A 35th Anniversary Triumph for YOUNG TEXAS ARTISTS

Steinway CEO, Ron Losby (center), with the 2019 Young Texas Artists competition finalists.
PHOTO: Brad Meyer

By David Dow Bentley III   “The People’s Critic”

[Click any photo to enlarge]

In the book of Ecclesiastes 3:1 (KJV), scripture reminds us, “To every thing there is a season…” and what a joyful season of the year we have now as spring warmth replaces winter’s chill, clock changes bring us longer days, and better still, The Young Texas Artists Competition brings us the much anticipated Concert of Finalists. The event, now celebrating its 35th year (with the continuing brilliant leadership of the organization’s President, Susie Pokorski, and Artistic director, Emelyne Bingham), is dedicated to recognizing the finest young classical musicians from the great state of Texas. The week-long competition (www.YoungTexasArtists.org), culminates with the annual Bach, Beethoven & Barbecue Dinner Dance & Auction, with its ultimate goal of raising scholarship funds for many of the talented young contestants. That Gala party, superbly co-chaired by Terry Husbands Giles and Allyson Ayton, was held last Saturday evening in a grand pavilion set up just around the corner from Conroe’s Crighton Theatre.

Gala diners enjoyed a performance by the Kilgore Rangerettes.
PHOTO: Courtesy of ThePeoplesCritic.com

It set a musical mood of its own as the guests enjoyed the wonderful country sounds of the Highway 105 Band, and a high-kicking performance by the famed Kilgore College Rangerettes, all while dining on the finest Texas barbecue imaginable. My guest and I had the added pleasure of dining with Annette Spikes, the very enthusiastic representative of the Greater Conroe Arts Alliance, (www.greaterConroeArtsAlliance.com) who provided the crowd with information about the group’s Rising Stars & Legends of Texas event schedule for this past week.

Mistress of Ceremonies, Jade Simmons speaks with finalist, Artem Kuznetsov, during the onstage interviews.
PHOTO: Brad Meyer

But soon we all found ourselves across the street in the elegant Crighton to enjoy the thrilling performances of the eight finalists in four categories, skillfully hosted by beautiful Jade Simmons, noted concert pianist, motivational speaker, and charming broadcast personality with American Public Media, and NYC’s leading classical radio station, WQXR. Competing in the first category of WINDS, BRASS, PERCUSSION, HARP & GUITAR, would be Won Lee, with his performance of Mozart’s “Allegro aperto,” from the Concerto for Flute and Orchestra in D Major. He brought brisk perfection and a bird-like fluency full of gaiety to the piece, proving himself a joyous Pied Piper of the first order. The effort would win him the gold medal and $3000 First Prize in that category, but his competitor, Zhi-Yuan Luo, was dazzling as well, with his performance of Luigi Bassi’s, Rigoletto Fantasia for Clarinet and Piano. The handsome young man with shining black hair, had equally shining skill on clarinet, casting a hypnotic spell as he ably navigated the dramatic variations of the complex and challenging work. The fluid and delicate movements of his physicality seemed to reflect the every twist and turn of this long, but very delightful piece. The audience was not unaware of this, so in addition to his Silver Medal and $1000 Second Prize, he would also win the vote for the additional $1000 Audience Choice Award.

In the STRINGS category two gifted gentlemen would compete on violoncello. First up was John Belk performing two movements from Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violoncello & Orchestra. The somber and rich opening strains of the “Andante sostenuto,” soon moved to the vibrant excitement of the “Molto allegro e appassionato,” a work that was sometimes thoughtful and brooding, and sometimes fierce and authoritative. The performance would win him the Silver Medal and $1000 Second Prize. Meanwhile, Lukas Goodman would take home the Gold Medal and $3000 First Prize for his performance of the “Allegro,” from Dvorak’s Concerto in B Minor for Cello & Orchestra. He brought evident dexterity to this piece of many moods, displaying gypsy-like flair as his tousled hair bounced freely across his forehead during each exciting phrase of his mellow performance.

Soprano, Bronwyn White
PHOTO: David W. Clements / DWC Photography

In a sleek, dark gown, soprano Bronwyn White began the VOICE competition as she brought romantic flair to the exquisite opening notes of “Quel guardo…So anch’io la virtù magica,” from Don Pasquale. Her coy and delightfully theatrical performance was at once playful and delightful, while being marked by graceful movement, superb vocal control and soaring high notes. Her reward would be the $1000 Second Prize and Silver Medal.

Mezzo-Soprano, Brennan Blankenship
PHOTO: David W. Clements / DWC Photography

Winning the Gold Medal and $3000 First Prize would be mezzo-soprano, Brennan Blankenship, whose powerful and elegant voice would match her elegant black satin gown and shimmering necklace during her brief, but very impressive performance of “Sein wir wieder gut,” from Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos.

In the PIANO category, Vincent Ip brought immediate and ferocious attack to the prancing opening passages of “Allegro, ma non troppo” from Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3 in C major. There was rapid precision and thunderous excitement before the sudden shift to the rapturous romanticism of the composition’s more delicate passages; and then, ultimately, the fabulous and exciting conclusion that certainly earned Mr. Ip his Silver Medal and $1000 Second Prize. Finally, perhaps saving the best for last, pianist, Artem Kuznetsov, would capture the Gold Medal and $3000 First Prize with his performance of the thrilling, “Allegro con fuoco,” from Tchaikovsky’s familiar classic, Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor. Perhaps it was the exacting precision he brought to the rippling and pulsing grandeur of the piece that seemed to totally captivate the cheering audience. It was then that the esteemed panel of distinguished judges (Eric Mitchko, Diane Schultz, Kay Stern, Kirk Trevor and William Wellborn) named Kuznetsov as the winner of the night’s GRAND PRIZE, an additional $3000 and a Texas State Flag that had been flown over the capitol in Austin. That put everyone in just the right mood for the closing audience sing-a-long of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”

A member of both The Lambs Club Inc. 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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MUSIC BOX Offers Another Lullaby to Old Broadway

Cast of the MUSIC BOX THEATRE (L-R) Kristina Sullivan, Luke Wrobel, Cay Taylor, Brad Scarborough, and Rebekah Dahl.

By DAVID DOW BENTLEY III   “The People’s Critic”

The Texas-sized excitement of our city’s annual Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo was just minutes away, but over at the nearby Music Box Theatre, the chic cabaret’s popular cast of five is serving up annual excitement of its own with this year’s edition of The Best of Broadway. In the near-decade of this company’s success, that tight-knit and talented troupe of entertainers (Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Luke Wrobel, Kristina Sullivan and Cay Taylor) have continued to keep the club’s popularity at the top of Houston-area entertainment listings with their numerous creative productions each year. This yearly Broadway celebration is a favorite among them.

In the current show, Music Director, Glenn Sharp, continues to preside over his talented G-Sharp Band. While many Music Box productions are scripted with varied themes to frame the music, in this case the audience is forewarned that there would be a more free-wheeling and spontaneous format for this salute to The Great White Way. Making a surprise entrance through the audience from the rear of the theater, Miss Dahl opened with a fierce and exciting “Downtown,” from Little Shop of Horrors, that was nicely decorated by the solid bass voice of Mr. Wrobel, while Scarborough joins in rounding out some terrific harmonies and counterpoints. In the next number, the rich resonance of Brad’s voice would be a vocal laser beam for the thrilling, “Corner of the Sky,” from Pippin. A trio from the gals followed with no shortage of energy during Funny Girl’s, “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” That number seemed a bit frantic at times, and might have benefited from a slightly slower and more thoughtful tempo. Luke then joked a bit about being, at age 14, the youngest cast member of his high school’s Guys & Dolls production, but it was easy to see how he was chosen. He led the wonderful “Luck Be A Lady,” number, backed by the smooth blending of a great quartet from his cast mates. Miss Taylor then stepped forward to tease the audience with, “Now we’re gonna have some fun miserably.” She then proved her worth as a vocal storyteller, bringing dreamlike and piercing focus to, “I Dreamed a Dream,” from Les Miserables, during a performance that was enhanced by elegant touches from Mark McCain on lead guitar. There would be a web of mystery for the explosive performance of the title song from Flashdance, before Luke and Brad followed with some silly fun as a couple of dudes in oversized cowboy hats, during their robust, “They Call the Wind Maria,” (aka Mariah) from Paint Your Wagon. Kristina then turned things a bit more serious with an agonizing look at life’s changes during her melancholy, “She Used to be Mine,” from Waitress. Rounding out Act One was the group’s traditional and challenging,”Seven Minute Musical,” actually performed under a ticking clock for exactly that long. This year’s winner, The Sound of Music, has lots of frenzied merriment that included some zany nuns for “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” some laughable and leaping choreography for, ”Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” with a perky and whirling, “The Lonely Goatherd.”

Act Two is no less fun, and begins with Brad leading his compatriots in the excitement of the title song from Hamilton, as they brilliantly conquer the amazing rapid-fire and tongue-twisting lyrics of that song. Cay then calms things a bit with her sultry and seductive, “Whatever Lola Wants,” from Damn Yankees. The ladies then combine forces for the thrilling, “As if We Never said Goodbye,” from Sunset Boulevard. From the show, Forever Plaid, Brad provides a lush, warm rendition of the old Johnny Ray hit, “Cry.” Rebekah followed that with a visual and embracing, “Memory,” from Cats, that was full of passionate desperation.

With a thrilling “Old Man River” from SHOWBOAT, Luke Wrobel won a standing ovation.

A cheerful change of pace then arrived as the guys offered “Nowadays,” and “Hot Honey Rag,” with their hilarious version of the Bob Fosse choreography from Chicago. As we say in Texas, “It was a hoot!” Miss Sullivan brought lashing power to the title song from, “Man of La Mancha,” and soon it was time for a major standing ovation as Luke applied his sensational bass voice to a song he must have been born to sing: “Old Man River,” from Showboat. The audience leapt to its feet. For a perfect finale, the joyful and gyrating cast offered a medley from Hair, with “Aquarius” & “Let the Sunshine In.” One suspects they could give Undulating Lessons on their days off. Come see for yourself.

BEST OF BROADWAY performances continue at the Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt, Houston, Texas, through April 20th at 7:30p.m. Fridays & Saturdays, and there will be Sunday matinees at 2 pm on March 24th and April 14th. Reserved seating for all shows is $41, and General Admission is $31. 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, Songs of the SILVER SCREEN.

A member of both The Lambs Club Inc. 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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Hobby Center’s Latest “MAMMA MIA!” tops them all!

The Cast of MAMMA MIA!

By DAVID DOW BENTLEY III     “The People’s Critic”

[All Photos by Melissa Taylor. Click any photo to enlarge.]

Regular readers of this column may recall that when it comes to reviewing productions of the longtime Broadway hit musical, MAMMA MIA!, “this is not my first rodeo.” (To borrow a timely phrase during this current special three weeks in Houston.) In fact, I think I have figured out the every-four-years frequency formula that Houston’s Hobby Center may be using to schedule repeat productions of this ever-popular musical. During this decade alone I have reviewed the show there in 2011, 2015, and now, 2019, with sell-out crowds continuing to fill the colossal house for each performance at Sarofim Hall. Before I start raving about this wonderful Theatre Under the Stars production, allow me one complaint. The printed program was a peculiar one as it did not have the usual chronological listing of the scenes including associated songs and singers for each. That mistake should not be repeated.

Cast of MAMMA MIA!

On a happier note, even if the show is not a theatrical masterpiece it doesn’t matter, since the fans keep flocking back because of its infectious music, and because it is just so much colorful fun. That is especially true in this sharply directed production from Dan Knechtges. The warm, coastal Mediterranean villa set design from Tim Mackabee has a three-dimensional look with even moving windmills and wind-blown laundry visible on the background hilltops.

Christopher Tipps as Pepper and Felicia Finley as Tonya with cast of MAMMA MIA!

Electrifying and colorful costumes from Leon Dobkowski are the perfect match for the excitement of the splendid choreography from Jessica Hartman, which features not only the wonderful dancing of the talented ensemble, but also a sensational “Teen Ensemble” of local youngsters, who have the dance energy and athleticism that might one day land them on Broadway.

With its breezy book by Catherine Johnson, the plot is designed around the popular songs of the band, ABBA, with Music & Lyrics composed by two former members of that group, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. (With additional material and arrangements by Martin Koch). The music is in good hands here, with Steven W. Jones as Musical Director, and the fine orchestra in a subterranean world hidden beneath the stage. Ensemble singing from the cast is top notch.

Sally Wilfert as Donna and Berklea Going as Sophie.

The unlikely, but fun-filled plot revolves around a single mother named Donna (Sally Wilfert), and her daughter, Sophie (Berklea Going), who live on the lovely Greek Island of Calicos where Donna operates a taverna guest house. Miss Wilfert and Miss Going both have beautiful voices, and their tender bedroom scene on the morning of the wedding is beautifully played.

Karl Josef Co as Sky and Berklea Going as Sophie

Twenty year-old Sophie opens the show with a mystical, “I Have a Dream,” as she is about to be married to her beloved Sky (Karl Josef Co), and longs to know which of the three men that her mother had brief romances with years before could, in fact, be her real father. In hopes of solving that mystery she has secretly invited all three to the wedding.

Matthew Scott as Sam

When the guys arrive (Mark Price as Harry, Steven Bogard as Bill, and Matthew Scott as Sam), the real fun begins, and these fellas all have great voices, especially Mr. Scott. Adding to the merriment is the arrival of Donna’s feisty old girlfriends, Tanya (Felicia Finley), and Rosie (Carla Woods).

Christopher Tipps as Pepper and Felicia Finley as Tonya with cast of MAMMA MIA!

Both Finley and Woods have some super-sexy numbers, and the guys in the cast do their part to turn up that heat, particularly the very buff Christopher Tipps, who sports a physique that seems to fully justify his being shirtless much of the time. In addition to “Mamma Mia,” the hit parade of ever popular songs that stitch this all together seems to be endless with tunes like, “Chiquitita,” “Dancing Queen,” “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme,” “Honey, Honey,” “I Do, I Do, I Do,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Money, Money, Money,” “S.O.S.,” “Souper Trouper,” and countless others.

Carla Woods as Rosie, Sally Wilfert as Donna, and Felicia Finley as Tonya

And at show’s end, don’t you dare make a move toward the exits before Donna and the Dynamos hit the stage for a full-cast, multi-encore finale that has the whole audience on its feet. But maybe two other songs should be mentioned in closing: “Thank You for the Music,” and “The Winner Takes It All.” Clearly, this show is a winner!

MAMMA MIA! Continues through March 3rd at Houston’s Hobby Center main stage with performances 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 both The Lambs Club Inc. 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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Houston Symphony Celebrates ELLA FITZGERALD

By DAVID DOW BENTLEY III     “The People’s Critic”

ELLA FITZGERALD
Photo; Courtesy of Library of Congress

I don’t remember the exact details of the performance, but sometime in the late 1970’s or early 80’s, I recall viewing one of the early PBS telecasts of Live from the Metropolitan Opera. The series featured full live productions direct from the stage of The Met, with interesting backstage interviews of key members of the company, also presented live during the intermissions. I cannot recall who was being thus interviewed, but I remember the moderator asking, “Have you ever encountered a singer with perfect pitch?” The respondent hesitated, at first replying, “Perfect pitch? No…but oh, yes… Ella Fitzgerald.” It is not surprising then, that this past weekend the Houston Symphony saw fit to present a splendid tribute concert titled “The Ella Fitzgerald Songbook,” honoring the late great legendary singer. On the surface such an undertaking might seem doomed to failure, for who could hope to find a singer that could successfully replicate the brilliant song styling of such a vocal genius? Leave it to the Houston Symphony to find not one, but three such blazing talents, and the result was a concert of such sheer magnificence that one could only hope Miss Fitzgerald was enjoying it from some heavenly balcony above.

Under the skillful and very animated baton of conductor, Steven Reineke, the orchestra got things off to a snazzy start with the rousing big band classic, “Take the A Train.” Then it was time for the first of the talented ladies to take center stage.

CAPATHIA JENKINS
Photo: Courtesy of Houston Symphony

With her wide smile, and dressed in a sparkling sea-green gown, a beaming Capathia Jenkins launched into a joyful, “Strike Up the Band.” She followed with the pleasing Gershwin/Nelson Riddle arrangement of “Clap Yo’ Hands,” but her microphone seemed briefly out of balance with the powerful orchestra for that number. Next up was the arrival of vocalist, N’Kenge, wearing an absolutely sensational gown of flowing red-orange chiffon, with gleaming rhinestone belt, and a dramatic full-split design. She offered a sassy, perky audience sing-a-long of a Cab Calloway nonsense song titled “Zah, Zuh, Zaz,” and brought it to a fierce and soaring conclusion. She then made a surprisingly mellow shift to the passion and desperation of her wrenching, “Stormy Weather.”

MONTEGO GLOVER
Photo: Courtesy of Houston Symphony

Continuing what at times seemed like an elegant fashion show, the third performer, Montego Glover, arrived on stage in a creamy, form-fitting gown that sparkled from top to bottom as she took off like a vocal rocket with a solid and authoritative, “You Go to My Head,” and then moving on with her smooth phrasing (and occasional scat singing) for a gentle and embracing, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love (Baby).” Then, while the ladies took a breather, the orchestra delivered a sexy, “The Lady is a Tramp,” with terrific sax and trumpet solo moments, and a fine arrangement that seemed to have the various sections of the orchestra talking to one another. In the next segment Jenkins returned to the stage bringing whisper-like tenderness and delicacy to, “Our Love is Here to Stay,” and N’Kenge arrived in a soft, pink layered wedding cake gown for her sultry and seductive, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” Miss Glover then closed out the first half of the program bringing a sense of theatrical drama to a “Come Rain or Come Shine,” that had a thrilling conclusion.

Following the intermission, while conducting the orchestra in the musical excitement of “One O’Clock Jump,” the visibly enthusiastic maestro Reineke appeared to be doing some jumping of his own on the podium.

N’KENGE
Photo: Courtesy of Houston Symphony

Back now in a sleek and fascinating gown, N’Kenge performed a sensational, “Fascinating Rhythm.” Jenkins followed with a merry and explosive, “Something’s Gotta Give,” and Glover warned us of musical delights ahead with an enticing, “The Best Is Yet to Come.” A joyous and prancing, “Mack the Knife,” from the orchestra had a pulsing and thrilling finale. N’Kenge reappears in a smashing feathered gown and calms the room, as a tinkling piano leads her into the classic barroom tale of, “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road).” It captured the appropriate melancholy at the outset, but seemed to wander into excess showy vocal embellishments toward the end. Glover’s “God Bless the Child,” was a warm and touching rendition of the Billie Holiday hit, and Jenkins glows as she sings a haunting, “Summertime,” that lifts the audience heavenward even before she sings the line, “Spread your wings and take to the sky.” The three divas combined forces at the end bringing a silken blend to “Blues in the Night.” The cheering and appreciative audience leapt to its feet in ovation, and was rewarded with an encore of “C’mon Get Happy.” But it was too late. We were already there!

A member of both The Lambs Club Inc. 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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A Dazzling “42nd STREET” Thunders on to Crighton’s Stage

Sara Preisler plays rising star, Peggy Sawyer, in Stage Right’s “42nd STREET” at Crighton Theatre.

[All Photos by David W. Clements / DWC Photography. Click any photo to enlarge]

(L-R) Cain Hamilton, Sara Preisler, and Michael Martin lead the cast in “Lullaby of Broadway.”

Even if you have not yet been a lucky audience member for Stage Right’s new production of the legendary Broadway musical, 42nd STREET, perhaps you have heard the cheers and tap shoes now blowing the roof off the Crighton Theatre in downtown Conroe. Better hurry if you want to get tickets for this one.

Manny Cafeo

Director, Manny Cafeo, has spared nothing in creating this sensational musical blockbuster, and choreographer, Dinah Mahlman,

Adam Isbell (left) and Ms. Preisler lead another showstopper.

must have magic powers of her own as evidenced by the stunning performance of her talented dancers. Even before the opening curtain rises, the arriving audience is made ready for tap dance glory via an onscreen projection of the “Tap Dance in America” video from renowned hoofer, Gregory  Hines.

Michael Martin as director, Julian Marsh

Then it was time to enter the 1930’s world of this musical creation featuring music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin, and book by Michael Stewart & Mark Bramble. Structured as a “play within a play,” the cheerful plot surrounds the backstage story of the rehearsals for a new musical titled, “Pretty Lady.” Michael Martin gives a convincing performance as that show’s authoritative and demanding director, Julian Marsh.

Layne Roberts as Dorothy Brock

Layne Roberts, with her powerful voice and flair for comedy, provides plenty of campy fun with her diva-like portrayal of the show’s temperamental and fading star, Dorothy Brock. Though she is past her prime, Marsh tolerates Miss Brock as star of the show in order to secure the financial backing of her wealthy boyfriend, Abner Dillon (J. David LaRue).

Carolyn Wong as Maggie and John Kaiser as Bert

Speaking of comic flair, it is no surprise that Carolyn Corsano Wong brings plenty of that to her role as Maggie, one of the show’s two writer/producers.

Cain Hamilton and Sara Preisler

Cain Hamilton plays the show’s handsome lead tenor, Billy Lawlor, and he is quickly smitten by the belated arrival of a pretty would-be chorus girl named Peggy Sawyer (Sara Preisler). The twosome duet beautifully for the cheerful, “Young & Healthy,” but when Peggy is abruptly dismissed by the choreographer, (Adam Isbell), for arriving late to the audition, she collides with the director while scurrying off stage. Thus, we have the makings of the “small town girl makes it big on Broadway” storyline that propels the plot.

The Cast of 42nd STREET

What follows is an absolutely splendid parade of great songs and dances, all decorated with the elegant and eye-popping costumes from designer, Debbie Preisler. They bring a seemingly endless and multi-colored world of shimmering glitz and glamour that keeps surprising us from scene to scene amid the pleasant scenic designs of Kara Kowalik. Sound Designer, Ms. Wong, and Musical Director, Ana Guirola-Ladd, have so skillfully incorporated and synchronized the show’s recorded musical soundtrack that one would almost swear there was a full orchestra in the pit. Meanwhile, with huge and hilarious feather boa sleeves on her over-the-top white gown, Miss Roberts (above) leads the talented ensemble for the well-staged “Shadow Waltz” ballet.

Maggie (Carolyn Wong) rides the on-screen train to
Shuffle Off to Buffalo.

The ever-perky Ms. Wong delightfully lights up the stage as she leads the whirling chorus girls in an unusual, seated tap number titled, “Go Into Your Dance.” Then Roberts returns, adorned in lush royal purple chiffon, to sing, “You’re Getting to be a Habit With Me.” It is not long before she is back in a glittering gray gown to offer a solid, “I Only Have Eyes for You.” As the cast heads off to-out-of-town tryouts, technical director, Jim Bingham, cleverly takes us all along on the train ride with skillfully added on-screen projections that would also enhance the “Shuffle off to Buffalo” number in Act Two.

Fashions galore during DAMES.

The soundtrack volume was a bit too loud as the appealing Mr. Hamilton (looking sharp in top hat, black tie and tails) nicely delivered the tune, “Dames,”

Dinah Mahlman hams it up nicely during DAMES

while the ladies strutted on stage in a virtual fashion show of stunning art-deco inspired gowns  worthy of Hollywood.

Showgirls are soaring during “We’re in the Money.”

To top it off, Act One concludes as the full cast brings us the show stopping, one-two punch of a dazzling extravaganza that features not only a title song finale, but also a “We’re in the Money” number that features both sensational tap dancing and sparkling emerald green costumes that look to be from the Land of Oz. They should be auctioned off for St. Patrick’s Day!

Of course Act Two is full of more delights as Peggy finds herself suddenly drafted to replace the lead when the star, Miss Brock, is injured in a fall. An enormous and gifted cast too large to itemize here will send you happily home humming tunes like, “Lullaby of Broadway,” “About a Quarter to Nine,” and “There’s a Sunny Side to Every Situation.” In closing, allow me to make a suggestion while stealing a line from the lyric of the show’s title song:

“COME AND MEET THOSE DANCING FEET…” You won’t be sorry!

42nd Street runs thru February 24th with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays & Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets cost $24, $20, $15, according to age, with discounts for groups. Reservations are available at www.stage-right.org, or call 936-441-7469 weekdays between 3 and 6 p.m. The Crighton Theatre is at 234 N. Main in downtown Conroe, Texas.

 

A member of both The Lambs Club Inc. 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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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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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

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