ACTOR OF THE YEAR

N2Narnold1Stage, it is said, is an actor’s medium, and that is true with the local theater community, who did excellent work last year. Pam Daugherty and Jerry Crow breathed comfortable authenticity in Theatre 3’s contribution to the Foote Festival, The Roads to Home; seven months later on the same stage, Sally Soldo and Sonny Franks transformed the domestic musical A Catered Affair into a kitchen-sink master class in acting for the musical genre.

Larry Randolph, in the nearly-one-man show The Madness of Lady Bright, was a dazzling tragic tour-de-force of a drag queen in winter, nearly matched by Barry Nash’s entirely-one-man show Bob Birdnow’s Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of the Self, both running at the Festival of Independent Theatres — Bright from 1:30 Productions, Birdnow from Second Thought Theater. Second Thought was also represented by the threesome of Drew Wall, Natalie Young and Alex Organ, in the most compelling drama of the first half of 2011, Red Light Winter; Organ scored again (at comedy) in WaterTower Theatre’s Little Shop of Horrors, stealing the show in several roles.

The men offered the “wow” factor to DTC’s The Wiz, with Scarecrow James Tyrone Lane, Lion David Ryan Smith and Tin Man Sydney James Harcourt buoying that production. Oozing charisma, Wade McCollum’s sinewy, villainous M.C. in Cabaret turned a part often played for androgyny into a testosterone-laden sex show. Max Swarner oozed something different — goofy likeability — in ICT’s How to Succeed.

Comic women shone at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, with Emily Scott Banks and Catherine Wall standouts in Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, while Shannon J. McGrann plucked her way through Bad Dates. The entire cast of In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play at Kitchen Dog Theater “got” the humor in a sickly perverse comedy. Angel Velasco’s brain-dead beachcomber was a comic hoot in Level Ground Arts’ camptacular musical Xanadu.

But a trio of actors at Uptown Players made 2011 special. First Patty Breckenridge and Gary Floyd, pictured, turned the quasi-opera Next to Normal into Uptown’s best production to date, exploring music, family life and mental illness with tenderness and strength.

If I had to pick one performance I can’t shake all these months later, it would be Lulu Ward in, of all things, the Paul Rudnick comedy The New Century. Over a 25-minute monologue as the craft-happy mother of a son with HIV, she delved into the quirky charms of a kitschy Southerner to the depths of pain a mother feels watching her child die. Between fits of uncontrollable laughter was a cascade of tears from the audience as she choked back hers. You couldn’t walk away from what seemed like a frivolous comedy without feeling transformed by Ward’s performance. That’s what made her the actor of the year.

— A.W.J.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 30, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Grow up!

‘It’s Only Life’ is a cabaret, ol’ chum

STAGE

SING A SONG | The cast of ‘It’s Only Life’ brings actors’ ideas to a delightful musical revue.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

The DMA isn’t the only Dallas institution that has Jean Paul Gaultier on its mind: Over at Theatre Too, Jeffrey Schmidt’s set for the song cycle It’s Only Life is dominated by a wall of coned newspaper that looks like it could put out a lot of eyes. If there’s some metaphorical meaning to this design, it escapes me. This is, after all, a revue of sprightly songs by the composer John Bucchino, not a book musical telling a story that needs to be interpreted visually.

That’s its blessing and its curse, though mostly a blessing. Broadway songs (and country music) are about story; pop songs are vignettes of emotional abstraction, capturing a moment, not a tale. The versatility of cabaret that is it brings a storyteller’s approach to pop — it’s like acting in a vacuum, and writing songs that support that ethic is a Bucchino specialty.

But the cast here is almost too good, creating tiny characters for three minutes, only to abandon them for the next one.  But there’s no follow-through — there’s not meant to be. On novelty songs like “Painting My Kitchen” and “A Contact High,” Bucchino’s Sondheim-esque wordplay and the lightning-fast emotional modulations by Seth Grugle and Angel Velasco, respectively, draw us instantly into a story, but sometimes a plot seems to be shoehorning its way where none belongs.

All that is really required to enjoy it, though, is a change in mindset: Think of It’s Only Life not as a play, or even as a revue, but as a concert loosely orbiting around the idea of finally growing up. It starts with “The Artist at 40,” a confessional worrisong about the creative process that sets the tone for what follows: I’m so busy making art / That there’s no time to live / The life the art is imitating is the wise refrain.

After that, it’s just a question of immersing yourself is Bucchino’s playfully syncopated melodies that insert luscious phrases and unexpected lyrical bombs, delivered wonderfully by the cast of five. Darius-Anthony Robinson has a great R&B pop voice that’s actually suited to the revue format of playlets in song form, especially on the centerpiece solo “Grateful;’ then, with a quick turn, his comic energy serves him on songs like “A Powerful Man.” Erica Harte has a quirky Broadway style that always catches the ear, and Jennifer North shines on torch songs.

It’s Only Life is a regrettably generic name for a musical of distinctive pleasures. Then again, don’t think of it as a musical; think of it as an evening of song-filled entertainment.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 18, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

The pleasure dome

It may not be stately, but LGA’s goofy ‘Xanadu’ is a great summer camp

IMG_0266
HAVE YOU NEVER BEEN MELLOW | A Muse (Misty Venters) inspires a bubble-brained street artist (Angel Velasco) in the camptastic (and very gay) musical ‘Xanadu.’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Sonny Malone (Angel Velasco) isn’t the smartest guy in the room — and that’s probably true even when he’s visiting the monkey house at the zoo. He’s the prototypical himbo, the man who’s at his best when he’s just looking pretty and keeping his mouth closed. Girls used to get relegated to such status; now it’s the boys’ turn.

But Sonny does like to create art, and he sees it in chalk drawings on the sidewalk in Venice Beach as well as the opportunity to open a roller disco in 1980. (He doesn’t have much foresight: By 1981, disco — on wheels and not — was dead and would remain that way for 15 years.) That’s when Kira aka Clio (Misty Venters), head Muse (of the Olympus Muses), intervenes. Her job is to inspire humans to create, though she’s forbidden to let them know that’s what she’s there for or create anything herself.

That’s what counts as a plot in Xanadu, the very loose stage adaptation of the disastrous Olivia Newton-John film of 1980 better remembered for its soundtrack than for any recognizable dramatic energy. But playwright Douglas Carter Beane took the loose idea of the movie and molded it — and it was pretty moldy to begin with — into a snarky, ironic period comedy where cut-offs, head bands, knee socks and Converse high-tops are the peak of fashion.

The main problem with Xanadu is, paradoxically, also it’s chief selling-point: Beane’s script. It’s very inside baseball, with lots of kitschy in-jokes about Southern California and gay culture, that simultaneously elevate the humor and weigh it down.

“This is children’s theater for 40-year-old gay people,” one character cracks self-referentially, letting the audience know the actors are just as aware of how ridiculous, even inane, the whole undertaking is, but sallying forth nevertheless through a phalanx of puns and creaky one-liners. Beane dares you not to camp it up with him; you resist at your peril.

All of which makes Xanadu fun and completely frivolous. From the sassy black drag queens who are several of the Muse “sisters” to co-director and supporting player Andi Allen in cat-glasses and a Lucille Ball color-and-wave haircut circa Season 2 of Here’s Lucy, it’s a calculated send-up of Gen-X iconography told with enthusiastic silliness.

The jukebox score is a pastiche of disco-era radio hits like “Strange Magic” and “Evil Woman,” shoehorned together like the random shuffle on an iPod … if you like that kind of stuff — and it’s nearly impossible not to like it, considering how committed the cast is to the whole aesthetic. This is Velasco’s best stage work (he played Juan in Uptown Players’ Altar Boyz three years back), as he projects adorable stupidity and naïvete. (“Even my suicide notes are clichés!” he whines in a moment of despair.)

The rest of the cast is equally adept (it ain’t easy dancing on roller skates), and this is Level Grounds Arts’ most polished production since moving into the KD Studio Theatre. Gnarly, dude.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 12, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas