Energy & Romance Propel MAMMA MIA! Skyward Once Again

Cast of MAMMA MIA! Photo: Joan Marcus

Cast of MAMMA MIA!
Photo: Joan Marcus

It seemed more like attending some grand and joyous party than it did attending a run-of-the-mill musical. The fun began right in the elevator that took my guest and me up to the orchestra level of the Sarofim Theatre in Houston’s Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. We were joined in that elevator by about a half-dozen chattering young women who were giddy with delight as they prepared to attend the current Broadway tour of the perennial favorite, MAMMA MIA. They were undoubtedly as guilty as I of having seen the show before, and probably more than once. It’s that kind of show, and people keep coming back for more. Not because it is a great theatre piece, but just because it is so doggone much fun. I knew before that short elevator ride ended, that these women would all be on their feet as Dancing Queens before the final curtain.

Written by British playwright Catherine Johnson, the plot is cleverly constructed around the popular songs of the band, ABBA, and composed by two former members of that band, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. (Stig Anderson collaborated in composing some of the show’s songs, and Catherine Johnson wrote the book). The original London production opened in April of 1999, and the Broadway production opened just weeks after the terror of 9/11 in 2001. The show became such a Broadway staple that the marquee even found its way onto the Broadway masthead photo atop this critic’s website at ThePeoplesCritic.com.

Phyllida Lloyd brightly directs this current and very successful national tour of a show familiar to many from the popular screen version starring Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnon. But the high-energy excitement Mamma Mia brings to the live stage could never be fully captured on film. The forgivably far-fetched plot surrounds a single mother named Donna (Georgia Kate Haege), and her daughter, Sophie (Chelsea Williams), who live on the lovely Greek Island of Calicos where Donna operates a taverna guest house. Twenty year-old Sophie is about to be married to her beloved Sky (Eric Presnall) and longs to know which of the three men her mother had flings with years before could be her real father. In hopes of solving that mystery she has secretly invited the three to her forthcoming wedding. When the gents arrive (Andrew Tebo as Harry, Michael Colavolpe as Bill, and Jeff Drushal as Sam) the real fun gets underway. Adding to the fun is the arrival of Donna’s feisty old girlfriends, Tanya (Bailey Purvis), and Rosie (Sarah Smith). Years before the three gals had their own singing group known as, “Donna & the Dynamos.” Before show’s end they unite for some spectacular numbers.

Cast of MAMMA MIA! Photo: Joan Marcus

Cast of MAMMA MIA!
Photo: Joan Marcus

As in previous touring productions that I have reviewed, the action plays out on what I found to be a simple, yet very appealing set, depicting the tavern’s Mediterranean-style stucco buildings, capped by the lacy silhouette of a tree and an occasional rising moon. The secret of this successful simplicity rests with the ever-changing and brilliant pastel lighting designs of Howard Harrison, which give an airy and romantic look to many scenes, and electrifying excitement to others like the explosive song, “Money, Money, Money.” With such popular hits as, “Dancing Queen”, “Chiquitita, ” “Super Trouper,” “Take A Chance On Me,” “Voulez-Vous,” “SOS,” “Thank You for the Music,” “The Winner Takes It All”, and the tender, “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” the fun-filled and lovely tunes overshadow the twists and turns of the convoluted plot. But as Sophie’s wedding day approaches, there are enough mysteries and surprises to keep it all interesting while the dynamic voices in the cast add to the magic. Miss Haege brings fierce vocal power to her numbers and Miss William’s voice is pure perfection. While there are many fine voices in this exuberant cast, these two women stand out as they anchor the production with exceptional vocal brilliance that contrasts considerably with the low-key male leads playing Sophie’s possible fathers. With consistently sweet harmonies, the Ensemble cast support is strong throughout. I was briefly concerned during an embarrassingly over-amplified Overture that was annoyingly loud, but happily that Opening Night problem was quickly corrected as the rest of the show proceeded smoothly with not only good sound levels for music, but also for dialogue that could be clearly heard.

The flashy choreography of Anthony Van Laast is ever-present as a highlight of the production, and don’t miss the hilarious flipper-footed dance of the scuba divers. And speaking of “don’t miss,” word must have gotten around town about the wonderful encore numbers this show offers following the bows and curtain calls. The usual rude race to the exits and parking lots did not occur, and the happy audience seemed delighted to remain standing and dancing during the dazzling final bonus numbers that made one wonder just where these young performers seem to find such boundless energy.

Cast of MAMMA MIA! Photo: Joan Marcus

Cast of MAMMA MIA!
Photo: Joan Marcus

The full cast again explodes on stage, (with the lead performers now suddenly dressed in the glitz of ABBA-style costumes), and there follows another twenty minutes of joyful encores that included, “Dancing Queen,” and, of course, “Mamma Mia.” I’m sure that somewhere in that room my friends from the elevator were having a ball.

MAMMA MIA continues at the Hobby Center with performances tonight & Saturday at 8pm, matinees both Saturday & Sunday at 2pm, and a final performance at 7:30 this coming Sunday night, April 19th. To capture any of the few remaining tickets 800-952-6560 or visit the website at www.BroadwayAtTheHobbyCenter.com. Those who miss out may want to have a peek at the tour video available at:

http://www.mammamianorthamerica.com/land/tour/?gclid=CO62uufX4qgCFUHr7QodtjZGCw

 

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, HereHouston.com, Houston Community Newspapers online, Houston's Hobby Center, MAMMA MIA!, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com, YourHoustonNews.com | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Excellence Abounds at YTA Concert of Finalists

YTA Grand Prize Winner, Yurie Farnsworth PHOTO: Dave Clements

YTA Grand Prize Winner, Yurie Farnsworth
PHOTO: Dave Clements

As the Young Texas Artists music competition entered its fourth decade of showcasing the very finest of our state’s young, classical musicians, it would be no surprise that last Saturday night’s eight 2015 finalists would epitomize musical excellence for the packed house in attendance at Conroe’s elegant Crighton Theatre. For three days some 70 candidates had competed for this opportunity to display their talents for the annual Finalist’s Concert & Awards program. For lovers of the arts in the Lone Star State, this official Texas music competition is one of the most anticipated events of the year. It is also a time for YTA’s most active supporters to attend the annual Bach, Beethoven & Barbeque Gala, which this year honored Lee and Shirley Pruitt for their many contributions to both YTA and the Montgomery County Performing Arts Society.

YTA Co-Chairs, Shirley & Lee Pruitt PHOTO: Alan Montgomery

YTA Co-Chairs, Shirley & Lee Pruitt
PHOTO: Alan Montgomery

The guests gathered in a grand party tent that filled the entire street in front of the theatre on this special night of nights. Prior to the concert, the guests mingled for a cocktail hour and were then served a sumptuous feast prepared by Texans BBQ & Catering. While there was actually no Bach or Beethoven to accompany the delicious barbeque, there was plenty of festive fiddling from Bill Mock’s country band adding to the fun. Then an exciting, fund-raising YTA auction would conclude just in time for the evening’s concert, hosted by Houston Public Media’s St. John Flynn of KUHA Classical 91.7FM. Revelers would later reunite “under the big top” for post-concert coffee, champagne and dessert.

The evening’s performers consisted of eight finalists (ages 18-32) in four divisions: Piano; Voice; Strings; and a catchall category for Winds, Brass, Percussion, Harp and Guitar. To qualify, contestants must be Texas residents or enrolled in a Texas higher education program. A distinguished five-judge panel included two returning judges, Roger Pines of Chicago’s Lyric Opera, and renowned pianist, Daniel Cataneo, faculty member at both Temple University and the Delcroze Institute at Juilliard. New judges included Larry Hutchinson, bassist with the Detroit Symphony; John Ellis , Director of Graduate Studies in Piano Pedagogy at the University of Michigan; and Becky Brown, Artistic and General Administrator for Da Camera Chamber Music & Jazz in Houston.

Jade Simmons (left) with YTA Chair, Susie Pokorski PHOTO: Brad Meyer

Jade Simmons (left) with YTA Chair, Susie Pokorski
PHOTO: Brad Meyer

As she has for several years, Emelyne Bingham of Vanderbilt University again served as YTA’s Artistic Director, and Susie Pokorski continued to bring boundless energy to her role as Chair of this prestigious event held under the auspices of the Montgomery County Performing Arts Society. Again this year a special highlight of the night would be the onstage interviews with the contestants conducted by concert pianist and former YTA winner, the very beautiful Jade Simmons. Dressed in a sleek and elegant scarlet gown that may have been the most splendid of the night, the statuesque and charming Miss Simmons demonstrated a spontaneous gift for eliciting informative conversation from the nervous participants that should win her a talk show of her own.

With prize money totaling $20,000, finally it was on to the evening’s competition with Silver Medal winners taking home $1,000 prizes, and Gold Medal winners each being awarded $3,000. Performing in the Winds, Brass, Percussion, Harp and Guitar division were Adam Gingery on euphonium and Grace Browning on harp. Mr. Gingery was accompanied on piano by his wife, Erika, as he performed “Zigeunerweisen” by Pablo Sarasate/Frey. It was an always elegant, sometimes playful display of the deep, rich sounds of an unusual instrument that seemed able to echo itself while beautifully merging its mellow tones. Gingery would win the category’s Silver Medal.

Grace Browning (right) receives her Gold Medal from Shana & Tim Arthur PHOTO: Brad Meyer

Grace Browning (right) receives her Gold Medal from Shana & Tim Arthur
PHOTO: Brad Meyer

Meanwhile, dressed in a striking black and coral gown, Miss Browning would dazzle the crowd with her astounding skill on the harp, surrounding the instrument with an almost romantic embrace while performing the myriad complexities of “Scintillation” by Carlos Salzedo. In this work full of unpredictable and sometimes hypnotic intervals, she captured the whispering opening phrases as delicate as raindrops, but could transition skillfully to the composition’s building power and pulsations, all the while maintaining a focused intensity that was remarkable. She would have that division’s Gold Medal for her reward.

In the Voice Division, soprano, Megan Gryga, brought theatrical and vocal excellence to her joyful performance of two operatic selections: “Como Scoglio” from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, and “Depuis le jour” from Charpentier’s Louise. Gryga had an immediate connection with her audience, and one could almost visualize the invisible opera cast members to whom she was singing. The judges awarded her the category’s Silver Medal. Capturing the Gold Medal in this division would be tenor, Galean Salas, for another warmly theatrical performance featuring two opera favorites: Puccini’s, “Che gelida manina” from La Bohème, and Gounod’s “Ah, lève-toi soleil,” from Roméo et Juliette. Mr. Salas’ richly resonant voice combined with his cheerful countenance and animated gestures to make us feel language was no barrier in his fine performance. In addition to his $3,000 prize, he was awarded the $1,000 Audience Choice Award via ballots submitted from the crowd during the judges’ final deliberations.

Beverly Melder (left) and Conroe Mayor Webb Melder (right) with VOICE Gold Medalist & Audience Choice Award Winner, tenor, Galeano Salas PHOTO: Brad Meyer

Beverly Melder (left) and Conroe Mayor Webb Melder (right) with VOICE Gold Medalist & Audience Choice Award Winner, tenor, Galeano Salas
PHOTO: Brad Meyer

Competing in the Strings Division were Mingyao Zhao (violoncello) and Jihyun Kim (violin). Miss Zhao came onstage in a soft and flowing gown of eggshell blue and quickly displayed her technical virtuosity bringing a brisk and authoritative attack to the galloping intensity of the Shostakovich Concerto No.1 in E-flat major, Op. 107. The division’s Silver Medal would be hers, while the Gold Medal would go to Miss Kim following her impressive performance of the richly romantic Sibelius Concerto for violin and orchestra in D minor, Op. 61. Her lovely evening gown was highlighted by a glittering silver accent as flashy as her fine musicianship, and as she coaxed warm and wonderful tones from the instrument, one suspected that the quality of the violin was as exceptional as the artist herself.

The Piano Division was hotly contested between Yibing Zhang and Yurie Farnsworth. Performing the “Presto—Molto allegro e vivace” from Mendelssohn’s Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op. 25, Mr. Zhang displayed immediate power and fluidity. The prancing delicacy of his fingering one moment would alternate with precise and thunderous attack the next, as he skillfully moved toward a beautiful execution of the thrilling conclusion that would help to win him the Silver Medal. Miss Farnsworth would close the evening’s offerings with her elegant performance of the “Andantino semplice” and “Allegro con fuoco” from Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No.1 for piano in B-flat minor. From the enchanting opening, the familiar theme subtly draws us in before the work takes off in new and wondrous directions in Farnsworth’s talented hands. It was a thrilling and rapturous performance propelled by a kind of technical wizardry on the keys that we mere mortals might think of as impossible had we not seen it with our very own eyes. Perhaps the event organizers had inadvertently “saved the best for last,” as Farnsworth would not only win the Gold Medal award, but also the evening’s Grand Prize, an additional $3,000!

To learn more about the Young Texas Artists Music Competition, visit the website at www.ytamc.net. For further information e-mail info@ytamc.net

Posted in BroadwayStars.com, Classical Music, Concert Reviews, Conroe Courier, Crighton Theatre, Houston Community Newspapers online, Jade Simmons, Montgomery County Performing Arts Society, St. John Flynn, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com, Young Texas Artists, YourHoustonNews.com | Tagged , | 1 Comment

“JOSEPH” Gives the People What They Want at TUTS

PHOTOGRAPHY BY DANIEL BRODIE Ace Young as Joseph, Diana DeGarmo as Narrator & Company

PHOTOGRAPHY BY DANIEL BRODIE
Ace Young as Joseph, Diana DeGarmo as Narrator & Company

With Spring Break underway for many in surrounding Houston areas, the Theater Under the Stars offering of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT had no opening week shortage of eager young faces looking down to the stage from box seats high above on either side of the Hobby Center’s Sarofim Hall. Those youngsters no doubt shared my own puzzlement before the production got underway, as a shadowy projection lingered too long on mid-curtain, apparently designed to suggest a dream with its cloudy and ill-defined content looking a bit like some genie escaping from a bottle. The odd collection of sounds accompanying this vision perhaps suggested children playing, trolley cars, crying babies, passing trains or ghostly spirits, but who knew for sure?

When the action finally begins for this lighthearted musical (some call it an operetta as all words are sung, not spoken) it revolves around the familiar Biblical story of Joseph, his coat of many colors, his doting father, and the eleven jealous and conniving brothers who sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt while convincing their father that he is dead . With the cheerful lyrics of Tim Rice and the often catchy melodies of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the show is anchored by the Narrator (pretty Diana DeGarmo) who sings clarifications of the action as the show progresses. As a well-known former contestant on American Idol, DeGarmo clearly has a crisp, articulate and powerful voice, but the challenges of an extended national tour may be straining that voice, which would seem somewhat shrill at times.

PHOTO: DANIEL A. SWALEC Ryan Williams as Pharaoh and Ace Young as Joseph

PHOTO: DANIEL A. SWALEC
Ryan Williams as Pharaoh and Ace Young as Joseph

Co-starring in the role of Joseph is DeGarmo’s handsome husband, singer/songwriter Ace Young, another graduate of American Idol. His smooth voice worked well for numbers like “Close Every Door,” and the lovely and very melodic, “Any Dream Will Do.” Claire Camp plays the seductive wife of Joseph’s wealthy Egyptian slave master, Potiphar (a second role for Mr. Evans). With a bit of help from lusty Mrs. Potiphar, Director/Choreographer, Andy Blankenbuehler, made sure that Mr. Young played most of his subsequent scenes shirtless to display his impressive physique. Meanwhile, William Thomas Evans has great fun in the merry role of Joseph’s father, Jacob.

PHOTO: DANIEL A. SWALEC William Thomas Evans as Jacob, and Company in “Those Canaan Days”

PHOTO: DANIEL A. SWALEC
William Thomas Evans as Jacob, and Company in “Those Canaan Days”

As to the wonderful cast portraying Joseph’s brothers, their lusty choral singing in numbers like, “Those Canaan Days,” was as terrific as their athletic execution of Mr. Blankenbuehler’s choreography. Paul Castree was a showstopper leading “Those Canaan Days” in his role as Simeon. Additional ensemble showstoppers included a real winner with the “Benjamin Calypso” (led by Max Kumangi in the role of Judah), and then a show highlight as good-looking Ryan Williams brings down the house as the Pharaoh, while doing a first-rate and hip-swiveling impression of Elvis for the “Song of the King.”

PHOTO: DANIEL A. SWALEC Ryan Williams as Pharaoh, and Company

PHOTO: DANIEL A. SWALEC
Ryan Williams as Pharaoh, and Company

Often complementing the fine vocals of the brothers is a talented Female Ensemble that enriches many of the splashy numbers.

It must be said that this production has the overall look of a packaged show ready to be quickly broken down for truck shipment to the next city. Set pieces are minimal and much staging depends on foggy mists pierced by colored lasers etc. (lighting by Howell Binkley), some clever projections (designs by Daniel Brodie), and all accompanied by the non-pit orchestra consisting of only an overloud synthesizer, supplemented by some drums and guitars. Performers must struggle to compete with noise levels which, in a perfect world, would have been replaced by a fine full orchestra to more effectively reveal the richness of the score. The costumes (designer, Jennifer Caprio) are flashy fun, but not masterpieces. Think Halloween. But none of these shortcomings seemed to bother the crowd as it rose to its feet and clapped along during the curtain call finale of the jazzy “Joseph Megamix,” a number that reprised many of the show’s tunes in Las Vegas showroom fashion.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­JOSEPH & THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT continues through March 29th at Houston’s Hobby Center main stage with performances on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8pm, Tuesday thru Thursday & Sunday evenings at 7:30 pm (dark on Monday), Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. For tickets visit the website at www.TUTS.com, or call (713) 558-8887 locally and (888) 558-3882 (outside of Houston).

 

 

 

Posted in Andrew Lloyd Webber, BroadwayStars.com, HERE Lifestyle & Entertainment, Houston Community Newspapers online, Houston's Hobby Center, The Courier Columns, The TICKET, The Villager Columns, Theatre Under the Stars, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

ONCE Upon a Time There Was Love and Music

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal from the  ONCE Tour Company © Joan Marcus

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal from the
ONCE Tour Company © Joan Marcus

It is a story of love, and it is most certainly a story of music, and when the two come together they weave a tale as sweet as the melodies that bind together all the charms of the musical, ONCE, now playing at Houston’s Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Right from the beginning, this production (book by Enda Walsh, music and lyrics by Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova) is a very unusual piece. For starters, before show time the opening set depicts a long and cozy Irish bar adorned with assorted glistening mirrors as it embraces the entire back of the stage. The arriving audience is welcome to amble on stage, buy drinks from the bartender, and sip those cocktails while enjoying an unusual view of the theater from the actors’ perspective. (That novelty would be repeated during Intermission).

As the show proper gets underway, we find ourselves in Dublin and begin to meet the assorted working class town characters who frequent this pub, and happily, pass a good deal of time indulging the Irish love of making music.

ONCE Tour Company © Joan Marcus

ONCE Tour Company © Joan Marcus

Skillfully directed by John Tiffany, our talented cast of twelve, (plus a darling little girl named Ivanka, sweetly played by Sarah McKinley Austin) has an assortment of musical gifts for piano, guitar, mandolin, banjo, drums, harmonica, ukulele, cello, accordion, violin, concertina, melodica and percussion that sometimes consists of pounding bongo-style rhythms on empty boxes.

ONCE Tour Company © Joan Marcus

ONCE Tour Company © Joan Marcus

The curtain is never drawn on this open set (designer, Bob Crowley) and very soon, as infectious Irish music explodes across the stage, it can seem at one moment like a country hoedown, and in the next resemble a rousing Jewish wedding. Irish wit peppers the script with humor, while the audience has the feeling of having crashed some joyful party, and indeed, it has.

ONCE Tour Company © Joan Marcus

ONCE Tour Company © Joan Marcus

The story that follows is the simple tale of a young would-be songwriter, a Dubliner named Guy (Stuart Ward) who repairs Hoover vacuum cleaners when not strumming his guitar. While singing at the pub, he meets a pretty young Czech woman that the authors have curiously named, Girl. (Dani de Waal). So we have a Guy and a Girl to propel the plot. Better still, the Girl has a Hoover vacuum in need of repair. What could be better than that? Guy is a bit rough around the edges and his music lashes about with an edge of its own that may reflect his longing for the girlfriend he has recently lost to New York across the sea. But meanwhile, Girl sees something special in his musical talent and urges him to pursue those gifts and seek a recording contract. Girl, by the way, has a musical gift of her own on the piano, as audiences will readily note when Miss de Waal displays considerable skill for playing Mendelsohn. Waal has the voice of an angel as well, and that would be apparent in the lyrical delicacy of her stunning and elegant solo for “The Hill” in Act Two. The only disappointment was the lack of an appropriate momentary pause following that song so the audience could erupt in deserved and appreciative applause before the action continued.

ONCE Tour Company © Joan Marcus

ONCE Tour Company © Joan Marcus

As the plot moves along there are numerous gay and lively numbers that would have many a foot in the audience tapping, and mine was no exception. (Music supervisor, Martin Lowe). There is sometimes gentle, sometimes foot-stomping and whirling choreography from the energetic cast of players (Movement direction from Steven Hoggett). True to Irish sentiment, there is a poetic and story-telling aspect of these songs that is often wistful and reflective. This is perhaps most apparent in the gentle sweetness of the show’s most familiar tune, “Falling Slowly,” a lush duet for the complementary voices of Girl and Guy as they beautifully deliver the heavenly elevation of the uniquely high notes that close each phrase in the song. The haunting “If You Want Me” is another vocal winner for the duo.

ONCE Tour Company © Joan Marcus

ONCE Tour Company © Joan Marcus

There is wonderful support here from the ever-present ensemble, and that same vocal power enriches Guy’s soaring solo of the beautiful song, “Gold,” that closes Act One amid the gently choreographed movement of the cast. The same tune would be a full company highlight in the mystical a Capella reprise during Act Two that would again conclude by sadly depriving the audience of that moment needed to cheer an exceptional performance.

Clearly, Guy and Girl are falling in love, though we learn that her estranged husband is expected to return to Dublin soon to reconcile with his wife and reunite with their young daughter, Ivanka. Ultimately, Girl succeeds in having Guy join forces with their musical friends to cut a studio demo recording of his original songs, but along the way she realizes she belongs with her husband, while Guy and his talent belong across the sea with his lost love in New York and all the music world opportunities that can be found there. How fortunate that we could enjoy this joyous musical journey before that poignant separation.

ONCE  continues through March 15th at Houston’s Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. with performances Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 & 8pm, and Sunday at 2 & 7:30pm. For tickets & information call 800-982-2787 or visit the website at http://www.broadwayatthehobbycenter.com

Next up in the BROADWAY at the Hobby Center series: MAMA MIA ! April 14th-19th

 

 

Posted in Broadway, BROADWAY at the Hobby Center, BroadwayStars.com, HereHouston.com, Houston Community Newspapers online, Houston's Hobby Center, ONCE, The TICKET, Theater Reviews, ThePeoplesCritic.com, YourHoustonNews.com | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Romeo, Juliet, & Dance Magnificence from Houston Ballet

Artists of the Houston Ballet PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar

Artists of the Houston Ballet
PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar

Karina Gonzalez & Connor Walsh PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar **Click any photo to enlarge**

Karina Gonzalez & Connor Walsh
PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar
**Click any photo to enlarge**

Even before the opening curtain, there was a ballet of sorts in the Wortham Center’s soaring lobby, with its steep and rolling escalator, towering windows, and the high walls adorned with beautifully projected scenes from Houston Ballet’s current repertoire. It almost seemed a kind of modern dance as these elements all combined to grandly welcome the throngs of arriving guests for the Opening Night performance of the company’s elegant production of Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. But the best was yet to come.

As a young lad, the first ballet I ever attended was Prokofiev’s Cinderella, and I would be in high school before becoming acquainted with the similarly rich and haunting music of the Romeo and Juliet. It would have been in itself worth the price of a ticket just to hear this score performed by the peerless musicians of the Houston Ballet Orchestra, under the loving baton of maestro Ermanno Florio (Music Director). But to see Shakespeare’s classic tale of love and tragedy unfold in the splendor created here by Artistic Director & Choreographer, Stanton Welch and his brilliant team, would seem at times more like a beautiful medieval dream than a reality.

Artists of the Houston Ballet PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar

Artists of the Houston Ballet
PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar

The exquisite costume and scenic designs of Roberta Guidi Di Bagno give the production the look of having popped out of some lush and ancient tapestry of the period. Rich colors abound and are endlessly enhanced by the varied lighting designs of Lisa J. Pinkham. Thus, we are magically transported to the world of ancient Verona and this enduring saga of the rival families, the Montagues and Capulets.

As the ballet begins, graceful young maidens dance about, but the youthful Romeo (Connor Walsh) is love-struck and infatuated with the lovely Rosaline (Sara Webb), even though she is a Capulet and he, a Montague. The action moves to the merry excitement of the beautifully staged Market Scene. As the stage begins to fill with arriving townspeople weaving amongst one another in the marketplace, the eye-popping choreography of both dance and simple movement suggests the precision of the finest college marching band on the gridiron. Romeo’s friends, Benvolio (Oliver Halkowich) and Mercutio (Jared Matthews) try to cheer the brooding Romeo, and there is some lusty and high-energy dancing from the threesome and the wonderful ensemble. From the dullard, Peter, (an amusing portrayal by Hayden Stark as a bumbling Capulet servant) Romeo learns the Capulets plan a grand ball. The family has actually planned the ball to bring daughter, Juliet (Karina Gonzalez), together with the eligible young Paris (Ian Casady). Meanwhile, Romeo plans to crash that party so he can be near Rosaline. But soon conflict arises at the market between members of the opposing families. The fiery Tybalt (Christopher Coomer), a temperamental Capulet nephew, provokes a street brawl between the young men of these families.

Connor Walsh, Christopher Coomer and Artists of the Houston Ballet Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Connor Walsh, Christopher Coomer and Artists of the Houston Ballet
Photo: Amitava Sarkar

The neatly choreographed and swashbuckling swordplay that follows is full of excitement worthy of an Errol Flynn film. There is a powerful performance from Simon Ball as Escalus, the Prince of Verona, and it is Escalus who impressively steps in to demand that the brawling cease.

Karina Gonzalez and Jessica Collado PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar

Karina Gonzalez and Jessica Collado
PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar

As the action shifts to Juliet’s chambers, the mood is brightened by her cheerful dancing and that of her attendants and playful Nurse (Barbara Bears in a charming and lighthearted performance). It is there that Juliet’s mother, Lady Capulet (Jessica Collado), gives her the news that Paris will be a guest at the special ball being planned. As the ball guests arrive, Prokofiev’s regal music embraces the audience while stunning tapestries look down from the walls above.

Connor Walsh, Jared Matthews and Artists of the Houston Ballet PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar

Connor Walsh, Jared Matthews and Artists of the Houston Ballet
PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar

The entrance hall for the ball is richly aglow with lushly beautiful costumes, generously anointed by dramatic blood-red colors. Amid the excitement, Romeo and his friends, Benvolio and Balthasar (Derrick Dunn), sneak into the ball where Romeo is instantly enchanted by his first glimpse of Juliet, even as she discovers her own fascination with this handsome young stranger. The lads glide gracefully through the scene with the synchronization and lively designs of their athletic dancing illuminating their joyful camaraderie.

The ball opens with the ominous power of one of the composer’s most memorable themes, and the dramatically impressive choreography here is every inch the equal of the powerful music. The scene is an unforgettable highlight in the production, and it was notable that the light and airy fabrics of costumes on the dancing ladies created wonderful visuals as they seemed to allow the gowns to whirl about doing a beautiful dance of their own. Soon we see the first warm embrace of Romeo and Juliet, and the romantic magic of this pairing is perfectly captured by the beautiful Miss Gonzalez and the handsome Mr. Walsh. Nevertheless, when Tybalt discovers Romeo is present he reaches for his sword and is only kept in check by intercession of the host, Juliet’s father, Lord Capulet (Linnar Looris).

In the iconic balcony scene, amid the lovers’ tender yet fearful connection, the warmth of Prokofiev’s romantic score embraces them as they sweetly dance together. The dance lifts are lovely and beautifully executed by Walsh, and all the while the two are surrounded by a glittering starry sky. With the aid of Friar Lawrence (Steven Woodgate) and Friar John (Rhodes Elliot), a clandestine wedding for the lovers is quickly arranged, with plans to secretly consummate the marriage that night in Juliet’s bedroom where the soaring canopied bed is the dramatic centerpiece on the stage. Plans are greatly complicated during the festive and colorful Carnival scene. Now married, Romeo tries to avoid combat with his unaware new in-law when Tybalt, sword in hand, again challenges him. Murcutio intercedes, but is fatally wounded by Tybalt. Enraged at the murder of his friend, Romeo stabs Tybalt, killing him in revenge, and escaping the wrath of Prince Escalus by retreating to the bedroom of his secret bride for what will be a last night of bliss.

Jessica Collado and Karina Gonzolez PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar

Jessica Collado and Karina Gonzolez
PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar

The final act has Romeo in the role of fugitive, and Friar Lawrence supplies Juliet with a potion that will cause her to appear as dead until Romeo can rescue her from the tomb for their escape. A message is sent to Romeo with the plan’s details, but it never reaches him. Meanwhile, Lord and Lady Capulet prevail upon Juliet to marry Paris, and their daughter relents thinking she will soon escape that fate with her beloved. Following Lady Capulet’s horrifying discovery of her lifeless daughter’s body on the bed, a dramatic and candle-lit funeral procession crosses the stage as word reaches Romeo of Juliet’s “death.” The funeral over, he enters the shadowy crypt to find the grieving Paris, who then attacks him. Romeo stabs him to death in self-defense, and then takes poison himself upon discovering his lifeless bride. As Juliet awakens to find her lover dead, she takes her own life with the knife, and the lovers’ bodies intertwine in tragic death. How ironic that at that moment, the audience erupted with an extended ovation of joyous applause and appreciation for the masterpiece of dance it had just witnessed. Bravo!

Houston Ballet’s ROMEO and JULIET continues through March 8th at the Brown Theater in the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Avenue in downtown Houston. Evening performances are at 7:30 pm on February 28th and March 6th & 7th. In addition there will be a 1:30 pm matinee on February 28th, and 2:00 pm matinees on March 1st & 8th. For tickets & information visit www.houstonballet.org or call (713) 227 ARTS or 1 800 828 ARTS

The columns of David Dow Bentley III have appeared in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast and may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com E-mail may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic@earthlink.net .

Posted in BroadwayStars.com, HERE HOUSTON-Lifestyle & Entertainment, HereHouston.com, Houston Ballet, Houston Community Newspapers online, Houston's Hobby Center, Romeo and Juliet, Segei Prokofiev, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com, YourHoustonNews.com | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

A Comical PINOCCHIO from Disney & Class Act

Andersen McDaniel as PINOCCHIO and Jordan Rubio as GEPPETTO Photo: K. Navarra

Andersen McDaniel as PINOCCHIO and Jordan Rubio as GEPPETTO
Photo: K. Navarra

***Click Any Photo to Enlarge***

Before curtain time at the Nancy Bock Center for the Performing Arts, the room was filled with the familiar buzz of audience excitement that one has come to expect when Class Act Productions is presenting a show from Founder/Producer, Keith Brumfield. In this case, the offering was the Disney musical, MY SON PINOCCHIO Geppetto’s Musical Tale. With book by David I. Stern and Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, this edition was delightfully directed by Tina Kraft. Adding to that delight was the enormous cast of talented local youngsters that brought this new and amusing take on the familiar story to joyous life for last weekend’s three sellout performances.

This charming journey, based on both the original 1883 Carlo Collodi tale, The Adventures of Pinocchio, and the later 1940 Disney film, Pinocchio, begins as we meet the hilariously egotistical Blue Fairy (Isabelle Yost) who thinks she is the living embodiment of perfection and can do no wrong.

Isabelle Yost as THE BLUE FAIRY Photo: Paul Wickboldt

Isabelle Yost as THE BLUE FAIRY
Photo: Paul Wickboldt

Enter Geppetto the woodcarver and toymaker (Jordan Rubio), who approaches the Blue Fairy to complain he would like to return the wooden boy, Pinocchio, that she had once brought to life through her magic. Mr. Rubio displays his fine singing voice as Geppetto claims the fairy has created an imperfect boy because Pinocchio (Andersen McDaniel) is a problem child. She is incensed at the suggestion her handiwork was not perfect, and her blatant narcissism is so innocently and genuinely over-the-top it adds to the fun throughout the show. Miss Yost plays it to the hilt with a terrific flair for comedy, but better still she has a very wonderful voice for songs like “Just Because It’s Magic,” and of course the classic, “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

The Blue Fairy & her Fairies-in-Training PHOTO: K. Navarra

The Blue Fairy & her Fairies-in-Training
PHOTO: K. Navarra

She is merrily assisted by her four Fairies-in-Training (Marina Garcia de Quevedo, Katarina Brosvik, Madisen Campbell, and Riley Mitchell). They sing beautifully as well, and add to the hilarity, but conflict arises when we meet the conniving puppeteer, Stromboli, wickedly played by Jessica Helgerud.

Jessica Helgerud as STROMBOLI Photo: Paul Wickboldt

Jessica Helgerud as STROMBOLI
Photo: Paul Wickboldt

Stromboli has two very animated marionettes (Emily Freeman & Greta Faith Lamb), and meanwhile conspires to capture the amazing live wooden boy, Pinocchio, to be the star of her own puppet show. For his part, Mr. McDaniel brings both deviltry and tenderness to his performance in the title role, and does nicely performing the charming, “I  Got No Strings.”

Anchoring all this action is the beautiful singing (Music Director, Laurelyn Korfhage) and dancing (Choreographer, Jodi Schrier) from this huge ensemble of very talented young people. The beaming joy they project for the many songs in this labor of love would clearly warm the hearts of all those present in the audience. The music in this edition is pleasant enough and appropriate to the light-weight plot, but the new songs are probably not destined for the classic status awarded to “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and “I Got No Strings,” both included here from the earlier Disney film with the music by Leigh Harline & lyrics by Ned Washington.

Sromboli's Puppet Show PHOTO: K. Navarra

Sromboli’s Puppet Show
PHOTO: K. Navarra

Never-the-less, there was fun on every hand in various brilliant scenes that take place in Geppetto’s toyshop, at Stromboli’s puppet show, along a forest road, or in the laboratory of zany, Professor Buonragazzo (Maeve Jensen), who has invented a machine that can manufacture perfect little boys and girls.

PLEASURE ISLAND Photo: K. Navarra

PLEASURE ISLAND
Photo: K. Navarra

Another dazzling scene was the world of “Pleasure Island,” where bad boys soon make jackasses of themselves, and the joyous “Mardi Gras Dance” there was a knock-out that wove its way right through the audience! All these scenes featured the beautiful set designs of Kent Hale, the scenic artistry of Katie Arceneaux & Sally Menes, and fine lighting from designer Blake Minor. The countless and glorious costumes were designed by Kristi Tabor. Score this another victory for Class Act Productions and the countless community volunteers that make the magic happen. Area resident, Mattie Tabor, seemed to agree as she was leaving the theater. She was overheard to say, “I’ve never seen one of these shows that wasn’t wonderful!”

Cast of MY SON PINOCCHIO Photo: K. Navarra

Cast of MY SON PINOCCHIO
Photo: K. Navarra

CLASS ACT plans performances of MARY POPPINS on July 10, 11, 12, 17, 18, & 19 in 2015. Auditions are scheduled for May 2, 2015. For further updates visit http://www.ClassActProductions.org .

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Class Act Productions, Disney, Geppetto, HereHouston.com, Houston Community Newspapers online, My Son Pinocchio, Pinocchio, The Courier Columns, The TICKET, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

An Exceptional SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN at Crighton

Cast of Singin' in the Rain Photo: Michael Pittman *CLICK any photo to enlarge*

Cast of Singin’ in the Rain
Photo: Michael Pittman
*CLICK any photo to enlarge*

Director, Manny Cafeo PHOTO: Dave Clements

Director, Manny Cafeo
PHOTO: Dave Clements

For lovers of musical theatre there is something incredibly important and very wonderful going on at Conroe’s Crighton Theater. Brilliantly directed by Manny Cafeo, the current production of Singin’ in the Rain from the Stage Right Players is an absolute wonder to behold. In fact, let me take that a step further. It is miraculous! Fondly remembered and revisited by most of us, the 1952 MGM film version starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor is a classic cinema masterpiece by any standard. Attempting to duplicate its joys on the stage would be a daunting task in any event, but to accomplish it with the artistic perfection found in this production must certainly be a crowning achievement for Stage Right producers, Steve & Carolyn Wong.

The realization of this miracle has countless ingredients which must begin with the unmistakable love, energy and joy this universally excellent cast has brought to the performance. Common sense tells us how much hard work made this all possible. But somehow it comes across the footlights that everyone on that stage is having as much fun as the audience. At the same time virtually every detail of the film is brought magically to life on the Crighton stage. Of course that magic includes the witty original screenplay of Betty Comden & Adolph Green, and the memorable music of Arthur Freed (who also wrote the lyrics) & Nacio Herb Brown. In this production the score is in the very capable hands of Musical Director, Ana Guirola Ladd, and the superb dancing is a much deserved jewel in the crown of both choreographer, Dinah Mahlman, and her astonishing cast that repeatedly sets the house on fire with sensational tap dancing.

Let’s get more specific about the stellar cast that brings to life this amusing tale about the silent film star pairing of Lina Lamont (Alexandra Casey), and Don Lockwood (Victor Suarez) at the time in the 1920’s when the “talkies” were about to replace silent films. Self-centered Lina is a perfect example of the silent film stars who had no suitable voice for sound. Don’t miss the fun of the vocal coaches played by Lindsay Freireich & Adam Isbell, and Todd Brady as the amusingly desperate director trying to make sense of cinema’s transition to sound.

Alexandra Casey & Will  Alexandra Casey & Will Radcliffe PHOTO: Dave Clements

Alexandra Casey & Will
Alexandra Casey & Will Radcliffe
PHOTO: Dave Clements

Lina’s persistent whining and poor diction are totally annoying, and all the while she is oblivious to the fact that Don is only her lover on screen and has no interest in her otherwise. Pretty Miss Casey carries off the part with consistently hilarious comic flair, even as vain Lina does some serious soul searching during her deliberately annoying Act II song, “What’s Wrong With me?” The head of Monumental Pictures, R.F. Simpson (Willard Radcliffe) has his hands full trying to deal with his spoiled brat starlet during filming of “The Dueling Cavalier,” and that problem is central to the fun that follows.

The Dueling Cavalier PHOTO: Dave Clements

The Dueling Cavalier
PHOTO: Dave Clements

Amazingly, video engineer, Steven Wong, assisted by his son, Michael Wong as fencing choreographer, has created superb silent film segments for “The Dueling Cavalier” that are incorporated into the plot using the actual members of the cast. The professional high definition clarity of the result adds endless fun to the action, and it is worth mentioning that even before the show began, Mr. Wong created an amusing silent comedy take-off of Laurel & Hardy designed to gently remind the audience about cell phone shutdowns. On the other hand, Mrs. Wong, always a comedic winner in Crighton productions, is no less in her deliciously outlandish role of film columnist and radio personality, Dora Bailey, who hosts the red carpet arrivals of the stars for the Hollywood movie premiere that opens Act One.

R. Isaiah Owens sings "Beautiful Girls" Photo:Dave Clements

R. Isaiah Owens sings
“Beautiful Girls”
Photo:Dave Clements

Ryan Rodriquez- "Make 'Em Laugh" Photo: Dave Clements

Ryan Rodriquez- “Make ‘Em Laugh”
Photo: Dave Clements

Oh, those glamorous costumes that would lavishly continue to be a feature throughout the show (Designer, Marieda Kilgore). It would also quickly become clear that a central core of this show’s success is the splendid singing of the leads. In the song, “Make ‘Em Laugh,” Ryan Rodriquez is terrific capturing the comic deviltry as Don’s pal, Cosmo Brown, the role originally played by Donald O’Connor in the film. Ryan is a perfect pairing with Suarez in the role of Don. The two gents are as handsome as matinee idols with vocal chords to match.

"Fit as a Fiddle" PHOTO: Dave Clements

“Fit as a Fiddle”
PHOTO: Dave Clements

Their singing and athletic tap dancing will dazzle you with numbers like “Moses Supposes,” the show-stopping “Broadway Melody,” and the very cute and acrobatic “Fit as a Fiddle.” That latter number is cleverly staged as a memory flashback and might be clarified as such if the surrounding stage lighting briefly dimmed to set the focus on the boys during the song, but the overall lighting designs of Roger Ormiston and Lighting Engineer, Peter Kelly really make this show shine.

Victor Suarez & Sara Priesler-Kent Photo: Dave Clements

Victor Suarez & Sara Priesler-Kent
Photo: Dave Clements

Another technical triumph came in the area of sound. (Designer, Ms. Wong, and Engineer, Nick Marshall). I point this out because there is always danger when coordinating performances with a recorded musical soundtrack. With one or two minor glitches it is splendidly carried off here. I first realized that when Suarez began singing the lushly romantic, “You Stepped Out of a Dream,” to beautiful Sara Preisler Kent. Kent portrays Don’s love interest, the lovely ingénue and would-be star, Kathy Selden. It’s the role that helped make Debbie Reynolds a Hollywood legend. As Suarez’ velvet smooth voice embraced the audience, I thought at first he must be lip-syncing to some professional voice recorded on the soundtrack. What a pleasure to discover this talented young man’s voice was the real deal. And what a match to have him in duet with the sweetly elegant voice of Miss Kent. Wow!

"Good Morning" (L-R Suarez,Kent,Rodriquez) PHOTO: Dave Clements

“Good Morning” (L-R Suarez,Kent,Rodriquez) PHOTO: Dave Clements

The duo would team beautifully for the songs, “You Are My Lucky Star,” and “Would You,” and the pair would join Rodriquez for the playful delights of “Good Morning.” As for outstanding solo moments, Kent delivers a wonderful “All I Do is Dream of You,” with great back-up from the Chorus Girls.

Suarez: "Singin' in the Rain" PHOTO: Dave Clements

Suarez: “Singin’ in the Rain”
PHOTO: Dave Clements

Suarez shines for, “You Were Meant for Me,” and of course for the title tune. Thanks to the creativity of Master Carpenter, Dennis O’Connor and Scenic Designer, Denise DeBold, “Singin’ in the Rain” was able to actually happen right there in front of our eyes as Mr. Suarez joyfully danced and sang through showers and puddles, umbrella in hand. It was a delight.

Mahlman as seductress in "Broadway Melody" PHOTO: Dave Clements

Mahlman as seductress in “Broadway Melody”
PHOTO: Dave Clements

Other sensational production numbers include the classy “Beautiful Girls” led by talented, R. Isaiah Owens, and a jazzy “Broadway Melody” that featured the seductive dance talents of choreographer, Mahlman.

(L-R) Victor Suarez, Sara Priesler-Kent, & Ryan Rodriquez PHOTO: Michael Pittman

(L-R) Victor Suarez, Sara Priesler-Kent, & Ryan Rodriquez
PHOTO: Michael Pittman

Throughout this epic masterpiece of musical theatre, the Dancers and Chorus of the cast really deserve top billing. They are amazing, so readers beware. If you miss this sweetheart of a show you will miss something so special that my eyes were moist with tears of joy at the conclusion. I will never forget Valentine’s Day 2015.

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN continues through March 1, 2015 with Friday & Saturday performances at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., all at the beautiful Crighton Theatre, 234 N. Main St. in Conroe. (Prices are $20 adults, $18 for seniors and groups of 15 or more, $15 for youngsters 16 and under, and senior groups of 15 or more persons). For tickets and information call 936-441-7469 or visit the website at www.stage-right.org

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Conroe Courier, Crighton Theatre, Houston Community Newspapers online, Singin' in the Rain, Stage Right Players, The Courier Columns, The TICKET, ThePeoplesCritic.com, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments