REVIEWS: ‘Anything Goes,’ ‘Catch Me,’ ‘The Chairs,’ ‘The Lucky Chance’

Anything GoesStephen Sondheim Theatre (formerly Henry Miller's Theatre)

It’s a busy season for theaters, with opening and closing coming fast and furious. Few things, though, as as fast and furious as the tap-dancing in Anything Goes, which continues its run this weekend at the Winspear Opera House. The national tour of this Tony Award-winning revival is part of the classic strain of American musicals where quick-witted people end happily while dancing their asses off, all the the tunes of folks like Cole Porter. There are more hits in this score than during a Mafia wedding: “Friendship,” “You’re the Top,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “It’s De-Lovely” and, natch, the title tune. If hearing the sounds that make up the foundation of the Great American Songbook, belted out like Merman on speed, isn’t your idea of a fun night of theater, there’s something wrong with you.

Rachel York leads the cast as Reno Sweeney, the sassy cabaret star who’s chasing after a boy who has eyes on another girl, who is engaged to be married to a British lord, who doesn’t care much about marrying her …. Oy. Plot is not its friend. But jaunty one-liners, sexy men in sailor suits and timeless songs are. Even 80 years after it opened, the energy is as fresh as morning glory. (Through Sunday.)

How, then, can Catch Me If You Can at Fair Park Music Hall, which is just two years old, feel so much more dated than Anything Goes? Scored by the team that did Hairspray (partners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) and written by Terrence McNally, it’s also set in the 1960s and based on a hit movie. And that’s where the similarities cease.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Gay cantor finds welcoming home in straight synagogue

Don Croll left Broadway to find more consistent work as a Jewish cantor, coming out as gay along the way

Croll.Cantor-Don
Don Croll

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

Don Croll has learned that his path to becoming a cantor — with an Actor’s Equity card and a Broadway run — was not that unusual. Today Croll is the cantor at Temple Shalom in North Dallas.

After graduating from Ithaca College with a major in theater, Croll was hired as a dancer for the Summer Music Theater in Charlotte, N.C. There, he earned his Equity card and next was hired by Fran and Barry Weissler for their National Theater Company.

At the time, it was one of the best children’s theater companies in the country, Croll said, adding that the Weisslers have since become what Croll calls “the revival king and queen.” Their production of Chicago has been running on Broadway since 1996.

“They liked me very much and would have used me one day,” Croll said. He said he ran into the couple at Fair Park Music Hall, at the opening of one of their shows, and Barry Weissler told him, “You could have understudied Joel Grey in our revival of Cabaret.”

Croll did make it to Broadway in a 1971 revival of On The Town with Bernadette Peters, Phyllis Newman and a pre-Chorus Line Donna McKechnie. He played the bill poster and the Congacabana master of ceremonies and was part of the singing ensemble.

“The New York Times hated us,” Croll said. Although the show got otherwise decent reviews, it closed after just 71 performances.

Croll also toured with Howard Keel and John Raitt in Man of LaMancha and danced in a production of Fiddler on the Roof. He had begun to establish a solid career — solid but not consistent.

“Then I didn’t work for eight months,” Croll said. “At the time I didn’t realize that wasn’t so terrible.”

But Croll said he hated working temp jobs. He was married at the time and contemplating a family, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to be running around the country in national tours. That’s when he decided to become a cantor, the clergy member who sings or chants the service in a synagogue.

In cantorial school Croll met others who had begun their careers on stage, and while he was studying for his career in sacred music, he came out.

“Once I came out, I never looked back,” he said.

After 10 years in New York, Croll accepted a part-time position at Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, the first LGBT synagogue.

“When I told the head of the American Conference of Cantors, he looked at me and said, ‘Why are you ruining your career? You’ll never work in a mainstream synagogue again.’”

But a mainstream synagogue in Santa Monica hired him after members attended a service at BCC to hear him sing.

While in L.A., Croll resumed his acting career. Ironically, he was cast as a cantor in Reasonable Doubts, an early 1990s TV series that starred Mark Harmon and this year’s Black Tie Dinner speaker Marlee Matlin.

Then in Melissa Gilbert’s thriller Donor, he played a rabbi.

Croll’s partner, Jan Gartenberg, whom he met in Los Angeles, encouraged him to take a full-time job and Croll was hired by a synagogue in Albuquerque. And in 1996, Temple Shalom brought him to Dallas.

After he was hired, Rabbi Kenneth Roseman asked Croll if he’d be moving to Dallas alone. Croll said his partner would be coming and is attending nursing school. Roseman said, “Then we’ll find her an appropriate nursing school.”

Croll said, “she is a he.” Without missing a beat, Roseman replied, “Then we’ll find him an appropriate nursing school.”

Croll said the big question he was asked by Temple Shalom members about Gartenberg was, “Is he Jewish?”

He is — and his brother is the rabbi of a synagogue in Juneau, Alaska.

“I told them, ‘Jan’s more Jewish than I am,’” he said.

At Temple Shalom, Croll said he and Gartenberg are always invited to events as a couple, although, “In the beginning, some people were uncomfortable.”

In fact, a few families left the synagogue, which now has about 800 member households.

But Roseman stood behind Croll and said, “These are the values by which we stand and they shouldn’t be here if those are not their values.”

Early in his Dallas career, Croll was invited to sing at the installation of a new rabbi at Shearith Israel, the largest Conservative synagogue in Dallas. He received one hate letter.

“Every time you get up to sing, I’ll walk out,” he said the congregant wrote.

Croll showed it to the Shearith rabbi who, he said, was mortified and assured Croll he would always be welcome at their synagogue.

Croll said that his tenure at Temple Shalom has been rather noncontroversial.

“In 2003, we [he and Gartenberg] were married at Temple by five rabbis,” he said. Family, friends and lots of Temple members were there to celebrate with them.
Then in 2008, the couple were legally married in Vancouver by a gay rabbi who was new to that Canadian congregation. They were the first gay couple married at that synagogue.

And this year, Croll said, he and Gartenberg will stand together when the temple honors couples celebrating long-term anniversaries: Croll and Gartenberg will observe their 25th anniversary in November.

Croll said he’s spoken to groups a few times about his relationship, and he said parents sometimes have to explain to their children who Gartenberg is.

But after 16 years in Dallas, Croll said he is simply accepted as one of the faces of Judaism in the Metroplex.

He has also been there as a role model for the temple’s youth. One boy that he bar mitzvahed a number of years ago recently stopped by to casually tell Croll that his boyfriend was moving in with him. And Croll thinks that’s healthy and the way it should be.

Through his years in Dallas, Croll has participated in a number of events in the LGBT community. He’s performed a number of times with the Turtle Creek Chorale and has participated with Congregation Beth El Binah.

When the LGBT synagogue hosted a conference, Croll emceed the evening’s entertainment that included Estelle Getty, Roslyn Kind and local favorite Paul Williams. Last year, he represented the Jewish community at the dedication of the Interfaith Peace Chapel at Cathedral of Hope.

Croll said he isn’t at Temple Shalom to make sure things get better. He’s there making sure that everything’s OK from the beginning.

………………………………….

Beth El Binah plans High Holiday services

Congregation Beth El Binah celebrates the High Holy Days beginning Wednesday, Sept. 28 with an evening service conducted by the congregation’s new rabbi, Steve Fisch, who was hired in June.

Fisch.Rabbi-Steve
Rabbi Steve Fisch

Alan Josephson will perform as the cantorial soloist.

 

“We’re expecting record crowds with our new rabbi,” congregation President Diane Litke said.

“The High Holidays encourage us to reflect on where we have been, where we are and where we can be,” Fisch said. “Services are going to be fun. I’m going to try to bring a spirit of enjoyment to these beautiful days.”

The High Holy Days begin with Rosh Hashanah, which celebrates the new year. The holiday is two days long and all Jewish holidays begin at sunset. So Rosh Hashanah runs from sunset on Wednesday, Sept. 28 until sunset on Friday, Sept. 30.

Evening services begin at 8 p.m. at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center and continue with morning services at 10:30 a.m.

On Friday, the congregation will gather at Litke’s house in Richardson for Tashlich service.

The holiday season is a period of asking for forgiveness. Tashlich is performed sometime during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as an act of tossing away sins. Usually bread is torn into small pieces and tossed into a running body of water as prayers are recited.

Beth El Binah traditionally gathers on the second day of Rosh Hashanah for the ritual.

Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, takes place 10 days after Rosh Hashanah. The day begins on Friday, Oct. 7 at 8 p.m. with Kol Nidre service, a somber chant that will be played on viola by congregation member Dan Sigale, who performs with the Fort Worth Symphony.

Services on Oct. 8 begin at 10:30 a.m. and continue until sunset.

A week later is the eight-day festival of Sukkot, which marks the harvest with a celebration of thanksgiving. That holiday is observed with a meal eaten in a sukkah or booth.

The sukkah represents the small temporary shelters that were built in the fields for eating and sleeping during the harvest and are decorated with fruit and vegetables.

Beth El Binah’s sukkah is built in member Wayne Wilson’s yard in Lake Highlands and seats 50 for a large potluck dinner that will be held Friday, Oct. 14.

Fisch said that after the holidays he is planning to begin a class in basic Judaism.

“The class is for people who want to convert or just learn more about Judaism,” he said.

For more information about attending any service or class, email rabbi@bethelbinah.org.

— David Taffet

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Not just a ‘9 to 5’ job

Director Jeff Calhoun’s fabulous, unlikely journey from Dolly queen to professional Dolly collaborator

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

JeffCalhounSmileGenJeff Calhoun has been a Broadway baby for nearly 30 years, directing revivals of Grease and Big River, plus choreographing those shows and revivals of Annie Get Your Gun and Bells Are Ringing. He’s got a Tony Award nom and is best friends with Tommy Tune. But he’s still hoping for the Holy Grail every theater director craves: That one original show to call his own, the lasting legacy.

“I thought Brooklyn was going to be that for me — the next Rent — which tells you how little I know,” he says of his 2004 show that ran a respectable 284 performances. Then when he heard producers were adapting the Dolly Parton film comedy 9 to 5 for Broadway, he thought he finally had his shot. Only it was not to be.

“I was really disappointed when they hired Joe Mantello to direct,” he says plainly. Then some serendipity occurred: First, 9 to 5 turned out to be a bust on Broadway, running only four months. Then the producers did something that has probably never been done before: They hired a new director to retool the show for the national tour. And that was Jeff Calhoun.

“It was a miracle,” he says.

Directing 9 to 5, which opens Wednesday at Fair Park Music Hall, is an appropriate bookend for Calhoun, who got his start as a 21-year-old working with Dolly Parton on the film version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

“She was in her prime — and so was I, as a matter of fact,” he jokes. “I wanted to do [9 to 5] because, first, I love Dolly; and second, I wanted to do an homage to 1970s variety shows — Sonny and Cher and Carol Burnett and such. I knew this was perfect: It takes place in 1979. But [the in Broadway version] there was no context, other than the costumes and bad hair. You should feel like you’re back in the ’70s, from Charlie’s Angels to Burt Reynolds posing nude in Playgirl.”

Calhoun tackled the show anew, treating it “as if it has its own DNA.” There was a lot of adapting: Some songs were cut, others rearranged; the style was streamlined, jokes were punched up. And working with Dolly was its own reward.

DollyJeffCalhoun600
A GAY MAN’S DREAM | Jeff Calhoun, director of ‘9 to 5: The Musical,’ came full-circle with the show, reuniting with Dolly Parton, whom he first met on the set of ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.’

“It’s been one of my favorite collaborations. I have a picture of her and me together [on the set of Whorehouse] that any fan, especially a gay person, will look at that and oh my god! All I am missing is Cher on my other side.”

 

The touring production also snagged some major talent in Tony nominee Dee Hoty (who worked with Calhoun on The Will Rogers Follies and, coincidentally, plays Miss Mona — the Dolly role — in The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public) and American Idol runner-up Diana DiGarmo, who starred in the tour of Calhoun’s Brooklyn.

Calhoun is a quick wit with a naughty, uncensored side who gets dishy and expresses his opinions without much coaxing.

Broadway is run by “businessmen without imagination,” he says. “That’s what’s great about [the new musical] The Book of Mormon — it’s brilliant and it shows original thought — rare today.” He’s happy bin Laden was killed on Obama’s watch as it “may shut up the naysayers. My parents — I love them and they are great people — but they have this blind spot for Obama. They would vote for Nixon tomorrow if he was running.” And don’t get him started on Sarah Palin.

“I wrote a song about Sarah Palin — it stars with C and ends with unt,” he says. “She’s written a book but she’s never read one? I hate that she has pride in her ignorance — it’s as if everyone in the audience of Let’s Make a Deal became Republicans.”

Politicking aside, next up for Calhoun are two Broadway shows: A musical adaptation of Newsies (with a script by Harvey Fierstein) immediately followed by a show with yet another Texas connection: Bonnie & Clyde: The Musical. For a Yankee, Calhoun has surprisingly strong ties to Dallas.

“I was in Dallas with Busker Alley when you had that big flood and my upside-down rental car was the image that led the news,” he says. “And I love [Dallas Summer Musicals chief] Michael Jenkins — he’s one of my best friends. Yes, I’ve had so many good experiences there, both theatrically and in the bars! I love me some Dallas!”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 13, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Everybody dance now

HOT TO FOXTROT  |  Pasha Kovalev and Anya Garnis bring some of the sexy moves to ballroom dancing with ‘Burn the Floor.’

Out ballroom dancing champ Jason Gilkison keeps ‘Burn the Floor’ on track — from behind the scenes

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

It’s an hour before showtime, and Jason Gilkison is busy making sure his dancers are ready for the opening night in Oklahoma City of their show Burn the Floor. There’s a lot to coordinate, but Gilkison stays cool, despite having to mount a show with eight dancing couples and two singers, including American Idol finalist Vonzell Solomon and So You Think You Can Dance married heartthrobs Ashley and Ryan DiLillo.

Those may be the marquee names, but the real star of Burn the Floor is the show itself, an energetic and sexy two hours of ballroom-on-Red Bull.

And that, as director and choreographer, is Gilkison’s responsibility.

It’s not as if Gilkison didn’t have his day in the footlights, too. He got rhythm early — his grandfather opened the first ballroom dancing studio even in Australia, in 1931 — dancing from a young age with his partner, Peta Roby. At age 16, he and Roby moved to London, then the epicenter of ballroom training anywhere in the world. By 1988, he and Roby were world champions.

If the story vaguely conjures images in your brain of the Baz Luhrmann film Strictly Ballroom, that’s not really an accident: “Peta and I were loose prototypes for those characters,” he modestly concedes in his charming Down Under accent. “I actually just met with Baz last week.”

You might not see Gilkison on the stage of Fair Park Music Hall when Burn the Floor opens, but his stamp is on it.

“It came too late for me,” says the still-boyish Gilkison, who has been dancing and choreographing for an astonishing 37 years. He and Roby retired in 1997 — just about the time Burn the Floor was conceived of at, of all places, Elton John’s home.

“The executive producer was Elton’s manager, and for [Elton’s] 50th birthday party, eight ballroom dancing couples came for a 15-minute display.

No one had ever seen a group of dancers have such a hold on people,” he explains.

That party became the germ for the show; it debuted in 1999, and Gilkison joined it soon after. He never thought it would be a career. He may not have thought it would last a season.

“Eleven years ago, it was very experimental to take ballroom dancing and put it into a theatrical form,” he says. It has evolved over the years, as well. “The original show was 45 dancers, not eight or nine couples. We redid it — the new version is more dancer-friendly.”

And it has become its own animal. Burn the Floor has toured non-stop for more than a decade, including a five-month run on Broadway that Gilkison directed and choreographed (it ended last year). That production features Dancing with the Stars veterans Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Karina Smirnoff.

So how does a serious dance expert like Gilkison feel about such pop-competition TV shows like that and So You Think You Can Dance? He loves them.

“It’s the perfect time for something like Burn the Floor with [the popularity of DWTS and SYTYCD]. These obscure dance forms have now been popularized. Dancing that had been dormant is now seen in a contemporary way.”

Not always in a good way, though. He admits Kate Gosselin’s lead-footed stomping on last season’s DWTS made him cringe. “She really struggled,” he says.

Gilkison himself has been a choreographer and judge on SYTYCD. Just a few days before, former gay contestant Ade has been in the house (he is dating one of the current dancers), and Gilkison even shares a bit of news for the show’s diehard fans: “Mary Murphy will be back!” (Murphy is a ballroom expert whose shrill enthusiasm was sorely missed last season.)

Burn the Floor needn’t worry about guest visits from Gosselin, though. While Gilkison’s chief job is effortlessly substituting new acts and “special guests” as the show has developed, that been easier due to its reputation for excellence.

“The right dancers have always gravitated toward us,” he says. “I think what surprises the ballroom dance masters is that technically they are at a high level — these are not cruise ship dancers.” (One downside: The energy level starts out so strong, it has no place to built to.)

It certainly has a lot to offer an audience primed for sexy athleticism: In tight black pants, and with hips swinging from their killer abs, the show sometimes resembles a muscular Tom of Finland catalogue, including a shirtless pas de deux between two male toreadors. And it concludes with a Cher song. Hey, put the gays in charge, and they know how to end strong.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 1, 2011.

—  John Wright

Who’s Tommy?

Tommy
TAP, DOG | Tommy Tune’s new act traces his legendary Broadway career — and it all began in Dallas.

Maybe you think you know gay  stage icon Tommy Tune, but even he’s still learning things about himself

…………..

STEPS IN TIME

Fair Park Music Hall, 901 First Ave. March 15–20. $20–$75. DallasSummerMusicals.org.

…………..

When I get Tommy Tune  on the phone for the first time, I finally get to tell him about my three Tommy encounters: One was on Broadway when he appeared in My One and Only; one was in his one-man show Tommy Tune Tonight! at Fair Park Music Hall; but the first time was in the locker room of the Watergate Hotel where we were both staying. He was changing clothes after a swim. And I confess to him my 30-year secret: That I saw his naked ass.

“How’d it look?” he hoots with an excited cackle. “Great!” I tell him. “Well, you know dancers,” he says with a flirtatious laugh.
This dancer just turned 72 — a number that rather delights Tune: “If you add together 7 and 2, it equals nine. And nine has always been a lucky number for me.”

It has indeed. Tune directed and choreographed the original stage musical Nine, and has won an astonishing nine Tony Awards in four categories over his 50-year stage career — a career that launched, in several ways, here in North Texas.

“I began at the Dallas Summer Musicals,” says the Texas native, whose sister still lives in Fort Worth.“I got my Equity card there. John Rosenfield, who was the king of culture [in Dallas for decades], reviewed my first professional job in Redhead with Taina Elg. In the last paragraph of the review, he wrote: ‘We cannot let this report pass without mentioning Tommy Tune, who handles his incredible long form with grace control and power.’ That was the energy that sent me to New York. I had the courage after that. And I just linked that up.”

Where he links that up is in his new one-man showcase, Steps in Time, which opens Tuesday on the same stage where Tune got his start.

“Everything I do in Steps in Time is the truth,” says Tune. “I’ve done four acts and this one is the most personal and the purest and it works better than the others. It doesn’t have the glitz, but there’s depth.”

It’s also a work in progress. Tune has performed it about 100 times so far, but often in one- or two-night stands; he’ll be in Dallas a week, and the version includes new material he’s only recent added. It also has the added bonus of getting him back to his Texas roots.

“I still like to get my feet in the Texas mud, which is different than all other muds,” he says.

Tune kicks off his show with his arrival in New York on St. Patrick’s Day 1962. His beginnings were auspicious: He auditioned for a show and got the job on the spot. That led to dozens  more shows as an actor (Seesaw, which won him his first Tony), director and choreographer (Grand Hotel, Nine, The Will Rogers Follies). But he’s loathe to choose a favorite experience.

“I’m gonna have to answer the next one will be my favorite,” he says. “Every show I’ve done, I’m not satisfied with. But there is a sense of dissatisfaction that keeps you marching.”

Still, he coos about many of the talents he’s worked with over the years. Raul Julia “was a dream.” With Julia and Keith Carradine he recalls “not one bad moment. It’s so easy for an actor to give a director problems. Actors can be quite contrary. But these two guys worked for the good of the show.” And there was the great Vaudeville hoofer Charles ‘Honi’ Coles, whom Tune co-starred with in My One and Only and who “was the best dancer that I ever worked with. He taught me more than anybody. And when I worked with him he was 76, so he’s still got a few years on me.”

Tune recounts one joyful memory about appearing with Coles: They performed a number together — a charming soft-shoe — that on opening night led to a tumult of uncontrollable applause. It literally stopped the show.

“I was just gobsmacked,” he says. “I leaned over to Charles and said, ‘What should we do?’ He smiled up and said, ‘Let’s do it again.’ So I just broke the fourth wall like you don’t do and said, ‘Let’s take it again from the top of the dance.’ We did it! I just thought, ‘That’s opening night — everything’s up for grabs.’But we did over 1,000 performances together and we never failed to stop the show — it happened every night! It’s when that magic thing happens, when the audience takes control of the show, that you love like theater.”

Which is exactly what Tune didn’t enjoy about one aspect of his career: Making movies. Tune kicked off his film career with a prime role opposite Barbra Streisand in the Oscar-nominated adaptation of Hello, Dolly! but he quickly soured on Hollywood.

“I hated making movies,” he says. “My whole thing is about the audience connection. In movies, you are not performing for the crew but for a machine — the camera — or yourself. It was just so unfulfilling. You never get the joy of performing a number. After Hello, Dolly! they put me in a couple episodes of Nanny and the Professor but I was burning to be back on Broadway. I asked them, will you let me out of that deal? Off I went, and fast!”

And he’s still returning to it — as a performer, director and a patron. His favorite recent shows? Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and American Idiot.

“Those are my two favorites. And it worries me that neither has found their audience but both speak to now, but work through then. [The lead in Andrew Jackson] is so good, I saw it four times. It made me laugh so hard. Maybe it was a mistake that they moved it to Broadway, but it was better than the off-Broadway version. They really sharpened it. American Idiot is highlight. I was new to Green Day — I don’t usually do anything more contemporary than the ’50s — and they just knocked me out. I’m so grateful I’ve got to do this with my life. But we need to still be respectful of our fabulous invalid called the theater.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 11, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

‘One Night of Queen’ to rock Fair Park in March

With all the attention focused on the Super Bowl and groups like Prince coming to play that weekend, you may have missed the fact that in March, you can see Queen.

Of course, that’s kinda hard since lead singer Freddie Mercury died of AIDS nearly 20 years ago. But it is the next best thing, as the above photo can attest.

Gary Mullen and the Works perform the show One Night of Queen, re-creating the flamboyant musical style of one of the signature bands of the rock era. In the vein of Beatlemania, the concert is a tribute mirror of the original.

The performance takes place March 27 at Fair Park Music Hall. Tickets can be purchased from Ticketmaster.com.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

The way we were

Face-off: ‘Our Town’ vs. ‘Dreck the Musical’

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

ON THE BOARDS
OUR TOWN, Addison Theatre Centre, 15650 Addison Road,
Addison. Through Oct. 24.
WaterTowerTheatre.org.
SHREK, Fair Park Music Hall,
909 First Ave. Through Oct. 17.
DallasSummerMusicals.org.

……………………

Even in the program notes of WaterTower Theatre’s current production, the reputation of Our Town as sentimental tripe is difficult to escape. Except in this exquisitely rendered production, it’s clear that rep is completely undeserved. Maybe abuse by countless high schools has soured opinion, but Thornton Wilder’s bare, simple snapshot of small-town life may be idyllic, but hardly is it idealized. This is humanistic theater in the best sense.

True, there would be no It’s a Wonderful Life without Our Town, but don’t allow the Capra-corn style to blind you to this show’s plainspoken beauty. Even before Act 3, when residents of the graveyard propel the action, this is a play dominated by ghosts: Memories, shadows, feelings about things and people from the past that are both specific and universal.

The Stage Manager (Terry Martin, who also directed) narrates from an omniscient P.O.V., walking us through a few days across two decades in the lives of Grovers Corners, N.H., population 2,642. No one here is spectacular, but in that prosaic bubble, spectacular things happen.

Although more than 70 years old, it still has resonance for contemporary issues, from the closeted chorus master (achingly played by Ted Wold) to an off-handed observation (“people are meant to live two by two — ‘taint natural to be lonesome”) that subtly defends gay marriage (Wilder himself was gay).

There’s not a misspent action or false note from anyone in the impressive cast (especially Wold, Joey Folsom and Maxey Whitehead), and Martin’s canny decision to take the bare-bones set and change it, just briefly, into a tactile, realistic tableau is breathtaking. Don’t let your prejudices about the show scare you away — this is the best show of the fall.

WaterTower does a lot with a little in Our Town; over at Fair Park Music Hall, the opposite is true. Shrek the Musical exudes expensivity with admittedly great costumes, big sets and a flying dragon. It’s also about as bloodsuckingly lifeless as a big Broadway musical can be.

PLAIN AND SIMPLE  |  WaterTower’s ‘Our Town,’ above, delves poignantly into the American psyche; ‘Shrek,’ opposite, delves into flatulence.  (Photos courtesy Joan Marcus and Mark Oristano)
PLAIN AND SIMPLE | WaterTower’s ‘Our Town,’ above, delves poignantly into the American psyche; ‘Shrek,’ opposite, delves into flatulence. (Photos courtesy Joan Marcus and Mark Oristano)

At first, you think it might at least capture the snarky, subversive humor that the graphic novel and animated film did. But that track is quickly diluted in favor of banal family-friendly fare with cornpone plotting and sophomoric fart jokes. (Rhyming “classy” with “gassy?” That’s schoolyard nonsense — and not a good school, either.) And Shrek’s Scottish accent doesn’t translate in the hard-to-hear space of the Music Hall.

Hiring David Lindsay-Abaire, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Rabbit Hole about the death of a child, to write a kiddie musical sounds like a bad punchline, but not as bad as most of the jokes here. Aside from a brilliantly flamboyant turn by David F.M. Vaughn as the prissy Lord Farquaad and some hambone whimsy from Alan Mingo Jr. as Donkey (although the character borders on parody — think Trotin Fetchit), it’s more like Dreck the Musical.

The other major flaw of the production — and it would be too time-consuming to list them all — is that it makes smug references to many much better musicals, among them: Wicked, Dreamgirls, The Lion King, Lez Miz, Hairspray and 42nd Street. If you’re reminding your audience that it could be watching a better show, you’re not helping yourself any. By the end, I’d wished the dragon had eaten me — preferably in Act 1.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 1, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Lord, have mercy

David Vaughn got on his knees to nab a primo role in ‘Shrek’

STEVEN LINDSEY  | Contributing Writer stevencraiglindsey@me.com

Shrek the Musical
MINI ME | One of the comic highlights of ‘Shrek the Musical’ is the diminutive villain Lord Farquaad, played by recent tour addition David Vaughn.

SHREK THE MUSICAL
Fair Park Music Hall, 909 First Ave. Sept. 28–Oct. 17. Evenings 8 p.m., matinees at 2 p.m. 214-631-2787.
DallasSummerMusicals.org.

……………………………………

The most evil villains ever created are typically compensating for one shortcoming or another. For Shrek the Musical’s Lord Farquaad, the diminutive tyrant’s inadequacies are quite literal: His tiny legs are about as spindly as a sock monkey’s.
But for David F.M. Vaughn, it’s one of the greatest roles he’s ever played. And in Shrek alone, he’s played more than his fair share.

“I was a swing in the original Broadway company, so I understudied 19 different tracks in the show. It was a lot of work. I had to be able to go on in any role at any second. But I also understudied Lord Farquaad, which is the role I play now. It’s a new look at a show I’ve been playing for over two years,” he says.

Performing on Broadway is wonderful, according to Vaughn, but touring also has its perks.

“You get to kind of explore each of these great cities. You also get to perform as an actor for different audiences. They vary greatly by region. It’s fun to see which audiences like what, play that up and adjust the show for each audience,” he says. “Plus, there’s something to be said about having your room cleaned every day. Fresh towels, clean sheets … you really can’t beat that.”

This will be the actor’s first visit to Dallas and he’s excited to have family members in the audience, but almost equally thrilled to be performing at the State Fair of Texas.

“I live in New Jersey and I love, love, love the State Fair. The fried awfulness, the people watching. The touring company is so excited to go explore.”

Eating his way around Fair Park and seeing all the attractions will be a welcome break from the demanding schedule and an even more difficult role.

“The biggest challenge is the obvious physicality of playing an entire show on my knees. Not just performing it, but making it realistic and funny and making the whole joke work,” Vaughn says. “There’s also a section where I have a puppeteer controlling my legs for me. I have to trust that he will do what he was choreographed to do and I will do what I’m choreographed to do.”

Once on Broadway, in a different Shrek role, things didn’t work out so well. There’s proof in a backstage photo on his website where he can be seen sitting with an ice pack on his ankle and a tissue up his nose to stop the bleeding. Harrowing stuff.

“The set was so big and so complicated. There were so many lifts and turntables and flying things. It was very dangerous.

We’re all very safe, but anything can happen. And unfortunately, that’s one of those things that happened. I had to run really fast around the corner and one of the guys who runs props forgot that I was there and he slammed his forehead right into my nose. We were both knocked over.”

The touring set is just as complex, even if it is scaled back to accommodate various stage setups.

“It looks just as full and lush, even sometimes more saturated and colorful than I remember it. The show’s completely reconceived not only as a tour, but as a new production. They trimmed it and added stuff,” he says, “but the story’s more focused.”

The new dragon puppet is better than the one on Broadway. “Finally, DreamWorks’ commitment to getting it right paid off and they figured it out. Now it’s a full dragon from head to tail. His wings flap, it’s just wonderful. I can’t wait for you to see it.”

Everyone who’s seen the show or performed in the show seems to agree that gay audiences love the “Freak Flag” number, and Vaughn is no different.

“All the fairy tale creatures have been shunned and forced from their home because Lord Farquaad says they’re freaks.

They’re not like everyone else and everyone should be perfection and all the same. But the pigs are fat, and the wolf is hairy, and Pinocchio is not a real boy,” he says. “They all question themselves until Gingy, the gingerbread man, sets them straight and kind of says what makes us special makes us strong. It’s kind of an anthem of individuality and community and strength and celebrating differences, but using this platform they all gather together and nothing can stop them.”

“It’s that same old story,” Vaughn continues. “We may have been ashamed of ourselves because we were gay, until we finally banded together and realized that we’re awesome and we can do anything together. And, oh, there’s power in that. This number is almost like a Pride parade on stage.”

And if that’s not enough, he quickly jumps back in and exclaims, “We have a transsexual wolf in the show, too!”

Now you’re talking.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 24, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Online exclusive: ‘Dreamgirls’ star Syesha Mercado talks about gay BFFs and Voice of Pride

Syesha Mercado, Dreamgirls, American IdolIf you caught Dreamgirls at Music Hall, you got the chance to see Syesha Mercado make the leap into leading lady status with her turn as Deena Jones. And if you haven’t, well this weekend is your last chance. She took some time with us to give some insight on what’s behind that voice and talent. And with her experience on American Idol as a contestant, she offered some advice to those competing in the now-happening Voice of Pride contest. You might have even seen her at one of the preliminaries.

Read it here.

—  Rich Lopez

‘Dream’ on

A true Broadway opera, the national tour of ‘Dreamgirls’ rocks

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

The Dreamettes
AND I’M TELLING YOU, I’M GOING | The Dreamettes climb the pop charts on the back of a former member in the Supremes fantasy ‘Dreamgirls.’

DREAMGIRLS
Fair Park Music Hall, 909 First Ave. Through July 18. $30–$85. DallasSummerMusicals.org.
……………………..

It’s odd that when we talk about modern opera, no one ever mentions Dreamgirls, the 1981 musical that fictionalizes the emergence of Motown. It’s got all the elements of genuine opera: Bigger than life and deeply flawed characters, extreme highs and lows, important themes and soaring music. It’s tragedy with a happy ending and a funky, constant R&B soundtrack.

Of course, the gays have always known that Dreamgirls had the cred; the Act 1 closing number “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” has been a drag anthem almost since the original production made Jennifer Holliday a star. But the show, like opera itself, can be problematic: The leading character, powerhouse plus-size singer Effie (Moya Angela), is passed over in favor of the sweet-voiced, prettier Deena (Syesha Mercado). But Effie is also a pill and a prima donna — is it all about talent or does attitude matter?

The touring show at Fair Park Music Hall doesn’t do much to illuminate these complexities, but this non-Equity production benefits immensely from Angela, some fabulous costumes and a minimal set punctuated by a giant Jumbotron of a video wall that adds a sense of contemporary flashiness.

Even all those positives are outshone, though, by Chester Gregory. As Jimmy Thunder Early — a high-energy mélange of James Brown and Little Richard — Gregory is smooth and predatory, and he’s got the moves and the voice to electrify an audience. The show is his.

Too bad Chaz Lamar Shepard as Curtis barely registers. He’s sleazy as the Berry Gordy like manipulator, but there’s no personality. Mercado also falters. The title song needs to establish the new Dreams as a potent girl group, but on press night, Mercado sounded like she was at 50 percent. Still, former America Idol star gets top billing. It’s as if talent doesn’t matter as much as surface appearance.
Sounds familiar.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 9, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens