DIFF PREVIEW: ‘Rainbows End’ puts stock in its eccentric characters, especially Twirler Man

HORSE WHISPERER | Audrey Dean Leighton gives air kisses to this horse adding to his eccentricity in ‘Rainbows End.’

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

Perhaps the last place you’d find a gay guy who makes your movie work is Nacogdoches, Texas. But Austin-based filmmaker Eric Hueber did just that in his first film, Rainbows End. And it was all sort of by accident.

This documentary track quirky individuals on separate quests to get to California, each for their own reasons: Birdman wants to audition his cocks for an animal casting agency; musicians Country Willie and the Cosmic Debris have a date with the Stardust Cowboy.

But Audrey Dean Leighton is the most colorful of all, with sparkly pink shorts and a vest to match. He just wants to make it to the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center to learn about the Internet. And Hueber just happened upon him.

“Yeah, he was walking down the street and I went and started talking to him,” Hueber says. Leighton joined the others in a big green schoolbus that hardly works, making a tour out of their road trip, encountering the colorful characters and engaging in an array of shenanigans. Leighton proudly touts his purchases from Jasper.

His ZZ Top beard is accented with his Easter hats and throughout the movie, he acts as the sage character spewing out wisdom in his own fashion.

“He definitely was the elder statesman of the cast,” Hueber says.

You might call Leighton crazy with his long-trailed monologues, but maybe “eccentric” is a better term. So how did Leighton end up in the film? You have to go back a bit.

“When we started talking, he would mail me all these letters,” Hueber says. “So I told him about email and got him his own Hotmail account and then he became obsessed with the Internet. He would tell me about all the things he was discovering and then he learned that the gay and lesbian center was offering classes on the Internet to people over 55.”

Hueber talks about Leighton as “this guy who showed up at all the small-town parades.” As the valedictorian of his high school class, Leighton went on to brighter and smaller things. A fixture in the small-town circuit of East Texas, his shorts and batons were the random highlights of each parade earning him the nickname “Twirler Man.”

With Hueber’s storytelling, it’s hard to define the film. It plays with a wink in its eye. In the age of Bruno and Borat, cynicism lingers from those films that these are put-on scenarios.

“The thing is I used the B-level of crazy from Nacogdoches,” he laughs. “But these are my good friends, their stories and these events built into this nice narrative arc.”

Rainbows End screens at the Dallas International Film Festival, and will compete in the Texas Film category — that’s a triumph in its own small way.

“Oh, this is the most appropriate category,” Hueber says. “We’re so excited.”

Screens as part of the Dallas International Film Festival. at the Magnolia Theater on April 1 at 10 p.m. and April 3 at noon. DallasFilm.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 25, 2011.

—  John Wright

Christmas presence

Satiric ‘Drowsy Chaperone’ succeeds with intimate setting; DTC freshens up its annual ‘Christmas Carol;’ and who’s being a Scrooge about ‘Santaland Diaries?’ We are

ON THE BOARDS
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
at the Kalita Humphreys Theater,
3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Through Dec. 24.
DallasTheaterCenter.org.

THE DROWSY CHAPERONE
at Theatre Three, 2900 Routh St. in the Quadrangle. Through Jan. 9.
Theatre3Dallas.com

THE SANTALAND DIARIES
at Greenville Center for the Arts,
5601 Sears St. Through Dec. 23.
ContemporaryTheatreofDallas.com

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MUSICAL OF MUSICALS | TV talk show host Rob McCollum, left, makes a hilarious narrator in Theatre Three’s intimate, well-paced production of ‘The Drowsy Chaperone.’

Chaperone: Rousing drowsy

There are some shows that seem nearly impossible to translate to the challenges of theater-in-the-round, but Theatre Three’s extravagantly staged production of The Drowsy Chaperone not only succeeds, but perhaps becomes better.  Now, much like the show’s narrator, the audience becomes surrounded and engulfed by the action.

The show’s conceit is that a brittle theater geek (Good Morning Texas’ hilarious Rob McCollum) is alone in his apartment, waxing nostalgic about his favorite musical of all time, The Drowsy Chaperone. He pulls out an LP (“yes records” he snaps), puts it on the turntable and as the cast recording plays, the musical comes to life in his living room.

Part loving homage, part brilliant satire, the musical that unfolds is a classically constructed Broadway hit about a woman leaving her glamorous career in showbiz to marry a man she met on a cruise ship. Is it true love or is she just interested in his father’s oil holdings? To keep the bride-to-be from seeing the groom prior to the wedding, she is assigned a chaperone, who’s constantly drunk (“drowsy,” as she calls it) despite it being the height of Prohibition. As the wedding day approaches, plenty of obstacles are thrown in the path of the happy couple, building to a rousing climax.

There are plenty of colorful characters, including an aviatrix (which we’re told is code for “lesbian”), a womanizing Latin lover, rat-a-tat gangsters, ditzy socialites and an even ditzier chorus girl. All the machinations and musical theater clichés are present and accounted for, from tap-dancing showdowns to jazz hands and high-kicking chorus lines, all combined with self-referential jokes that frequently break down the fourth wall.

Theatre Three’s casting and production is spot-on, including McCollum, the always enchanting Arianna Movassagh as the moll Kitty and a tipsy turn from Marisa Diotalevi as the title character. The Drowsy Chaperone, in all its laugh-out-loud extravagance, is a wonderful alternative to the holiday fare on other stages around town, and every bit as merry and bright.

— Steven Lindsey

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BAH, CRUMPET | Nye Cooper returns to the island of misfit toy-sellers in the bitter comedy ‘The Santaland Diaries.’

Santaland: Angels we have heard on Nye

By the sounds of it, I may be one of the few left in these parts that had not seen The Santaland Diaries, the stage adaptation of David Sedaris’ droll essay about debasing himself for part-time work at Macy’s. Over the years, the local production has become a holiday tradition with Nye Cooper donning the elf cap. He channels Sedaris with the appropriate wit, but as a first timer at the one-man show at the Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, it seems that the show, while fun, needs some oomph.

The play recounts Sedaris’ travails working as Crumpet, an elf in New York’s famous Santaland display over one Christmas season. Bratty children and even brattier parents are all stars in Sedaris’ story and Cooper succeeds in stepping into that skin. He should: He’d done it more than half a dozen times. With such familiarity, he embodies disgruntlement to the nines, but also a certain amount of heart to take the audience from disdainful diatribes to a tender epiphany.

Despite the show’s institutional standing, it plays just shy of greatness. Cooper can deliver a punchline, but you can also tell it’s been delivered before… and before that. Diaries is ideal for the driest of humor, but he held back a bit here and delivered Crumpet as just kind of a friendly sass.

Nonetheless, Sedaris’ clever writing mixed with Cooper’s rubber face and sad eyes is a match made in heaven. And the payoff isn’t the sweet realization he comes to. It’s Crumpet saying all those things to holiday shoppers you wish you could say yourself. Hearing those alone makes it a worthwhile see.

— Rich Lopez

HUM BUGGERY | The Ghost of Christmas Past (Cedric Neal) visits old Ebenezer (Chamblee Ferguson) in DTC’s slightly retooled version of ‘A Christmas Carol.” (Photo courtesy Linda Blase)

A Christmas Carol: A turn of the Scrooge

After five years of listening to other actors humbug their way into audiences’ hearts as Scrooge, the Dallas Theater Center has moved its perennial Bob Cratchit, Chamblee Ferguson, into the lead role in their annual A Christmas Carol, and the move ends up being one long overdue.

Ferguson is tall and slender, and in his tight-fitting black suit, Ichabod-like. That’s a very different tale from the same era (and across an ocean), but it draws together an odd thematic unity to the idea of the ghost story: Real or imagined, sometimes you need to look at the world anew.

Which is pretty much what this production’s new director, Mathew Gray, has done within the limitations of the same script and set that has been trotted out ever since they tore down the Art District Theater to build the Winspear and the Wyly. The show is solid, and it has succeeded (more or less) over the past few years with some tweaking here and there, but this may be the biggest overhaul yet: New Marley (Liz Mikel, looking like the scary spirit of Harriet Tubman), new Christmas Past (Cedric Neal, his skin seeming almost iridescent), new Christmas Present (J. Brent Alford in an unfortunate hippie-dippie robe that makes him look like Jesus and his amazing Technicolor dreamcoat, chillin’ on a commune circa 1968), and the most adorable kids — Little Ebenezer/Tiny Tim (on press night, played by a girl, Marlhy Murphy) and Edward Cratchit (Aidan Langford) — in memory.

But it’s Ferguson and Regan Adair (stepping in as Cratchit) whose performances really transforms the show. There’s great chemistry here: Ferguson, a lanky and sharp Mutt opposite Adair’s sad-sack, flustered Jeff. There’s more of a comic sensibility between them, with Adair spinning a modern twist on the familiar victim of Scrooge’s discourtesy. The Cratchits’ dinner scene is as tender as it’s ever been.

If the comedy is played up well, so is the schmaltz (it’s easy to tear up by the end), but Gray also imbues the ghost visits with a Twilight Zone quality. There really is a sense for the bizarre and the supernatural now.

And also a sense for the message. During a rough economy, Dickens’ social engineering — looking after the poor, the greed of the privileged, etc. — take on heightened meaning. It redirects the emphasis of A Christmas Carol from personal growth to a call for systemic compassion for those in need. It’s good to be reminded of that in an effective way that also entertains.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

Note: As it has for the past two years, the Dallas Theater Center will be raising money for the North Texas Food Bank to help feed the underprivileged living in North Texas. Donations can be made at every performance.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 10, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens