Houston Grand Opera Stages Sweeney Todd, Pies and All

Categories: Opera, Stage

Photo by Christina Raphaelle
Susan Bullock
With her pastry shop on the decline and the prospect of a life sinking even further into poverty, Mrs. Lovett decides upon drastic, gruesome measures to keep her business going and to try to improve her fortunes in life.

Yes, it's Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Susan Bullock plays the lethal lady in Houston Grand Opera's upcoming production of the story of the woman who's not above popping a little human flesh into her pies and the disturbed man who becomes embroiled in her enterprise.

This venture is a first for Bulllock, an opera singer who's done everything from Puccini's Madame Butterfly to Wagner's Ring to Strauss's Electra (considered one of the bloodiest operas so maybe it was good training for her role in Sweeney Todd).

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The 5 Best Things to Do in Houston This Weekend: LMNOP and More

Categories: Stage

Photo by Claire McAdams
Start your weekend off right and catch LMNOP -- A New Muzical on Friday. Letters are falling from the sky. Well, actually, from a monument in town, and the local leaders in an island community take this as a sign that they should no longer be using the ones that hit the ground and ban them one by one. Based on the novel Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, LMNOP -- A New Muzical, with music by Paul Loesel and book and lyrics by Scott Burkell (Ho Ho Humbug at Stark Naked Theatre Company) is the latest production at TUTS Underground. Jason Gotay (last seen at TUTS in Bring It On: The Musical) plays Nate Warren, the just-returned boyfriend of our heroine, young Ella (Madeline Trumble, Broadway Newsies), who spearheads the fight against government extremism.

Gotay (Broadway Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) says he'd heard about the show, which has been performed in only a couple of other places, and wanted in. "It's always a dream to be part of the development process. And it's really fun to collaborate with the writers." At the same time, there's a high degree of difficulty factor because the actors cannot stray from the script, he says. Once a letter is banned, the writers and actors can no longer use it in the show. "Just today we were staging a scene, writers still making little cuts, little edits so we make certain we don't use letters that have already been banned, and one of the difficult things about this show for the actors, if we don't remember our lines word for word, we're in big trouble. Because we can't kind of create things in the moment because we might be using an illegal letter. That's what's so brilliant, that the characters are so frustrated because they can't use the words they want."

Audiences should find the show thought-provoking, Gotay says. "It really makes you ask some big questions about what would happen if you lose that freedom of speech."

7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 3 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Through April 19. Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $25 to $49.

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TUTS Underground Announces its 2015-16 Season Complete with Bonnie and Clyde

Categories: Stage

Photo by Christian Brown
Waiting for Johnny Depp was one of this past season's offerings from TUTS Underground

After trying out Sweet Potato Queens in a staged reading earlier this year, Theatre Under the Stars' TUTS Underground has decided to go all in, and present the work fully developed in its next season.

In addition, TUTS Underground plans a play on Bonnie and Clyde, a meeting of a grumpy man and the Little Match Girl, and what it describes as "the ultimate teenage popularity contest (hair scrunchies included." All performances will be in Zilkha Hall at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.

"I am excited to announce the innovative musicals that we have lined up for the third season of TUTS Underground- A Theatre Revolution," TUTS' Artistic Director, Bruce Lumpkin said in a press release.. "This year, we continue to uphold and expand our original mission--to bring revolutionary, edgy, and affordable musicals to Houston. We want to enrich the local artistic community by continuing to produce relevant musical theatre, incubating new works and staging unique, pioneering shows which will set the scene for musical theatre of the future. I invite Houston to join the revolution."

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Mamma Mia: It's Hard Not to Sing Along at This Silly but Fun Show

Categories: Stage

Photo by Joan Marcus

The set up:

Confession. I am the only person on the face of the earth who has not seen Mamma Mia. OK, that may be a wee bit of an exaggeration, but it's not far off. At least not in the theater world. The jukebox musical featuring the music of the Swedish band ABBA (music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and book by Catherine Johnson) has played in more than 40 countries on all six continents, selling strongly everywhere it goes. Following its successful debut in London's West End, the show opened on Broadway in 2001 and after almost 14 years it will finally shutter for good this fall, some 5,765 performances later.

So why haven't I seen it? It's not as though the plot is any more or less ridiculous than many other musicals out there. Certainly no more ridiculous than the 1968 film, Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, starring Gina Lollobrigida that the Mamma Mia story was lifted from. Living on a Greek Island are Sophie and her mom Donna. Sophie is about to get married but has no idea who her father is. Mom's not telling. So Sophie reads her mother's diary and whittles her paternity down to three possibilities. Secretly she invites the men to the wedding where all the fun begins when they realize why they've been summoned.

Sure it's a silly conceit, but that wasn't what was keeping me away. Certainly the music isn't the problem. It's not like I'm above shaking my tail feathers to an ABBA song now and then. I would venture that many of us have a secret or not so secret ABBA guilty pleasure lurking in us.

Truth is, I envisioned the whole thing as one big disco-fuelled, elation-filled, retro loving, campfire singalong and for one reason or another it made me itchy. But, enough of that nonsense. Time to grow up, be a big girl (a dancing queen perhaps?) and see what all the fuss is about. Better late than never - that's the name of my game!

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UH's Center for Creative Work Presents the Annual Dionysia Festival

Courtesy of the University of Houston
Chroniclers, from left to right: Jacob Mangun, Phoebe Dantoin, Stephen Swank

As sad as it is to say, war is a huge part of the universal human experience that dates back all the way to the first relatively small social groups that our ancestors created. So, what could be a more relevant title for a festival that pulls together the ancient and the modern than "The City at War -- A Possession for All Time?"

The festival, hosted by the University of Houston's Center for Creative Work, features a new interpretation of Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War" by John Harvey, director of the CCW. The center is part of the Honors College and is focused on interdisciplinary arts and aesthetics.

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The Hunchback Variations: An Absurdist Comedy With Fascinating Oddness

Categories: Stage

Photo by George Hixon
Jeff Miller as Beethoven and Greg Dean as Quasimodo are seaching for a sound.
The set-up:
What are we to make of Mickle Maher's The Hunchback Variations (2001)? This weird, absurdist little comedy holds the Catastrophic Theatre with a fascinating oddness and comes complete with Maher's distinctive strangeness and poetic flights of fancy (see The Strangerer, There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, Spirits to Enforce, The Pine - all crisply produced in previous Catastrophic productions). But the sketchiness of this ultimate sketch comedy holds it back. It's like a prelude to something that's missing. Where's the rest of it?

The execution:

Let's start at the beginning. A long table on a raised platform. A pitcher of water and two glasses. Two chairs and two microphones. Looks like an interview setting, or a panel discussion. What's odd is that one of the chairs is significantly lower, as is its mike. Who lumbers down the aisle but Quasimodo (Greg Dean), carrying three heavy suitcases. We know the immortal bell-ringer instantly for he looks a lot like Lon Chaney or Charles Laughton from their movies. Misshapen and grotesquely deformed, breathing heavily, he lugs the suitcases onto the stage and unpacks the contents. A toy piano, a baby violin, a small dinner bell, a jar of coins, silverware, a dog's squeaky toy, a bicycle horn, a can of Reddi-Wip, a file folder. He places each object neatly in front of him. His wayward tongue darts out between his hideous teeth, a frog never to be kissed. He's endearingly earnest and not at all happy to be here, eyeing us suspiciously with his one good eye.

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Over the River and Through the Woods and Right into Banality

Categories: Stage

Photo by Scott McWhirter
The set up:

Heartwarming. It's either a cringe worthy descriptor that has you running for the hills or it's the sweet dollop of honey in your cup of tea. In theater it generally means lightly comedic storytelling that tugs on our personal relationship heartstrings and leaves us feeling better about mankind as a whole. Playwright and lyricist Joe DiPietro not only knows the genre well, he knows how to make it work. His 1996 smash hit musical comedy about finding and keeping a mate, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, holds the title of the second longest running show Off Broadway. (In case you were wondering, The Fantasticks holds the No. 1 spot with a 42-year run.)

Over the River and Through the Woods
, DiPietro's 1998 semiautobiographical show, once again plants feet firmly in humorous heart stringy territory, but this time it's the grandparent/grandchild relationship that's put on a chaffing plate to be served up warm and gooey to us. Cue the tears, cue the laughter, it's going to be one of those nights in the theater.

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The Cherry Orchard at Classical Theatre Proves Chekhov Rules

Categories: Stage

Photo by Pin Lim
Celeste Roberts as Lubov
The set-up:
Recently Houston's theater scene has been blessed by some very fine Chekhov knockoffs: last season's superlative rendition of Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Alley; and, recently, a regional premiere, also superlatively produced, of Aaron Posner's stupid f*****g bird from Stages Rep. Currently at Catastrophic Theatre, Mickle Maher's The Hunchback Variations bases its absurdist filigree upon a Chekhov stage direction. Now, thanks to Classical Theatre Company we have the real thing, Anton Chekhov's last masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard (1904). And I must say, another super production.

The execution:

If Chekhov had never written a play he'd still be considered one of the greats of literature, based solely on his magnificent short stories, nonfiction, and huge collection of letters. But when he turned to the stage, magic happened. His last four plays are undisputed classics and truly changed the face of theater. He never judges his characters, their faults perfectly clear, but treats them with such fairness and gentle compassion that we see them for the complete people they are. Their humanness, like Shakespeare's gallery, is foremost.

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Adam Pascal, the Original Roger in Rent, Will Headline the TUTS Gala

Categories: Stage

Photo courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars
Adam Pascal will headline the TUTS gala.

Adam Pascal grew up with Idina Menzel, knew her since third grade. So when she got involved in an off-Broadway show that hadn't been able to find a singer with the right voice for the part of Roger, a rock singer who was HIV-positive, she thought of her old friend. And four auditions later, he had the part in Rent, originating the role on Broadway (for which he received a Tony nomination) and in the movie version that followed.

Since then, Pascal has had several other parts on Broadway (Cabaret, Aida, Memphis) while keeping up with his own music. "I grew up in rock bands. Over the years my personal tastes have changed. I was sort of over playing rock music." And he does a lot of performing at galas now while still pursuing Broadway shows.

Now, accompanied by a piano player and a drummer, Pascal will perform as the headliner at the upcoming TUTS' Behind the Mask 2015 Gala, used to raise money for TUTS' Education and Community Engagement programs.

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The 5 Best Things to Do in Houston This Weekend: Hunchback Variations and More

Categories: Stage

Photo by George Hixson
The Hunchback Variations

The latest effort from our "we will destroy you" friends at Catastrophic Theatre is The Hunchback Variations by by Mickle Maher (The Strangerer and Spirits to Enforce). It opens on Friday night for a four-week run.

In it, Quasimodo sits behind a table alongside Ludwig van Beethoven. They're on a panel trying to work out a special sound effect in Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. And both are deaf. Greg Dean is the director/actor (Quasimodo) in and he admits it took him awhile to warm up to the script, which he read off and on over five years. "There was no hook."

But, he says, he began to see how great it could be (and reviews of other productions of this have been generally laudatory). "I grew to love it. You have two men, one fictional, one historical. Both dead, both deaf, discussing their failure to create a sound effect."

Jeff Miller plays Beethoven, and Dean notes that he's known Miller ever since they competed against each other in the one-act-play contest in high school. The entire running time of the play is 45 minutes and it consists of 11 different segments, between which there are blackouts. So audience members may think it's over rather quickly, but it's not. Dean, who's also doing the sets and props for this production ("I'm getting ready to prime the Quasimodo mask"), says they are still working on the music that's played throughout.

Yes, there's music the audience hears that Quasimodo and Beethoven supposedly can't. That's until the music stops at one point and Beethoven notices. Dean says he hasn't quite made a final decision as to whether Beethoven can hear something or "is it just an external manifestation of what's going on in their heads? I haven't really decided. I kind of like the idea that he can hear the music.

Who plays music at panel discussions?" Dean says a certain suspension of disbelief is called for. "We do have two dead men in the present day." He says both characters "are funny and ridiculous and poignant. It's one of those lovely pieces that manages to walk that line."

See The Hunchback Variations at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Through May 2. 1119 East Freeway. For information, call 713-522-2723 or visit catastrophictheatre.com. Pay-what-you-can.

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