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 .

 

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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 .

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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).

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Carolyn Wong Triumphs in Crighton’s “DOLLY”

Carolyn Corsano Wong stars in HELLO DOLLY at Crighton Theatre
PHOTO: Michael Pittman

After a historically sad and troubling week for Americans aware of the tragic events in Florida, the abundant joy that is now being offered by the Stage Right Players production of HELLO DOLLY at Conroe’s gorgeous Crighton Theatre, could not have come at a better time. It was a half-century ago when I first saw the show’s hit 1967 Broadway revival with its all-black cast, memorably headlined by Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway. Now, all these years later, the show is once again lighting up the stage in the capable hands of director, Manny Cafeo and his exuberant cast, led by company co-founder and gifted comedienne, Carolyn Corsano Wong, in the lead role of Dolly Gallagher Levi, the devilish and conniving matchmaker inspired by Thornton Wilder’s 1955 play, The Matchmaker.

With its wittily amusing book by Michael Stewart, and the endlessly charming Music & Lyrics of Jerry Herman, this musical is a winner right out of the gate, as the lushly costumed cast (designer, Debbie Preisler) emerges onstage, even accompanied by a clever, horse-drawn carriage, though the horse amusingly appeared to have four human legs.

The cast of Crighton Theatre’s production of HELLO DOLLY
PHOTO: Michael Pittman

Capping that opening scene is the gorgeously dressed widow, Dolly, in her floor-length dress with alternating vertical panels of wine-red satin and velvet, topped by a deliciously outlandish feathered chapeau.

Carolyn Corsano Wong in Crighton’s HELLO DOLLY
PHOTO: Michael Pittman

Ms. Wong’s comedic genius is quickly apparent with every eye-roll and facial twitch, as Dolly briskly advises everyone that she can not only find marriage partners for those in need, but she can provide individual business cards for her countless other services, such as piercing ears and removing varicose veins. With a smooth, robust voice, Wong takes immediate command of the stage with her opening number, “I Put My Hand In,” as Dolly explains how she loves to “meddle” in other people’s business.

We are quickly transported to the folksy set (designer, Deanie Harmon Boy), depicting the Country Feed Store of wealthy Yonkers “half-millionaire,” Horace Vandergelder (talented Michael Martin, who at times reminds one of actor, James Cagney). While Horace plans to retain Dolly to find him a bride, Mr. Martin delivers a breezy and pleasant, “It Takes a Woman,” with great back-up dancing from both the ensemble, and Vandergelder’s two bumbling clerks, Cornelius (Carlos Gonzalez) and Barnaby (Ryan Rodriquez). Horace has his eye on pretty Manhattan hat shop owner, Irene Molloy (Sara Priesler), but Dolly secretly hopes to become his wife herself. That goal adds much to the fun that follows, especially when Wong’s hilarious comic timing is on full display while glibly chatting with Horace, and ignoring or misinterpreting everything he says. (Think Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame.)

(L-R) DOLLY cast members Michael Martin, Elissa Lynch, and Cain Hamilton.
PHOTO: Michael Pittman

There is additional silliness from the endless whining and shrieks of desperation from Vandergelder’s niece, Ermengard (Elissa Lynch), as she very loudly protests the fact that Uncle Horace feels her struggling young artist beau, Ambrose (Cain Hamilton), is unsuitable as her future husband. With the exception of Cornelius and Barnaby, who must stay behind to mind the store, everyone prepares for a trip to New York City during the cheerful and beautifully staged show-stopper, “Put on your Sunday Clothes.”

The action then turns to the charming Hat Shop of Miss Molloy and her flighty and ever-giggling assistant, Minnie Fay (Hillary Moore), dressed in an amusing frock resembling a wedding cake. Meanwhile Barnaby and Cornelius have closed the Feed Store, deciding that they too, need a day of adventure in New York. When they turn up at the hat shop just before Vandergelder’s arrival, the stage is set for some uproarious slapstick. That is pleasantly accented by Miss Priesler’s elegant and soaring performance of, “Ribbons down My Back.” The “Motherhood March,” “Dancing,” and sensational “Before the Parade Passes By,” numbers that concluded Act One were large ensemble displays of both the polished dancing designed by choreographer, Dinah Mahlman, and the cast vocal skills perfected by Music Director, Ana Guirola-Ladd. And oh, what a talented cast of nearly four dozen actors too numerous to name here.

Speaking of dancing, Act Two has plenty of delights of its own as the action turns to the upscale Manhattan restaurant, Harmonia Gardens, where Barnaby and Cornelius, pretending to be wealthy gents, are unsure how they will afford dinner for their newfound dates, Minnie and Irene.

(L-R) DOLLY cast members Hillary Moore, Ryan Rodriquez, Sara Priesler, and Carlos Gonzalez.
PHOTO: Michael Pittman

The foursome dance and sing the delightful, “Elegance,” with Priesler at times displaying her operatic skill, as the tall, slender and handsome Mr. Gonzalez beamed while showing hints of the Tommy Tune dance styles. Then come the dazzling dance acrobatics of “The Waiters’ Gallop,” that seemed to leave the audience as breathless as the talented dancers. Of course the title tune remains a highlight when the assembled waiters sing, “Hello Dolly” to greet our star as she splendidly descends the central staircase radiantly bedecked in feather-trimmed gown and plumed headdress. But there is so much more, including a turkey dinner too hilarious to describe, a spirited ensemble polka, and a restaurant brawl that lands everyone in court, where Mr. Gonzalez steals the show pleading the case before the Judge (Will Radcliffe) as he joins Miss Priesler for an “It Only Takes a Moment,” full of youthful longing, love and passion. I won’t be a spoiler to describe the joyful finale, but let me say it was a night when there was plenty of love bouncing across the footlights…in both directions!

HELLO DOLLY continues through Sunday February 25th at the historic Crighton Theatre, 234 N. Main St., Conroe, Texas. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, with Sunday’s matinee at 2 pm. For Tickets & information call 936-441-SHOW or visit www.Stage-Right.org.

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Conroe Courier, Crighton Theatre, Houston Chronicle, Houston Community Newspapers online, Jerry Herman, Stage Right Productions, The Courier Columns, The TICKET, Theater Reviews, ThePeoplesCritic.com, YourHoustonNews.com | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

For Fascinating “BALLS,” There’s No Business Like Busy-Business

L-R: Ellen Tamaki, Richard Saudek, Danté Jeanfelix, Elisha Mudly, Alex J. Gould, Richard Saudek, and Donald Corren in BALLS at 59E59 Theaters.

[ Click any photo to enlarge. All photos by Russ Rowland. ]

As a modest player myself, and a frequent fan of the major tennis championships, I’ve been currently suffering my annual frustration at the elusive, wee-hours-of-the-morning, live telecasts of the Australian Open matches now underway in the distant time zone of “The Land Down Under.”

L-R: Ellen Tamaki and Donald Corren in BALLS at 59E59 Theaters

But relief has arrived right here in Manhattan, thanks to the fascinating production of BALLS, now gracing the stage of the 59E59 Theaters right here in the Big Apple. “BALLS” was recently developed and premiered by Houston’s famed Stages Repertory Theatre. The very unusual play undertakes to tell the tale of the famed 1973 Battle of the Sexes challenge match in the Houston Astrodome between the rising young tennis star, Billie Jean King, and the notorious braggart, blowhard, and former Wimbledon champion, Bobby Riggs. (Houston Technical Director, Joel Burkholder).

Cristina Pitter and Danny Bernardy in BALLS at 59E59 Theaters

With dazzling direction from Ianthe Demos & Nick Flint, the show’s format is really quite unique. It literally thrusts the audience right into the middle of the action, and even plants two of the event’s rowdy tennis “fans” (Cristina Pitter as Cherry, and Danny Bernardy as Terry) out among the noisy crowd, reinforcing the impression that we are all in this together as the full match is played out right before our eyes during a jam-packed ninety minutes with no intermission. When I say “jam-packed,” I am not kidding. There are times when there is so much going on so quickly, that it is hard to keep track of every point of the match and every tangential story line that punctuates the plot. I was amused when later exiting the theater upon hearing one gent ask the woman he was with, “What did you think of the show?” She responded with terse insight, “Well, it certainly was busy!” For that she may be a candidate for the Understatement of the Year Award. Having said that, this complex and eye-popping production, written by Kevin Armento & Bryony Lavery, is not just for tennis fans, but should have much to offer theater-goers in search of something thought-provoking and very different. As for who wins the match, if you don’t know I won’t give it away, but kudos certainly go to the production’s tennis coach, Richard Saudek, and Movement Director, Natalie Lomonte.

L-R: Olivia McGiff, Danté Jeanfelix, Ellen Tamaki in BALLS at 59E59 Theaters

Based on the real persons and events of the day, the play is highlighted by a cast of ten talented actors, including the very graceful and athletic Ellen Tamaki in the role of Billie.

L-R: Zakiya Iman Markland, Ellen Tamaki, Danté Jeanfelix in BALLS at 59E59 Theaters

Donald Corren delivers an amusing and raucous portrayal of Bobby, while attractive, statuesque Zakiya Iman Markland provides a touching and powerful performance as Billie’s lesbian lover and personal secretary, Marilyn Barnett. Danté Jeanfelix gives a solid and convincing portrayal as Billie’s husband, Larry King, (and he briefly doubles in a cameo as football star, Jim Brown, representing the many notables in the star-studded audience that had included such celebrities as Glen Campbell and George Foreman).

L-R: Alex J. Gould and Elisha Mudly in BALLS at 59E59 Theaters

A superfluous minor side plot as the match progresses, revolves around the imagined developing romance between the match Ballboy (Alex J. Gould) and the Ballgirl (Elisha Mudley). Miss Mudley also does double duty, occasionally appearing as another celebrity present for the match, tennis star, Chris Evert. Adding to the overall mayhem of the carnival atmosphere are the comic antics of the

L-R: Richard Saudek and Olivia McGiff in BALLS at 59E59 Theaters

Clownboy (Richard Saudek) and the Clowngirl (Olivia McGiff), as they amuse the crowd between games with their on-court shenanigans and colorfully outlandish costumes (Designer, Kenisha Kelly). Also between games are the continuing snatches of storylines that touch on Billie’s troubled marriage, her closeted gay relationship with Marilyn, and the less significant romance of the Ballboy & Ballgirl.

The play touches gently on issues of women’s rights, gay rights, and race, but in spite of all the related plot meanderings, I think the biggest star of this production is the brilliantly effective and three-dimensional scenic design of Kristen Robinson, with its uniquely rolling tennis net, affording the audience ever-changing depths and perspectives as it views the match. That set design, coupled with the terrific lighting of designer, Mike Riggs, and the amazingly synchronized sound designs of Brendan Aanes (that perfectly time the sound of every imaginary tennis ball struck), all combine to complete this fascinating illusion.

BALLS continues in New York for a limited engagement through Sunday, February 25th at the 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues). The performance schedule is Tuesday – Friday at 7 PM; Saturday at 2 PM & 7 PM; and Sunday at 2 PM. Single tickets are $25-$70 ($25-$49 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.

 

Posted in 59E59 Theaters, BroadwayStars.com, Houston Chronicle, Off Broadway, Stages Repertory Theatre, tennis, Theater Reviews, ThePeoplesCritic.com, Uncategorized, Wimbledon | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

CROSS THAT RIVER Reveals a Little-Known Cowboy World

L-R: Carolyn Leonhart, Jeffery Lewis, Maya Azucena, and Allan Harris in CROSS THAT
RIVER at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

[Click any photo to enlarge]

It is not at all unusual for something special to be going on at one of New York’s most sophisticated theatrical venues, the 59E59 Theatres.

Allan Harris in CROSS THAT RIVER at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

That tradition is beautifully continued with the current run of the brilliant Allan Harris musical, CROSS THAT RIVER, directed by Regge Life. Subtitled “A Tale of the Black West,” it weaves a cowboy tale that some may find surprising. I spent two years of my early childhood in Sweetwater, Texas, and I well remember Saturdays at the neighborhood movie house when good white cowboys in white hats and bad white cowboys in black hats would provide plenty of action for us youngsters. In those days little thought was given to what we know now: About 25% of the American cowboys who moved the great western herds of cattle during the latter half of the 19th century were, in fact, black men.

Jeffery Lewis as the young Blue PHOTO: Carol Rosegg

In this well-crafted tale we learn of one such cowboy named Blue (Mr. Harris), a young  slave who ventures out from Louisiana to find the promise of hard work and freedom in the vast area of Texas.

A well-known jazz musician, composer and guitarist, Mr. Harris is a Harlem native and not new to the stages of 59E59. In 2014 I had the pleasure of reviewing his wonderful performance there in a production of CAFÉ SOCIETY SWING. At the time I commented on his “…smoky, rich and delightfully raspy voice,” and happily that gift continues here as it beautifully combines with his dazzling artistry on guitar and skill as narrator of Blue’s many adventures. In addition to composing the fine score, Harris collaborated with the show’s producer, Pat Harris, on the imaginative book that details those sometimes romantic adventures. The concert-style staging takes place on the simple but effective set design of Anne Patterson, crowned by a kind of driftwood chandelier, and warmly lit by lighting designer, Michael Giannitti. The four vocally gifted cast members (sometimes playing multiple roles) are up front on stools, with the fine musicians of the band on an elevated platform behind them. Those musicians would start things off with a kind of new age-flavored overture featuring interesting solo moments as it soon evolves into  rhythmic and infectious pulsations.

Carolyn Leonhart in CROSS THAT RIVER . Photo by Carol Rosegg

Harris picks it up with twanging guitar as Blue gently starts to tell the story of his younger self (smooth-voiced Jeffrey Lewis), a boy shoeing horses on the plantation while dreaming of a place “…where a man can spread his wings and soar above this life.” That dream is beautifully captured as the lad sings an “I’m Going to Soar” that is full of hope and optimism. As he helps the plantation master’s daughter, Courtney (lovely Carolyn Leonhart), with her horse, a dangerous affection sparks between them. Their longing for one another yields the dream-like duet, “Another Time, Another Place.”

Maya Azucena in CROSS THAT RIVER Photo by Carol Rosegg

Soon Courtney helps him escape to run “Cross That River,” as his beloved aunt, Mama Lila (Maya Azucena), is joined by young Blue and Courtney for the frightening title song that has the galloping power of a locomotive as it accompanies the lad’s terrifying escape, highlighted by the extraordinary and thunderous box-drumming display of percussionist, Shirazette Tinnin.

In “I Must Believe,” Miss Azucena brings focused passion to Mama Lila’s song of desperate prayer for the escape success of the young runaway she has cared for since his mother was sold away. Soon young Blue and his older story-telling self duet for “See This Land,” as the song celebrates the sun, wind, sky and joyous smells of his newfound freedom. Mr. Harris continues his skillful singing and narration of Blue’s ranch hand work with the delightful country music hoedown of, “Circle-T,” and then introduces us to the rowdy, rough and tumble ranch cook with the lusty tune, “Mule Skinner.” Of course racism was still a factor, and Courtney and young Blue duet a “Taught to Believe” that reminds one of the classic, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” from South Pacific. Such prejudices even limited the bordellos black cowboys could visit, but there were exceptions as described in Blue’s song with Carolyn, “Dark Spanish Lady.” Harris delivers it with a mysterious whispering quality reminiscent of Nat King Cole. That devilish number set the stage for the Act II saloon hall opener, the sexy and sassy, “Welcome to Diamond Jim’s” where cowboys can indulge some forbidden pleasures after long trail rides. Then there are Indians, buffalo and more romance and mystery than can be described here, but I would make a suggestion about one Act II number in particular. It is titled, “My Dreams Were You.” If I were a record promoter, I would shoot for winning the Country Music Awards Song of the Year with that one. It’s a winner, and so is this show.

CROSS THAT RIVER begins performances on Thursday, November 30 for a limited engagement through Sunday, December 31. The performance schedule is Tuesday – Thursday at 7:15 PM; Friday at 8:15 PM; Saturday at 2:15 PM & 8:15 PM; and Sunday at 3:15 PM. Single tickets are $35 ($24.50 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.

 

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The Lambs Meet the Nighthawks at Iguana

Bandleader, Vince Giordano, stops by The Lambs’ table to chat with Jo Marie Triolo (left) and Patti Dey.

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For members of America’s oldest theatrical club, THE LAMBS (https://the-lambs.org/), the evening would be a highlight of the summer season as members gathered at Manhattan’s chic IGUANA supper club for a night of fine dining, pleasantly accompanied by the big band music of the 1920’s &’30’s as splendidly performed by legendary band leader, Vince Giordano, and his sensational orchestra, The NIGHTHAWKS.

(L-R) Dow Bentley, Rita Hammer & Bob Tevis.

The Honey Taps

Well-known about town, the band has been blowing the roof off of assorted Big Apple venues for many years, but on Monday and Tuesday night’s they perform from 8-11 p.m. for those lucky enough to have reservations at Iguana. Better still, on the third Tuesday of each month, the group is joined by the HONEY TAPS dancers who spice up the evening with several sets of fun-filled and colorful tap dancing that really bring the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties to life. The Lambs had the good fortune to be there on just such an evening.

Bob Tevis (left) with Ron and Camille Savitz

(L-R) Guests Mary Ellen McGurty & Sally Bentley enjoy the show with Jo Marie Triolo

With excellent Mexican cuisine and fine dancing, one could hardly go wrong, but it would be the band’s exceptional performance of the many rarely heard vintage jazz selections that would rule the night. A fine musician who has led his band for nearly four decades, Giordano is also a celebrated musical scholar and historian. His vast collection of recordings and sheet music includes over 60,000 period band arrangements reflecting the musical age the Nighthawks bring to life with each performance. No wonder his incredibly talented orchestra was chosen to provide the Grammy award-winning soundtrack for HBO’s classic series, BOARDWALK EMPIRE.

Lambs take to the dance floor.

The Nighthawks’ youngest fan enjoys the music.

The Lambs not only enjoyed the music, fine food and tasty frozen Margaritas from the bar, but many enjoyed getting out on the dance floor to “cut a rug” accompanied by the magnificent sounds of the first-class orchestra.

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