Geniuses

From TV to Tuna, Texas, cultural icons at work

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LIGHT YEARS AHEAD | David Sarnoff (Jakie Cabe) faces off against TV’s creator Philo Farnsworth (Alex Organ) in T3’s brisk production of Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Farnsworth Invention.’ (Photo by Jeffrey Schmidt)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

There are two indispensable treasures of American culture being dramatized onstage right now: Television itself, and boys of Tuna, Texas.

I can’t imagine life without either.

Television — its history and creation — comes to us via the mind of Aaron Sorkin with The Farnsworth Invention. Philo T. Farnsworth (Alex Organ as an adult) was just an Idaho farm boy when he came up with the essential theories (the use of pixilation, the way to seal a cathode ray tube) that would make television possible. He was in the game for the science.

David Sarnoff (Jakie Cabe) was in it to change the way humans communicate. A wunderkind himself, he saw the potential of TV — and radio for that matter — when everyone else thought of them as novelties for rich folks. Some of Sarnoff’s innovations: playing music and covering breaking news faster than the printed word. (He would have been bowled over by the Internet.) But Sarnoff was practical, and knew that to make his vision of a globalized society work, he needed to control not only the content, but the technology.

Sorkin, a TV icon with shows like The West Wing, is a master of the Tommy-gun dialogue delivery — a style that works well when you can edit a scene, but does it translate to the stage? It does with Jeffrey Schmidt directing excellent actors like Cabe and Organ, who enunciate so clearly, ever line imprints before they move on to the next. It’s amazing how effortlessly and dramatic you can make complex theoretical science seem when you approach it smartly. (This is the best handling of this kind of material since Theatre 3 did Copenhagen.)

Sorkin takes many dramatic liberties, but what he captures is the conflict between visionaries, both driven not by personal glory but by a desire to make the world better. You want to peg one as the villain, but you end up turning on the idiot box and lamenting that, ultimately, neither succeeded in creating the utopia he imagined.
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The folks of Tuna, Texas, are more radio-friendly than TV consumers — easier to get your Baptist sermon that way. The resident of Tuna are their own kind of pop icons, anyway. It’s been 30 years since Joe Sears and Jaston Williams first joined forces with co-author/director Ed Howard for Greater Tuna, spawning three sequels and countless converts who appreciation their satiric edge couched in closed minds of West Texas.

Tuna’s Greatest Hits, now at the Eisemann, is a pastiche of the four shows in the Tuna tetralogy, cleaving its plot mostly to the courtship between beset housewife Bertha Bumiller (Sears) and shy radio host Arles Struvie (Williams).

Boiled down like this show is — it covers about 25 years of creativity from first show to fourth — you get to luxuriate in some of the details that may have slipped by: Bertha’s hideously colorful pant suits (fuchsia blouse, chartreuse vest and print bloomers send shivers down the tasteful spine); spot-on metaphors (“shaking like a faith healer”). And they reprise classic lines like good standup comedians or nostalgia musical acts on tour, some updated just enough to remind us of their relevance.

The shows are famed for their dry humor and flatly funny puns (the women’s auxiliary? The Tuna Helpers). But in this breezy 90-minute walk through Patsy Cline territory, it’s the heartfelt sentiment (never cloying) that reminds you what geniuses these guys are — not just gifted actors and savvy comedy writers, but insightful analysts of the Texas mind.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 24, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

The hurt locker room

Newcomer Lloyd Harvey shed 20 pounds, his dreadlocks, some insecurities and his pants to play a gay baseball stud in Uptown Players’ ‘Take Me Out’

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THE FULL HARVEY | Lloyd Harvey bares all — along with most of the cast of the baseball drama ‘Take Me Out’ from Uptown Players. (Photo courtesy Mike Morgan)

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

Lloyd Harvey has something to confess — an outing of himself, if you will.

He hates sports. Well, not hate, it’s just that “I’m more of a comic book nerd. I like movies. I never played sports so I never had the ‘locker room experience.’”

This might not be relevant, except that this week, Harvey will find himself not only in a locker room, but naked there. And pretending to be a god among athletes.

If one wasn’t frightening enough, together they are almost too much to take.

Harvey has the lead role in Take Me Out, the Pulitzer Prizewinning play about a mega-star of the baseball diamond who comes out as gay, setting the sports world — especially his diverse bunch of largely homophobic teammates — into a tizzy.

When Harvey auditioned for it, though, he didn’t really expect to get it — he’s tried out for shows at Uptown Players before without success. Plus, he was able to see his competition.

“I was looking around the room and seeing all these chiseled, fit guys and I’m thinking, ‘I won’t get it,’’ he relates. “Then I got a call-back, which was great, but now I’m seeing all these guys with six-pack abs and I’m the guy with a keg.” That’s when he told the producers he would lose 10 pounds. He even cut off the dreadlocks he’d been growing for three years to get the role.

To his surprise, they cast him — and took him up on his offers to cut and trim. That’s when the real work began.

“I started on P90X [workout] and stopped eating fast food that day,” Harvey says. “One of my friends is a personal trainer,  and he made a 20-minute workout to do on top of the P90X. It’s been a total physical change. I weighed 200 pounds in December and now I weigh 180.”

So focused was Harvey, he almost forgot to be nervous about stripping down for the famous shower scene of locker room grab-ass.

“Being an actor — or any kind of artist — you’re putting yourself out there for whatever you do. This is like putting yourself out there double-time. You’re trying not to break the fourth wall while there are a few hundred people watching us. But all you have to do is say ‘Fuck it!’ and have the confidence to go out there and put your heart and your body on the line … though telling my mother I had to do a nude role was an interesting conversation.”

She wasn’t the only one. Harvey has performed at Dallas Children’s Theater and had major roles in community theater productions of Rent and Sweeney Todd, but this is certainly his professional break-through. But it’s also the first time he’s been able to get his friends interested in what he does.

“Before I would do a show and not all my friends would see it. But as soon as I started saying, ‘Yeah, there’s gonna be full nudity in it, ‘every one of my friends bought tickets to see my penis onstage. Some of them threatened to bring cameras. I told them that’s a no-go. ‘Take a picture and I hope you get kicked out of the theater,’ I said. ‘And we certainly won’t be friends anymore.’”

He probably won’t have a hard time making new friends after this anyway.

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Oh, ‘Pluck’ it

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Steven Walters will be the first person to admit his play Pluck the Day wasn’t the best. You can’t blame him for thinking that — he wrote it 10 years ago, when he already thought he knew everything. When an actor called wanting to submit it to a festival, he thought he was joking. “Sure,” he agreed, “for all the good it’ll do.”

Only it got in, and Walters realized something terrible: He was actually going to have to rewrite it. And re-rewrite. And then again.

It’s almost opening night and he’s still trimming and fixing, whittling down a 2-1/2 hours show into a tight 80 minutes with no intermish.

Pluck the Day was first performed by Second Thought Theatre, which Walters co-founded, in its inaugural season; a decade later, it kicks off STT’s 10th season. It’s like revisiting a long-lost friend. Or maybe frenemy.

“I have a healthy dissatisfaction for everything I do,” Walters says over a beer and burger. “The old script was not good — it was talky and too long. It had no point of view. Now it does.”

The biggest change in the revision, he says,  is in the character of Bill, who we learn is gay. Bill is the only man sitting on a lopey West Texas porch who actually develops; the others remain blissfully content to nurture their decaying way of life. But it’s still a comedy.

“It’s a farce,” Walters assures. “That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.”

— A.W.J.

Bryant Hall next to the Kalita, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Through Feb. 26. Second ThoughtTheatre.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 3, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

A-‘Ledge’-dly, a thriller

A month into 2012, and already a contender for worst movie of the year

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GO AHEAD & JUMP | Sam Worthington gives a tic-filled performance in the execrable ‘Man on a Ledge.’

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

It’s a mitzvah when the movie studios get the worst movie of the year out of the way early — and kind of canny. Cause once you see Man on a Ledge (if you even bother), every movie that follows it will look so good by comparison. It’s rather genius, really, like burning your partner’s toast so your omelet seems tastier.

The title says it all, doesn’t it? We don’t know much about Nick (Sam Worthington), other than he’s a former cop who got sent to the big-house for some reason, and has now escaped and stepped onto the ledge of a building on Madison Avenue. He is both determined that the cops not know who he is, yet actively courting folk-hero status with the people in the street. A hostage negotiator (Elizabeth Banks) serves some function, I’m not sure what. There’s a smug TV reporter (Kyra Sedgwick), too, just so you know who to hate for doing their job.

Sam Worthington got off to a propitious movie career: His first three roles (in Terminator: Salvation, Clash of the Titans and Avatar) made him a household name, if not face, and last year he took on a “prestige” picture, The Debt, which wasn’t very good but looked like it might be, so props for that.

By now he should be realizing that lucky casting and good hair will only take you so far. He’s expected to carry Man on a Ledge, despite the “all-star” cast (with “star” having the same definition it does on Dancing with the Stars). Worthington is, after all, the title Man, who doesn’t seem suicidal but appears to have nothing to lose… unlike the audience, which loses nearly two hours of its life. He goes for being twitchy, since he doesn’t get to move around much.

As a Donald Trump-like real estate mogul and professional blowhard, Ed Harris appears positively skeletal; I don’t think it’s because he’s supposed to remind of the villainous Skeletor, either. He’s gaunt and frail, and he moves as if his entire body is in a cast. You don’t so much want him to get his comeuppance as you do an MRI. Edward Burns, inarguably Hollywood’s most boring actor, plays a rough-and-tumble cop, because, I mean, what’s a cop movie without someone who can be a sexist asshole to the women in the movie? Man on a Ledge doesn’t miss many clichés: Its plot is needlessly complex (an elaborate heist, reliance on precise police procedures, a series of “planned” coincidences) but also nonsensical (if any one of the Rube Goldberg-eqsue plans varies even slightly, the entire thing collapses; even if they accomplish their task, they prove nothing), as well as, for example, a beautiful girl stripping down to her bra because, you know, guys like to see that kind of thing. (The men also make crudely homophobic jokes, just to prove they are “real men.”) Gaps in logic and cheesy objectification and bigotry are the least of its problems however. The director, Asger Leth, and scripter, Pablo A. Fenjves, find it necessary to make every single scene a conflict between some characters, as if that will mask the lack of overall dull idea underlying it and a climax that’s flabbier and less exciting than an obese person marathon.

On the continuum of bad quasi-mysteries about complicated capers with hidden motives, Man of a Ledge is about on par with Inside Man and a few steps below Law Abiding Citizen and nowhere near the original Talking of Pelham 1-2-3 (though about the same as the remake). It may make you think about other films, but it’s best not to think about (or see) this one.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 27, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Top 10 tables

North Texas’ best new restaurants of 2011 provided a lesson in substance over style

MEXICAN, REINVENTED  |  The Mayan calendar may end in 2012, but that’s no reason not to enjoy the cuisine from MesoMaya, the top table of 2011.

MEXICAN, REINVENTED | The Mayan calendar may end in 2012, but that’s no reason not to enjoy the cuisine from MesoMaya, the top table of 2011.

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

2011 was the year great dining found a way to avoid being fine dining.

There are all kinds of restaurants for all tastes and pocketbooks. Truth is, fancy usually takes you further because when you evaluate an overall dining experience, atmosphere and service come into play; standing in line to eat a burger out of a napkin while standing at a counter costs some points.

Or rather, it used to.

It’s probably a combination of things — the economy, the rise of the food truck, an emphasis on the taste of food above the flash of atmosphere — that led to an emphasis of substance over style in 2011. In 2010, we happily tagged Nosh as our top eatery: Elegant and pretty, but also an easy, sociable dining experience. Still, back then, there were slim pickin’s overall: I went with a Top 5 instead of 10, because that’s all that felt warranted.

Not so this year. At least 17 restos were legitimately in play as I was whittling it down to a Top 10, and several more — Campo, Chesterfield, Texas Spice, Oak — opened too late in the season for me to give full shrift. They’ll be up for consideration next time.

Some others almost made the list. Il Cane Rosso gave Deep Ellum another great, authentic eatery — this time, a Neapolitan pizzeria that’s no fuss, all must-have. Meddlesome Moth has some strong points (terrific hummus, the best dessert — chess pie — in town) but couldn’t consistently impress me.

Oddly, many of the restaurants that impressed me most had quirky things in common that helped define them as the anti-fine-dining Class of ’11: Brushed concrete floors (at least three of them), prosaic strip-mall locations (most of them), TV celebrichefs-done-good (Nos. 7 and 8).

Also, by and large, the restaurants that stood out also tended to group around themes: Sophisticated Tex-Mex, Eastern fusion, classy retro-joints and ravenously good tacos. I’m gonna keep with those trends as well, so here are the Top Tables of 2011. (Look for reviews of some of them in the coming weeks.)

The Top 3 —Mexivention: MesoMaya, Mesa, Komali

Never tell a German how to drink beer, a New Yorker how to eat pizza or a Texan how to do anything.

But especially don’t tell him about Tex-Mex. (Or tacos, though that’ll come later.)

We Texans know what we like when it comes to Southwestern-style cuisine, and Dallasites are especially arrogant about it. After all, we claim Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing and Avner Samuel, who basically invented it for gourmet palates.

But even we can be surprised. The menu at MesoMaya Comida y Copas has a lot of familiar elements (posole, enchiladas, tacos), but this isn’t Tex-Mex: It’s central Mexican cuisine, resplendent with Mayan influence — Latin-Mesoamerican fusion par example. (1190 Preston Road, MesoMaya.com)

If MesoMaya is fiercely flavorful peasant food, then Mesa in Oak Cliff and Komali in Uptown are its sophisticated cousins. Komali, the companion restaurant to Mex-born chef Abraham Salum’s eponymous eatery, exudes an easy polish with soft features that don’t distract from the modern, urban-Mexican dishes, full of moles and wonderful salsas. (4152 Cole Ave., KomaliRestaurant.com)
Mesa, south of the Trinity, is less slick-looking that Komali (the exterior looks like a wig shop) but the food boasts soaring flavors from the Veracruzana region, with deft technique. And both have bar programs worthy of a cocktail hour. (118 W. Jefferson Ave., MesaDallas.com)

4 through 6 — Eastern artistry: Baboush, Malai Kitchen, Pho Colonial (Downtown)
Whether you’re talking the Far East or the Middle East, exotic cuisine gained a foothold in Dallas. Baboush claims the closest inspiration — a North African-influenced restaurant that brings a touch of the Mediterranean to the West Village. Forward flavors dominate even though the lush, genie-in-a-bottle atmosphere has its appeal. (3636 McKinney Ave., BaboushDallas.com)

Go to the Far East for two inventive restos. Across the street from Baboush is Malai Kitchen, one of the few eateries on this year’s list that takes décor seriously, but not as seriously as its food (especially its curries and a fantastic brunch). (3699 McKinney Ave., MalaiKitchen. com). Downtown’s Pho Colonial (there’s another in Far North Dallas) takes counter-service that should feel like Vietnamese comfort food and turns it into haute cuisine with expertly cooked meats, big portions and a wallop on the tongue. (164 N. Ervay St., PhoColonial.com)

7 and 8 — Traditional Fine-Dine: Private | Social, Marquee Grill
Two Dallas chefs who gained national fame as fan favorites on Top Chef — Tiffany Derry and Tre Wilcox — ventured out on their own with favorable results. Derry’s Private | Social, with its seafood-heavy menu, interesting concept and sparkly interior, has the edge over Wilcox’s old-school eclectic New American cuisine at Marquee Grill, but both harken to event restaurants that were common before the New Casual took over. 3232 McKinney Ave., PrivateSocial.com; 32 Highland Park Village, MarqueeGrill.com)

9 and 10 — Street Food Goes Big: Taco Ocho, Good 2 Go Tacos
Food anthropologists 100 years from now will probably note a straight line from waist girth, the legitimization of food trucks and the indulgent taco stand in 2011. As gourmet taquerias proliferated, these two — Taco Ocho, a slick, likeable, well-lit suburban place and the woman-owned Good 2 Go Tacos, a glorified lunch counter in East Dallas — made the most significant impact on us, forever and finally making the Old El Paso paradigm on thing of the past. (930 E. Campbell Road, Richardson, TacoOcho.com; 1146 Peavy Road, Good2GoTaco.com)
For a review of Good to Go Tacos, see sidebar on Page 21.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 6, 2012.

—  Michael Stephens

Queer locals of 2011

As we crown our local LGBT Person of the Year on the front page, over here in Life+Style we’ve been thinking about the locals who we will forever relate to helping define 2011 from the standpoint of entertainment and culture. Here are the ones who made the year memorable.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

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Anthony Chisom
activist, left

Derrick Spillman,
activist, right
In a short time, these two have made waves across the local LGBT African-American community. Chisom erased lines of gay and straight to focus on Dallasites with his foundation’s inaugural South Dallas AIDS Walk, which raised more than $10,000 in March. Spillman’s work with the DFW Pride Movement  stepped up Dallas Black Pride. With marquee speakers and a schedule of both educational and got entertaining sessions, The Movement the rep it’s been working for.

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Joel Ferrell
theater queen
Whether producing Arsenic and Old Lace or directing two of the best shows of the year, Ferrell has been a force in Dallas theater since joining the DTC as an associate artist, and the community is richer for his vision and tireless work as a director, choreographer and all-around talent.

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Linda Moore &
Laurie Foley
dog lovers
Moore and her partner Foley are devoted dog breeders, and in 2011 their cocker Beckham stormed Westminster, and ended the year as the top dog of any breed, anywhere, in America. Wow.

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Charles Santos
task master
As executive director of TITAS, Santos is used to bringing talent to Texas, but it was his inspired idea of celebrating AIDS at 30 with A Gathering that reminded locals of his devotion to AIDS fundraising.

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Mark Trimble
bear-ish fundraiser
Trimble and the guys of BearDance came into their own this year with their dance party nights. The highlight was the TBRU party, and with three events during 2011, BearDance raised an impressive $22,000-plus for area charities.

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Leslie Ezelle
cancer survivor/TV star
Just weeks after completing chemotherapy, Ezelle landed on TV’s Next Design Star. She didn’t win, but her celebrity, paired with the experience of beating breast cancer, has made her a devoted fundraiser for the
Susan G. Komen Foundation.

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David Berryman
gayborhood cheerleader
For years, Berryman has been the largely quiet behind-the- scenes guy for events like the Pride parade, but in 2011, after talks of the possible cancelation of Easter in the Park, Berryman stepped in, offering to coordinate it and obtaining the funding, literally saving Easter in the gayborhood.

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Craig Lynch & Jeff Rane
theatrical impresarios
Ten years after founding Uptown Players as an upstart theater troupe doing gay-themed work, Lynch and Rane launched the first-ever gay theater festival to coincide with Pride Week at the historic Kalita Humphreys Theater, their impressive new home. Way to go in a decade!

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Chris Heinbaugh
re-committed arts lover
After years as Mayor Leppert’s right-hand man, the former actor and TV reporter left politics to return to his first love — the arts — by working with the AT&T Performing Arts Center.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 23, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Livin’ the Vida

Richard Vida revisits ‘Les Miz’ in a grand revival

La-Vita

MASTER OF THE HOUSE | Rirchard Vida returns to ‘Les Miz’ 18 years after his B’way run.

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

“Show people don’t have holidays,” Richard Vida says with a sigh. Though he’s not complaining. In fact, he kind of likes it.

“In New York City, Christmas is packed. You’ll always have a show Christmas night, though on Christmas Eve, it depends. Before 9/11, we always had matinee and evening shows on New Year’s Eve. When I was doing Les Miz in the old days, when it was still three hours and 15 minutes, it got out at 11:45 and we were right in Times Square at midnight.”

A lot has changed since those days. Evening shows in Dec. 31 are canceled and Vida is on tour, not in New York. But one thing hasn’t changed: Vida is still doing Les Miserables.

Not the entire time, of course — and not in the same way. Vida was a replacement in the original production back in the 1980s, playing the thieving Montparnasse for two years. He loved the show.

“I was a dancer at the time, doing all the big dance shows. Les Miz was my first non-dancing show but I was blown away by it.

The original production of Les Miz ran until 2003 — closing a decade after Vida’s run in it. He went on to act in numerous TV shows, movies and musicals in the intervening years. “So imagine my surprise, 18 years later, to be playing Thenardier in the 25th anniversary production.”

Surprised, because as much as he enjoyed the experience, he’d had it. So when his agent asked if he’d be interested — advancing from one the bandits to their sleazy leader, Thenardier — he passed. His agent asked, before deciding, if he would go see the production. He did.

“It was the best version I have seen,” he says. “It’s been reorchestrated and newly conceived. Technologically it’s just beautiful — no more turntable! The backdrops are actual projections of Victor Hugo paintings. It’s so imaginative.At intermission, I called my agent and said not only am I interested in doing it, it’s mine.”

The process has been illuminating, now that he approaches it not as young dancer but as a seasoned actor in middle age.

“I already knew the role, but what is interesting was, when I re-read all 1,236 pages of the book and as an older person, I understood it better. I have the life experience to play this unredeemable, despicable human being. The comedy comes through, but he’s dark. And it’s so completely the opposite of who I am in real life.”

Les Miserables is one of the most successful — and divisive — musicals in history, a long-running hit about the failed 1832 Paris uprising. It’s a sweeping epic based on what is generally considered one of the great novels of the 19th century, but has its detractors as bombastic, although the characters are sharply drawn and the complexities of the book are masterfully synthesized.

Hmmm… students who take up arms against the rich hierarchy in the streets. Sounds a little like Occupy Paris, no?

Vida’s not so sure.

“In some [curtain speeches], Several presenters have said this is the French Occupy Wall Street, but I’m not so sure patrons are making that correlation. I don’t see it being the same thing. I think of it more as an allegory, and the religious awakening that turns your life around,” he says.

It’s certainly turned Vida’s life around. This is his eighth national tour, and the first one where he’s been able to travel with his partner, who is the show’s musical conductor.

“It’s fantastic that we are working and traveling together after 18 years,” Vida says.

That’s almost enough to soften the hardest of hearts … maybe even Thenardier’s.

… Nah, don’t count on that.

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

—  Kevin Thomas

Sorry? No, ‘Grateful’

John Bucchino calls Stephen Schwartz his best friend and Stephen Sondheim his mentor. So how come he’s not a huge fan of musical theater?

I WRITE THE SONGS  |  Composer John Bucchino has his turn performing his music with a cabaret show at Theatre 3, which is holding a mini-festival of his music this fall.

I WRITE THE SONGS | Composer John Bucchino has his turn performing his music with a cabaret show at Theatre 3, which is holding a mini-festival of his music this fall.

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

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AN EVENING OF CABARET
Theatre 3, 2900 Routh St. in the Quadrangle. Nov. 17. 7:30 p.m.
$50. Theatre3Dallas.com.

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If you look at John Bucchino’s web page, you’re immediately struck by how, under “biography,” he lists only the compositions he’s written and recordings made of his songs and awards he’s received. No date of birth, no hometown, no pet peeves. It’s as if his life story can be expressed through his work alone.

And the thing is, Bucchino doesn’t really disagree with that.

“I guess I do feel that way,” he says with a sudden flash. “I figure on a website, it’s not about me as a person but me as a songwriter. I do feel the work — especially It’s Only Life and the albums — are incredibly open and incredibly vulnerable insights into me. Ninety percent of them are directly from experiences in my life. I’m so wrapped up in what I do — probably unhealthily so — but I’m perfectly open. I need to get those two things in a better balance.”

In fact, doing so might make for a good song.

It’s not as if Bucchino doesn’t have a fascinating story of his own. One of the most respected composers of cabaret songs for more than two decades, he broke into Broadway with the acclaimed 2008 musical A Catered Affair, which wraps up its regional premiere at Theatre 3 Saturday. But that’s hardly your last chance to experience Bucchino. On Nov. 17 — his birthday! — he’ll perform his one-man show at Theatre 3, and the next day, previews of his revue It’s Only Life begin in the Theatre Too space. It’s a mini-festival of Bucchino in Uptown.

It’s surprising — to Bucchino, especially — that he’s become a staple of Theatre 3’s schedule, since he personally never had much interest in musicals. Even today, while he numbers Stephen Sondheim as a mentor and calls Stephen Schwartz his best friend of 25 years (he even claims credit for getting Wicked made; more on that later), he doesn’t really “get” lots of theater references. In fact, he never intended to be a composer at all.
“When I started writing songs, my goal was to be a singer-songwriter,” he says. “I started out playing piano at age 1; it became my favorite toy and still is. I just started noodling around with songwriting, which naturally evolved out of playing piano in high school. I figured I’d be a [piano playing pop star] a la Elton John or Billy Joel. But noooobody was interested in me — they wouldn’t give me the time of day. It wasn’t on my radar that other people could sing my songs, but that’s what took off.”

His songs have been recorded by everyone from Barbara Cook (“It doesn’t get better than Barbara Cook — her version of ‘Sweet Dreams’ just knocks my socks off. But her version of anything knocks my socks off”), Kristen Chenoweth, Audra MacDonald and Patti LuPone; he wrote the music for a children’s book by Julie Andrews and her daughter; he calls Grateful probably his most important work. The song was also a watershed for him.

“It was Saturday. I was cleaning house and suddenly found myself at the piano playing the chorus for ‘Grateful’ and I just started to cry. But that’s as far as it went for month. Then came the sweat of crafting these lyrics and bridge around this perfect chorus,” he says.

Bucchino invited his friend Art Garfunkel over to listen to it and give feedback. As soon as it was over, Garfunkel said, “Don’t give that to anyone else: It’s mine.”

“From that reaction, I knew something was going to happen with it,” he says.

Still, his ascension to Broadway was a long one.

“I didn’t really know about live theater. I kind of thought of pop songwriting as somehow cooler — theater writing as less complex and two dimensional,” he says. “But Stephen Schwartz is the one who encouraged me to write for the theater.”

How can a gay guy involved in music not be a theater queen? Bucchino seems unfazed by the idea. He says he “wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with Stephen Sondheim” when Broadway’s greatest composer-lyricist called to say he was “really excited by my work.” But then came the pressure to produce something he wasn’t wholly conversant in. “It became terrifying to write for musical theater, because all these lofty people were encouraging me.”

A Catered Affair is his only show to open for a Broadway run, but his song cycles have been staples of regional theaters; Theatre 3’s Terry Dobson has been an especially enthusiastic supporter. (“I’m still not a musical theater geek just because I’ve done it,” he says.)

So how does he take responsibility for Wicked?

“Holly Near [for whom he has been a long-time accompanist] and I had gotten a gig to do a lesbian music festival on Maui. Stephen [Schwartz] was working on [the score for the animated film] Prince of Egypt in Los Angeles. I told him to come with me and we could hang out. He did. We were on a snorkeling trip with Holly and her partner and she said, ‘I just read the most interesting book.’” It turned out to be Wicked. When she described it to Schwartz, he immediately saw the potential to become a musical. “So if I hadn’t invited Stephen to vacation with us, it would never have happened!” Bucchino crows.

Bucchino acknowledges some have called his songs “not immediately hummable,” but that’s a good thing.

“That’s because you haven’t heard them before. I’d like to think that’s a reflection of my unique voice. What I go for in my writing is surprising inevitability — a chord progression or turn of phrase that makes you say, ‘I didn’t expect it to go there but, gee! How satisfying.’ I think the songs that are immediately memorable are derivative or formulaic in a way,” he says.

He also strives for a timelessness of sentiment, which is why, although often recorded by gay artists, his songs are usually gender neutral.

“If you look at the love songs on the Grateful CD, because I had not come out or to terms with my sexuality, I just decided not to use pronouns. There are no ‘he’ or ‘her,’ but ‘you.’ Maybe that’s a copout but also makes them more universal. We’re all people — gay or straight, male or female, we all go through the same stuff. I’m trying to reach that commonality which transcends gender or sexual orientation. Sometimes I wish my art were more overlapping into commerce, but I’m happy doing what I do.”

What’s the word? Oh, right: Grateful.

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

—  Michael Stephens

Operators standing by

Rawlins Gilliland’s pledge to KERA listeners? Less boring, more fabulous

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

radio

SWITCHBOARDS NOW OPEN | Gilliland commandeers the mic for two days of the KERA pledge drive, and he’s determined to entertain while begging for dollars. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Although  Rawlins Gilliland would never describe himself as a mad prophet of the airwaves, he does have at least one thing in common with Howard Beale from Network: He’s mad as hell, and he’s not gonna take it anymore.

As a long-time contributor — and, of course, devoted listener — to KERA 90.1 FM, the local NPR affiliate, Gilliland is all-too-familiar with the infamous pledge drives that have become long, intrusive and tedious.

He understands why people tend to tune out during the 240 days of fundraising each year. (Actual figure may be less; it just feels that way.)

“Most people would rather have their teeth cleaned by a bipolar dentist who reeked of boxed chardonnay” than endure another pledge drive, he says. So, as the fall campaign loomed — it’s scheduled to last up to 14 days, starting Oct. 14 — Gilliland decided to take action. While he did not want to insult his colleagues for their efforts, he nevertheless told KERA’s management they needed to make the pledge drive better. Lots better. And he wasn’t shy about saying he was the man who could do it.

He has facts on his side. Gilliland’s droll commentaries, often with a sassy gay twist, have engaged listeners for years. He has volunteered to host countless hours on the pledge drive, and his segments always are among the most lively and effective at getting calls in. “Begone the endless droning!” he seems to say. “Let’s bring in some fun!”

“They were very enthusiastic,” he says of KERA’s reaction to the proposal — so much so, they asked if he would consider two dates.

“Everything I’ve ever done well in my life is because someone told me they liked the idea and gave me to freedom to do what I needed to,” Gilliland says. “A fresh idea has a very short shelf-life. It’s only a really good idea when it’s still new.”

Toward that end, Gilliland may be the first person since Jerry Lewis to turn a telethon (or radiothon) into an entertainment event. On Tuesday, Oct. 18 and again on Monday, Oct. 24, he’s programming virtually the entire day of fundraising from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., bringing in special guest co-hosts from across the community to share in the duties.

He insisted that all his co-hosts meet three criteria: They had to be glib, multifaceted and devoted listeners of KERA. “All of these people are people I really know,” he says.

Among the local celebs set to share the air during Gilliland’s two day begathon: Former city councilwoman and current Arts District maven Veletta Lill (Oct. 18, 3–4 p.m.), gay publicist John Shore (Oct. 18. 4–5 p.m.), transgender restaurateur Monica Greene (Oct. 24, 9–10 a.m.) and Dallas Market Center V.P. and DIFFA volunteer Alden Clanahan (Oct. 24, 11 a.m.–noon). One of his guests will be Mary McDermott Cook, whose father founded Texas Instruments. Gilliland met her after he made a radical promise during the spring membership drive: Make a pledge and I will take you out for cocktails and dinner.

“One person called in because he said, ‘You had some skin in the game.’ I said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do.’ People respond to that.”

It’s that kind of response Gilliland hopes his experiment will yield. “I call it a sort of intervention to minimize the apocalypse of the pledge drive,” he says.
To pledge — please — and end the drive early, call 888-694-6931 or visit KERA.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 14, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

An awakening of their own

How Baylor classmates Josh Gonzales and Matt Tolbert teamed up onstage — and in real life — for WaterTower’s ‘Spring Awakening’

lead
UP AGAINST THE WALL | Gonzales and Tolbert will share their first scene — and first onstage kiss — as the gay couple in WaterTower’s sexually frank musical ‘Spring Awakening.’ (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

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

Matt Tolbert may be just barely old enough to drink legally (he’ll turn 23 in October), but he’s already an experienced theater hand.

Four months ago, he was finishing up his last semester at Baylor University before a May graduation, but he’d already made his professional debut earlier this year, hanging upside down as a torture victim in WaterTower Theatre’s production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Soon after that, he co-established a theater company and produced a show for the Out of the

Loop Fringe Festival; as of last week, his day job is assistant to WTT’s producing artistic director, Terry Martin.

“I guess you could say I’m aggressive about my career,” Tolbert concedes, “though I say I’m just highly motivated.”

And one thing he was motivated about was getting cast in WaterTower’s upcoming production of Spring Awakening. Ever since Tolbert learned of the show, he’d wanted to be in it, so when WTT put it on their 2011-12 schedule, he knew he’d audition. But even more, he wanted to be in it with his partner Josh Gonzales.

The two met several years ago while both were studying at Baylor (Gonzales is still there, with plans to graduate next spring); for the past two years, they have been a couple. But while they have been in shows at the same time, they have never shared a scene. Spring Awakening seemed like a good chance for them to do a musical together.

“I was in love with the show and when I heard WaterTower was doing it, I jumped at the chance,” says Gonzales, 21. “[Matt and I] have been in five shows together before — this will be our sixth — but we very rarely interact onstage. This is our first time to get to act.”

The plan was for Tolbert to play Hanschen, the slightly predatory gay teen, and Gonzalez to play Ernst, the object of his lustful urges in the explicit, sexually charged musical about the yearning of 19th century youth (which oddly echoes the same feelings of youth in the 21st century). Still, getting cast was hardly a sure thing, even with Tolbert’s connections at the theater.

So this summer, Tolbert studied voice with Mark Mullino, who was about to start work as the music director on Spring Awakening. Tolbert planted seeds with Mullino that he and Gonzalez would be interested in doing the show.

Alas, it seemed destined not to happen.

“Matt went to the audition but I couldn’t go because I was in New York,” sighs Gonzales. Not only that, but once the call-back list was released, Tolbert was asked to re-audition… for the role of Ernst.

“I thought, ‘Darn! I missed my chance,’” says Gonzalez.

But, despite the downbeat message of Spring Awakening, true love was determined to find a way.

Martin, who is directing the show, decided to do a second round of call-backs. Gonzales thought maybe he could try out for Hanschen, “even though Matt would be a better Hanschen than me. Or I could just be in the ensemble — I would do anything,” he says.

Tolbert and Gonzales auditioned together; Martin asked them to sing one of the show’s signature songs, “The Bitch of Living,” with each other. They did it once. Audition over.

It wasn’t until the next day they were both cast as they’d hoped: Tolbert as Hanschen, Gonzales as Ernst. It’s a dynamic that has been fed by their own relationship.

“It was a lot easier to do once we started rehearsals,” Tolbert says. “We didn’t need to choreograph the kiss. But we like [recreating] the awkwardness of the seduction — even though Hanschen is the seducer, it’s his first time, too.”

Still, art does not imitate life — at least not in this instance.

“Ernst is a little confused throughout most of the show, because he’s not exactly sure what he wants, but ultimately he just wants someone to be intimate with,” Gonzales says. “The tragedy is that Hanschen just wants someone to have fun with.”

In real life, the couple is truly committed. Gonzales is still in school in Waco, meaning he has to commute several times a week to attend rehearsals. When he’s able, he stays in town with Tolbert. Well, sort of — they both stay at Tolbert’s parents’ house, though in separate rooms.

“It’s interesting because our families don’t know we’re gay — we just came out to our close friends this summer,” Tolbert explains.

That’s likely to change soon. Especially after opening night.

“Obviously there’s a little chemistry — how could there not be?” Gonzales admits. Tolbert agrees the friends and family they are not out to yet will probably figure it out. But until they do, it’s enough to combine work and romance.

“It’s great we can share [the kiss]. I trust him completely… and I don’t want him to kiss another guy. Our goal is never to have our understudies go on,” Gonzales says.
Ah, young love… .

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

—  Kevin Thomas

Say cheese!

Macho Nacho turns apps into entrees, with queso the star

EVEN PILES | They layer the cheese on thick at Macho Nacho for the short stack, above, though the namesake dish isn’t for the calorie-conscious: It weighs about 8 lbs. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

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

……………………….

OVERALL RATING: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Macho Nacho, 4000 Cedar Springs Road. Open daily at 11 a.m.
Macho-Nacho.com.
Reimagined Tex-Mex with a cheeky retro vibe and kick-ass queso.

Food: 2.5 stars
Atmosphere: 2.5 stars
Service: 2.5 stars
Price: Inexpensive to moderate

………………………..

If you name your restaurant after one piece of food, you’d better be prepared to do it well and have people judge you by it. The Black-eyed Pea can’t take black-eyed peas off its menu; Chipotle had better damn well have roasted jalapenos every time I come in — and good ones, at that.

So if you’re gonna call your joint Macho Nacho, you’re saying two things: First, we do nachos well. Second, and they can kick your ass, cowboy.

To a foodie, that’s more than a promise —that’s a dare. Bring it on, pendejo.

The fact is, I’ve never actually ordered the signature macho nachos here, a party platter-sized combo of tortillas, cheese and the remnants of a raucous cinch de mayo fiesta: pork, brisket, beef, grilled onions and more. For a single diner, or even two on a date, maybe that is macho (if you consider clogging your arteries “macho”). But the other nachos available? Those are more manageable. And pretty good … if you can get yourself in the right mindset.

One problem is that, while some of these nachos are entrée sized, the concept of nachos themselves conjures up an appetizer — something the comes before. We’ve all ordered the app-portion of quesadillas and made do with them as our main course (or, occasionally, gone to the dark side, making flan and sopapillas the entrée). But actually shoehorning them in as the main dish feels both indulgent and unsatisfying, like using the chapter menu on a DVD to fast-forward to the good parts.

Of course, there’s no reason you have to make nachos the meal; there’s enough else on the menu that you can treat this upscale yet reasonably priced diner with Tex-Mex familiarity.

I was taken aback when my waiter suggested complimentary chips and salsa after I’d ordered the short stack of nachos ($5 at lunch — a great deal), but I said yes anyway. You’d think that the snack chip and the tortillas in the nachos would be the same, yet ours were different. With the salsa (a bland, chunky style), the chips were dusted with chili seasoning, arriving thick-cut and long; as part of the nachos, they were triangular and thinner, though still sturdy.

That’s nothing to take for granted: Nachos — good ones, at least — are harder to get right than you might imagine. The chips have to be engineered to withstand the weight of melted cheese and salsa, not to mention any protein you add on like grilled chicken or, in this case, brisket. But you don’t want heavy pita-like crusts, either — a tortilla needs to be firm but pliant, like a new boyfriend. Macho Nacho’s style held up, never becoming soggy and limp (a sad ending to a good beginning), but hearty, with juicy brisket as the capper.

There are non-nacho items, too, some of which soar. We ordered the “skinny” queso ($6.95), but fattened it up some by adding “muscle” (a dollop of ground beef). So, the beef probably counteracts the fit benefits of the skinny, but what’s not to like about chucks of meat bobbing around in a sea of melted milk fat? It’s like a reunion of cow parts with flavor.

Only the skinny version (60 calories per quarter-cup) has less cheese than the regular version, though you’d be hard-pressed to  notice. It’s creamy and gooey, though the body comes from a cauliflower purée, detectable only if you concentrate on parsing the slight vegetal aroma from the other ingredients.

Similar kudos are warranted for the guacamole, made obviously fresh with big chunks of avocado — like much guacamole, pretty tame on the palate.

Torta is a catch-all phrase for a panoply of sandwiches, though I was disappointed that the one I ordered did not come pressed a la cubana, but on a fluffy, torpedo-shaped hoagie roll. The fajita torta ($7.95), though ordered without onions came with. The beef, while moist, lacked finesse, as if it had been overcooked and reconstituted, and the “spicy” mayo was not, in fact, spicy, though it was improved by dipping in the skinny queso. (That dish goes with anything; I may pour it on corn flakes, just to try it out.)

The street tacos (again, two for $5 at lunch) were hit-and-miss. The chicken was acceptable, like the fajita meat in the torta, but did not pop; the pulled barbecue pork was significantly better, infused with hard-spice aromatics (cinnamon, mace) that kept it interesting. The small corn tortillas were wrinkled and firm but not hard, though no garnishes (salsas, cremas) were offered — they arrived pretty much as-is.

The décor is oddly soothing and slightly elegant — quite a departure from the rough-and-tumble burger dive look of Hunky’s that used to occupy the space. (The move across the street classed up Hunky’s as well.) Macho Nacho looks like a high-end Tijuana cantina moved into a middle-class living room in the 1970s. If I sound like I’m making fun, I’m not — at least no more than the designer, who imbued the space with a sense of humor and whimsy: Dance music echoes off the dark-stained beadboard paneling and retro clocks with go-go leather seats and funky, dia-de-los-muerte colors on the signature “moustache” painting behind the bar. Maybe that’s the real “macho” part of Macho Nacho: A bandito whose affection for Tex-Mex grows not just hair on his chest, but his upper lip, too. If that’s the results of eating here, I can only add, “Ole!”

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

—  Michael Stephens