A Brilliant Bublé Wows New York Fans at The Garden

Michael Bublé at Madison Square Garden

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

[All photos property of ThePeoplesCritic.com  Click any photo to enlarge]

Eager fans await the star

The flags aloft

As the full-house crowd at Madison Square Garden eagerly awaited last Wednesday evening’s arrival of the star, the American flag hung proudly from the ceiling right beside the banner of Michael Bublé’s Canadian homeland. During the non-stop, two-plus hours that would follow, Mr. Bublé would abundantly prove why his astonishing talent has made him every inch a citizen of the world.

The superb orchestra surrounds the star.

His sensational vocal artistry would combine with the brilliance of the three-tiered onstage orchestra featuring some three dozen of the world’s finest musicians, all elegantly dressed in formal attire. Technical wizardry would enhance the evening throughout, with eye-popping visual excitement that would feature multi-colored lighting, ever-changing kaleidoscopic effects, and multi-screen projections from every angle that would constantly surround the star. It would all frame a delightful night of music to linger long in memory.

Joining the fans in-the-round

From the outset the collective mood in the massive arena was a reflection of the day’s relief, following the long-awaited arrival of simply beautiful summer weather in Manhattan after what had been a brutal recent heatwave across the nation. While the main staging area was at one end of the arena, that stage was connected right out into the middle of the audience via a long ramp reminiscent of Miss America Pageants in days of yore. That enabled Bublé to move freely from the main stage into the middle of the audience, and to even do some jazzy segments at center stage surrounded by his fans and a core group of his finest musicians. If the crowd was in an upbeat mood, so was the star as he opened the show with a thunderous and pulsing rendition of one of his signature tunes, “Feeling Good.” Then it was on to the snazzy and optimistic hit, “Haven’t Met You Yet,” with the star prancing about the stage like a dancer and exploding with infectious joy. With comic flair he joked with the audience about the high cost of the show tickets required to accommodate his growing family, quipping, “Who knows how much bribes will cost getting my three kids into college?”

Bublé in a bubble above the stage

Without skipping a beat he brought the piercing power of his voice to an absolutely thrilling, “My Funny Valentine,” with the orchestra glowing amid rosy pastel lighting as the entire stage was embraced by a neon rainbow. Just as suddenly came the bright transition to a sensational and finger-snapping, “I Only Have Eyes for You,” that seemed a perfect demonstration of vocal control. Then came a beautiful performance of an early personal Bublé favorite of my own with the seductive Latin rhythms of the haunting, “Sway.”

During a momentary respite, Bublé shared stories of the beloved grandfather he always credits with having inspired his love for music of the Great American Songbook. But then, with seemingly endless energy, he was soon whirling across the mid-audience ramp with the bouncing delights of, “Such a Night,” and moving on to still more perpetual motion during a jazzy and hot, “Up the Lazy River.” There was old-style, brassy big band fun, as the guys in the orchestra echoed each line of Bublé’s lush delivery of, “When You’re Smiling.” There would be a spontaneous moment as Bublé coaxed a young man in the audience to sample “stardom” by singing a very respectable, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” There was also a brilliant trumpet solo that blew the roof off the room for, “You’re Nobody till Somebody Loves You.” The love theme continued with a tender and magnificent, “When I Fall in Love,” and reached a poignant and touching zenith with Bublé’s original composition, “Forever Now.” A devoted family man, the song was his intimate reflection on a parent’s enduring love for a child, and was movingly depicted here in accompanying slides of an evolving nursery where empty crib and room furnishings slowly appear, and then finally vanish while symbolizing the cherished life of a child. For many years Bublé had been unable to perform the song because it was much too personal in its meaning. Thank goodness it is now included. Continuing this show so full of love and humanity, he then offered another touching performance with the song, “Home,” dedicating it to the brave soldiers and first responders protecting us around the world.

A Lively Lavender Conclusion

Then, avoiding the risk of having melancholy set in, a fun-filled trio of Louis Prima hits followed as “Buona Sera Signorina,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,”and “Just a Gigolo,” put the room back in full-party mode as the audience cheerfully joined in the singing. There would be breathtaking artistry for an explosive and flashy, “Cry Me a River,” before the star left the stage giving the impression the show was over. But no! Soon he was back for a soft, warm “Where or When?” before solidifying the affectionate bond between audience and star with the beautiful, “You Were Always on My Mind.” Bublé was once quoted as saying, “It’s my job as an artist to make people feel.” Job well done, Michael!

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.


In a happy discovery, my guest and I enjoyed a fine dinner before the show (and dessert afterward) in the lively NILES restaurant just across the street. Consider giving it a try.


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Cinematic Fun at the Music Box Theater

Cast at The Music Box Theatre (L-R) Luke Wrobel, Cay Taylor, Rebecca Dahl & Brad Scarborough


“The People’s Critic”

It’s that time again. Time to get out and enjoy the nightlife in Houston. The cheerful delights continue as the familiar troupe at the Music Box Theater takes on their latest subject: “Songs of the Silver Screen.” To steal a line from the movie Casablanca, the cast has been able to round up “the usual suspects,” minus one, as cast regular, Kristina Sullivan, was granted a much-deserved vacation during this production. But all the regulars remain, including Brad Scarborough and Rebecca Dahl, the company’s founders, along with Luke Wrobel and Cay Taylor adding to the fun. The merry atmosphere was quickly established with the cute and childlike performance of “The Rainbow Connection.” It featured great harmonies and solos and was a joyous opener that was topped by projections of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. A pleasant parade of film parodies and memorably famous quotations would follow. A clever spoof of the James Bond films was titled, “Tomorrow Never Says Never, and Also Never Dies.” It featured a fine performance of the song, “Nobody Does it Better” by Luke, as the cast performed a shadowy, slow-motion background mime of the action-packed shootouts reminiscent of the 007 films. Adding to that action were a few staticky malfunctions of the house microphones that were regrettable. A Luau Beach sketch was somewhat rescued by a nice duet of “Endless Love,” from Cay and Luke, which might have been improved with less fussy “business” and desperation during that beautiful song. A much more satisfying segment followed with a parody of The Godfather that was hilarious. Luke was marvelous in the title role, presiding over the wedding of his daughter, amusingly played by Cay in the role of the bride, hilariously named Mary Nara (with all due respect to my favorite spaghetti sauce). Brad was every inch their equal in his wimpy role as the slapped-around younger brother, Fredo. It was a comic high point as the Godfather lashes out, slapping Fredo around and scolding him for “…touching my daughter on her wedding day!” Of course Fredo is rewarded with the traditional horse’s head as the Godfather proclaims, “I knew it was you Fredo.” Brad then moved on to a sensational and growling performance of “Pretty Woman,” while seducing a Pom-Pom girl in the person of Rebecca. His was a resonant, smooth, rich performance, with such a fine transition to “Unchained Melody” that it made me think, “This guy could be filling stadiums with that fine voice if he wasn’t here delighting audiences in this intimate venue.” Before intermission arrived, Rebecca would deliver a fierce, “Holding Out for a Hero,” and then there was a calming, “I Say a Little Prayer,” quartet to close out the act.

There was plenty of excitement to begin Act Two during the “Eye of the Tiger,” from the film ROCKY III . With Brad’s laser beam voice, the cast joined in behind him as he mimicked the boxer’s jump rope and punching bag workouts. Here and there we hear a few ghostly but forgettable telephone conversations spoofing the movie Scream. On a higher plane, we have an uproarious death scene from Terms of Endearment, with Rebecca in full diva mode for a fine duet with Brad of the A Star is Born hit, “Shallow.” It is delightfully and simply accompanied by guitar (Mark McCain), along with the constant beep-beep of the bedside hospital monitor. It adds to the merriment until one of the exasperated hospital attendants finds it necessary to finish Rebecca’s lengthy and amusing death scene with a smothering pillow. But don’t despair. Soon we have a cheerful trio of, “Always look on the Bright Side of Life,” that even features some ghostly dancing with the corpse. Black humor to say the least, but the audience loved it. Cay then provides a powerful performance of the song “Tightrope” from The Greatest Showman, and brings it to a light and airy conclusion. Rebecca hits a solid vocal homerun with a, “The Man That Got Away,” that would have made Judy Garland proud. Meanwhile, science fiction fans won’t want to miss Cay’s performance as a tiny but hilarious E.T. Then Brad and Luke then give us two fierce and wild guys from Top Gun, with “Danger Zone.” Another parody titled, “When Harry Met Seattle,” featured Cay with a wistful, dreamy and poignant, “Moon River.” Luke brings solid country flair that is perfect for Houston, when he sings the wonderful “Everybody’s Talkin,” before moving on to a radiant, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” which blended in perfectly. Echoing that theme, we suddenly see Brad waking up like the sleepy Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, as he announces in wonder, “It wasn’t a dream! All I wanted was to get back to our theater.” That launched the cast into a sensational quartet of, “I’ve Had the Time of My Life.” The cheering audience seemed in total agreement.

Next Up at The Music Box

SONGS FROM THE SILVER SCREEN continues at the Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt, Houston, Texas, through June 2nd with performances at 7:30p.m. Fridays & Saturdays, and there will be Sunday matinees at 2 pm on May 19th and June 2nd. Reserved seating for all shows is $41, and General Admission is $31. 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, FEELING GROOVY.

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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HOUSTON BALLET Brings the Calm after the Storm to the Woodlands Pavilion

Artists of the Houston Ballet perform, “THE LADIES”
Photo: Amitava Sarkar

By David Dow Bentley III     “The People’s Critic”

Miraculously, after several days of violent storms across much of Texas and the Houston area, it was a perfectly beautiful and pleasantly warm evening for an outdoor production as the HOUSTON BALLET took to the stage of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion on the first weekend in May. Rather than the full productions that this company sometimes presents in that venue, this Mixed Repertory program would be a series of selected ballet works, some classic, and some more modern and experimental. While the muddy hillside lawn was closed to picnickers, there was plenty of free seating available in the house. The eclectic program would begin with two World Premieres. The first ballet was titled, “Ina and Jeffrey,” and starred Natalie Varnum (choreographer) & Oliver Halkowich. The two dancers were dressed in casual pink jumpsuits with white plastic helmets, operating in graceful twin-ship. They mirrored each other’s movements in a playful and prancing program that had a free-spirited aspect probably quite appealing to youngsters in the audience. With choreography by Jacquelyn Long, the second world premiere was, “It Just Keeps Going,” featuring Soo Youn Cho & Harper Watters. It was a more stately and elegant work full of graceful dance pairings, dramatic lifts and extensions, all with rich violin accompaniment (Denise Tarrant), while capturing a daydreaming and restful atmosphere. The third selection was titled, “Oh, There You Are,” and featured the full ensemble, along with more beautiful violin accompaniment from Miss Tarrant. It began with the cast of dancers arrayed about the stage almost as statues on platforms. Under random spotlight flashes, the movement quickly ensued, with jumps, weaving motions and pop-ups from various parts of the stage.

Artists of the Houston Ballet perform, “OH, THERE YOU ARE.”
Photo; Amitava Sarkar

There was a whirling intermingling of the full cast of performers, and it became apparent that this ballet was serving as a kind of examination of gender stereotypes. An unusual departure for a dance program was the introduction here of two microphones on the stage from which oral commands were given to the dancers: “You shouldn’t cry,” “Be a man,” “You run like a girl,” “Guys can’t multitask,” “Boys will be boys,” “Show them who’s boss.” Commands to the women in the cast included such directives as, “She really let herself go,” “Be careful of your figure,” “Should you really be eating that?” Then the narrator seems to address the audience with an overriding question: “What if we really see ourselves and accept every bit of who we all are?” Before the dance concluded there would be foot-stomping excitement, pleasant accompaniment on guitar, and visually appealing acrobatic energy during what appeared to be a whirling dance from a Jewish wedding. Always there seemed to be the unexpected around the next corner. Shadowy mood lighting added to the look, and the rustic and crimson glow of the side projection screens on either side of the proscenium, accented the complexity of dancing that could not have been as random as it appeared for those who had to learn this difficult choreography (Melody Mennite). The action-packed conclusion was reminiscent of the Jets and Sharks ballet in West Side Story.

Houston Ballet’s Miller Outdoor fall performance with Principal dancers, Soo Youn Cho & Jared Matthews. PHOTO: Lawrence Knox

But in this long, 3-Act evening of dance, those seeking the more traditional classic look of ballet would not be disappointed. Act Two did feature one oddly modern work titled, “Come In,” (choreographer, Azure Barton), that at times seemed endless to this observer. But prior to that endurance test, the act opened gloriously with the grandeur of the Stanton Welch ballet, “The Ladies,” magnificently accompanied by the music of Rossini as splendidly performed by the Houston Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Ermanno Florio. I pity those who left after Act One. Better still would be the spectacular final offering of the evening: the “Act III Wedding Pas de Deux” from the exquisite 19th century ballet, Raymonda. It starred Yuriko Kajiya and Chun Wai Chan in a stunningly athletic display of the best that ballet has to offer, and the appreciative audience quickly rose to its feet in joyful ovation. While walking to the parking lot I overheard an elderly couple sharing their own delight as the woman remarked, “Last night we were hiding in a closet during the tornado warnings, and now here we are!” A happy ending all around. Bravo!

[Click upcoming Pavilion schedule at left to enlarge.]

On Wednesday, May 22, Houston Grand Opera is bringing a beloved classic to life on The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion Main Stage – Giacomo Puccini’s colorful and vibrant work of art La Bohème. Mezzanine and lawn seating are free. Reserved orchestra seating tickets are $20. The performance will begin at 8 p.m. and gates open at 7 p.m.

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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Krajewski Returns Amid Musical & Acrobatic Splendor at Jones Hall

The Aerial Duo


“The People’s Critic”

Photos: Chris Gray/Cirque de la Symphonie

[Click any photo to enlarge]


The fun at Houston Symphony’s Jones Hall began as soon as much-loved conductor, Michael Krajewski, walked to the podium, as the orchestra played the

Michael Krajewski

Theme from Rocky, long associated with its very popular Principal Pops Conductor who retired a few years ago after 17 years in that position. As he took the microphone, he quickly joked about how this would be his “Third Annual Farewell Concert.”

The jester named “Jaster”

And what a concert this astonishing, “Cirque de la Symphonie,” program would be.

The Cubist

From just a few rows back in center orchestra, I was about to see feats of both magic and acrobatic strength and skill that would seem to defy all laws of logic and gravity. The amazing moments would be punctuated by bits of clown-like comedy and pantomime from a jester named “Jaster,” and his talented female partner. With always amusing movements and facial expressions, they performed incredible and instantaneous costume changes that forever put to death the notion that, “Seeing is believing!”

The Mask

Another striking cast member seemed to be some strange, angular and orange creature known as The Mask due to his eerie white face. He would lumber about the stage, all the while skillfully juggling numerous small white balls and seeming like some very large and mysterious dog as he roamed about.

Of course musically this would be a breathtaking performance, and to accompany it maestro Krajewski had wisely selected a smorgasbord of the most exciting classical music in the repertoire. Act One would include such symphonic delights as the “Tritsch-Tratsch (Chit Chat) Polka,” of J. Strauss Jr., Khachaturian’s “Ayesha’s Suite No. 1 Dance from Gayane,” Bizet’s “Les Toréadors,” the “Danse Boheme,” from Carmen, “Waltz from the Masquerade Suite” by Khachaturian, Offenbach’s “La Vie Parisienne Overture,” and Offenbach’s delightful “Can-Can,” from his Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld.

The Hula Hoops

Throughout the performance there would be soaring and astonishing aerial acrobatics on ropes, straps, colorful silken strands, as well as fantastic feats of juggling with neon discs, hula hoops, and bowling pins. John Williams’ thrilling “March from Superman,” would take the program to Intermission, but there would be much more visual and musical excitement to come.

Act Two began with another amazing magic trick as the formally dressed conductor was called upon to assist in thoroughly binding the cast’s comedienne from head to toe with heavy rope that secured her hands, arms and legs. Then the reluctant Mr. Krajewski was coaxed to join his bound victim in a small election booth-like curtain at mid-stage. The curtain was briefly shaken for a matter of seconds, and when it was pulled aside the woman was still bound, but miraculously now wearing the conductor’s formal black jacket, tightly secured under the ropes that bound her, while he was now in shirt and tie without his jacket! The mystified audience gasped in amazement as the ropes were untied and the jacket restored to its rightful owner.

The rolling “German Wheel”

The Contortionist

Musical selections during this second half of the program included Tchaikovsky’s “Danse des Cygnes,” from Swan Lake, Dance of the Buffoons from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden, Smetana’s “Dance of the Comedians” from The Bartered Bride, Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette,” Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance,” Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz” from Swan Lake,” and the Rossini-Respighi “Tarantella” from La Boutique Fantasque.

The incredible “Neckstand”

But the savvy conductor had cleverly saved the best for last as he launched the orchestra into the seductive masterpiece of Ravel’s intoxicating, “Bolero.” To top it off, this selection prompted the slow-motion appearance, from opposite ends of the stage, of two mysterious figures, men of magnificent physique, and coated from head to toe in silver make-up to rival the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz.” Known as the Acro Duo, their every move continued to be in slow motion that paralleled the building excitement of the music. Their gymnastic feats of posed acrobatic artistry were simply unbelievable. I hope these several photographic examples will verify my claim. Bravo to the orchestra, conductor and all performers for this uniquely memorable concert!

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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“13” is a Lucky Number for Houston’s LoneStarLyric

LoneStarLyric founder, Kelli Estes, greets the audience for ANOTHER BRITISH INVASION at MATCH Theater, Houston.

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

It is hard to believe it is the better part of two decades since I first had the pleasure of hearing talented soprano, Kelli Estes, as she performed in New York City. How could I have guessed then that fate would soon find us both working in the Houston area where, happily, whenever I am in town, I continue to have pleasant opportunities to see her perform with the talented LoneStarLyric Company that she founded thirteen years ago back in 2006? Appropriately billed as “Houston’s Premier Lyric Theater,” the company’s 13th Anniversary season continues with this weekend’s ANOTHER BRITISH INVASION, a cabaret celebration taking place at the Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston, a.k.a. “MATCH.” The current production is the fourth in the troupe’s five-event series this season, and seems particularly timely in this age of “Brexit.” The program highlights an assortment of musical selections associated with British composers from Andrew Lloyd Webber, to Noël Coward, the Gershwins, The Beatles, and beyond. The talented vocalists include Andrew Briggs, Sarah Brindley, Ms. Estes, and Jeremy Wood. The accompanying jazz trio features Music Director, Barry Sames, on piano, Carol Daubert on drums, Alan Simmons on bass, with Mr. Briggs often joining in on guitar.

The cast of LoneStarLyric (L-R) Alan Simmons on bass, Barry Sames on piano, Andrew Briggs, Kelli Estes, Sarah Brindley, Jeremy Wood, & Carol Daubert on drums.

Soft pastel lighting pleasantly illuminates the intimate and casual space of Theater #1 in the MATCH theatre complex. A refreshment stand adjoins the theatre, and drinks and snacks are welcome in the house. All of the comfortable seating is within full view of the stage, and a few premium seats have cocktail tables beside them.

The trio led things off with a jazzy interpretation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s, “All I Ask of You,” and was quickly followed by Mr. Wood with the lively Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley collaboration of, “My Kind of Girl.” Ms. Brindley showed no fear in moving between high and low vocal ranges for her smoothly elegant delivery of George & Ira Gershwin’s, “A Foggy Day.”

Kelli Estes

After Estes treated the audience to the Johnny Mercer/Richard A. Whiting tune, “Too Marvelous for Words,” trouble reared its ugly head during a two-number tribute to the challenging “patter” songs of Gilbert & Sullivan. The tongue-twisting and rapid-fire difficulty of many of their delightful G&S operetta songs is well-known, and quite amazing to hear when successfully performed. Alas, here the several interrupted attempts by Kelli and Jeremy for “My Eyes Are Fully Open,” did not go well, but it was all in good fun as Andrew rescued them with a fine performance of the equally difficult, “Modern Major General.” Jeremy would then add to the fun with the tropical rhythms, rhymes and wit of Noël Coward’s “Nina,” [from Argentina]. Sarah then offers a soft and gentle transition with another Bricusse/Newley tune during her light and airy, “Pure Imagination.” Speaking of transitions, Kelli’s performance of the McCartney/Lennon song, “Blackbird,” was the perfect pathway to the group’s pleasant harmonies as they joined forces for a Beatles celebration with “All You Need is Love,” “Love Me Do,” and an “All the Lonely People,” that featured nice guitar work from Andrew. They closed this Act One with a solid, “Nowhere Man,” and the perky fun of an infectious, “When I’m 64,” that was nicely complemented by some notably fine work from Simmons on the bass.

The countless additional delights following intermission would include a very operatic performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s, “Memory” from Sarah, who then joined Kelli for a fine pairing of the Jule Styne/ Bob Merrill Funny Girl classics, “People,” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” Kelli’s tender side would be nicely displayed in Noël Coward’s, “Mad About the Boy,” and there were more fine moments on bass from Simmons. Jeremy and Sarah pair for the Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn tunes, “Time After Time,” and “Just in Time,” smoothly navigating some tricky counterpoints while the trio shows off during some high-speed displays. Those musicians would also win some appreciative audience applause during the sneaky fun of Henry Mancini’s, “Pink Panther,” and then it was time for Kelli to draw things toward a close with Jule Styne and Comden & Green’s poignant, “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry.” While there wasn’t much to cry about during this pleasant musical journey, I would offer two suggestions. While there were numbers where a firm hand on the piano seemed in order, there were other times when this listener would have liked a lighter touch on the ivories. Lastly, energy and enthusiasm are great, but I have a pet-peeve when talented performers supplement the beautiful music and lyrics of classic songs that speak for themselves, by feeling the need to decorate every syllable of a tune with animated gestures and facial expressions. The very best songs need none of that, so I will now take my exit cue from this show’s finale, Eric Idle’s, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” So if my readers hurry, they can still catch today’s final performance at 5 p.m. at Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston, 3400 Main St. @ Holman. For tickets & information visit www.LoneStarLyric.org, or call 917-414-9577. The phone number at MATCH is 713-521-4533, and the website www.MATCHOUSTON.org .

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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RAGTIME is a Mystical Work of Art from TUTS

The cast of RAGTIME

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

[All Photos by Melissa Taylor. Click any photo to enlarge]

I recall back when I first became curious about the musical, RAGTIME, I was astonished upon locating a synopsis of the plot, which appeared, at first glance, to have such a complex structure, with its three main story lines, that it struck me as nearly impossible to stage successfully. Belying that, the extraordinary production currently being presented by Theatre Under the Stars at Houston’s Hobby Center is about the best example I can imagine of genius on the stage translating the complex printed pages of a play to a living, breathing miracle right before our eyes. Based on the E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name, the musical has a book by Terrence McNally, memorable music by Stephen Flaherty, and meaningful lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. It premiered in Toronto in December of 1996, and opened its two-year run on Broadway in January of 1998. This breathtaking production is brilliantly directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, with exquisite musical direction from Brad Haak who presided over the stellar 22-member orchestra.

Courtney Markowitz as Mother, Ryan Silverman as Father, and Michael Karash as The Little Boy

The challenging plot I mentioned earlier takes place in New York in the early 20th century and revolves about characters in three very different social arenas. There is a prosperous New Rochelle family including a feisty Little Boy (Michael Karash), a conservative and adventurous Father (Ryan Silverman), a tender and understanding Mother (Courtney Markowitz), Mother’s sometimes rebellious Younger Brother (Evan Kinnane), and the grumpy Grandfather (Kevin Cooney).

Ezekiel Andrew as Coalhouse, Danyel Fulton as Sarah and the Cast of Ragtime.

The second scenario evolves a world away in Harlem where we meet the African-American ragtime piano player, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew), and his beautiful lover, Sarah (Danyel Fulton).

Robert Petkoff as Tateh and Maya Kaul as The Little Girl

The play’s surprisingly contemporary third focus falls on the immigrants arriving in New York in the persons of a struggling Jewish artist, Tateh (Robert Petkoff), and his young Little Girl (Maya Kaul). Tateh’s quest for the American dream will eventually land this peasant as a Hollywood mogul. Each of these three groups has an entourage of related characters that fill out this enormous cast approaching fifty talented actors. And we eventually go on to meet Henry Ford (Christopher deProphetis), Admiral Peary & J. P. Morgan (Paul Hope), Booker T. Washington (Stephonne Smith), and Harry Houdini (Josh Walden).

Under the watchful eye of the Statue of Liberty, the magic of this production begins in the first amazing moments as the various groups arrive ascending a center-stage footbridge upon which they introduce themselves in glorious rotation and song. They are accompanied by such infectious music that we are immediately captivated as we begin to learn who all these players are during a haunting musical “Prologue” wrapped in the intoxicating choral mastery of an ensemble that quickly has the audience under its spell. Even the smoothly whirling choreography of the arriving cast (designer, Josh Walden) has a pleasantly hypnotic effect. As she bids farewell to her seafaring husband, we first hear the lovely and lilting voice of Miss Markowitz as the Mother, in a performance of “Goodbye My Love,” that could have etched fine crystal. As Father’s ship sails off on a shimmering sea beneath moonlight and stars, we experience the first of countless scenic projections from designer, Kevan Loney, that are among the finest I have seen on the stage. As Father’s departing vessel is passed by an arriving ship of immigrants, there is a stunning counterpoint trio as Mother, Father and Tateh sing the beautiful, “Journey On.”

Emma Degerstedt as Evelyn Nesbit

Then, propelled by Younger Brother’s obsession with a renowned actress, we are suddenly thrust into the Vaudeville world of beautiful model and chorus girl, Evelyn Nesbit (Emma Degersted), for the crimson glow and musical merriment of the fact-based “Crime of the Century.” The number is full of costume magic (designer, Santo Loquasto), as it spoofs how Nesbit’s husband, Harry Thaw (Josh Walden), shot and killed her lover, noted architect, Stanford White (Mark Jamal). But these few samples of the play’s opening scenarios cannot begin to reveal the riches that await audiences as they meet this uniformly brilliant troupe of nearly all-Equity cast members, and superb vocalists among the finest on any stage. The rich stories of the immigrants (“A Shtetl Iz Amereke”) are accented by the legendary socialist, Emma Goldman (Kim Stengel) during, “The Night Emma Goldman Spoke at Union Square.” The struggles in the Afro-American community and the emerging delights of Ragtime music are richly portrayed through the powerhouse voices and performances of Mr. Andrew and Miss Fulton. (She often reminds one of Broadway star, Audra McDonald, who originated the role of Sarah). The stunning, “Till We Reach That Day,” that closes Act One seems to unleash the human spirit with magnificent power as it addresses the nation’s racial divide with hope.

The Cast of Ragtime

Always, there is the ever-present choral support of the splendid ensemble. But amid the serious themes there are moments of unexpected fun, like the bouncing delights of the “Getting’ Ready Rag,” and the cleverly staged baseball scene at New York’s Polo Grounds. Truthfully, this show is an embarrassment of riches the likes of which I have not seen since the original Broadway production of, “Fiddler on the Roof.” Here we have a critic’s worst nightmare: A production so vast in its scope, so wondrous in its musical and visual delights that it defies description in the single page I am permitted. But one line of dialogue stuck in my mind: “Without art, what is our existence?” We certainly have it here.

RAGTIME continues through April 28th at Houston’s Hobby Center main stage with performances Tuesday, 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 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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Stage Right’s DIARY OF ANNE FRANK Arrives at Crighton Theatre

The Cast of Stage Right’s DIARY OF ANNE FRANK at the Crighton Theatre.

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

[All Photos by Dave Clements/DWC Photography*  Click any photo to enlarge]

The wonderful Stage Right Players, resident company of the exquisite Crighton Theatre in Conroe, Texas, is well known for its many delightful productions of musicals and comedies. But the group is not afraid to take on more serious offerings from time to time, as was the case with last season’s production of The Elephant Man. Continuing in that vein, Directors, Bonnie Hewitt & Meredith Ann Gaines, now bring us a poignant revival of The Diary of Anne Frank, the 1956 play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. The original Broadway production won the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award, and the Critics Circle Award. Based on the actual and tragic events recorded in Anne’s diary, this is a timeless play in every way, but what is perhaps most surprising is that such a serious drama can be at once so heartbreaking, while at the very same time being so uplifting.

On set for cast of DIARY OF ANNE FRANK

Such is the case in this epic 1940’s tale of eight Jews trapped for over two years in the hidden upper rooms and attic of an Amsterdam warehouse/office building. The cramped and authentic set from designers Hewett & Gaines, nicely frames the harrowing tale of these eight courageous souls, in their desperate attempt to avoid capture by the Nazis during the waning days of World War II.

German officers (Baron Daniel W. Jackson & Sean Sears) challenge Mr. Frank (John Sallinger) and daughter, Anne (understudy, Cristin Burris)
*THIS PHOTO by Michael Pittman

But before you even enter the theater to see that set you must first present yourself to a frightening German Waffen SS military officer (Baron Daniel W. Jackson), with an ominous guard dog at his side.

If approved as an audience member your ticket will be stamped with the Nazi seal.

That Nazi officer mans the entrance desk in the lobby and reviews your credentials as you present your theatre ticket for examination. If approved, he will literally stamp the back of your ticket with the seal of the German Reich, and you will then be permitted to enter.

My first exposure to this frightening story was as a young boy when I saw the 1959 film of the same name, directed by George Stevens. To this day I can still recall the horrifying sound of the frightening Nazi sirens racing through the streets below the confines in which these terrified war refugees were hidden.

The central character in this drama is, of course, young Anne Frank herself, played here with splendid sensitivity and coming of age enthusiasm by Katie Kowalik.

Katie Kowalik stars as ANNE FRANK.

Anne helps to advance the plot by sometimes stepping out of character to address the audience as narrator, often accompanied by brief snatches of classical music. Kowalik’s performance as this thirteen year-old girl overflows with such joy and optimism in the face of extreme hardship, that it cannot help but lift one’s faith in humanity, the Nazi horrors notwithstanding. The characters trapped here with Anne include her father, Otto, (affectionately played by John Salinger), her patient and understanding mother, Edith, (Maria O. Sirgo), and Anne’s older sister, Margot (a gentle and subtly understated performance from Samantha Seeton at the performance I attended). In addition, we have Mr. Frank’s friends, the sometimes bickering Mr. & Mrs. Van Daan (Quint Bishop and Patrice Kentimenos), their son, Peter (Kevin Downs in a shyly sensitive portrayal), and a quirky dentist named Mr. Dussel, (John Kaiser). Nicely rounding out the cast are John Guest as Mr. Kraler, and Leona Hoegsberg as Miep Gies, two kindly Dutch souls who regularly bring food, supplies and cheerful encouragement to these imprisoned refugees, all the while carefully keeping secret their location.

The period costumes of designer, Ms. Gaines, are accented by the Nazi-required Star of David patch each Jew must wear. That patch warns the populace that these people are forbidden many basic rights, and cannot even ride in a streetcar, let alone drive a car. Jews are disappearing day by day at the hands of the Nazis, and so it is that this valiant band is seeking sanctuary.

Katie Kowalik as Anne and Kevin Downs as Peter.

As the plot evolves we see the warm relationship between Anne and her father, and then Anne’s growing friendship with Peter as their relationship blooms into a sweetly innocent first love. There are powerful performances from Ms. Sirgo and both Mr. Bishop and Ms. Kentimenos as sparks of tension fly between Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan over the value of a fur coat, the dwindling supplies of food, and hard-to-obtain cigarettes. But tensions are often relieved by the amusing wit of the script, and not infrequently, by the comic moments so beautifully handled by Kaiser in his role as the dentist, Mr. Dussel. Meanwhile, Anne’s youthful spirit of rebellion confounds her loving mother, as Ms. Sirgo nicely captures the patience a mother needs to deal with a teenager. While Anne may have a rebellious nature, her gentle and loving heart is fully revealed in the touching scene when she presents everyone with her humble, but very thoughtful Chanukah gifts. It is a moment that cements a special bond between the characters in the play and the members of the audience. It is an experience worth sharing, and I recommend it to you as validation of one memorable line from Anne’s diary: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are good at heart.”

Diary of Anne Frank runs thru April 28th with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays & Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. 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.

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