A Brilliant “LA CAGE” from Goodspeed Opera House

Jamison Stern as Zaza in Goodspeed Musicals' LA CAGE AUX FOLLES PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Jamison Stern as Zaza in Goodspeed Musicals’ LA CAGE AUX FOLLES
PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

[Click any photo to enlarge]

There are rare times in the world of the theatre that all the elements just seem to come together perfectly. The current Goodspeed Opera House production of La Cage Aux Folles is one of those times, and I think I have discovered that perhaps you really can, “…go home again.” Tucked away and off the beaten path in the little town of East Hadddam, Connecticut, it was in 2012 that I first had the pleasure of discovering this great theatre. Actress, Sheila Smith, and the great Broadway orchestrator, conductor (and one of my fellow members of The Lambs Club), Don Pippin, were collaborating there on a special Goodspeed event in connection with its production of MAME. [See earlier review at: http://thepeoplescritic.com/2012/06/15/i-have-a-little-secret-id-like-to-impart/ ] That was a wonderful first experience of Goodspeed for me, and this La Cage was a wonderful welcome home. Based on the play by Jean Poiret, this musical edition features the very witty book of Harvey Fierstein and the delightful music & lyrics of Jerry Herman, — clearly a winning combination.

Jamison Stern (left) and James Lloyd Reynolds PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Jamison Stern (left) and James Lloyd Reynolds
PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Winner of six 1984 Tony Awards (including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book), the production works beautifully on many levels, but Director, Rob Ruggiero, and Musical Director, Michael O’Flaherty, never lose sight of the two primary elements that comprise a musical comedy. And I might add, that as lush and lovely as this musical score becomes in the hands of the show’s talented vocalists and musicians, the comedy is king here with the uproarious performances from this cast. In this special circumstance, perhaps I could even risk saying the comedy is queen, because the nutty plot surrounds a gay couple that runs a very gay “drag” nightclub in Saint-Tropez called La Cage Aux Folles (with the French slang roughly translating as a “cage for very effeminate gays”). With a seemingly endless supply of handsome tuxedoes, and looking as dashing as Douglas Fairbanks, Georges (James Lloyd Reynolds) is the elegant and impeccable emcee and manager of the club. His very flamboyant lover, Albin, is portrayed here by the multi-talented Jamison Stern. While there are a few touching moments when this fine actor could break your heart, the essence of his zany performance is the epitome of comic mastery.

Cedric Leiba Jr. as Jacob (right) with James Lloyd Reynolds as Georges PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Cedric Leiba Jr. as Jacob (right) with James Lloyd Reynolds as Georges
PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

He has the audience howling with laughter throughout the show as Albin portrays the even more flamboyant character of Zaza in the nightclub act. But he is not alone, especially when it comes to the hilarious character of Jacob (Cedric Leiba Jr.), Albin’s ultra-gay assistant and butler, (who much prefers to be referred to as his maid). Leiba is a comedy genius in this deliciously comic role, and plays it to the hilt.

Georges and Albin live in a garish apartment above the nightclub with no shortage of bawdy statuary and gay pink accents, right down to the eye-catching and silver-trimmed divan that highlights the room.

Conor Ryan as Jean-Michel (left) with James Lloyd Reynolds PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Conor Ryan as Jean-Michel (left) with James Lloyd Reynolds
PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

They have been lovers for years, though a one-night stand years before resulted in Georges becoming the father of his now grown son, Jean-Michel (Conor Ryan). Georges and Albin have affectionately raised the boy as their own, with Albin very much playing the maternal role. Things begin to get complicated when Jean-Michel arrives for a visit bearing the news that he is planning to marry Anne Dindon (the beautiful Kristen Martin). He wants to bring the parents of the bride-to-be, M. & Mme. Dindon, (droll performances from Mark Zimmerman & Stacey Scotte) to meet his own parents. But alas, Jean-Michel’s mother, Sybil, has been estranged for years, and Georges has no desire to reconnect with her. Worse still, it turns out that Anne’s father is the leader of the French TFM Party (Tradition, Family & Morality) which has at its core an intolerance of homosexuals. In addition to asking that Sybil be invited, Jean-Michel wants the apartment redone in more traditional style, and worst of all, does not want the very effeminate Albin to be present at all during the visit of Anne and her parents.

Les Cagelles perform "We Are What We Are" PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Les Cagelles perform “We Are What We Are”
PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

The glue that blends all these confusions into this delicious piece of theatre is the aforementioned music and comedy.

Cast of La Cage aux Folles PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Cast of La Cage aux Folles
PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Right out of the starting gate we have the joyful nightclub number, “We Are What We Are,” performed by the club’s glamorous drag queens, Les Cagelles, and they shortly evolve into a dazzling troupe of tap-dancing sailors that could have easily formed a grand finale rather than an opening number (Choreographer, Ralph Perkins). Colorful feather boas and glittering costumes abound in various show-stopping numbers (Costume Designer, Michael McDonald), while the attractive scenic designs of Michael Schweikardt nicely frame the action.

Jamison Stern as Zaza with Les Cagelles PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Jamison Stern as Zaza with Les Cagelles
PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

While applying his make-up for the show, Albin’s delicious excesses highlight the way he handles life’s challenges as Mr. Stern displays his resounding voice in the song, “A Little More Mascara.” Finally onstage in a glistening white gown, sparkling jeweled necklace and ermine-white feather boa, Zaza cheerfully announces that “No ostriches were harmed during the making of this costume.”

Meanwhile, the beaming and very handsome Mr. Conor brightens the production with winning charm and personality as he brings his richly resonant voice to the melodically wonderful, “With Anne on My Arm.” That tune is sweetly reprised when Georges and Albin duet for, “With You on My Arm,” and the poignant “Song of the Sand” that follows is a touching reflection of lost youth that is tenderly performed by Mr. Reynolds.

The Cast of Goodspeed Musicals' LA CAGE AUX FOLLES Photo: Diane Sobolewski

The Cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ LA CAGE AUX FOLLES
Photo: Diane Sobolewski

Toward the end of Act One, Albin and the Cagelles offer a knockout number that even features the gymnastics of a very athletic Can-Can.

Jamison Stern with Les Cagelles PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Jamison Stern with Les Cagelles
PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Mr. Stern rules the stage and captivates the audience with spontaneous banter, hilarious saucy wisecracks, and fine singing that might occasionally remind one of Bette Midler, Madeline Kahn, or even French chanteuse, Édith Piaf. And capping it all is the one-on-one intimacy of Albin’s heart-wrenching appeal for understanding with the electrifying, “I Am What I Am.”

The cast of Goodspeed Musicals LA CAGE AUX FOLLES Photo: Diane Sobolewski

The cast of Goodspeed Musicals LA CAGE AUX FOLLES
Photo: Diane Sobolewski

As plot lines converge toward the inevitable happy outcomes in Act Two, songs like the tender “Look Over There,” continue musical excellence, and the hilarity reaches epic levels surrounding the meeting of the bridal couple’s parents. I dare not give away the fun filled details, but I must tell you that the comic timing, antics and body language of both Mr. Stern and Mr. Leiba continue in classic fashion, with able support from the fine supporting cast and talented Ensemble. For lovers of musical theatre with the prospect of seeing this production, it really seems safe to cite the title of one of the show’s biggest hits, “The Best of Times is Now!”

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LA CAGE AUX FOLLES continues through September 10th at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn. Please visit www.goodspeed.org for details and availability.

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Don Pippin, Goodspeed Opera House, Harvey Fierstein, Jerry Herman, La Cage Aux Folles, Sheila Smith, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Summer Fun from GUYS & DOLLS at RTC

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Cast Members of RTC's GUYS & DOLLS Photo: Courtesy of RTC

Cast Members of RTC’s GUYS & DOLLS
Photo: Courtesy of RTC

It doesn’t get much better than this for residents of the once Sandy-ravaged Rockaway Beach. The pleasantly warm summer weather and low humidity have the beach crowds flocking to newly restored areas of the previously destroyed beach and boardwalk; but better still, summer theatre treats await the area at the evermore popular Rockaway Theatre Company now performing Frank Loesser’s musical classic, GUYS & DOLLS, at the Post Theatre here in New York City’s Gateway National Recreation Area of the National Parks Service. With its book by Jo Swerling & Abe Burrows, this delightful production is skillfully directed by John Gilleece, and features melodic musical direction from Heather Arzberger & Richard Louis-Pierre. The bright energy of their terrific 10-piece orchestra keeps things beautifully rolling along right from the lovely Overture. After my attendance at last Friday night’s performance, I score this show as Highly Recommended.

I like to think I have a personal connection to Guys & Dolls because at the time composer, Frank Loesser, debuted the show on Broadway in 1950, his sister lived across the street from my boyhood home in the little Hudson Valley town of Peekskill, New York. Needless to say I never got any Broadway credit for that. But enough about me. This show is so much fun that through the years it has already had 5 Broadway revivals and a Carnegie Hall presentation in 2014. Let me assure you the fun continues in this RTC edition. As delightful as it is, it has one major drawback from a critic’s point of view: The cast is so enormous there is no practical way to acknowledge the countless talents on display without offending those I might miss. To compound that, the company has so many skilled performers, it was determined that many of the lead roles would have duplicate casting, thus providing a secondary cast for alternate evenings. After several successful weeks already, the word is out that both casts are splendid, so with apologies to the alternate performers I have not seen, let me give some broad outlines of the fun that awaits future audiences.

Matthew Smilardi as Nathan Detroit Photo: Courtesy of RTC

Matthew Smilardi as Nathan Detroit
Photo: Courtesy of RTC

The familiar plot centers on an amusing cast of gangsters, Bible-thumpers, gamblers and showgirls living on the fringes of the 1950’s Broadway scene. Veteran gambler, Nathan Detroit (Matthew Smilardi – alt: John Panepinto) is ignoring the wishes of his longtime fiancée, cute showgirl, Miss Adelaide (Caitlin Byrne – alt: Nicole Mangano). Nathan is angling to arrange a bigtime crap game in spite of Adelaide’s insistence that he quit gambling.

The Hot Box Girls PHOTO: Courtesy of RTC

The Hot Box Girls
PHOTO: Courtesy of RTC

Miss Byrne is sensational as this adorable nightclub singer who is losing patience at being “engaged for fourteen years,” and having to make up stories in order for her mother to believe that she and Nathan are already married with children. Byrne’s terrific voice and flair for comedy would have carried this role on any stage, anywhere, and Broadway audiences wouldn’t have hesitated to declare her a star. Whether leading the talented Hot Box Girls in both “Bushel & a Peck,” and the uproarious, “Take Back Your Mink,” or joining in brilliant duet with smooth-voiced Smilardi for the savage, “Sue Me,” or better still, knocking the ball out of the park with the hilarious, “Adelaide’s Lament,” this gal has it all. Wow!

