ELEPHANT MAN a Courageous Departure for Crighton Theatre

(L-R) Brian Heaton as Treves with Caleb Glass as Merrick and Patrice Kentimenos as Mrs. Kendal
PHOTO by Denton Florian

Fans of the historic Crighton Theatre in Conroe, Texas, are well-acquainted with the high quality work of its resident company, STAGE RIGHT PRODUCTIONS, all under the guidance of producers, Carolyn & Steven Wong. As a general rule, the company often produces crowd-pleasing comedies and musicals, but that is not always the case. Consider the present exception to that rule with the current run of Bernard Pomerance’s, THE ELEPHANT MAN. Winner of the 1979 Tony Award for Best Play, this dark and very serious play is about as far from musical comedy as dramatic theatre can take us. But that fact did not dissuade the show’s courageous director, Craig Campobella, from taking on the task with his simply stated goal of creating a work of art that is, “…hopefully, worthwhile for our community.”

The disturbing plot is based on the sad but true story of Joseph Merrick. In this play he is named John Merrick (Caleb Glass), a man who lived during England’s Victorian period, and was cursed with a gruesomely disfigured body.

Michael Raabe as Ross, the promoter of The Elephant Man.
PHOTO by Denton Florian

As the play opens we find him being treated like some bizarre exhibit, and cruelly exploited as “The Elephant Man,” by his avaricious manager, Ross (Michael Raabe), who happily charges admission to curious onlookers who wish to view the pitiful soul trapped in such a wretched body. Raabe, by the way, gives an explosive, sometimes terrifying performance with the booming voice of some frightening Dickensian carnival barker.

Meanwhile, in a separate setting, we meet two medical professionals at London Hospital, a newly appointed young surgeon named Frederick Treves (Brian Heaton), and his new supervisor there, the hospital administrator, Carr-Gomm (Reid Self). Treves, learning of Merrick’s disturbing condition, brings him to the hospital for further investigation. While Merrick’s physical deformities are largely obscured by a shroud-like costume, only the hideously distorted face is visible to the audience. But conversations of the doctors reveal the horrifying details of an emotionless face, skin the texture of brown cauliflower, repulsive sacs of flesh hanging from the front and back of the body, and a head so enormous that Merrick must sleep sitting up. Nurse Sandwich (Marilyn Moore) is hired to attend to Merrick, but one look at his deformities sends her fleeing. Even in the hospital Merrick is put on display during lectures to other physicians, but a letter to The Times arouses both public sympathy and charity sufficient to create a fund for Merrick to be housed at the hospital for the remainder of his lifetime. He is given further comfort by the frequent visits of pious clergyman, Bishop How (Joshua Merillat), who endeavors to give Merrick spiritual guidance. Then Merrick is visited by Mrs. Kendal (Patrice Kentimenos), a kindly actress who stuns him by being the first woman to ever extend her hand in greeting. He shocks her by hoping that she might extend him more, but details of that encounter might give too much away. Nevertheless, Kendal brings some of her sympathetic and aristocratic friends to meet him. They are often surprised by his warmth and knowledge, and in one poignant scene the various visitors step forward singly to utter moments of self-examination, as they try to look at their own lives in relation to Merrick’s troubled circumstances. Clearly, the author is asking us to do the same.

It should be mentioned that Mr. Heaton, Mr. Self and Mr. Glass all displayed enviable skill as actors when passionately delivering several very lengthy monologues. Without going into too much detail on a production that serious local theatergoers may want to experience for themselves, it is important to note this is a very dark theater piece, and that darkness extends to storyline, sets (designer, Deanie Harmon Boy), lighting (Jim Murph), Victorian costumes (Denise Debold), hair designs by Adam Isbell, and mood (somber musical interludes). Gloomy blackness is everywhere, but there is an amusing break in the tension with the unusual freak show performance of the three singing Pinheads (Cameron Collins, Emili Stowe, Hannah Gilchriest). Their uniquely bizarre costumes and the make-up designs of Mr. Raabe, nicely accent their weird song, “We Are the Queens of the Congo.”


A number of minor supporting players add to the play’s success, and the cast summaries listed in the program had a notable comment from the talented 18 year-old Mr. Glass, who had so bravely accepted the title role in this complex piece of theatre. He expressed his gratitude to both director and cast for their support as he took on the, “…fantastic challenge that is THE ELEPHANT MAN.” Job well done by all concerned!

“The Elephant Man,” continues thru April 29th at Conroe’s Crighton Theatre, 234 N. Main. Performances are 8pm Friday & Saturday, with a Sunday matinee at 2pm. For tickets and information call (936) 441-7469 or visit the website at http://www.stage-right.org/.

Advertisements
Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Crighton Theatre, Houston Chronicle online, Stage Right Productions, The Courier Columns, Theater Reviews, ThePeoplesCritic.com, Tony Awards | Tagged , | Leave a comment

“BROADWAY” Returns to Houston at the Music Box

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

Yes, it’s happily that time again. Spring is here, and Houston’s evermore popular MUSIC BOX cabaret is presenting its 2018 edition of “Broadway at the Box.” This little troupe of five very talented players, and their equally talented 5-piece G-SHARP BAND led by Music Director, Glenn Sharp, has become such a favorite local club during these past seven years that it is no wonder the spot now tops the city’s listings at Trip Advisor. Part of the appeal is the family atmosphere surrounding these gifted performers (Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Kristina Sullivan, Cay Taylor and Luke Wrobel) who began their association years ago as members of the long-running Masquerade Theatre at Houston’s Hobby Center. Their several shows each year are built around original themes, light sketch comedy, playful banter, and above all, exceptional vocal skill, with terrific support from the fine band rounding out the great music. The cozy club also offers beer, wine and light snacks.

The current show is the club’s popular annual salute to Broadway, and this year’s edition began with a powerful performance of “Tradition” by Mr. Wrobel, from the musical classic, Fiddler on the Roof. Following in those powerful footsteps, Scarborough regally delivered a proud and princely tribute to Camelot, and offered deliciously cocky arrogance as Sir Lancelot during his rendition of the amusing, “C’est Moi.” A beaming Kristina brought warm, thoughtful and ever-rising joy to the thrilling escalations of “I Am What I Am,” from La Cage Aux Folles. Miss Taylor brought a dreamy quality to the Pal Joey hit, “Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered.” She was beautifully accompanied by the gentle and rich tones of a solo from band guitarist, Mark McCain, which appeared to bewitch the grateful audience. Fearlessly working his way through that audience, Wrobel returned with a gruff, snappy and snarling, “(Ya Got) Trouble,” from The Music Man. It was so engaging I found myself wishing I could see him do the full production. Dahl and Taylor captured all the heartbreak, longing and rich counterpoints as they joined forces for an exquisite duet of the tender “I Still Believe,” from Miss Saigon. And now, — I kid you not — in an astonishing moment echoing the Broadway original, a helicopter really descends from the ceiling! In such an intimate house it has to be seen to be believed! Dressed in a glittering outfit of black and sequins, Dahl brought a sparkle of her own to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s, “Tell Me on a Sunday,” from the show Song & Dance. Her poignant performance of this song about the end of a relationship brought another real touch of theatre to the proceedings. Act One closed with another Music Box tradition, the annual 7-Minute Musical. This year’s choice, Beauty & the Beast, while not the most musically satisfying seven minutes in the show, was certainly frantic fun with zany costumes and frenzied short bits of each song from the original, while an onscreen clock ticks off the remaining time like some Olympic event.

Act Two was full of fun as well, beginning with the three gals performing a sassy, sexy and seductive, “Cell Block Tango,” from Chicago that had a sensational ferocity. Departing briefly from the usual well-known song selections, Wrobel and Scarborough offered an amusing tribute to good-ole-boy buddies with a song celebrating their, “Man Crush.” Taylor followed with tongue-twisting skill for the sometimes strident tune, “Everybody Says Don’t,” from Anyone Can Whistle. The cast provides an uproarious medley of songs that each of them “could never be cast for.” It includes bits from Jesus Christ Superstar, Dreamgirls, Singin’ in the Rain, and Oklahoma. And oh, don’t miss Brad’s falsetto for, “I Feel Pretty!” His flair for comedy surfaces again when performing the amusing, “You’ll Be Back” as King George III in the musical, Hamilton. My guess is that once you sample a show at The Music Box, you’ll be back as well.

BROADWAY AT THE BOX 2018 continues through April 21st at the Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt, Houston, Texas, with 7:30 p.m. performances on Fridays & Saturdays. There will be 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, April 8th. 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, Shake, Rattle and Roll (Songs of the 1950’s) beginning on April 28, 2018.

The columns of David Dow Bentley III may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com E-mail may be directed to www.ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Cabaret, Comedy Clubs, Conroe Courier, Houston Chronicle online, Houston Community Newspapers online, Music Box Theater, Nightclubs, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stellar Ensemble Illuminates TUTS Production of BRIGHT STAR

BRIGHT STAR Band
L-R: George Guthrie, Wayne Fugate, Martha McDonnell, Skip Ward, Anthony De Angelis and Eric Davis. PHOTO by Craig Schwartz.

With claims of being “inspired by real events,” and with fine direction from Walter Bobbie, the current Theatre Under the Stars production of the Broadway musical, BRIGHT STAR, has no shortage of charms.

Edie Brickell and Steve Martin (photo by Danny Clinch)

A delightful collaboration of music and story by Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, the show has a compelling book by Mr. Martin and pleasant lyrics from songwriter, Brickell. While neither Brickell nor Martin performs in the show, he is well known for his skill on the banjo, so it is no surprise that the musical score for this sometimes dramatic piece of theatre has a sweet, bluegrass flavor, supported by a wonderful onstage band with musical direction from P. Jason Yarcho. The sometimes tricky plot has unexpected twists and turns that are occasionally disturbing, but take heart. As Shakespeare reminded us, “All’s well that ends well.”

We first find ourselves in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains during the post-war period of the mid 1940’s. Alice (Audrey Cardwell) works as an editor of other people’s stories, but in the opening number she alerts the audience that she has a story of her own to tell. Cardwell brings a lovely and lilting voice to “If You Knew My Story,” and the fine cast ensemble joins in for the building excitement of the song’s crescendo. That very talented ensemble takes on, in my opinion, a really starring role in this production. Those players drift gently in, out and around virtually every scene. They sing, dance, move set pieces for scene changes, and are an ever-present and ever-changing force that is never intrusive on the central action of the play. (Choreographer, Josh Rhodes).

One feature of this tale requiring careful audience attention is the use of flashbacks in time as Alice’s tale unfolds.

Carmen Cusack and Paul Alexander Nolan in Original Broadway Company of BRIGHT STAR (Photo by Joan Marcus)

We meet a handsome young returning soldier (and aspiring writer) named Billy, appealingly played by Henry Gottfried. When Billy arrives back at his family’s mountain cabin, he sadly learns from his Daddy (David Atkinson) that his mother has died while he was at war. The two sing a poignant and wailing duet of the touching, “She’s Gone.”

As things proceed from scene to scene, the set pieces glide and whirl across the stage, sometimes with the graceful aid of the aforementioned ensemble, thus revealing each new setting (Scenic Designer, Eugene Lee, shadowy lighting by Japhy Weidman, and pleasant country costumes by Jane Greenwood). Our young veteran reunites with his childhood friend, the lovely Margot (Liana Hunt), and while singing the show’s optimistic title song, he delights her with the news he is planning to seek publication of one of his original stories in the area newspaper. Soon after, he visits the office of the Asheville Southern Journal where he first meets the amusing office workers, Lucy (Kaitlyn Davidson) and zany Daryl (Jeff Blumenkrantz of the original Broadway cast). While Daryl and Lucy are dismissive of Billy’s stories, he finally meets Alice, the straight-laced and aloof editor who is intrigued by his bravado and bluster in putting himself forward as associated with some famous literary figures. She reminisces about her carefree youth and boyfriend, Jimmy Ray (Patrick Cummings) with the whimsical song, “Back in the Day,” As the ensemble players float about decorating the scene like barely visible phantoms, we suddenly see Alice transformed from stuffy and serious to young and gay. As the flashback time machine of the show goes into effect we find ourselves back in the 1923 of Alice’s younger self, where Jimmy Ray courts her with the lusty and toe-tapping tune, “Whoa, Mama.”

Jeff Blumenkrantz , AJ Shively , Emily Padgett, and the cast of BRIGHT STAR in the Original Broadway Company_(Photo by Joan Marcus)

The pair’s parents reject this romance, especially Jimmy Ray’s pompous father, Josiah, the town Mayor (Jeff Austin), but a one night stand by the riverbank results in an out-of-wedlock pregnancy and leaves the perception of tragedy in the air at the end of Act One.

I hesitate to give details of the second act, because for me, the unexpected plot twists that ultimately turn things around to bring us a very satisfying conclusion are an important part of this surprising story. But through all of the story’s ups and downs, this exceptional 10-piece, onstage band not only performed the appealing score beautifully, but happily had a special place in the spotlight for the “Entr’ Act” music that begins Act Two. Bravo to all!

BRIGHT STAR continues through March 25th at Houston’s Hobby Center main stage with performances Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, & Sunday at 7:30 pm, Friday & Saturday evenings at 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. For tickets visit the website at http://www.thehobbycenter.org, or call (713) 558-8887 locally, and (888) 558-3882 (outside of Houston).

The columns of David Dow Bentley III may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com. Email may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com .

Posted in BroadwayStars.com, Houston Chronicle online, Houston Community Newspapers online, The Courier Columns, Theatre Under the Stars, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

For YOUNG TEXAS ARTISTS, You Can Go Home Again

2018 Finalists in the Young Texas Artists Competition

[Click any photo to enlarge. All Photos courtesy of Young Texas Artists and Susan Love Fitts Communications.]

The title of Thomas Wolfe’s well-known novel declares, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” but perhaps you really can. I can’t recall just how many years I have had the honor of reviewing the YOUNG TEXAS ARTISTS Music Competition’s Annual Finalist’s Concert & Awards program at Conroe’s elegant Crighton Theatre. The event is an official State of Texas Music Contest, and when I inserted “Young Texas Artists” into the little search box at my own website (www.ThePeoplesCritic.com) it pulled up a report titled, “Audience the Real Winner at E.Y.T.A. Final Competition,” that I had written fifteen years ago in March of 2003. I’m happy to report that the audience at this month’s competition was a winner once again, having been present for performances by eight of our state’s most accomplished young classical musicians.

Spearheading the event once again is the driving force of Conroe’s treasured, Susie Pokorski, in her role as President and CEO of The YTA Committee. Prestigious judges for the competition included longtime Julliard faculty member, Daniel Cataneo, piano soloist and master class clinician; John Ellis, Associate Dean of the University of Michigan; Music educator and renowned double bass player, Larry Hutchinson, who recently retired from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Popular flute soloist and recording artist, Brian Luce, Professor of Flute at the University of Arizona; and Roger Pines, who serves as dramaturg-literary adviser for Lyric Opera of Chicago. Emcee for the evening’s program was Houston-based writer, Eric Skelly, who also co-hosts (with St. John Flynn), “The Opera Cheat Sheet” podcast. Now a familiar face for this annual event, and serving once again this year as YTA Artistic Director, is accomplished music educator, lecturer and conductor, Emelyne Bingham, who has led such orchestras as Nashville Symphony, Toledo Symphony, and Buffalo Philharmonic, in addition to conducting for recordings of the orchestras for New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera.

But with $20,000.00 in prize money in the offing, let us move on to the real stars of the evening: the contestants in each of the four categories, Strings, Voice, Piano, and the fourth category comprising Winds, Brass & Percussion.

Grand Prize Winner, Justin Douté, and his marimba.

The first performer, Justin Douté, competed in that latter category playing an enormous marimba that seemed to take up half the stage. Talk about “a tough act to follow,” this was it! Unlike its metallic cousin, the xylophone, the marimba bars are made of wood, and when struck by the musician’s mallets produce more resonant and lower-pitched tones. It is a unique and fascinating sound, especially in the extraordinarily talented hands Mr. Douté, sometimes holding 3 mallets in each hand. His performance of the very beautiful, and varied complexities of Keiko Abe’s 1937 composition, “Prism Rhapsody for Marimba & Orchestra,” was essentially an athletic event, and truly astonishing to witness. It would ultimately win him not only the Gold Medal and $3,000 First Prize in that category, but the evening’s $3,000 Grand Prize as well.

Silver Medal Winner, saxophonist, Jae-Hyun Ryoo.

Winning the Silver Medal and $1,000 Second Prize in that category was saxophonist, Jae-Hyun Ryoo, for his performance of Florent Schmitt’s rambling composition, “Légende, Op. 66,” which, while it was a fine demonstration of Mr. Ryoo’s technical fluency on the instrument, certainly did not give the audience a tune to hum on the way home.

First up in the STRINGS category was lovely Jaqueline Audas, performing the “Presto in moto perpetuo” from Samuel Barber’s “Violin Concerto, Op. 14.” Dressed in a strapless, crimson gown with glittering neckline, her slender and graceful arms brought lashing immediacy to the work’s brisk opening passages. Her racing dexterity and virtuosity would win her $1,000 as the Silver Medalist in that category. Then, wearing an elegant black gown topped with rhinestone highlights, and winning the $3,000 Gold Medal, would be Yena Lee for her relentless attack, precision fingering, fierce intensity and non-stop power in performing the “Burlesque: Allegro con brio” from the Shostakovich “Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77.”

In the PIANO category, Hyunsuk Kim captured the Silver Medalist’s $1000 prize with a performance of the “Moderato” from Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18.” It moved smoothly from the ominous and pounding power of the opening passages, through the lush warmth of those that followed, in what seemed to be a well-planned journey toward a majestic musical destination during the intoxicating beauty of a rapturous performance. Not to be outdone, Dongni Xie would bring haunting beauty to her performance of George Gershwin’s “Allegro” from the “Piano Concerto in F.” Wearing gold and glistening high-heeled shoes, and yet another lovely crimson gown, her skillful rendition of the romantic, playful and prancing moments of a work full of unexpected twists and turns would reward her with the $3,000 Prize and Gold Medal.

In a strapless black gown of layered satin, soprano Sydney Anderson performed two selections in the VOICE category, offering first the desperate longing of Ned Rorem’s “Take Me Back,” from Our Town. She followed showing coloratura skill with the merry and much more pleasing “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” and then winning the Gold Medalist’s $3000 Prize.

AUDIENCE CHOICE AWARD WINNER, Catherine Goode

Also performing two selections in the Voice category would be lovely soprano, Catherine Goode, dressed in a floor length gown of marble-like swirling black and dark teal. Opening with a selection from Mozart’s, “Le nozze di Figaro,” she concluded with a passionate performance of Leonard Bernstein’s, “Glitter and Be Gay,” from Candide. With her fine voice, graceful gestures and authoritative stage presence, it was theatrical, dramatic, and appropriately glittering and gay. She would not only win the $1,000 Silver Medal, but also the special Audience Choice Award of an additional $1,000. Clearly, she had helped to make this YTA audience a big winner like those that have gone before it. BRAVO!

[For more information about Young Texas Artists ( youngtexasartists.org ), and for sponsorship or volunteer opportunities contact Susie Pokorski at susiepokorski@gmail.com or 936-756-7017.]

The columns of David Dow Bentley III may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com. Email may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com .

Posted in Concert Reviews, Conroe Courier, Crighton Theatre, George Gershwin, Houston Chronicle online, Houston Community Newspapers online, Leonard Bernstein, Susie Pokorski, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com, Uncategorized, Young Texas Artists | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Houston Symphony Concert Worthy of an OSCAR®

Steven Reineke
PHOTO:-Michael Tammaro

Perfectly timed to coincide with this month’s Hollywood excitement of the Academy Awards ceremony, the recent Houston Symphony concert titled The Oscars®: Best Original Songs was surely an award-winner in the opinion of those fortunate to be in the Jones Hall audience for a memorable night of music. As though the orchestra (brilliantly led by conductor, Steven Reineke) was not enough of a treat for the evening, enriching things even further were the contributions of two veteran Broadway musical stars, Ashley Brown and Hugh Panaro. The combination would be irresistible, as was the orchestra’s thunderous and very appropriate opener, “Hooray for Hollywood.”

Next came the excitement of a thrilling selection from Korngold’s memorable, ”Symphonic Suite” for The Adventures of Robin Hood, highlighted by the orchestra’s powerful brass and the sweetness of the strings.

Ashely Brown
PHOTO: Courtesy of The Houston Symphony

Then the beautiful Miss Brown took to the stage sounding much like a brilliant opera singer during her magnificent rendition of “Feed the Birds,” from Mary Poppins. It was Brown herself who originated the role of Mary in the Broadway musical based on the Disney film. Renowned for his more than 2000 performances as The Phantom in Broadway’s, The Phantom of the Opera, the tall and handsome Mr. Panaro followed with a resonant and hypnotic “If Ever I Would Leave You,” from Alan J. Lerner’s Camelot. It beautifully demonstrated his wide vocal range and impressive breath control. When the gifted duo combined forces for Sondheim’s “Balcony Scene (Tonight)” from West Side Story, the magic was nothing short of sublime during smooth, passionate and ever-rising tempos that were beautifully accented by the warbling magnificence and bird-like purity of Brown’s wonderful voice.

There was a new kind of excitement as the kettle drums thundered to announce the sweeping romanticism and exotic, oriental flavors of the Jarre/Schurmann, “Overture” for Lawrence of Arabia. Miss Brown then brought her own brand of sultry, rhythmic moves and bouncing joy to the Leslie Bricusse lyrics for “Le Jazz Hot” from Victor/Victoria. The number was slightly diminished by a brief shrillness from the audio.

Hugh Panaro
PHOTO: Courtesy of The Houston Symphony

Then came a new look at a familiar favorite as Panaro delivered a uniquely wondrous and thoughtful version of the Arlen/Barker classic, “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. It was so authoritative and original I found myself thinking, “Here is a man who has found his perfect place in the universe.” Act One then concluded beautifully as the vocalists paired again for a lush, warm duet of the title song from Alan Menken’s, Beauty and the Beast.

If anyone thought the orchestra had expended all its energy in that first half of the program, that notion was quickly dispelled when Act Two began with an absolutely stunning performance of Academy Award winner, Miklos Rózsa’s, “Parade of the Charioteers” from Ben-Hur. With lovely solo moment on piano from Scott Holshouser, Miss Brown offered an intensely visual interpretation of the Marvin Hamlisch classic, “The Way We Were,” that seemed a gentle whisper recalling a life. In a similar mood, Panaro offered a mesmerizing and spiritual moment with Schonberg’s mystical, “Bring Him Home,” from Les Misérables. Of course there was the sweeping grandeur of Nino Rota’s intoxicating “Love Theme” from The Godfather. Equally splendid was the heartbreaking beauty of John Williams’ “Theme” from Schindler’s List which featured an exquisite solo from the orchestra’s First Violinist, Eric Halen, and brought the audience to its feet for a much-deserved ovation. There were numerous other delights including the program closer, Mancini’s classic, “Moon River”, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with a solid duet of the Johnny Mercer lyric by our talented soloists of the evening. But the orchestra would rock the room one more time with a lively encore of, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” from Dirty Dancing. That phrase would pretty well sum up the night for us all.

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. Email may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com .

 

Posted in BroadwayStars.com, Houston Symphony, Johnny Mercer, Jones Hall, Steven Reineke, ThePeoplesCritic.com, Uncategorized, West Side Story | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Class Act’s HUNCHBACK Takes on Amazing Challenges

 

Class Act Productions Cast of HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME

PHOTOS: Courtesy of Class Act [Click any photo to enlarge]

For over two decades Class Act Productions has astonished audiences in The Woodlands, Texas with the quality of its performances while becoming one of the most widely recognized and honored youth theatre programs in the nation.

Jake Teall as Quasimodo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Skillfully directed by company founder/producer, Keith Brumfield, last weekend’s stunning performances of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME at The Nancy Bock Performing Arts Center, made it clear those accolades are well-deserved. With the music of Alan Menken, lyrics of Stephen Schwartz & book by Peter Parnell, the show is subtitled, “A NEW MUSICAL Based on the Victor Hugo Novel and Songs from the Disney Film.” This is an undertaking of enormous theatrical gravitas and musical complexity. It is amazing, but not surprising, that the incredible Class Act organization would dare to take on this challenge, and then succeed on such a grand scale. That scale is immediately impressive as the opening scene begins with the huge candlelit procession embracing the audience with the production’s extraordinary 38-member choir singing the beautiful Latin, “Olim” as it passes. Music Director, Rae Moses, presides over an equally extraordinary 12-piece orchestra for the rich opening number, “The Bells of Notre Dame,” all enhanced by the dependable Sound Designs of David Mallory.

With a youthful cast numbering well over a hundred, the action plays out amid gorgeous candlelit interiors and colorful stained glass windows (Sets by Jonathan Shelledy, & Lighting by Blake Minor). The plot surrounds events in late 15th and early 16th century Paris where two orphans are given sanctuary by priests at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. One boy, Frollo (Brandon Brumfield) a pious and serious young man becomes a leading clergyman in the City of Light. Meanwhile his libertine brother, Jehan (Caleb Gurule) is cast out of the cathedral for his free-wheeling lifestyle and association with gypsies.

(L-R) Brandon Brumfield as Frollo & Jake Teall as Quasimodo

Many years pass before Frollo, now a great leader in the church, is called to Jehan’s deathbed and learns his brother’s death will leave his deformed gypsy infant an orphan. When his brother dies, Frollo feels it is God’s will that he raise the baby. He names the child Quasimodo, meaning “half-formed,” but the hideous boy is kept hidden in the bell tower of the cathedral where it becomes his task to ring the bells. As a young man, Quasimodo (Jake Teall) longs to see the world and his desperation turns to song with the beautiful, “Out There.” He escapes into the city for the approaching, “Feast of Fools,” when even thieves, beggars and gypsies are allowed to roam the streets for a day.

Peter McPoland as Clopin with the cast of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

This brings us to the joyous gypsy song, “Topsy Turvy,” one of the show’s most opulent and delightful numbers with its bright music, colorful gypsy costumes (designers, Kristi Tabor & Laurie Lewis), and whirling and splendid dancing from the cast (Choreographer, Sinclair Sledge). Anchoring that number is the explosive talent of young Peter McPoland in the role of the Gypsy leader, Clopin. He lights up the stage with his radiant energy.

Sara Marie Wojta as Esmeralda and the cast of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

Then we meet the brash and handsome young soldier, Phoebus (Seamus Doyle), now returned from the battlefield and proudly singing of, “Rest & Recreation,” while hoping to become Captain of the Cathedral Guard. Meanwhile the gypsy revelry continues as the beautiful Esmerelda (lovely Sara Marie Wojta), enchants the crowd with her sassy and seductive dancing during, “Rhythm of the Tambourine.” Miss Wojta’s voice would soon enchant us further with songs like her dreamy, “Top of the World” (with Quasimodo and the wonderful cast of Statues and Gargoyles), as well as the whirling and mood-lightening joy of “The Tavern Song” (with Frollo & the gypsies). Mr. Teall hits a vocal homerun with the tender and romantic, “Heaven’s Light,” which deserved loud applause, but the audience was afraid to break the spell. Then, under blood-red lighting, Brandon Brumfield brought dramatic and vocal ferocity to the powerful, “Hellfire,” as Frollo warns all of the dangers of temptation. Both he and Phoebus are tempted by the seductive beauty of Esmerelda, who turns her kind attention to poor Quasimodo when he is mocked and abused by the crowd. The rousing, full-company chorale of the song, “Esmerelda,” was a thrilling conclusion for Act One.

Semus Doyle as Phoebus & Sara Marie Wojta as Esmeralda

Act Two, while dark at times, and without a typical “happy ending,” had delights of its own with Mr. McPoland ruling the stage once again as Clopin joins the gypsies for the explosive, “Court of Miracles.” The rich ensemble harmonies of, “In a Place of Miracles,” and the lush and romantic, “Someday,” duet from Esmerelda and Phoebus set a standard of excellence that would soon be capped by the marvelous full company, “Finale Ultimo,” sending everyone home on a cloud of memorable music. BRAVO!

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

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Disney, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com, YourHoustonNews.com | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Broadway-Worthy MEMPHIS from Houston’s TUTS

Warren G. Nolan Jr as Delray, Simone Gundy as Felicia, and the Cast of MEMPHIS

[ Click any photo to enlarge. ]

All Photos by MELISSA TAYLOR

Every so often a great musical comes along with an opening number that is so spell-binding it seems like it should be a grand finale. That is the case currently with the extraordinary Theatre Under the Stars production of the Tony Award-Winning show, MEMPHIS – The Musical, now playing at the Sarofim Theatre of Houston’s Hobby Center.

The Cast of MEMPHIS

Led by sensational vocalist, Warren G. Nolan Jr. (playing the role of Delray, owner of the black nightclub that bears his name), the huge cast of gifted singers, dancers and actors seems to literally explode on stage in a whirling blaze of wonderful music and brilliant choreography (designer, Jessica Hartman) for the sensational song, “Underground.” When the rocket-fueled voice of the club’s singer, Felicia (Simone Gundy) joins that number, we know we are leaving on a jet plane for truly exceptional entertainment. That stratospheric level would be maintained throughout the evening in what must be called a Don’t-Miss Show this season.

Conceptualized by George W. George, the show’s book & lyrics by Joe DiPietro are at times witty, at times poignant.

Barrett Riggins as Huey, Simone Gundy as Felicia, in MEMPHIS

The lush and powerful music & lyrics of David Bryan then complete the solid core of this well-constructed tale, gently based on the true story of Dewey Phillips, the 1950’s Memphis radio personality credited with being the first white disc jockey to play black music on the air. Here, that part falls to actor, Barrett Riggins, in the role of deejay, Huey Calhoun. His was a very creative, whiny-voiced, kooky characterization, which at first just seems annoying, but soon wins over the audience with the uniquely winning personality that makes Huey a star. Rising to stardom with him is lovely Felicia, Delray’s sister and lead vocalist at his nightclub. With her electrifying voice, solid performance, beautiful costumes, and shapely good looks, the attractive Miss Gundy should rise to stardom herself.

Barrett Riggins as Huey, Julie Johnson as Mama, Avionce Hoyles as Gator, Sheldon Henry as Bobby and Warren G. Nolan, Jr. as Delray

The twists and turns of this intriguing plot emanate from the evolving romance between this off-beat white deejay and the lovely black singer with whom he falls in love. Delray does not approve, and even Huey’s somewhat racist mother (a sensational performance from Julie Johnson) rejects that relationship until Huey’s rise from bumbling department store stock boy to success as a leading radio personality brings her the keys to a new home.

Cast of MEMPHIS_

Cast of MEMPHIS

Along the way we encounter a seemingly endless parade of knock-out numbers that showcase the vocal and dance talents of this incredible cast, while being visually embraced by eye-popping lighting effects as exciting as the music.

Jared Howelton as Wailin’ Joe and the Cast of MEMPHIS_

There are rich gospel sounds for “The Music of My Soul,” while club performer, Wailin’ Joe (Jared Howelton), rocks the stage in his dazzling red sequined jacket for the full company’s, “Scratch My Itch” number, looking every inch like a tribute to the late Little Richard. Romance springs when Huey and Felicia sing the lovely, “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Kiss,” and Mr. Riggins’ on-air comedy skills are on full display for the tongue-twisting hilarity of, “Hello My Name is Huey.”

MEMPHIS_Ensemble members_Sharrod Williams, Taylor N. Daniels, and Christopher Tipps_

The dynamic energy of the full company’s, “Everybody Wants to be Black on Saturday Night,” rocks the room with smooth harmonies from three gents playing the “Be Black Trio,” a typical guy group of the era. There is another wonderful taste of the gospel influence in black music for the beautifully choreographed, “Make Me Stronger” number, which at this performance featured a delicious solo from Ms. Johnson, and an audience-pleasing dance cameo from Houston Ballet star, Harper Watters. Gundy brings down the house singing, “Colored Woman,” and Riggins out-wiggles Elvis in his uproarious, “Radio” number. There is so much excitement here that even a handicapped character named, Gator (Avionce Hoyles), a mute since a long-ago childhood trauma, suddenly comes to life for the wrenching desperation of his powerful, “Say a Prayer” that closes Act One.

Space precludes my run-down of the equally stunning Act Two that has countless surprises of its own, like when Huey’s radio show crosses over to TV, and the janitor, Bobby (Sheldon Henry) lights up the stage for the memorable song, “Big Love.”

Barrett Riggins as Huey and the Cast of MEMPHIS

I must add that I saw the original Memphis production on Broadway years ago and it was wonderful. I correctly predicted at the time that it would win the 2010 Tony for Best Musical. But guess what? I sincerely think this TUTS offering, with its marvelous all-Houstonian orchestra (Musical Director, Darryl Ivey), locally created first-class staging (Scenic Designer, Kevin Depinet, Sound Designer, Andrew Harper, Lighting Designer, Ryan O’Gara & Costume Designer, Leon Dobkowski), with half of its stellar cast local Houstonians themselves, and with magnificent direction from Dan Knechtges, everything has combined to bring Houston an even more spectacular production than the Broadway original. One last warning though! Don’t race off to the parking lot during the curtain calls or you will miss one of the most delightful bondings between a cast and audience that I have ever had the pleasure to witness.

MEMPHIS – The Musical continues through March 4th at Houston’s Hobby Center main stage with performances Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, & Sunday at 7:30 pm, Friday & Saturday evenings at 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. For tickets visit the website at http://www.thehobbycenter.org, or call (713) 558-8887 locally, and (888) 558-3882 (outside of Houston).

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Hobby Center Houston, ThePeoplesCritic.com, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments