hour from the original running time. Bits of dialogue are gone, verses of songs truncated. The result is that you’re whisked along, without ever having the opportunity to stop for breath, to contemplate what just happened, to savor the sweep and devastation, to let your heart recover from one tragedy before stumbling on to the next. (The transition into Fantine’s Act I “I Dreamed a Dream” is particularly horrifying.)

If you’ve never experienced Les Misérables, it’s still a musical of great power and great pathos. It thrills and inspires and moves one to tears. It is, after all, a show about who we are: the flawed and the flailing, struggling as best we can to live our dreamed dreams, to climb to the light. It is an anthem to rising above injustice, and about how love and faith are all we leave behind – and all we possibly ever need. You’ll hear the people sing, all right, but I mourn the empty chair at the empty table where this production began.

Our Review of HGO’s New ‘La Boheme’

20 Oct

By JOHN DeMERS 

The irony is clear: the more magnificent the production of Puccini’s La Boheme, the more agonizing it is to watch the story approach its inevitable conclusion. When it comes to the heartbreak and, yes, agony of acclaimed British director John Caird’s new production opening Houston Grand Opera’s season, the whole thing ought to be against some kind of law. 

Given a taut, believable story built on characters we actually care about, Caird seems to enjoy every delicious collision of the raucous and the tragic – which Puccini piles into each of his youthful opera’s four acts. In fact, I doubt the funny parts of La Boheme – starving artists in Paris in the late 1800s cavorting, eating and drinking when they get a little money, ducking the landlord looking for rent – have ever seemed funnier. By pulling that off, Caird manages to focus the spotlight even more intensely on the doomed love at the narrative’s core. La Boheme lacks the layers of character, incident and emotion that this director handled so masterfully in launching Les Miserables on an unsuspecting world back in 1985; you might say he brings this new Boheme layers to spare. 

In his dramatic mission, Caird gets extraordinary support from the set design by David Farley and the lighting by Michael James Clark, which take the art being created by these very same “bohemians” in Paris at the time to heart. The entire set seems a series of paintings on canvas, some that remain stationary as frames for the action, some that turn in place to evoke scene changes, and others that drop in or fly off on cables to complete each desired picture. You might say it’s all painterly or even “pixolated,” which in a sense it is. It gives fresh meaning to the appropriate notion of “cubism,” and is breathtakingly lovely to look at too. 

Vocally, the opera belongs to American soprano Katie Van Kooten, who took on the role of doomed Mimi at London’s Covent Garden last year. At times, Van Kooten’s voice is almost too big to emanate from the usually small and preternaturally fragile Mimi – as though her swelling, hall-filling notes found their way into La Boheme from some other opera. Her portrayal works nonetheless, perhaps pointing out to me for the first time that while Mimi’s days on earth are numbered, she herself says her love is “immense as the sea.” From the center of her weakness and disease-stricken palor, we hear and we sense, in a fresh way, her boundless love. 

As Rodolfo, Dimitri Pittas’ well-modulated and graceful tenor occasionally gets lost when it runs into Van Kooten’s firepower, as it has to in some of Boheme’s most memorable romantic moments. But Pittas delivers when it counts, such as in Act I’s signature aria “Che gelida manina” or in his wrenching duet with Mimi in a snow-drifting dawn in Act III. No one seeing the unrelenting believability of this encounter could doubt the viability of musical drama, even when elsewhere it might seem silly and senseless. In a lifetime of Boheme-going, I suspect this version of Act III is the most powerful I’ll live to see. 

The rest of the cast, led by painter Marcello and his buddies Schaunard and Colline, is nothing short of amazing. Their ensemble work is terrific, the comic touches especially, which (as with the larger production) serve to underline Marcello’s jealous rages at his love Musetta and, of course, Colline’s justifiably famous farewell to his beloved overcoat, sold too late to buy medicine and other care for Mimi. Joshua Hopkins, Vuyani Mlinde and Michael Sumuel deserve high praise as these high-spirited buddies, as does HGO alum Heidi Stober as the flirt-with-a-heart-of-gold Musetta. Her “Musetta’s Waltz” in the middle of the Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve is here, as it ought to be, an audience favorite. The HGO orchestra, conducted by former HGO Studio artist Evan Rogister, finds its way to the heart of the story in ways that make La Boheme one of the most eternally affecting operas in the repertoire.

Photos for HGO by Felix Sanchez

Our Review of TUTS ‘Jekyll & Hyde’

11 Oct

By JOHN DeMERS

In more ways than one, each generation gets the musical it deserves. And in the case of better, more successful musicals that take on a certain iconic status, that could mean a fall from grace, for a while or forever. For a wandering, never-quite-there musical like Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll & Hyde, however, that might mean showing up as one thing the first time and coming back later as something else.

Thus we have the latest edition, built around handsome American Idol runner-up Constantine Maroulis, now on display at the Hobby Center via Theatre Under The Stars. “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson may be one of the greatest stories ever told. But this is far, far from one of the greatest musicals ever heard.  

Yes, the show has two significant female roles – the strumpet Lucy played by Deborah Cox and the nice girl Emma played by Teal Wicks (yet another duality!) – but the evening belongs to Maroulis. After all, he gets to sing the best song, “This Is the Moment,” and he gets to have the most fun running, jumping, swaggering and snarling. His acting, in fact, is quite persuasive as the now-famous dual sides of a single personality. Maroulis plays the soft-spoken London doctor perfectly well, but then does even better as the leering Troy Polamalu of a big-hair Mr. Hyde.

The trouble with this role, however, is the trouble with the entire show: it’s one breathy showstopper after another, except that some of Wildhorn’s songs couldn’t stop a Slinky. Nothing is merely pretty, nothing is merely funny, nothing is merely useful; each time Maroulis opens his mouth, he’s screaming and shouting for the top of the Hit Parade. With his high-pitched, high-volume rock voice, the whole thing ends up being “Guy Songs” by somebody like Andrew Lloyd Webber, as sung by somebody like Aerosmith’s Stephen Tyler. 

Sadly, the girls have it even worse. Any one of their songs could be a hit – and indeed several have been, in the distant past, for the original Lucy, Linda Eder. Songs like “Someone Like You,” “Once Upon a Dream,” “In His Eyes” and “A New Life” are all cut from the same cloth as “Defying Gravity” in Wicked – big and belty, with a huge finish full of loud drums. Truth is, in a good show, there’s only room for one “Defying Gravity,” and it had better be at the end of Act I. Despite the efforts of Cox and Wicks, Jekyll & Hyde ends up being an album of different people singing pretty much the same song.

Like everything else by Wildhorn, this “new concept” of the show is eternally on its way to Broadway, and it does have some things to recommend it. There are plenty of projections, for instance; and while they may remind some of this composer’s awful Civil War that played the Alley (scruffy boys in blue and gray singing for hours in front of a Mathew Brady slide show), they are often quite effective. Stage director Jeff Calhoun – who did such a great job with Deaf West’s production of Big River – has an impressive set and much stage business to be proud of. In the end, however, this generation’s Jekyll & Hyde is another episode of American Idol. It’s cocky, contrived and conceited, every song pretending it’s the greatest moment of them all.

Photo: Deborah Cox and Co. sing ‘Bring on the Men’