Here’s a peek at my story about Robert Schenkkan‘s “Building the Wall.” —
As timely as the latest political scandal, “Building the Wall” issued like a blaze of lighting from the mind of Robert Schenkkan, the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who grew up in Austin.
The 90-minute, two-person drama about America after an envisioned impeachment of President Donald Trump has its regional premiere at the University of Texas on Thursday and runs through Sept. 10. A public conversation will take place on Sept. 7 at the Brockett Theatre.
Not that long ago, “Building the Wall” was barely a sketch of an idea in Schenkkan’s mental notebook. Yet possessed by the play’s force, he wrote it expeditiously in October, just before the presidential election.
Multiple theaters picked it up immediately, and it reached New York on May 24, which in theatrical terms is like an overnight turnaround. That run was short-lived, but a Los Angeles version was extended several times, and other productions have opened or are in rehearsals around the world.
“I felt the moment was urgent,” Schenkkan says. “It was good to see that as an artist I could respond quickly and that my community would join me. I met so many different artists at different theaters all over the country, institutions I didn’t know, or only knew by reputation, and everybody who participated in this did so with tremendous enthusiasm and excitement because they, too, felt the urgency of the moment and the need to do something, to respond to this extraordinary political crisis.”
Only two Austin theatrical performances this year have sent me into the streets singing, nay, shouting the praises of a performer. Both are relative newcomers to the scene, but if there’s any justice, they won’t ever become strangers.
The first was Chanel‘s profoundly inspired take on Billie Holiday in Zach Theatre‘s “Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill.” How many times I’ve turned over in my memory her point-on patter, unvarnished vulnerability, ravishing voice and total embrace of the audience.
The second was Trinity Adams as Annie Oakley in Summer Stuck Austin‘s “Annie Get Your Gun,” currently running at the Long Center. Just 17, Adams is an award-winning actor who recently graduated from Dripping Springs High School.
Hey, Dripping, do you know what ya got in this gal?
The minute Adams bounded onto the stage at the Rollins Studio Theatre, the room just expanded exponentially to take in her radiance. Not that everything she did in the Irving Berlin classic was big and grand, no, she electrified the audience with slightest grin or aside.
As my theater companion, Suzie Harriman, pointed out, she’s like Broadway star Sutton Foster. No matter where she is in director Scott Thompson‘s stage-filling production — you won’t believe how well these kids dance! — your eyes are drawn to Adams.
She was capably complemented by Max Corney and a host of other troupers. Almost all of them also appear in “Spamalot,” a wonderfully cute Summer Stock musical directed by Ginger Morris. In that show, I was particularly taken with Lydia Kam, Ben Roberts, Michael Morran, Coy Branscum and Matthew Kennedy.
But why kid? All the the Summer Stock players are talented. Adams, however, at this precious theatrical moment, shines like the brightest stars in the heavens.
With some exceptions, arts and other cultural groups — we include major literary and historical outlets — don’t return to full form until September.
Yet now’s the time for all arts groups to confirm their seasonal slates and for all readers to consider purchasing season tickets.
In fact, for some high-demand groups, if you haven’t secured your 2017-2018 subscriptions already, you’re stuck with angling for single slots.
For instance, galvanized by the chance to secure tickets for the matchless musical, “Hamilton,” in the 2018-2019 season, more than 3,000 new subscribers have signed on for Broadway in Austin’s 2017-2018 offerings.
Now, some groups don’t operate on the traditional season system, rolling out one show at a time. Others split up their seasons. For instance, the Long Center for the Performing Arts won’t announce its Winter/Spring slate until September.
We respect that. What will follow soon in these pages is a list of shows that we could discover with relative ease in July. We’ll add others to digital extensions on the Austin Arts blog when they arrive.
A picture of Austin’s fall arts season is falling into place. The latest booking news is from the Long Center for the Performing Aarts. We rearranged, condensed and edited for style their fine descriptions of the following.
Notice that the fall season begins in July. Why not? We only wish the weather would comply.
Also, there’s a lot of other offerings, including Summer Stock Austin, at the center that aren’t part of this season package, so stay alert.
Coinciding with the newly released “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” and Nintendo’s new Switch, this returns to the Long Center stage on July 7 for one performance only. Now in its fourth season and featuring new music and video, the concert comes to life with a 66-piece orchestra, 24-person choir.
Austin native Carrie Rodriguez is a fiddle playing singer songwriter who approaches her country-blues sound with an “Ameri-Chicana” attitude. Her latest release, “Lola,” takes her back to her ranchera musical roots and was hailed as the “perfect bicultural album” by NPR’s Felix Contreras.
Hailed by Rolling Stone Magazine as “a genre unto herself,” composer, guitarist, and recording artist Kaki King performs her latest work — a simultaneous homage and deep exploration of her instrument of choice. In this bold new multi-media performance, Kaki deconstructs the guitar’s boundaries as projection mapping explores texture, nature, and creation.
Part coming-of-age story and part divine commentary, Terrence Malick’s star-studded and slow-burning art film, “The Tree of Life,” sparked a dialogue within the industry about memory, the meaning of life, and the role that film can play in representing those ideas. Screening with live score performed by Austin Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Austin.
John William’s legendary “Star Wars” score didn’t just enhance a great story, it gave life to an entire galaxy. From “Binary Sunset” to the “Imperial March,” the themes of “A New Hope” ushered in a renaissance of film music, the likes of which Hollywood had never seen before. A special screening with live score performed by the Austin Symphony Orchestra.
This lights up the stage in this premiere live production packed with show-stopping performances featuring the Shoppies and Shopkins characters taking the stage with an all-new storyline, music, and videos. Join Jessicake, Bubbleisha, Peppa-Mint, Rainbow Kate, Cocolette, and Polli Polish as they perform the coolest dance moves, sing the latest pop songs, and prepare for Shopville’s annual “Funtastic Food and Fashion Fair.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times, Maureen Dowd, and award-winning author and the Times’ Chief Washington Correspondent, Carl Hulse, will examine the state of the nation one year following the most divisive presidential election in American history. Join us for an evening of incisive dialogue as Dowd and Hulse discuss how we got here and what lies ahead.
Bring the family and join us on the City Terrace and take some time out of the busiest holiday of the year to celebrate the season. Bring the kids for a free photo with Santa and enjoy holiday treats, activities and entertainment, all overlooking the best view in Austin!
The favorite TV classic soars off the screen and onto the stage in this beloved adaptation. Come see all of your favorite characters from the special including Santa and Mrs. Claus, Hermey the Elf, the Abominable Snow Monster, Clarice, Yukon Cornelius, and of course, Rudolph brought to life.
Composer and bandleader, Graham Reynolds, along with some of Austin’s best musicians wreak musical havoc with an explosive set of holiday favorites. By playing most of them in a minor key, Reynolds and his band bring a new perspective to these season standards.
After a smash-hit Broadway run garnering three Tony-Award nominations including Best Musical, this Christmas classic returns for another year. Based on the perennial holiday movie favorite, the story takes place in 1940s Indiana, where a bespectacled boy named Ralphie wants only one thing for Christmas: an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot range Model Air Rifle.
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.
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.
“The Phantom of the Opera,” composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Charles Hart’s “rock opera” adaptation of Gaston Leroux’ classic French novel “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra” is officially in the third decade of its original run. Premiering in London in 1986 before transferring to Broadway in 1988, the musical has become an international sensation, and is the longest-running show in the history of Broadway.
Now, it once again comes to Austin, courtesy of Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts and playing through April 30th at Bass Concert Hall. This is a relatively new staging of the show, directed by Laurence Connor and produced by Cameron Mackintosh. It started touring in 2012, while the original Broadway and London runs (directed by Harold Prince) continue unabated.
Though Connor has reimagined the look and design of “Phantom,” adding a few new technical tricks to the show’s repertoire, the music and lyrics, as well as the book by Webber and Richard Stigler, have remained the same. What Connor has achieved most successfully is to reinvigorate the sense of large-scale grandiosity and spectacle in “Phantom.”
“Phantom” is decidedly melodramatic, with one-dimensional characters and a decided lack of subtlety, but that is, after all, part of the charm that has allowed it to last for over thirty years. Connor’s production leans into this, focusing on an epic design scope. Paul Brown’s set is monolithic yet surprisingly mobile and mutable, dwarfing the actors in order to create an immense sense of scale. Maria Björnson’s costumes are sumptuous and plentiful, lending the show much of its sense of pageantry. Paule Constable’s lighting, unusually for such a large show, is largely done from the side, emphasizing the production’s fusion of opera and ballet with musical theater.
The touring cast of “Phantom” is also up to the challenge of reaching the melodramatic heights this kind of design scheme requires. Katie Travis, as tortured ingénue Christina Daaé, is a perfect counterpoint to the good-guy leading man bluster of Jordan Craig’s Raoul. Derrick Davis, as the titular Phantom, provides the strongest performance, thanks in no small part to a script that provides him with much deeper nuance than any of the other stock characters.
The true stars of “Phantom,” though, in both its original form and in this production, are the epic, operatic music and the large-scale spectacle that only money can buy. In this, the production does not disappoint, nor does it spare any expense.
“The Phantom of the Opera” is a bit like a blockbuster movie; it’s quite entertaining and enjoyable, the spectacle is often breathtaking, but ultimately it doesn’t have a larger point other than to provide an evening’s diversion, which it does with great gusto.
‘The Phantom of the Opera” When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 1 and 7 p.m. Sunday through April 30 Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive Cost: $34-$154 Information: 512-471-9166, texasperformingarts.org.
The producer of musicals such as “Les Misérables,” “Cats,” “Miss Saigon,” “Oliver” and “Mary Poppins,” feels the need to refresh some of his past successes about every 25 years as well as some classics. He’s recently redone “Miss Saigon” and “Les Misérables,” but also done classics “My Fair Lady” twice and “Oliver” three times.
“It’s something I love doing just as much” as creating original musicals, he says. “It’s a great challenge.”
One of his reimaginings is coming to Austin this week as part of the Broadway in Austin series. “The Phantom of the Opera,” which Mackintosh created with Andrew Lloyd Webber, first appeared on stage in 1986 in London and then as a fresh take in 2012. It comes to Bass Concert Hall April 19 through April 30.
Mackintosh says he doesn’t redo a musical just to redo it.
“Because I know it inside and out, I’m my own greatest critic,” he says. “Is something as good or just change for change’s sake, which I don’t agree with,” he asks himself.
If that’s the case, then he says he keeps at it until it is just as good, probably better.
While the script and music are essentially the same in this “Phantom,” the staging is vastly different in ways that will surprise audiences who saw the original.
“Anyone who has seen it, hasn’t seen it like this,” he says. “The material is exactly the same with a few little tweaks, but just the way the show works is very different.”
Audiences who saw the 1980s “Phantom,” won’t be disappointed by the change, Mackintosh says. “They are seeing something they may know, but as long as it’s good, they love the difference.”
For those who have never seen a “Phantom,” will feel like they are seeing something new, he says.
“The brilliant musicals can be re-examined by a different generation,” he says. “They will have a different viewpoint.”
For this reimagined “Phantom,” Mackintosh went back to the 1910 book by Gaston Leroux and thought about who this phantom was. He was an inventor.
This new version takes the hall of mirrors in the book and makes it an essential element. The whole stage opens and closes and becomes things. Mackintosh likens it to a giant Advent calendar. “We can go places that we could never go in the original,” Mackintosh says.
Doors open and the Phantom appears. We see a whole lot more of the backstage of the famous opera house the Phantom occupies. We watch the Phantom stalk Christine as parts of the stage move to show us the Phantom’s movement throughout the theater.
Mackintosh says he currently has 30 to 40 productions going on around the world at any given time. His newest work is a new version of “Half of Sixpence,” a little-known 1963 musical based on an H.G. Wells book “Kipps” that was turned into a 1968 movie. It’s now in London. He also is bringing “Hamilton” to London. This fall, he’s bringing a new “Les Misérables” to North American stages. His “Miss Saigon,” which is currently on Broadway, will be touring North America 18 months from now. Both, fingers crossed, will make their way to Austin.
You can’t buy those tickets yet — and when they do go on sale, they’re sure to sell out. But there is a way you can act now to get your shot at seats: Subscribe to the 2017-18 season. Subscriptions go on sale at 11 a.m. today, starting at $135, and subscribers get to be first in line for the 2018-19 season.