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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.

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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’

Our Review of ‘Disney’s Beauty and the Beast’

26 Sep

By JOHN DeMERS

Anybody likely to cast cynically commercial aspersions at Disney’s efforts to turn its most profitable films into stage shows – indeed to turn once-tawdry Times Square and most of Broadway into a family-friendly Disney theme park – should hustle over to the Hobby Center and see Beauty  and the Beast. That’s Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, naturally. Onstage, this musical is what happens on those rare occasions that the conglomerate Uncle Walt left behind leads with its heart instead of its cash register. 

Don’t get me wrong: there’s still a ton of merchandizing involved, not to mention little girls in the lobby dressed for the evening in “Belle costumes” from Beauty’s straight-to-DVD sequels. I suppose we can’t deny children their own space in their own time, and the delights to be mined therein. But what’s most striking here happens in the theater, not in the lobby, where a typically young touring-company cast actually teaches us something important about the meaning of love. 

Like virtually all Disney projects, Beauty and the Beast travels a series of unlikely roads from the original source material. Female empowerment remains a focus-grouped big deal here, as it is for Ariel in The Little Mermaid and even for that swipe from real life who lends her name to Pocahontas.   Belle, living her book-crazed “provincial life” in rural France, longs for so much more than she has any right to expect – and of course, through smarts and pluck and undying optimism that’s far more American than French, she’s gonna have it all. Still, what’s most touching about Disney’s spin on the ancient legend of “Belle et Bete” is what is tells us about the transformative power of love, not to mention the power of that love to see the beauty we all carry within. In this, the animated film and the musical both get it right. 

Now, I’ve heard that some people complain about the “sexual politics” of Beauty and the Beast, that somehow this updated storyline encourages women to stay with their abusive spouses and boyfriends in the false hope of changing them. There is a name for such people, though, and I believe that name is “idiots.” I mean, have they never been in love? Have they never felt love take hold of their lives, “apprehend” them from their familiar paths (yes, borrowing from St. Paul, writing about a different form of love) and make them into who and what they were meant to be all along? This part is no legend. This part  happens all the time. And seldom, in story and particularly in song, is it rendered any better than this Beauty does on the Hobby Center stage. 

I’m semi-famous for hating to be “entertained,” preferring to be shocked, shaken, frightened and/or moved to tears. I’m a bit Wagnerian in that sense. So I despise production numbers full of fun, and Beauty and the Beast gives me a fair amount to despise. A host of “fun” songs, from the over-the-top “Be Our Guest” on down, seem to move things along in high spirits for everybody except me, as does the tireless vaudeville-meets-Three-Stooges schtick among the secondary characters. With the high-kicking francophilian makeover everything gets here, this stage Beauty is sometimes reminiscent of another bit of French-accented mindlessness that should be retired yesterday, La Cage aux Folles. It is not a pleasant reminder. 

What matters here, though, is the efforts the Disney team goes to locate and live fully within the heart of the story – as opposed to The Lion King, in which the goal must be to lose and abuse the story’s heart. Most Disney movies taken onstage feature a few great songs from the original, padded out with Tin Pan Alley cheap tricks to give the show enough running time to justify the towering ticket price. Though Beauty had several excellent songs already, brilliant composer Alan Mencken was pressed back into service with equally brilliant lyricist Tim Rice, since Mencken’s original writing partner Howard Ashman had passed away. The result both deepens and defines character, from Belle’s lovely refrain called “Home” to the Beast’s heartrending Act I finale “If I Can’t Love Her.” 

In an exact flip on the movie “Grease,” if anyone at Disney ever animated Beauty and the Beast again, they’d be suicidal not to incorporate these dazzling new showstoppers. They dazzle not just because they’re damn good songs but because they speak to us from within the story, teach us something we didn’t know. As with the love they reflect and proclaim, in their best moments, they transform us.

Photos by Joan Marcus: (top) Hilary Maiberger and Darick Pead; (bottom) Matt Farcher and cast.

Our Review of ‘Lion King’ at Hobby Center

14 Jul

By HOLLY BERETTO

When the curtain came down on Disney’s The Lion King at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, the applause and catcalls nearly took the roof off the building. But then, consider what came before that moment. 

What is possibly the best opening number ever started the evening, the procession of animals – in this case, actors and dancers with puppet extensions of birds, rhinos and giraffes – parading down the aisles and up onto the stage, singing tribute to the “Circle of Life” that celebrates the birth and anointing of Simba, the newborn lion king. This is director/costume designer and mask/puppet co-designer Julie Taymor’s big moment, and the striking stylization of people-as-animals, up against impressive lighting (Donald Holder) and scenic (Richard Hudson) design is what makes the show something worth seeing and sharing. 

Anyone with children under 10 (or who had children under 10 in 1994, when the animated feature hit movie theaters across the world) knows the story: Wise Lion King Mufasa and his wife Sarabi have a son, Simba, who will inherit the kingdom of Pride Rock. Mufasa’s younger brother Scar, who was second in the line of succession, finds himself pushed to the side in favor of the new prince, and schemes with a pack of hyenas to kill his brother and nephew, taking over the kingdom. He manages to kill Mufasa, convinces the young Simba to run away and assumes the throne. What was once an idyllic kingdom goes downhill, and only through Simba’s painful coming-of-age and return can balance be restored. Anyone familiar with Shakespeare will recognize this. 

Onstage, what was a cute feature film takes on impressive scope and vision. The African tribal music, which the movie always treated as beautiful background and accent, here rises to carry the show along, the chants and choreography both celebratory and mournful by turns. Understudy Ntomb’khona Dlamini’s Rafiki, a wise shaman of a baboon, leads the pack here, her vocalizing rising to the rafters. She’s backed by a fantastic chorus that offer incredible harmonies on the show’s big theme, “The Circle of Life” and act two’s reprise of “He Lives in You,” a new song composed for the stage. 

All the favorite numbers from the movie make an appearance: “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” Young Simba’s fantasy of all he’ll do when he’s in charge, and “Hakuna Matata,” that celebration of no worries and a problem-free existence; “Be Prepared,” Scar’s dark and dangerous layout of his power grab, and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” the lion love theme.  And they all mostly work. The newer additions are hit or miss. “Shadowland,” sung by Nala, Simba’s gal pal-cum-girlfriend, is an almost operatic piece of hope and questing, and Nokubonga Khuzwayo knocks it out of the park. The trio of hyenas (Banzai, Shenzi and Ed) offer up “Chow Down,” which is mostly unnecessary, and “They Live in You,” Mufasa’s teaching moment to his son in act one is soaring and symbolic. 

It’s difficult, of course, to convince yourself that you’re watching something entirely new here. The book, written by Irene Mecchi, keeps nearly all of the film’s dialogue and story progression, and the additions either work tremendously well (see above with the “They Live in You” scene) or feel like killing time till the next production number. On the other hand, some of the most beautiful things about the film were those quiet moments of transition under which Hans Zimmer’s score moved the story along so seamlessly. And those are remarkably preserved here, thanks to the stunning lighting that really feels like an African savanna and brilliant puppetry. 

The cast does a terrific job of manipulating wild animal limbs and masks in addition to singing and dancing. J. Anthony Crane’s Scar is appropriately creepy, the pairing of Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz as Timon and Pumbaa, the meerkat and warthog who befriend the exiled Young Simba, are over-the-top funny and Dionne Randolph’s Mufasa is strong and strident. 

The original music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice are crowd pleasers, and the newer numbers, with music and lyrics by the team of Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer, giving the piece some further scope. 

The bottom line, though, is that The Lion King is gorgeous to watch. Things that were campy and bordering on ridiculous in the film aren’t rendered sudden masterpieces here. Some of the campier moments (“Hakuna Matata” and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” in particular) seem almost out of place amid the abstract styling of the larger whole. The characters aren’t any more developed here than they were on screen. 

But you’ll forgive all of that amid the enveloping beauty. For this is a show that surrounds you, from the opening parade to the drummers in the theater boxes to the ensemble members in the balconies waving poles portraying birds in flight. It’s an explosion of color, of art come alive. Which is truly why the audience nearly takes the roof off the building at the end. When you’ve made that journey, too, I defy you to stay seated.

Photos by Joan Marcus