Houston Symphony Celebrates ELLA FITZGERALD

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

Photo; Courtesy of Library of Congress

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

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

Photo: Courtesy of Houston Symphony

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

Photo: Courtesy of Houston Symphony

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

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

Photo: Courtesy of Houston Symphony

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

A member of both The Lambs Club Inc. and The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), the columns of DAVID DOW BENTLEY III have appeared on Broadway websites, in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast, and may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com . E-mail may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com

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A Dazzling “42nd STREET” Thunders on to Crighton’s Stage

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

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

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

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

Manny Cafeo

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

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

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

Michael Martin as director, Julian Marsh

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

Layne Roberts as Dorothy Brock

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

Carolyn Wong as Maggie and John Kaiser as Bert

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

Cain Hamilton and Sara Preisler

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

The Cast of 42nd STREET

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

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

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

Fashions galore during DAMES.

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

Dinah Mahlman hams it up nicely during DAMES

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

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

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

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


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


A member of both The Lambs Club Inc. and The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), the columns of David Dow Bentley III have appeared on Broadway websites, in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast, and may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com . E-mail may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.

Posted in AMERICANTHEATRECRITICS.ORG, ATCA, Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Houston Chronicle online, The Courier Columns, The Lambs Club, The Lambs Inc., ThePeoplesCritic.com, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Courageous and Shattering NORMAL HEART from Lone Star College

By DAVID DOW BENTLEY III       www.ThePeoplesCritic.com

For weeks Americans across this land have been virtually paralyzed with a sense of desperation and hopeless despair as they watch reports of the unprecedented California forest fires destroying entire towns while leaving thousands of our fellow citizens displaced and homeless with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The heart wrenching scenes seem apocalyptic in scope. In some strange way, they seem to parallel the equally heart wrenching scenes in this month’s powerful production of Larry Kramer’s explosive and heartbreaking play, THE NORMAL HEART, as bravely performed by the talented young cast courageously directed by Emmy Frank at Lone Star College – Montgomery, in The Woodlands, Texas. Would that this were a work of theatrical fiction, rather than this tragic and fact-based 1980’s story of the early years of the AIDS crisis in New York City. Making the saga even more poignant has been the author’s revelation that his play contains many autobiographical elements from his own life experience during that horrifying era.

Except for occasional tables, chairs, beds or hospital gurneys, the appropriately minimal set (designer Ross Brighten) presents us with a largely bare stage. That stage is dramatically crisscrossed, on both floors and walls, by angular, blood-red lightning bolts that seem to aptly depict the violent storm that is engulfing the city. The troubling plot revolves around a group of gay young men in Manhattan who have been watching countless gay friends die of a mysterious terminal illness. HIV-AIDS had not yet been identified or defined by the baffled medical community struggling to cope with the growing epidemic. A group of gay activists begins to coalesce around an effort to bring public attention to a crisis being largely ignored by politicians, press and the public. Leading the charge is the loudly outspoken, Ned Weeks (a powerful performance by Dylan Tobin). Ned meets resistance as he tries to secure financial assistance for the group’s efforts from his wealthy lawyer brother, Ben (Devin Ballou). When the brothers clash, Ned rages about how this crisis for gays echoes the way the Jewish “problem” was so widely ignored in World War II. The performances of Tobin and Ballou here provide plenty of fireworks. But they are not alone in offering high drama in this explosive play. Trip Gauntt portrays Bruce Niles, a closeted bank vice-president and less confrontational member of the group that would become known as Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). Fearing the unpredictable fury that Ned might bring to the public face of GMHC, the group instead selects Bruce as its president. Plenty of ensuing sparks will fly from other group members, including fiery performances from Angel Portillo as Mickey, and Devin “Judy” Norwood, who seems to literally take flight in giving us the stereotypically effete character of Tommy. (Interestingly, in the 2014 TV film version, that role was played by the more familiar Jim Parsons of Big Bang Theory fame). The excellent supporting cast included fine work from Jackson Hicks as Craig and Brian Vinson as David.

Standout performances came from lovely Anna Strickland as the compassionate Dr. Emma Brookner, and handsome David Martinez as Ned’s lover, the New York Times fashion/style columnist, Felix Turner. Strickland brings wonderful warmth to the story as a caring and concerned medical doctor and researcher desperate to find both a cure for the dreaded disease and an awakening of public and political awareness. For his part, Mr. Martinez gives an astonishing performance as a promising young career professional who has found success and love that are ultimately undone with his discovery that he, too, is infected by the unforgiving disease. His riveting death scene will linger long in memory, and one can only wonder how the actor could give both afternoon and evening performances of such power on matinee days. Bravo!

For Further Information about Theatre at LONE STAR COLLEGE – MONTGOMERY, visit the website at: www.LoneStar.edu/Theatre-Montgomery.

A member of both The Lambs Club and The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), the columns of David Dow Bentley III have appeared on Broadway websites, in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast, and may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com . E-mail may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com .

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Musical Soap Opera a New 80’s Twist at the Music Box

Kristina Sullivan, Rebekah Dahl, Luke Wrobel, Cay Taylor, Brad Scarborough


Regular customers of The Music Box Theatre (and there are plenty of them filling the house at each performance), are very familiar with the way each month-long production has a creative new theme. The current offering, BACK TO THE 80’S, may sound familiar to those who attended their similar production titled, The 80’s Mix Tape Diaries just two years ago. At that time the plot thread was built around a fictional tale of characters involved in the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. This time around we have a unique approach as a fictional parody of the famed TV soap opera, Dallas, unfolds to loosely (at times very loosely) link together assorted songs of the period.

(L-R) Sullivan, Dahl, Scarborough, Wrobel, Taylor

We meet the dull-witted fading champion wrestler, Johnny Texas ‘T’ Riggs, (played by Luke Wrobel, and humorously known as “J.R.”), and also J.R.’s not-so-devoted wife, Eileen (Rebecca Dahl), who loves his sprawling Texas ranch, but loves their handsome pool boy, Marco Pollo, even more (Brad Scarborough). Johnny Texas ‘T’ is murdered early on, and the resulting who-done-it raises suspicions of Johnny’s gambling floozy daughter, Geraldine (Cay Taylor), and his seductive German psychoanalyst, Sybil (Kristina Sullivan.) That is probably enough to say about the sometimes tedious and sophomoric plot that was aptly described from the stage as both “historical fiction like cable news,” and “complex and spider web-like.” It can be alternately amusing and exhausting, but as usually happens at this fun-filled venue, the music saves the day under the watchful eye of music director, Glenn Sharp, with his fine G-Sharp Band.

Right out of the gate the cast proves the music rules with a lively performance of the Queen/David Bowie hit, “Under Pressure.” The rhythmic, pulsing and calypso-flavored number was full of kooky fun that was highlighted by the playful mischief and frenzied falsetto high notes from Mr. Scarborough. The second selection paired the Queen/INXS numbers, “Another One Bites the Dust,” (featuring lashing percussion from drummer, James Metcalfe, and another fine vocal from Brad), followed by Miss Dahl joining in with a sexy counterpoint for the fiery rhythms of, “Need You Tonight.” Wrobel and Taylor duet for a romantic rendition of the Kenny Rogers/Kim Carnes number, “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer.” Sullivan continues the dream theme with the Crowded House tune, “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” Wrobel brings plenty of intensity to Gregory Abbott’s, “Shake You Down,” while the quartet offers gentle backup while bouncing around behind the onstage bar. The five join together for the Roxette song, ‘It Must have Been Love,” and then Dahl shows the acting skills she honed during years with the Masquerade Theatre, as she delivers a fierce performance of Cindy Lauper’s hit, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” There was more falsetto magic when Brad launched into the A-Ha hit, “Take On Me.” (I overheard one woman near me saying, “That song was my favorite music video ever!”) Miss Dahl led the ladies into vocal outer space as the guys joined in for band Journey’s 1980’s hit, “Don’t Stop Believing.” It was just the end of Act One of this jam-packed show, but it was more than enough to convince fans to keep believing in the musical magic at THE MUSIC BOX. Stop by soon while Act Two is included at no extra charge, and visit the wine & cheese bar where tasty Mimosas are also available. The cast proudly promises, “We are better when you’re drinking!”

BACK TO THE 80’s continues through December 1st at the Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt, Houston, Texas, with 7:30 p.m. performances on Fridays & Saturdays. There will be a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, November 25th. Reserved seating for all shows is $39 + tax, and General Admission is $29 + tax. For tickets and information call 713-522-7722 or visit the website at www.themusicboxtheater.com, where you can also find information about the upcoming show, A Beatles Holiday Cabaret, playing December 7th-29th.

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

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Cabaret, Houston Chronicle online, Music Box Theater, Nightclubs, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

LONE STAR LYRIC and Kelli Estes Are a Perfect Match for Broadway Music

(L-R) Alan Simmons, Joseph Li, Kelli Estes, Carol Daubert

By David Dow Bentley III     www.ThePeoplesCritic.com      [Click any photo to enlarge]

Kelli Estes

And speaking of a “match,” the wonderful “BROADWAY LIGHTS” production Miss Estes’ Lone Star Lyric troupe just provided Houstonians was performed at the local MATCH Theatre Complex (https://matchouston.org/) located at 3400 Main Street in Houston. The event was a follow-up to the recent roadshow performances that took place during the group’s cabaret tour across North and West Texas under the auspices of both the Texas Hill Country Opera & Arts, and the Sweetwater Municipal Auditorium Applause Series. Here in Houston, the cozy Matchbox Theatre 1 venue was an intimate space with comfortable seating, and the audience surrounding the performers on three sides of a small stage that was backed by soft curtains, glowing in ever-changing pastel lighting from designer, Jim Elliot.

Joseph Li

The group’s wonderful trio includes Joseph Li on piano, Alan Simmons on bass, and Carol Daubert on drums, — each a brilliant musician of the first class, and all a joy to the ear thanks to fine balanced sound from designer, Kevin Romero. Perfectly capping that collaboration would be a night of sublime vocals from frequent Lone Star Lyric performer, Stephonne Smith, and of course from the group’s gifted soprano and founder, Miss Estes, now in her 13th year of bringing eclectic and sophisticated musical joys to Houstonians who know outstanding music when they hear it.

The first delicious taste of the band came with its upbeat Overture from the classic musical, Gypsy. That was a perfect lead-in to Estes’ first number from that same show, a shimmering rendition of, “Some People,” that was as much a touching drama as it was a vocal triumph.

Stephonne Smith

Wearing a chic plaid suit and elegant black turtle neck, it was then Mr. Smith’s turn to immediately captivate the audience with his rich, resonant, and commanding bass voice, delivering the song, “Razzle Dazzle” from the musical Chicago. It was seasoned with playful nonsense that included wide-eyed facial expressions, gentle movement, and even a seated soft-shoe dance that added to the fun. Displaying bird-like vocal purity, Estes followed with a lilting and lovely medley of tunes from The Sound of Music that had the audience singing along for “Do-Re-Me,” and then ending with an “Edelweiss” as clean as alpine snow. The pair then combined forces for an equally satisfying medley of Lerner & Lowe show tunes. “The Rain in Spain” was a merry duet with great percussion elements from Miss Daubert. Smith hit homeruns with, “On the Street Where You Live,” and a dreamy, rich, “If Ever I would Leave You,” that would have had a standing ovation from the late Robert Goulet. Kelli’s perky, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” was a winner as well, before the pair delivered another darling bit of theatre with their touching, “I Remember It Well,” from Gigi.

Stephonne Smith

It is worth noting that in addition to his many national and international Broadway and concert successes, the talented Mr. Smith toured for six years playing the title role of Mufasa in the Broadway musical, The Lion King. His stunning performance here of, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” was ample proof of why he was chosen. Before night’s end, his additional conquests would include a soaring, “Luck Be a Lady,” a sensational Man of La Mancha medley, a zesty, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” a “One For My Baby” that would have brought Sinatra to his feet, and a thrillingly breath-taking, “Old Man River,” the very song that launched Smith’s career when he was still in high school. Meanwhile, Estes had a parade of triumphs of her own that included a poignant “Somebody, Somewhere,” from The Most Happy Fella, a lashing performance of “Cabaret,”, a magical, “Bewitched,” a radiant, “Over the Rainbow,” (with lighting to match), and a breezy “Summertime,” with great solo moments from the band (which also offered a fine Gershwin medley, brilliantly headlined by maestro Li on the eighty-eight for a delicate, tender performance of, “I Love You, Porgy”).

CURTAIN CALL for Lone Star Lyric

Of course there were additional beautiful pairings with our stars joining forces for a very wonderful, “Wunderbar,” and a splendid medley of countless wonderful tunes from the vast Rodgers & Hammerstein songbook that seemed a tour of Broadway all on its own. The closing, “Tonight, Tonight,” from West Side Story was the perfect musical symbol of a night to remember.

No wonder Lone Star Lyric fans can hardly wait for the next offering, a holiday show aptly titled, “All That Glitters,” running November 30th thru December 2nd. For tickets and information visit the MATCH website mentioned above (phone 731-521-4533), or contact www.LoneStarLyric.org, and LoneStarLyric@gmail.com (phone 917-414-9577).

A member of both The Lambs Club and The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), the columns of David Dow Bentley III have appeared on Broadway websites, in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast, and may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com E-mail may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com .

Posted in AMERICANTHEATRECRITICS.ORG, ATCA, Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Concert Reviews, GYPSY the musical, Houston Chronicle online, Kelli Estes, Lone Star Lyric, Matchbox Theatre, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stepphone Smith, The American Theatre Critics Association, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“W I Z” Fans Ease on Down the Road to TUTS

The Cast of THE WIZ
[All Photos by Melissa Taylor. Click any photo to enlarge]

By DAVID DOW BENTLEY III   www.ThePeoplesCritic.com

It was just before curtain time when Dan Knechtges, the very enthusiastic Artistic Director of Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars, stepped on stage to welcome the audience of the current run of the new TUTS production of the Charlie Smalls musical, THE WIZ. Mr. Knechtges promised the audience it was “in for a treat,” and I am sure many would agree when the final curtain came down. With its creative book by William F. Brown, this 1975 Broadway success was a pioneer in the use of an all-black cast. In this edition, the able direction of Robert O’Hara, cute and flashy choreography of designer Byron Easely, witty costumes of designer, Dede Ayite, and Darryl G. Ivey’s fine Musical Direction with full orchestra, all combine to deliver the “treat” that had been promised.

I’m sure no-one needs a recap of L. Frank Baum’s iconic American tale of The Wizard of Oz, with its legendary heroes, the Tin Man, the Lion, the Scarecrow, and their young teenaged farmgirl friend, Dorothy, all of whom passed into legend via the classic 1939 film starring Judy Garland. They all return to us here in this fun-filled and funky rendition of the story that has been making the rounds on stage and in film for nearly 4o years. Readers who may have longed for a chance to hear the kinds of powerhouse vocalists that headline world-renowned gospel choirs need look no farther. Delivering sensational solos that could reach the upper balconies without the aid of a microphone, we have the talents of Salome Smith (Dorothy), Marva Hicks (The Wiz and Uncle Henry), Simone Gundy (as Addaperle, The Good Witch of the North), Allyson Kaye Daniel (as the Lion), and Yvette Monique Clark (in a triple-role as Aunt Em, the Wicked Witch, Evillene, and as Glinda, the Good Witch of the South). Christopher Campbell as the Scarecrow, and Paris Nix as the Tin Man bring along vocal magic of their own.

Salome Smith (Left) as Dorothy & Simone Gundy as Addaperle

The action plays out on a generally bare stage that is enhanced by a unique central scenic design looking much like a five-pointed crystal surrounding a magic door. That crystal-like shape (set designer, Jason Sherwood) is ever-changing throughout the show via colorful lighting (designer Alex Jainchill), and imaginative projections (designer, Aaron Rhyne). Equally imaginative are the eye-popping costumes of designer, Dede Ayite. The costumes were often amusing as well, as in the case of Miss Gundy’s scene-stealing, Addaperle, with her hilarious headpiece, and of course the colorful balloon suits on the Munchkin-like youngsters in Oz, played merrily by six young members of the local Humphreys School of Musical Theatre.

While some relationships may seem a bit underdeveloped dramatically, (as was the case in the opening scene between sassy young Dorothy and her strict Aunt Em), the solid music and great vocals would quickly rush to the rescue, along with some terrific special effects as in the suddenly arriving tornado.

The Cast of THE WIZ

Further support would come from the fine choral ensemble and the several dazzling ensemble dance segments, capped by more delightfully flashy costumes like those in the infectious, “Ease on Down the Road.” That number was reminiscent of the glittering gold and top-hatted dancers from, “A Chorus Line.” Another infectious tune that would follow the audience home was Act Two’s, “Everybody Rejoice,” which is much better known by the title it should have had, “A Brand New Day.”

Salome Smith as DOROTHY

Among the vocal highlights was pint-sized Miss Smith’s surprisingly powerful, “Soon As I Get Home.” As the panhandling Scarecrow, Mr. Campbell fires off a high-energy, “Born on the Day Before Yesterday,” that smacked of some Michael Jackson-style dance moves. The Tin Man’s song, “Slide Some Oil to Me,” was not the catchiest tune, but Mr. Nix livens it up with some snazzy tap dancing.

(L-R) The Lion, The Tin Man, The Scarecrow & Dorothy.

Singing the “Mean Ole Lion” song, Miss Daniel, beautifully costumed in mangy and rust-colored layered fur, filled the stage with ferocity as the Lion’s long tail whirled about behind her.

Marva Hicks as THE WIZ

Another eye-popping costume comes with the arrival of our mincing and prancing Wiz, with Miss Hicks adorned in glittering emerald green pants and shimmering matching cloak. And all of that fun comes before the Intermission. Why not ease on down the road and check out the full production for yourself, especially if you have any youngsters in need of a first experience of attending live theatre?

THE WIZ continues through November 4th at Houston’s Hobby Center main stage with performances Wednesday & Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday & Saturday at 8pm, and 2pm matinee performances on both Saturday and Sunday. For tickets visit the website at http://www.thehobbycenter.org, or call (713) 558-8887 locally, and (888) 558-3882 (outside of Houston).

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


Posted in American Theatre Critics Association, AMERICANTHEATRECRITICS.ORG, ATCA, Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Hobby Center Houston, Houston Chronicle online, The Courier Columns, Theater Reviews, Theater Under the Stars, ThePeoplesCritic.com, TUTS | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stage Right’s Enchanting Journey INTO THE WOODS

All Photos by Dave Clements / DWC Photography. Click any photo to enlarge.

The music of Broadway composer, Stephen Sondheim, is unusually complex and sophisticated, but sometimes considerably dark as well. It would never be confused with the cheerful Rodgers & Hammerstein tunes that you might hum on the way home from a theater. So it is, that I tend to approach Sondheim with a bit of caution. Such was the case when I attended last week’s opening weekend of Stage Right’s very wonderful production of Sondheim’s INTO THE WOODS, with its unique musical peek into the world of childhood fairy tales. (Music & Lyrics by Sondheim, Book by James Lapine). It happens that I had never seen either a staged production or the subsequent film of the show, and my brief research about it left me wary about how the complicated plot described could possibly be carried off. Stage Right has answered all my concerns with a delightful production.

The Narrator

Little Red Riding Hood

The Baker & Wife






The key elements of that success are several. First and foremost, gifted director, Tina Cafeo, has assembled an outstanding cast with the exceptional vocal talent required to take on this very difficult musical score. Complementing those efforts was the very fine orchestral recording that accompanied the singers while pairing perfect synchronization with their voices. (Musical Director, Ana Guirola Ladd). The skill, timing and memorization involved for these actors to carry this all off so successfully were simply remarkable. Dressed in sensational storybook costumes (designer, Denise Schmidt DeBold), the wonderful performers include Mandy Hall as the frightening Witch. Gavin McKinnon plays the distressed Baker, who along with his equally troubled wife (Sarah Walker Wilkins) is seeking relief from the Witch’s curse on their home. Velvet-voiced Hillary Moore is an enchanting Cinderella, and Cain Hamilton is her dashing Prince full of bluster. Cossette Czarnopis is a multi-faceted Little Red Riding Hood, who provides plenty of fun, even when up against the mean old Wolf (Douglas Holcomb). For Beanstalk fans, the part of young Jack is beautifully performed by Hayden Olds. Jack’s mother is played with appropriate desperation by Diana Egley, when Jack infuriates his mom by accepting a handful of beans in payment for selling the cherished family cow, Milky White. (Amusingly played, in a very unique costume, by Becky Kinch, who also doubles as Red Riding Hood’s Granny). Imprisoned high in the tower with her long golden tresses, the flaxen-haired Rapunzel (Meredith Fisk), is pursued by her own handsome Prince (Nicholas Gant), who could probably win a Best Dashing Leap contest for his hilarious jumps off stage. For still more hilarity we have the comically costumed (and wigged) Cinderella’s Stepmother (Jo Champion), and the outlandish stepsisters, Florinda (Nadia Urrea Wall) and Lucinda (Alyssa O’Brien).

The Princes

Jack and his Mother







The clever interaction of all these characters is nicely punctuated from time to time as the Narrator (Jim King) steps forward to elegantly address the audience with bits of guidance on the evolving plot. Similarly, an odd character called The Old Man (John Kaiser) occasionally pops briefly into scenes with unexpected and amusing comments. Also adding variety to the piece is a troupe of graceful dancing fairies (Grace Nichols, Katie Kowalik, Katie Selthofer, Elizabeth Mair, and London McDaniel), who sometimes assist scene changes and sometimes dance gaily up the audience aisles. (Choreographer, Dinah Mahlman). Additional fine supporting players include Phil Clarke, Scarlett Czarnopis, Baron Daniel Jackson, and Madison Lyons.

The Old Man

The Wolf

Stepmother and Daughters






Rapunzel & the Witch

It is worth mentioning that the show is structured in two distinct parts: Act One with its very happy ending that reportedly caused some opening night audience members to go home at intermission believing the show was over. Act Two might be a bit too complex and convoluted for some, as it undertakes to tell us what happens to the characters several years later. There were some happily giggling children in the audience, but parents of the very young might consider slipping home after Act One of this fairly long production. In any event, pleasant images will linger long in memory because beautifully framing all of this action is the irresistibly delicious fairytale set and scenic design of Kara Kowalik. From prison towers and thatched roofed houses, to emerald green forests and palace ballrooms, it is charming all the way.

INTO THE WOODS continues thru November 4th at Conroe’s Crighton Theatre, 234 N. Main. Performances are 8pm Friday & Saturday, with Sunday matinees at 2pm. For tickets and information call (936) 441-7469 or visit the website at www.stage-right.org/.

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