Courageous and Shattering NORMAL HEART from Lone Star College

By DAVID DOW BENTLEY III       www.ThePeoplesCritic.com

For weeks Americans across this land have been virtually paralyzed with a sense of desperation and hopeless despair as they watch reports of the unprecedented California forest fires destroying entire towns while leaving thousands of our fellow citizens displaced and homeless with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The heart wrenching scenes seem apocalyptic in scope. In some strange way, they seem to parallel the equally heart wrenching scenes in this month’s powerful production of Larry Kramer’s explosive and heartbreaking play, THE NORMAL HEART, as bravely performed by the talented young cast courageously directed by Emmy Frank at Lone Star College – Montgomery, in The Woodlands, Texas. Would that this were a work of theatrical fiction, rather than this tragic and fact-based 1980’s story of the early years of the AIDS crisis in New York City. Making the saga even more poignant has been the author’s revelation that his play contains many autobiographical elements from his own life experience during that horrifying era.

Except for occasional tables, chairs, beds or hospital gurneys, the appropriately minimal set (designer Ross Brighten) presents us with a largely bare stage. That stage is dramatically crisscrossed, on both floors and walls, by angular, blood-red lightning bolts that seem to aptly depict the violent storm that is engulfing the city. The troubling plot revolves around a group of gay young men in Manhattan who have been watching countless gay friends die of a mysterious terminal illness. HIV-AIDS had not yet been identified or defined by the baffled medical community struggling to cope with the growing epidemic. A group of gay activists begins to coalesce around an effort to bring public attention to a crisis being largely ignored by politicians, press and the public. Leading the charge is the loudly outspoken, Ned Weeks (a powerful performance by Dylan Tobin). Ned meets resistance as he tries to secure financial assistance for the group’s efforts from his wealthy lawyer brother, Ben (Devin Ballou). When the brothers clash, Ned rages about how this crisis for gays echoes the way the Jewish “problem” was so widely ignored in World War II. The performances of Tobin and Ballou here provide plenty of fireworks. But they are not alone in offering high drama in this explosive play. Trip Gauntt portrays Bruce Niles, a closeted bank vice-president and less confrontational member of the group that would become known as Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). Fearing the unpredictable fury that Ned might bring to the public face of GMHC, the group instead selects Bruce as its president. Plenty of ensuing sparks will fly from other group members, including fiery performances from Angel Portillo as Mickey, and Devin “Judy” Norwood, who seems to literally take flight in giving us the stereotypically effete character of Tommy. (Interestingly, in the 2014 TV film version, that role was played by the more familiar Jim Parsons of Big Bang Theory fame). The excellent supporting cast included fine work from Jackson Hicks as Craig and Brian Vinson as David.

Standout performances came from lovely Anna Strickland as the compassionate Dr. Emma Brookner, and handsome David Martinez as Ned’s lover, the New York Times fashion/style columnist, Felix Turner. Strickland brings wonderful warmth to the story as a caring and concerned medical doctor and researcher desperate to find both a cure for the dreaded disease and an awakening of public and political awareness. For his part, Mr. Martinez gives an astonishing performance as a promising young career professional who has found success and love that are ultimately undone with his discovery that he, too, is infected by the unforgiving disease. His riveting death scene will linger long in memory, and one can only wonder how the actor could give both afternoon and evening performances of such power on matinee days. Bravo!

For Further Information about Theatre at LONE STAR COLLEGE – MONTGOMERY, visit the website at: www.LoneStar.edu/Theatre-Montgomery.

A member of both The Lambs Club and The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), the columns of David Dow Bentley III have appeared on Broadway websites, in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast, and may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com . E-mail may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com .

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Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Houston Chronicle online, The Courier Columns, Theater Reviews, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Musical Soap Opera a New 80’s Twist at the Music Box

THE MUSIC BOX CAST (L-R)
Kristina Sullivan, Rebekah Dahl, Luke Wrobel, Cay Taylor, Brad Scarborough

By DAVID DOW BENTLEY III

Regular customers of The Music Box Theatre (and there are plenty of them filling the house at each performance), are very familiar with the way each month-long production has a creative new theme. The current offering, BACK TO THE 80’S, may sound familiar to those who attended their similar production titled, The 80’s Mix Tape Diaries just two years ago. At that time the plot thread was built around a fictional tale of characters involved in the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. This time around we have a unique approach as a fictional parody of the famed TV soap opera, Dallas, unfolds to loosely (at times very loosely) link together assorted songs of the period.

(L-R) Sullivan, Dahl, Scarborough, Wrobel, Taylor

We meet the dull-witted fading champion wrestler, Johnny Texas ‘T’ Riggs, (played by Luke Wrobel, and humorously known as “J.R.”), and also J.R.’s not-so-devoted wife, Eileen (Rebecca Dahl), who loves his sprawling Texas ranch, but loves their handsome pool boy, Marco Pollo, even more (Brad Scarborough). Johnny Texas ‘T’ is murdered early on, and the resulting who-done-it raises suspicions of Johnny’s gambling floozy daughter, Geraldine (Cay Taylor), and his seductive German psychoanalyst, Sybil (Kristina Sullivan.) That is probably enough to say about the sometimes tedious and sophomoric plot that was aptly described from the stage as both “historical fiction like cable news,” and “complex and spider web-like.” It can be alternately amusing and exhausting, but as usually happens at this fun-filled venue, the music saves the day under the watchful eye of music director, Glenn Sharp, with his fine G-Sharp Band.

Right out of the gate the cast proves the music rules with a lively performance of the Queen/David Bowie hit, “Under Pressure.” The rhythmic, pulsing and calypso-flavored number was full of kooky fun that was highlighted by the playful mischief and frenzied falsetto high notes from Mr. Scarborough. The second selection paired the Queen/INXS numbers, “Another One Bites the Dust,” (featuring lashing percussion from drummer, James Metcalfe, and another fine vocal from Brad), followed by Miss Dahl joining in with a sexy counterpoint for the fiery rhythms of, “Need You Tonight.” Wrobel and Taylor duet for a romantic rendition of the Kenny Rogers/Kim Carnes number, “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer.” Sullivan continues the dream theme with the Crowded House tune, “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” Wrobel brings plenty of intensity to Gregory Abbott’s, “Shake You Down,” while the quartet offers gentle backup while bouncing around behind the onstage bar. The five join together for the Roxette song, ‘It Must have Been Love,” and then Dahl shows the acting skills she honed during years with the Masquerade Theatre, as she delivers a fierce performance of Cindy Lauper’s hit, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” There was more falsetto magic when Brad launched into the A-Ha hit, “Take On Me.” (I overheard one woman near me saying, “That song was my favorite music video ever!”) Miss Dahl led the ladies into vocal outer space as the guys joined in for band Journey’s 1980’s hit, “Don’t Stop Believing.” It was just the end of Act One of this jam-packed show, but it was more than enough to convince fans to keep believing in the musical magic at THE MUSIC BOX. Stop by soon while Act Two is included at no extra charge, and visit the wine & cheese bar where tasty Mimosas are also available. The cast proudly promises, “We are better when you’re drinking!”

BACK TO THE 80’s continues through December 1st at the Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt, Houston, Texas, with 7:30 p.m. performances on Fridays & Saturdays. There will be a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, November 25th. Reserved seating for all shows is $39 + tax, and General Admission is $29 + tax. For tickets and information call 713-522-7722 or visit the website at www.themusicboxtheater.com, where you can also find information about the upcoming show, A Beatles Holiday Cabaret, playing December 7th-29th.

A member of The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), the columns of David Dow Bentley III have appeared on Broadway websites, in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast, and may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com E-mail may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Cabaret, Houston Chronicle online, Music Box Theater, Nightclubs, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

LONE STAR LYRIC and Kelli Estes Are a Perfect Match for Broadway Music

The Cast of BROADWAY LIGHTS
(L-R) Alan Simmons, Joseph Li, Kelli Estes, Carol Daubert

By David Dow Bentley III     www.ThePeoplesCritic.com      [Click any photo to enlarge]

Kelli Estes

And speaking of a “match,” the wonderful “BROADWAY LIGHTS” production Miss Estes’ Lone Star Lyric troupe just provided Houstonians was performed at the local MATCH Theatre Complex (https://matchouston.org/) located at 3400 Main Street in Houston. The event was a follow-up to the recent roadshow performances that took place during the group’s cabaret tour across North and West Texas under the auspices of both the Texas Hill Country Opera & Arts, and the Sweetwater Municipal Auditorium Applause Series. Here in Houston, the cozy Matchbox Theatre 1 venue was an intimate space with comfortable seating, and the audience surrounding the performers on three sides of a small stage that was backed by soft curtains, glowing in ever-changing pastel lighting from designer, Jim Elliot.

Joseph Li

The group’s wonderful trio includes Joseph Li on piano, Alan Simmons on bass, and Carol Daubert on drums, — each a brilliant musician of the first class, and all a joy to the ear thanks to fine balanced sound from designer, Kevin Romero. Perfectly capping that collaboration would be a night of sublime vocals from frequent Lone Star Lyric performer, Stephonne Smith, and of course from the group’s gifted soprano and founder, Miss Estes, now in her 13th year of bringing eclectic and sophisticated musical joys to Houstonians who know outstanding music when they hear it.

The first delicious taste of the band came with its upbeat Overture from the classic musical, Gypsy. That was a perfect lead-in to Estes’ first number from that same show, a shimmering rendition of, “Some People,” that was as much a touching drama as it was a vocal triumph.

Stephonne Smith

Wearing a chic plaid suit and elegant black turtle neck, it was then Mr. Smith’s turn to immediately captivate the audience with his rich, resonant, and commanding bass voice, delivering the song, “Razzle Dazzle” from the musical Chicago. It was seasoned with playful nonsense that included wide-eyed facial expressions, gentle movement, and even a seated soft-shoe dance that added to the fun. Displaying bird-like vocal purity, Estes followed with a lilting and lovely medley of tunes from The Sound of Music that had the audience singing along for “Do-Re-Me,” and then ending with an “Edelweiss” as clean as alpine snow. The pair then combined forces for an equally satisfying medley of Lerner & Lowe show tunes. “The Rain in Spain” was a merry duet with great percussion elements from Miss Daubert. Smith hit homeruns with, “On the Street Where You Live,” and a dreamy, rich, “If Ever I would Leave You,” that would have had a standing ovation from the late Robert Goulet. Kelli’s perky, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” was a winner as well, before the pair delivered another darling bit of theatre with their touching, “I Remember It Well,” from Gigi.

Stephonne Smith

It is worth noting that in addition to his many national and international Broadway and concert successes, the talented Mr. Smith toured for six years playing the title role of Mufasa in the Broadway musical, The Lion King. His stunning performance here of, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” was ample proof of why he was chosen. Before night’s end, his additional conquests would include a soaring, “Luck Be a Lady,” a sensational Man of La Mancha medley, a zesty, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” a “One For My Baby” that would have brought Sinatra to his feet, and a thrillingly breath-taking, “Old Man River,” the very song that launched Smith’s career when he was still in high school. Meanwhile, Estes had a parade of triumphs of her own that included a poignant “Somebody, Somewhere,” from The Most Happy Fella, a lashing performance of “Cabaret,”, a magical, “Bewitched,” a radiant, “Over the Rainbow,” (with lighting to match), and a breezy “Summertime,” with great solo moments from the band (which also offered a fine Gershwin medley, brilliantly headlined by maestro Li on the eighty-eight for a delicate, tender performance of, “I Love You, Porgy”).

CURTAIN CALL for Lone Star Lyric

Of course there were additional beautiful pairings with our stars joining forces for a very wonderful, “Wunderbar,” and a splendid medley of countless wonderful tunes from the vast Rodgers & Hammerstein songbook that seemed a tour of Broadway all on its own. The closing, “Tonight, Tonight,” from West Side Story was the perfect musical symbol of a night to remember.

No wonder Lone Star Lyric fans can hardly wait for the next offering, a holiday show aptly titled, “All That Glitters,” running November 30th thru December 2nd. For tickets and information visit the MATCH website mentioned above (phone 731-521-4533), or contact www.LoneStarLyric.org, and LoneStarLyric@gmail.com (phone 917-414-9577).

A member of both The Lambs Club and The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), the columns of David Dow Bentley III have appeared on Broadway websites, in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast, and may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com E-mail may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com .

Posted in AMERICANTHEATRECRITICS.ORG, ATCA, Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Concert Reviews, GYPSY the musical, Houston Chronicle online, Kelli Estes, Lone Star Lyric, Matchbox Theatre, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stepphone Smith, The American Theatre Critics Association, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“W I Z” Fans Ease on Down the Road to TUTS

The Cast of THE WIZ
[All Photos by Melissa Taylor. Click any photo to enlarge]

By DAVID DOW BENTLEY III   www.ThePeoplesCritic.com

It was just before curtain time when Dan Knechtges, the very enthusiastic Artistic Director of Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars, stepped on stage to welcome the audience of the current run of the new TUTS production of the Charlie Smalls musical, THE WIZ. Mr. Knechtges promised the audience it was “in for a treat,” and I am sure many would agree when the final curtain came down. With its creative book by William F. Brown, this 1975 Broadway success was a pioneer in the use of an all-black cast. In this edition, the able direction of Robert O’Hara, cute and flashy choreography of designer Byron Easely, witty costumes of designer, Dede Ayite, and Darryl G. Ivey’s fine Musical Direction with full orchestra, all combine to deliver the “treat” that had been promised.

I’m sure no-one needs a recap of L. Frank Baum’s iconic American tale of The Wizard of Oz, with its legendary heroes, the Tin Man, the Lion, the Scarecrow, and their young teenaged farmgirl friend, Dorothy, all of whom passed into legend via the classic 1939 film starring Judy Garland. They all return to us here in this fun-filled and funky rendition of the story that has been making the rounds on stage and in film for nearly 4o years. Readers who may have longed for a chance to hear the kinds of powerhouse vocalists that headline world-renowned gospel choirs need look no farther. Delivering sensational solos that could reach the upper balconies without the aid of a microphone, we have the talents of Salome Smith (Dorothy), Marva Hicks (The Wiz and Uncle Henry), Simone Gundy (as Addaperle, The Good Witch of the North), Allyson Kaye Daniel (as the Lion), and Yvette Monique Clark (in a triple-role as Aunt Em, the Wicked Witch, Evillene, and as Glinda, the Good Witch of the South). Christopher Campbell as the Scarecrow, and Paris Nix as the Tin Man bring along vocal magic of their own.

Salome Smith (Left) as Dorothy & Simone Gundy as Addaperle

The action plays out on a generally bare stage that is enhanced by a unique central scenic design looking much like a five-pointed crystal surrounding a magic door. That crystal-like shape (set designer, Jason Sherwood) is ever-changing throughout the show via colorful lighting (designer Alex Jainchill), and imaginative projections (designer, Aaron Rhyne). Equally imaginative are the eye-popping costumes of designer, Dede Ayite. The costumes were often amusing as well, as in the case of Miss Gundy’s scene-stealing, Addaperle, with her hilarious headpiece, and of course the colorful balloon suits on the Munchkin-like youngsters in Oz, played merrily by six young members of the local Humphreys School of Musical Theatre.

While some relationships may seem a bit underdeveloped dramatically, (as was the case in the opening scene between sassy young Dorothy and her strict Aunt Em), the solid music and great vocals would quickly rush to the rescue, along with some terrific special effects as in the suddenly arriving tornado.

The Cast of THE WIZ

Further support would come from the fine choral ensemble and the several dazzling ensemble dance segments, capped by more delightfully flashy costumes like those in the infectious, “Ease on Down the Road.” That number was reminiscent of the glittering gold and top-hatted dancers from, “A Chorus Line.” Another infectious tune that would follow the audience home was Act Two’s, “Everybody Rejoice,” which is much better known by the title it should have had, “A Brand New Day.”

Salome Smith as DOROTHY

Among the vocal highlights was pint-sized Miss Smith’s surprisingly powerful, “Soon As I Get Home.” As the panhandling Scarecrow, Mr. Campbell fires off a high-energy, “Born on the Day Before Yesterday,” that smacked of some Michael Jackson-style dance moves. The Tin Man’s song, “Slide Some Oil to Me,” was not the catchiest tune, but Mr. Nix livens it up with some snazzy tap dancing.

(L-R) The Lion, The Tin Man, The Scarecrow & Dorothy.

Singing the “Mean Ole Lion” song, Miss Daniel, beautifully costumed in mangy and rust-colored layered fur, filled the stage with ferocity as the Lion’s long tail whirled about behind her.

Marva Hicks as THE WIZ

Another eye-popping costume comes with the arrival of our mincing and prancing Wiz, with Miss Hicks adorned in glittering emerald green pants and shimmering matching cloak. And all of that fun comes before the Intermission. Why not ease on down the road and check out the full production for yourself, especially if you have any youngsters in need of a first experience of attending live theatre?

THE WIZ continues through November 4th at Houston’s Hobby Center main stage with performances Wednesday & Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday & Saturday at 8pm, and 2pm matinee performances on both Saturday and Sunday. For tickets visit the website at http://www.thehobbycenter.org, or call (713) 558-8887 locally, and (888) 558-3882 (outside of Houston).

A member of The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), the columns of David Dow Bentley III have appeared on Broadway websites, in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast, and may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com E-mail may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com .

 

Posted in American Theatre Critics Association, AMERICANTHEATRECRITICS.ORG, ATCA, Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Hobby Center Houston, Houston Chronicle online, The Courier Columns, Theater Reviews, Theater Under the Stars, ThePeoplesCritic.com, TUTS | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stage Right’s Enchanting Journey INTO THE WOODS

The Cast of INTO THE WOODS
All Photos by Dave Clements / DWC Photography. Click any photo to enlarge.

The music of Broadway composer, Stephen Sondheim, is unusually complex and sophisticated, but sometimes considerably dark as well. It would never be confused with the cheerful Rodgers & Hammerstein tunes that you might hum on the way home from a theater. So it is, that I tend to approach Sondheim with a bit of caution. Such was the case when I attended last week’s opening weekend of Stage Right’s very wonderful production of Sondheim’s INTO THE WOODS, with its unique musical peek into the world of childhood fairy tales. (Music & Lyrics by Sondheim, Book by James Lapine). It happens that I had never seen either a staged production or the subsequent film of the show, and my brief research about it left me wary about how the complicated plot described could possibly be carried off. Stage Right has answered all my concerns with a delightful production.

The Narrator

Little Red Riding Hood

The Baker & Wife

 

 

 

 

 

The key elements of that success are several. First and foremost, gifted director, Tina Cafeo, has assembled an outstanding cast with the exceptional vocal talent required to take on this very difficult musical score. Complementing those efforts was the very fine orchestral recording that accompanied the singers while pairing perfect synchronization with their voices. (Musical Director, Ana Guirola Ladd). The skill, timing and memorization involved for these actors to carry this all off so successfully were simply remarkable. Dressed in sensational storybook costumes (designer, Denise Schmidt DeBold), the wonderful performers include Mandy Hall as the frightening Witch. Gavin McKinnon plays the distressed Baker, who along with his equally troubled wife (Sarah Walker Wilkins) is seeking relief from the Witch’s curse on their home. Velvet-voiced Hillary Moore is an enchanting Cinderella, and Cain Hamilton is her dashing Prince full of bluster. Cossette Czarnopis is a multi-faceted Little Red Riding Hood, who provides plenty of fun, even when up against the mean old Wolf (Douglas Holcomb). For Beanstalk fans, the part of young Jack is beautifully performed by Hayden Olds. Jack’s mother is played with appropriate desperation by Diana Egley, when Jack infuriates his mom by accepting a handful of beans in payment for selling the cherished family cow, Milky White. (Amusingly played, in a very unique costume, by Becky Kinch, who also doubles as Red Riding Hood’s Granny). Imprisoned high in the tower with her long golden tresses, the flaxen-haired Rapunzel (Meredith Fisk), is pursued by her own handsome Prince (Nicholas Gant), who could probably win a Best Dashing Leap contest for his hilarious jumps off stage. For still more hilarity we have the comically costumed (and wigged) Cinderella’s Stepmother (Jo Champion), and the outlandish stepsisters, Florinda (Nadia Urrea Wall) and Lucinda (Alyssa O’Brien).

The Princes

Jack and his Mother

Cinderella

 

 

 

 

 

The clever interaction of all these characters is nicely punctuated from time to time as the Narrator (Jim King) steps forward to elegantly address the audience with bits of guidance on the evolving plot. Similarly, an odd character called The Old Man (John Kaiser) occasionally pops briefly into scenes with unexpected and amusing comments. Also adding variety to the piece is a troupe of graceful dancing fairies (Grace Nichols, Katie Kowalik, Katie Selthofer, Elizabeth Mair, and London McDaniel), who sometimes assist scene changes and sometimes dance gaily up the audience aisles. (Choreographer, Dinah Mahlman). Additional fine supporting players include Phil Clarke, Scarlett Czarnopis, Baron Daniel Jackson, and Madison Lyons.

The Old Man

The Wolf

Stepmother and Daughters

 

 

 

 

 

Rapunzel & the Witch

It is worth mentioning that the show is structured in two distinct parts: Act One with its very happy ending that reportedly caused some opening night audience members to go home at intermission believing the show was over. Act Two might be a bit too complex and convoluted for some, as it undertakes to tell us what happens to the characters several years later. There were some happily giggling children in the audience, but parents of the very young might consider slipping home after Act One of this fairly long production. In any event, pleasant images will linger long in memory because beautifully framing all of this action is the irresistibly delicious fairytale set and scenic design of Kara Kowalik. From prison towers and thatched roofed houses, to emerald green forests and palace ballrooms, it is charming all the way.

INTO THE WOODS continues thru November 4th at Conroe’s Crighton Theatre, 234 N. Main. Performances are 8pm Friday & Saturday, with Sunday matinees at 2pm. For tickets and information call (936) 441-7469 or visit the website at www.stage-right.org/.

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Crighton Theatre, Houston Chronicle online, Stage Right Productions, The Courier Columns, Theater Reviews, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Dancing is the star of Class Act’s THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE

Portia Durant and the Cast of Class Act Productions’ THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE

By DAVID DOW BENTLEY III     www.ThePeoplesCritic.com

[All photos by Tracy Robinson/spryART. Click any photo to enlarge.]

It would be another terrific musical offering from Montgomery County’s treasured youth theatre group, Class Act Productions. Last weekend in the Nancy Bock Performing Arts Center of The Woodlands, Texas, the show was the lively Broadway musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie, with book by Richard Morris & Dick Scanlan, new music by Jeanine Tesori and new lyrics by Dick Scanlan.

Keith Brumfield

Taking the helm as director for this latest effort was the troupe’s renowned Founder and Artistic Director, Keith Brumfield. He had wonderful support from Music Director, Rae Moses, and his fine orchestra, and the snappy Overture quickly captured the excitement and fast-paced mood of NYC. With all due respect to those two talented gentlemen, I can’t conclude this first paragraph without declaring that Choreographer, Lindsay English, and her astonishingly gifted young cast of dancers, have collectively put their best foot forward in more ways than one. Dance would rule the day for this knock-out production!

The arriving audience was greeted by the attractive set design of Jonathan Shelledy depicting a dark Manhattan skyline silhouetted against an inky blue night sky. (Scenic artists, Heather Brown & Becky Steele).

Seamus Doyle as Jimmy Smith

The time is the early 1920’s, and an eager and starry-eyed young woman from Kansas, named Millie Dillmount (pretty Portia Durant), has just arrived on the early morning streets of the Big Apple. With innocent appeal and suitcase in hand, she plans to take the town by storm in her quest for a good job and a rich husband. However, a sudden mugging leaves her without money or options. Ignoring the suggestion that she head back to Kansas from a young man she encounters (Seamus Doyle in the role of Jimmy), she summons up her true grit and soon finds herself in the suspicious Hotel Priscilla.

(L-R) Sarah Yeates as Dorothy, Portia Durant as Millie, and Daniela Garrett as Mrs. Meers

It is there that young ladies suffering hard times sometimes disappeared at the hands of the conniving owner (Daniela Garrett as the zany Mrs. Meers).

Beau Snortland as Ching Ho, and Luke Tabor as Bun Foo

With the help of the two hapless Chinese immigrant brothers in her employ (Beau Snortland as Ching Ho, and Luke Tabor as Bun Foo), Meers happily kidnaps unsuspecting girls who are shipped off to the white slavery trade in Hong Kong. Tabor and Snortland provide plenty of laughs chattering away in Chinese that is hilariously translated for the audience via captions projected above the proscenium. Miss Garrett’s devilish performance as Meers was capped by her sinister number, “They Don’t Know.” Meanwhile, Sarah Yeates explodes on stage giving a scene-stealing and comic performance as Millie’s newfound friend at the hotel, Miss Dorothy Brown, a wealthy and glamorous femme fatale. She is slumming a bit in the shoddy hotel in order to learn, “How the Other Half Lives,” as the gals deliver that prancing and adorable duet.

Evan Carlson as Graydon and Portia Durant as Millie

Millie finally lands a job as stenographer to the boss of the Sincere Trust Insurance Co., Mr. Trevor Graydon III (Evan Carlson). Millie takes Grayson’s shorthand examination under the watchful eye of the cranky secretarial pool supervisor, Miss Flannery (Skylar Doescher, in a comical performance that suggests she would be well-cast as Miss Hannigan in a future production of ANNIE). The tongue-twisting rapidity of the Millie/Grayson duet of “The Speed Test,” is a number remarkably well done by Durant and Carlson, while sensationally accompanied by the tap dancing of the colorfully costumed ensemble of office secretaries.

Miss Flannery (Skylar Doescher) leads her tap-dancing office workers.

Of course Millie has hopes of capturing Graydon as a husband, but Dorothy suddenly shows up to seduce him herself. That would be just one of the show’s many on-again, off-again romantic relationships that add to the fun.

In addition to the aforementioned Durant, Garrett, Yeates, Doescher, and Carlson, the show’s many pleasant song numbers also feature fine vocals from Doyle as Millie’s ultimate love interest, Jimmy, and Megha Sengupta as the wealthy singer/socialite, Muzzy Van Hossmere.

MILLIE and her “flappers’ dance the Charleston.

Yet another mesmerizing tap-dance sequence from the ensemble that had to be seen to be believed, was the dazzling Speakeasy scene for the cleverly titled, “Nutty Cracker Suite.” That Charleston-style number displayed more breathtaking tap dancing and colorful period costumes (designer, Kim Freeman), all beautifully showcased by the fine lighting designs of Blake Minor. If the dancing was the star of this show, I would have to say the costumes were the co-star. It would all pass for professional on Broadway, and don’t be surprised if one day some of these talented youngsters end up there.

CLASS ACT will perform the Christmastime favorite, It’s A Wonderful Life, on December 14, 15, & 16. For tickets and information visit http://www.classactproductions.org/ .

The columns of David Dow Bentley III have appeared on Broadway websites, in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast, and may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com E-mail may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com .

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Class Act Productions, Houston Chronicle online, Nancy Bock Center for the Performing Arts, The Courier Columns, Theater Reviews, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

The Wondrous Blend of Houston Symphony, ABBA, and RAJATON

RAJATON a cappella ensemble

By DAVID DOW BENTLEY III   www.ThePeoplesCritic.com

It was a night of music that I dare say will not be soon forgotten by those of us blessed to be in the Jones Hall audience for the Houston Symphony’s celebration of what was simply titled, THE MUSIC OF ABBA. Of course, thanks to the world-wide popularity of the Broadway musical, MAMA MIA, much of the program would be familiar to last weekend’s sellout crowds with such tunes as “Dancing Queen,” “Chiquitita,” “Money, Money, Money,” “One of Us,” “Voulez Vous,” “Does Your Mother Know?” “Head Over Heels,” “Mama Mia,” “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” “The Winner Takes It All,” “Thank You For The Music,” “Fernando,” and “Waterloo.” The varied selections would all combine to create an atmosphere of utter and complete joy in the house before the night was over, and it was that latter tune, the group’s first big hit, that launched them into the stratosphere of pop music in 1974.

Steven Reineke, conductor

Presiding over this splendid concert was the youthful, slim, and endlessly animated conductor, Steven Reineke, looking equally splendid in a meticulously tailored charcoal suit, with gleaming patent leather dress shoes of black and glittering silver. He displayed the grace of a ballet dancer as he guided his gifted musicians through the lush “ABBA MEDLEY” overture that opened the program, while touching beautifully on many of the tunes mentioned above. But that was just the beginning.

The featured guest performers would be the six talented members of the extraordinary RAJATON a cappella vocal ensemble from Finland. They strutted proudly on stage, beaming with joy that would quickly spread to an appreciative audience. While their Finnish names (Jussi Chydenius, Essi Wuorela, Soila Sariola-Lehtinen, Hannu Sepola, Ahti Paunu, & Aili Toivonen) might be difficult for us to spell or pronounce, their musical magic spoke a universal language that needed no translation. Whether performing with the orchestra, or in the strictly a cappella style for which they are best known, the handsome group of three men and three women, would blissfully captivate Jones Hall throughout the performance. That would be true right from their opening trifecta medley with a gentle and gliding, “Dancing Queen,” a fun-filled, “Money, Money, Money,” that featured a terrific, pulsing beat, and then the story-telling beauty and gorgeous vocal blending of, “One of Us.” Below the overhead spin of a sparkling disco ball at the ceiling, there was pleasing light choreography silhouetted against a hot-pink backdrop during the a cappella wonders and clever counterpoints of “Head Over Heels,” with its rhythmic and intoxicating blend of mouth-popping and microphone-tapping sound effects.

RAJATON a cappella ensemble

With the orchestra accompanying once again, the ensemble delivered an “S.O.S.” that nicely reflected on the “emergency” desperation that sometimes accompanies love. But the bright mood quickly returned with the perky and upbeat, “Take a Chance on Me,” as the hand-clapping audience joined in. Enhancing the staging, the bubbly singers, dressed in eclectic yet elegant attire, would have fit in well at any wedding, and were always in motion, changing positions or dancing lightly. All of that was evident as the singers beautifully concluded Act One with the twin delights of the tongue-twisting, “Chiquitita,” and the ever-popular, “Mama Mia.”

Following the intermission, the orchestra againtook center stage performing, “People Need Love — An ABBA Symphonic Medley,” a choice collection of ABBA tunes of many moods, that was beautifully peppered with sparkling percussion and the richness of the strings, all under the baton of the merry and graceful conductor Reineke.

Steven Reineke conducting the Houston Symphony

When Rajaton returned to the stage there would be a soaring, “When All Is Said and Done,” resounding choral richness for, “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” and then the fully a cappella joys of the mystical and entrancing, “Fernando.” Amid some gently undulating choreography, the group essentially became its own orchestra in a way that might remind old-timers of the Mills Brothers. There was so much more before the audience would be literally dancing in the aisles to a reprise of, “Dancing Queen,” but it seems safe to say that the one song that best described the feelings of the appreciative audience would have to be, “Thank You for the Music.”

The columns of David Dow Bentley III have appeared on Broadway websites, in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast, and may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com E-mail may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com .

 

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