NEA dispatches almost $500,000 to Austin arts

The National Endowment for the Arts today announced almost $83 million in grants nationwide.

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The NEA has awarded $20,000 to Collide Arts to remount “Traffic Jam.” Contributed

Of that, $2.5 million went to Texas. Almost $1 million of that was given to the Texas Commission on the Arts to pass along to artists and arts groups statewide. In fact, of the $83 million that the NEA handed out today, almost $51 million went to its state partners like the Commission.

RELATED: Legislature cuts Texas arts funding 28 percent

Austin’s share of the NEA grants is distorted by the fact that the Texas Commission is located in the city but benefits artists statewide. Some of that will be spent here, but we don’t know yet how much.

Interestingly, the $100,000 that Austin’s Creative Action garnered was for a partnershiip with Six Square, a group that seeks to preserve and promote the historical and cultural legacy of African-American in East Austin. Six Square is a designated Texas Cultural Arts District, but the state legislature declined to fund $5 million for the more than 30 such districts statewide.

Unless I’m missing something, these are the Austin beneficiaries:

Forklift Danceworks: $40,000 (in two grants)

Austin Chamber Music Center: $20,000

Austin Classical Guitar: $55,000

Austin School District: $100,000

Big Medium: $20,000

KLRU: $10,000

Austin Cultural Arts Division: $50,000

Collide: $20,000

Conspirare: $30,000

Creative Action: $100,000

Texas Folklife: $35,000

Total: $480,000

 

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.

Actress commands stage as Billie Holiday at Zach Theatre

Chanel is Billie Holiday in Zach Theatre’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” Contributed by Charles Quinn

 

In 1959, near the end of her life after decades of drug abuse, Billie Holiday still found the strength to perform at a variety of clubs, cabarets and other venues. Lanie Robertson’s musical play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” tells the story of one such imagined late-night performance at a club in South Philadelphia.

“Lady Day” is essentially a one-woman show revolving around its lead actress performing a series of Holiday’s songs connected by monologues about the highs and lows of her life. The successful Broadway run of the show was built around Audra McDonald, who won a record-breaking sixth Tony Award for her work, and all subsequent mountings need to have a startlingly powerful lead in order to be successful.

Zach Theatre’s new production of “Lady Day” has just such a lead in actress and recording artist Chanel. Joined on stage solely by members of a three-piece band, only one of whom ever speaks, and surrounded by small tables of audience members, Chanel takes Holiday on a transformative journey from bubbly jazz chanteuse to early civil rights activist to heartbroken heroin addict.

Holiday’s life was not one that solely consisted of sorrow, of course, and “Lady Day” emphasizes her strength just as much as it does her weaknesses. Early in the evening, she says, “Singing has always been the best part of living for me,” and we see that play out throughout the rest of the show. When she becomes lost in song, Chanel’s Holiday comes alive, revived from the various and numerous breakdowns she suffers during her monologues.

RELATED: Billie Holiday is back in town, this time at Zach Theatre

Chanel is a dynamic performer, both as an impressionist channeling Holiday’s voice and as a spectacular vocalist in her own right, but she gives “Lady Day” its power most forcefully in the deft way she displays Holiday’s struggle to shine through the adversity she had faced all her life. There is a simplicity to her performance that allows the depth of Holiday’s pain to shine through in moving and powerful ways.

Director Michael Rader emphasizes this simplicity through a staging dynamic that represents the performance venue, allowing Chanel to roam around the stage, interacting with both her piano player/band leader Jimmy Powers (played by Kris KeyZ) and the audience members seated at the on-stage tables. As a result, however, sometimes (especially during the musical numbers) her back is turned to the bulk of the audience. Designer Michelle Ney’s set and costumes, though gorgeous, also feel a bit too beautiful for a story focusing on Holiday at the end of her life.

Ultimately, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” is the story of a complex, complicated, legendary lady of song and stage, and Zach Theatre’s production has found the perfect leading lady to portray her.

‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill’
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through April 30
Where: Zach Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd
Cost: $29-$140
Information: 512-476-0541, zachtheatre.org.

Theater review: “A Wolverine Walks Into a Bar” offers character sketches of aging misfits

Jaston Williams in "A Wolverine Walks Into A Bar."
Jaston Williams in “A Wolverine Walks Into A Bar.”

By Wes Eichenwald

Special to the American-Statesman

How you’ll likely feel about “A Wolverine Walks Into a Bar,” the latest show from playwright/actor Jaston Williams, co-creator of the “Tuna” plays, depends on how much affinity you have for his unique mix of cowboy poetry, throwaway one-liners, social satire and plenty of local flavor (especially with regard to West Texas, Oklahoma and San Antonio). The play, which runs 90 minutes with no intermission, is a series of six character sketches set in an unnamed bar. Though the set doesn’t change, it’s unclear whether it’s supposed to be the same bar from one sketch to the other. Three of the on-stage tables are occupied by audience members, who paid a handsome premium to be an arm’s length from the action.

Aside from the bar, the vignettes’ connecting thread is what happens to misfits and square pegs as they age into the country of the elderly. Williams switches off with Lauren Lane, a veteran Texas-bred actress (known for a featured role on “The Nanny,” among other things) and long-time Austinite. Trademark Williams zingers fly frequently, such as “We’re polite here in Texas, but it doesn’t come natural.” Although three directors are credited in the show, one sketch flows seamlessly into the next.

From the first vignette, with Lane as an aged, bent hippie reflecting on her life as she cadges a glass of water from the invisible bartender, to Williams’ drag turn as a red-hatted diva spinning tales of gadding about in Venice, to Lane’s paranoid flight attendant turned wedding planner, the monologues meander until they hit – not always a bullseye, but a decent enough percentage.

When Williams manifests in fringed buckskin jacket as an alcoholic Anglo drawn to Mexican culture and cursing in Spanish (he’s married to a Latina who turns her back on her heritage and insists on being called Mary instead of Maria), railing against Ayn Rand, the show finally fires on all cylinders as he taps into sentiments he may not have anticipated as being quite so relevant as now. Ditto for the final playlet, in which Williams and Lane finally interact onstage as an aging gay man who meets up with a lesbian he knew decades ago. They reminisce about the good old bad old days of repression and illegality. Again, more topical than he might have expected, and hugely entertaining. 

The duo’s talents and styles mesh well. Some of the sketches could use some tightening and focus – less attention on the throwaway one-liners, more on character study and social commentary, since the motley bunch of outsiders in “Wolverine” provide fertile ground for both – but as it stands, Williams, Lane and company have come up with a diverting evening that should delight and engage old fans and curious newcomers alike.

“A Wolverine Walks Into A Bar” continues Fridays through Sundays through Nov. 20 at Stateside at the Paramount, 719 Congress Ave.; shows Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday 2 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.; 512-472-5470; austintheatre.org