Laughter through tears

Posted on 14 Sep 2012 at 9:40am

2 heartfelt musicals, 1 gut-busting comedy show start fall’s theater season

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THE BEST MEDICINE | Martin Garcia and Liz Mikel tap into the essence of Dallas with both good-natured and withering humor in DTC’s ‘The Second City Does Dallas.’ (Photo courtesy Karen Almond)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

Rent is the most problematic of musicals: A great score, a great story and I’ve never seen a staging of it that really did it justice. The book is weak — transitions are awkward (though you can tell what its composer-author, Jonathan Larson, was trying to do); the nearly 90-minute first act takes place over an unlikely three hours, while the second covers a full year; etc. And even with Bob Lavallee’s spectacularly detailed set in Theatre Arlington’s current production, these issues linger.

But they also don’t matter much. Sure, it’s not a perfect show, but it is a compelling one, and this version — one of the most daring TA has ever attempted — has a cast that wants to overcome them. Although set in the early 1990s, director Andy Baldwin has updated it slightly, with a more hipster version of the HIV-positive songwriter Roger (the appealing and impassioned Shane Allen) and a less nerdy filmmaker Mark (Tim McCarthy, who has a great voice). His “Tango Maureen” with a towering Melissa McMillan is one of Act 1’s unexpected comic highlights.

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ANGEL OF THE MOURNING | A drag queen (Angel Velasco) transforms a group of bohemian hipsters in Theatre Arlington’s daring and ultimately satisfying production of the rock opera ‘Rent.’

Angel Velasco also succeeds as the open-hearted drag queen Angel. Velasco is unrecognizable in drag, and you believe the sadness of the other characters at his loss. In fact, that’s one reason Rent always seems to work, even if sometimes in spite of itself: Just try not getting chills during Act 2’s opener “Seasons of Love,” or tearing up at the reprise of “I’ll Cover You” or feeling emboldened to live your life as you please in “La Vie Boheme.” (The story is stolen straight from Puccini’s La Boheme, with the requisite modernizations.) Rent is as much manifesto as theater — its capacity to transform you remains undiminished.

The po-mo infidelities in Rent almost can compare to the outright sense of betrayal that permeates Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella, a rarely-revived musical from the 1950s about a schlubby middle aged Italian immigrant who tricks a beautiful young waitress into becoming his bride. One reason you don’t see it much: It’s not really a musical — this is full-blown opera, with soaring arias, a baritone leading man and a dark side undergirding its misleading title. (Tony, he not so-a happy by da end.)

It has the scope of grand tragedy — even the delivery of a mere letter is presented with all the formality of a knight arriving by swan to fight for a maiden’s honor.

Any show as complex and challenging as this must be the product of Irving’s Lyric Stage, and of course this one is also. Lyric has spend five years re-staging original classics of Broadway, from Oklahoma to Gypsy to My Fair Lady (which, by the way, trounced Fella at the 1957 Tony Awards) to the show this one most closely resembles, Carousel … almost without exception with spectacular result.

This is no exception. Director Cheryl Denson and conductor Jay Dias have teamed again to produce a massive production so finely detailed and compelling that, even at more than three hours, it breezes by. Most opera companies should aspire to this kind of stagecraft.

It helps that they are working with tremendous material. Loesser’s score is a masterpiece of eclectic styles: The barbershop close harmonies of “Standing on the Corner” sit effortlessly alongside the energetic romping hoedown of “Big D” and the searing torch song “Rosabella.” And the music is non-stop, as evocative even in spoken scenes as the underscore of a Douglas Sirk film.

Also par for the course at Lyric is a gifted cast — not just the bel canto voice of Amber Nicole Guest as Rosabella and Bill Nolte’s sympathetic sap Tony, but Alex Organ’s wide-eyed Herman teamed perfectly with Catherine Carpenter Cox, whose goofy charms and pitch-perfect singing have gone hand-in-glove in many Lyric shows. (Even the ensemble shines, with Tyler Donahue, Max Swarner and Martin Antonio Guerra as a trio of chefs who deliver comic gems like characters in an animated Disney film. I kept waiting for them to break into a chorus of “Be Our Guest,” or serve a cocker spaniel pasta in an alley.)

The biggest problem with Lyric’s shows? They only play two weekends. That’s what lightning in a bottle is like, I guess — magical, memorable, but all too fleeting.

I’m always suspicious when outsiders think they “get” Texas — Dallas especially — and are entitled to make fun of it. (When the editors of The Onion did a show at the Winspear last year, they humiliated themselves thinking they knew their audience better than they did.) It’s like insulting your mom — you can do it, but if someone else does? Them’s fightin’ words.

So just the thought of The Second City Does Dallas, which opens Dallas Theater Center’s fourth season at the Wyly, set my teeth on edge. Would these guys really understand what we think is mockable about our town? And more particularly, even if they did, would it make us chuckle?

The answer is a resounding (and somewhat surprising) “yes,” as their comedy show — part improv, part sketches tailored for Dallas, part tried-and-true routines from the company’s storied history — transforms the Wyly into a coffeehouse, with mismatched sofas and armchairs alongside café tables (and some theater seating) for a hoot-and-half two hours of laughs.
While Liz Mikel is the only local actor in the cast of six, two others have Texas ties (one even grew up in Lake Highlands), and director Matt Hovde has done his homework: Rhett Miller plays during intermission, and the references to local landmarks like Pappadeaux don’t come across as forced.

None of this would matter much if the laughs came off as spotty, and while the troupe takes some bold risks — there are more-than-expected jokes about issues like marriage equality (“No more Mr. Nice Gay!” they declare) and a long sequence making fun (?!) of the Kennedy assassination that is so wrong, it’s right — most of the material hits. Sure, the Act 2 opener is a retread of a sketch done 20 years ago on Saturday Night Live, but it holds up pretty well, thanks to the enthusiastic cast. (The men are all dressed like refugees from a road show of The Book of Mormon, which is itself kinda funny.) And working same-sex couples into sketches as if we weren’t in the Bible Belt warms the heart. Gags about the Museum Tower, Clint Eastwood talking to a chair and the Allen High School Stadium? They nailed us. No hard feelings.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 14, 2012.

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