A Breathtaking WEST SIDE STORY Dances Into the Owen Theatre

Cara Cavenaugh Woodward as Maria and Jordie Viscarri as Tony, in the Owen Theatre’s WEST SIDE STORY

All Photos by DigiSmiles Photography

[Click any photo to enlarge]

Something quite remarkable is happening at the Owen Theatre in Conroe, Texas. For those within the sound of my journalistic voice, I would recommend obtaining tickets to the Players Theatre Company’s splendid production of WEST SIDE STORY before the word-of-mouth results in an inevitable sellout for the entire run. It was already a full house on the recent night of my attendance, and I can readily understand why. With its exquisite music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and solid book by Arthur Laurents, this classic American musical of course needs little introduction. But in this case it has become a polished gem in the skilled hands of director, Mary Yost, and choreographer, Melody Johnson. The pair was triumphant with The Players’ 2015 production of Bye Bye Birdie, and what they have achieved here, with this talented local cast and crew of nearly four dozen, is nothing short of miraculous.

The familiar, and ultimately tragic plot, surrounds the clashes between two 1950’s neighborhood teenage gangs in Manhattan, the Puerto Rican Sharks, and their white rivals, The Jets. The simple and very functional set design of Roger Ormiston suggests a ghetto neighborhood with no shortage of graffiti, and quickly converts to depict a street, backyard, gymnasium, bridal shop, bedroom or drugstore. The sometimes shadowy, sometimes electrifying lighting designs of Mr. Ormiston enhance each scene. Two theatrical elements stand out in making this a must-see production. First, the dancing of this energetic young cast is simply amazing. One can only wonder how many hours of rehearsal were required to achieve the brilliantly designed and synchronized numbers that have a professional polish one might not expect from a community theatre. That is apparent from the very first scene with the well-staged and acrobatic street fighting of the Sharks, led by Bernardo (Sean Ari DeLeon), and the Jets, led by Riff (Austin Colburn). Mr. Colburn leads “The Jet Song,” with a commanding high energy nicely echoed by the ensemble.

The second element that takes this production to levels of truly memorable excellence is the outstanding vocal talent of co-stars, Jordie Viscarri as Tony, and the very beautiful Cara Cavenaugh Woodward as Maria. Tony and Maria are the story’s star-crossed lovers, based on an idea of the show’s original choreographer, Jerome Robbins, and inspired by Shakespeare’s tale of Romeo and Juliet. We first hear Mr. Viscarri’s fine voice as he beautifully performs Tony’s song full of youthful and eager anticipation, “Something’s Coming.” The fine staging has that scene quickly dissolve into the whirling choreography of the colorful, “Dance in the Gym,” highlighted by lovely costumes for the ladies designed by director, Yost. The intricately woven patterns of the Mambo dancing are amazing to behold. It gently evolves into a sweet first-encounter ballet between Tony and Maria that is playfully elegant. But racial hatreds begin causing trouble when Maria’s brother, Bernardo, lashes out at Jet member, Tony, for dancing with his sister. When smooth-voiced Mr. Viscarri sings a warm and mellow, “Maria,” it is clear how he was selected for this leading role. The fire escape love duet that follows for Tony and Maria is clearly tipping its hat to Romeo and Juliet, and we find ourselves falling in love with this couple. Meanwhile, in one musical number after another, vocal director, Robert Lewis, has also drawn vocal excellence from his large ensemble cast, making this show a joy to the ear as well as the eye. That excellence is readily apparent as Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (Caylin Keliehor) and her friend, Rosalia (Kathleen Baker) lead the Shark Girls in the sensual rhythms and lively antics of the amusing song, “America.” The guys soon have their turn as Riff leads them in the slick and complex dance moves of, “Cool.”

