Bernstein’s ‘Mass’ is nothing less than an Austin triumph

Leonard Bernstein‘s “Mass” is about nothing less than a profound loss of faith, Not just personal, but also national, even universal.

Premiering 1971 during some of the most grim days of the Vietnam War, the great composer’s theatrical take on the traditional Mass structure was to deconstruct it and put it back together.

In this case, last week’s cover of Austin360 predicted the triumphant outcome.

He poses a saintly Celebrant against competing masses of singers, dancers and instrumentalists.

First one group, then others, and ultimately the Celebrant himself lose the comforts of faith and peace and smash the religious images that adorn the altar at the center of the stage. If this spirtual chaos can seem heart-rending today — and at the Long Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, it was — one can only imagine the effect on buttoned-up audiences right after the 1960s, a decade that tore apart conventional social norms on so many fronts.

No wonder its debut at the Kennedy Center was so controversial. Not only that, the two-hour spectacle that begins with Broadway-Bernstein’s “Simple Song” — sung too softly here — ricochets musically among Copland-Bernstein, Stravinsky-Bernstein and the sometimes unsettling High-Modernist-Bernstein.

RELATED: In a coup, Austin lands Leonard Bernstein marvel.

All this added up to an evening of almost overwhelming sensation, thanks primarily to Peter Bay, who has dreamed of conducting this towering piece since he witnessed the Kennedy Center premiere 47 years ago.

Let’s break it down:

  • Children’s choirs: The combined troupes, led by multiple directors, provided moments of joyful respite from the the heavier drama of “Mass.” Their brightly-clad innocence and sweet harmonies elicited an audible “aw” from the audience every time they appeared. Despite Michael Krauss‘s large, never crowded and gorgeously sacred set, the kids were by default and musical necessity required to cluster downstage. While stationed there, they were the stars of the show.
  • Bernstein100Austin Chorus: Placed upstage of the altar, this formidable group of singers, dressed for most of the action in dark robes, provided a sort of solemn anchor for everything else. Led primarily by Craig Hella Johnson of Conspirare, their sound was rock-solid and responded to whatever challenge Bernstein and Bay threw at them. It would be interesting to hear some of their sections done separately in concert. They would hold up.
  • Street Chorus: While the upstage choir blended into a whole, this group of two dozen or so singer-actors — dressed in street clothes and semi-seated to the side — injected particularized humanity into their roles. While they clearly represented some of the social subsets from the early 1970s, the performers made each part their own, thanks in part to stage director Josh Miller‘s efforts to distinguish each individual’s profile. Their solo meditations on faith and doubt really got the show’s near-operatic project rolling.
  • Dancers and Acolytes: Not having seen a stage version of “Mass” before, I could only imagine — or rather, struggle to imagine — the function of these mostly silent figures dressed in plain black-and-white cassocks. Yet, choreographed by Jennifer Hart, they kept the show in almost constant motion, delineating sections and amplifying the major themes. Included onstage were some of Ballet Austin‘s finest dancers, who know how to make movement into theater. If you don’t have the dancers, you don’t have “Mass.”
  • Celebrant: At first, baritone Jubilant Sykes provided the warm, soulful heart of the show. Wearing his vestments lightly and employing the full range of his stunning voice, Sykes tried to reach out and mend the rips in the social-sacramental fabric around him, not easy to do when there are 300 other performers around you. Yet when it came time for the Celebrant to break down and lose his personal connection to God, Sykes, defrocked in a solo spotlight, gave us a raw psychological study that could have been drawn from the most terrifying Greek tragedy.
  • Austin Symphony Orchestra+: Austin’s primary classical ensemble was supported by rock, jazz and marching band musicians. Yet they carried the preponderance of the musical weight triumphantly under Bay’s baton and, let’s be plain, they have never sounded more urgent or imperative. Especially during the interludes, they shed any mundane notion of constraints or equivocation. And as the audience made abundantly clear during the curtain calls, this was pinnacle so far in the career of conductor Bay. That’s not to say it’s downhill from here, but with this monumental “Mass,” all the participating Austin performing arts groups proved our city can aspire to almost anything. (And it made profit that will go back to the arts groups, says co-producer Mela Sarajane Dailey.)

Austin Shakespeare drafts a Cleopatra for the ages

The blazing news that stands out from the recently announced Austin Shakespeare season is the return of beloved actor and University of Texas professor Fran Dorn in a staged reading of “Antony and Cleopatra” in October (dates to be announced).
Erik Mathew and Fran Dorn in Austin Shakespeare’s production of “Medea,” 2016. Contributed by Bret Brookshire
Otherwise, the mid-sized theater company splits its main season between the Bard and other classically inspired dramatic literature.
The free Shakespeare in the Park option will be “The Merchant of Venice” in May 2019 at Zilker Park. The Young Shakespeare selection is “Macbeth” in June 2019 at the Curtain, the Elizabethan-style theater out on Lake Austin.
The 20th-century choices are Tennessee Williams‘ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (November-December) and Tom Stoppard‘s “Indian Ink” (February 2019). Luckily, much can be found about both playwrights in the archives of the Ransom Center.
Austin Shakespeare also plans a collaboration with the Austin Chamber Music Festival in the summer of 2019.
Still left on the 2017-2018 docket are the chamber music joint effort over scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (July 22); “Shakespeare and All That Jazz” at Parker Jazz Club (July 8); and the remaining run of its Young Shakespeare “Hamlet” at the Curtain (through June 24).

Austin theater alum Tyler Mount wins Tony Award

Tyler Mount, who studied at St. Edward’s University and developed a popular vlog for Playbill.com, took home a Tony Award on Sunday. Mount recently returned to town to emcee the Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards.

RELATED: Tyler Mount returns to Austin for musical theater awards.

Although it was hard to pick him out in the acceptance crowd onstage, Mount’s honor came as a named producer for “Once on This Island,” which won Best Revival of a Musical. Austinites Marc and Carolyn Seriff also invested as producers in two winning shows this Broadway season, but their names did not appear above the title, so they were ineligible. They actually were named producers last season for “Anastasia,” which comes through town via the Broadway in Austin series at Bass Concert Hall next season.

RELATED: Broadway smash “Hamilton” in Austin 2018-2019 season.

Mount made a fantastic emcee for Austin’s closest entertainment equivalent to the Tony Awards. He even joked about his possible Tony status during the ceremony. And while we are on the subject, this year’s Tonys were, with one jarring exception, tone perfect. The students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who sang “Seasons of Love” from “Rent,” had me weeping from the first first piano chords.

RELATED: Winning the Austin High School Musical Awards.

Summerstock Austin is a-comin’ down the street

Before you know it, Summerstock Austin will be packing folks into the air-conditioned Rollins Studio Theatre three shows at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

Last year, we were bowled over by “Annie Get Your Gun” and mightily amused by “Monty Python’s Spamalot” as performed by students and young pros.

The three selections this year:

“The Music Man” (July 20-Aug. 11) Meredith Wilson‘s classic about a con man selling the idea of a marching band to small-town Iowa is an ideal match to the Summerstock project. Bonus: Top teacher Ginger Morris directs and choreographs.

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (Aug. 1-11) This adaptation of the Steve Martin-Michael Caine movie — also about swindlers — is not revived often enough. We admired the David Yazbek-Jeffrey Lane show on Broadway but haven’t seen it since. Dustin Gooch directs.

“Rob1n” (July 24-Aug.11) Every year, Austin nationa treasure Allen Robertson contributes a new show to the Summerstock season. He worked with Damon Brown on the book for this family-friendly version of the Robin Hood tales — hey, another lovable criminal?).

Robertson’s job? He only wrote the music and lyrics, co-wrote the book and serves as the show’s director and music director. (Pay no attention to the placeholder poster above. It comes from a Florida Studio Theatre project. I’m sure the Long Center will send out something fresh soon.)

Ticket info:

Tickets are available at TheLongCenter.org or by calling (512) 474.LONG (5664). Also available at the Long Center’s 3M Box Office located at 701 West Riverside Drive at South First Street. For groups of 10 and more, please call 512-457-5161 orgroupsales@thelongcenter.org.

Winners rejoice for 2018 Austin Critics Table Awards

Seems like yesterday when we sat down at Katz’s Deli to vote on the first Austin Critics Table Awards. Now a whole new generation of arts journalists are making the decisions. We could not be happier.

The following individuals and groups were honored Monday night at Cap City Comedy Club. (If I missed any, let me know.)

CRITICS TABLE AWARDS 2018

THEATER

Production (tie)

“Henry IV,” The Hidden Room Theatre

“Ragtime,” Texas State University Department of Theatre and Dance

RELATED: “Ragtime” is an American classic.

Direction

Jason Phelps, “The Brothers Size”

David Mark Cohen New Play Award

“Wild Horses,” Allison Gregory

Performance by an Individual

John Christopher, “The Brothers Size”/”Fixing Troilus and Cressida”

Chanel, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”

Jennifer Coy Jennings, “Wild Horses”

Sarah Danko, “The Effect”/”Grounded”

Judd Farris, “Henry IV”/”The Repentance of Saint Joan”

Joseph Garlock, “The Immigrant”

Performance by an Ensemble

“The Wolves,” Hyde Park Theatre

Periphery Company

“Wimberley Players,” Wimberley

DESIGN

Set (tie)

Stephanie Busing, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

Chris Conard/Zac Thomas, “Pocatello”

Costume

Buffy Manners, “Shakespeare in Love”

Lighting

Rachel Atkinson, “Scheherazade”/”Twenty-Eight”/”Catalina de Erauso”/”The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”/”Con Flama”

Sound

Lowell Bartholomee, “Grounded”

Digital (tie)

Lowell Bartholomee, “The Effect/Wakey Wakey”/”The Repentance of Saint Joan”/”Grounded”

Robert Mallin, “Enron”

DANCE

Concert

(“Re)current Unrest”, Charles O. Anderson/Fusebox Festival

Short Work

“Four Mortal Men,” Ballet Austin

Choreographer

Jennifer Hart, “Fellow Travelers”/“Murmuration”

Dancer

Anika Jones, “Belonging, Part One”

Rosalyn Nasky, “Come In!!!”/”Pod”/”There’s No Such Thing as a Single Stripe”

Jun Shen, “Belonging, Part One”

Ensemble

“Exit Wounds”/”Masters of Dance,” Ballet Austin

RELATED: Ballet Austin aims for the heart with “Exit Wounds.”

CLASSICAL MUSIC

Concert/Opera

“Southwest Voices,” Chorus Austin

Chamber Performance

Golden Hornet Young Composers Concert, Golden Hornet

Original Composition/Score

“I/We,” Joseph V. Williams II

Singer

Marina Costa-Jackson, “La Traviata”

Jenifer Thyssen, “An Early Christmas”/”It’s About Time: Companions”/”Complaints Through the Ages”

Veronica Williams, “Songs of Remembrance and Resistance”

Ensemble

“Invoke, Beerthoven”/Golden Hornet Smackdown IV

Instrumentalist (tie)

Bruce Colson, “It’s About Time: Companions”

Artina McCain, “Black Composers Concert: The Black Female Composer”

VISUAL ART

Solo Gallery Exhibition

“Claude van Lingen: Timekeeper,” Co-Lab Projects

Group Gallery Exhibition

“Yo soy aqui / I am here,” ICOSA

Museum Exhibition

“The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip,” Blanton Museum of Art

Independent Project

2017 Texas Biennial

Gallery, Body of Work

Co-Lab Projects

Artist

Michael Anthony Garcia

SPECIAL CITATIONS

John Bustin Award for Conspicuous Versaility: Mary Agen Cox, Jeff Mills

Deacon Crain Award for Outstanding Student Work: Connor Barr, Kat Lozano, UT; Ben Toomer, Texas State

Outstanding Music Direction: Austin Haller for “Ragtime”

Outstanding Choreography: Natasha Davison for “The Drowsy Chaperone”

Horn of Plenty Award: Benjamin Taylor Ridgeway & Jennifer Rose Davis for the masks in “Rhinoceros”

Jurassic Spark Award: The Hatchery for creating the raptors in “Enron”

One Singular Sensation Award: Kaitlin Hopkins for the Texas State University Musical Theatre Program

RELATED: Kaitlin Hopkins takes Texas State to the top.

Always a Safe Flight Award: Barry Wilson & Team for Rigging Design & Execution in “Belonging, Part One”

Outstanding Touring Show, Dance: Johnny Cruise Mercer and Fusebox Festival for “Plunge In/To 534”

Blanton Museum of Art for Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin”

Vortex Repertory Theatre for “Performance Park”

AUSTIN ARTS HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES

Norman Blumensaadt (Different Stages) – company founder, artistic director, director, actor

Kathy Dunn Hamrick (Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company, Cafe Dance) – company founder, artistic director, choreographer, dancer, educator

Michael and Jeanne Klein (Blanton Museum of Art, The Contemporary Austin, Ransom Center, et al.) – patrons, board members, civic leaders, arts advocates

Anuradha Naimpally (Austin Dance India, Cafe Dance) – company founder, artistic director, dancer, choreographer, educator