Everyone’s a critic

Uptown Players’ farce ‘It’s Only a Play’ lets fly a whirlwind of laughter

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Cara Statham-Serber, B.J. Cleveland and Chamblee Ferguson await a make-or-break review in the backstage farce “It’s Only a Play.’ (Photo by Mike Morgan)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

“I don’t read reviews.”

Oh, how many times I’ve heard that one. Almost as many as my reviews have been excerpted, or I’ve been thanked for my kind comments, or excoriated for my “jackass” opinions.

“Don’t read reviews.” Sheeesh. And Hillary doesn’t care about polls.

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 9.51.06 AMLet’s face it: Basic human ego craves feedback from other humans. “Does this dress make me look fat?” “Was I the first?” “Did you like my Instagram pic? I’ll like yours.” Some people take reviews as constructive criticism to find room to improve. Some think of them as part of the business part of show business. And some — Terrence McNally, for instance, with It’s Only a Play, now at the Kalita Humphreys — treat them as the basis for creativity. And maybe a little revenge.

Although not a new play — McNally wrote it back in the 1980s, after an apparent falling out with Nathan Lane — this version of It’s Only a Play made its Broadway debut last year: Updated, smoothed over (Lane starred in it) and sharpened. It’s the Inside Baseball of theater contrivances. It’s opening night of a new American play, The Golden Egg, and members of the company are gathering in the bedroom of the show’s producer, Julia Budder (Cara Statham-Serber).

There’s a lot riding on the show: it’s the Broadway debut of playwright Peter Austin (Chamblee Ferguson) whose work has kept him busy in regional theater without a mainstream hit. He’s assembled a promising team, including Oscar winning actress Virginia Noyes (Shannon McGrann) trying to polish her tarnished rep as an addict; and celebrated British director Frank Finger (Luke Longacre). All that’s missing from the lineup is Austin’s best friend James Wicker (B.J. Cleveland), who turned down the leading role, ostensibly because he couldn’t get out of his long-running sitcom, but actually because the thinks the script for The Golden Egg is a piece of shit.

But who will New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley agree with? That’s what holds everyone’s attention throughout Act 1; in Act 2, they deal with the fallout.

McNally clearly considers critics a necessary evil — resenting the sway some can hold, but respecting their ability to generate excitement for new American plays. The problem is, where are all the new American plays? Not on Broadway, it seems, which has become a clearinghouse for revivals, musicals, and musical adaptations of revivals of plays. And whose fault is that? Not the critics… unless you count ones like Ira Drew (Steven D, Morris), a John Simon-esque hatchet man who revels in crafting hate-filled one-liners that unfairly torpedo good work, while desperately seeking popularity with the theater community itself. In McNally’s world, we’re all victims, all conspirators, and all capable of making a difference … even though we rarely do.

And the conundrum of It’s Only a Play is, McNally clearly has a ball making his characters outrageous caricatures who spew venom like cobras. Some of the biggest laughs in this broadest of farces come from the unbridled assessments of bad theater. There’s nothing remotely accurate about the reviews the characters read of their own play, but that’s all part of the fantasy: Theater is removed from reality, a place where we create our own happy endings and live out our petty vengeances. Why not have fun doing it?

The cast of this production is certainly having huge amounts of fun. The show has been crafted to give great gags and set-pieces to its cast, from McGrann’s scene-stealing druggy to Matt Holmes as the innocent farmboy in NYC for the first time to Statham-Serber Malapropping all over the place. Cleveland, who usually gets handed the most flamboyant roles, gets to underplay it some here. He’s the vain but comparatively stable eye of this hurricane of hilarity.

Cheryl Denson’s direction is a master class in comedic pacing, knowing how to sneak visual gags and in-jokes (example: pay close attention to all the coats brought in from party guests) that layer like symphonic orchestrations rather than drown you in a fusillade of hit-or-miss one-liners. It’s a bright and chuckle-filled evening, tailor-made for devoted theater queens who like a little insider — or in this case, backstage — humor.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 22, 2016.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Best Bets • 07.08.16

Friday 07.15 — Sunday 07.31

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McNally makes second appearance with Uptown Players’ ‘Only a Play’

Uptown Players’ most recent production was the drama Mothers & Sons, written by playwright Terrence McNally. Well, McNally is back at the Kalita … in a far less serious tone. It’s Only a Play is his riotous recount of behind-the-scenes as a Broadway company awaits their opening night review from The New York Times. B.J. Cleveland and Chamblee Ferguson lead the cast

DEETS:
Kalita Humphreys Theater
3636 Turtle Creek Blvd.
UptownPlayers.org

Thursday 04.14 — Thursday 07.21

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Asian Film Festival of Dallas back for 15th season

The Asian Film Festival is one of Dallas’ longest-running celebrations of the visual image, and focuses on both films and filmmakers from China, Thailand, Japan and the rest of the Pacific Rim. This year’s fest — its 15th — kicks off with a party in the Foundation Room at the House of Blues, but all the films will play for a week at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.

DEETS:
Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station
5321 E. Mockingbird Lane
AsianFilmDallas.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 8, 2016.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Best Bets • 05.27.16

Friday 05.27 — Sunday 05.29

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Texas Ballet Theater returns with First Looks

Earlier this month, Texas Ballet Theater debuted its latest performance in Dallas — a collection of three dances, including a world premiere. Now it’s Fort Worth’s turn … and anyone else who missed it. First Looks closes TBT’s current season with colorful and playful pieces from three choreographers.

DEETS:
Bass Performance Hall
525 Commerce St., Fort Worth
Friday–Saturday at 8 p.m.
Saturday–Sunday at 2 p.m.
TexasBalletTheater.org

Friday 06.03 — Saturday 06.19

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­­Uptown Players opens first of two Terrence McNally plays this season

Imagine the doorbell ringing and it’s your ex-mother-in-law. And your ex is dead. And you have a new boyfriend. And a child. That’s the fraught premise of Mothers and Sons, Terrence McNally’s Tony-nominated comedy-drama about complex relationships in the modern world. It’s the first of two McNally plays presented this season by Uptown Players.

DEETS:
Kalita Humphreys Theater
3636 Turtle Creek Blvd.
UptownPlayers.org

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 27, 2016.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Play memory

Forgetfulness as self-preservation in ‘God Pan’

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Drew Wall and Alex Organ ‘The Great God Pan.’ (Photo courtesy Karen Almond)

Frank (Drew Wall) and Jamie (Alex Organ) haven’t seen each other in 25 years, but have met at a Brooklyn coffeehouse to catch up on old times: Jamie — a buttoned-down journalist with a bad memory — still visits the boys’ old babysitter, who’s in an old-folks home; Frank — tatted and pierced — lives with his boyfriend in Upstate New York. It’s all just so much awkward reminiscing, until Frank mentions that he’s instituted a criminal case against his own father for molesting him, and other boys, when they were children. And, he says, since Jamie was one of his admitted victims, would he like to participate.

Say what, now?

Jamie balks at the suggestion. He has no recollection of being molested, and only vague memories of Frank’s dad at all. His mom (Cindy Beall) dismisses the suggestion out of hand; his girlfriend Paige (Natalie Young) assumes it means nothing. But Jamie’s dad (Bob Hess) is concerned. Doesn’t Jamie remember staying over at Frank’s house for several weeks at age 4? Might something have happened?

I don’t think it spoils anything to say (1) there’s never any proof or acknowledgment that Jamie was abused; and (2) there’s no doubt in our minds that he was.

Such is the intriguing premise of Amy Herzog’s The Great God Pan, a one-act mental gut-punch of a play — a mystery whose central conceit is shrouded only by man’s capacity for self-deception. But unlike, say, other similarly basically-unresolvable dramas like Death and the Maiden or even Extremities, revenge is not the thrust of the story; how we deal with the spectre of trauma is.

Screen shot 2016-04-28 at 12.05.43 PMHerzog approaches the material obliquely. We only learn elliptically about Jamie’s occasional impotence, his inward-looking homophobia (“you get weird around gay men” Paige observes), we infer his commitment issues (six years with Paige and still no engagement ring), and capacity to put off confronting unwelcome truths. “You listen, you don’t act,” Paige diagnoses; Jamie is a Hamlet for the post-modern world.

The play itself is almost the inverse of The Glass Menagerie: It doesn’t filter the past through the unreliable narrator’s memory, but rather sets up an opaque screen that the narrator himself cannot pierce.

Not all of it comes together. Herzog’s thesis can’t quite sustain the structure, and a side plot about Paige counseling a bulimic girl feels like wasted time. But you can’t deny the power of its message: That some things are worth forgetting.

It comes off strongly with Alex Organ in the lead. Organ is the artistic director of Second Thought, but he looks like he might be Chris Hemsworth’s understudy for the Thor movies: Tall, handsome, imposing but also vulnerable. He modulates the sine-curve of Jamie’s emotional journey like a surfer, exploding in denial only after smilingly dismissing the idea of being a victim while desperately trying to convince himself as much as anyone else.

He’s helped along by veterans like Beall and Hess, as well as Wall and Young (a mini-reunion of STT’s memorable Red Light Winter a few seasons back). Director Carson McCain also reinvents the Bryant Hall performance space with an angular but utilitarian and oddly nostalgic set designed by Jeffrey Schmidt. The dead branches of ominous, unseen trees linger through upstage windows, menacingly brooding over the action that flows briskly on the stage. Like Neil LaBute’s In a Forest Dark and Deep, The Great God Pan unfolds the psyche like a dark piece of origami, revealing its crevices while destroying what makes it whole.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 29, 2016.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Best Bets • 04.29.16

Friday 04.29— Sunday 05.01

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Purple Party spins a weekend of partying for a cause

Although they call it the Purple Party (singular), there are actually five events all weekend long at this circuit party and fundraiser from the all-volunteer Purple Foundation. It kicks off with the Ignite party on Friday, followed by a daytime pool party at Sisu Uptown on Saturday and the main event that night at South Side Music Hall. Sunday welcomes a tea-dance and then closing-night party. Among the spin doctors coming to town are DJ Paulo, Isaac Escalnate, Eddie Martinez and more. Get your Purple on!

DEETS:
For details of the events, prices on passes and a full schedule, visit purplefoundation.org.

Saturday 04.30

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Steve Grand goes unplugged

We have no shame in admitting we love Steve Grand — sure, his music is good, and he’s an out-and-proud gay man… both excellent reasons to be fans. He’s also quite dreamy. And why not love a performer for how they make us feel as we watch them entertain us? We’re not monks! He performs Unplugged at the COH Saturday.

DEETS:
Cathedral of Hope
5910 Cedar Springs Road
7 p.m.
CathedralOfHope.com

Thursday 05.05 — Sunday 05.08

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Uptown Players returns with Broadway Our Way

When Uptown Players presents their annual benefit revue Broadway Our Way — where the actors flip the sexes of who sings the songs — it usually previews the entire season. Well, this year the first show (End of the Rainbow) came first, and if it’s any indication, you don’t wanna miss what they are up to for the rest of the year. B.J. Cleveland directs an all-star cast, that also features stallwarts like Coy Covington, pictured. Fasten your seatbelts, dolls — it’s gonna be an adventure.

DEETS:
Kalita Humphreys Theater
3636 Turtle Creek Blvd.
$40–$50
UptownPlayers.org

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 29, 2016.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

A star is born

Janelle Lutz and company send audiences over the ‘Rainbow’

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ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

When Janelle Lutz, as Judy Garland in the last months of her life, strides onto the stage of the Kalita Humphreys Theater, the audience can’t help but spontaneously cheer. Like Garland, Lutz has that most mysterious quality of a star: charisma. She’s full-bore, don’t hold back, give-it-all-ya-got gumption. Garland probably learned its value as a kid in Vaudeville; I don’t know Lutz’s excuse.

And she holds that level of captivation for the more than two-and-a-half hours of End of the Rainbow, playwright Peter Quilter’s rendering of Judy’s last major concert in London, when pills, booze and a lifetime of failed relationships had really taken their toll. “There’s nothing left,” she sighs in Act 1, realizing that the toughest role she ever played was living up to the legend of Garland herself.

Screen shot 2016-04-07 at 11.38.38 AMThat spunk is what made Judy the glamorous avatar for gay men for several generations: If she could do it, so could we. That her death, at age 47, helped trigger the modern gay rights movement seems almost inevitable. “What is it with you people? The more she falls apart, the more you adore her,” Judy’s boyfriend Mickey (Alex Ross, good as always) hisses at her gay accompanist (Christopher Curtis, who nails his role). He was wrong, but it was easy to see why he — or she — felt that way. The audience kind of does, too — you can’t help but stare at her, wondering what comes next.

Like the play Piaf, Quilters combines dramatic scenes with concert footage, which allows director Cheryl Denson to turn the Kalita into an exquisite cabaret — foggy with stage smoke that suggests a faded memory, a last breath of life. And Lutz delivers there as well. She’s a deft interpreter of the music, giving her own twist to “The Trolley Song” while staying true to Judy’s version. But by the time she wails out “The Man That Got Away” in a plaintive, heartbreaking emotional breakdown set to music, you realize: She could be even better.

End of the Rainbow exudes desperation from every syllable, sweating out its forlornness like a marathon runner, and the anchor is Lutz’s magnificent portrayal. In the hotel scenes, she embodies the junkie’s hairpin turns of mood, but also the genuine need to always try to live up to being Judy Garland. “You could have shoved cables in me and powered Manhattan!” she oddly brags about how lit she has been. Stars burn bright, after all. The brightest ones die out in a blaze that sends worshippers to their knees, aware they are basking in the presence of something magical, something divine.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 8, 2016.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

What would Judy do?

Janelle Lutz, one of North Texas’ best musical actresses, revisits the giant among all gay icons

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MERIT OF GARLAND | ‘The End of the Rainbow’ is a ‘play with music,’ interspersing live concerts late in Judy Garland’s life with scenes of her and the (gay) men in her life. (Photo courtesy Uptown Player)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Janelle Lutz has no problem admitting that she’s one of those actresses who gets very, very nervous before any show opens … but especially this time.
Even though she has played Judy Garland in the past (about two years ago, in the musical The Boy from Oz), when it sank in that she would once more portray Garland in The End of the Rainbow — a play-with-music opening Friday at the Kalita — she confesses that she did something of a double-take.

“You wonder why I’m terrified and have been for months — ‘I’m doing who-what-where?’” she laughs just hours before her first dress rehearsal. Yes: She would play Judy Garland — that avatar of gay culture, for whom the term “friend of Dorothy” became code for “gay” (owing to her performance as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz), and who surrounded herself with gay men her entire life, including a few husbands and sons-in-law — for Uptown Players, known for its gay-themed shows with loyal gay audiences. The potential judginess was almost intimidating.

Still, while Lutz admits that she was aware of Garland’s status as an icon of gay culture, she was not full schooled in the lore (legend?) of her role in the Stonewall Riots and the advent of the modern gay rights movement. Then again, why should she be? Garland herself never knew the full scope of her impact, since it was police harassment on the night of her funeral that triggered the uprising at the New York City gay bar in June 1969. And The End of the Rainbow is set over the course of a few weeks less than a year before she died, of a drug overdose, at just age 47. Which meant that Lutz doesn’t need to know about it. Not that it stops her from soaking up as much information as possible about the actress, singer and mother (to Liza Minnelli among others) who remains one of the most iconic artists of the 20th century.

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It takes a lot of stage magic to turn Lutz into the much older Garland. (Photo by Craig Lynch)

And therein lay another trap for Lutz: How much of her role should be interpretation, and how much recreation?

“My thing is to try to be the most like her, as a tribute,” Lutz says. “It isn’t that I was gonna try to be her. That was my goal, even back to The Boy from Oz. The fear is to go too far. I’m not an impersonator, I’m an actress. There are going to be times I don’t look like her — she was 4-foot-11 and I’m just shy of 5-8 — and times I don’t sound like her, though I try. If you put two recordings next to each other [of her and me], they won’t be the same. But [the idea is] to use how she gestures or uses her body so that it [doesn’t] become a caricature. She was a real human being — she wasn’t [just an accumulation of tics].”

That’s also where all her research came in handy.

“I was very much a fan [of Garland] growing up on old movies,” Lutz says. “I don’t remember what first movie I saw her in, but I don’t remember thinking of her as Dorothy, but maybe Meet Me In St. Louis, and then putting it together.”

The play is made up of set-piece scenes, broken up with concerts Garland delivers before a live audience. And for the concerts, Lutz had not only vinyl recordings and old movies, but also access to YouTube.

“All but one of the songs I perform is in a concert setting, so I could go and watch her perform those specific songs as a reference — Oh, that’s her singing ‘The Trolley Song.’”

Because Lutz plays Garland near the end of her life — at an age fairly far from Lutz’s — she also has to convey the weary, doped-up, hardened Judy, not the perky teen when she became famous. Then again, there was always a ribbon of sadness threading its way through Judy’s songs. She couldn’t help it.

“I think it first hit me in college, when I started looking into music and would watch her, [that I realized] how sad her music sounded,” Lutz explains.
“She could sing ‘Come On Get Happy’ or ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ that are so sad and heartfelt but also just beautiful … because she sings from the soul. She means it, every time she sings. She always has this one moment, even in happy song, where there’s this click and it would turn into this sad, desperate love song that would reflect her life. And it blows my mind even more that she could sing that way when she was [so addicted].”

Screen shot 2016-03-31 at 11.20.06 AMThat, of course, has been part of the appeal of Garland to generations of gay men: Her survivor instinct, her sticktoitiveness, her endurance in the face of obstacles. And it’s also something that made, ultimately, Lutz a huge fan.

“When I watched those old Judy movies, I never dreamed this would ever happen,” she gushes. The thrill is enough to send her over the rainbow.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 1, 2016.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Uptown Players face possible protests over ‘Most Fabulous Story’

Uptown Fabulous Story 087KOThis year, Uptown Players got to do something they haven’t done since their first season: Open a late-autumn production. Since it was close to the Christmas holiday, they chose a (kinda) religious-themed play to inaugurate their new time-slot: Paul Rudnick’s sassy The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. A riff on the right-winger mantra of “The Bible speaks about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” Rudnick goes ahead and makes it about Adam and Steve (and their lesbian counterparts, Jane and Mabel … instead of Cain and Abel). Adam and Steve are mostly naked for the first 15 minutes or so.

Let’s face it: This is provocative stuff for the Bible Belt. Co-founder Craig Lynch even acknowledged that some gay theatergoers may not appreciate a satire of the Old Testament. Then again, isn’t pushing boundaries what theater is supposed to do sometimes?

Apparently, not everyone agrees. Lynch informs me that as of the start of this week, the company had already received 800 protest emails, though he attributed the vast majority of them to a robo-email program sponsored by a right wing religious organization. One patron even called and offered to buy out every seat for the entire run with the intent not to use the seats, to prevent any audience for the gay-themed play.

Similar protests have been logged in Oklahoma City and Austin, with varying degrees of success. One Catholic group has even called for a “Rosary of Reparation” on Sunday, to protest the show at the Kalita Humphreys.

Call me naive, but inviting hundreds of your followers to show up at a theater is a great way to give a troupe free publicity — which, I admit, is what I’m doing as well.

Of course, peaceful protests and disagreements are one thing; intimidation, violence and threats are another. So far, The Most Fabulous Story Even Told — which opens tonight, and runs until Dec. 15 — seems to have avoided any scary-level protests. I expect it will stay that way. After all, doesn’t the Bible say something about turning the other cheek? A good Christian should know about that.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Ryan Roach memorial, fundraisers set

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Ryan Roach and Robert Rain in a production of ‘Blood Brothers.’

We reported yesterday about the passing of beloved local actor Ryan Roach. In addition to the viewing scheduled for tonight, and the funeral tomorrow morning (both in Denton), there are other developments in honoring Ryan.

On Saturday, Aug. 10 at 11 a.m., friends and family will gather at the Kalita Humphreys Theater for a memorial service celebrating his life. On Aug. 26, Amy Stevenson’s cabaret show Mama’s Party in Grand Prairie will be dedicated to Ryan, and donations will be taken.

Finally, an online fund has also been established already to help defray to medical and funeral expenses to Ryan’s family. In just two days, it is already nearly 40 percent funded. You can help out by clicking here to contribute.

 

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Dazzling affair for the holidays

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In 2009, local actors and singers came together as DFW Actors Give Back to release Holidazzle, a CD of holiday music all for the benefit of Jonathan’s Place, an organization that serves the needs of children suffering through abuse. As it turned out, the match was successful enough for performers to assemble again for Holidazzle: Act II.

The collective raised close to $10,000 for the organization.

The CD will be available at several theaters through the holiday season for $15. Performers in this second edition include local faves like Gary Floyd, Denise Lee and B.J. Cleveland.

DFW Actors Give Back will host a CD release party this Monday which also provides a preview of what’s on the disc. Along with appetizers and drinks, featured artists will also perform songs from the CD. Oh, and they want you to dress in festive attire.
If that doesn’t get you in the holiday mood, then bah, humbug to you.

— Rich Lopez

Kalita Humphreys Theater,
3636 Turtle Creek Blvd.
Nov. 7 at 7 p.m.
DFWActorsGiveBack.org.

—  Kevin Thomas