Kids From TUTS' Humphreys School of Musical Theatre Get Ready For Atlanta Theater Festival

Categories: Stage

Photo courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars
It's rehearsal time at the Humphrey's School
A select group of students at Theatre Under the Stars' Humphreys School of Musical Theatre have been working for the past several weeks to perform a number from Lion King JR in the 2015 Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta in January.

iTheatrics and Disney Musicals picked the kids to appear in the New Works Showcase at the festival on Martin Luther King weekend, after which the musical will be released into the Broadway Junior Collection to be performed by schools all over the country.

Several weeks ago, Steven Kennedy, vice president of publishing for iTheatrics and Broadway Junior's Resident Choreographer, came to Houston to give the kids some tips while they practiced.

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The Alley Theatre's A Christmas Carol Continues, Bringing Its Young Actors Into a Great Tradition

Categories: Stage

Photo by Margaret Downing
Winch Eagleton, veteran actor in A Christmas Carol at age 13

Thirteen-year-old Winch Eagleton has been in far more performances (more than 200) of A Christmas Carol at the Alley Theatre than he has ever seen.

This year, the Charles Dickens classic story of Ebeneezer Scrooge's eye- and soul-awakening journey with three ghosts of Christmas (plus Marley's ghost) is being told once again although at the Alley's temporary University of Houston home.

The Lanier middle school student is playing the Young Scrooge at 14 and Peter Cratchit, son of Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchit in this, his last year with the production. (He'll age out just as his older brother Fritz did before him).

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Classical Theatre's Stages an Intimate and Powerful Production of A Christmas Carol

Categories: Stage

Photo by Pim Lin of Forest Photography
James Belcher as Ebeneezer Scrooge
The set-up:
Like a redemptive Scrooge at the finale of Dickens' immortal "little ghost story," this reviewer is dancing a jig and giggling like a schoolboy, lighter than a feather, after seeing Classical Theatre's superlative rendition of A Christmas Carol. This production, minimal in size though expansive in imagination, is perhaps the most Dickensian of all theatrical treatments to be seen in Houston this season, if not any season. The book's rich language, thicker than goose gravy and as visually atmospheric as sooty London fog, swirls through the faithful adaptation by Classical's artistic director John Johnston and Matthew Keenan, with firm assistance and visual flair from director Philip Hays. The book comes alive on stage in marvelous new ways.

The execution:
Six actors play all the characters, as a Narrator (a splendid Thomas Pryor, who doubles as Bob Cratchit) nimbly leads us through Dickens' amazing descriptions and expositions. It's a felicitous choice, this use of storybook teller, like Dickens himself who made quite an impression - and bags of money - reading his own work in whirlwind traveling tours around England and America. Pryor's Narrator, explaining, harping, ironic, now sympathetic, grounds the tale, giving full force to Dickens' beautifully realized story. Just hearing Dickens' verbal cornucopia, his elongated yet telling way with a sentence, is its own Christmas feast. Pryor and Company capture the very essence of mystery, compassion, overwhelming poverty, comedy, and salvation that is so critical for the story's evergreen success.

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Holiday Theater in Houston: Amazing in Variety but Not Always in Form

Categories: Stage

MSG Entertainment
The legs! The teeth! The cheeriness of it all!
Who can deny the eternal appropriateness of Tchaikovsky's snowy score for The Nutcracker, the spiritual depths of Handel's splendid Messiah, or Dickens's immortal tale of redemption and charity, A Christmas Carol? In its own particular (and sometimes peculiar) way, every theater company celebrates the season in its own fashion. Three of the following shows are world premieres. Are any of them worthy of becoming holiday classics? Probably not, but you can't be sure of anything in the theater.

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Ho Ho Humbug Disappoints With a Predictable Holiday Plot

Categories: Stage

Photo by Gabriella Nissen
Luis Galindo and Scott Burkell in the semi-autobiograpical story of a Macy's Santa.
The 17th-century English poet Thomas Shadwell once said, "No man is happy but by comparison." While this may be true in life as well as art, it still has to suck when your brand spanking new play can't be mentioned without everyone also calling up another older, famous and frankly similarly themed show. Playwright Scott Burkell even acknowledged this while penning Ho Ho Humbug, a semi-autobiographical story about taking a job as an elf/Santa at Macy's, which bears a strong resemblance in subject matter to David Sedaris's Santaland Diaries. Especially since Sedaris's caustic tale of his own Macy's elfdom played successfully at the city's venerable Alley Theatre for several years.

But take away the red velveteen costumes and the inevitable jokes about snotty kids, even snottier parents and irritatingly festive folks and you have, well...if not altogether a different show, a different take on some shared themes. And, oh yeah, more actors onstage. Unlike Sedaris's one-man, one-act narrative, Burkell's two-and-a-half-hour descent into holiday mascot hell is told with a cast of six actors who (except for Burkell playing a version of himself) take on multiple roles. The other crucial difference is in tone. Whereas Sedaris gave us as much curmudgeonly, biting humbug as he could muster with no lingering warm and fuzzy moments, Ho Ho Humbug will appeal to folks who want their holiday comedic theater tinged with cheer, redemption and loving lessons learned.

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Catastrophic Theatre Announces Its 2015 Season With 2 Returning Playwrights and More

Categories: Stage

Photo by Anthony Rathbun
Mickle Maher penned this successful Catastrophic Theatre production of There is a Happiness That Morning Is

A 16-year-old, who had something horrible happen to him as a youngster, makes a movie with sex, violence and the undead and somehow this is funny and a love story. Ludwig van Beethoven and Quasimodo, both deaf, form a panel on sound design. After her mother dies, Charlotte buries herself in fantasy and the story of Helen of Troy while seeking career advice about how to become a porn star.

Are we down the rabbit hole yet? No, it's all part of the announcement of the coming season of Catastrophic Theatre. Work of playwrights Tamarie Cooper and Mickle Maher is on board and Catastrophic will introduce two plays by Mark Schultz in its 2015 season.

And here's the line-up:

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Ho Ho Humbug: The Story of One Man's Journey Out of Housewares to Elfdom and Eventually Santa's Throne

Categories: Stage

Scott Burkell wrote and stars in Ho Ho Humbug making its world premiere
Photo courtesy of Stark Naked Theatre
For years, New York actor and playwright Scott Burkell got a lot of mileage out of telling stories at parties about the time he worked as a Macy's Santa.

But he never thought of putting it together to make a play because of its similarity to David Sedaris's tale of his time as Crumpet the Macy's elf Santaland Diaries (performed in the past by Alley Theatre company member Todd Waite but not this year).

But he was persuaded otherwise because their experiences were different, he says and ended up writing the two-act Ho Ho Humbug which is about to make its world premiere at Stark Naked Theatre in Houston.

The premiere site is fitting because Philip Lehl, co-founder of Stark Naked performed dramaturg duties as Burkell developed his script. Lehl will direct and his wife and Stark Naked co-founder Kim Tobin-Lehl is one of the actors in the play.

Burkell says he never set out to be an elf, let alone a Santa. He was between acting jobs and needed one more week of work to qualify for unemployment. Looking for limited seasonal work, he applied to Macy's, figuring he'd work in housewares but after two days of training, they telephoned him and said they thought he'd be a good fit for Santaland as an elf.

"They kind of lied to me," he says, by telling him there were elves of all ages. "There was a whole bunch of twenty-somethings - a sea of them - a grandmother and me. So it was embarrassing."

After a week and a half as an elf, Burkell got moved to Santa when a spot opened up (well after Burkell ratted on a bad Santa.) Thrown onto the Santa throne wearing a Santa strait jacket (AKA padding; Burkell is a whippet says he found the work affected him more than he ever thought it would as he listened to kids and their wishes.

Lehl says he and his wife "both thought the play was right within our aesthetic, that it needed actors who would be able to play with truth and honesty and yet it would still be funny."

"We're telling a story that has a true journey for a character," says Tobin-Lehl. "Even though this is a story about a guy who goes to Macy's and becomes an elf and a Santa, every single person who watches this show will relate to this person, and will feel like they have been this person moving through the Christmas season."

All stressed that this is not a play for children, especially those who still believe in Santa and suggest that no one under 13 should attend. Burkell (who also wrote LMNOP which will be performed at TUTS Underground this spring) is the only one of six actors who plays one character throughout the play; the other characters divide up about 50 characters among them.

Ho Ho Humbug runs December 4-24 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday with a special 3 p.m. Christmas Eve matinee at Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street. For information call 832-866-6514 or visit$12-$40.

A Passionless Dirty Dancing Has Two Left Feet

Categories: Stage

Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy
Samuel Pergande(Johnny), Jillian Mueller (Baby) and Jenny Winton (Penny)

The set up:

The story of how Dirty Dancing came to be is as Tinseltown-ready as the film itself. The year was 1987 and Eleanor Bergstein had written a dance movie of the Flashdance/Footloose variety but with somewhat more realistic characters and issue stuff like abortion and class snobbery thrown into the mix. The studio hated it. Initial test audiences hated it. Yet by some miracle the film got shown and, mimicking the perfect Hollywood happy ending, grossed just under $214 million worldwide, won an Oscar and several Grammy's for the music and became the dominant album on the charts for weeks on end.

Fast forward to 2004 and Bergstein decided that no one puts Dirty Dancing in the corner. She dusted off the script, adapted it for the stage, brought in director James Powell and choreographer Michele Lynch (to channel Kate Champion's original dance vision), added some additional music and scenes and kicked off an Australian tour. From there the show has been seen in Germany, London, Holland and South Africa with records broken for advance sales and production runs in many of the stops.

The global appeal of Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story Onstage, as it's fully titled, is now getting its North American litmus test in a multi city tour. Whether it's as big a hit here as overseas remains to be seen as Houston is one of the early stops in the run. But as we all know, hit and critical acclaim don't always go hand in hand or two step to two step in this case. Sure we loved the movie in North America. Or loved to hate it in some cases. No one can argue that. But let's cast aside nostalgia and gooey teenage memories from the late '80s and see if the play lives up to the hype on its own merits.

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The Servant of Two Masters: A Farce With Confusion and Romance at Rice

Categories: Stage

Photo courtesy of Rice University
Clarice (Ashley Torres) is astonished to learn that her fiance is alive, as Beatrice (Yena Han) impersonates him

The setup:

Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni wrote The Servant of Two Masters, a farce in 1743 -- it employs stock characters from Commedia dell'arte and originally left extensive room for improvisation, but Goldoni rewrote it in 1753 to create the present script.

The version used by Rice is an adaptation by Jack Young based on a translation by Edward Joseph Dent, and it employs many of the comical devices of Commedia dell'arte, including the tradition of punishing a character by beating him, so prevalent that the protagonist here carries a stick with him to facilitate this ritual.

The execution:
The lead character is the servant Truffuldino, always hungry, who decides that if he gets a second master, he might be able to double dip in the culinary department. Truffuldino is resourceful but not especially bright, and hasn't learned to read, so complications ensue. Dennis Budde plays Truffuldino in a triumphant performance, filled with energy, amusing body language, engaging good will, and blundering charm.

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The Liar at UH: Great Fun in All Directions

Categories: Stage

Photo courtesy of the University of Houston
Harry McEnerny plays Dorante and holds the stage like a master

The setup:

The Liar, a classic French farce from 1644 by Pierre Corneille has a new translation and adaptation by David Ives, and the University of Houston is presenting it at its Jose Quintero Theatre. The protagonist is Dorante, a gallant of whom it can be truly said "the truth is not in him." The lies flow as glibly as a mountain stream, and the humor is compounded as his memory for what he invented is deeply flawed. With typical Gallic savoir-faire, there is no moralizing, just a fascinating tale of human chicanery.

The execution:

This production is directed by Jack Young, and it is flawless, and Young is courageous beyond belief in taking risks and pulling them off. The result is great fun in all directions, and also a production so polished by all its designers that I kept thinking: probably nothing this good on Broadway.

Young has cast against type as Dorante is described as handsome, and is portrayed by Harry McEnerny, attractive but portly. McEnerny's energy, charm, and jubilant enthusiasm, however, are so devastatingly alive that the gamble pays off, well, handsomely. McEnerny holds the stage like a master, even alone, but fortunately it is often shared by Joshua Clark, portraying Cliton, a servant for hire. Clark is the perfect foil for McEnerny, and they play off each other brilliantly, with Clark's quicksilver portrayal of honesty (he cannot tell a lie) the polar opposite of Dorante's cascading embellishments.

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