Paralleling the pairing of Nathan and Adelaide, we have romantic sparks flying between bigtime gambler, Sky Masterson (Daniel Velez – Alt. Michael Whalen), and the initially prim and sanctimonious leader of the Save-a-Soul Mission, Sr. Sarah Brown (Renee Steadman – Alt. Maria Edwards). Steadman has a glorious voice that shines in numbers like, “If I Were a Bell,” and in pleasing duets with vocally talented Mr. Velez for, “I’ll Know,” and the charming “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” Don’t miss the pair’s whirlwind trip to Cuba where Bacardi rum and lively Latin dancing flow freely. And speaking of dancing, those showgirls in the Hot Box Nightclub scenes are sensational. I only wish I had some sharp color publicity photos to give justice to the beautiful costumes on the beautiful and talented women in this cast. (Costume designer, Kerry O’Connor with Susan Corning).

The Gamblers Roll the Dice in GUYS & DOLLS Photo: Courtesy of RTC

The Gamblers Roll the Dice in GUYS & DOLLS
Photo: Courtesy of RTC

And if you think gangsters can’t dance, think again before you see the talented guys in this cast do their stuff while gambling their way through numbers like, “Oldest Established,” and “Luck be a Lady.” (Choreographer, Nicola DePierro-Nellen).

The rowdy esprit de corps that permeates the wonderful ensemble efforts of this cast is highly visible in the interactions of these lovable gangsters. A standout in that regard is the

Chazmond Peacock in the role of Nicely-Nicely Photo: Courtesy of RTC

Chazmond Peacock in the role of Nicely-Nicely
Photo: Courtesy of RTC

brilliant performance of Chazmond Peacock in the role of Nicely-Nicely. His joyous delivery of the show’s Act Two blockbuster, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” was a Broadway-caliber performance. Yet another Act Two treat came from Cliff Hesse in the role of Sarah’s kindly grandfather, Arvide. His tender and sweetly sentimental delivery of the song, “More I Cannot Give You,” brought warm applause from the audience. Of course there are plenty of plot twists and turns as Sky attempts to gather a dozen sinners in an effort to help Sr. Sarah save the struggling mission. The action all plays out in beautifully staged Broadway scenes full of oddball characters drifting through Time Square. (Scenic Designers, Frank Caiati, Danielle Rose Fisher, and Mr. Hesse). The crisp sound designs of Mr. Louis-Pierre and eye-catching lighting designs of Andrew Woodbridge added to the luster of a polished performance that surely owes much of its success to the efforts of some seventy contributing individuals found in the printed program’s production credit listings. Therein lies a clue to why such a rich spirit of community pervades the atmosphere in this cozy local theater. Friends, family, and visitors blend into an audience that bubbles with enthusiasm not only during the show, but also during an intermission that allows a 50/50 Club chance to win big bucks, along with available refreshments, and even hot dogs sold on stage from the Broadway vendor featured in the show.

Complaints? Not really, but I will make a prediction. I bet before long a company with this depth of talent will soon have its own resident photographer to skillfully record the visual history of the great work they are doing on the stage. Try to capture one of the few remaining tickets. You won’t be sorry.

GUYS & DOLLS continues this week with performances on July 16, 17 & 18 at 8pm, and closes on Sunday July 19th with a 2pm matinee. Visit the website at www.rockawaytheatrecompany.org. For information or reservations call 718-374-6400 or email: rockawaytheatre@verizon.net

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Frank Loesser, Guys & Dolls, Post Theater, Rockaway Theatre Company, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

KEN HOWARD Wows ’em at The Lambs Club

From time to time my occasional work as a performing arts critic in Texas causes me to miss some important event here  in New York. That was never truer than on last March 9th when Marc Baron, the leader of America’ oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, hosted a memorable Shepherd’s Luncheon at the Club to honor the esteemed President of SAG-AFTRA, actor Ken Howard. But all was not lost when I learned that Mr. Howard’s important union would make available a full internet video of his fascinating remarks on that gala occasion. Thus, as a proud Lamb myself, I had the pleasure of enjoying the event from afar in The Lone Star State, and like any delighted critic, I feel I must weigh in.

KEN HOWARD (left) with MARC BARON Photo: Jim Manley

KEN HOWARD (left) with MARC BARON
Photo: Jim Manley

The vast and impressive acting credentials of Mr. Howard are well known to span stage, screen and of course, television. What I, and the delighted crowd lucky enough to be present that Manhattan day at 3 West 51st Street, were about to learn, was that Mr. Howard is one of the most delightful and articulate raconteurs imaginable. And it was all extemporaneous and sprinkled with delightful song bits associated with his long career in entertainment. Not since years ago when writer & producer, Norman Lear, addressed an American Theatre Critics Association meeting that I attended on the West Coast, have I ever heard a speaker who could so completely engage, amuse and fascinate an audience. Humor was central to his presentation, and he could probably have a great career as a stand-up comic, but as President of SAG-AFTRA, this tall, handsome and impressive man certainly “has more important fish to fry.”

He began his talk with a perfect re-telling of the popular old theatrical adage about how, “The Lambs Club is where actors try to be gentlemen, The Players Club is where gentlemen try to be actors, and the Friars Club is where neither try to be both.” Howard confessed he is at the half-century mark as “an actor trying to be a gentleman,” and the crowd roared with laughter. It wouldn’t be the last time. There was more merriment when Ken used his considerable singing voice to playfully mimic his father’s impressions of assorted singers. If you were not there that day, don’t miss Ken’s hilarious versions of Bing Crosby’s, “When the Blue of the Night,” Jimmy Durante’s “Inky Dinky Doo,” and the Ink Spots’ “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow, and Me)” complete with a falsetto that brought the house down.

Ken shared many fascinating tales of his career, even tracing high school performances in such shows as, Annie Get Your Gun, Carousel, & Oklahoma. In college he shared how he overcame his fear of doing dramatic plays when a friend explained that such productions were “just like musicals without the songs.” Armed with that knowledge, Ken would soon perform in, The Andersonville Trial, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and The Scottish Play, playing the lead in the latter. There were more great stories about working as a page at NBC, winning a fellowship to Yale, studying with such noted teachers as Stella Adler, and even amusing employment as a singing waiter. There would be more laughter for his tale of singing, “I Enjoy Being a Girl” when auditioning for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. But Ken could just as quickly move past the silliness, as the audience could see when he suddenly launched into the flawless delivery of a perfectly memorized and very long passage from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Ken spoke affectionately of working on Broadway with Jill O’Hara when she was starring in Promises, Promises. Happily, Miss O’Hara was one of those present at the luncheon. Of course there were stories of Ken’s classic portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in the legendary Broadway musical (and film), 1776. Another Broadway adventure was Ken’s Tony Award-winning performance in Child’s Play, during a period that featured interesting encounters with the likes of Otto Preminger, Liza Minnelli, and of course, the notorious Broadway impresario, David Merrick.

Before the delightful afternoon ended, Shepherd Baron would present Mr. Howard with a special framed citation on behalf of The Lambs. It announced the designation of Ken Howard as an Honorary Lamb, and the guest of honor was clearly touched as he thanked The Lambs for this distinction. In closing his wonderful remarks, Howard offered tongue-in-cheek thanks for his career to the law schools that had rejected him. Reflecting on his years as an actor, and now President of SAG-AFTRA, he proudly stated, “I’m right for this job. I’m a real actor. This may be the most important thing I’ve done in my life.”

Editor’s Note: The video link mentioned can be found at:

https://www.sagaftra.org/sag-aftra-tv/14411  

The above story can also be found linked at the BroadwayStars website via:

Posted in American Theatre Critics Association, Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Jill O'Hara, Ken Howard, Norman Lear, SAG-AFTRA, The Lambs Club, ThePeoplesCritic.com, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Little LAMB Who Shines on New York Cabaret Scene

She is a member of America’s oldest theatrical club, The Lambs established in 1874, and those fellow Lambs who have been fortunate enough to hear talented singer and cabaret performer, Rita Ellis Hammer in performance, can certainly tell you that she is, without a doubt, “a belter!” I once asked Rita about this as I explained that her powerful voice and delivery sometimes reminds me of musical legend, Ethel Merman. I was not entirely surprised when she then shared with me that she had at one time studied under Miss Merman’s vocal coach, Al Siegel. (Rita also studied under Dinah Shore’s vocal coach, Jimmy Rich). Rita apparently learned her lessons well, and with her impressive voice she can easily fill a room without benefit of microphones. She gets plenty of practice as member and performer at both The Lambs and The Dutch Treat Club.

Rita Ellis Hammer

Rita Ellis Hammer

Rita’s considerable professional experience includes radio, television and, of course, live performance and recording. In radio she performed at age 5 on the Hearn’s Radio Show. She also performed on the Horn & Hardart Radio Hour, and on WNEW Radio Live with Art Ford.

Television work began at age 13 when she won the Silver Cup singing competition on the Joe Bolton Show. (Rita still has that trophy and calls it her Academy Award). She appeared on the Buddy Rogers Show, and was a featured singer on both the Discovery Channel’s Elder Skelter, and ABC’s Galen Drake Show, where she was a Saturday night regular for many months.

Rita has appeared at the famed Copacabana Lounge, and her other live performances included work as Big Band singer with Les & Larry Elgart, many cabaret performances at Delmonico’s Don’t Tell Mama, Judy’s, Danny’s, and even Town Hall’s Cabaret Convention. There has been no shortage of favorable reviews of her work around town in such publications as the New York Post, Backstage, Applause-Applause, The Free Press, Cabaret Scenes, and Time Out NY, where she was spotlighted as “Singer of the Month.”

A favorite memory for Rita is the night of her Press Party at Club 21. What she describes as “a wonderful day,” began in a Sherry Netherlands penthouse with the fashion attentions of an elegant woman flown in by Rogers & Cowen P.R. to consult on exactly what Rita would wear to her special party. Sometime late that day she had a pleasant brief encounter with Edward G. Robinson and regretted she couldn’t give him a lift to his destination as she would be late for the party, and he would be late to the theater for his performance in, The Middle of the Night.

At Club 21 Rita was introduced to such press icons as, Walter Winchell, Earl Wilson, Nick Kenny, and Harriet Van Horn. She appeared in many of their columns more than once, and still has the clippings to prove it. In the years that followed Rita has had many more adventures. Get her started and she may tell you about volunteering to perform in hospital AIDS wards, about meeting music legend, Paul Whitman, or perhaps about sharing a sandwich with Boris Karloff.

For those not able to see her in live performance, Rita has a wonderful CD of classic songs from cinema titled, “You Ought to Be in Pictures: Movie Tunes, Act 1.” Let’s hope there will soon be an Act II.

 

 

 

Posted in BroadwayStars.com, New York Cabaret, Nightclubs, Rita Ellis Hammer | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

THE MUSIC MAN: Fresh as Ever at Theatre Under the Stars

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Anthony Crane as Harold Hill and Sara Jean Ford as Marian Paroo with cast. Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars.
Anthony Crane as Harold Hill and Sara Jean Ford as Marian Paroo with cast. Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars.

 

Like the seasons of the year, there are some things in life that just seem to keep returning with a certain regularity. Thankfully, Meredith Willson’s brilliant musical, The Music Man, is a case in point. It would be rare for a couple of years to go by without a production of the show popping up somewhere nearby, and for a current example we have the very wonderful edition now being presented at Houston’s Hobby Center. Splendidly directed by Bruce Lumpkin, it beautifully captures the small town warmth and humor of the piece, while beautifully wrapping it all in the countless delights of Willson’s rich and varied musical score. (Musical Director, Jeff Rizzo, quickly showed his skill conducting the lush and lovely Overture).

Anthony Crane as Harold Hill. Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars.

Anthony Crane as Harold Hill. Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars.

The simple yet creative scenic designs of Martin Christoffel seem to outline this cheerful world, while the colorful costumes of Colleen Grady combine with the bright lighting designs of Richard Winkler to produce the warm and inviting hometown atmosphere of River City, Iowa in 1912. For many of us, it’s a place we would love to be, even if just for these two delightful hours.

The lighthearted plot, (familiar to many from the classic film starring Robert Preston in the title role), brings us the misadventures of traveling salesman and notorious con artist, Harold Hill, played here with high energy and comic flair, by J. Anthony Crane. Hill arrives in town by train during the highly unusual opening number, “Rock Island,” which neatly captures the locomotive tempo via a carload of singing traveling salesmen.

Anthony Crane as Harold Hill and Ensemble students from TUTS’ Humphreys School of Musical Theatre. Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars.

Anthony Crane as Harold Hill and Ensemble students from TUTS’ Humphreys School of Musical Theatre. Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars.

One of their number, salesman Charlie Cowell, alerts the others to rumors of a notorious salesman calling himself Professor Harold Hill, and giving local salesmen a bad reputation with his unethical sales methods.

Peter Chursin as Tommy Djilas with Ensemble students from TUTS’ Humphreys School of Musical Theatre. Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars.

Peter Chursin as Tommy Djilas with Ensemble students from TUTS’ Humphreys School of Musical Theatre. Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars.

Dink O’Neal brings bombastic fun to the role of Cowell. It is not long before Harold is circulating in River City to convince the townsfolk of their need for a boys marching band, with the ultimate goal of selling them band uniforms and instruments before skipping town himself without teaching anyone a single note of music. Complicating matters is Harold’s encounter with the town’s young music teacher and librarian, Marian Paroo (Played here by the lovely and silken-voiced, Sara Jane Ford). Mrs. Paroo, Marian’s feisty Irish mother, is eager to get her daughter married and is delightfully played by Mary Vanarsdel.

Sara Jean Ford as Marian Paroo, J. Anthony Crane as Harold Hill, Christopher Wolff as Winthrop Paroo and Mary VanArsdel as Mrs. Paroo. Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars..

Sara Jean Ford as Marian Paroo, J. Anthony Crane as Harold Hill, Christopher Wolff as Winthrop Paroo and Mary VanArsdel as Mrs. Paroo. Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars..

As Marian’s lisping little brother, Winthrop, Christopher Wolff brings a stunning, high soprano voice to the party that could etch the most delicate crystal with its powerful purity during numbers like the “Wells Fargo Wagon,” and “Gary, Indiana.”

Kristen Paulicelli as Zaneeta Shinn and Ensemble Ladies. Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars.

Kristen Paulicelli as Zaneeta Shinn and Ensemble Ladies. Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars.

The ensemble chorus that supports such showstoppers could not be better, and that was evident right from the tongue-in-cheek fun of the townspeople singing the opening song, “Iowa Stubborn.” Throughout the show the whirling and eye-popping choreography is beautifully executed in one number after another by this very talented cast. (Choreographer, Michelle Gaudette).

As he proceeds with his scam, Hill finds a compatriot in an old friend named Marcellus (Dylan Goodwin). They pair pleasantly for the reflective, “Sadder-But-Wiser Girl,” and Mr. Goodwin later lights up the stage with the lively and nutty Act II number, “Shipoopi.” Mr. Crane gives us a suitably devilish Harold Hill with the tune, “Trouble,” and explodes with energy leading the youngsters in the familiar, “Seventy-six Trombones.” But there is quite a vocal contrast when his very adequate voice is paired for duets with the soprano magnificence of Miss Ford. The bird-like purity of her voice brings dreamy excellence to, “My White Knight,” “Goodnight My Someone,” and the memorable, “Till There Was You.” There is also a charming trio when Marian joins her young piano student, Amaryllis (Annie Shouse), and Mrs. Paroo as they sing, “The Piano Lesson.”

THE SCHOOL BOARD: Thom Culcasi as Ewart Dunlop, Charles Swan as Oliver Hix, Joseph Torello as Olin Britt and Phil Gold as Jacey Squires. Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars.

THE SCHOOL BOARD: Thom Culcasi as Ewart Dunlop, Charles Swan as Oliver Hix, Joseph Torello as Olin Britt and Phil Gold as Jacey Squires. Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars.

The musical is full of delightful characters such as the four clashing gents on the local School Board. With Harold’s wily help, they find unity by forming a very mellow barber shop quartet that offers terrific renditions of “Goodnight Ladies,” and “Lida Rose.” That latter number was joined in such exquisite counterpoint with Marian’s, “Will I Ever Tell You?” that it must be considered a musical highlight of the production. And speaking of Marian, Professor Hill serenades her in the library with a somewhat whiny, “Marian the Librarian,” that is far from a musical highlight of the show, but evolves into some of the best choreography as the youngsters in the library come slowly to life from reading their books to looking like a lively dance scene from West Side Story.

Kevin Cooney as Mayor George Shinn and Chesley Ann Santoro as Eulalie Shinn with full cast.  Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars.

Kevin Cooney as Mayor George Shinn and Chesley Ann Santoro as Eulalie Shinn with full cast. Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars.

For comic relief we have the hilarity of the town’s blustering Mayor Shinn (Kevin Cooney), his nutty wife, Eulalie (Chesley Ann Santoro), and her band of Pickalittle Ladies preparing a very amateur theatrical for the town’s 4th of July festivities.

Chesley Ann Santoro as Eulalie Shinn, Liz Curtin as Alma Hix, Sara Jean Ford as Marian Paroo Ensemble. Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars.

Chesley Ann Santoro as Eulalie Shinn, Liz Curtin as Alma Hix, Sara Jean Ford as Marian Paroo Ensemble. Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars.

Their gossiping song, “Pickalittle,” is a tongue twisting treasure. For youthful romance we have the Shinn’s teenage daughter, Zanetta (pretty Kristen Paulicelli) and her crush on handsome town rowdy, Tommy Djilas, played here by very talented dancer, Peter Chursin.

The fun never really stops, and Act II has been said to be even more delightful than Act I. But any way you slice it, this 1957 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, deserves its place as an American musical theatre classic. Don’t make the mistake of those who might think of it as a corny piece of Americana. It is so very much more!

THE MUSIC MAN continues through May 17th at Houston’s Hobby Center main stage with performances on Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm, and a final performance next Sunday evening at 7:30 pm. For tickets visit the website at www.TUTS.com, or call (713) 558-8887 locally and (888) 558-3882 (outside of Houston).

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Conroe Courier, HERE HOUSTON-Lifestyle & Entertainment, HereHouston.com, Houston Community Newspapers online, Houston's Hobby Center, Meredith Willson, The Music Man, The Villager Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

A Woodlands Weekend of Wonders from Gaga, Bennett & “Chicago”

CHICAGO poster jpg
CHICAGO lights up stage at Lone Star College-Montgomery
*Courtesy Photo*

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Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga PHOTO: Courtesy of The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion

Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga
PHOTO: Courtesy of The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion

Last weekend approached with ominous Houston-area Friday morning thunderstorms that seemed a bad omen for the much-anticipated Friday night concert of Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Who could have guessed that by that evening the sky would clear while pleasant breezes and a crescent moon would greet the huge crowd looking forward to the pair’s now famous interpretations of the American Songbook? Yet another weekend surprise awaited me as I would discover a miraculous production of the classic musical, CHICAGO, presented by Lone Star College-Montgomery in The Woodlands. Both events were on such a high plane of excellence they have earned the right to be spoken of in the same breath with this critique.

Lady Gaga & Tony Bennett "Cheek to Cheek" Photo: Courtesy of PBS

Lady Gaga & Tony Bennett “Cheek to Cheek”
Photo: Courtesy of PBS

At the Pavilion I had wisely chosen a comfortable grass location at the front of the Great Lawn. It could not have been a more beautiful night to listen to beautiful music under the stars, and both Mr. Bennett and Miss Gaga were in fine voice for the occasion. It was hard to believe that 14 years had passed since I first reviewed Tony Bennett at the Pavilion in concert with k. d. lang during August of 2001, just one month before the tragic events of 9/11. That concert took place on Mr. Bennett’s 75th birthday, which suggests the great star’s 89th birthday will arrive later this year. Bennett & GagaFor anyone attending this energized and sensational performance, that fact would seem all but impossible. The normal aging process seems to have mercifully passed him by, that great voice remains intact, and the pairing with youthful and talented Miss Gaga seems a perfect way to bring out the best of both performers.

The recorded voice of the late Frank Sinatra began the program describing Bennett as, “The greatest singer in the world today,” and these many years later Tony was ready to validate that claim as the night progressed. Then he introduced his co-star as, “The most popular singer in the world today: Lady Gaga.” The crowd cheered, and it wouldn’t be the last time.

Pavilion patrons arrived early to capture the few remaining seats.

Pavilion patrons arrived early to capture the few remaining seats.

The pair looked as elegant as they sounded with Tony in a crisp and cool white dinner jacket, and Gaga in an endless assortment of colorful wigs, glittering gowns, sparkling jewels, lots of feathers, and headdresses that would make Cher jealous. The pair would offer lush duets of, “Anything Goes,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “They All Laughed,” “Firefly,” “I Won’t Dance,” an enchanting, “Nature Boy,” and a delicate rendition of, “But Beautiful.” There was a cute, “The Lady is a Tramp,” with Gaga strutting about in the sexy style of Mae West.

Mr. Bennett’s winning solos included, “For Once in My Life,” “Sing You Sinners,” “The Good Life,” “When You’re Smiling,” “Stepping Out With My Baby,” “The Lady’s in Love,” “In My Solitude,” a Sinatra Centennial tribute (with “I’ve Got the World on a String,” and “In the Wee Small Hours”), and then, of course, Bennett’s signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” The audience roared its approval.

Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga Photo: Courtesy of PBS

Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga
Photo: Courtesy of PBS

For her very elegant part, Gaga’s solos included a seductive and Latin-flavored, “Bang! Bang!” a sensational, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and a perhaps over-extended and exotic interpretation of, “Lush Life,” that sadly closed with the star sounding less like a Lady when she unexplainably dropped the “F-Bomb” on a night that had been otherwise free of coarse language on the Pavilion stage. Score that in the mistake column for an otherwise elegant evening.

Joey Sheaff and members of CHICAGO cast at Lone Star College-Montgomery

Joey Sheaff and members of CHICAGO cast at Lone Star College-Montgomery

Meanwhile, in a mistake-free zone on the other side of The Woodlands, audiences were prepared for some saucy content as Lone Star College-Montgomery presented a thoroughly brilliant production of the John Kander/Fred Ebb musical classic, CHICAGO. The school’s Dance, Drama, and Music Departments had combined forces to produce what is arguably one of the top local productions I have ever seen during nearly twenty years as a performing arts critic in the Houston area.

CHICAGO Cast Photo: Lone Star College-Montgomery

CHICAGO Cast
Photo: Lone Star College-Montgomery

It was sensational on every level, and we can only hope director, Tim Campbell does not get whisked away to Broadway, because if this revival had opened there it would have been a surefire hit. My only regret is that it was performed one weekend only, but I am thankful my friend Dennis O’Connor at Stage Right Productions had alerted me that this was a “Don’t Miss” show. He was right about that.

CHICAGO Cast Photo: Lone Star College-Montgomery

CHICAGO Cast
Photo: Lone Star College-Montgomery

The staging was slick and classy (Scenic & Lighting designer, Rob Kreps) with a set of brightly illuminated risers across the stage that would be home for much of the action, as well as for the wonderful 13-piece onstage orchestra conducted by Cristina Mendoza. (Music Director, Dr. Mark Marotto). The jazzy and legendary choreography of the late, great, Bob Fosse is brought brilliantly to life by choreographer, Travis Prokop, and the very talented Student Dance Ensemble. I hope Mr. Fosse was smiling down from above at the creative perfection this cast brought to his marvelous dance designs.

Isabelle Yost & cast of CHICAGO Photo: Lone Star College-Montgomery

Isabelle Yost & cast of CHICAGO
Photo: Lone Star College-Montgomery

Joey Sheaff & Christine Saenz in CHICAGO Photo: Lone Star College-Montgomery

Joey Sheaff & Christine Saenz in CHICAGO
Photo: Lone Star College-Montgomery

The delightful and satirical plot is based on the 1926 play of the same name by Maurine Dallas Watkins with its descriptions of the courtroom and prison corruption that often turned criminals of the era into tabloid celebrities. Velma Kelly (brilliantly played here by beautiful Isabelle Yost), and Roxie Hart (another brilliant portrayal by lovely Christine Saenz) are two accused murderers conniving their way to fame and fortune with the aid of shrewd and slick lawyer, Billy Flynn. (A devilishly satirical performance from handsome, Joey Sheaff).

Ana Ramirez-Morales & Isabelle Yost in CHICAGO Photo: Lone Star College-Montgomery

Ana Ramirez-Morales & Isabelle Yost in CHICAGO
Photo: Lone Star College-Montgomery

Victor Suarez & Christine Saenz in CHICAGO Photo: Lone Star College-Montgomery

Victor Suarez & Christine Saenz in CHICAGO
Photo: Lone Star College-Montgomery

Rounding out this really flawless cast we have Ana Ramirez-Morales as the deal-making prison matron, “Mama” Morton, Lauren Salazar as the always-optimistic reporter, Mary Sunshine, and Victor Suarez with a subtle and amusing performance as Roxie’s luckless and clueless husband, Amos Hart.

Lauren Salazar as Mary Sunshine in CHICAGO Photo: Lone Star College-Montgomery

Lauren Salazar as Mary Sunshine in CHICAGO
Photo: Lone Star College-Montgomery

Mama Morton’s, “When You’re Good to Mama,” Mary Sunshine’s “There’s a Little Bit of Good,” and Amos’ “Mr. Cellophane,” are all stand-out numbers from these three vocally talented performers.

CHICAGO Velma in the MistBut let us return to our talented lead performers who never ceased to amaze. Arriving onstage looking like a young Shirley MacLaine, Miss Yost lights up the room immediately when she ignites the show while leading the cast in the exciting, “All That Jazz.” She is luminous!

Christine Saenz as Roxie in CHICAGO Photo: Lone Star College-Montgomery

Christine Saenz as Roxie in CHICAGO
Photo: Lone Star College-Montgomery

Her co-star, Miss Saenz, is every inch her equal and quickly demonstrates as much with a solid and sexy performance of the seductive, “Funny Honey.” Seductive is the operative word for the smooth, polished and super-cool look of the entire production. Adding tremendous fun to it all is the deliciously suave and cocky performance of Mr. Sheaff as the con-artist lawyer, Flynn. Rarely have I seen an actor have this much fun with a role. He was a comic delight, most especially during the spectacular, “Razzle Dazzle” number, and that was just one of the many show stoppers that included, “Cell Block Tango,” “All I Care About,” “We Both Reached for the Gun,” “Me and My Baby,” “When Thelma Takes the Stand,” and the haunting and melodic, “Nowadays.” All of this was accomplished with such a perfectly professional look and feel to the show, it was easy to forget being in a college theater. The superb performance of the orchestra, snazzy costumes of designer, Macy Perrone, perfect sound designs of Bryan Woodall, and the choreographic splendor of the dancing, all combined to seal the deal in making this production certainly one of the most memorable ever presented in the Houston area. Bravo!

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, CHICAGO the Musical, Conroe Courier, HERE Lifestyle & Entertainment, HereHouston.com, Houston Community Newspapers online, Lady Gaga, Lone Star College-Montgomery, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com, Tony Bennett, YourHoustonNews.com | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

TOMMY TUNE AWARDS : “The Biggest Celebration”

The Kinkaid School’s A CHORUS LINE cast performance (Best Musical)

The Kinkaid School’s A CHORUS LINE cast performance (Best Musical)

Whenever he was distressed about disturbing current events in the news, it was not uncommon for my late father to announce, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket!” If he could have been with me for the recent Tommy Tune Awards program in Houston’s Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, I’m sure he would have found cause for much greater enthusiasm about where this world is headed. That optimistic enthusiasm was immediately evident as one entered the buzzing excitement of the Sarofim Theatre and its soaring lobby for this much-anticipated annual event produced by Theatre Under the Stars. Celebrating the year’s finest high school musical productions from Houston and the surrounding area, the event showcased some 45 school’s that participated in this year’s competition. The many hundreds of multi-talented and beautifully dressed young people filling that theater looked like a pretty good future to me.

