Houston “…roads take me home…” to the Music Box

PHOTO: Courtesy of Music box Theater (L-R) Brad Scarborough, Rebekah Dahl, Kristina Sullivan, Luke Wrobel

PHOTO: Courtesy of Music box Theater
(L-R) Brad Scarborough, Rebekah Dahl, Kristina Sullivan, Luke Wrobel

Yes, John Denver’s old country classic, “Country Roads,” is still buzzing around in my brain after last weekend’s pleasant opportunity to reacquaint myself with the popular Houston venue of the Music Box Theater. Now fast approaching recognition in the city’s “Top 25” favorite destinations at the popular Trip Advisor website, the increasingly popular nightclub is currently ranked #26 as it prepares to celebrate the club’s continuing success with a “Five Year Anniversary Show,” scheduled to begin next month from May 13-June 18. But no need to wait until then during the current run of the delightful show, “Travelsty,” a fun-filled romp chock full of popular songs selected to salute the upcoming summer travel season as the troupe reprises their 2012 show with the same theme. It was fun then and it’s fun now, with the added bonus that these four talented performers (Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Kristina Sullivan and Luke Wrobel) seem even more polished, in both comedy and song, each time I see them. All four of the performers honed their sensational vocal skills during years as members of the memorable Masquerade Theatre at the Hobby Center.

The audience is told early on that the show will describe, “…the places we’ve been and the paths we took to get here.” As the cast delivers a rowdy and solid version of Bruce Springsteen’s, “Born to Run,” the show takes off like a rocket with great support from music director, Glenn Sharp, and his fine band. With the aid of two chairs and two stools, the gang creates the illusion of a crowded car for this amusing, musical cross-country trip. Rebekah laments the high cost of petrol saying, “Gas prices are higher than I was in the mid-nineties,” but they arrive safely at the first stop in Georgia where we hear the delights of, “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and the obligatory, “Georgia on My Mind.” As we move on to The Big Apple there is gentle fun depicting some loud-mouthed New Yorkers. But all is forgiven when Kristina launches into a beautiful, “New York State of Mind,” while under smoky red lighting, Rebekah weaves a sensational counterpoint with “Empire State of Mind.” Soon we find ourselves in Las Vegas as Luke provides a big, bold, Elvis-style, “Viva Las Vegas,” while his cast mates don feather boas to make a shabbily amusing chorus line. (“Downton Abbey” fans may be interested to know that Mr. Wrobel just completed several years as the droll butler, Mr. Rodgers, on the popular weekly PBS follow-up talk show, “Manor of Speaking.”)

Next, there’s a visit to Tennessee as Kristina carves out a lovely, “Walking in Memphis,” with a wistful conclusion. Summer beach lovers will enjoy a visit to the Coney Island Boardwalk as the group delivers a smoothly acapella, “Under the Boardwalk,” with gentle percussion accents from drummer, John Gremmion. Mr. Scarborough again displays his wide vocal range with his falsetto opening for the group’s mystical rendition of the mysterious Eagles hit, “Hotel California,” punctuated with some spooky slow motion strobe lighting. Kristina returns to guide the group for a sweetly mellow quartet of John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High,” and a joyful version of the aforementioned, “Country Roads.”

Courtesy Photo: (L-R) Sullivan, Wrobel, Dahl & Scarborough

Courtesy Photo:
(L-R) Sullivan, Wrobel, Dahl & Scarborough

Wrobel opens Part Two of the program singing a, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” that is full of desperation. Then the devilishly good-looking Scarborough brings smooth naturalness and sassy country flavor to the tune, “Take it Easy,” before Kristina accompanies herself on harpsichord for a pleasant, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” featuring fine banjo work from Long Le in the band. As the action moves to New Orleans, Rebekah brings some snappy sparkle to, “Hey, Lord!” and her husband, Brad, follows with dazzling vocal transitions during, “House of the Rising Sun.” Kristina winds up that segment with a wonderful, “Basin Street Blues,” as Luke adds a bit of Satchmo-style scat singing. Then it’s off to San Francisco, Detroit and of course a final return to Houston. If you’re in town, why not come see for yourself?

TRAVELSTY continues at the Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt-Houston, Texas through May 7th with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm. Reserved seating is $37 and General Admission is $27. For tickets and information call (713) 522-7722 or visit the website at www.themusicboxtheater.com.

Posted in BroadwayStars.com, Music Box Theater, The Courier Columns, YourHoustonNews.com | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

“RUMORS” Leaves Farce Fans Laughing at Crighton

Cast of RUMORS Back (L-R) David Herman, Joey Hancock, Jonathan Rozas, Robert Faber, Allen Dorris, Stella Leland Front (L-R) Sherry Rozas, Melody Montez, Amy Sowers, Jen Watson

Cast of RUMORS
Back (L-R) David Herman, Joey Hancock, Jonathan Rozas, Robert Faber, Allen Dorris, Stella Leland
Front (L-R) Sherry Rozas, Melody Montez, Amy Sowers, Jen Watson

[Photos by David Clements-DWC Photography]

Followers of the comic genius of playwright, Neil Simon, have another chance to sample his oft-times hilarious repertoire with the current Stage Right production of the zany comedy, “Rumors,” now playing at Conroe’s historic Crighton Theatre. Those expecting to attend should plan on arriving early for an additional sampling of the work and wit of Mr. Simon. As has become the pleasant custom at Crighton, there is a cleverly assembled pre-show screening (during the half hour before curtain) of various videos, photos and sound bites related to the theatre’s current offering. In this case, there is a generous dose of movie trailers from Simon films such as “The Sunshine Boys,” and “Murder By Death,” along with hilarious outtakes from the TV series, “The Odd Couple,” and numerous interesting interview clips from Mr. Simon himself. Then, following a brief introduction by director, Travis Bryant, it was on with the show.

The plot of this very nutty farce involves the arrival, one by one, of four elegant couples (formal attire from costume designer, Sydney Elias), who are invited to the tenth wedding anniversary celebration of Charlie Brock and his wife Myra. The gathering is to be held at the Brock’s fashionable townhouse in New York City where Charlie serves as Deputy Mayor. The first couple to arrive, Chris & Ken Gorman (Jen Watson and Robert Faber), find the home apparently empty, but soon discover the host is upstairs recovering from an unexplained gunshot wound through his own earlobe, while his wife and the household servants are missing altogether. When Claire and Lenny Ganz are the next guests to arrive (Amy Sowers & Allen Doris), the Gormans try not to reveal what has happened for fear of a government scandal in the Mayor’s office. Attempts at secrecy get continually more complicated with the arrival of Ernie & Cookie Cusak (Joey Hancock and Melody Montez), and the final guests, Glenn and Cassie Cooper (portrayed by real life husband and wife, Jonathan & Sherry Rozas).

Deanie Harmon & Dennis O'Connor

Deanie Harmon & Dennis O’Connor

The ensuing hilarity involves everything from car accidents to marital spats, not to mention dinner guests having to figure out how to prepare their own dinner. With each silly twist and turn of the convoluted plot, everything is punctuated by a seemingly endless parade of comic entrances and exits, while the players come and go in rapid succession through the numerous doors of this attractive townhouse set that is a star in its own right. A collaborative effort from designer, Deanie Harmon, and Master Carpenter, Dennis O’Connor, the bi-level set is both attractively designed and functional for the action of the piece.

Dennis O'Connor proudly displays the attractive set.

Dennis O’Connor proudly displays the attractive set.

Now by way of way of full disclosure, as a matter of personal taste I sometimes find farce to be tedious. I most often react this way when actors seem intent on telegraphing (perhaps with rolling eyes or exaggerated body language and movement) what they think they must put across as funny. This can be a problem when a clever author like Neil Simon has already built “funny” into the script. It all works best when the characters seem almost unaware of the humor in the comical things they say and do, but we, the audience, can then have the pleasure of discovering what is ridiculous without having to be hit over the head with it. While we sometimes see these dangers played out in this production, it must be said that there was plenty of roaring laughter from the audience throughout the play, and much of it was my own. Happily the hilarity reached its most delicious levels as Act Two moved toward its hilarious conclusion. Special credit for that must go to the strong comic performance of David Herman as Police Officer Welch (with nice assistance from Stella Leland as Officer Pudney). Above all, the closing scene has a memorable and uproarious performance from Mr. Dorris who provides the play’s comic crescendo when he perfectly delivers one of the funniest (and longest) monologues in the comedy repertoire as his character, Lenny, tries to explain the nutty events of the evening to the police. Talk about “Leave ‘em laughing!” Bring along your laugh muscles for that one!

RUMORS posterRUMORS continues through May 1st, 2016 with Friday & Saturday performances at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., all at the beautiful Crighton Theatre, 234 N. Main St. in Conroe, Texas. For tickets ($15-$20) and information, call 936-441-7469 or visit the website at www.stage-right.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 ThePeoplesCritic@earthlink.net.

Posted in "Rumors", Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Crighton Theatre, Neil Simon, Stage Right Players, The Courier Columns, Theater Reviews, ThePeoplesCritic.com, YourHoustonNews.com | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fine Voices Highlight TUTS “OLIVER!”

The Cast of OLIVER!

The Cast of OLIVER!

[All Photos by Christian Brown – Click any photo to enlarge]

Christopher Wolff as Oliver

Christopher Wolff as Oliver

There is a pivotal moment in the Charles Dickens classic tale, “Oliver Twist,” when the hungry and naïve young orphan, Oliver, finishes the humble bowl of gruel he has been given for breakfast, and then dares to ask, “Please sir, I want some more!” Thus begin the many adventures of this young rebel, which in 1960 were brilliantly converted into what would become the legendary musical, “Oliver!” With its music, lyrics and book all the creation of composer, Lionel Bart, the show would debut in London, and then move on to become a Tony Award-winner after arriving on Broadway in 1963.

Caleb Donahoe as The Artful Dodger with the cast of OLIVER!

Caleb Donahoe as The Artful Dodger with the cast of OLIVER!

With a fine orchestra and musical direction from conductor, Wayne Green, this current TUTS production serves the lovely music well as it draws its greatest strength from the considerable vocal talents of its well-chosen cast.

Frequent visitors to Houston’s Hobby Center may recall the fine performance of Christopher Wolff playing young Winthrop in last season’s TUTS production of The Music Man.

Christopher Wolff as OLIVER

Christopher Wolff as OLIVER

Here, even as we sense the beginnings of the voice change that will bring him to young manhood, Wolff again brings his fine boyish soprano to the title role of Oliver with lovely renditions of the memorable, “Where is Love,” and fine solo moments during the show’s splashy number, “Who Will Buy?” Oliver is one of the many abused young orphans in a workhouse overseen by the pompous and cruel Mr. Bumble (a sinister performance from Brian Ray Norris).

Brian Ray Norris as Mr. Bumble and Barbara Marineau as the Widow Corney

Brian Ray Norris as Mr. Bumble and Barbara Marineau as the Widow Corney

Bumble is assisted by the equally sinister Widow Corney (Barbara Marineau), but at least the two find gleeful pleasure in each other’s company during the flirtatious fun of, “I Shall Scream.” Mr. Norris brings a deep rich voice to the ominous, “Boy For Sale,” when it is determined that troublesome young Oliver must be sold. Thus the boy faces still more cruelty when sold into the custody of the mean local undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry and his wife (Dylan Godwin & Gayton Scott).

When Oliver happily escapes their clutches he finds himself falling in with some unsavory young pickpockets led by an older boy named Dodger (Caleb Donahoe), who welcomes Oliver to the group as they all join in for the lively and cheerful, “Consider Yourself.”

Christopher Wolff as Oliver and James Leo Ryan as Fagin

Christopher Wolff as Oliver and James Leo Ryan as Fagin

A sly old man named Fagin (James Leo Ryan) houses the boys in his hideout and instructs them in the art of thievery during the amusingly devilish, “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two.” Mr. Ryan brings a captivating sense of mystery to this number, and more especially to his Act Two performance of the thought-provoking, “Reviewing the Situation,” which finds him analyzing whether he should reform or continue as a thief.

Caleb Donahoe as The Artful Dodger, Kathryn Porterfield as Nancy, James Leo Ryan as Fagin, and Nathaniel Hackmann as Bill Sykes.

Caleb Donahoe as The Artful Dodger, Kathryn Porterfield as Nancy, James Leo Ryan as Fagin, and Nathaniel Hackmann as Bill Sykes.

An older girl named Nancy (Kathryn Porterfield) is part of Fagin’s suspicious family, and she has the misfortune to be married to the abusive Bill Sykes (an appropriately ominous performance from Nathaniel Hackmann who could scare you to death singing the frightening, “My Name!”) Miss Porterfield, fresh off her recent success in the TUTS Underground production of “The Sweet Potato Queens,” brings a glorious voice to songs like, “It’s a Fine Life,” “I’d Do Anything,” and her thrilling pledge of devotion to her cruel husband during, “As Long as He Needs Me.”

Kathryn Porterfield as Nancy and the cast of OLIVER!

Kathryn Porterfield as Nancy and the cast of OLIVER!

The latter, it could be noted, is not really politically correct in a modern world that scorns toleration of spousal abuse. But Porterfield and the full company joyfully open up the second act with the infectious and melodic charms of the lusty and lively beer hall song, “Oom-Pah-Pah.” It is an ensemble delight, much like both the show’s opening number, “Food, Glorious Food,” and the first act closer, “Be Back Soon.” The well-guided cast (Director, Bruce Lumpkin) features a great many youngsters from the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre at TUTS, and they have learned their lessons well. Choreographer, Dana Lewis, has both young and old members of the cast dancing beautifully, and the period costumes of designer, Colleen Graddy, nicely capture the atmosphere of this Dickensian world.

A rousing "Oom-Pah-Pah" from the Cast of OLIVER!

A rousing “Oom-Pah-Pah” from the Cast of OLIVER!

The scenic designs of Dennis Hassan are both effective and versatile, as minor set adjustments and the lighting designs from Charlie Morrison create varied scenes within the same essential structure. While production problems were few, there were occasional moments when orchestra levels overwhelmed audibility of the dialogue and lyrics. The show does have some dark moments surrounding Bill’s cruelty toward Nancy, but overall it would not be a surprise if we heard some in the audience echo young Oliver as the final curtain comes down: “Please, sir, I want some more!”

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

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Charles Dickens, Conroe Courier, HERE HOUSTON-Lifestyle & Entertainment, Houston Community Newspapers online, Houston's Hobby Center, Lionel Bart, Oliver!, The Courier Columns, The Villager Columns, Theater Under the Stars, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

A “CABARET” Miracle for Houston

Randy Harrison as the Emcee and the 2016 National Touring cast of Roundabout Theatre Company’s CABARET.  Photo by Joan Marcus.

Randy Harrison as the Emcee and the 2016 National Touring cast of Roundabout Theatre Company’s CABARET.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Kit Kat Band

The Kit Kat Band

 All photos by Joan Marcus from the 2016 National Touring cast of Roundabout Theatre Company’s CABARET.

[Click any photo to enlarge]

It is the early 1930’s in Berlin and the powerful rise of the Nazi party is not far off. Before the curtain rises on this absolutely stunning revival of the 1998 Roundabout Theatre Company production of Broadway’s 1967 Tony Award-winning, CABARET, the arriving audience finds itself part of the clever illusion of being in the dimly lit backstage of the seedy Kit Kat Club. The performers slowly assemble on stage to warm up while tuning instruments and doing pre-performance stretches. Those will be the last quiet moments before this sensational edition of the classic John Kander & Fred Ebb musical takes off like a rocket at Houston’s Hobby Center with able direction from BT McNicholl.

Randy Harrison (center) as the  Emcee

Randy Harrison (center) as the
Emcee

Randy Harrison and the CABARET cast

Randy Harrison and the CABARET cast

Guiding the action at the nightclub in the role of the Emcee is Randy Harrison in an electrifying performance that could simply not be topped. He literally owns the stage from the moment he welcomes the audience with the memorable “Willkommen,” to the final shocking twist that comes at show’s end. That opening number, with its fine ensemble of Kit Kat Girls and Kit Kat Boys, immediately sets the standard for the visually and musically splendid night of theatre that will follow as the Emcee leads the merry madness of songs like, “Money,” “Two Ladies,” or the satirical attack on Nazism, “If You Could See Her?” The captivating score makes it easy to understand why, after 50 years, this musical can still pack the house. But the staging here, the perfect casting, the extraordinary dancing and the enormous onstage orchestra of some two-dozen fine musicians (director, Robert Cookman) all combine to approach theatrical perfection. It would be worth the price of admission just to hear this Kit Kat Band in concert. The sexy and raunchy original Rob Marshall choreography of the 1998 revival is skillfully recreated here by Associate Choreographer, Cynthia Onrubia, and her ensemble cast of incredible dancers. Meanwhile, the lighting designs of Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari mysteriously illuminate the tacky desperation of this pre-war world, beautifully realized in the set designs of Robert Brill.

  Andrea Goss as  Sally Bowles  and Lee Aaron Rosen as Clifford Bradshaw


Andrea Goss as
Sally Bowles
and Lee Aaron Rosen as Clifford Bradshaw

Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles

Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles

Central to the story is the character of the nightclub’s struggling star, Sally Bowles, beautifully performed by lovely and velvet-voiced Andrea Goss, looking a bit like a cute cross between Clara Bow and Betty Boop. Her performances of the title song and the tender, “Maybe This Time,” are sensational. Sally soon finds romance with handsome American writer, Cliff Bradshaw (Lee Aaron Rosen), who has come to Berlin to work on his novel and is helped in finding an apartment by a suspicious Nazi sympathizer named Ernst Ludwig (Ned Noyes). Rosen has a deep, rich voice for both dialogue and song that is well-displayed in his fine duet of “Perfectly Marvelous” with Miss Goss.

Shannon Cochran as  Fräulein Schneider  and Mark Nelson as  Herr Schultz

Shannon Cochran as
Fräulein Schneider
and Mark Nelson as
Herr Schultz

Also marvelous is the sweet relationship that develops between Cliff’s cautious landlady, Fräulein Schneider (Shannon Cochran), and a local Jewish fruit merchant, Herr Schultz (an affectionate portrayal by Mark Nelson). In spite of numerous amusing interruptions from a woman of ill repute living in Schneider’s apartment building (Alison Ewing as the comical Fräulein Kost), Schneider and Schultz have an innocent and darling love affair that is beautifully captured in tender songs like, “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” and “Married.” Alas, the rising tide of Nazi anti-Semitism puts that relationship at risk as Miss Cochran sings the chilling, “What Would You Do?” Chilling as well, at the close of Act One, is the full company’s frenzied and anthem-like, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” led by Fräulein Kost and Ernst Ludwig.

Cliff sizes up this time in Berlin very well when he remarks, “It’s all tawdry and terrible, and everyone’s having a wonderful time.” But the audience knows this era in Germany does not end well, even as the Emcee declares, “Life is disappointing, but we have no troubles here!”

CABARET posterCABARET continues at Houston’s Hobby Center with final performances today at 2 pm & 7:30 pm. For tickets and information call 855-660-7034 or visit the website at hobby.center-tickets.net/‎ .

Posted in Andrea Goss, Broadway, BROADWAY at the Hobby Center, BroadwayStars.com, Cabaret, Conroe Courier, Fred Ebb, Houston Community Newspapers online, Houston's Hobby Center, John Kander, Lee Aaron Rosen, Randy Harrison, Roundabout Theatre Company, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com, YourHoustonNews.com | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Frothy Fun from “SWEET POTATO QUEENS” at TUTS

The cast of SWEET POTATO QUEENS Photo by Christian Brown

The cast of SWEET POTATO QUEENS
Photo by Christian Brown

By DAVID DOW BENTLEY III

www.ThePeoplesCritic.com

[Click any photo to enlarge]

For those seeking relief from the seemingly endless woes that newscasters assault us with on a daily basis, the cheerful answer may have arrived via the latest offering from the Theatre Under the Stars Underground series with last Friday’s World Premiere of the merry new musical, The Sweet Potato Queens, directed by Bruce Lumpkin & Marley Wisnoski. The show celebrates the genesis of a now world-wide organization claiming more than 6000 SPQ chapters in over 20 countries. The 1982 brainchild of Jill Conner Browne in Jackson, Mississippi, the idea involved a group of fun-loving women on a path to self-empowerment, who decided, with Ms. Browne’s direction, to feature themselves as stars in the Zippity Doo Dah Parade, Jackson Mississippi’s St. Patrick’s Day Celebration. The annual event raises needed funds for Jackson’s Batson Children’s Hospital. That SPQ tradition continues to the present day, and this coming weekend will again be Sweet Potato Queens Weekend in Jackson, while Houston has a celebration of its own with this delightful musical romp featuring the often poignant lyrics by Sharon Vaughn, the warm, sweet musical score of Melissa Manchester, and a pleasant book by Rupert Holmes. Speaking of books, Ms. Browne has authored a popular assortment of SPQ books that are eagerly received by her many fans.

Daddy's Little Girl Katherine Porterfield & Kevin Cooney PHOTO: Christian Brown

Daddy’s Little Girl
Katherine Porterfield & Kevin Cooney
PHOTO: Christian Brown

Theresa Nelson as Mama PHOTO: Christian Brown

Theresa Nelson as Mama
PHOTO: Christian Brown

But let us return to the subject of this very cute new musical. (Music Director/Conductor, Thom Culcasi). It is not a profound theatrical event, nor is it intended to be. But it is a lively and entertaining romp that many (especially you gals) will thoroughly enjoy, and it sports a cast of very fine vocalists. If any of you ladies ever danced in the aisles at a production of Mama Mia, or let loose in a Mardi Gras parade, this show is for you! Guys who like sexy ladies and bawdy humor will not be disappointed either.

Katherine Porterfield & Adam Gibbs PHOTO: Christian Brown

Katherine Porterfield & Adam Gibbs
PHOTO: Christian Brown

The two-tiered plot has the contemporary Queen Jill (Susan Koozin) as a frequent narrator, but takes us in flashback to the much younger Jackson Jill (Kathryn Porterfield) when she lived in a trailer park years earlier with her nagging Mom (Theresa Nelson), kindly Dad (Kevin Cooney), her infant child, and her good-for-nothing redneck husband, Tyler (Adam Gibbs). Ryan McGettigan’s rotating set gives us smooth scene changes and clever views of both the interior and exterior of the trailer.

THREE TAMMYS (L-R) Kerissa Arrington, Julia Krohn, Christina Stroup PHOTO: Christian Brown

THREE TAMMYS
(L-R) Kerissa Arrington, Julia Krohn, Christina Stroup
PHOTO: Christian Brown

Jill’s young girlfriends are amusingly all named Tammy. Kerissa Arrington has a powerful gospel-sound voice portraying Too Much Tammy. Christina Stroup sings beautifully as well and gives a thoughtful performance as the reluctantly loose woman, Floozie Tammy. Julia Krohn brings tenderness to the role of Flower Tammy, the optimistic victim of her husband’s physical abuse. Meanwhile, Jill is sweetly comforted by her father as she tries to endure her mother’s whining and her husband’s philandering.

Dylan Goodwin as George PHOTO: Christian Brown

Dylan Goodwin as George
PHOTO: Christian Brown

What binds all these characters together is the rowdy fun of the supportive sisterhood bond between these future Sweet Potato Queens, and the gay pal, George, (Dylan Godwin) that they take under their wing. Campy and outlandish costumes (designer, Colleen Grady), over-the-top wigs (designer, Jeff Knaggs), along with splashy and show-stopping numbers, all add to the fun. But even more important is the really rich musical score which will please fans of classic country music with tender original songs and ballads that in the opinion of this critic have the potential to cross-over in the country music scene, or perhaps land the show appreciative audiences in Nashville, Las Vegas or beyond. My only regret is that one of those more memorably melodic tunes was not chosen to close the show with the warmth it deserves.

SWEET POTATO PremiereSWEET POTATO QUEENS continues at Houston’s Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St., with final performances at 7:30 pm Thursday, 8 pm Friday, 3 pm & 8:30 pm on Saturday, and 3pm on Sunday. For tickets and information visit the website at www.TUTSUNDERGROUND.com

Posted in Batson Children’s Hospital, BroadwayStars.com, Houston's Hobby Center, Jill Conner Browne, Melissa Manchester, Rupert Holmes, Sharon Vaughn, Sweet Potato Queens, The Villager Columns, Theater Reviews, ThePeoplesCritic.com, TUTS Underground, YourHoustonNews.com, Zilkha Hall, Zippity Doo Dah Parade | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

YOUNG TEXAS ARTISTS Celebrated with Bach, Beethoven & Barbecue

YTA 2016 Finalists (L-R) Stephanie Sanchez, Lisa Borik, Peng Wang, Katherine Audas, Rachel Knight, Xuesha Hu. (Absent: Robert Levinger) PHOTO: Dave Clements/DWC Photography

YTA 2016 Finalists
(L-R) Stephanie Sanchez, Lisa Borik, Peng Wang, Katherine Audas, Rachel Knight, Xuesha Hu. (Absent: Robert Levinger)
PHOTO: Dave Clements/DWC Photography

[Click any photo to enlarge]

There are those rare occasions in life when it seems the stars are fully in alignment. Such was the case on Saturday night last weekend in Conroe, Texas, when after a soaking week of much needed rain, the heavens shone forth with blue skies and perfect weather as guests arrived for the 32nd annual Young Texas Artists Music Competition with its gala barbeque dinner dance, auction, and Crighton Theatre performances of the finalists in this ultimate contest for the state’s finest young classical musicians. YTA Founder, Jim Pokorski, had every right to be beaming with pride throughout the night, along with his lovely wife, Susie, YTA Committee Chair and Executive Director of the important work throughout the year that makes this yearly event possible. Shana & Tim Arthur once again served as Co-Chairs for the gala, and The Honorable Guy Martin, and his late brother, The Honorable J. Ross Martin III, were the night’s honorees, recognizing their outstanding work in the community and long-time support of the arts. The entire evening, under the auspices of The Montgomery County Performing Arts Society, would prove to be as delightful as the weather, while at the same time serving as the major fund-raiser for YTA’s many wonderful programs.

Bill Mock & The Highway 105 Band PHOTO: Courtesy of ThePeoplesCritic.com

Bill Mock & The Highway 105 Band
PHOTO: Courtesy of ThePeoplesCritic.com

As it does each year, the gala celebration began under a specially constructed catering tent set up across the entire street in front of the Crighton Theatre. As beer, wine and champagne flowed freely, guests enjoyed the now traditional Texas-style barbecue dinner, along with the fabulous country sounds of Bill Mock & the Highway 105 Band. Emmett Kelly served as Gala Emcee, and during the feast guests had the opportunity to bid on exciting gifts, vacation getaways and gourmet dinners, while Lady Lyn Howard conducted a live auction that raised over six-thousand dollars for YTA. Following the formal competition, guests would return to the tent for coffee, champagne, dessert, dancing to the fine band, and mingling with the contestants; but first it was on to the main event of the Competition of Finalists in the adjoining Crighton Theatre.

Hosting again this year as Master of Ceremonies was St. John Flynn, of Houston Public Media’s KUHA Classical 91.7 FM. He would be ably assisted once more by acclaimed concert pianist, recording artist and author, Jade Simmons, who would delightfully interview the contestants on stage during the judges’ deliberations. Judges included Kay Stern (San Francisco Opera Orchestra), William Wellborn (San Francisco Conservatory), Erik Finley (Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra), Richard Giangiulio (Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra), and Eric Mitchko (North Carolina Opera). By evening’s end they would award a total of $19,000 to the seven university-age young finalists in the four contest categories (Strings; Voice; Piano; and Winds, Brass, Percussion). There would be $1000 prizes for Silver Medalists, $3000 prizes for Gold Medalists, an additional $3000 Grand Prize, and finally a $1000 Audience Choice Prize awarded by a vote of the audience.

Peng Wang on Double Bass PHOTO: Dave Clements of DWC Photography

Peng Wang on Double Bass
PHOTO: Dave Clements of DWC Photography

Cellist, Katherine Audas PHOTO: Dave Clements / DWC Photography

Cellist, Katherine Audas
PHOTO: Dave Clements / DWC Photography

In the Strings Division, double bass player, Peng Wang, was awarded the Silver Medal for a warm, rhapsodic performance of the Allegro from Koussevitsky’s “Concerto in F-Sharp minor,” that was characterized by the musician’s clearly loving embrace of the instrument he played so well. The Gold Medal would be awarded to cellist, Katherine Audas. Dressed in a regal scarlet gown, she exhibited intense focus and extraordinary dexterity as her slender and delicate arms extended to flying fingertips that were mesmerizing during a courtly and joyful performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme for Violoncello and Orchestra Op.33,” that was full of romantic longing and would capture the additional Audience Choice Award.

Adorned in a sparkling and ruby-colored gown, soprano Lisa Borik would capture the Silver Medal in the Voice Division with her passionate and soaring sampling of Puccini (“Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from La Rondine), and Bizet ( as she took flight with vocal power and intensity for “Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante,” from Carmen). Next, wearing an elegant and glittering charcoal gown, mezzo soprano, Stephanie Sanchez, would capture that division’s Gold Medal weaving first a theatrical magic spell with coy and easy grace performing Bizet’s haunting and seductive, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle,” from Carmen, and then moving on to a playful, animated and tongue twisting performance of Rossini’s “Cruda sorte!” from L’italiana in Algeri.

Harpist, Rachel Knight PHOTO: Dave Clements / DWC Photography

Harpist, Rachel Knight
PHOTO: Dave Clements / DWC Photography

Winning the Gold Medal in the night’s uncontested Winds, Brass & Percussion Division would be the brilliant performance of harpist, Rachel Knight. Dressed in a soft peach colored gown that gleamed like her glistening necklace, she offered what seemed a full tour of the harp’s sound variations during Alberto Ginastera’s elaborate and thrilling Harp Concerto, Op. 25. Whether plucking, stroking, or gently brushing the strings, her impressive skill, and evident delight and excitement while performing were clearly a winning combination.

Meanwhile, the Piano Division would provide an excitement of its own. With considerable dramatic flair, thunderous power, dazzling speed and technical excellence, Robert Levinger would win the Silver Medal as he moved freely through the dreamy passages, and on to the thrilling excitement and intensity of the closing portions of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.1 in D-Flat Major, Op. 10.

(L-R) Jim Pokorski, Susie Pokorski & Grand Prize winner, Xuesha Hu. PHOTO: Dave Clements / DWC Photography

(L-R) Jim Pokorski, Susie Pokorski & Grand Prize winner, Xuesha Hu.
PHOTO: Dave Clements / DWC Photography

The Gold Medal in this category would then go to Xuesha Hu for her astonishing performance of the Allegro con brio from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15. She was clearly a star in a stunning rose and pink gown that appeared to be woven from the very stars in the heavens. The prancing delicacy of her crisp, elegant attack, her physically fluid motion and superb transitions from moments of musical power to those of a mere whisper suggesting the gentlest lapping of a wave against the shore, all of these elements combined to make her the clear choice for the evening’s Grand Prize. It was a memorable night from beginning to end, and one suspects that the concert halls of the world will be eager to welcome many of these artists with open arms.

Posted in Beethoven, Bizet, Crighton Theatre, Jim Pokorski, Montgomery County Performing Arts Society, Prokofiev, Puccini, Rossini, St. John Flynn, Susie Pokorski, Tchaikovsky, Young Texas Artists | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

AT TUTS: It’s a Jolly Holiday with MARY POPPINS

Dancing With the Chimney Sweeps (Front L-R Sean Graul as Michael, Danny Gardner as Bert, Christina DeCicco as Mary and Kelly Lomonte as Jane) PHOTO: Christian Brown

Dancing With the Chimney Sweeps
(Front L-R Sean Graul as Michael, Danny Gardner as Bert, Christina DeCicco as Mary and Kelly Lomonte as Jane)
PHOTO: Christian Brown

[Click Any Photo to Enlarge]

It was the opening week for the new Theatre Under the Stars production of the ever-popular Broadway musical, MARY POPPINS. Though it was a school night, there was an almost carnival-like atmosphere with the many nicely dressed youngsters in the audience, out for a great adventure with Mom and Dad, and perhaps a first experience of live theatre.

Christina DeCicco takes flight as Mary Poppins above the Banks family (L-R Drew McVety, Kelly Lomonte, Sean Graul & Courtney Markowitz) PHOTO: Christian Brown

Christina DeCicco takes flight as Mary Poppins above the Banks family (L-R Drew McVety, Kelly Lomonte, Sean Graul & Courtney Markowitz)
PHOTO: Christian Brown

They would not be disappointed as the wondrous Mary Poppins world (familiar to many from the Disney 2004 film of the same name, and the P.L. Travers series of children’s Poppins books on which it was based) suddenly came magically to life on the stage before them. Much of that magic would spring from the marvelous performance of Christina DeCicco in the title role. One needs only to hear a few notes from her splendid voice in familiar tunes like, “Jolly Holiday,” and “Spoonful of Sugar,” to readily understand how she was chosen to star in the challenging role of Eva Peron (opposite Ricky Martin) in the Broadway production of EVITA. Hers is truly a voice for the Broadway stage.

In an age when so many productions try to get by with recorded soundtracks, here it is especially wonderful to have a fine orchestra in the pit under the able direction of Music Director/Conductor, Jeff Rizzo. With original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman & Robert B. Sherman, the show sports a book by Julian Fellowes (Think “Downton Abbey,” folks). There are also new songs and additional music & lyrics from George Stiles & Anthony Drewe.

The Cast of MARY POPPINS Photo: Christian Brown

The Cast of MARY POPPINS
Photo: Christian Brown

The attractive set designs of Timothy R. Mackabee glide smoothly in and out of scenes as needed, while the charming costumes of George T. Mitchell combine beautifully with the solid direction and choreography of Linda Goodrich, to smoothly move the action between an elegant Victorian home, the gay and colorful London parks, and the rooftop world of the city’s chimney sweeps. The musical’s simple and pleasing plot revolves around the London lives of the upper-class family of stern banker, George Banks (Drew McVety), his wife, Winifred (lovely Courtney Markowitz), and their two very cute but mischievous children, Jane (velvet-voiced, Kelly Lomonte) and Michael (a spry and winning performance from Sean Graul). At their lovely home, the nannies for these naughty children come and go quite quickly, and household servants like the cook, Mrs. Brill (a feisty Barbara Marineau) and Robertson, the handyman (Marco Camacho), are easily exasperated by the hectic goings on in what they call “the madhouse” at #17 Cherry Tree Lane. George is oh-so-serious and aloof from the children, always seeking “precision and order.” Meanwhile, Mrs. Banks tries to make sense of it all as Miss Markowitz lends her lovely and lilting soprano voice to songs like, “Being Mrs. Banks,” “Cherry Tree Lane,” and “Let’s Hope She Will Stay.” The latter song, joined by Mr. Banks and the children, expresses the family’s collective hope that the enigmatic, irrepressible and newly arrived nanny, Mary Poppins, will not run off like those that came before her.

L-R Danny Gardner, Sean Graul, Christina DeCicco and Kelly Lomonte PHOTO: Christian Brown

L-R Danny Gardner, Sean Graul, Christina DeCicco and Kelly Lomonte
PHOTO: Christian Brown

A joyful thread that weaves its way through this popular tale is the merry world of the London chimney sweeps, led here by the joyful performance of Danny Gardner in the role of Bert. His cheerful opening number with the infectious “Chim-Chim Cher-ee” delightfully sets the stage for much of the fun to follow. The prancing joys of the “Jolly Holiday” song alluded to in my title are a perfect example of the show’s lively and sensational choreography, Technicolor explosion of gorgeous costumes, and the winning choral support of the fine ensemble. Magical touches abound as statues in the park come suddenly to life while Mary teaches the jaded youngsters to appreciate the wonders around them.

Barbara Marineau as the Bird Woman PHOTO: Christian Brown

Barbara Marineau as the Bird Woman
PHOTO: Christian Brown

Even an old Bird Woman in the park (a second role here for Barbara Marineau) has life lessons for the children as she encourages a caring nature with Marineau’s powerful performance of the tender song, “Feed the Birds.” Then it’s on to the delicious and witty nonsense at Mrs. Corry’s mysterious store in the park where one can actually buy individual words like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

Funky Fun at Mrs. Corry's PHOTO: Christian Brown

Funky Fun at Mrs. Corry’s
PHOTO: Christian Brown

That popular song is super indeed as performed here by this energetic and talented cast with unusual arm-waving choreography that must have taken the dancers many hours to master. And speaking of super numbers, the beautifully staged, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” is a colorful and eye-popping sensation that children and grownups will love. In that song Mr. Gardner proves he is every inch the heir to Dick Van Dyke’s memorable performance as Bert in the classic Disney film.

"Let's Go Fly a Kite" PHOTO: Christian Brown

“Let’s Go Fly a Kite”
PHOTO: Christian Brown

When Mary becomes unhappy with Jane and Michael’s careless treatment of their toys, youngsters in the audience who are fans of stuffed animals and dolls will not want to miss the “Playing the Game” number that has them all come magically to life in protest. The disenchanted Mary then leaves for a time, and the fearsome nanny, Miss Andrew (Jane Blass), arrives to replace her and whip the children into shape by feeding them a horrible tonic of “Brimstone and Treacle” during her frightening song. More trouble looms when apparently bad loan decisions at the bank seem to put Mr. Banks position there at risk. Without giving away too much of the expected happy ending to come, I will highly recommend the second act’s beautifully choreographed, “Step in Time,” number from the chimney sweeps. (See photo at top). It stands as a perfect symbol of this fun-filled show, which, I might add, ends with the same remarkable last-minute surprise that I saw on Broadway when the show opened there years ago. Perhaps the full cast finale sums it up best: “Anything Can Happen.” Go, enjoy, and be sure to take the kids along to celebrate Spring Break.

MARY POPPINS continues through March 20 that Houston’s Hobby Center main stage with performances on Wednesday & Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm, and a final performance next Sunday evening at 7:30 pm. For tickets visit the website at www.TUTS.com, or call (713) 558-8887 locally and (888) 558-3882 (outside of Houston).

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Disney, HERE HOUSTON-Lifestyle & Entertainment, Houston Community Newspapers online, Houston's Hobby Center, Julian Fellowes, Mary Poppins, Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman, Theatre Under the Stars, ThePeoplesCritic.com, YourHoustonNews.com | Tagged , , | 1 Comment