Austin Playhouse’s ‘Guys and Dolls’ is a living cartoon, and that’s a good thing

Contributed by Austin Playhouse

Capping off an eclectic season of classic works, regional premieres and whimsical farces, Austin Playhouse’s new production of “Guys and Dolls” brings the stage musical to life with energy and color.

Based on the short stories of Damon Runyan, “Guys and Dolls” tells the story of two gamblers, Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson, and the women they fall for, Miss Adelaide and Sarah Brown, among a New York filled with colorful criminals, driven missionaries and chorus girls. With a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows and music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, it’s a light-hearted romantic comedy in the classic Broadway vein.

Austin Playhouse’s production, directed by Don Toner with musical direction by Susan Finnigan, emphasizes the good-natured humanity underneath the wise guy patter by turning “Guys and Dolls” into something of a living cartoon. With colorful, vibrant costumes designed by Diana Huckaby — from loud, ill-fitting suits to burlesque chorus girl outfits — the large cast comes to bouncy life on the busy streets, and sewers, of a nostalgic New York City that never quite actually existed.

Adding to this cartoonish nature, the cast gleefully ham up the broad strokes of their characters, with outrageous physicality and delightful vocalizations. Boni Hester’s Adelaide fits particularly well within this outsized, chaotic world, her mixture of ditziness and rage melding to form a delightful comedic foil to Steve Shearer’s hectic and harried Nathan Detroit. Jarret Million as Sky Masterson and Sarah Fleming Walker’s Sarah Brown, on the other hand, give the show a more grounded, romantic center that prevents the production from teetering over completely into farce.

However, it is in the more farcical moments that this production is at its strongest. Scott Shipman brings down the house as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, especially when it comes to “Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat,” the show’s big 11 o’clock number. Paired with Kyle G. Stephens’ Benny Southstreet, the two tall, gangly actors bring a vaudevillian flair to their scenes that engenders some of the biggest laughs.

In 2017, “Guys and Dolls” doesn’t particularly have anything pointed to say about our contemporary world, and the show’s outdated gender and relationship politics can get in the way of its universal emotional truths. However, as Toner and the rest of the Austin Playhouse crew realize, that can be the show’s strength, by creating a fun, frantic and frolicsome romp that provides some much-needed escapism into a time gone by (that perhaps never actually was).

‘GUYS AND DOLLS’
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through June 25
Where: Austin Playhouse, 6001 Airport Blvd.
Cost: $42-$46
Information: 512-476-0084, austinplayhouse.com.

Bawdy humor, Shakespeare and Broadway glitz – ‘Something Rotten!’ has it all

Adam Pascal, center, plays Shakespeare in “Something Rotten!,” which comes to Bass Concert Hall May 30-June 4 as part of Broadway in Austin. Contributed by Jeremy Daniel

There have been quite a few attempts to turn Shakespearean plays into musicals over the years, with varying degrees of success, but it’s far less frequent to find a musical that features Shakespeare as a character, let alone the villain.

Welcome to the world of “Something Rotten!,” the 2015 musical that tells the story of the Bottom brothers, Nick and Nigel, as they attempt to stage the world’s first musical in order to compete with their rival, rock star playwright William Shakespeare. After a successful, Tony-nominated run, the national tour comes to Austin this week, thanks to Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts, and will be playing through June 4 at Bass Concert Hall.

“Something Rotten!,” with a book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick, and directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, displays a mix of various influences, from Disney animation to envelope-pushing musicals like “The Producers” and “The Book of Mormon.” Karey Kirkpatrick, in fact, began his career at Disney Animation, while Nicholaw was co-director of “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway. (Read more about the “Something Rotten” origin story.)

Set against a fairy tale-esque interpretation of Elizabethan England (brought to vivid life by Scott Pask’s cartoon-influenced scenic design), the show features a panoply of references and homages to the history of musical theater, alongside broad, ribald, deliberately offensive humor of the kind found more recently on the Broadway stage.

Part of the plot revolves around contrasting splashy, empty, meaningless musicals against art that comes directly from the heart — yet the show unfortunately chooses to embrace the former over the latter at every opportunity.

Fortunately, the very human and surprisingly nuanced performances in the production redeem it from the cynically conflicting messages of the text. Rob McClure, as Nick, plays the Zero Mostel-like lead whose own conniving threatens to undo him, even though he means well at heart. Pierce Cassedy, as the sensitive, head-in the-clouds Nigel, bounces wonderfully off McClure’s manic energy, giving the leading duo a marvelous chemistry (that, once more, reminds one of the leading men from “The Producers”).

The supporting characters are also given many opportunities to steal the show, especially Blake Hammond as the soothsayer Nostradamus, who manages to be over-the-top (in all the right ways) in an already over-the-top production. For the character of Shakespeare, the play demands a charming conniver who can give off a rock star vibe, and Adam Pascal (“Rent”) has the perfect personal gravitas and star persona to pull that off delightfully.

Though the story and script of “Something Rotten!” often leave something to be desired, an immensely talented cast picks up the slack to help create a piece of purely enjoyable entertainment, with all the Broadway frills one could ask for.

‘SOMETHING ROTTEN!’
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
Cost: $25-$125
Information: texasperformingarts.org

Update: This story was updated to correct the name of the actor who played Nigel at Tuesday’s performance.

 

‘The Effect’ is the drug you need

Contributed by Hyde Park Theatre

Director Lily Wolff’s production of Duncan Macmillan’s “Lungs” at Hyde Park Theatre last year is one of the best pieces of theater I’ve seen in Austin, and playwright Lucy Prebble’s debut play, “The Sugar Syndrome,” is one of my favorite dramas of the 21st century thus far. It was with great anticipation, then, that I looked forward to Wolff’s new production of Prebble’s 2012 play, “The Effect,” produced by Capital T Theatre.

Fortunately, “The Effect” lived up to my high expectations. In many ways this is a more complex work than either “Lungs” or “The Sugar Syndrome,” as it is both an intense character study and a meditation on the nature of self in the age of mood-altering medications. However, both Wolff and Prebble are masters at turning complex ideas into theatrical beauty.

The show’s plot imagines a five-week study of a new antidepressant wherein participants are forced to live in a compound under 24-hour supervision and undergo a series of psychological examinations and tests as their dosage is gradually increased. Connie and Tristan are two such test subjects who quickly find themselves attracted to one another but worry about whether what they feel is real or merely a side effect of the drug. Overseeing this experiment is Dr. Lorna James, a concerned psychiatrist with her own history of depression, and the corporate-focused Dr. Toby Sealey, who is more worried about the drug trial than any of its participants.

What Wolff excels at, as a director, is getting deep, nuanced, intensely moving performances from her actors, and in helping them to express their character’s emotions with unique and engaging physicality. The scenes of passion between Sarah Danko, as Connie, and Delanté Keys, as Tristan, bristle with electricity, while Rebecca Robinson’s Lorna and Rommel Suit’s Toby imbue the play’s more cerebral meditations with an emotional resonance all their own. Danko, in particular, is breathtaking, maneuvering Connie from a shy, reserved college student through various stages of mania and depression in a raw and vulnerable journey that manages to hit extremes while still remaining wholly believable.

The design team (costume designer Cheryl Painter, sound/video designer Lowell Bartholomee, lighting designer Patrick Anthony, and scenic designer/Capital T artistic director Mark Pickell) similarly recognize that the intensity of this play is seated with the performances, and they work in clockwork unison to turn what begins as a simple, sterile, doctor’s office into a world of emotional and moody settings.

“The Effect” is a complex play dealing with important contemporary issues, but at its heart it is a moving story about the ways in which love can only coexist alongside the many lies we tell ourselves and others.  Wolff and her top-notch cast, crew and creative team elevate that story to the next level, creating a show that is not to be missed.

“THE EFFECT”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through June 17
Where: Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd St.
Cost: $20-$30
Information: capitalt.org/wp

 

Playfulness and heartbreak mix in musical about young cancer patient

Contributed by Rod Machen

A pediatric oncology ward is not the typical setting for a stage musical, but “Dani Girl,” playing through June 3 at Trinity Street Players, is anything but typical.

This new musical, with book and lyrics by Christopher Dimond and music by Michael Kooman, follows the cancer treatment and imaginary journeys of 9-year-old Dani as she struggles against leukemia with the help of her mother, her hospital roommate Marty (a young boy also dealing with cancer), and her guardian angel, Raph.

For a show dealing with such a heavy topic, the primary mood of “Dani Girl” is one of whimsy, as Dani, Raph and Marty engage in a series of games and adventures designed to embody their battles with cancer. Dani’s self-defined (and perhaps self-deluding) quest, rather than simply to stay alive, is to get her hair to grow back after it has fallen out due to chemotherapy. Her imaginary voyages, influenced by and infused with pop culture narratives and references, allow her to face these weightier issues in a context that a child her age can understand.

The latter half of the one-act musical, however, becomes somewhat muddled, confused and heavy-handed. The text seems to want to maintain a sense of playfulness while at the same time exploring extremely upsetting topics, and the balance doesn’t quite work, managing to feel both trivializing and heavy-handed at the same time.

What makes Trinity Street Players’ production of “Dani Girl” work, then, is the talented team behind it.

Director Jenny Larson and music director Megan Pritchett do a wonderful job of mining the show for its moments of humor, humanity and heartbreak. They latch onto the playful and hopeful tone of the show, keeping it from becoming morbid even in its darkest moments. The music itself plays a vital role in this, riding the fine line between moody and maudlin throughout. Scenic designer Chris Conard’s simple set, recreating Dani and Marty’s hospital room, transforms into a near-endless variety of imaginary permutations, with liberal help from projections and lights designed by Courtney DeGinder.

What ultimately makes the show so endlessly malleable, though, is the supreme talents of its four stars. Taylor Moessinger embodies the precocious optimism of Dani with boundless energy, contrasted nicely against the more low-key, geeky portrayal of Marty by Michael Reyna. Meanwhile, Ann Catherine Zarate’s nuanced performance as Dani’s troubled mother provides some of the most emotionally resonant moments of the show, and Andrew Cannata, as Raph steals almost every scene he’s in with a wide array of different personas and caricatures.

Though “Dani Girl” may have some problems as a text, Trinity Street Players bring out its best with catchy songs, an energetic pace and heartfelt performances.

Think you can name that song? Not faster than Austin’s music memory students

Naming songs on the radio is a fun game for long road trips, but what about classical music from 200 years ago?

Debbie Tannert, seen here with her music memory students from the 2015-2016 season, is the granddaughter of Malcolm Gregory. In 2016, she retired from Mills Elementary after 30 years of teaching music, just like her mother, Mollie Gregory Tower. Photo contributed by Mollie Tower.

That’s the challenge for thousands of elementary and middle school students across Texas who participate in the music memory program. It’s a UIL-approved contest, so every year, the best students compete on teams at an annual citywide event.

The history of these performances — usually from a live orchestra in a public place where community members gather to watch — started 101 years ago in New Jersey and has a long history in Austin.

READ MORE: For 100 years, music memory classes have taught more than listening 

This year’s big AISD music memory contest returns on Saturday at the AISD Performing Arts Center. There are two rounds of the competition, one at 9 a.m. and another at noon. The event is free and open to the public.

After last year’s music memory contest (my son was a first-time competitor), I was so moved by the experience (a live orchestra of high school students! playing for elementary students who can name a song after hearing just three seconds of it!) and story behind the family who revived it after a decades-long absence that I wrote a story about it later that summer.

You’ll be sure that members of Malcolm Gregory’s family will be there to watch his love of music pass on to yet another generation of careful music listeners. Here’s a glimpse into their story:

A book belonging to Malcolm Gregory from 1923 on the Music Memory Contest which he participated in during the early 1920’s copied in Austin, Texas, on Monday, June 6, 2016. Malcolm Gregory first participated in the Austin ISD’s Music Memory Contest in the 1920’s. The family has helped keep that program alive and successful. RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

June 6, 2016- A copy of a circa 1920’s photograph of the Music Memory Contest trophy made in Austin, Texas, on Monday, June 6, 2016. Malcolm Gregory first participated in the Austin ISD’s Music Memory Contest in the 1920’s. The family has helped keep that program alive and successful. RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN
June 6, 2016- Debbie Tannert, her daughter, Christina Tannert, Mollie Gregory Tower, and Peggy Gregory Brunner, left to right, pose for a portrait holding a Music Memory Contest trophy dated 1921 in Austin, Texas, on Monday, June 6, 2016. Malcolm Gregory Mollie and Peggy’s father, Debbie’s grandfather and Christina’s great grandfather, first participated in the Austin ISD’s Music Memory Contest in the 1920’s. The family has helped keep that program alive and successful. RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

Mollie Gregory Tower, the daughter of Malcolm Gregory, who first fell in love with music contests as a boy in the 1920s. She now runs a music memory contest that writes curriculum to teach listening skills to young people. This is the list of UIL-chosen material for this year’s music memory contest, which takes place on Saturday at the AISD Performing Arts Center. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

WATCH: Get a sneak peek inside Ballet Austin’s production of ‘Alice (in Wonderland)’

“Alice (in Wonderland)” makes its Ballet Austin premiere in time for Mother’s Day. Contributed by Media4artists/Theo Kossenas

This Mother’s Day weekend, Ballet Austin premieres the colorful, kooky, kid-friendly “Alice (in Wonderland),” choreographed by former Ballet Austin dancer and University of Texas alumnus Septime Webre.

The ballet, which Webre created while artistic director of the Washington Ballet, will be performed at the Long Center by both Ballet Austin’s professionals and more than 40 student performers from the Ballet Austin Academy.

 

 

Webre enjoyed bringing all those weird Lewis Carroll characters to life.

“I’ve always found the story compelling — this little girl’s finding herself by encountering so many outrageous characters. It’s so trippy, and the characters so outsized and exaggerated. But Alice describes them in a kind of droll way. I’ve had a marvelous time with the physicality of the characters.”

RELATED: UT alum brings his fantastical ballet to Austin

Such colorful characters deserve colorful costumes. Webre has worked with costumer designer Liz Vandal for nearly 20 years.

“She’s brilliant, and the costumes she designed are astonishing,” he said. “They accomplish so much storytelling but are also chic, surprising and so very wearable. She makes the dancers look so damn sexy.”

‘ALICE (IN WONDERLAND)’
When:
8 p.m. May 12-13, 2 p.m. May 13 and 3 p.m. May 14
Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive
Cost: $21.30-$89
Information: balletaustin.org

Shakespeare in Zilker Park: ‘The Comedy of Errors’ is lovely spring fare

Tony Salinas and Madison Weinhoffer in Austin Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.” Contributed by Bret Brookshire

Shakespeare in the park can be a difficult prospect. With an audience that is constantly moving around, reclining on blankets and checking their phones, plus a broad range of technical problems that must be overcome, it’s often difficult to keep momentum going throughout several hours. Add to this the complexities of Shakespearean language, and often you have a recipe for disaster.

Fortunately, Austin Shakespeare’s free production of “The Comedy of Errors” at the Beverly S. Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater, playing through May 28, manages to avoid most of these problems through a high-energy, fast-paced interpretation that highlights the zaniness and broad comedy of the text. Director Robert Ramirez’s placement of the show in a bustling port city works well with the spring serenity of the hillside theater, creating a wonderful atmosphere for one of Shakespeare’s silliest works.

As the title suggests, “The Comedy of Errors” is a comedic play that centers around two pairs of twins and a resulting series of mistaken identities. The text’s mishaps come to life on the expansive Zilker stage, allowing for a series of deliberately hammy performances that are perfect for outdoor theater.

Tony Salinas, as Antipholus of Syracuse, is a delightful leading man, able to mine Shakespeare’s complicated linguistics for the comedic punches that resonate with contemporary audiences. He is counterpoised against the more physical comedy of Toby Minor, as his long-lost twin brother, Antipholus of Ephesus. Accompanying both men are their servants, who also happen to be long-lost twin brothers. Dromio of Syracuse (Madison Weinhoffer) and Dromio of Ephesus (Hannah Rose Barfoot) provide the comedic core of the show, with broad, hilarious slapstick of both the physical and verbal variety.

Catherine Grady and Marc Pouhé in Austin Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.” Contributed by Bret Brookshire

Unfortunately, “The Comedy of Errors” is unable to escape from the usual problems that an outdoor production faces. The sound system can be very touchy, with actors’ microphones cutting in and out, even in the middle of important lines. Designer Patrick W. Anthony’s lights, though beautiful and evocative, are only truly visible in the second half of the show, after the sun has gone down. Anthony’s sets, on the other hand, are crucial for creating the whimsical atmosphere, painting a landscape on which the actors are free to play.

This production of “The Comedy of Errors” is not one that redefines the text or uses it to make deep statements about current events. Rather, it embraces the timeless comedic romanticism of Shakespeare’s words and uses them to create a lovely entertainment filled with wit, whimsy, and (as with all good comedies) a happy ending, of course.

“The Comedy of Errors”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through May 28
Where: Zilker Hillside Theater, 2206 William Barton Drive
Cost: Free
Information: austinshakespeare.org

 

‘My Big Fat Bahookie’ brings body positivity to the Vortex

Writer/director Lorella Loftus’ new show, “My Big Fat Bahookie,” is not afraid to ask audiences to practice what it preaches. Before entering the theater, attendees are requested to fill out two sticky notes, one listing a moment of positive self-esteem and another noting an element of personal body positivity. This sort of self-reflection on the part of the audience is encouraged throughout the production, grounding the production’s zany antics in a very personalized sense of loving one’s body and one’s whole self.

“My Big Fat Bahookie,” produced by Renaissance Austin and playing at the Vortex through May 6, takes the form of the first meeting of the fictional “No More Diets Club,” a kind of hybrid between a talk show, a self-help infomercial and a 12-step meeting. The club’s founder, Marianne McGonigle (played by Loftus), is also the evening’s hostess, ushering in a variety of skits, songs, scenes, strange personalities and pre-produced video segments.

What unites these various segments into an overall variety show-style presentation is a thematic focus on body positivity and a denial of the negative messages marketed to us by the health and beauty industries. A lot of righteous rage is aimed in the direction of these industries, but the show’s method of critique is humor more than anger, satirizing and spoofing societal notions of beauty.

In addition to Loftus, “My Big Fat Bahookie” features a large cast, most of whom portray multiple characters and personalities throughout the course of the evening. Melissa Vogt and Heidi Penix stand out as the most seemingly effortless satirists, embodying a wide range of wacky characters who poke fun at diet “experts.” Mindy Rast-Keenan and Jennifer Haston also delight as less directly satirical characters whose broad-strokes character arcs tie much of the show together.

As with most variety/comedy shows of this type, “My Big Fat Bahookie” is uneven, mixing smart satire, a few touching moments and some dull bits into a loose framework that never quite coheres. Although individual parts of the show soar (particularly a pre-filmed semi/pseudo-documentary quest for properly fitting jeans featuring stage manager Suzanne Smith), the whole is less than the sum of those parts.

Where “My Big Fat Bahookie” soars highest, though, is in its blatantly personal-as-political approach to issues of beauty, body and, yes, bahookies (a Scottish slang term for one’s behind). Loftus wants the audience to leave the show feeling better about their bodies, embracing themselves with the same sense of warmth, humor and acceptance that permeates the entire show.

Though not the most cohesive of theatrical productions, “My Big Fat Bahookie” wears its heart (and other parts of its anatomy) on its sleeve, with a positive message that everyone should get behind.

“My Big Fat Bahookie”
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday through May 6
Where: The Vortex, 2307 Manor Road
Cost: $15-$35
Information: 512-478-5282, vortexrep.org.

 

Which Tony-nominated shows would you like to see in Austin?

By Samantha Reichstein, special to the American-Statesman

While some may think award show season has come and gone, on Tuesday morning Jane Krakowski and Christopher Jackson announced the nominations for every theater lover’s favorite event: the 2017 Tony Awards, airing live on June 11 on CBS with host Kevin Spacey.

Of course, the Broadway hit “Hamilton” is coming to Bass Concert Hall in the 2018-2019 season, but what other productions would Austinites love to see? Here are five Tony-nominated shows that we think would have Austin audiences giving a standing ovation.

A scene from, “Groundhog Day the Musical.” Contributed

“Dear Evan Hansen”

Sharing the same lyricists as the 2016 box-office hit “La La Land,” “Dear Evan Hansen” takes the Tonys by storm with nine nominations, including best musical. Starring Ben Platt, the actor known for his role in “Pitch Perfect,” the show’s plot focuses on an internet-infused story that spins out of control, complete with an emotional soundtrack full of belting ballads. This musical that puts social media (and its consequences) at the forefront would be a must-see for a startup city like Austin.

“Groundhog Day the Musical”

Movies turned musicals don’t always succeed, but “Groundhog Day the Musical,” which earned seven nominations on Tuesday, stands in a rare category along with Broadway favorites “Hairspray,” “Catch Me If You Can” and “Kinky Boots.” Nominated for eight Laurence Oliver Awards, the show won best actor in a musical (Andy Karl) and best new musical at that ceremony last month. Looking for a show you can enjoy again and again (…and again?) — the search is over.

“Come From Away”

In today’s political climate, with immigration and refugee issues being divisive subjects, Canadian-born production “Come From Away” presents the aftermath of 9/11 in both an honorable and sentimental way. The play takes place in Gander, Newfoundland, the week after Sept. 11, 2001, and the characters portrayed on stage are based on real-life locals and tourists stranded in the small town after 38 planes were forced to land unexpectedly. Written by a husband and wife duo, Broadway’s emotional, uplifting and refreshing take on this horrific moment in history picked up seven nominations, including best musical.

RELATED: How you can get tickets to see “Hamilton” in Austin

“Hello, Dolly!”

Stage veteran Bette Midler stars in Broadway’s revival of the classic “Hello Dolly!,” which earned 10 nominations, including best revival of a musical. Aside from its leading lady, the show has many other elements audiences (and Tony voters) admire, including the ensemble, scenic design, orchestration and direction. Based on recent reviews, “Hello, Dolly!” is a shoe-in for a phenomenal national tour.

“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”

Sweeping the scene this year is “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” which leads the Tonys with 12 nominations, including best actor (Josh Groban,) best actress (Denee Benton), best original score and best musical. The show first gained traction when pre-“Hamilton” actress Phillipa Soo (now starring in “Amelie”) starred in its off-Broadway production in 2012. Set in Moscow in 1812, the musical is based off a small section of Leo Tolstoy’s famous novel “War and Peace.” With the most nominations of any show this season, it just bumped itself to the top of everyone’s “must-see” list.

 

RELATED: Select list of nominees for the 2017 Tony Awards