Tommy Tune

Tommy Tune

As tall, lanky and graceful as ever, the seemingly ageless Mr. Tune bounced on stage in a sensational crimson suit as he opened the proceedings with an elegant tap dance sampler of tunes like “Fascinating Rhythm,” “ ’S Wonderful,” and “I Got Rhythm.” (Boy, does he ever!) A Houston boy himself, he greeted the audience with, “Hi Y’all. I’m Home!” and then declared the evening’s event, “The biggest celebration of live theater on this planet.”

Next it was on to a night of explosive youthful energy and exceptional talent as the eight schools nominated for Best Musical each had an opportunity to do a show-stopping number from their nominated productions. The many other individual awards (detailed here) were presented in between each of these astonishing production numbers. First up, from Houston Christian High School, was an opulent scene from PIPPIN with its mystical circus, dramatic tableaus, flying hoops, fluttering feather boas, and Broadway-worthy Big-Top staging.

Alec Michael Ryan (Best Leading Actor) as Lawrence in Klein Oak High School’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels performance with cast.

Alec Michael Ryan (Best Leading Actor) as Lawrence in Klein Oak High School’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels performance with cast.

Next came the whirling grace of fine choreography in Klein Oak High School’s selection from DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS. A very rockin’, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” from Pearland High School’s GUYS & DOLLS had a few moments of microphone failure, but featured a nice finish with the title tune from that show. From Second Baptist High School the audience was treated to a magical transformation with the ballroom scene from its lush CINDERELLA production, and there was more magic when

Audrey McKee (Best Leading Actress) as Mary Poppins in Friendswood High School’s Mary Poppins performance with cast.

Audrey McKee (Best Leading Actress) as Mary Poppins in Friendswood High School’s Mary Poppins performance with cast.

Friendswood High School took the stage with the dazzling tap dance glory of its “Step in Time,” from MARY POPPINS. Those dancers looked like they could substitute for Radio City’s Rockettes!

Following the intermission, the eager young audience heard some kind words of encouragement from the 2010 Tommy Tune Award winner for Best Actress in a Leading Role, Stephanie Styles. Miss Styles is currently playing the lead role of Katherine in Disney’s first North American Tour of the Tony Award winning musical, NEWSIES. That show will arrive for Houston performances beginning on May 19th. Other special appearances included Stanton Welch, Artistic director of the Houston Ballet (to present the Best Choreography Award), Tommy Tune Orchestra Conductor & Musical Director, Michael Moricz (to present the Best Musical Direction Award), and renowned actor and Houston native, Jim Parsons, (Big Bang Theory etc.) who addressed the crowd by video expressing great appreciation for the theatrical training he received here, and recalling the advice of one teacher who taught him that, “Someone else’s success is not your failure.”

As Act II got underway, Klein High School offered a “One Day More,” from LES MISERABLES School Edition that was full of gleaming power and thrilling vocal counterpoints. Next, Stratford High School presented the charming number, “Put on a Happy Face,” from its BYE BYE BIRDIE production. It produced happy faces throughout the theater. The final Best Musical nominee was The Kinkaid School with its performance of a golden and glowing, “One” from A CHORUS LINE. There could not have been a more thrilling and spectacular conclusion to the competition, and the school would be rewarded with the evening’s top prize of Best Musical. Speaking of spectacular, there were two heart-stopping moments. As young Harrison Poe scurried onto the stage to receive his award as Best Supporting Actor, he briefly tumbled into the orchestra pit, but was cheerfully unhurt during his smiling acceptance. Winner of the Best Leading Actor Award, Alec Michael Ryan, was so excited on receiving his crystal trophy that if slipped from his grasp and shattered on the floor. Here’s hoping the generous Mr. Tune will quickly arrange for a replacement.

Tommy Tune Scholarship Recipients with Bruce Lumpkin (TUTS Artistic Director), Tommy Tune and John Breckenridge (TUTS President and CEO).

Tommy Tune Scholarship Recipients with Bruce Lumpkin (TUTS Artistic Director), Tommy Tune and John Breckenridge (TUTS President and CEO).

Numerous scholarships were awarded and there was much more entertainment thanks to the creative brilliance of the aforementioned Mr. Moricz. In his role as Musical Director he composed both music and lyrics for three stunning and original musical highlights of the night. First there was a Best Leading Actor Medley featuring each of the nominees in that category. Next came the Best Leading Actress Medley, again featuring each of the ladies nominated. Finally, the show closed with the thrilling, Eyes on the Goal that brought all the evening’s nominees on stage for a grand finale. It was grand indeed! What the logistics must have been for hundreds of students from different schools all over the area to learn and rehearse these three complex production numbers can only be imagined. Bravo!

A nine-time Tony winner himself, Tommy Tune with be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award this June at the Tony Awards in New York. Also in June, on Sunday the 21st, Houston’s ABC-TV channel 13 (KTRK) will televise the Tommy Tune Awards with a 2-hour special at 12 noon.

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Conroe Courier, HERE Lifestyle & Entertainment, HereHouston.com, Houston Community Newspapers online, Houston's Hobby Center, The Courier Columns, The Villager Columns, Theatre Under the Stars, ThePeoplesCritic.com, Tommy Tune Awards | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment