REVIEWS: ‘Evita,’ ‘Spunk’

caroline bowman as eva peron with CheFor many, Evita was the show that won over musical theater fans to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s side before he became the bombastic hit-monster of Cats and Sunset Boulevard. In some ways, it’s the most unlikely of musical subjects: The machiavellian machinations of the former first lady of Argentina, Eva Peron, who was long-dead by the time the show opened. And yet, it’s a compelling piece of operatic theater, a kind of political tragedy where Lady Macbeth never has second thoughts.

The original production made stars out of Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin (Madonna made the movie version 17 years later). The version now at Fair Park Music Hall, courtesy of Dallas Summer Musicals, doesn’t reach those legendary heights, but it’s a reminder of how solidly entertaining and innovative Evita has always been.

It’s the day Eva (Caroline Bowman) has died, and a disgruntled Che Guevara (Josh Young) seems alone in his lack of sentiment. Was she a devil or a saint? Madonna or whore? Is it possible to be all of these things? Through flashbacks, Che narrates her calculated rise from rural nobody to radio star to wife of military hero and eventual president Juan Peron (Sean MacLaughlin).

This is the national tour of the recent Broadway revival that starred Ricky Martin. Ricky doesn’t she-bang in this one, but with Tony Award nominee Josh Young in the role of Che, it doesn’t matter much — he has a powerful tenor and a fierce indignation (especially evident in the fantasy number “Waltz for Eva and Che”).

He’s not the only strong performance, though — indeed, of the many productions I’ve seen of Evita this is the first where all five man roles are equally well played. Bowman’s transformation from girl-from-the-sticks to trashy actress to steely political wife to, eventually, a frail and cancer-ridden ghost, is endlessly convincing. MacLaughlin is a strong, sexy Peron, and even Christopher Johnstone, as the cheezy singer Magaldi and Krystine Alabado as Peron’s former mistress do excellent, detailed work. Michael Grandage’s direction keeps the show moving effortlessly, and despite a few missed opportunities for irony and character development, it’s a stellar show, not revived often enough.

KA2_8128Up at the Addison Theatre Centre, WaterTower Theatre has its own stellar musical on the boards. Based on three short stories by Zora Neale Hurston, Spunk is a jaunty little 90-minute show that has the smoky appeal of a Lenox Avenue speakeasy in the 1930s.

Liz Mikel is this show’s Che, a kind of narrator who escort us through three unrelated scenes by one of the few female voices to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance. The stories are largely unrelated both in tale and tone, but Hurston’s clear, precise style bursts through each of them. In one, a woman (Tiffany D. Hobbs) in the rural south endures the abuses of her drunken husband … until an opportunity presents itself that may free her. In another, zoot-suited dandies throw more shade than a drag queen at noon as they try to woo a liberated woman in post-War NYC. In the third, a loving family man deals with the anguish caused when his wife cheats on him in a weird twist on The Gift of the Magi.

This is toe-tapping theater, full of energy and dark beauty, magnificently lighted by Jason C. Foster (who imbues the Art Deco, Gatsby-inspired set with fire and mood) and performed by a gifted cast. Just try not to have a good time.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

This week’s takeaways: Life+Style

This week’s edition is The Food Issue, and we cover a lot (check it out), but the big news this week is that Monica Greene has, exactly five years after closing Ciudad, reopened in the gayborhood. Last night was the first service for Monica’s Nueva Cocina, her revision of Aca y Alla now at the ilume. The formal grand opening won’t be for two weeks, but you can get a sneak before then.

Theatre 3‘s new season officially kicks off upstairs on Monday (following previews this weekend) with Present Laughter, a comedy by gay British icon Noel Coward. Avenue Q will continue to play its extended run downstairs until September 16 (although I heard a rumor it will go even longer). Mark-Brian Sonna Productions’ The Importance of Being Lovely continues its successful run at the Stone Cottage in Addison, having just been extended as well to Aug. 18. Across the way, WaterTower Theatre’s Smokey Joe’s Cafe has also been extended, to Aug. 19.

Liz Mikel is also performing an extended run in Joseph as DTC, but you can see her out of one character and into another as she performs the songs of Moms Mabley, Ma Rainey and more on her night off. Her cabaret show will be at the South Side on Lamar Blue Room on Monday night.

On Thursday night, two more Drag Racers come to town to perform at the new I’ll Do Dancing Club on Elm Street, with music from DJ Redeye.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

A Dallas diva reunion

In the last year, two of Dallas’ reigning divas — Liz Mikel and Cedric Neal — left the stages of North Texas to conquer Broadway: Mikel in a star-making role in Lysistrata Jones (which, unfortunately, closed too soon) and Neal in the ensemble of the hit revival of Porgy & Bess (you could even see him on the Tony Awards). The two former members of the Dallas Theater Center resident acting company were finally back together in a North Texas theater this week… just not onstage. They attended WaterTower Theatre’s opening night of Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Even though Mikel is currently in Joseph … Dreamcoat, it was still fun seeing them back together.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

DTC screens “Joseph” sing-along Tuesday

The Dallas Theater Center’s summer musical is, as usual, a family friendly show, and this time, it’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It doesn’t open until June 22, but you can get a preview of DTC’s version, followed by a screening, tomorrow evening. For the second year, DTC has paired up with Studio Movie Grill on 75 and Royal for a meet-and-greet Q&A session, where you can visit with the cast of DTC’s production (including recent B’way veteran Liz Mikel, pictured) and then watch the filmed version of the show, starring Donny Osmond, in a sing-along. And all of it is free. Doors open at 6:45 p.m. on June 5 to meet the players, with seating at 7:10, Q&A at 7:30 and the movie at 7:45.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

“Lysistrata Jones,” which started at DTC, closes on Broadway this Sunday

It got great reviews from the likes of Ben Brantley (and me, for that matter), and Dallas-based star Liz Mikel seemed destined for award nominations, but that didn’t translate into box office for Lysistrata Jones during its run on Broadway. After fewer than 30 regular performances and about as many previews, the show will close on Sunday. For some reason, it never caught on, despite a catchy score and saucy story about sex among college-aged hotties. It rarely exceeded more than about 20 percent of its revenue capacity and hovered about 60 percent occupancy since opening last month.

We’re sad it wasn’t a tentpole, but hopefully this means Liz will be coming back to Dallas soon.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

And the winner is…

… Actually, the winners are. In a few different ways.

First, there are the nominees for the Golden Globe awards, which came out this morning. Among those in contention: Glenn Close and Janet McTeer for playing trans men in Albert Nobbs (look for a feature in Dallas Voice next week on that film), Leo DiCaprio for playing the gay FBI chief in J. Edgar, Kenneth Branagh for playing the bisexual Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn, Christopher Plummer for playing a gay man who comes out late in life in Beginners, Rooney Mara for playing the bisexual investigator in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Jodie Foster as a mom in Carnage and Michael Fassbender as a sex addict in Shame. That’s a lot of gay for the Oscars… A lot of them are also winners of other awards from the National Board of Review, New York Film Critics and the Screen Actors Guild.

The other winner this week: Liz Mikel. I have to say, I take a little credit for being about the only local critic actually to like the world premiere of Lysistrata Jones (back when it was called Give It Up). Mikel was the only original cast member to move to the Broadway version, and the New York Times raved about the premiere last night, singling out Mikel for praise. Good for Liz, good for the Dallas Theater Center, good for everyone.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Liz Mikel actually isn’t the only Dallas cast member to make it to New York — Patti Murin, Lindsay Nicole Chambers and Katie Boren are also in the show.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Occupy Christmas!

That one-percenter Scrooge actually has a heart at DTC; a panto aims for the ‘Dick’

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VERMIN AND PEARLS | A rat queen (Kate Rutledge) terrorizes a cross-dressing Dick Whittington (Jad B. Sexton) in the latest panto from Theatre Britain.

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

Having seen A Christmas Carol at the Dallas Theater Center about a dozen times now, which plays for a full month every December, the thing I can never quite wrap my mind around is how, during the other 11 months of the year, folks don’t see crotchety ol’ Ebenezer in themselves — at least, the ones running for the Republican presidential nomination. Scrooge is a right scourge (c’mon, don’t tell me that never occurred to you?) of the poor. In the opening moments, he rejects the idea of giving money to charity.

“Isn’t that what the workhouses are for?” he cruelly asks.  Why don’t the poor do us all a favor and die, he rhetorically wonders, “and decrease the surplus population?” It’s the transformation at the end — the transition from starting as Gingrich (or is that Gin-grinch?) and ending up as Obama, all yes-we-can and full of hope — from which the beauty of the story emerges. And he gets there entirely via some ghosts, not with the assistance of Occupy Hyde Park.

The Theater Center has been roasting this chestnut since the Carter administration, but to be honest, there’s almost always something new to enjoy with it. The surprise this year (other than the absence of both Denise Lee and Liz Mikel — the first time in my memory at least one has not be in it) is how the director, Joel Ferrell (returning to the show after taking a break last year), has brought out both the humor and the horror of this most famous of ghost stories.

The play begins as it never has before: With a flashback. We see Jacob Marley (Jonathan Brooks) on his death-bed years earlier, writhing in such agony you can imagine the horrors of wandering through limbo the better part of a decade before he finally manifests in Scrooge’s chambers to warn him to change his ways. That appearance is equally frightening, as is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, looming 10 feet tall, scratching the outline of Ebenezer’s grave on the ground like a fingernail on a blackboard.

But the moments of levity are more buoyant than before as well. Brooks and Steven Walters, as ghoulish and plainly gay businessmen who foppishly snipe at the dead man whose funeral has been long overdue, give a sassy bitchiness to the scene that’s never been there before. Brian Gonzales’ brogued-out Fezziwig has the twinkling airiness of a leprechaun.

The only weakness, if you can even call it that, is Ebenezer himself.

The part this year is played by Kurt Rhoads, who has a long history with the DTC since the 1980s and has certainly seen his share of Carols. He’s a brittle ol’ fussbudget in Act 1, but Act 2 is where the magic really happens — that’s where Scrooge finally develops the Christmas spirit and reminds us all not to be as cynical and hatemongering as the Michele Bachmanns and Rick Perrys and FoxNewses of the world … that, indeed, the one-percenters can be real people, too.

Rhoads gets there, but the transition lacks the warm-n-fuzzies you look forward to every year. Maybe it’s because his makeup is too good: Stringy white hair, a sallow, mottled complexion, angular, hard features. He looks the same before and after — a bit of rouge might have softened and warmed him, giving Scrooge human coloring at least.

Not that it matters much. The point is, in the end, the season has made a better person out of a rich guy. Hey, that’s why we go to the theater: We enjoy the fantasy.

DTCs-ACC-11---David-Ryan-Smith,-Marlhy-Murphy,-Drew-Favors,-Kurt-Rhoads---by-Karen-Almond

GOD BLESS US | The Ghost of Christmas Present (Kevin Ryan Smith, left) shows Scrooge (Kurt Rhoads, right) what his behavior hath wrought in DTC’s ‘Christmas Carol.’ (Photo courtesy Karen Almond)

The character of Dick Whittington doesn’t have quite the resonance this side of the pond as Ebenezer S. does, but in England, he’s a staple of history (once lord mayor on London) and the comic stage, with his cat as well known as he. So it was about time Theatre Britain turned Dick Whittington into one of their annual Christmas pantos.

If you haven’t seen a panto, they are difficult to describe without sounding slightly batty. They are children’s theater, but they also have a lot of drag characters. They have broad slapstick comedy and simple plots among the dirtiest fast-paced jokes this side of Judd Apatow. They have sing-alongs and ghosts and lots of corn-dog gimmicks. In short, they are for every taste, even if you don’t know it.

For instance, having a main character called “Dick,” you’re likely to be assaulted with a barrage of, ahem, “dick” jokes: “What’s your name?” “Dick.” “I like you already!” Or: “We have three minutes to find Dick.” “You can’t find dick in three minutes.”

There! That chuckle, that grin you just allowed yourself? That’s panto.

The newest show is a naughty charmer with some of the raciest humor this side of Russell Brand. There’s Dame Overeasy (James Chandler), a guy in a dress all tarted-up, she obviously works in a tart shop (that’s part of the hidden gaggery of a show like this). Dick (played by a woman, Jad B. Sexton) brings along his cat Tom (Jean-Luc Hester, a great pantomimist with feline moves and purrs) to defeat  the rats, led by a queen (Kate Rutledge), who looks like Julie Newmar switching alliances, inviting hisses from the audience.

The pop culture references — from Titanic to Beyonce to a trio of Disney-esque gangster rats (the best of whom, Chris Sykes, looks like he actually grew up in a sewer — and I mean that in the best possible way) who seem to have stepped out of a lost reel of Ratatouille — are plentiful for the adults, the physical humor over-the-top kid-friendly. It makes for good, not-so-clean family fun.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 9, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Dillon, the best fake place in Texas, fades into TV history with final episode of ‘Friday Night Lights’

In a scene from the final episode of ‘Friday Night Lights,’ I am facing away from the field taking a picture of nothing while Josh, the ‘sound guy,’ listens to nothing. Not sure why a still photographer needed a sound guy.

NBC will air the final episode of Friday Night Lights (Channel 5 in Dallas) at 7 p.m. today. Look for me on the field — I play a reporter — big stretch, huh? And my big line — “Coach! Coach!” — will probably be cut as usual.

The East Dillon Lions have made it to the playoffs, which are held this year at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, where they face the Hudgens Hawks. The scene was filmed last summer. Saved me a trip to Austin.

East Dillon probably wins the state championship in this episode, although we filmed it both ways. But we filmed more takes of the Lions winning than losing. And it is the series finale, so no real spoiler alert there.

Tami Taylor’s been offered a job as head of admissions at a college in Pennsylvania. Last week, Coach didn’t want to talk about it. This week they will — while lying on the Cotton Bowl logo in the middle of the field. Me alert: Look for my feet walking by as they decide.

The idea of Tami and Coach moving to Pennsylvania was sort of a pilot for a spin-off that wasn’t picked up. Both Kyle Chandler (Coach) and Connie Britton (Tami) had agreed to continue their characters in the new setting if NBC bought the show.

Whether East Dillon wins or loses, I’m mostly in my familiar place on the sidelines, where I’ve been since Season 1. And I’m easy to spot because — as always — I’m the only person on the field in a blazer and tie. Whether on Hermann Field in “Dillon,” the Cotton Bowl, (old) Texas Stadium, Del Valle Stadium or Darrell K Royal Texas Memorial Stadium at UT, I’m always in a jacket and tie on the sidelines. Dillon and East Dillon High, by the way, were both across the street from the main entrance to Austin Bergstrom Airport, and the houses were in various spots around Austin.

—  David Taffet

Wiz, meet Liz

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OFF TO SEE THE LIZ | Mikel tackles a villainous character in ‘The Wiz’ at DTC before (fingers crossed) returning to New York for a hoped-for Broadway production of ‘Lysistrata Jones.’ (Photo by David Leggett)

After a devastating fire and the loss of her mom, Dallas’ Liz Mikel wowed NYC — but there’s no place like home

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

Liz Mikel sprinkles her conversation with terms of endearment like “baby” and “child” the way others sprinkle sugar on cereal: Liberally, and to sweeten you up.

Mikel deserves a little sweetness in her life. 2010 proved to be a daunting year for the actress. She was in tech rehearsals for the world premiere musical Give It Up! at the Dallas Theater Center when her house burned to the ground. Four months later, her mother passed away.

“She was a brilliant shining light,” Mikel says, tearing up. “She had a doctorate but she always encouraged me [in acting and singing]. I had no choice — performing chose me.”

Those twin tragedies challenged Mikel, but did not defeat her. Indeed, Give It Up! (now renamed Lysistrata Jones) has become a flashpoint for her career. When the producing team decided to bring it to New York, Mikel was brought along to recreate her role as a sassy madam — a casting decision that led to a full-color photo of her in the Sunday Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times.

“That still boggles my mind,” she says, slightly aghast. “I did not know the magnitude of that. I was just grateful they found a way to get me up there. You plant seeds, and then it opens a different universe for you.”

That universe includes talk of moving the musical to Broadway with Mikel intact (there’s already buzz she’d be in serious contention for a Tony Award), and though she’s crossing her fingers “waiting for the call,” Mikel prefers not to think too much about it. “It’s still just an out-of-body experience,” she says. “I don’t even know how to put it in words.”

But Dallas doesn’t need to worry too much about losing Mikel to the Great White Way. “This is my home, baby!” she says almost defensively. “I’ve been [with the DTC, where she is now a member of the resident acting company] since 1990. I’m not going anywhere.” She continues that association with the DTC when she opens in The Wiz tonight.

But Mikel has been familiar to Dallas’ gay community even longer. “If I had been born a man, I would have been a drag queen,” says the 6-foot-1 actress who rarely wears flats in public. “I was about 18 when I started going to The Landing, which is where you’d go to see drag shows. I forced my best friend, whom I had known since the fifth grade, to come out to me by telling him he had to take me there.”

Mikel began singing in piano bars, where she developed a reputation as a full-throated diva with a gospel urgency to her voice. That has translated well onto the stage, especially in musical roles. But her current part, playing the wicked Evilene in The Wiz, is something of a departure for her.

“I usually do nurturing roles, but this is just over-the-top from the word ‘go,’ cracking the whip and screaming at people.”

It’s also a chance for Mikel to take on a role in one of her favorite musicals — sort of.

“I loved watching The Wizard of Oz on TV,” she says, “waiting for that moment when Judy Garland goes from black and white to color.”

The message of the show rings especially true for Mikel after the trials of 2010, as she knows that, no matter what 2011 and beyond may bring, there’s no place like home.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 15, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Haiti concert raises more than $17,000

Jonathan Palant

Jonathan Palant

The concert for Haiti organized by Turtle Creek Chorale director Jonathan Palant raised more than $17,000 that will go to the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund. Donations can still be made on the Chorale Web site.

Palant said that there was never a goal.

“Every dollar collected was a dollar that wouldn’t have been sent to Haiti,” he said.

He said that this was the only cultural event in North Texas for the country that was devastated by the Jan. 12 earthquake and he was proud that it was organized by the LGBT community.

The six-hour marathon concert took place at Cathedral of Hope on Friday, Feb. 19. The church’s choir began the evening followed by ENCORE! Anton Shaw sang and then the First Baptist Church of Hamilton Park Men’s Chorus had the fast-growing crowd on its feet.

First Baptist Church of Hamilton Park Men's Chorus

First Baptist Church of Hamilton Park Men's Chorus

—  David Taffet