Review: Lyric Stage’s ‘South Pacific’

Janelle Lutz in ‘South Pacific’ at Lyric Stage. Photo by Michael C. Foster

There’s a moment at the very beginning of Lyric Stage’s production of South Pacific — when the lights dim and music director Jay Dias picks up his baton and flourishes it at a full orchestra — that you hear those first four famous chords from the overture, the opening notes of “Bali Ha’i:” duh-duh-DUH… Crash! It’s all brass and cymbals, and so totally “Broadway” — the rest of the overture’s orchestrations are as warm as a cocoa and blanket — but it also instantaneously transports you mentally to exotic Polynesia. It’s musical theater, as only Rodgers & Hammerstein could do it.

And what a pair they were: Collaborators for only 17 years (the partnership ended when Oscar Hammerstein died, in 1960), they wrote and produced nine stage musicals, a movie musical (State Fair) and one a made for TV (Cinderella, both since adapted for the stage). Their output wouldn’t be so impressive if it weren’t, well, so impressive. In 2015 alone, we have seen excellent large-scale productions in North Texas of Cinderella and The King and I even before Lyric worked it magic with SP, which it has done with the five “big” R&H musicals in recent years (The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, Carousel, King & I). This one, directed and choreographed by Len Pfluger in the style of the recent B’way revival, is just as wonderful as anything else they’ve done.

Anthony Fortino and Janelle Lutz. Photo by Michael C. Foster

It would be easy to give much of the credit to the show itself, and lord knows, having Rodgers & Hammerstein on your show is as close to an imprimatur of quality as you can come without getting Consumer Reports involved. But it’s the full-throated abandon with which Lyric Stage produced their season — huge orchestras, original arrangements, large-scale casts and designs — that really makes you feel you’re as good as in New York City … circa 1958. Even real Broadway doesn’t do shows this big anymore, unless they have Disney animals or men bitten by radioactive spiders in the cast.

Christopher Sanders and Janelle Lutz.

Set in the Solomon Islands during the war with Japan, South Pacific opened in 1949, less than four years after the end of WWII, and yet the issues it addresses — American Imperialism, racial tension, the “honorableness” of war, etc. — are as well-thought-out and progressive as anything you could find today. (Fully half of R&H’s shows dealt prominently with social justice and racism; Hammerstein was one of the great liberals of the 20th century.) The bigotry reveals itself subtly, shockingly, by hiding (as it often does) in unsuspecting places. When the bubbly bumpkin Nellie Forbush (Janelle Lutz) first utters the words “colored” to describe the biracial heritage of her boyfriend Emil’s (Christopher Sanders) children, it hits you like a fist to the face.

It might not if you didn’t want to root for so many people in the story — not just the relationship between Nellie and Emil, but that between cocky Lt. Cable (Anthony Fortino) and the Tonkinese teenager Liat (Lia Kerkman). Not everyone will end up together. Not every romance is a happy one. War is hell, after all, and love … well, love is often war, too.

You root for them here, especially Nellie, because, honestly, Janelle Lutz is one of the most intoxicatingly effervescent actresses on North Texas stages. When she sings “Wonderful Guy,” she brings the performance more joyful abandon than I’ve ever seen delivered in the role before, filling Carpenter Hall not with her size but with her boundless personality.

If Lutz is all perky fun, Fortino is sexual energy. His Cable is a bit of obnoxious swagger mixed with tenderness and pecs. It’s a good combination. Sonny Franks as Luther Billis and Sally Soldo as Bloody Mary also deliver memorable moments.

The downside of Lyric shows is that their scale also makes their shelf-lives fleeting: It opened last weekend and closes Sunday. That doesn’t give you much time to see it, but see it you should. No one does musical theater better in Texas that Lyric, and nobody ever did musicals better the Rodgers & Hammerstein.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Lyric Stage reveals 2015–16 season lineup

At the opening night of Lyric Stage‘s season closer, South Pacific — which is awesome of course — we learned what’s on deck for next season as well.

It kicks off in September with Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (Sept. 4–13), followed Grand Hotel (Oct. 30–Nov. 8) and then the rarely seen operetta that introduced most audiences to Oscar Hammerstein II, The New Moon (Jan. 21–24, 2016). All will be performed in the large Carpenter Hall. Next is Irresistible (Feb. 12–20),  a tribute to the music of Edith Piaf, in the smaller Dupree Theater. The season ends a year from now, with Cole Porter’s original 1934 Anything Goes back in the Carpenter (June 17–26).

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Lyric Stage’s production of ‘Golden Apple’ becomes an official cast recording

happy-fella

Jay Dias

Last fall, Lyric Stage — which specializes in doing full-orchestra productions of classic American musicals from the golden era from the 1930s–’50s, staged the rarely-seen The Golden Apple, which closed after a brief run (125 performances) in 1954. When I saw it, I understood why it wasn’t a hit: The style still had a foot on the old operetta format which had lost favor, and its more forward-looking elements were still kind of edgy for 1954. The show, which marked Kaye Ballard’s Broadway debut, did get a cast recording of sorts: A 50-minute LP. That may sound like a lot, but The Golden Apple I saw ran about three hours, almost all of it sung-through. That means barely a third of the music actually was preserved for posterity … until, that is, Lyric’s version.

At four of the performances in Irving last October and November, the entire production was professionally recorded with the North Texas cast of 43 and 38 musicians. The recording will be released May 19 by PS Classics, according to Playbill.com. The album will be executive-produced by the daughter of the composer.

This is another feather in the cap of Steven Jones and his musical director, Jay Dias. Dias in particular has diligently resuscitated many classic scores, including helping oversee a complete re-mastering of Frank Loesser’s famously incomplete notations for The Most Happy Fella, which he did with the consent and assistance of the show’s original star (and Loesser’s widow), Jo Sullivan Loesser. In 2013, he also directed the music to Pleasures and Palaces, a Loesser work that hadn’t been heard in nearly 50 years.

“It’ll be great to have the author’s work on this heard in its entirety,” Dias told me. And a great moment for North Texas theaterfolk, as well.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEWS: ‘Enron,’ ‘Too Many Girls’

enron_6aIf you haven’t said or heard the names associated with the Enron scandal in the decade since it was in the news — Jeff Skilling, Ken Lay, Andy Fastow — the first time they are spoken in Lucy Prebble’s play Enron, now playing at Theatre 3, you react viscerally, the way you might to Goebbles, Himmler or Mengele: The architects of a financial holocaust that popped the American economy in ways that continue to reverberate. It’s a feeling of disgust and curiosity.

It’s odd, that gut muscle memory that causes you to heave ever-so-slightly when you see the dramatization of such boondoggle buzzwords as credit-default swap, derivatives, energy trading, deregulation and even “irrational exuberance.” (The show uses a lot of multi-media elements, including Dow Jones ticker scrolls and audio-visual echoes from the 1990s.) You sense pangs of guilt by association for being in the room with Fastow (David Goodwin) as he shares with Skilling (Chris Hury) his plan to prop up Enron’s stock with a corporate shell game of shell corporations. The audience has the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to know where the plan in headed, but you can’t help but feel contempt for those in the room with them who didn’t say, “What the fuck are you talking about?” It’s as if everyone was too stupid — or too greedy — to call foul on the emperor’s new clothes.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Lyric revives Loesser’s ‘Pleasures & Palaces,’ a musical unseen in 47 years

Continuing our Music Issue week here at Dallas Voice, we have some insights into the rarest of auditory experiences: The lost Broadway musical. No, really — it was all but forgotten … and technically, never on Broadway.

In 1965, composer Frank Loesser and director/choreographer Bob Fosse were hot off their collaboration on the Pulitzer Prize-winning How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, so they teamed up for another musical. Pleasures and Palaces, based on a flop play (already a bad start) set during the court of Catherine the Great, was booked for a Broadway opening, but during a troubled spring tryout in Detroit — the city’s Free Press called it “lesser Loesser” — the composer pulled the plug. No cast recording. No New York run. Not really even much legend around it.

But Irving’s Lyric Stage, which in recent years has specialized in big productions of Broadway classics, had an “in.” Their musical director, Jay Dias, is pals with Jo Sullivan Loesser, the composer’s widow (Lyric recent produced his great American opera The Most Happy Fella), and got the chance to produce a concert version of this forgotten piece of Americana.

I got a sneak peak at a full, 40-piece orchestral rehearsal with vocals this week, and what an unusual experience it is to hear music played and lyrics sung that have, quite literally, not been heard in my lifetime. It’s a rare treat, featuring one of Lyric’s reigning stars (hunky Bryant Martin) as American naval hero John Paul Jones.

Unlike most other Lyric shows, this production runs a single weekend: Thursday through a Sunday matinee. It is, quite possibly, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear forgotten songs of a golden age of Broadway composing.

Fot tickets, visit Lyric Stage.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

This week’s takeaways: Life+Style

It’s not Pride Weekend, so why is so much going on this week?

Oh, wait — it kind of is Pride Weekend. It’s Gay Christmas — aka Halloween! That accounts for a lot of the goings-on: The Street Party on Saturday, the rugby tournament HellFest (timed, as its name suggests, to coincide with All Hallow’s Eve), the drag dinner and brunch at Dish with Candis Cayne. (Hotel Zaza’s monthly Sunday School brunch, with a costume theme, is also on Sunday.) And you can kinda see why Dallas Theater Center would open its dress-up play about pro wrestling when folks are all into costumes as well. (It also explains OhLook’s Evil Dead musical and MBS Productions’ annual classics of the macabre, Theatre of Death.)

But what accounts for Blues for Willadean being booked for a week-long stay at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station, with writer-director Del Shores and producer Emerson Collins in attendance for some Q&A screenings? And with Cloud Atlas — co-directed by trans woman Lana Wachowski — laying claim to being probably the highest profile movie ever with a prominent (and frank) gay storyline, it’s an embarrassment of riches for moviegoers. And why are so many non-spooky themed stage productions opening, from Dallas Opera’s Aida to Lyric Stage’s 1776?

There’s also a chance to enjoy to new $100 million Klyde Warren Deck Park, pictured, which has its festivities all weekend.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

This week’s takeaways: Pride Edition

Usually I wait until Friday to run down all that’s going on in gaydom this week that you need to catch up on, but since it’s Pride Weekend, I figured I’d get a jump-start on all the events.

First up: Tonight is the first night of Miss Coco Peru Is Present at the Rose Room. She’s hilarious. And if you order using the discount code VOICE, you get up to 40 percent off your tickets. Amanda Lepore and Cazwell also appear at It’ll Do Dancing Club tonight starting about 11 — so you can see Coco and still catch their show.

Today is also the kickoff for two very different weekend long events. First, the Southwest RV Supershow starts Thursday and runs through Sunday at Dallas Market Hall. If you like camping — and let’s face it, gays really do — you’ll find a phenomenal selection of recreational vehicles here. On the other side of the spectrum is the opening of the City Performance Hall. If you find yourself in the Arts District anyway, you might wanna stop by and see The Second City Does Dallas at the Wyly or War Horse at the Winspear. (Psst! The horse is gay.)

Friday night might require some hopping to catch all that’s going on, from the launch of the new Dick’s Night Out gay men’s party the Red Party (a big fundraiser for Legacy Counseling Center) to Suzanne Westenhoefer cracking wise in the Vixin Lounge at Sue Ellen’s.

There are also three more days to catch both Uptown Players‘ The Producers and shows in their Second Annual Dallas Pride Performing Arts Festival. But there’s also tons of other good theater around the area, including Rent at Theatre Arlington and a few more performances of The Most Happy Fella at Lyric Stage in Irving. Also out in the Mid Cities this weekend: Gay Day at Six Flags will be in Arlington on Saturday. You can get half-off tickets courtesy of Dallas Voice here. And Patti LuPone teams with her old friend Mandy Patinkin for An Evening With at Richardson’s Eisemann Center for Performing Arts on Saturday night. (Read an interview with Mandy in Friday’s Voice.)

Of course, by now you know about the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade along Cedar Springs on Sunday, concurrent with the Festival at Lee Park, but there are lots of other Pride-related parties that day (and all weekend), including DJ Tony Moran spinning at BearDance at TMC on Sunday, Chi Chi LaRue at BJ’s NXS! on Sunday, DJ Michael Tank at the Brick (also Sunday).

And we haven’t even started on all the events from Monday on, whether it be Gary Lynn Floyd inaugurating the new Cabaret Series at the Sammons Arts Center or yours truly giving his regular Gay Broadway Series lecture at War Horse on Tuesday night. So if you can’t keep track of it all, trust us — we get it.

Still, that’s all the more reason to pick up the Voice on Friday. We have a rundown of many of the events, plus interviews with celebs, pictures of hot guys in underwear and our first “hetero life partners” edition of Dynamic Duo. Pick it up, you’ll love it.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Column Award theater nominations announced

Uptown Players' 'Next to Normal' is a major nominee in the Column Awards.

The Dallas Theater Center and Uptown Players are head-to-head with the most Column Award nominations for Equity theater companies with 39 and 28 respectively. But that’s nothing compared to the Non-Equity winner, Artisan Center Theatre, with 52 nods. (As always, tons of gay folks are nominated.)

Now that the Dallas Theater League’s Leon Rabin Awards don’t exist, the Columns are the only non-critic awards in town for local theater. Eligible theater professionals (and, actually, me) will now vote in the final round. The  winners will be announced at the Column Awards gala on Feb. 27 at the Patty Granville Performing Arts Center in Garland.

The complete list after the jump.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Theater Critics Forum bestows honors

The DFW Theater Critics Forum met last week over friend chicken and sweet tea to bestow its annual awards for local theater excellence, as as usual, the gay community was well-represented.

Of the eight best director winners, five locals were gay: Regan Adair for Red Light Winter, Rene Moreno for three shows (The Trip to Bountiful, No Child… and Creditors), Michael Serrecchia for two shows (Uptown Players’ Next to Normal and ICT MainStage’s How to Succeed…), Joel Ferrell for two shows at DTC (Cabaret and Dividing the Estate), and Len Pfluger for My Fair Lady at Lyric Stage. Pfluger’s partner, Jay Dias, was also singled out for his season of music direction with Lyric.

Larry Randolph, as a tragic drag queen in One-Thirdy Productions’ FIT entry, The Madness of Lady Bright, was a popular choose for acting, as were two New York actors who sizzled at the Wyly (and whom we interviewed): Wade McCollum as the M.C. in Cabaret, pictured, and Sydney James Harcourt as the Tin Man in The Wiz. Whitney Hennen, the ditzy blonde in Uptown’s Victor/Victoria, was also singled out.

Justin Locklear received the second Emerging Artist Award for his acting and costume work this season with Balanced Almond, which actually won him two other individual awards.

In addition to yours truly, participating critics in Martha Heimberg (Turtle Creek News); Elaine Liner (Dallas Observer); Mark Lowry (TheaterJones and Fort Worth Star-Telegram); M. Lance Lusk (D Magazine); David Novinski (TheaterJones); Punch Shaw (Fort Worth Star-Telegram); Perry Stewart (TheaterJones); Lawson Taitte (Dallas Morning News); and Lindsey Wilson (D Magazine).

Full list below.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

An afternoon with ‘Night of the Hunter’ at Lyric Stage

From creepy book to noirish film to a musical?

If you need to know how a story about an ex-convict murders his wife,  stalks two children who happen to have a whole lotta loot and pretends to be a minster can turn into a musical, we have an answer. Or rather, Lyric Stage does. Stephen Cole and Claibe Richardson have turned the Davis Grubb’s novel into just that. We’re curious how they will pull it off, because there’s  not a whole lotta happy going on in the story. And aren’t musicals all about the happy?

DEETS: Irving Arts Center’s Carpenter Hall, 3333 N. MacArthur Blvd. 2:30 p.m. $25–$50. LyricStage.org.

—  Rich Lopez