1 hit, a lot of balls

Though not a perfect game, ‘Take Me Out’ scores in the bottom of the 9th

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DESIGNATED HOTTIES | The shower scenes are steamy, but the interpersonal dynamics between ballplayers (Kevin Moore and Lloyd Harvey) run the bases in ‘Take Me Out.’ (Photo by Mike Morgan)

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

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes a first act can fool you.

Act 1 of Richard Greenberg’s play Take Me Out, is, quite simply, not very good. The exposition is lazy, the central conflict (intentionally kept close to the vest) twee, the dialogue on the stilted side. Aside from the much-hyped locker-room nudity — and this is not a comment on the actors’ bodies — there’s not much “there” there.

Then comes Act 2, and Take Me Out opens like a lily with the breaking dawn.

In Uptown Players’ current production, the second is nearly twice as long as the first, but it crackles with energy. Greenberg’s “floating narrator” device almost works, and the non-linear storytelling begins to make sense. And there’s more nudity. Nothin’ wrong with that.

Take Me Out is a buzz-worthy play, flesh aside: Set in 2002, it’s the story of Darren Lemming (Lloyd Harvey), a Major League Baseball player — the best in the pros (suggestively modeled on Derek Jeter back when there were rumors of his sexual orientation) — who at the height of his skills comes out. Putatively, the play deals with the fallout from that announcement, but really, it doesn’t. Almost all the characters are inside the clubhouse; we get only a faint sense of the public reaction (which, we all know, would be a shitstorm). Instead, being gay is used as a catalyst for the interpersonal dynamics within the dugout.

The societal element is a missed opportunity — Darren would be mobbed with talk-show requests; we’re owed at least one sit-down with Oprah — and the gay idea could be almost anything (he could have come out as atheist or Muslim or Communist, it hardly matters). But eventually, you get caught up in the story, especially the conflict between Darren and Shane Muggitt (Andrews Cope), an illiterate redneck brought up from the minors, and his financial advisor “Mars” (Art Kedzierski), a flamboyant gay man intoxicated by his newfound love of baseball.

Darren himself is a difficult character to parse; he’s arrogant though we are constantly reminded universally loved; that seems unlikely, especially for Mets fans. He’s, in turn, incredibly savvy and unbelievably naïve, smart then a dolt. Harvey eventually settles into a rhythm, though there are moments that waver.

There aren’t any with Kedzierski, who’s hilarious and touching, and really, the emotional touchstone for the audience. He’s the first person onstage who seems specific, not just a metaphor for some principle or a utility character serving a dramaturgical function. Kedzierski’s enthusiasm infects the play, carrying over to scenes he’s not even in. Cope’s take on Muggitt as more imbecile than bigot is a canny, almost daring one (as Tropic Thunder cautioned, “ya never go full retard”). Kevin Moore, as the principal narrator, adds depth to a sketchy character.

Andy Redmon’s set, suggestive of a baseball diamond, makes a great nod to an outdoor game set entirely in the confines of a locker room, and Michael Serrecchia’s direction makes the most of the weaker parts of Greenberg’s script.

Not every game has to be won on a home run, as long as you get a few hits and run the bases. Way to hustle, guys. Now hit the showers.

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This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 10, 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

Fops & freaks

‘The Temperamentals’ makes Hay of gay Pride; ‘Earnest’ errs with irony

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

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MAKING HAY | Gay rights pioneer Harry Hay (Gregory Lush, left) embraces his inner diva to the dismay of his lover Rudy (Montgomery Sutton) in Uptown’s thoughtful ‘Temperamentals.’ (Photo by Mike Morgan)

“Temperamental” was a code name in the 1940s and ‘50s for a gay man, like “friend of Dorothy” or “confirmed bachelor.” It was a way for one gay man to know he was talking to another outside a bar, and without wearing a green carnation as in Oscar Wilde’s day. The way American soldiers until recently lived in fear of being outed under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the entirety of the gay community lived in the post-War period.

That is, until Harry Hay came along. Hay started The Mattachine Society, the first gay rights group, two decades before anyone had heard of the Stonewall Riots. He took the bold step of signing his name to his founding principles, coming out, albeit in a limited media environment, at a time when being labeled as gay was career suicide, no matter what your profession.

He may, however, be the gay hero you’d never heard of. The Mattachine Society eventually failed, a noble first volley in a war that has not yet been won. But it and Hay deserve a lot of credit they too often don’t get; like Niccolo Tesla, they were upstaged by the Edison-like sparkle of Pride marches, Harvey Milk and the rainbow flag.

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With The Temperamentals, about Hay’s triumphant effort (now at the Kalita courtesy Uptown Players) Jon Marans has masterfully crafted a work with a highly cinematic flavor. Scenes jump about quickly, like fast-cut editing, taking us from the bedroom of Hay (Gregory Lush) and his lover, fashion designer Rudy Gernreich (Montgomery Sutton) to the soundstages of Hollywood where closeted director (and Judy Garland spouse) Vincente Minnelli (Paul J. Williams) lends his checkbook but not his name to the cause.

But Marans’ real victory is in capturing the textures of gay life 60 years ago with a subtle, almost literary flair. You feel the prickly hesitation when a gay man asks for Rudy’s last name, and the self-hating aversion to seeming “too femme.” There’s a conspiratorial aura that feels absolutely authentic: Hay and his compatriots were conspirators, lurking in the shadows because that’s where society insisted they reside. The bravery it took to turn on the light astonishes you even today.

Director Bruce C. Coleman and multimedia designer Chris Robinson convey the cinematic quality with minimal sets and extensive use of video components both to place us in a host of settings and suggest their nature (a seedy urinal speaks volumes), as well as provide historic context with vintage photographs, although that can get heavy handed, especially a montage at the end which, while gratifying, goes on too long. (Coleman seems devoted to the notion, why suggest something when you can spell it out in capital letters.) Still, the abstractness of the production gives it an airy, timeless sensibility.

The cast is solid — Williams, Kevin Moore and Daylen Walton all succeed in multiple roles — with Lush holding the center steady as he escorts us through the halls of gay history.

If it sounds as though The Temperamentals is more educational than entertaining, that’s unfortunate; it is both. If you want to feel a real sense of gay Pride, watch how a few men paved the way.

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Nobody captured the grandeur and foolishness of society as pungently and affectionately as Oscar Wilde. He was a living paradox, someone who turned a satiric eye on the superficiality of the upper classes, yet passionately and unapologetically loved everything about them. “How useless are people who have no actual jobs!” he seemed to say. “Why can’t I be one?”

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WILDE TIME | WingSpan’s production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ aims for irony. (Photo by Lowell Sargeant)

The apotheosis of his social manifesto is The Importance of Being Earnest, a comedy of manners so sharply wrought that more than a century later, it seems as fresh and witty as a Jon Stewart bit. The script overflows with wordplay and repartee as Ernest Worthing (Andrew Milbourn) confides in his chum Algernon (C. Ryan Glenn) that although he intends to marry Algy’s cousin Gwendolen (Lisa Schreiner), with the approval of her abrasive mother, Lady Bracknell (Nancy Sherrard), his name is not, in fact, Ernest but Jack. This seemingly minor fib sets off a cascade of adventure and verbal slapsticks involving mistaken identity, money, sex and … well, just about everything. It’s a great play.

But WingSpan Theatre Company’s production, now at the Bath House Cultural Center, is not a great version. The dialogue is intact, and two performances in particular (the lovely Schreiner and Jessica Renee Russell as the comely young Cecily) capture the capricious, exuberant drama of silly people involved in silly behavior with very serious consequences perfectly; by the time Act 3 arrives, they are at full comic gallop, and the men eventually almost catch up with them.

Alas, that’s almost too late. The first act is saddled with an ugly set that lacks the requisite glamour of the era, and heavy, ill-fitting costumes that look like someone pulled them off the windows at the Von Trapp household, added a clunky bodice and washed their hands of further responsibility.

Another drawback is Sherrard’s interpretation of Lady Bracknell. The character, one of the funniest in all literature, is an imperious matriarch whose institutional arrogance rivals the monarchy itself. She cannot conceive that she is ever wrong — even when one of her beliefs directly contradicts another belief — because to acknowledge a mistake would be to undermine the social hierarchy.

But Sherrard plays her not as an aloof, self-justifying matron but as a sarcastic social climber. Seeing the first smirking roll of her eyes hits you like a 2×4 to the noggin: Is Lady Bracknell being… ironic? It hardly seems possible — she is a woman entirely bereft of irony. It’s as if she’s been modernized and lost her way entirely.

Still, there’s the music that is Wilde’s gift for the bon mot. There would never have been a Frasier without an Earnest, so if you’ve never seen a production before … well, even mediocre Wilde is better than none at all.

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

—  Kevin Thomas

Clouseau, but no cigar

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LA CAGE AUX FOOLS A mobster (G. Shane Peterman, above) rejects his girlfriend (Whitney Hennen, below) because of his feelings for ‘Victor’ (Ashley Puckett Gonzales, below right) in the cross-dressing musical. (Photos courtesy Mike Morgan)

There’s pink but no panther in Blake Edwards’ drag musical ‘Victor/Victoria’

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

I have to confess: I am not fully convinced Wendy Williams is really a woman. The first time I saw a promo for her talk show, I assumed it was on Bravo or Logo, and meant as a joke — an African-American Dame Edna.

That kind of gender confusion is at the heart of Victor/Victoria, the 1982 Blake Edwards movie later adapted into a 1995 stage musical about a Jazz Age British singer who becomes a Paris sensation only because everyone thinks she’s a he.

stage-2It’s really nothing much different than My Fair Lady, where a Svengali-esque linguist crafts a guttersnipe into a lady, passing her off to society as something she isn’t. (Interestingly, both originally starred Julie Andrews.) Here, boozy gay lounge singer Toddy (Paul Taylor) takes wannabe cabaret act Victoria (Ashley Puckett Gonzales), creates a back-story for her as Victor, Poland’s greatest female impersonator, and wows everyone astonished that a man is so convincingly feminine. Along the way, there are questions of mistaken identity as American mobster King Marchand (G. Shane Peterman) finds himself uncomfortably attracted to “Victor.”

In many ways, it’s a cutting-edge comedy of contemporary mores, with the film well ahead of its time, dealing with gender-bending in a surprisingly tolerant and off-handed (if slapstick-heavy) manner. In the post-Queer Eye, post-Drag Race era, it’s perhaps less edgy, but there’s some poignancy about acceptance underneath all the French farce door-slamming and bed-hopping.

Which is not to say the script is well written. I doubt you’ll find many people who will defend its structure. It’s messy, with few good buttons to end scenes, some parts that drag (not the good kind of drag) and a few puzzlingly-placed moments best abandoned altogether.

In Uptown Players’ production currently at the Kalita Humphreys, some — not all — of those weaknesses are less obvious. The score, a pastiche of 1930s-style jazz with Broadway flash layered on top, has few memorable hits (the best, “Le Jazz Hot,” was composed for the movie 30 years ago), but the band plays and the cast sings it all well, all on a fabulous and mobile set that makes great uses of the Kalita’s space.

What it doesn’t do especially well is conjure up both the glamour of Old Paris and the camp extravagance of the drag world. It would be hard to over-play the flamboyance of a Parisian nightclub in interbellum, but this one does. The “Victor-as-drag-queen” scenes don’t fully work because Victoria doesn’t look like a drag queen. She may be meant to be convincingly female, but RuPaul accomplishes that with glamazon femininity that still leaves you asking, “Could she be…?” Gonzales, in ill-fitting costumes and too-tasteful makeup, has no panache as Victor. Androgyny is one thing, but Victor needs dazzle to make King’s obsession with her seem authentic.

She could learn a move or five from Whitney Hennen, who steals the show as King’s ditzy platinum blonde moll Norma. Bubbly and empty-headed as Lina Lamont, she turns eating a piece of chocolate from throw-away stage business into comic art, all with an excess that rises to the level of farce Edwards established in his Pink Panther movies. (The best scene, in fact, may be the dance of characters sneaking in and out of the bedrooms, which director Cheryl Denson choreographs beautifully.)

In the wake of Dallas Theater Center’s recent awesome production of Cabaret — and Uptown’s own high-bar-setting Next to Normal — Victor/Victoria seems incidental, though considered on its own, there’s much to enjoy, especially as a respite from the August heat. Here life is a cabargay, old chum. Come to the cabargay.

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

—  Kevin Thomas

Bi-polar bearable

 

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SHOCK AND AWE | Stars Gary Floyd, left, and Patty Breckenridge, right, have both worked on hit productions with director Michael Serrecchia, but for ‘Next to Normal,’ they really brought their A-game. (Photo by Mike Morgan)

Understanding ‘Next to Normal,’ a musical about mental illness

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

Patty Breckenridge is entirely aware of the cliché that having a child changes your life. But she can’t avoid it.

Earlier this year, Breckenridge and her partner Carrie became mommies to son Logan, around the same time she changed jobs. Pursuing acting opportunities would have to take a backseat for a while.

And then she heard that Uptown Players was producing Next to Normal. And she made an exception.

“I put all my eggs in one basket and said, ‘This is it; this is the one show I will be able to do for a while [now that I am a mother],’” Breckenridge says. “My wife has been so supportive; Carrie is absolutely my hero.”

Especially since she is a new mom, tackling this role — that of a bi-polar woman coping with deep issues related to her son — struck unnervingly close to home.

“I’ve never done as much work for a role in my life,” she says. “When my brother, and my other friends, saw this on Broadway, they said, ‘This was meant for you.’”

It may have impressed her friends, but one person who wasn’t initially convinced was the show’s director, Michael Serrecchia.

“My first reaction [when I saw a scene performed on the Tony Awards] was, ‘I don’t like it,’” he says with an ironic smile. “Who would watch that?”

But Serrecchia, who teaches acting and voice in town, said his students began to convince him of its appeal; before long, he was “feeling addicted to the score.”

The 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, Next to Normal was an unlikely hit and has become a cult favorite, winning a Tony Award for its rock-opera score about the dark, often taboo topic of mental illness. It closed in January.

This is the second consecutive Pulitzer winner they have mounted (following The Young Man from Atlanta), and this marks the first production of the show outside of New York or the recently started national tour. It’s a coup for the company that only last season moved to the bigger digs of the historic Kalita Humphreys Theater.

Next to Normal fits with our mission statement of tolerance and dignity,” says company co-founder Jeff Rane. “And the family issues will be familiar to our audience.” It has sold so well, additional performances have already been added.

That puts the pressure on Breckenridge, Gary Floyd (who plays her husband) and Serrecchia to do it justice. None of them saw the Broadway production, nor do they have personal experience with bi-polar disorder. At least, they didn’t think so.

“I didn’t realize how many people I know who do suffer from it until they found out I was directing it,” Serrecchia says. “I’d say maybe a dozen people have called me.”

To be as accurate and respectful of the material as possible, Serrecchia arranged for a woman, whose life closely mirrors Breckenridge’s character Diane, to speak to the cast about what mental illness is like from the inside out.

“She made me really want to do it justice,” Breckenridge says. “We’re all bringing our A-game.”

That won’t be easy. The sung-through score is the equivalent of “vocal aerobics,” as Serrecchia puts it.

“As a singer, you have to pace yourself,” says Floyd. But it’s also necessary to convey the intense emotions of the songs. Floyd says the cue he was given to understand mental illness is that it is “like walking through cotton candy.”

Serrecchia also wanted to give the audience visual cues to the psychology of the characters. Andy Redmon’s set, a multi-story behemoth, qualifies as one of Uptown’s most ambitious ever.

“The whole play is in 2s,” he says. “There’s all this doubling, these mirror images, these layers. I wanted everything parallel. So you have all these intersecting stairs to show each transition.”

For the cast and crew, just doing a show like this is a major transition itself into the big leagues.

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This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 10, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Some things a-Foote: Festival of Texas writer’s work continues with hits (Uptown), misses (WTT)

FAMILY SECRETS | Mom (Lucia Welch, standing center) and dad (T.A. Taylor, seated) don’t discuss the nature of their late son’s ‘roommate’ in an engaging ‘Young Man from Atlanta.’ (Photo by Mike Morgan)

As the Horton Foote Festival progresses among the local theater community, Dallas is privy to some of the Texas-born writer’s other works that might get eclipsed by his more famous works, the films The Trip to Bountiful and Tender Mercies. Despite not much that’s gay in the Foote oeuvre, Uptown Players digs out the one show with that certain touch with the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Young Man from Atlanta.

An older Houston couple has some issues to iron out when the title fella comes to visit. Will Kidder (T.A. Taylor), the patriarch of a well-to-do family in 1950s Houston, is talking to his like-a-son-associate Tom (Kevin Moore) about the death of his son Bill, who drowned. The gist of the play happens when we’ve already glimpsed the title character reaching out to the family. The Kidders first meet Bill’s “friend,” Randy Carter, at his funeral, where his constant contact unnerves Will but touches his wife, Lily Dale (Lucia A. Welch). Lily Dale even loans the man a large sum of money from her Christmas allowance, which Will later needs access to.

We’re supposed to get the impression that this young man was more than a roommate to Bill and that the Kidders just aren’t going to speak that-which-must-not-be-named. But as Lily Dale talks about the money she’s given him for his mother’s operation and sister in dire straits, we can’t pinpoint if Carter is a scammer or something more important.

Young Man gets off to a weak start with talky exposition, but we get drawn into the Kidders’ emotional evolution through Willi’s layoff and their mourning. Will has more insight to why his son would walk into a lake until the water was over his head without liking to swim; Lily Dale is in more denial. And while they have lived the high-life for such a long time, the Kidders discover they may actually have to live a life without facades.

What sounds like heavy drama is punctuated by nice bits of humor and lightheartedness, so they play is never weighed down like it could be.

The play pretty much belongs to Taylor, though the supporting cast is strong. Welch behaves with appropriate Southern housewifery, mostly smiling through the pain of their late son, who drowned. When she’s not around her husband, she longs with graceful sadness around her housekeeper Clara (an excellent Yolanda Williams).

As her stepfather Pete, Gordon Fox strikes the right balance of crotchety and tender.

Moore’s performance is a bit too much, with the overdone facial gestures and deep-voiced acting. On the opposite end, Stan Graner’s work in a brief scene as Kidder’s boss is nuanced to perfection. With subtle posturing and inflection, he delivers authority, friendliness and discomfort in having to fire Kidder. Tippi Hunter and Amanda Denton enter the show briefly as the Kidders’ former housekeeper and Will’s secretary, respectively. It felt as though Hunter’s appearance was supposed to have more meaning, but we never quite see how that scene moved much forward. Blake Blair as Pete’s nephew is a tall drink of yum and charms with lanky fashion.

We may never quite know much about The Young Man From Atlanta, but Uptown Players made a dramatic gem in helping us trying to figure him out and giving us a bit more insight into Horton Foote’s works.

— Rich Lopez


JUST STAY PUT | A young mother (Misty Vinters, left) discovers her husband is a jerk in the tedious Foote entry ‘The Traveling Lady.’ (Photo by Mark Oristano)

The actors in The Traveling Lady all suffer from a bad case of Foote-in-mouth disease: The tendency of all Southern accents to bleed together. There are Texas twangs and Tennessee drawls and a whol’ passel’uh cornpone variations in between, but wouldn’t it be nice if a cast of characters from the same small town sounded like, you know, each other?

That’s perhaps a minor point, but the pacing of this entry in the Foote Fest, courtesy of WaterTower Theatre, doesn’t leave much else to think about as it dries on stage like oil-based matte paint: slowly, and with a dull finish.

Foote’s style has been described as Chekhov-meets-Faulkner; personally, I prefer my Chekhov fighting Klingons — even when it’s bad, at least something happens. Nothing much happens in Traveling Lady, a fact emphasized by Marion Castleberry’s sluggish direction. He seems to know more about the text of the play than the texture of theater — there’s a lugubrious, academic tone to this trite 1954 story about the awkward reunion of a wife and her husband, who’s been in prison. (The demonization of alcohol makes it feel like a PSA for the Temperance League.)

As storytelling, it’s OK; as a play, it’s old-fashioned and stodgy, with too much standing around, not enough moving around (where’s the traveling promised, even if it’s just across the stage?). Why don’t the characters do anything, even if it’s just drying dishes? Clare Floyd Devries’ marvelous set is much more interesting than anything the actors are doing.

It probably wouldn’t matter much if they did bother acting. Other than Dorothy Deavers as a dotty old woman, there’s almost no comedy in this lazy stroll down Tobacco Road. The lady can travel if she wants; I’m staying put.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 8, 2011.

—  John Wright

Golden opportunity

MENOPAUSE MAYHEM | Men in drag tackle the classic TV character from ‘The Golden Girls’ in a show almost too racy to produce. (Photo by Mike Morgan)

Director B.J. Cleveland goes from kids to kink with trashy parody

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

B.J. Cleveland is gay, and in the theater, so spending every waking hour at Station 4 for the past week shouldn’t seem out of the ordinary. Only he’s having a different kind of fun from what you might expect.

“Very, very odd to be in a bar that’s deserted — it’s like being a kid in a candy store with no money,” he says with a wink. “It’s an empty bar but fully stocked, and you can’t touch a thing.”

By night for the past three weeks, Cleveland has met his cast and crew in the off-hours of the Rose Room, readying the latest camp spectacle from Uptown Players, Thank You for Being a Friend. Like the company’s two past shows in the same space — The Facts of Life: The Lost Episode and Mommie Queerest — it’s a parody of a gay fave, performed by men in drag: The Golden Girls.

Because it’s an unofficial send-up of the classic sitcom, the names have been tweaked: Rose becomes Roz, Sophia becomes Sophie, etc. But, Cleveland insists, you’ll recognize all the characters and set-ups from the series.

“It takes place in the kitchen just like on the show, until the end where it moves to Shady Pines retirement center where the girls compete against Lance Bass to win a talent contest,” Cleveland says. “It’s basically a goofy 90-minute episode: Lance Bass has moved in next door and is having wild gay orgies. The girls take him a basket of dusty muffins to convince him to keep the noise down,” but things escalate.

Uh-huh.

You won’t just recognize the Golden moments, either — this is a musical, with some original songs and alterations of Broadway standards: There’s some Dreamgirls, Chicago, Gypsy and 9 to 5 thrown in for good measure — even a spoof of Madonna’s “Vogue” video. And all played by men in dresses.

Cleveland almost didn’t do the show. He was asked by producers Jeff Rane and Craig Lynch to read the original script and offer his insights.

“It was a lot raunchier,” he says. “It went just a little too far over the line, and some stuff that really would not work,” especially in a space where TABC has strict rules about what can happen in the presence of alcohol. But a few rewrites later, Cleveland had signed on.

It’s a far cry from his current day job. In addition to his teaching gig, Cleveland is huffing and puffing his way through a Three Little Pigs play at the Dallas Children’s Theater; when he’s done there, he high-tails it to Cedar Springs and the nastiest old ladies this side of Wasilla.

“It’s a chance to blow off steam and be show-trash,” he says. “It’s like uncorking the cheap champagne at night after the children have gone to bed. This is definitely a have-a-cocktail, come-see-a-show-in-a-different-environment theater. The show doesn’t end when the curtain comes down. You’re still at a bar.”

And maybe when the show opens, he’ll get that drink after all.

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

—  John Wright

Buggery nights

‘Closer to Heaven’ wallows in sex, drugs & rock; ‘33 Variations’ hits wrong note

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

BRINGING SEXY BACK  | Morgana Shaw, center, leads a menagerie of freaks in Uptown Players’ ‘Closer to Heaven.’ (Photo courtesy Mike Morgan)
BRINGING SEXY BACK | Morgana Shaw, center, leads a menagerie of freaks in Uptown Players’ ‘Closer to Heaven.’ (Photo courtesy Mike Morgan)

ON THE BOARDS
CLOSER TO HEAVEN at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Through Oct. 24. UptownPlayers.org

33 VARIATIONS at Theatre Three, 2900 Routh St. in the Quadrangle. Through Oct. 31. Theatre3Dallas.com

……………………………………….

The opening 10 minutes of Closer to Heaven, the season ender from Uptown Players, is an exhausting, non-stop carnival of music and movement. If only it could sustain that energy.

This is as hardcore as a musical usually gets — edgy, dark stuff. (Andy Redmon’s set looks like the decaying remnants of a Satanic altar.) But it gets lost in a weak score and plot that turns too trite, too soon.

The program says it’s set in 1999, but the sound and story are pure 1987: Dave (Evan Fuller), a straight young Irish boy, comes to the big city to work at a club, eventually becoming an exotic dancer. On the way, he gets exposed to gay sex, drugs and electronica, becoming corrupt and losing the innocence that made him so attractive.

These were all clichés by the time Christopher Atkins shook his ass in another “heaven” set potboiler, A Night in Heaven.  The addition of gay themes makes them no fresher here.

And yet, Closer to Heaven works — on the margins, at least. As flawed as the show is, it’s still compelling. I enjoyed large swaths of it, almost against my better judgment — at least in Act 1. By Act 2, it starts to resemble an indie gay film more than a structured musical, as the plot shifts to a relationship between two men that comes almost from nowhere.

The performances surpass the material. If the androgynous Master of Ceremonies from Cabaret were a coke whore and more clearly a woman, she’d probably look and sound a lot like Morgana Shaw’s Billie Trix. In her leather fetish garb, it seems as if the director, Bruce Coleman — here and with his bondage-themed take on Equus last winter — is working through some S&M fantasies at Uptown. In Shaw, in thigh-high latex platform boots, he’s found an excellent medium.

Shaw doesn’t blink at the excesses, channeling equal parts Marlene Dietrich and Nico Icon, and she gets (by far) the best lines to have fun with. “They say my voice is ‘living in,’” Billie growls with Teutonic predation. “Your voice would be lived in if you sucked as many cocks as I have.” That’s just one of the shocking moments in the production, and the fact it’s still possible to be shocking onstage these days says something.

Coy Covington, nearly unrecognizable as a sleazy boy band entrepreneur, gets some droll moments (he seems to know it’s best not to take the script too seriously). As Covington’s toadie Flynn, Mikey Abrams steals laughs as an Eve Arden type with bits of Jack McFarland, Ethel Mertz and Rachel Berry.

Unfortunately, the Pet Shop Boys’ music doesn’t translate to stage like Elton John’s and ABBA’s do. (The Act 2 “overture,” a nasty, disorienting mess, just puzzled the opening-night audience.) Their songs are hopelessly pop-sounding, without the theatrical flourishes of a Broadway score. Numbers just drift off without conclusion, as if the next track will fade over it. The lyrics are too literal, and the final song repetitive to the point of annoyance. That’s a bad note to leave on when it kicks off so well.

Two centuries earlier, music played a big role in the lives of some other Europeans. In 1819, Ludwig van Beethoven (Bruce Elliott) took on the challenge of composing 33 variations on a “small waltz,” becoming virtually obsessed with it and startling the world with his eventual output. In the present day, musicologist

Katherine Brandt (Sharon Garrison) head to Bonn to research Beethoven’s letters, trying to parse what he saw in this trivial little ditty.

Brandt doesn’t have much time. She’s been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and is slowly losing motor coordination. She’s as obsessed with figuring out the mystery as Ludwig Van was writing it, to the exclusion and disappointment of her estranged daughter (Lydia Mackay).

33 Variations, Moises Kaufman’s 2009 Broadway hit now presented by Theatre Three, is staged by director Jac Alder with the same bombast as the “Ninth Symphony.” Where’s the deft, limber subtlety of Mozart, or even Beethoven’s own “Moonlight Sonata?” Everything about it is melodramatic and big — too big.

The cast comes at the excess from both ends. Jane Fonda played Brandt on Broadway, and it’s difficult to imagine her playing the part with the same noisy desperation as Garrison. Garrison projects her frustration too prosaically, furrowing her brow and snarling her lips in confusion. She undermines the drama. (It doesn’t help that when she’s rolled out for a CT scan, she looks like a Luann platter being slid along the counter at Luby’s.)

Gordon Fox, as Beethoven’s shrill assistant, Schindler, turns the comedy into something out of a silent film.

He’s all moon-faced surprises and overwrought gestures. He acts like Renfield to Beethoven’s Dracula. I half expected him to eat bugs. Minor parts by two young actors are performed with distracting incompetence.

Elliott is a clear exception, capturing the maestro’s bravado and his neuroses with depth and understanding, and exceeding in the comedy as well. (I’d love to see him try the Joe Sears roles in Greater Tuna.)

The costumes, especially the period clothing, are a disaster; what should be elaborately brocaded frocks look like cheap cotton hand-me-downs in need of a good pressing. Compared to the exquisite work done just a few month ago at Circle Theatre for Bach at Leipzig, they pale.

The same is true of the plays. Bach was conceived as a fugue; 33 Variations? Intentionally or not, it’s a dirge.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 8, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

What has he done to deserve this?

Music director Adam Wright glams Uptown Players’ Pet Shop Boys musical

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer lopez@dallasvoice.com

WEST END GAYS | ‘Closer to Heaven’ explores the dark world of gay ’80s  London through the music of the Pet Shop Boys.  (Photo courtesy  Mike Morgan)
WEST END GAYS | ‘Closer to Heaven’ explores the dark world of gay ’80s London through the music of the Pet Shop Boys. (Photo courtesy Mike Morgan)

CLOSER TO HEAVEN
Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd.
Oct. 1–24. $30–$40.
UptownPlayers.org

………………………………………..

Mention the Pet Shop Boys and what comes to mind is techno-pop — hardly the stuff of musical theater. But when Uptown Players opens Closer To Heaven Friday, that mindset will change. The company is producing the sole stage venture by the band, which comes with the same tone as their albums. And that means the production’s musical director, Adam Wright — whose background is in classical and jazz music — is doing some major gear-shifting.

“We had to reconstruct a lot of the music,” he says. “The music that was sent with the materials had just two parts and not a lot to go off of.”

His job might have gone easier if Wright were in communication with the Pet Shop Boys … or if he was already a fan.

“The extent of my communication with them was through their Twitter updates,” he says. “I’d love to learn more about how they program and write. I wasn’t as much a fan as some of the people in the cast. My parents did buy me the Liza Minnelli album Results they produced. I’m certainly more of a fan now after working on this.”

The subject of the musical is perhaps more relatable to Wright. Set in gay London in the 1980s, it’s a dark show with racy queer content he can appreciate. But the task of turning that vibe into a musical theater idiom was a challenge.

Wright had only the original London cast recording to work from, which is dominated by the Pet Shop Boys electronica sound, which he orchestrated for a six-man band to offer a live concert experience. His priority, however, was staying true to the songs PSB wrote.

“With electric drums and two keyboards, we can mimic some of that techno sound,” he says. “There are some guitar moments. It’s really intricate programming and having the band makes it easier and way less complicated.”

His musicians will not only recreate the dance beats, but also meld them in accord with choreography and plot — and PSB’s signature style.

“There is a lot more going on in the songs than you think, so it was pretty daunting,” he says. “Normally with a live band, embellishments are added, but we had to stick to the appropriate style. Even the minimal songs have a repetitive, dance-y nature.”

All that required a close collaboration between Wright, director Bruce Coleman and choreographer John de los Santos. Wright especially sympathized with the challenge de los Santos faced of balancing fluid and narrative movement against Wright’s job to keep the proper but continuous beat of the music — and to primarily keep the audience interested.

“There have been ups and downs in this creative process,” he says. “I’ve certainly felt overwhelmed, but I enjoy the challenge doing new things. That motivates me even if I have to pace in a circle for an hour until it comes to me.”

With weeks of preparation and arranging, Wright’s work still hadn’t clicked with him until Uptown began running the full show in rehearsals. After seeing it as one cohesive piece, he settled and relieved some of his stress going in.

“At that point, it felt possible and easy,” he says. Now he’s more concerned if the audience will be fans: Many out-of-towners are flying in especially for the show, which makes its North American debut — but Uptown knows this is difficult material. The litmus test will be opening night.

“I know some expect a certain kind of music in theater, but the nice thing is the show starts with a bang and they’ll know right away what they are in for. “

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 1, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Gays on strike!

No ‘Regrets’ for Rudnick farce

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

WEDDED BLISS | A gay man (B.J. Cleveland) takes a stand against his flighty friend (Mary-Margaret Pyeatt) in Uptown’s sophisticated fizz. (Photo by Mike Morgan)

REGRETS ONLY
Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd.
Through June 27.
UptownPlayers.org



The world inhabited by Hank Hadley and the McCullough family is one of cocktail parties, witty repartee and comforting superficiality. The first real issue anyone has had to deal with is the loss to cancer, after 28 years together, of Hank’s (B.J. Cleveland) partner. Even that sad news is softened when then McCullough’s daughter Spencer (Melissa Farmer) announces her engagement. She wants Hank, a famous fashion designer, to make her wedding dress.

But Hank is having second thoughts. Spencer and her father Jack (Dennis Canright), both lawyers, have agreed to draft a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Hank and Jack’s wife Tibby (Mary-Margaret Pyeatt) are apolitical, but this issue hits close to home. Maybe Hank — maybe all gay people — should go on strike.

In Regrets Only, Paul Rudnick turns a hot-button issue like gay marriage into the stuff of frothy fun, full of delicious zingers (“If you wanna kill sincerity, add crab cakes and God” one person observes of weddings) even while tackling serious matters. When’s the last time you heard a cogent discussion of gay marriage between opposite camps that didn’t become loud, angry and hectoring diatribes?

Because for me, it was last week at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.

Although there’s no music (other than director Coy Covington’s whimsical insertion of incidental tunes at the act breaks), in terms of its old-fashioned appeal with an updated outlook, it calls to mind the musical The Drowsy Chaperone: A fantasy with concrete ideas and sentimentality that completely avoids mawkishness.

Indeed, this is throwback entertainment in the best sense. Despite its contemporary issues, Regrets Only most resembles Dinner at Eight and other bubbly, smart, ’30s-era comedies: The perfectly appointed drawing room, the banter as sparkling as a magnum of champagne, the lovely costumes. This production has all that, especially an elegant and expensive looking set by Andy Redmon (nothing’s more disappointing that when a Park Avenue penthouse looks like a Park Slope coldwater flat; this one doesn’t).

The cast is flawless, with Cleveland uncharacteristically demure — he’s easily upstaged by Cynthia Matthews as a saucy maid (her riff on fashion is brilliant) and works effortlessly with Pyeatt on creating an authentic friendship.

Rudnick can be a bit too inside baseball, with obscure but hysterical theater jokes (David Mamet and Neil LaBute? Risky), but even potentially dour moments are buoyed like helium, and the second act farce is winningly executed.

Like the best cocktail, Covington has delivered delightful brew that goes to your head for 90 minutes and leaves you happy and refreshed. I’ll drink to that.

This article appeared in the National Pride edition in the Dallas Voice print edition June 18, 2010.

—  Dallasvoice