A Talented “CINDERELLA” Anchors John Cooper Production

Natalie Holley as CINDERELLA and Jack Whitney as the Prince COURTESY PHOTO

Natalie Holley as CINDERELLA and Jack Whitney as the Prince

[ Click any photo to enlarge. ]

As much as I enjoy my work reviewing professional performing arts productions of all kinds, there is something refreshing about now and then getting back to basics and attending a fine school production full of eager youngsters trying their wings in the theatre. This weekend’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s CINDERELLA at the John Cooper School is a perfect example. An affluent private school, with an affluent student population, John Cooper spares no expense in mounting comparatively lavish musicals. From the printed show programs and posters to the school’s exceptional theater complex, it is first class all the way at John Cooper.

The cast of John Cooper School's CINDERELLA *Courtesy Photo*

The cast of John Cooper School’s CINDERELLA
*Courtesy Photo*

This CINDERELLA brings lots of colorful fun to the school’s state-of-the-art stage. And behind the scenes there is full complement of top-notch facilities that include scenic design shops, rehearsal areas, costume collection storage, make-up rooms, and of course a full orchestra pit where Music Director/Conductor, Rae Moses, presided over the 15-member orchestra that even included seven student musicians.

Cinderella's Stepmother (Emily Moses) attempts to flatter Lionel, the Royal Steward (T. J. Gill) *COURTESY PHOTO*

Cinderella’s Stepmother (Emily Moses) attempts to flatter Lionel, the Royal Steward (T. J. Gill) *COURTESY PHOTO*

Maddie Bergeron (left) and Payton Russell as Cinderella's stepsisters. *Courtesy Photo*

Maddie Bergeron (left) and Payton Russell as Cinderella’s stepsisters.
*Courtesy Photo*

The large and talented cast includes Emily Moses as the wacky Stepmother, Maddie Bergeron and Payton Russell as her equally wacky daughters, earnest and handsome Jack Whitney as Prince Christopher, T.J. Gill as Lionel, the very pompous Steward to the Prince, Kylie Melodick as Queen Constantina and Salvador Recio as King Maximillian. Mallory Bechtel brings a pleasant singing voice to the role of the Fairy Godmother. A twenty-seven member ensemble cast brought great vocal support and splendid dancing (choreographer, Elizabeth DeMonico) to many of the R&H tunes that included “The Prince is Giving a Ball,” the, “Gavotte,” “Loneliness of Evening,” “Cinderella Waltz,” and the finale of “There’s Music in You,” led by Miss Bechtel.

Shining above all of this is a perfectly cast Cinderella in Natalie Holley. While many of these eager young performers have a way to go in learning to sing perfectly on key while avoiding over-acting and the rushing of lines that become difficult to hear, Miss Holley offers what appears to be a highly trained voice that clearly anchors this student production. A senior at John Cooper, she is President of the Tri Music Honor Society, and was last year’s winner in Houston of the prestigious Tommy Tune Award as Best Supporting Actress. In this production she glows in numbers like, “In My Own Little Corner,” and “A Lovely Night.” She joins Miss Bechtel for the optimistic, “It’s Possible,” and then pairs nicely with the Prince for “The Sweetest Sounds,” and, “Ten Minutes Ago.”

Gay period costumes for the villagers and lavish costumes for the Royal Ball were beautifully designed by Laura Targett. Scenic Designer, Chasen Whitson, provides a pleasant fairy tale world from village to ballroom. Sound and audio designs may need a bit of tweaking in conjunction with orchestral volumes to be sure that all dialogue is easily heard by the audience. There was one unexpected moment that I found amusing in the context of The John Cooper School’s prosperous population. There is a scene where Cinderella and her sisters are debating about where money comes from. When it was then declared that, “Money doesn’t grow on trees, —It’s inherited!” the audience roared with laughter.

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Houston Community Newspapers online, John Cooper School, Rodgers & Hammerstein, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Intimacy and Steve Lippia Triumph in MCPAS Celebration of SINATRA

STEVE LIPPIA Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

I had a wonderful surprise last Saturday night at Conroe’s elegant Crighton Theatre. It had been just exactly one week since my reviewing a sensational Sinatra Centennial concert at Houston’s Jones Hall when the orchestra’s very special guest vocalists were Tony DeSare and Montego Glover. It would be a memorable celebration of the music of Old Blue Eyes (review available at www.ThePeoplesCritic.com), and as I headed to the Crighton I mistakenly thought that perhaps the smaller house and orchestra might seem to diminish the Montgomery County Performing Arts Tribute to FRANK SINATRA that I was about to attend. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The MCPAS event featured a magnificent 10-piece big band and starred powerhouse Las Vegas vocalist, Steve Lippia. No one could have better served to represent the wide-ranging talent of the late legendary crooner whose 100th birthday is being widely celebrated this year.

STEVE LIPPIA Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

The evening would be more than just a concert from a master vocalist, it would be a virtual seminar on the memorable career and music of Mr. Sinatra. Lippia opened with a jazzy, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and then began describing Sinatra’s great influence on music with 1500 recordings. He took the audience back to 1939 while bringing crisp and elegant articulation to a soaring and smooth rendition of Frank’s first hit, “All, or Nothing at All.” I was immediately struck by the artist’s seemingly effortless control and phrasing, both hallmarks of the Sinatra style. There were stories of Frank’s boyhood Hoboken dreams of one day singing in the visible Big Apple across the Hudson. Those dreams would begin to come true when Harry James brought Sinatra on board with his band. The lush warmth of Lippia’s, “I’ll Never Smile Again,” was solid and seductive, while beautifully accented with a superb trombone solo from the band.

Next we moved on to the Tommy Dorsey era of Sinatra’s career with Lippia’s “Without a Song,” beautifully displaying the kind of breath control and phrasing that Dorsey had taught his star vocalist. That skill was especially notable in the delicacy of delivery for some of the rather long notes closing particular phrases in that lovely song. As Lippia launched into the beautiful, “Don’t Worry ‘bout Me,” I began to realize why this concert was working in a very different, yet very wonderful way, relative to what I had experienced the week before in Jones Hall. Here it was the intimacy of this beautiful old 1930 Crighton Theatre. It allowed the audience a special connection with the star and the orchestra that a huge auditorium simply could not provide. Lippia even displayed the kind of confident and commanding stage presence one could associate with Sinatra, adding elements of humor as well: “I’d like to thank Frank for making all of my songs such huge hits!” He even joked about the good old days “when adults wrote songs with amazing things like melodies and harmonies.”

STEVE LIPPIA Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

Classy songs seemed to cascade one upon another, and with that much class, Lippia’s black suit over black tee-shirt should have rated the classic tuxedo Sinatra would have worn. My only other complaint would be the heavy focus given to the fine piano player while Lippia sang a wonderful rendition of the classic saloon song, “One For My Baby.” A faintly tinkling piano is required for that song, but it is not meant to be a costar in this tale of heartbreak. On the other hand, Lippia’s resounding, “Old Man River,” could bring a tear to the eye, and I have never heard the intro to that song done with such perfect clarity. There was a swinging, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” with more amazingly seamless phrasing, with another great trombone solo.

STEVE LIPPIA Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

Then it was on to the 1950’s and Sinatra’s work with the great arranger, Nelson Riddle. A dreamy “Summer Wind,” was gently romantic and ended in a whisper. There was a soaring, “Strangers in the Night,” that could just about lift the audience heavenward right out of their seats. And speaking of soaring, “Come Fly With me,” was another winner as Lippia reflected on Sinatra’s years with the Rat Pack in Las Vegas, and then knocked out a sensational, “Fly Me to the Moon.” Billy Joel’s tender, “Just the Way You Are,” would follow, and a commanding “Luck Be a Lady,” was more about supreme talent than luck.

As the end drew near, the sheer elegance of Lippia’s performance of, “My Way,” erased any thought that no one could ever sing like Sinatra. Further proof came in encores of a hand-clapping, “New York, New York,” and the perfect nightcap of, “Put Your Dreams Away.” I found myself with a dream of my own. If Frank Sinatra could have been on the stage that night and somehow magically sung with the voice of Steve Lippia, no one would have thought that anything was wrong.

Next up for the Montgomery County Performing Arts Society will be the YOUNG TEXAS ARTISTS FINALISTS’ CONCERT and AWARDS on March 12, 2016 at 7:30 P.M. For tickets and information call 936-441-7469.

Posted in BroadwayStars.com, Concert Reviews, Conroe Courier, Crighton Theatre, Frank Sinatra, Houston Community Newspapers online, Montgomery County Performing Arts Society, Sinatra's Centennial, Steve Lippia, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Talent Overcomes Audio Problems in Class Act’s FIDDLER

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF graphicThe consistent excellence of musical performances from Class Act Productions are well known here in Montgomery County and The Woodlands, Texas. Over at the Nancy Bock Center for the Performing Arts that excellence was again on display as the group’s recent production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF welcomed the first day of November; but that display was not without its unexpected problems. The events that followed would once again show that these talented youngsters know only too well that, “The show must go on!” Happily, it did, and it was very wonderful by almost any measure.

With a Book by Joseph Stein (based on the Sholem Aleichem stories), this Tony Award-winning Broadway musical had the wise and witty lyrics of Sheldon Harnick, the lush and memorable musical score of Jerry Bock, and the charming dance designs of legendary choreographer, Jerome Robbins. No wonder it became an instant classic after opening in New York in 1964. In this current edition, beautifully directed by Class Act founder/producer, Keith Brumfield, we had elegant choreography from designer, Tony Smith, and the fine Musical Direction of Rae Moses conducting the Fiddler on the Roof Orchestra.

With an appropriately clean and simple set (designer, Jonathan Shelledy), the story takes place in the poor Russian village of Anatevka and revolves largely around an endearing peasant named Tevye (William Hahn).

Mother Golde (Murphy Baker at left) and the daughters portrayed by Gabi Martinez, Abby Tozer and Payton Russell. PHOTO: Len Bates

Mother Golde (Murphy Baker at left) and the daughters portrayed by Gabi Martinez, Abby Tozer and Payton Russell.
PHOTO: Len Bates

Tevye is a hard working milkman struggling to support his five daughters and his determined wife Golde (Murphy Baker) who is intent on good marriages for their eligible daughters. Golde enlists the aid of the local Matchmaker, Yente, and Cecilia Herrington brings comic flair and great fun to her amusing portrayal of that character. This tale’s enduring appeal derives from its powerful depiction of the universal conflicts and changes between older and younger generations, as seen here between Tevye, his wife and their three eldest daughters, Tzeitel (Gabi Martinez), Hodel (Abby Tozer), and Chava (Payton Russell). The girls each have romantic notions of love and marriage that come into conflict with the strong cultural traditions of this Jewish community. The theme easily becomes a parable for our own, or for any age, as is made profoundly clear in the exquisite opening number, “Tradition.” It is beautifully performed here by Tevye, Golde and the full cast skillfully delivering the haunting counterpoints of this beautiful score.

William Hahn as Tevye PHOTO: Len Bates

William Hahn as Tevye
PHOTO: Len Bates

There were charming and authentic peasant costumes (designer, Caroline Zirilli), delicate and whirling choreography (designer, Tony Smith), and right from the start, Mr. Hahn’s rich and powerful baritone voice was a highlight of the production. It would also be its salvation before the performance was over.

The show glistens with memorable melodies. The daughters light up the stage with the playful joy of “Matchmaker,” and with his rich voice an commanding stage presence, Hahn beautifully captures Tevye’s longing for a better life during the classic, “If I Were a Rich Man.” Some scenes are even aptly punctuated with short musical motifs during brief and shadowy appearances of a real Fiddler (musically talented, Amelie Hidajat). The spiritual warmth of the “Sabbath Prayer,” so wonderfully performed here by the cast, is probably as close to a religious experience as we could hope to have without visiting a house of worship.

Tevye soon meets up with wealthy local butcher, Lazar Wolf (a fine performance from Aidan Stock). During their encounter at the local tavern, Tevye learns the butcher want to marry his daughter, Tzeitel. The cast brings rowdy joy in song and dance to the beautifully staged “To Life,” that celebrates Tevye’s agreement to the marriage, but he soon learns that his daughter Tzeitel is determined to marry her childhood friend, the tailor Motel (Jason Leach). In “Tevye’s Monologue,” he talks with God about how to resolve this conflict, and finally consents to the marriage with Motel prompting the prospective groom’s cheerful, “Miracle of Miracles.”

Katie Stobbe as the ghost of Grandma Tzeitel (Make-up by Amy Weaver) PHOTO: Len Bates

Katie Stobbe as the ghost of Grandma Tzeitel
(Make-up by Amy Weaver)
PHOTO: Len Bates

Lazar feels betrayed and Golde is so furious the marriage to a prosperous butcher has been foregone that Tevye then fakes the ghostly nightmare of “The Dream,” a riotous scene in which the ghost of Grandma Tzeitel (a riotous performance from Katie Stobbe) returns from the grave to convince Golde a marriage to Lazar would mean disaster.

Speaking of disaster, Mr. Hahn would skillfully navigate a potential one during the Sunday matinee I attended when his body microphone failed for a significant part of Act One and ultimately had to be replaced. It was an awkward challenge, but both he and the fine cast carried on without a moment’s hesitation. Now that’s a CLASS ACT.

The Wedding Dance PHOTO: Len Bates

The Wedding Dance
PHOTO: Len Bates

Of course the continuing joys of the show included the dazzling “Wedding Dance,” (featuring the amazing Bottle Dancers), along with memorable songs like “Sunrise, Sunset,” the touching, “Far From the Home I Love,” and the poignant duet of Tevye and Golde for, “Do You Love Me.” All of these served to bring the show beautifully back on track. Of course Tevye has more hurdles to overcome as his daughter Hodel falls in love with a young revolutionary teacher named Perchik (Hayden Cox), while his daughter, Chava, gives her heart to a non-Jewish young Russian named Fyedka (Garrett Newlun). To compound matters, Russian troops ultimately force the Jews to leave this little village, but as Tevye and his family begin the long journey to freedom in America, there is a final note of hope and optimism in the poignant song, “Anatevka.” It reminds us all what it truly means to find liberty in our great nation.

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Class Act Productions, Conroe Courier, Fiddler on the Roof, Houston Community Newspapers online, Nancy Bock Center for the Performing Arts, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Houston Symphony’s SINATRA CENTENNIAL a Spectacular Success

Tony DeSare PHOTO BY Vincent Soyez

Tony DeSare
PHOTO BY Vincent Soyez

The Houston Symphony certainly started off this month of November with a sensational concert in Jones Hall. Titled, SINATRA’S CENTENNIAL, the program was a wonderful look back at the countless songs that have come to be closely identified with the late Frank Sinatra, whose 100th birthday is being celebrated around the world this year. It is doubtful that any such celebration could exceed the excellence of what HSO offered on this past weekend as clocks were being turned back one hour to Standard Time. How ironic that on this very weekend the orchestra would turn the clocks back even further to recognize a golden age of American music, and the golden voice of this legendary singer. It would be a night to remember.

With animated, energetic and brilliant leadership from conductor, Steven Reineke, the concert was highlighted by guest appearances from critically acclaimed vocalist & pianist, Tony DeSare, and award-winning Broadway musical star, Montego Glover. The black tie attire of the musicians was right in step with the “class” so often associated with Mr. Sinatra, and the orchestra’s thrilling opening number, “New York, New York,” only served to enhance the swinging atmosphere of the party that was getting underway. An orchestral showcase followed during “The Lady is a Tramp,” with an arrangement featuring alternating moments in the spotlight for saxophones, flutes, French horns, strings, percussion and more.

“On loan” to the symphony, for the three days of this concert, was sensational Broadway performer, Miss Glover, starring now on the Great White Way performing the role of Fantine in the current revival of Les Miserables. I like to think I “discovered” Glover, when prior to its opening several years ago, I had the good fortune to attend a preview performance of MEMPHIS, the Broadway musical that first brought her to stardom.

MONTEGO GLOVER Photo Credit: http://BrentDundore.com

Photo Credit: http://BrentDundore.com

Looking beautiful as she arrived here on the symphony stage in a sleekly elegant charcoal & white gown, Glover promptly opened with birdlike vocal purity and perfect pitch for a splendid, “Almost Like Being in Love.” The song was skillfully paired with an equally appealing, “This Can’t Be Love.” Her radiant smile was beaming with the confidence of a performer who knew that for these two hours, she was in exactly the right place in the universe that fate had intended. How lucky for those of us fortunate enough to be on hand as she continued with a warm and glowing, “The Best is Yet to Come,” full of seductive rhythms and sassy support from the wonderful orchestra.

Next, with his matinee idol good looks and dark eyes flashing, the handsome Mr. DeSare launched into a sexy and swinging rendition of Cole Porter’s, “Night and Day.” Then, with the rich warmth of his mellow baritone, he brought elegant understatement to the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, “I Have Dreamed.” The subtlety and vocal craftsmanship of that number made it abundantly clear that DeSare was more than worthy to represent Old Blue Eyes in this memorable celebration, and that was even before the orchestra’s lush accompaniment to his infectious performance of, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”

The two gifted stars then joined forces in duet for a rapid-fire and tongue-twisting, “Something’s Gotta Give,” before the delightful sudden contrast of their lazy and sweetly romantic, “Two Sleepy People.” That number prompted my guest, Kelli Estes, (founder and artistic director of Houston’s evermore popular LONE STAR LYRIC Festival & Cabaret), to remark on the “interesting and unusual harmonies” that distinguished this pairing of two brilliant vocalists. A gifted pianist in his own right, DeSare then took to the eighty-eight accompanying himself for, “I Love a Piano.” Both playing and singing, he slowly draws us in until the increasing velocity and joyful bounce of the foot-tapping piece completely takes over the room. No doubt about it, — This guy’s got it all.

Conductor STEVEN REINEKE Photo: Michael Tammaro

Photo: Michael Tammaro

Following intermission the orchestra opened with a lilting and lovely Weill/Reineke arrangement of “Mack the Knife,” highlighted by a fine trumpet solo. Then Glover returned to the stage for two selections from the aforementioned Tony Award-winning musical, MEMPHIS. First came the lashing ferocity of, “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Kiss.” That was followed by the heartbreak, longing and exploding blues power of the song, “Colored Woman.” DeSare then returned with more of his dazzling artistry on the ivories as the two joined forces again for a playful duet of, “You Don’t Know Me.” Continuing to shine on the keyboard, DeSare showed consummate “cool” with his easy going, “Just in Time,” and then proved his skill as a storyteller when he shot into the saloon song stratosphere with his haunting delivery of the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer classic, “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road). I noted that he brought such unique delicacy to the lyric line, “… it soon might explode…,” that he may well have surpassed the master with that phrase. At the conclusion of that song the audience seemed in a mystical state of suspended animation as Glover returned to the stage. This time she would offer a fitting tribute to songstress, Billie Holiday, seeming at once to soar heavenward during her shimmering delivery of, “Come Rain or Come Shine.”

As the concert closed and the audience cheered, the duo would join the orchestra for a sensational encore medley featuring samplings of, “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “The Summer Wind,” “Witchcraft,” “Luck Be a Lady,” “All the Way,” and of course the requisite reprise of, “New York, New York.” But those farewell treats would have to wait until after Mr. DeSare offered a tribute of his own tackling Sinatra’s signature song, composer Paul Anka’s enduring classic, “My Way.” While Mr. DeSare is perhaps much too young for the long look back over a lifetime that the song implies, one feels certain that with his talent he will one day lay claim to the kind of rich history that was Sinatra’s heritage. Nevertheless, in the masterful hands of our brilliant Houston Symphony, DeSare’s thrilling voice has already arrived, and Miss Glover’s wonderful instrument needs no further validation from this humble critic. BRAVO and BRAVA!

The Houston Symphony will perform Prokofiev’s ROMEO and JULIET November 27, 28, & 29, 2015. For tickets and information call 713-224-7575 or visit the website at www.houstonsymphony.org.

Posted in Billie Holiday, Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Cole Porter, Concert Reviews, Conroe Courier, Frank Sinatra, Houston Community Newspapers online, Houston Symphony, Jones Hall, Montego Glover, Sinatra's Centennial, Steven Reineke, The Courier Columns, The TICKET, ThePeoplesCritic.com, Tony DeSare | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cheerful ALICE is a Mixed Bag at Texas Rep

 (l to r) Claudia Dyle, Crystal Rae, Rhianna Gallow, Maryann Williams, Katie Harrison, Amy Garner-Buchanan, Aggie B., and Regina McCormack in the Texas Repertory Theatre Co. production of A, MY NAME IS ALICE. Photo by Troy Scheid

(l to r) Claudia Dyle, Crystal Rae, Rhianna Gallow, Maryann Williams, Katie Harrison, Amy Garner-Buchanan, Aggie B., and Regina McCormack in the Texas Repertory Theatre Co. production of A, MY NAME IS ALICE.
Photo by Troy Scheid

I always enjoy it when my trips to Texas coincide with scheduled productions of the Texas Repertory Theatre. The company’s current cheerful offering of Joan Micklin Silver & Julianne Boyd’s 1983 musical revue, A, MY NAME IS ALICE, while not without occasional flaws, has plenty of abundant delights as well. Ably directed here by Troy Scheid, the show boasts a bubbly cast of five talented and energetic gals that includes, Agnes “Aggie B” Balka, Amy Garner Buchanan, Katie Harrison, Crystal Rae and Maryann Williams. Those looking for a pleasant evening of light entertainment may want to give ALICE some consideration.

Structurally, the show brings us about two dozen separate songs and/or sketches from a variety of composers such as David Zippel, Lucy Simon and Winnie Holzman, along with comedy writers like the late Anne Meara. Our five stars rotate in and out of the various numbers, beginning with the cute ensemble opener, “All-Girl Band,” which quickly leads this merry quintet to a recitation of the witty “A, My Name is Alice Poems,” that give the show its title. From that point on, a variety of song selections are sprinkled with short vignettes, some better than others. Balka and Williams launch things nicely with the song, “At My Age,” pairing an older woman (Balka) and a teenage girl, both of whom are trying to start a new phase in life as they prepare for special dates. The full cast joins the fun as Miss Harrison follows with a fine comedic performance as a gal so steeped in the lurid world of trashy dime-store novels that her daily life becomes a hilarious fantasy world of her own imagination during the song, “Trash.” Next we are treated to the first of three very funny “For Women Only” sketches with Miss Harrison portraying a hilariously avant-garde poetess who very dramatically recites her own pseudointellectual poems with such exaggerated physicality that the laughs just keep on coming.

Ms. Rae offers a bit of tap dancing for a segment titled, “Good Thing I Learned to Dance.” That point may be debatable, as the bit (also featuring Williams) never seemed to catch fire. (Choreographer, Lauren Dolk). More successful was the hilarity of, “Welcome to Kindergarten,” as Miss Balka gives us a riotously domineering classroom teacher who treats a visiting parent (Miss Buchanan) as though she were a child. (“Raise your hand before you speak,” “Sit up straight,” “Stop fidgeting!”) Plenty of laughs there. For a gentle change of pace we then have Miss Williams’ tender and sweet rendition of “I Sure Like the Boys.” The naturalness and warmth of her lovely voice and bright countenance all combined to make that number a real winner. One of the show’s other highlights arrived with Balka’s hilarious performance as “Ms. Mae,” an elderly black woman treating herself to a new hairdo at the beauty parlor. It’s a one-woman show as she chatters non-stop to her invisible stylist, while we in the audience roared with laughter. This gal should head over to “Saturday Night Live” and show those folks what funny is really all about! Terrific!

The gals join forces for the rambunctious but less successful, “Detroit Persons/ Educated Feet,” a send-up of women’s basketball teams. Buchanan’s performance of “Portrait,” is a sentimental reflection on the loss of a mother, and then Williams, Rae and Harrison close out Act One with a somewhat frantic competition trio of, ”Bluer Than You,” from three women, each of whom believes she has the toughest lot in life.

Alice GraphicThe Act Two opener, “Watching the Pretty Young Men,” with its counterpoint trio and rapid lyrics (Balka, Harrison & Rae) was an example of how some of the songs occasionally wandered into the inaudible zone in the absence of microphones, thus sacrificing some of the show’s inherent wit while a group of girlfriends ogle the guys in a male strip club. Then we move on to the straight dramatic as Miss Buchanan portrays a scorned woman breaking up with her man in “Demigod.” (“It will be easier if we can just hate each other openly,” and “I loved you, but I never said I liked you!”) Miss Harrison was next singing “Chanteuse Rosé” for one of the play’s cleverest sketches: French Monologue/French Song. It’s a nonsense song, simply constructed to include every familiar French word and phrase that would be familiar to all. Executed with great comic flair and physicality, it was hilarious by any measure. There was a passionate love song from Miss Rae with, “Pay Them No Mind,” and then Harrison returns with Williams for the merriment of “Hot Lunch,” as a passing woman being disrespected by a rude and whistling construction worker suddenly turns the tables on him.

When Balka sings, “Sisters,” we have a warm and thoughtful recollection of life’s journey. In the segment titled “Honeypot,” Miss Rae portrays Honeypot Watkins, a woman being counseled by a psychiatrist (Buchanan) regarding her sexual hang-ups. The sketch is full of devilish double-entendres like, “My door’s wide open. Why don’t you come inside?” It may remind old-timers of Ethel Waters’ classic 1928 recording, “My Handyman.” Best of all, Honeypot’s jazzy flapper dress with its golden highlights is the first and only interesting costume in a collection that consistently had the cast in drab black that often looked like rehearsal clothing. Use of color could have lifted the show’s visual impact considerably. (Costume designer, La Clevenson).

The closing number, “Friends,” was actually quite poignant as Harrison and Williams play two good friends who chat and gossip on the phone through various phases of their lives, from their teens to old age. In just a few minutes it provided a melancholy, yet touching, journey to the end of life. With continuing Musical Direction from pianist, Claudia Dyle, aided by Regina McCormick on percussion, the finale reprise of, “All-Girl Band,” lifts all spirits at the close. Why not stop by and see for yourself?

A, MY NAME IS ALICE continues through November 8th at Texas Repertory Theatre in the Northwoods Plaza, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., Houston, Texas. Performances Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Friday & Saturday at 8 pm, with Sunday matinees at 3 pm. For tickets and information on Senior and Student discounts, call 281-583-7573 or visit the website at www.TexasRepTheatre.org.

Posted in A MY NAME IS ALICE, BroadwayStars.com, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com, YourHoustonNews.com | Tagged , , | Leave a comment




It was arguably the most dismal, rainy and dreary weekend in recent Montgomery County memory, but on the stage of the Crighton Theater in Conroe, Texas, the angelic voices and beaming faces of more than sixty young Houston area thespians were bringing more light into the world than sunshine could have ever provided. It was the latest production of Christian Youth Theater Houston as the talented youngsters performed Disney’s “MY SON PINOCCHIO JR.” to the delight of the large crowd in attendance. It would be a fun filled afternoon.

Skillfully directed by Joshua Marchant, this production features the Music and Lyrics Book of Stephen Schwartz & David Stern, along with music by Leigh Harline & lyrics by Ned Washington. A pre-recorded soundtrack accompanied the fine singing of the youthful cast (Musical Director, Christina Hayes and Sound Design by Randy Bachman).

Bryce Gilleylen in mid-air as PINOCCHIO

Bryce Gilleylen in mid-air as PINOCCHIO

The story focuses on not only Pinocchio (an able and acrobatic performance from talented young, Bryce Gilleylen, who executes some terrific full flips), but also centers on the boy’s father, Geppetto, played sweetly here in a sensitive performance from George Schoeneberg. Geppetto is dissatisfied with his young son and wants to return him to the Blue Fairy (Hannah Yeates), who had once magically brought the puppet boy to life. Miss Yeates has a lovely voice and a great flair for comedy as she portrays this very conceited Blue Fairy who thinks she can do no wrong. She is aided by a very amusing quartet of singing and dancing assistant fairies named Rosa (Abby Crook), Viola (Emilly Schoen), Arancia (Sara Marie Wojta) and Sue (an uproarious and scene-stealing performance from comic “ham”, Julia Ballard). The fairies get things off to a pleasant start with the familiar song classic, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and later move on to a series of very cute song-and-dance numbers titled, “Rise & Shine.” (Choreographer, Anna Fanning)

Next we are transported to the attractive workshop of old Geppetto (set designer, Ari Kogut, Lighting designer, Jordan Merritt) for the lovely song, “Toys.” Geppetto sings the sentimental, “Geppetto and Son,” as he longs for a son who would follow in his footsteps as a toymaker, rather than Pinocchio who wants to become a train engineer. The tension rises as we meet the conniving puppeteer, Stromboli (played to the hilt by sinister Maddie Reid), who wants Pinocchio to join her talented marionettes, (Sarah Yeates & Abigail Hudson) singing the classic, “I’ve Got No Strings,”in the cast of Stromboli’s puppet show. It is worth noting that Carol Neill deserves credit for the fine hair and makeup designs of characters like Stromboli, Pinocchio, Geppetto and others in the cast. At the same time, the colorful and creative costume designs of Rebecca Crook are an unmistakable highlight of the show throughout this production.

Act II began with what I consider to be this musical’s most infectious and delightful tune as Geppetto joins the fairies for the cheerful, “Just Because It’s Magic.” Then for added fun and hilarity, we meet the outlandish Professor Buonragazzo (Sean Ramsower) who sings “Satisfaction Guaranteed” as he makes his living manufacturing children for those who don’t find success in “doing it the old fashioned way.” I wish I could name every one of the talented kids and parent volunteers who made this show such a success.

Christopher Kimble as the Ringleader.

Christopher Kimble as the Ringleader.

There were many fascinating ensemble numbers like the beautifully staged, “Pleasure Island,” with its dazzling shadow-play opener led by Christopher Kimble as the Ringleader of the bad boys that Pinocchio has fallen in with. Of course Geppetto and Pinocchio end up inside a whale for a time, but I guess I don’t need to tell you that all ended happily on that very rainy day as the full cast sang the touching closing tune, “Since I Gave My Heart Away.” I left feeling special gratitude to one member of the cast, Sara Marie Wojta. Sara had invited her Career Education teacher at Knox Junior High School, Ms. Ruthellen Hinton, to attend the performance. Ms. Hinton, a good friend of mine, invited me to join her. How lucky can a guy get?

CYT will present the holiday musical ELF the Musical Jr. on weekends from December 11th through December 20th at McCullough Junior High’s  LGI Theater. CYT will return to the Crighton Theatre in May for Aladdin Jr. For tickets and information visit the website at www.cythouston.org.

Posted in BroadwayStars.com, Christian Youth Theatre Houston, Conroe Courier, CYT HOUSTON, David Stern, Geppetto, Houston Community Newspapers online, MY SON PINOCCHIO Jr., Pinocchio, Stephen Schwartz, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , | Leave a comment

PIPPIN Charms Houston with Mystery and Magic

PIPPIN National Tour PHOTO: Terry Shapiro

PIPPIN National Tour
PHOTO: Terry Shapiro

Until the current BROADWAY at the Hobby Center offering, I had somehow never managed to actually see a production of the longtime hit musical, PIPPIN. I recall once reading a lengthy plot summary of that show, and thinking at the time how could such a seemingly wacky and convoluted story succeed on the stage? Now I know the answer, and the musical’s continuing popularity is fully justified in the belated eyes of this critic. With its witty book by Roger O. Hirson and lively, pleasant music by Stephen Schwartz, there are eye-popping visual delights awaiting those lucky enough to capture a ticket during this limited run here in Houston.

Cast of PIPPIN Photo by Shinobu Ikazaki

Cast of PIPPIN
Photo by Shinobu Ikazaki

With splendid direction from Diane Paulus, the show’s unusual storyline surrounds a rambunctious traveling troupe of circus-like performers that present a play about the young medieval prince, Pippin (Brian Flores), son of the often warring French King, Charlemagne (John Rubenstein), stepson to the vain and flamboyant Fastrada (Sabrina Harper), and stepbrother to her not-to-bright son, Lewis (Erik Altemus). Overseeing the staging for this motley troupe is the important character of the Leading Player (Gabrielle McClinton), who serves as both director and narrator while the story progresses. For atmosphere, think of a somewhat tarnished Camelot or Knights of the Round Table, with lots of silly twists and turns reminding one of a children’s fairytale storybook. The few sensuous and playful seductions that take place are more like circus acts themselves, and would probably only offend the most sensitive parents of young children. There is not a lot of logic to everything that happens, but there is abundant fun and fascination around every corner. The King and his rowdy stepson, Lewis, are heading off to war and Pippin finally convinces his father to let him come along. But the battlefield does not fulfill Pippin’s search for meaning in life and he drifts off to the estate of his Grandma, Berthe (Adrienne Barbeau) where she gives him advice about getting some fun out of life. Barbeau, fondly remembered for her role in the TV series, “Maude,” is sensational here and may be the best looking and most acrobatically and vocally talented “grandma” on record. Her performance is a highlight with the emphasis on “high,” as she shows her skill as a singing trapeze artist.

Speaking of vocally talented brings me to the subject of this entire cast. What a collection of first class singers we have here, with young Mr. Flores (in his astonishing Broadway tour debut), and multi-talented Miss McClinton each displaying thrilling vocal power in the show’s many engaging songs. His warm and embracing, “Corner of the Sky,” and her eye-poppingly sassy, “Simple Joys,” and the seductive, “Glory” would be perfect examples.

PIPPIN cast members (L-R) Borris York, Gabrielle McClinton, Mathew deGuzman PHOTO: Joan Marcus

PIPPIN cast members (L-R) Borris York, Gabrielle McClinton, Mathew deGuzman PHOTO: Joan Marcus

The latter number featured McClinton in a jazzy dance trio with the signature hats and canes that characterized some of Bob Fosse’s original choreography. (Choreographer for this current sparkling revival is Chet Walker). As for Flores and McClinton, they both light up the room throughout the performance, her with a commanding stage presence, and he with the handsome beaming smile and energy of youth, yet the polish of a Broadway veteran. This young actor appears destined for stardom. As the king, Mr. Rubinstein is another vocal powerhouse (“War is a Science”), and he brings us a lifetime of stage experience having originated the role of Pippin in the original 1972 Broadway production.

Brian Flores as PIPPIN Photo: Joan Marcus

Brian Flores as PIPPIN
Photo: Joan Marcus

As Pippin continues his quest for meaning in life he comes to believe his father the king is exploiting the peasants and must be destroyed. The events that follow eventually bring Pippin to collapse in despair, but he is rescued by a new character in Act Two, the lovely widow, Catherine (silken-voiced, Bradley Benjamin). To say too much about all that would spoil some of the fun for future audiences. But it is worth mentioning that the youngest member of the cast, Jake Berman, does a terrific job as Catherine’s moody young son, Theo, who by the way, has the voice of an angel.

What, you might say, can make “fun” for the audience in a plot so full of twists and turns? In addition to the lovely music and uniformly wonderful voices already mentioned, the “magic and mystery” alluded to in my headline are present throughout the show. The mysterious acrobatic circus displays from the talented ensemble are dazzling, and the show’s numerous wonderful magic tricks and illusions are nothing short of amazing. I’m still puzzling over those. (Illusions by Paul Kiev, Circus Creation by Gypsy Sneider). The whole visual look of the production has an enchanting quality, with its color schemes changing beautifully from scene to scene. (Scenic design, Scott Pask, lighting design, Kenneth Posner). The funky and colorful medieval costumes (designer, Dominique Lemieux) add to the storybook glow. To enjoy all these wonders, theatergoers should hurry to the Hobby Center before the magic disappears following Sunday’s matinee.

PIPPIN continues at Houston’s Hobby Center through Sunday, October 25th, with performances Thursday and Sunday at 7:30 PM, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 PM, and 2 PM matinees on both Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information call 800-982-2787, or visit the website at BroadwayAtTheHobbyCenter.com.

Posted in Adrienne Barbeau, Bob Fosse, BROADWAY at the Hobby Center, BroadwayStars.com, HERE Lifestyle & Entertainment, Houston Community Newspapers online, Houston's Hobby Center, PIPPIN, Stephen Schwartz, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment