Last weekend approached with ominous Houston-area Friday morning thunderstorms that seemed a bad omen for the much-anticipated Friday night concert of Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Who could have guessed that by that evening the sky would clear while pleasant breezes and a crescent moon would greet the huge crowd looking forward to the pair’s now famous interpretations of the American Songbook? Yet another weekend surprise awaited me as I would discover a miraculous production of the classic musical, CHICAGO, presented by Lone Star College-Montgomery in The Woodlands. Both events were on such a high plane of excellence they have earned the right to be spoken of in the same breath with this critique.
At the Pavilion I had wisely chosen a comfortable grass location at the front of the Great Lawn. It could not have been a more beautiful night to listen to beautiful music under the stars, and both Mr. Bennett and Miss Gaga were in fine voice for the occasion. It was hard to believe that 14 years had passed since I first reviewed Tony Bennett at the Pavilion in concert with k. d. lang during August of 2001, just one month before the tragic events of 9/11. That concert took place on Mr. Bennett’s 75th birthday, which suggests the great star’s 89th birthday will arrive later this year. For anyone attending this energized and sensational performance, that fact would seem all but impossible. The normal aging process seems to have mercifully passed him by, that great voice remains intact, and the pairing with youthful and talented Miss Gaga seems a perfect way to bring out the best of both performers.
The recorded voice of the late Frank Sinatra began the program describing Bennett as, “The greatest singer in the world today,” and these many years later Tony was ready to validate that claim as the night progressed. Then he introduced his co-star as, “The most popular singer in the world today: Lady Gaga.” The crowd cheered, and it wouldn’t be the last time.
The pair looked as elegant as they sounded with Tony in a crisp and cool white dinner jacket, and Gaga in an endless assortment of colorful wigs, glittering gowns, sparkling jewels, lots of feathers, and headdresses that would make Cher jealous. The pair would offer lush duets of, “Anything Goes,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “They All Laughed,” “Firefly,” “I Won’t Dance,” an enchanting, “Nature Boy,” and a delicate rendition of, “But Beautiful.” There was a cute, “The Lady is a Tramp,” with Gaga strutting about in the sexy style of Mae West.
Mr. Bennett’s winning solos included, “For Once in My Life,” “Sing You Sinners,” “The Good Life,” “When You’re Smiling,” “Stepping Out With My Baby,” “The Lady’s in Love,” “In My Solitude,” a Sinatra Centennial tribute (with “I’ve Got the World on a String,” and “In the Wee Small Hours”), and then, of course, Bennett’s signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” The audience roared its approval.
For her very elegant part, Gaga’s solos included a seductive and Latin-flavored, “Bang! Bang!” a sensational, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and a perhaps over-extended and exotic interpretation of, “Lush Life,” that sadly closed with the star sounding less like a Lady when she unexplainably dropped the “F-Bomb” on a night that had been otherwise free of coarse language on the Pavilion stage. Score that in the mistake column for an otherwise elegant evening.
Meanwhile, in a mistake-free zone on the other side of The Woodlands, audiences were prepared for some saucy content as Lone Star College-Montgomery presented a thoroughly brilliant production of the John Kander/Fred Ebb musical classic, CHICAGO. The school’s Dance, Drama, and Music Departments had combined forces to produce what is arguably one of the top local productions I have ever seen during nearly twenty years as a performing arts critic in the Houston area.
It was sensational on every level, and we can only hope director, Tim Campbell does not get whisked away to Broadway, because if this revival had opened there it would have been a surefire hit. My only regret is that it was performed one weekend only, but I am thankful my friend Dennis O’Connor at Stage Right Productions had alerted me that this was a “Don’t Miss” show. He was right about that.
The staging was slick and classy (Scenic & Lighting designer, Rob Kreps) with a set of brightly illuminated risers across the stage that would be home for much of the action, as well as for the wonderful 13-piece onstage orchestra conducted by Cristina Mendoza. (Music Director, Dr. Mark Marotto). The jazzy and legendary choreography of the late, great, Bob Fosse is brought brilliantly to life by choreographer, Travis Prokop, and the very talented Student Dance Ensemble. I hope Mr. Fosse was smiling down from above at the creative perfection this cast brought to his marvelous dance designs.
The delightful and satirical plot is based on the 1926 play of the same name by Maurine Dallas Watkins with its descriptions of the courtroom and prison corruption that often turned criminals of the era into tabloid celebrities. Velma Kelly (brilliantly played here by beautiful Isabelle Yost), and Roxie Hart (another brilliant portrayal by lovely Christine Saenz) are two accused murderers conniving their way to fame and fortune with the aid of shrewd and slick lawyer, Billy Flynn. (A devilishly satirical performance from handsome, Joey Sheaff).
Rounding out this really flawless cast we have Ana Ramirez-Morales as the deal-making prison matron, “Mama” Morton, Lauren Salazar as the always-optimistic reporter, Mary Sunshine, and Victor Suarez with a subtle and amusing performance as Roxie’s luckless and clueless husband, Amos Hart.
Mama Morton’s, “When You’re Good to Mama,” Mary Sunshine’s “There’s a Little Bit of Good,” and Amos’ “Mr. Cellophane,” are all stand-out numbers from these three vocally talented performers.
But let us return to our talented lead performers who never ceased to amaze. Arriving onstage looking like a young Shirley MacLaine, Miss Yost lights up the room immediately when she ignites the show while leading the cast in the exciting, “All That Jazz.” She is luminous!
Her co-star, Miss Saenz, is every inch her equal and quickly demonstrates as much with a solid and sexy performance of the seductive, “Funny Honey.” Seductive is the operative word for the smooth, polished and super-cool look of the entire production. Adding tremendous fun to it all is the deliciously suave and cocky performance of Mr. Sheaff as the con-artist lawyer, Flynn. Rarely have I seen an actor have this much fun with a role. He was a comic delight, most especially during the spectacular, “Razzle Dazzle” number, and that was just one of the many show stoppers that included, “Cell Block Tango,” “All I Care About,” “We Both Reached for the Gun,” “Me and My Baby,” “When Thelma Takes the Stand,” and the haunting and melodic, “Nowadays.” All of this was accomplished with such a perfectly professional look and feel to the show, it was easy to forget being in a college theater. The superb performance of the orchestra, snazzy costumes of designer, Macy Perrone, perfect sound designs of Bryan Woodall, and the choreographic splendor of the dancing, all combined to seal the deal in making this production certainly one of the most memorable ever presented in the Houston area. Bravo!