There are more delights from this huge cast that include a guest performance of the song, “Somewhere,” by Christina Haynes, and supporting roles for Gabriel De la Fuente as Chino, Marc Wilson as drugstore owner, Doc, David Herman as the suspicious Lt. Schrank, Steve Murphree as the bumbling Officer Krupke, and Jason Ohn as Glad Hand. But before Act One is over the audience is transported heavenward by Tony and Maria’s imagined wedding scene during the beautiful, “One Hand, One Heart.” If that is not enough bliss, the couple follows with the exquisite counterpoints of a superb, “Tonight,” before a dramatically staged gang rumble hints of the troubles that lay ahead in Act Two. For those details you will need to buy a ticket, and I suggest you do it soon. They are going fast!


Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Owen Theatre, The Courier Columns, The Players Theatre Company, The TICKET, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

From Houston Ballet: A MADAME BUTTERFLY of Tragedy and Grace

[All photos courtesy of Houston Ballet. Photographer: Amitava Sarkar]

Whenever I am privileged to report on an important ballet performance, I am reminded of a tender lyric in the legendary Broadway musical, A Chorus Line. It reminds us that “Everything is beautiful, ‘At the Ballet.’” In a free performance sponsored by the Wortham Foundation, last weekend’s exquisite Houston Ballet production of MADAME BUTTERFLY at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion was beautiful indeed. But behind that beauty lay the ultimate tragedy of composer Giacomo Puccini’s heart-wrenching tale for his famed opera of the same name. Here, in choreographer Stanton Welch’s stunning production, that rich Puccini score (arrangement by John Lanchbery) is magnificently performed by the Houston Ballet Orchestra, with Ermanno Florio conducting.

The tragic plot is set on a hilltop in 19th century Japan that overlooks the harbor below. Lt. Pinkerton (Linnar Looris) is a U.S. Naval officer stationed there. He is about to take as his bride 15-year old Cio-Cio San, a Japanese geisha known as Madame Butterfly (Melody Mennite). The wedding is being arranged by the local marriage broker, Goro (Oliver Halkowich). The dark set (scenic & costume designer, Peter Farmer) hints of the dark events that loom ahead, while elegantly depicting the traditional Japanese house where Pinkerton is to live with his new wife. Mr. Farmer’s beautiful period costume designs are elegant as well. While the minimal and colorless set design seemed a bit ominous at first, it took on the antique look of a rich bronze etching as the dancing proceeded to decorate each scene. On a soft spring evening in Texas, the sublime and sweeping Puccini score was a heavenly accent to the welcoming fan dance of the geishas in a rising mist. The bride-to-be arrives, and her delicate beauty is quickly surrounded by the gentle undulations of the ensemble dancing. There were acrobatic leaps during the dramatic marriage contract ceremony, and joyous dancing from the bride following the contract signing. The hypnotic grace of that joy is short-lived with the fierce arrival of Butterfly’s uncle, The Bonze (Brian Waldrep). He is in a rage having learned that Butterfly, in an attempt to please her new husband, has abandoned the faith of their ancestors and converted to Christianity. The scene is fraught with tension, but things calm down during Mr. Looris’ graceful performance of Pinkerton’s solo. Soon, the blissful bride and groom share their first shy embraces, beautifully accompanied by the orchestral rapture of the Houston Ballet Orchestra as they dance an erotic and wonderfully extended pas de deux on their sensual first night in the new home.

As Act Two opens, several years have passed during Pinkerton’s visit to America. There, ignoring the warnings of his friend, Sharpless, the U.S. Consul to Nagasaki (Jared Matthews), the unfaithful lieutenant has married his American fiancée, Kate (Katherine Precourt). Meanwhile, there is an air of excited anticipation as his unsuspecting Butterfly awaits his return to Japan. Charming dances that follow seem to match the golden glow of the Japanese lanterns that light the scene (Lighting Designer, Lisa J. Pinkham). Butterfly’s joy at his return floats her heavenward amid the glorious and whirling lifts executed by the dancers. Even the well-staged and misty arrival of Pinkerton’s ship in the harbor seems to float in a magical world of its own. Alas, troubling revelations abound as it is learned that Pinkerton has taken a new wife, while devoted Butterfly was back in Japan raising their young son. Compounding these sad circumstances, Pinkerton and Kate have come seeking adoption of the boy for themselves. It is all too much for Butterfly. The poignant final embrace of her son before surrendering him is a heartbreaking moment that pales in comparison to her tragic suicide moments later when she uses the same ceremonial sword with which her father had taken his own life years before. Thank goodness for the athletic and visual joys of the corps de ballet, and the musical delights of Puccini from this superb orchestra. Barring all of that, this tragic tale would have been too much to bear.

Posted in BroadwayStars.com, Conroe Courier, Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, Ermanno Florio, Houston Ballet, Madame Butterfly, Puccini, Stanton Welch, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

HSO and 007 Electrify Pavilion Audience

My two-decade journalistic journey through the delights of countless varied performances I have enjoyed at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion began when I reviewed the Houston Grand Opera production of Bizet’s CARMEN at the venue back in 1998. In all these many years since, it would be difficult to find a night of pavilion entertainment more satisfying than that provided by the Houston Symphony Orchestra on a weather-perfect night in Texas last Thursday evening. The program, titled BOND & BEYOND, was a stunning musical tribute to the exciting film scores of the two dozen thrilling James Bond films that have been captivating moviegoers since the still-continuing series debuted in 1962. Sean Connery would become the iconic agent 007 as the first of six actors destined to play the role.

Courtesy Photo

With good-humored pavilion favorite, Michael Krajewski conducting, there was an added glow for this memorable evening from special guest soloist, Debbie Gravitte. The very beautiful and Tony Award-winning actress and vocalist has a deep résumé that includes not only Broadway, but performances for television, film, nightclubs, symphonies and countless recordings. For this program, she displayed such vocal excellence, energy and vibrancy, she was the perfect pairing with Houston’s world class symphony orchestra.

With pulsing grandeur and explosive brass, the program began with the seductive, thrilling and very familiar, “James Bond Theme.” With its sweeping beauty, the theme of “From Russia With Love” beautifully displayed the rapturous skill of the orchestra’s string sections. The theme from, “You Only Live Twice,” was wonderfully exotic with its delicate Japanese folk elements. Then the night moved to an exciting new plane as Miss Gravitte, dressed in elegant black with glittering sequined trousers and gleaming bracelets to match, took to the stage with her beaming smile. With sparkling eyes and soaring voice, she radiated pure energy during a magnificent, “Diamonds Are Forever.” Next, under warm orange pavilion lighting, she delivered “Nobody Does It Better,” from The Spy Who Loved Me. Nobody could have done it better as she brought impressive joy and power to a performance that was alternately warm and embracing, then thrillingly savage. The audience roared its approval as she left the stage, and the orchestra then launched into the thunderous and galloping excitement of an arrangement of dual themes from “Casino Royale” & “Quantum of Solace,” that had no shortage of thrills from the French horns. Closing Part One of the concert was an exquisite orchestral performance of the rich variations and ever-rising crescendos for the theme from “Goldfinger.” It was the perfect time for Gravitte’s return as she brought fierce and seductive elegance to the song’s conclusion. It was clear she owned that stage, and she knew it as the audience cheered its way to Intermission.

While Part Two of the program continued this feast of action-packed film scores, it digressed for a time from the Bond focus as the orchestra opened with the rhythmic and pulsing excitement of the familiar theme from “Mission Impossible.” Next, with a gentle opening on harp, haunting French horns and delicate piano elements, there came a sampling of the music from the Austin Powers film series with the “Shagadelic Suite.” Miss Gravitte then returned dressed in a flowing gown of elegant floor-length charcoal chiffon, while sporting matching arm-length gloves. She delivered a sassy and sensual, “Sooner or Later,” from the film Dick Tracy, but it was compromised by audio imbalance that had her lovely vocal sometimes overwhelmed by the volume from the orchestra. Then the “Inspector Closeau Theme” from The Pink Panther Strikes Again, had an appropriately merry and bouncing quality inspired by the prancing lilt of the tubas. Better still was the playful fun of the original “Pink Panther Theme” that followed under soft pink pastel lighting, and featured a sensational (but uncredited) sax solo from the orchestra. Before the evening ended there would be yet another display of Gravitte’s vocal perfection and incredible range. She brought all her skill to a theatrical performance full of longing and wonder for the Adele hit of the title tune from “Skyfall.”

