Stage reviews: ‘Mame,’ ‘Silent Sky’

For more than seven years, Jay Dias has been delighting local audiences by taking the original, full arrangements of classic broadway shows — The Most Happy Fella, Anything Goes, The King and I, My Fair Lady and more — and remounting them with 30-plus piece orchestras at Lyric Stage in Irving. Having accomplished most of what he set our to he do, he raised his baton on the final show he’s doing for Lyric (other than occasional projects) last night, Jerry Herman’s Mame. And what a lovely note to go out on.

Based upon Patrick Dennis’ memoir of his irrepressible aunt — a flapper who became a Svengali to an impressionable young man by living life to its fullest (“life is a banquet and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death!” was her motto) — Mame was Herman’s follow-up to Hello Dolly about another flamboyant broad. His style as a composer exemplifies the brassy showmanship we usually associate with the Broadway style. But as big and sentimental as the showstoppers can be, Herman is equally gifted in small moments with beautiful music and touching lyrics. “Open a New Window” and “If He Walked Into My Life” capture both the ebullience and the humanity of Mame, who struggles to provide for her nephew while remaining committed to being a role model for progressivism. She’s the fun relative we all wish we had (though in real life would be exhausting).

Herman and Dias are aided immeasurably by Julie Johnson as Mame. Even in this concert version (orchestra onstage, using minimal sets and blocking) Johnson’s charisma exudes from every pore. She hits the big notes like a Streisand and plucks the heartstrings. It’s a big show with big numbers and a big leading role, and she has the personality to match. Indeed, most of the principal actors — Christopher Sanders, Jack Doke, Daron Cockerell — are just as fabulous. The lone exception is Amy Mills as Vera Charles, Mame’s best friend and supposedly the greatest stage actress of her day. Mills just doesn’t have the presence to stand up to Johnson — she shuffles around the stage in dowdy black looking more like Mr. Chipping than Helen Hayes, and seems far out of her element. But who can hold focus with Johnson drawing your eye and Dias’ conducting engaging the ear. The show only runs through Sunday; see it while you can.

You’ll also want to catch another based-on-a-true-story production, this one in Addison. Three smart women, called “computers,” work diligently in the male-dominated field of science, with none ever getting the recognition they deserve, despite their fabulous contributions to our understanding of outer space. I’m talking, of course, of Hidden Figures… well, that, and Silent Sky, now onstage at WaterTower Theatre. Like the film, Silent Sky gives us a long-overdue alternative history of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (Anastasia Munoz), whose work at Harvard study cepheid stars at the turn of the last century forged the way for our understanding of how vast the universe really is … and how we can calculate astronomical distances. Edwin Hubble fully credited her with opening doors and making his work possible. The named a telescope after him; you’ve probably never even heard of her.

Which is the point of Lauren Gunderson’s play. She presents a Henrietta who was smarter than the men around her but considered a troublemaker also by women who saw her as defying conventions of femininity and not knowing her place. A good point, but the play tends to rest of cliches as it rewrites history with large doses of poetic license, including a fictionalized romantic interest and a squishy timeline. Gunderson tends to write in modern idioms, making the characters sound a little to 21st century. I wish the play itself were stronger, but I have no quibble with the production. Munoz shines as the fiercely intelligent Henrietta, and Shannon J McGrann provides perfectly-timed comic relief as one of her co-workers. The rapport between them and Marianne Galloway as an early suffragette holds the play together, even during the overlong first act, when seems to lurch toward four different breaks before finally settling on one.

Clare Floyd Devries’ set and Kelsey Leigh Ervi’s direction add to the wonder and beauty of the universe. Try not to be inspired by the legacy these nasty women left.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

LISTEN: First orchestra rehearsal of ‘The New Moon’

In this week’s Best Bets, I recommend Lyric Stage’s upcoming staging of a rarely-revived operetta by Sig Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein’s The New Moon. Curious? Have a look and listen at this 35 second clip from the first orchestra rehearsal.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Stage reviews: ‘Grand Hotel,’ ‘Picnic’

Pyeatt and Deaton in ‘Grand Hotel’

Maybe you can blame the rain, but opening night at Lyric Stage‘s production of Grand Hotel was not a sellout, and that’s a shame. For some years now, Lyric has been doing the kind of musicals no one does anymore outside the opera world: Large-scale, huge cast, full-orchestra full-on revivals of classics of the Golden Age of B’way and beyond. It’s easy to get folks excited about Rodgers & Hammerstein and Sondheim; it’s a harder sell, apparently, to let them know just how good a forgotten hit like Grand Hotel is (in ran from 1989–1992, and won Tommy Tune one of his gazillion Tony Awards).

The upside is, you should be able to score some good seats to the final performances of the show, being given a glorious production in Carpenter Hall. The score, largely rewritten by the great Maury Yeston prior to its original opening, is a lush and extravagant old-school collection of waltzes and jazz and assorted genres that all come together in a sung-through presentation. When Christopher J. Deaton — playing the beleaguered, cash-strapped, but endlessly charming Baron — hits the final note on the ballad “Love Can’t Happen,” you’re convinced we are living in our own Golden Age of musicals … and its center is Irving, Texas.

Grand Hotel is a portmanteau of stories, all intertwining in the lobbies and suites of a Berlin luxury hotel in the interbellum just before the Great Depression. A beset bellhop (Anthony Fortino) must choose between career and family (and the unwanted advances of his supervisor); a 50-ish ballerina (Mary-Margaret Pyeatt) struggles with self-doubt while her devoted, closeted assistant confidante (Jacie Hood Wencel) pines unrequited; a dying bookkeeper (Andy Baldwin, who lets loose in a heart-breaking turn) finds new meaning when he meets an conniving secretary (Taylor Quick) intent on becoming a star; and on and on. Fully 28 actors appear with three dozen musicians, hoofing and huffing for two-and-a-half hours. This truly is a grand Hotel.


Maya Pearson, Stephanie Dunnam, Haulston Mann, John Ruesegger and Grace Montie in ‘Picnic’ (Photo by Linda Harrison)

Over at Theatre 3, things are getting steamy with William Inge’s satire of sexual hypocrisy, Picnic. Inge was a closeted gay man who explored the realities of sex in the 1950s in a way no one other than Tennessee Williams was attempting, but unlike Williams’ Southern Gothic excesses, Inge imbued his stories with a Midwestern sensibility. Blanche DuBois was unstable; schoolmarm Rosemary is simply horny and desperate.

People were horny before the sexual revolution, something that made Inge’s plays a decade earlier seem quaint; he fell out of favor in the 1960s, after winning an Oscar for Splendor in the Grass, one of the most frank depictions of teenaged puppy love put onscreen.

Sex oozes from Picnic, especially in the persona of Hal Carter, played by Haulston Mann. Mann (aptly named) is a muscular, cocky sort, who doesn’t walk on the stage so much as he struts across it. His drool-worthy physique sets the women of this small Kansas town aflutter with desire, from high-school tomboy Millie (Maya Pearson) to randy ol’ gal Mrs. Potts (Georgia Clinton) and the aforementioned Rosemary, played to tragicomic perfection by Amber Devlin. Rosemary pretends to be happily spinstered, renting a room in the house of the widowed Mrs. Owens (Stephanie Dunnam), but secretly craves a man, even if it’s perpetual bachelor Howard (David Benn, who looks like Mitt Romney but who gets a whole lot more sympathy).

Hal’s appearance primarily screws up the budding romance between Millie’s sister Madge (Grace Montie) and her beau, town rich-kid Alan (John Ruegsegger), an old fraternity brother of Hal. Hal “ruins” Madge, but also sets her free. That’s the irony of sex in the 1950s: Folks were starting to realize it wasn’t shameful, but liberating.

Picnic can feel clunky at times (the bromance between Hal and Alan reeks of awkward homoeroticism, and their discussions feel forced), but it can be unexpectedly funny (Inge himself called it a romantic comedy), but the cast at work here — especially Devlin, Ruegsegger and often Mann — makes it endlessly watchable. It’s enjoyable to rediscover a nearly-forgotten classic of midcentury theater.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

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


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 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