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 , , , | 5 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

Houston Symphony plus Peking Acrobats=Pure Magic


 

Peking Acrobats PHOTO: Ted Washington

Peking Acrobats
PHOTO: Ted Washington

For the orchestra’s part, musical selections accompanying the acrobatics included exciting performances of Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance, Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and Khachaturian’s Suite from Masquerade, all under the able baton of conductor, Robert Franz. The music was splendid, but center stage on this night clearly belonged to the amazing Peking Acrobats. The atmosphere was clearly that of a grand circus, and while there were no real animals involved, the exotically costumed “lions” that performed the fantastic feats of the opening Lion Dance would dazzle the audience right out of the gate. A segment of the program called, “Squeeze Play,” was clowning at its best as two of the young men in the cast had the audience roaring with laughter while one of them repeatedly found extraordinary ways to squeeze himself in and out of a very small metal cylinder. There would be exotic oriental drumming for, The Sounds of Rolling Walnuts sequence, and mind-boggling balancing tricks during the Aerial Chiffon display. Closing Act I of the program was an incredible Kung Fu Ceremony delivered by a large group of young men who appeared to be at the peak of physical perfection and athletic prowess during the many acrobatic tricks they performed.

Peking Acrobats PHOTO: Tom Meinhold Photography

Peking Acrobats
PHOTO: Tom Meinhold Photography

Following intermission, another group of athletic male performers demonstrated the mysterious art of hoop diving in a segment titled Diving Derring-Do. The ladies quickly followed with more incredible balancing stunts during the Fantasia sequence. In The Bull and the Tiger segment that came next, two huge ceremonial drums were brought on stage and the two drummers could certainly have qualified for the Drummer’s Olympics. By the way, in addition to the full symphony orchestra, there was a separate smaller orchestra with this company that accompanied many parts of the program playing traditional Chinese instruments.

Perhaps the most thrilling acrobatic demonstrations were three that capped the evening. A gentleman with amazing gifts of balance and strength performed the astounding In the High Chair segment that eventually had him high atop a huge stack of large wooden chairs and balancing himself upside down there on just one hand. It was actually frightening to watch as the audience collectively held its breath until roaring approval at the trick’s conclusion. Not to be outdone, five lovely young women followed that performance with a dramatic chair-stacking trick of their own that once again had the audience breathless.

Peking Acrobats PHOTO: Tom Meinhold Photography

Peking Acrobats
PHOTO: Tom Meinhold Photography

Then came the stunning finale of the Bicycle Pagoda and the Human Pyramid. They say “seeing is believing,” but I’m still finding it hard to believe that I saw eleven acrobats, balanced on each other’s shoulders, while all on one bicycle riding around the stage! Allow me to use that most overworked word: AWESOME!

Posted in BroadwayStars.com, Classical Music, Concert Reviews, Conroe Courier, Elgar, Houston Community Newspapers online, Houston Symphony, Khachaturian, Peking Acrobats, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com, Wagner | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

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