Michael Krajewski with the Houston Symphony
PHOTO: Ted Washington

Finally, in a perfect recap, every lush element of this superb orchestra was on full display for an arrangement titled, “The Best of Bond.” It would conclude a perfect evening that was only marred by the announcement that after his many years of conducting the Houston Symphony at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, this would be maestro Krajewski’s final performance in that venue. For many of us, fond memories of this much-loved conductor will linger long for years to come.

Posted in BroadwayStars.com, Concert Reviews, Conroe Courier, Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, Debbie Gravitte, Houston Symphony, Michael Krajewski, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

MUSIC BOX Blends Comedy with Fantasy for Magical Fun

MUSIC BOX CAST Courtesy Photo
(L-R) Luke Wrobel, Kristina Sullivan, Cay Taylor, Rebekah Dahl and Brad Scarborough

For a long time I have wondered if the talented quintet of players at Houston’s evermore popular MUSIC BOX nightclub wouldn’t eventually run out of cleverly planned and executed themes for their numerous shows each year. Happily, that time has not yet come, and “Happily” is the operative word for the current production titled, HAPPILY EVER AT THE BOX. As that title suggests, the show is built around traditional fairytales, but with an amusingly off-beat collection of princes, princesses, fairy godmothers and witches. The witty narration throughout this musical romp of “fractured fairytales” is playfully provided by fine actor and vocalist, Luke Wrobel.

I had one fear at the outset, because the stunning full cast opening rendition of “Circle of Life” from Disney’s The Lion King, was so splendidly performed by all (with terrific animal mimicry included), that I immediately thought the number should have been placed as the grand finale at the close of the program. However, I’m pleased to report that song would tie in nicely at the final curtain to symbolically complete the delightful musical circle of this well-crafted night of music. We venture further into the fairytale world of royalty when Kristina Sullivan bursts forth with a lashing performance of the haunting tune, “Royal,” by Lorde. It featured smooth, harmonizing backup from the ensemble cast, and pulsing bass guitar from Long Le in the dependable G-Sharp Band ably led by Glenn Sharp. Then Cay Taylor takes the stage for a comical version of “Part of Your World,” from The Little Mermaid, which, through the miracle of amusing subtitles (and shots of Rosie the Riveter and CEO Barbie), is shaped as an outline of the Women’s Rights Movement with a fierce quest to “honor our foremothers” while searching for equal pay, maternity leave etc. That would be about it for political statements.

Handsome Brad Scarborough would never pass as a Frog Prince, but he has a blast honoring Jeremiah the Bull Frog with a really joyous, “Joy to the World.” His wife, Rebekah Dahl, has pun-fun with the role of the Witch and gets right down to business singing the ghostly, “I Put a Spell on You.” During that number lead guitarist, Mark McCain, casts a spell of his own walking the audience for his solo segment. If Kristina Sullivan’s Fairy Godmother bit got off to a slightly slow start, that was quickly corrected by her smooth and lyrical performance of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Then it’s on to the delicious nonsense of “A Whole New World,” spoofing Disney characters with Brad as a mouse, Rebekah as a teapot, Kristina as a crab, and Cay as an aloof princess. The minimal costumes are a riot, and Mr. Scarborough proves that if called upon he could do fine animated character voices for film. The Disney song medley features Kristina’s bubbly, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo!” Luke brings solid bass to “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” Cay belts out Hanson’s hit, “Doo Wop,” and with the gang supplying mellow harmonies, Rebekah delivers the devilish merriment of “Chim Chim Cher-Ee,” Speaking of mellow, don’t miss Brad’s Mill Brothers-style sound effects during the festive Beatles tune, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”

The band tips its hat to the music of Billy Joel with the Overture to Act Two, and the cast followed with a wonderful a cappella version of the Queen hit, “Somebody to Love.” Another highlight was the gents’ near-operatic duet of “Agony” from “Into the Woods,” ending with Brad’s bobbing head and wide-mouthed grin making him look a bit like some cheerful marionette. Soon, with a terrific “Runaround Sue,” he would seem to conquer yet another musical style almost as though he had invented it. Rebekah’s soaring, “He’s a Tramp,” pairs well with Luke’s, “The Lady is a Tramp,” and he soon shifts us from cheerful nonsense to musical richness with his tender performance of Randy Newman’s, “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” Kristina continues that tender mood with, “What a Wonderful World,” as Cay and Rebekah sweetly round out that thoughtful trio. Then, for a final touch of musical hilarity, Luke delivered an uproarious take-off on Mick Jagger as the group performed that eternal verity, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” While that may be true, if you’re looking for a night on the town with great entertainment, there’s always a good chance you will find it here at The Music Box.

HAPPILY EVER AT THE BOX continues through May 13th at the Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt, Houston, Texas, with 7:30 p.m. performances on Fridays & Saturdays. Reserved seating for all shows is $37 and General Admission is $27. For tickets and information call 713-522-7722 or visit the website at www.themusicboxtheater.com. There, fans can even reserve tickets for the next show, “ACROSS THE POND,” (May 20th-June 24th) It will be a tribute to singers & songwriters born in the United Kingdom, and will include music of Sting, Adele, The Rolling Stones and more.

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FARCE OF NATURE Honors Military & Local Law Enforcement at Crighton

PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

[Click any photo to enlarge]

It’s ShowTime again for the cheerful band of Stage Right Players at Conroe’s Crighton Theatre as they present another of the numerous comedies from Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, & Jamie Wooten. This one declares its style up front with the title, “FARCE OF NATURE.” Directed by Melody Montez, it’s a breezy, lightweight bit of comedy fluff, which in its current form seems to alternate in producing both audience laughs, as well as uncomfortably long periods of audience silence during some of the less amusing antics presented in this zany romp.

Todd Brady as D. Gene and Amy Sowers as Wanelle
PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

The action revolves around a rustic and struggling old fishing lodge in the Ozarks with the amusing name of the Reel ‘Em Inn. (Cozy set design by Ms. Montez & Johnny Barton). D. Gene Wilburn (Todd Brady) is the proprietor of this tired vacation spot, and his amorous wife, Wanelle (Amy Sowers), seems to think that when it comes to love making, her husband is just as tired as their ailing business. In fact, in desperation she has had him visit a hypnotist, where, unbeknownst to D. Gene, she has obtained a hypnotic suggestion to use on her husband when she is hoping for some long-denied intimacy. That running gag brings some of the best laughs of the evening. I will say no more, and simply add that everything is good clean fun.

Calvin Dabrowski as Ty and Jessica Bearden as Jenna
PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

As the plot progresses we meet Wilburn’s young son, Ty (Calvin Dabrowski), and his pretty girlfriend, Jenna (Jessica Bearden). Jenna has been waiting impatiently for Ty’s return, but now that he’s back home nothing goes smoothly with the arrival of a high-strung and near hysterical guest in the witness protection program. His name is Carmine DeLuca (Robert Faber), and he is in constant fear of being found by the gangland figure, Sonny Barbosa (burly Johnny Barton), who is now out of jail after being fingered by DeLuca some time earlier.

Robert Faber as Carmine and Carolyn Wong as Maxie
PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

Trying to bring some order to the chaos that follows, trusty Stage Right regular (and founder), Carolyn Wong, is back in another of the feisty comic roles with which she has become pleasantly identified. Here she plays D. Gene’s sister, Maxie Wilburn Suggs, a gun-toting, one-time police officer hoping to get back in the game, but never quite sure where she’s kept her bullets. With her southern drawl and swagger, she hopes to regain her place in law enforcement by successfully protecting the nervous and ever-fidgety DeLuca.

Bre Jatzlau as Lola and Johnny Barton as Sonny
PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

Adding to the mayhem, Sonny’s sassy and sexy wife, Lola (Bre Jatzlau), has a crush on young Ty and has pursued him here to the inn. Before long Sonny himself arrives to intercede and discovers the added bonus that his nemesis, Carmine, is present as well. If all this sounds like a prescription for lunacy, you don’t know the half of it. Characters run on and off stage, doors slam, silly disguises appear and misunderstandings abound. Even a possible real estate buyer for the inn arrives to add to the confusion with the entrance of last-minute character, Roxanne Thorne (Stella Leland).

The time and effort put in by a cast of local players such as Stage Right must be appreciated by the community blessed with their productions year after year. On the downside, if this particular show has one notable flaw, it’s that this hard-working cast is often working too hard. Comedy is fun when comical characters are BELIEVABLE, and that is not always the case here. Fans of I Love Lucy know that Lucy and Ethel aren’t really working in a factory and shoving chocolate bonbons into their clothes, but we believe it because those gifted actors believe it. That wonderful magic is very hard to do. All of that said, it is worth noting that Mr. Brady’s low key and understated performance as D. Gene was a very convincing one. His was an easy going, confident, and endearing portrayal, and with his gentle sense of comedy and effortlessly resonant voice for the stage, he struck me as a potential character actor who might do very well in a running sitcom if just the right part came along.

FARCE OF NATURE continues weekends thru April 30th at Conroe’s Crighton Theatre, 234 N. Main. Performances are 8pm Fridays & Saturdays, with Sunday matinees at 2pm. Members of law enforcement and the military presenting I.D. are offered a special $15.00 admission for themselves and guests by calling in advance. For general tickets and information call (936) 441-7469 or visit the website at www.stage-right.org/.

Posted in BroadwayStars.com, Crighton Theatre, Stage Right Productions, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

A Soaring DREAMGIRLS Triumphs in Houston

Zonya Love as Effie White, Phoenix Best as Deena Jones and Ta’Nika Gibson as Lorrell Robinson
_PHOTO- Os Galindo

[Click any photo to enlarge.]

When I first saw the musical, DREAMGIRLS, back in 1982, the Broadway blockbuster was at the beginning of what would become a four-year run on The Great White Way. With the often-thrilling music of Henry Krieger, complemented by Tom Eyen’s story-telling skill for the book & lyrics, all that was needed was a stellar group of fine actors with powerful voices. That latter requirement was nicely filled with a talented original cast headed up by legendary vocal powerhouse, Jennifer Holliday. Ironically, I recall being a bit overwhelmed at the time by the over-the-top volume of many of this show’s soaring numbers. Perhaps that’s because 35 years ago I was still in the grip of the many still-familiar hit tunes of gentler composers like Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Lerner & Lowe. But time has been kind to me, and I think I’m ready now to handle what was then the pioneering of an explosive and very different kind of musical mentality.

DREAMGIRLS_E. Clayton Cornelious as Jimmy ‘Thunder’ Early
PHOTO – Os Galindo

Now, these many years later, Houston theatergoers have the opportunity to see this wonderful show performed on the Theatre Under the Stars main stage of the Hobby Center. It’s a trip well worth taking as it follows the ups and downs in the careers of three talented young black women who begin their show business adventure in the early 1960’s as the vocal group, The Dreamettes. Full-voiced and full-figured Effie (Zonya Love) is the trio’s lead singer, and in the eye-popping opening scenes she is joined by her friends, Deena (Phoenix Best) and Lorrell (Ta’Nika Gibson), as the gals compete in the famed Apollo Theatre talent show performing a song written by Effie’s brother “C.C.” (Wonza Johnson).

Jacques C. Smith as Marty, E. Clayton Cornelious as Jimmy ‘Thunder’ Early, Thomas Hobson as Curtis Taylor Jr., and Wonza Johnson as CC White

Though the ladies fail to win the contest, they have a backstage encounter with a slick, sometime car salesman named Curtis (Thomas Hobson), who knows how to spot talent and soon becomes their manager. He works a deal with pop singer, Jimmy “Thunder” Early (E. Clayton Cornelious), and his manager Marty (Jacques C. Smith) to hire the Dreamettes as back-up singers. I could go on and on about the complicated romantic and professional clashes and jealousies that ensue, but all of that pales in importance to the often thrilling music and equally thrilling performances that make this visual feast a must-see for local theatre fans.

Kerissa Arrington as Michelle Morris, Phoenix Best as Deena Jones and Ta’Nika Gibson as Lorrell Robinson_
PHOTO: Os Galindo

Right out of the box, in the opening Apollo Theatre scene, director Sheldon Epps’ glamorous staging is a total winner, with its towering scenic design (Kevin Depinet), brilliant lighting (designer, Jack Jacobs), elegant costumes (designer, Colleen Grady), and crisp, well-modulated sound from designer, Andrew Harper, and musical director, Abdul Hamid’s fine orchestra. Pulsing under crimson light, dramatic twin rising staircases are topped by a stage-wide ramp, and these elements beautifully frame the action and terrific dancing from these gifted performers throughout the show. (Choreographer, Jeffrey Polk, based on the original production designs of Michael Bennett).

When Mr. Cornelious joins the ladies for the electrifying, “Fake Your Way to the Top,” one could swear it was the grand finale. Impressive vocal excitement continues when the gents combine forces for a tongue-in-cheek salute to the American Dream during “Cadillac Car.” The shadowy and haunting, “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” punctuates the backroom payola scandals that bedeviled the recording industry of the time. A nightclub atmosphere takes over the stage for the full company’s dance fun in “Party, Party,” before Cornelious delivers an amusing and pants-dropping, “I Want You Baby.”

Phoenix Best as Deena Jones, Thomas Hobson as Curtis Taylor Jr and Zonya Love as Effie White_
PHOTO: Os Galindo

Conflicts arise when manager, Curtis, gives Effie the bad news that he is elevating Deena to lead singer, but everyone encourages Effie to remain during the poignant and lovely, “Family.” As their career continues, the gals open in the Crystal Room singing their hit single of the title tune, “Dreamgirls,” and bring rockin’ excitement to the song, “Heavy,” while dazzling the audience with rapid-fire costume changes. The passion of grand opera permeates the drama of Effie’s exile from the group during the explosive, “It’s All Over.” She counters as Miss Love provides one of the show’s great highlights during the desperation of Effie’s heart-wrenching, “And I am Telling You I’m Not Going.” The director should have dropped the Act One curtain right then so the audience could explode in a deserved standing ovation.

Ta’Nika Gibson as Lorrell Robinson, Phoenix Best as Deena Jones, Kerissa Arrington as Michelle Morris
PHOTO: Os Galindo

But there is so much more to enjoy in the stratospheric excitement of Act Two that begins with the sassy, sexy and sensational, “Dreams Medley,” and goes on to include the classic, “One Night Only.” Maybe it was just one night, but those of us in attendance will not soon forget it!

DREAMGIRLS continues through April 16th at Houston’s Hobby Center main stage, with performances Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, & Sunday at 7:30 pm, Friday & Saturday evenings at 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. For tickets visit the website at http://www.thehobbycenter.org, or call (713) 558-8887 locally, and (888) 558-3882 (outside of Houston).

Posted in BroadwayStars.com, HERE Lifestyle & Entertainment, Houston Chronicle, The Villager Columns, Theatre Under the Stars, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

‘Greater Tuna’ Rendition Takes a Tumble at Crighton

Many years ago in New York I reviewed the opening night of a new musical titled, “The Devil of Delancey Street. I opened my report with these lines:

Richard Nixon famously remarked, “I am not a crook!” Let me paraphrase that and say, “I am not a crank!” I don’t go to the theatre looking for trouble, but like all critics, I do occasionally find it.

That sentiment is worth repeating here as I reflect on last Friday night’s Montgomery County Performing Arts Society offering of “Greater Tuna” at the Crighton Theatre. In the half hour before curtain, the arriving “full-house” audience had an excited buzz of eager anticipation that Dickens might have termed, “Great Expectations.” I shared that anticipation, because back in 1982 I had seen the hilarious original edition of this zany comedy by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, & Ed Howard, when it had its Off-Broadway premier in New York. Part of the amusing magic of that production derived from the fact that Mr. Williams and Mr. Sears franticly portrayed all of the show’s near two-dozen odd ball characters of varying ages and genders. Set in the fictional redneck Texas town of Greater Tuna, each member of the town’s screwy population is nuttier than the next. The town slogan is, “Where the Lion’s Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never dies.” Extreme southern accents and Texas twangs would abound. While I did not write a review at that time, in the years that followed I have enjoyed reviewing two of the three spin-off productions authored by those same three gentlemen. In 2003, right here in Montgomery County’s Nancy Bock Performing Arts Center, I joined an audience that roared with laughter as Sears and Williams performed “A Tuna Christmas,” with its cast of small town lunatics helping to make the season merry. Then in 2005 the boys were at it again, bringing as much fun as ever to the Crighton Theatre with “Red, White and Tuna.” I wonder how many members of last Friday’s audience had attended those earlier uproarious productions with the original stars, and therefore hoped, as I did, to re-experience the corny fun that has kept this show on the road for over thirty years?

Alas, recreating that fun was not to be. The bare bones staging, with just a few chairs and tables suggesting both a family home and a town radio station, served to keep the simplicity of the original Michael Krause scenic design. Likewise, the hayseed hilarity of Linda Fisher’s playfully outrageous costume designs was kept intact as well. Except for a few brief and pleasant interludes of Patsy Cline recordings during scene and costume changes, that would be about as far as this latest disappointing edition of “Greater Tuna” was prepared to go in preserving the delightfully innocent flavor of the original. The cause of this theatrical downfall was clear from the beginning: After more than three decades of touring in the various incarnations they created, Mr. Sears and Mr. Williams no longer star in the piece. With all due respect to the countless costume changes of this hardworking new cast including Ryan H. Bailey, Tim Leavon & Will Mercer, the magic was simply not there. The characters they portrayed here became more like cartoons than the hilarious and endearingly believable townsfolk of the original production. Gifted comic timing and the art of pantomime are among the most difficult dramatic arts to master, and both were sadly lacking here as cast members chased after imaginary dogs (endlessly), and tried to convince us they were mixing, or chopping, (or something) while moving around in the imaginary kitchen.

The addition of the third cast member in this version seemed to further diminish the very unique original concept. The town’s conservative values flourish with local suspicions being raised about Huckleberry Finn dressing in women’s clothing, while the winning essay in the local high school contest is titled, “Human Rights: Why Bother?” A budget-strapped local production of “My Fair Lady” is in the works, but will have to use the costumes from last year’s, “South Pacific.” Blacks and Mexicans are invited to audition for the chorus, but are advised they must bring identification. Meanwhile, one town committee is pressing for “less Spanish speaking on the airwaves.” At times it seemed as though we were watching an episode of the delightful long-running TV variety show, “Hee-Haw,” with all the music and witty humor removed. Now don’t get me wrong, I laughed a few times myself, and there were audience chuckles, some laughter and a few guffaws here and there. There was even one couple, seated not far from me, who got their money’s worth howling at the slightest provocation from this heavy-handed attempt at comedy. My greatest happiness was glancing around the theater from time to time to note the numbed expressions of fellow laugh-free audience members who looked as though they had o.d.’d on dental Novocain.

Well, there you have it: My own special version of Shakespeare’s, “Much Ado About Nothing.” Maybe I am a crank, — but I’m definitely not a crook.

Posted in A Tuna Christmas, BroadwayStars.com, Conroe Courier, Crighton Theatre, Greater Tuna, Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com, White & Tuna | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments