STAGE REVIEWS: ‘Wilde,’ ‘Hot Mikado,’ ‘And Then There Were None’

‘WIlde/Earnest’ at KDT

Three very different adaptations of classic British theater make their way through North Texas this week … and all delight in their own way.

Christie, clear

The most traditional of them is also the only original: And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie’s stage version of her own thriller, courtesy of Theatre Britain and playing through Saturday in Plano. Ten virtual strangers are all invited to a mysterious island by their anonymous host, only to find out each has been accused of murdering someone and getting away with it. The murderer proceeds to pick off each of the guests, in accordance with a childhood nursery rhyme. Surely, the only person left alive will be the killer … or his (her?) last victim.

Christie was never much one for careful character development, but damn, she knew plot; even fans who know the outcome may find themselves second-guessing what comes next, and why. But if the dialogue is occasionally stuffy to modern audiences, Christie was also a great one for social justice. As much about the plot, the thriller jabs everything from light punishment for well-heeled perpetrators, religious extremism, warmongering, infidelity, women’s lib and the British class system.

The cast fits well in their roles. Francis Henry has a lovely monologue as a dotty old soldier, and Henry Okigbo cuts a fine leading-man profile as the concerned (or murderous?) Dr. Armstrong. Michael Speck (a Theatre Britain regular) overplays his part as a deceptive and sniveling charlatan, though; Michael Boughton, who also plays an obnoxious character, has much more fun … as does the audience.

The Zoot story

‘Hot Mikado’ at T3.

Ironically, two much older pieces get modern updates that show how the more things change, the more they stay the same. Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1885 comic operetta, The Mikado, is a casually racist bit of Victorian fluff set in Japan but where everyone has Chinese names. It hardly mattered — even then, it was a satire of British aristocracy, glued together with now-classic songs: “A Wand’ring Mistral I,” “Three Little Maids,” “Tit-Willow,” “The Mikado Song.”  Theatre 3′s production of David H. Bell’s 30-year-old jazzed-up adaptation, Hot Mikado, undercuts the silliness precisely by embracing it: “This is written in Japanese!” the actors (with one exception, none Asian) repeatedly exclaim, before pausing to add … “uhhh … like we are.” It’s not a willing suspension of disbelief — it’s an elbow to the ribs.

Hot Mikado doesn’t concern itself with Japanese actors — in fact, many of them are African-American, and most are bedecked in Zoots suits Big Band-era primary-color costumes that mix Vegas-fab with swing, jazz and Broadway, as well as the bones of G&S’s original score. This is less an operetta than a party with music, dancing and jokes, all told by an engaging and endlessly energetic cast.

Leading the way is Paul Taylor as Ko-Ko the Lord High Executioner, a lascivious bureaucrat who wants to marry his young ward Yum-Yum (Natalie Coca) except she’s in love with Nanki-Poo (Dennis Wees). Nanki-Poo, though, has been betrothed to the detestable Katisha (Denise Lee). Who marries who? Who cares — it’s all just so much fun.

Lee has a blast in this variation of her Wicked Stepmother role in Rapunzel at DCT last fall (her dry-humping of a mike stand is drop-dead hilarious), and Taylor combines bits of Jack Benny, John Waters and Paul Lynde in making Ko-Ko a sympathetic villain. But the scene-stealer in this bunch is Darren McElroy, whose rich baritone, deft comic timing and charisma as Pooh-Bah electrifies the stage.

Bruce Richard Coleman directed the show in the style of Rocky Horror, and it strikes the tone that T3 wasn’t able to generate a few years back in its version of Pippin: A carnival of delights.

Hipsters gone Wilde

Over at Kitchen Dog, company member Lee Trull has tackled his own modernization of a 19th century monument of theater, Oscar Wilde’s flawless 1895 comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest. It is, to me, an unparalleled work of art; I’ve said before, you could cast Steven Seagal as Lady Bracknell and, if he did nothing more than get the words right, it would still entertain you. So why futz with perfection?

The good news is, Trull’s version — called Wilde/Earnest, which he also directs — doesn’t change too much, even as it streamlines the plot, adds musical numbers and double-casts roles. The updates speak to contemporary audiences: Chausable (Leah Spillman) is now a woman who gay-crushes on Miss Prism (Taylor Anne Ramsey); Lady Bracknell (Spillman again) is now just Mrs. B, a helicopter mother with a Highland Park attitude. She’s not sure Jack (Max Hartman) is good enough to marry her spoiled daughter Gwendolen (Jenny Ledel, awesome as always), but tolerates Jack because he’s best friends with her nephew Algernon (Matt Lyle). They all behave like obnoxious hipsters with craft cocktails and overgrown toys to fill their empty lives … just like Wilde’s characters were in his society more than a century ago.

There are two main things that make Wilde/Earnest great. The first is Matt Lyle. The second is Matt Lyle! With his matchy-matchy tailored suits, pencil moustache, thrift-store esthetic and wiry scampering, Lyle brings a giddy wonderfulness to the insufferably vain Algernon. I’d watch a sequel that was just him.

But in truth, the entire cast excels, from the Intern (played with bearded ennui by Sam Cress) to Martha Harms as Cecily to Spillman’s arch doyenne. And Trull gives them all plenty of room to let loose in his Day-Glo set that explodes in color and boundless enthusiasm.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Stephen Fry married the man of his choice, and the haters still hate … sometimes even the gay ones

Fry

Fry and Spencer, with mini Wilde attending

Stephen Fry, the openly gay and truly important comedic actor (he and former comedy partner Hugh Laurie are superstars in their native England), married his fiance, Elliott Spencer, over the weekend. They are British, where same-sex marriage is legal, and has been for a while. So basically, this should be one of those “oh-is-that-so-how-nice-for-them-what’s-for-dinner” moments. Only it’s not, and often as not those expressing their disapproval are as likely to be gay as straight.

They aren’t upset two men are marrying. They object to the age difference — Fry is 57, Spencer is 27.

And it pisses me off.

One very progressive friend of mine went so far as to cluck “It’s practically pedophilia!” Another said “The boy looks like he’s 17!” Well, guess what? Even if he was 17, he would be “legal” (in Texas, at least) and that’s not exactly pedophilia when you marry someone of age, now, is it?

When Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson starred in Lost in Translation, he was 53 and she was 18, and Sofia Coppola won an Oscar for her “charming” screenplay. Where was the outrage then?

It’s an infuriating double standard when old men date fully of-age but young-looking boys; the tongues begin wagging. What could they possibly have in common?

I wrote something about this phenomenon and few weeks ago, in my piece about being considered a daddy, but the point still has to be made: People of different ages can fall in love, and we should celebrate it as much as we do when two octogenarian lesbians tie the knot. How do you dare to know their love and relationship?

Spencer isn’t exactly my type, but then again, Fry isn’t either. But they seem happy, and that’s what marriage equality should be about — not just the right to marry someone of whatever sex, but whatever age, race, background, etc., we choose. When we impose judgments (“He’s too old for him!”) on people whose private lives we know positively nothing about, how are we being any better than the homophobes who oppose same-sex marriage?

We all need to get on board and support marriage whatever form it takes. Even if it fails. Even if we roll our eyes in private. Because criticism based on ages only fuels the culture that says others should be able to decide the rightness of our relationships, which is what we have spent decades fighting against.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Opera review: ‘Salome’

Voigt and Grimsley in ‘Salome,’ Photos by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera.

The Dallas Opera’s second title of the season is the outrageous Salome. Perhaps the most depraved plot in all opera — and that’s saying something — this retelling of the Bible story is adapted from a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s play. Richard Strauss’ very challenging music only adds to the electrifying story. This lustful and sordid work, with a macabre conclusion, made it a good pick to open the week of Halloween.

Princess Salome (soprano Deborah Voigt) is a young woman whose powerful stepfather/uncle Herod (tenor Robert Brubaker) can’t keep his eyes and hands off her. She, in turn, is infatuated with prisoner Jokanaan aka John the Baptist (baritone Greer Grimsley) who is locked in an underground cistern. As a holy man, Jokanaan wants nothing to do with the spoiled, grasping Salome.

Voigt’s voice has a clear and pleasant tone, but unfortunately she is not well-suited for the title role. She’s more than a little too old to portray a deranged teenager, and the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” falls flat. The choreography by Yael Levitin is fine, and the backup dancers (in flowing and beautiful dresses from costume designer Anita Yavich) are wonderful, but Voigt’s dancing is clumsy and labored.

KA2_0553AThe standout among the singers is Grimsley. His baritone powerfully reaches to the top of the Winspear, even though most of his performance comes from the underground prison. Herodias, wife of Herod and mother of Salome (mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley), was able in her limited role, while tenor Joseph Hu delivers a forceful and spirited performance as First Jew. Mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson (in a trousers role) as Herodias’ page blasts a clear and sonorant voice of caution in this dark story (though why she was dressed as a soldier remains a mystery). Tenor Scott Quinn as Narraboth is strong, if not memorable.

Stage director Francesca Zambello manages to punctuate the heaviness of the story with light-hearted moments of humor. Conductor Evan Rogister marks a successful Dallas Opera debut with this musically challenging piece. Strauss wrote for a large orchestra with particularly difficult passages for the woodwinds. The musicians played admirably, especially the oboes and bassoons in their exposed passages. Though just a compact 100 minutes, it is a tough slog in the orchestra pit.

Peter J. Davison’s modernist scene design is odd-looking, though ultimately effective. The set is divided by what appears to be a giant clear shower curtain, but it was enhanced by the excellent lighting by Mark McCullough. The costumes are colorful and detailed, except for Salome’s primary costume; her dress lacks the splendor of the others at the palace. The soldiers’ costumers are strangely reminiscent of uniforms in sci-fi films. Wig and make-up design by David Zimmerman appeared to be flawless, particularly in the gory final scene.

Check out Salome if you can. The standout performances make it a far more engaging option than other ways you could spend two hours.

— Alicia Chang

—  admin

Overtures: Cliburn competition concludes next weekend in Fort Worth

KholodenkoVadym2

Overtures is our monthly look at what’s going on in the classical music scene: 

The 14th International Cliburn Piano Competition winds up next week, and already you can have caught the next generation of concert stars as they vie for the big prizes: lots of cash and three years of concert management.

The semifinal rounds conclude Tuesday night (including a performance by hopeful Vadym Kholodenki, pictured), as the concerts alternate solo recitals with chamber music performances. The chamber music features the Brentano String Quartet, arguably one of the best in the world. The final rounds are concerti with orchestra. They are Friday and Saturday, June 7–8 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 9, at 3 p.m. The awards ceremony is a separate ticket at 7 p.m. on Sunday.

• Still need a piano fix? Piano Texas holds court at PepsiCo Auditorium on the Fort Worth Campus of TCU. Faculty recitals are June 10—15. Check the website for specific concerts and times.

• Looking forward, check out the Mimir Chamber Music Festival, also at TCU. This outstanding group brings in the best players from around the world and presents excellent concert. The concerts are July 2—7. Check out their site for details.

• And if you don’t mind leaving Texas for your classical experience, the Santa Fe Opera opens on June 28 and runs through August. Lots of folks from North Texas head west every summer. Of greatest interest is Susan Graham staring in the frothy comedy The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein by Offenbach. The new music director of the Dallas Opera, Emmanuel Villaume, conducts. Rossini’s La Donna del Lago is rarely heard, and La Traviata always makes an appearance. But the big buzz (with gay appeal) is for Oscar, composer Theodore Morrison’s opera based on the life of Irish bon vivant Oscar Wilde. It stares the hunky countertenor David Daniels. Another local favorite conductor, Evan Rogister (quite a hunk himself), conducts.

 

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

My way or the highway: Gay etiquette book trades on stereotypes and typos

The Gay Man’s Guide to Timeless Manners and Proper Etiquette, by Corey Rosenberg. (2011, Chelsea Station Editions) $15. 120 pp.

Oscar Wilde, as usual, said it best: “A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally.”

Corey Rosenberg’s current-day homage to homosexual decorum, The Gay Man’s Guide to Timeless Manners and Proper Etiquette, deftly seizes upon Wilde’s Victorian-era kernel of truth and expands it into a post-modern banquet of American gay, fast-food sensibilities.

More pamphlet, unfortunately, than book, Rosenberg’s opus would have benefited greatly from decent editing: Wise amelioration would certainly have gone a long way toward persuading Rosenberg’s readers to trust his voice. When he refers to himself in the preface as, “the consummate host,” the reader is absolutely ready to follow him down the path of how to do the right and proper thing; sadly, when he goes on to own up nobly to some “shear [sic] and vile behavior,” the reader is caught flat-footed by poor editing.

Unacceptable typos aside — even in a book professing to divulge proper gay etiquette — Chapter 1’s title alone, “The truth about ‘pleases’ & thank you’s’” is too littered with grammatical heresies for any person (say nothing of whether they’re gay) interested in learning proper behavior to take cues from this puffery of sheer syntax laziness; that said, Rosenberg is spot-on regarding why one should never forget to say “please” or “thank you.”

How this common-sense wisdom applies to gay men exclusively is not elucidated upon, except the dismissive assertion that, “attitudes of entitlement are a commonality in the gay community.” Bullfeathers! This reviewer, as a card-carrying member of the club himself, has a very difficult time accepting the cliché of all gay men being self-centered prima donnas.

The book is a puzzling

parade of mixed-message brevity. Chapter 3’s full 110 words, entitled “The Gym,” rather preciously proclaim, “Please remember that the only person you are meant to compete with at the gym is yourself;” yet, Chapter 13’s subject, “Being Attired Properly and Appropriately,” states, “A respectable gay man never wears a skimpy Speedo unless his stomach is tight, his skin is a few shades darker than a wintry shade of pale and he is under the age of 50.” Which is it: Are gay men only complete with themselves when they’re young and physically attractive to others; or are they only complete with themselves once they’re too old to pass for under-50?

At worst, Rosenberg’s guide to gay propriety is an innocuous piece of fluff, like bellybutton lint illuminated by a reflected disco ball’s ray upon your trick’s glistening, shirtless torso.

Rosenberg does offer useful visuals on how to loop a genteel bow tie knot, even if he doesn’t tackle acknowledging the difference between modern life and yesteryear: As he attests in Chapter 18, “Social climbing is a sleazy act of using people to quickly achieve higher rank or status within the community. A proper young man knows the difference between innocent social networking and skipping lines and climbing ladders.”

Here’s to all “proper” young men, then — past, present and future.

— Howard Lewis Russell

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

—  Michael Stephens

Cross-dressing B’way comedy plays at Angelikas

Lady Bracknell is one of the zoom-bang greatest characters in all theater, the pinched, appearances-heavy doyenne on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The ladies, of course, always get this juicy role. Until now.

Gay actor Brian Bedford donned a frock as the director and leading lady of the current revival of the play, now on Broadway and up for three Tony Awards later this month. But you don’t need to go to New York to see it. The Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano are screening the direct broadcast of the actual play three more times this week: Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Angelika Mockingbird Station, Sunday at 2 p.m. and Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Angelika Plano.

Tickets can be purchased at AngelikaFilmCenter.com.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones