Whenever he was distressed about disturbing current events in the news, it was not uncommon for my late father to announce, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket!” If he could have been with me for the recent Tommy Tune Awards program in Houston’s Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, I’m sure he would have found cause for much greater enthusiasm about where this world is headed. That optimistic enthusiasm was immediately evident as one entered the buzzing excitement of the Sarofim Theatre and its soaring lobby for this much-anticipated annual event produced by Theatre Under the Stars. Celebrating the year’s finest high school musical productions from Houston and the surrounding area, the event showcased some 45 school’s that participated in this year’s competition. The many hundreds of multi-talented and beautifully dressed young people filling that theater looked like a pretty good future to me.
As tall, lanky and graceful as ever, the seemingly ageless Mr. Tune bounced on stage in a sensational crimson suit as he opened the proceedings with an elegant tap dance sampler of tunes like “Fascinating Rhythm,” “ ’S Wonderful,” and “I Got Rhythm.” (Boy, does he ever!) A Houston boy himself, he greeted the audience with, “Hi Y’all. I’m Home!” and then declared the evening’s event, “The biggest celebration of live theater on this planet.”
Next it was on to a night of explosive youthful energy and exceptional talent as the eight schools nominated for Best Musical each had an opportunity to do a show-stopping number from their nominated productions. The many other individual awards (detailed here) were presented in between each of these astonishing production numbers. First up, from Houston Christian High School, was an opulent scene from PIPPIN with its mystical circus, dramatic tableaus, flying hoops, fluttering feather boas, and Broadway-worthy Big-Top staging.
Next came the whirling grace of fine choreography in Klein Oak High School’s selection from DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS. A very rockin’, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” from Pearland High School’s GUYS & DOLLS had a few moments of microphone failure, but featured a nice finish with the title tune from that show. From Second Baptist High School the audience was treated to a magical transformation with the ballroom scene from its lush CINDERELLA production, and there was more magic when
Friendswood High School took the stage with the dazzling tap dance glory of its “Step in Time,” from MARY POPPINS. Those dancers looked like they could substitute for Radio City’s Rockettes!
Following the intermission, the eager young audience heard some kind words of encouragement from the 2010 Tommy Tune Award winner for Best Actress in a Leading Role, Stephanie Styles. Miss Styles is currently playing the lead role of Katherine in Disney’s first North American Tour of the Tony Award winning musical, NEWSIES. That show will arrive for Houston performances beginning on May 19th. Other special appearances included Stanton Welch, Artistic director of the Houston Ballet (to present the Best Choreography Award), Tommy Tune Orchestra Conductor & Musical Director, Michael Moricz (to present the Best Musical Direction Award), and renowned actor and Houston native, Jim Parsons, (Big Bang Theory etc.) who addressed the crowd by video expressing great appreciation for the theatrical training he received here, and recalling the advice of one teacher who taught him that, “Someone else’s success is not your failure.”
As Act II got underway, Klein High School offered a “One Day More,” from LES MISERABLES School Edition that was full of gleaming power and thrilling vocal counterpoints. Next, Stratford High School presented the charming number, “Put on a Happy Face,” from its BYE BYE BIRDIE production. It produced happy faces throughout the theater. The final Best Musical nominee was The Kinkaid School with its performance of a golden and glowing, “One” from A CHORUS LINE. There could not have been a more thrilling and spectacular conclusion to the competition, and the school would be rewarded with the evening’s top prize of Best Musical. Speaking of spectacular, there were two heart-stopping moments. As young Harrison Poe scurried onto the stage to receive his award as Best Supporting Actor, he briefly tumbled into the orchestra pit, but was cheerfully unhurt during his smiling acceptance. Winner of the Best Leading Actor Award, Alec Michael Ryan, was so excited on receiving his crystal trophy that if slipped from his grasp and shattered on the floor. Here’s hoping the generous Mr. Tune will quickly arrange for a replacement.
Numerous scholarships were awarded and there was much more entertainment thanks to the creative brilliance of the aforementioned Mr. Moricz. In his role as Musical Director he composed both music and lyrics for three stunning and original musical highlights of the night. First there was a Best Leading Actor Medley featuring each of the nominees in that category. Next came the Best Leading Actress Medley, again featuring each of the ladies nominated. Finally, the show closed with the thrilling, Eyes on the Goal that brought all the evening’s nominees on stage for a grand finale. It was grand indeed! What the logistics must have been for hundreds of students from different schools all over the area to learn and rehearse these three complex production numbers can only be imagined. Bravo!
A nine-time Tony winner himself, Tommy Tune with be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award this June at the Tony Awards in New York. Also in June, on Sunday the 21st, Houston’s ABC-TV channel 13 (KTRK) will televise the Tommy Tune Awards with a 2-hour special at 12 noon.