At the barricade

A newly imagined ‘Les Miz’ is just as grand, less operatic

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OCCUPY PARIS | ‘Les Miz’s’ theme of proletarian revolt resonates as strongly as the thrilling score.

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

Chances are if you have ever seen Les Miserables, you think that it is either the greatest musical ever conceived, or precisely what’s wrong with musical theater since Mary Martin retired from playing a pre-pubescent boy. Of course, it’s possible both are true.

Detractors claim the musical — adapted from Victor Hugo’s massive novel about a thief, Jean Valjean (J. Mark McVey) pursued relentlessly by obsessive Inspector Javert (Andrew Varela)  — slogs through French history with bombastic pretension and repetitive musical motifs. Admirers — whom I happily number myself among, and have ever since I saw the original London production 25 years ago — fall sway to its sweep, its Big Themes, its thrilling score. And the ideas that right wingers can’t beat down the common man forever and get away with it resonate especially strongly even today. There’s no way you can see Les Miz and not think the distinction between musical and opera is all but irrelevant.

You might feel differently, though, with the current national tour, now at the Winspear. It reconceives the original with mind-blowing rear projection (Valjean’s escape through the sewers of Paris is as cinematic as anything I’ve seen on a stage; Javert’s suicide is a technical marvel) and a more intimate, almost claustrophobic staging. The show is still grand, though it feels less like grand opera.

That’s also a side effect of the singing, which has been modified from the rich, fluid style of the original to a more conversational, pop sensibility. It’s almost as if the creative team figured everyone already knew the songs and wanted to give them a more radio-friendly, Susan Boyle-ish treatment. That may be arresting only to nerds like me who can recite the score by heart, but I bet there are a lot of us out there.

Even so, the “money songs” — especially Valjean’s haunting “Bring Him Home,” that ravaged the house on opening night, and the Act 1 finale, though also Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” and Eponine’s “On My Own” — are as stirring and flamboyant as they ever were, and the bawdy “Master of the House” remains a comic gem.

The latter is due in great part to Richard Vida and Shawna M. Hamic (looking like Edna Turnblad) as the Thenardiers, whose comic mugging steals scenes, and McVey’s Valjean grows in depth and power throughout the three hour run-time.

But the length is almost inconsequential. Les Miz, of necessity, rushes through great swaths of emotions, and it’s occasionally difficult to toggle through them; your heart can’t keep up with your head. But when it does? Well, that’s when Les Miz is as touching as a musical can be.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 23, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

In the Butte

Remote and charming, Crested Butte, Colo., spreads warmth even in the winter months

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FLY THAT FLAG | Quaint Crested Butte went all out to welcome the gays for Shoot the Butte gay ski week in March, with many local businesses proudly displaying gay-friendly banners and residents abuzz about the event. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

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

You can imagine that when locals in small towns hear that “the gays” are on their way — for a Pride parade, or a dance party or a protest — some will react with a disdainful shiver. But when Crested Butte, Colo., hosted its first-ever gay ski week earlier this year, the news didn’t even warrant a shrug. Indeed, the entire town seemed to get its Pride on.

The local gays there — and there are a few, a very few — were of course happy to be with family, as were the resorts glad to host a late-season influx; so were the businesses in the very walkable downtown area. But the people were just as excited — stores proudly flew rainbow flags for the first time, and diners at restaurants chirped with delight that the gays were coming. Good for business, of course, but also good for the Butte. (Unfortunately, there are no current plans to hold another gay ski week there.)

Crested Butte, after all, isn’t located along I-70 and the string of famed ski resorts; don’t like Vail? Drive another hour and settle in Beaver Creek. Wanna resort hop? Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Keystone are in the same county 90 minutes from Denver. No, if you wanna go to Crested Butte, you gotta really wanna go.

There are two different kinds of ski-resort towns in Colorado: The rich man’s playgrounds and those with a roughing-it, low-stress country ruggedness, where the Doobie Brothers are still considered pop music. Crested Butte is the latter — unfussy and without the pretensions of a Vail or Aspen, but with just the right amount of sophistication to make it a savvy destination for those who like to stumble off the beaten path but still appreciate a few creature comforts.

That’s certainly the case at the Elevation Hotel and Spa, a large, comfortable resort standing at nearly 9,400 feet above sea-level. (The friendly café at the lift base, 9480 Prime, is named for the elevation.) Clean, warm and well-appointed, with an excellent spa and salon, the hotel provides super-convenient access to the slopes and its 16 lifts. (The summit is at an ear-popping 12,162 feet.)

For skiers or snowboarders, the snow provides a great powder, though even diners can appreciate the mountain: The ski-in, ski-out restaurant Uley’s Cabin is accessible by lift and short slalom to mid-mountain, or if available, a “ski taxi” can take you here like a passenger on the Iditerod. It’s worth a visit, too, with excellent haute cuisine and a cozy, rustic atmosphere.

Indeed, the dining in Crested Butte is remarkably diverse and satisfying. It may seem counter-intuitive, but some of the best seafood dishes I ate this year were in Colorado. (The landlocked types know how to cook a scallop.) But the range of choices for Crested Butte is as good as any 10-block stretch of a major city.

Stay on the mountain to indulge your tastebuds at Django’s. This high-end, intimate resto, draped in sheer curtains and with a wide, open kitchen, serves gourmet tapas just steps from the slopes. “Date with a pig” isn’t as dirty as it sounds — Medjool dates wrapped in Serrano ham — but it is  decadently enjoyable, as are the crispy Brussels sprouts and braised spiced boar belly.

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CUISINE ART | Dining in the Butte, including mountainside dining at Uley’s Cabin, is diverse and delicious. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Off the mountain, in downtown Crested Butte, the not-to-miss steakhouse is Maxwell’s. Warmed by a beautiful fireplace and welcoming décor, it serves some unmatched dishes. Of course, you have to try the rack of (Colorado) lamb, crusted in pistachios and drizzled with a blueberry demi that makes it both sweet and savory, as well as the smoky wagyu tartare. The wine list offers some bold, interesting choices as well.

Over at the West End Pub, enjoy high-end bar food with a sense of humor. The “ubiquitous fish and chips” may sound tired, but it’s well prepared, as are the oysters on the hall shell and clam chowder. (I told you about the seafood.)

For something even more casual but also extraordinary, The Secret Stash is a must-do. It’s no accident that the name sounds like a head shop — the place, opened in 2002, has the hippie-dippie vibe of a stoner hangout. It also serves some of the most inventive pizzas you’ll ever encounter, like the Mac Daddy, their lettuce-covered take on the Big Mac that will wow you. (Just a slice is huge.)
You can grab a brew at Dogwood, a hole-in-the-wall bar with pool tables and sports on the TVs that’s cool, friendly and hip, and LoBar, which serves sushi. (Fish! Again!)

For an exquisite brunch, East Side Bistro is a sure-bet. Looking out on the mountain, it has the feel of an Old West saloon but the cuisine of a sly master, including the deconstructed doughnuts and coffee, and the chilaquiles, a tortilla-chip-and-egg dish with poblano molé that will spoil you for all Mexican-themed brunches for all time.

Crested Butte may not be the first resort to occur to you when you think of ski destinations, but as most everyone from Colorado will confess to you, it’s one of the best.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 23, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Livin’ the Vida

Richard Vida revisits ‘Les Miz’ in a grand revival

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MASTER OF THE HOUSE | Rirchard Vida returns to ‘Les Miz’ 18 years after his B’way run.

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

“Show people don’t have holidays,” Richard Vida says with a sigh. Though he’s not complaining. In fact, he kind of likes it.

“In New York City, Christmas is packed. You’ll always have a show Christmas night, though on Christmas Eve, it depends. Before 9/11, we always had matinee and evening shows on New Year’s Eve. When I was doing Les Miz in the old days, when it was still three hours and 15 minutes, it got out at 11:45 and we were right in Times Square at midnight.”

A lot has changed since those days. Evening shows in Dec. 31 are canceled and Vida is on tour, not in New York. But one thing hasn’t changed: Vida is still doing Les Miserables.

Not the entire time, of course — and not in the same way. Vida was a replacement in the original production back in the 1980s, playing the thieving Montparnasse for two years. He loved the show.

“I was a dancer at the time, doing all the big dance shows. Les Miz was my first non-dancing show but I was blown away by it.

The original production of Les Miz ran until 2003 — closing a decade after Vida’s run in it. He went on to act in numerous TV shows, movies and musicals in the intervening years. “So imagine my surprise, 18 years later, to be playing Thenardier in the 25th anniversary production.”

Surprised, because as much as he enjoyed the experience, he’d had it. So when his agent asked if he’d be interested — advancing from one the bandits to their sleazy leader, Thenardier — he passed. His agent asked, before deciding, if he would go see the production. He did.

“It was the best version I have seen,” he says. “It’s been reorchestrated and newly conceived. Technologically it’s just beautiful — no more turntable! The backdrops are actual projections of Victor Hugo paintings. It’s so imaginative.At intermission, I called my agent and said not only am I interested in doing it, it’s mine.”

The process has been illuminating, now that he approaches it not as young dancer but as a seasoned actor in middle age.

“I already knew the role, but what is interesting was, when I re-read all 1,236 pages of the book and as an older person, I understood it better. I have the life experience to play this unredeemable, despicable human being. The comedy comes through, but he’s dark. And it’s so completely the opposite of who I am in real life.”

Les Miserables is one of the most successful — and divisive — musicals in history, a long-running hit about the failed 1832 Paris uprising. It’s a sweeping epic based on what is generally considered one of the great novels of the 19th century, but has its detractors as bombastic, although the characters are sharply drawn and the complexities of the book are masterfully synthesized.

Hmmm… students who take up arms against the rich hierarchy in the streets. Sounds a little like Occupy Paris, no?

Vida’s not so sure.

“In some [curtain speeches], Several presenters have said this is the French Occupy Wall Street, but I’m not so sure patrons are making that correlation. I don’t see it being the same thing. I think of it more as an allegory, and the religious awakening that turns your life around,” he says.

It’s certainly turned Vida’s life around. This is his eighth national tour, and the first one where he’s been able to travel with his partner, who is the show’s musical conductor.

“It’s fantastic that we are working and traveling together after 18 years,” Vida says.

That’s almost enough to soften the hardest of hearts … maybe even Thenardier’s.

… Nah, don’t count on that.

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

—  Kevin Thomas

Occupy Christmas!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—  Kevin Thomas

Came art

‘Shame,’ British artist Steve McQueen’s intense look at a sex addict, delves into the dark

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LET’S GET LOST | A sex addict (Michael Fassbender, right) deals with his disturbed sister (Carey Mulligan, left) in the provocatively sexual drama ‘Shame.’

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

For the first 20 minutes or so of Shame, the first NC-17-rated movie to get a legit theatrical release in awhile, not much happens — or rather, not much is said. We don’t even know that the man we are following (Michael Fassbender) is named Brandon. (We do, however, know he has a big wiener — there’s lots of full-frontal here.) We just know that he has a lot of sex. A lot. And not with the same women, or even the same kind of woman. He targets various races ages and types. We hear repeated voicemails from one woman he seems to have bedded and ignored; he pays for a call girl; he flirts with a married lady on a commuter train; he even jerks off alone in the shower. He doesn’t seem to discriminate, or even know anything about self-control.

But Brandon falls in a weird netherworld between contemptible cad and admirably effective womanizer. He doesn’t share much about his personal life, and his face doesn’t reveal much. When a business colleague uses a string of come-on lines to seduce a woman at a bar, Brandon stands back like an old panther, waiting for the eager cub to annoy the gazelle before he subtly strikes. The woman sees it coming. He isn’t a jerk, just sexually charismatic. He has patience.

At least he does until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up. Their relationship is complex and disturbing (we first see Sissy, as Brandon does, fully naked in his shower) but we never fully know its details. She seems to show up out of nowhere every so often, this time as a Marilyn-esque torch singer whose performance hypnotizes the bar’s patrons and the movie audience as well.

Indeed, “hypnotic” seems like the perfect word to describe Shame’s overall aesthetic. The writer-director, British artist Steve McQueen (no relation; he also made the gay-themed short Bear), uses blank cityscapes and cold, Edward Hopper-esque shots composed to suggest the deep-seated alienation of Brandon — and, by extension, all of us.

The intense, sterile interiors and scenes of everyday life — one reason we see Fassbender naked so much is he wanders from bedroom to toilet, takes a piss and brushes his teeth with the same routine we all do — make it resonate. McQueen has made a story that’s entirely specific yet universal, even as it makes us uncomfortable at its forced intimacy. It oozes desperation.

McQueen’s visual style is deceptive. One scene — the only honest “date” Brandon has in the movie, a dinner with a co-worker he’s been flirting with — is a single take, the camera largely static; another is an immense tracking shot, following Brandon on a jog through the streets of New York. The technique is dazzling but still doesn’t draw attention to itself. He’s a jumble of what works, moment to moment.

And virtually all of it works. Fassbender, cool as the back side of the pillow, plays brilliantly off of Mulligan’s frenetically unstable Sissy, as well as the emptiness of Brandon’s life. He’s chilling, and devastating as he undergoes painful self-examination.

The dark sexuality is the frankest since Blue Velvet, but it also sends mixed signals. A scene late in the film where Brandon crosses the last frontier and explores his repressed homosexuality is as explicit as you’re likely to see in a theater, but it also suggests a last-gasp, the point at which Brandon’s “shame” finally overcomes him. Or is it saying that the guilt he feels over his sexual exploits are confined to the hetero world — that gay hardcore subculture gets it right, and shame is an antiquated, bourgeois emotion? The film is perhaps too impenetrable to reveal itself in that way. That’s a shame.

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

—  Kevin Thomas

Slick move

Sex god Michael Brandon extends his porn empire

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NAUGHTY SANTA | Michael Brandon returns to Dallas for the third time this year to launch his new lube line at Tapelenders.

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

Michael Brandon has been a big name in sex for decades. One of gay porn’s iconic stars, his DVDs, website and live performances have kept him in the public eye since the early 1990s — and his legendary prowess (and size) have kept young hearts fluttering for this now-46-year-old performer.

But lately, Brandon jokes, he’s feeling more like a vacuum cleaner salesman than a sex object. That’s because wherever he goes, Brandon always has his sample bag handy. It’s not Willie Loman, but big man’s Willie.

Michael Brandon has gone from porn star to lube seller.

Don’t feel too bad for him. It’s actually a good gig.

The gay-owned company Product 54 produces a wide variety of silicone-based consumer products, from a cuticle treatment to one that helps divers put on and take off their SCUBA suits. The latter is also popular in the fetish community, “helping men and women put on their rubber gear,” Brandon says. “But my expertise is lube.”

Of course it is. And the signature product of the company is its 9×6 Lube — a name that, while it sounds like it might have been named after Brandon specifically, was actually already in place before he became associated with it.

After 9×6 came into being, Brandon was approached about an endorsement deal for the start-up company. He rejected the idea.

“I was with ID Millennium and told them, I’m really not looking for anything new [to endorse]. But someone slipped a bottle in my pocket. I tried it and I liked it. And I loved the stain-free aspect — very few silicone based lubes that offer that.”

That’s when he agreed to help market the lube — mentioning it in his tweets, giving away the product at his shows, etc. But Brandon saw great potential in the product and took a bold move.

“I saw some opportunities there, so I came home from a trip and told the president I wanted to invest and benefit from what I saw as a company about to explode,” he says.

“That means I am both a vested partner and the face of the brand.”

That has its downsides, as he knows from years as a celebrity spokesperson.

“When you become the brand, any and all questions start coming to you — whether it be a shipping problem or uses or whatever,” he says. “Of course, when they have any positive feedback, I receive that, too. Usually you have to say [to fans], ‘I’m just endorsing it — you need to direct your questions to the inner office of the company.’ I can’t do that anymore. I’m the vice president… I have everything to do with the inner office!”

This isn’t the first time Brandon has made a foray into the business world. In addition to running his own career — including the brand that is his reputation and his marketable appeal — Brandon was a partner in the Raging Stallion adult video company, which produced his Monster Bang line of DVDs (named for his sizeable member).

“It’s a very similar situation: Everywhere Michael Brandon goes, so does my product. It’s a win-win,” he says.

Of course, it helps that Brandon makes for a great salesman in the gay market.

“When I walk into a store, there’s a 50-50 chance they’ll recognize me — that’s my foot in the door. Then I tell them, ‘I want to offer them a sample of my 9×6 — that’s my second foot in the door.” He laughs. “Then I come do launch parties in sexy get-ups. In West Hollywood, I dressed down in a construction belt.”

Brandon will host his launch party Saturday at Tapelenders, the first retail outlet in the Dallas market to carry 9×6, with a holiday themed costume: Naughty Santa, a sexified bit of fur and red that Brandon tried out last week at an event and turned out the be a huge hit.

He’s happy to be back in Dallas for the third time since the summer. Before this year, Brandon admits, he had written off Texas as a forum for his talents; he could never get a club to book his live show and thought he had priced himself out of the market. But he’s already thinking of Big D as a second home — he loves visiting.

So what accounts for his sudden popularity here?

“Dallas needs love!” he exclaims.

And love usually comes with a little lube.

Michael Brandon will be signing autographs and running a stocking-stuffer special (buy an 8 oz. bottle, received six 1 oz. bottles as gifts), but a “naughty and nice” gift bag with $75 purchase.   

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

—  Kevin Thomas

Spirit of Giving: A Gathering to remember

The benefit gala commemorates 30 years of AIDS and its impact on Dallas, North Texas

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RAISE YOUR VOICE | Gary Floyd, right, directs singers, from left, Damon K. Clark, Rachel Dupard and Denise Lee during a rehearsal for ‘A Gathering.’ (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

Arnold Wayne Jones  |  Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Charles Santos was having breakfast at Lucky’s with Jonathan Palant last summer when the now-former artistic director of the Turtle Creek Chorale mentioned that the chorale was born in the time of AIDS. This year, Palant told him, marks 30 years since the first cases of what was first known as

“Gay-Related Immune Deficiency,” or GRID, were reported.

The comment got Santos thinking how deeply the arts — in North Texas and across the world — had been affected by the pandemic.

Some people might have spent time reflecting on how their lives and the world have changed; others might have felt compelled to discuss it with friends.

Maybe some might have written an op-ed piece of the “lest we forget” variety.

But Santos had a different idea.

As executive director of TITAS, which has brought art and music performances to Dallas for decades, Santos was in a unique position. He had access to the Winspear Opera House and a Rolodex that included every major performing arts leader in the region.

More than that, he had a passion to produce a show. And he wanted everyone within earshot to participate.

Santos started by gathering a core group of area leaders, including the Dallas Theater Center’s Joel Ferrell and Kevin Moriarty and AT&T Performing Arts Center external affairs director Chris Heinbaugh. They and others came up with the beneficiaries, how to approach arts organizations, the structure of the show.

“We wrote it, and it’s pretty remarkable, unlike the other events I have done,” says Santos. “We talked about what the pieces were and what we wanted to concentrate on.”

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GETTING READY | Charles Santos, right, and Millicent Johnnie, assistant professor of dance at SMU’s Meadows School of The Arts, second from right, look on during a recent rehearsal for ‘A Gathering.’ (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

The idea of the staging will be like a deconstructed musical that lays out three emotional “arcs” to be covered in two acts: First, loss, heroism and fury; second, faith, family, friends and caring; finally, action and change.

Thus was formed A Gathering: The Dallas Arts Community Reflects on 30 Years of AIDS, a one-night-only concert and fundraiser being held at the Winspear Opera House on Tuesday, Dec. 6.

Ultimately, about a dozen performing arts groups signed on, as well as many vocalists, musicians and other leaders. All told, more than 200 individuals will be taking part.

The ground rules for participation were simple: With the exception of certain unavoidable costs (unionized stage hands, licensing fees for music, etc.), everyone involved had to volunteer their time — every penny raised will benefit equally four local charities: AIDS Arms, AIDS Interfaith Network, AIDS Services of Dallas and Resource Center Dallas.

“Everyone’s been great,” Santos says. “ATTPAC donated the theater and waived all the ticket fees; a printer donated the programs and posters.

“I have been very clear that this is all being donated. When I was talking to one of the orchestras, they said they wanted to participate but couldn’t donate their time. I said, ‘I totally understand but I can’t use you.’ There are no comps — everyone is buying their own tickets. All the performers are buying tickets for their loved ones.”

The outpouring of support from the community has been reminiscent of the town of Bedford Falls helping out George Bailey at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life — a fitting metaphor during the holiday season. And while Santos has been grateful for the generosity, he says it really does not surprise him.

“One of the things the gay community learned during the early days of the AIDS crisis was that we had to take care of our own — we had to change the world. What a remarkable thing it was,” he says.

And it’s that spirit that has driven A Gathering.

“To my knowledge, this has never happened in this community, this many arts organizations collaborating on one event. Everyone has been so generous.

That’s why I’m interested to see what comes of it. I hope it generates more collaborative projects in our community. If these groups all say, ‘Let’s do another project, maybe in our own seasons,’ that would be excellent. In this economy, we are in a real period of wearing collaborative clothes.”

This kind of benefit wasn’t really new to Santos, though it had been a long time coming.

“When I was a dancer, I did shows like this,” he explains.

He put a performance fundraiser together in Austin that became an annual event. But since moving to Dallas in 2001, “I was focused on TITAS and didn’t do any more AIDS work. I haven’t done an AIDS benefit in years, so I’m really excited.”

It is perhaps for that reason that Santos threw himself head-long into producing this show with only three months of prep time.

“It’s a massive amount of work — I force myself to spend time on it every day,” he says. “Chris [Heinbaugh] has been great about keeping my thoughts grounded and relating it back to Dallas.”

Maintaining the focus on North Texas, in fact, was a key decision made early in the process.

“We all jointly made a decision to keep it local,” Santos says. “We all had the contacts to bring in headliners like Kristin Chenoweth and Bill T. Jones, but then that becomes a different animal. This is about our community.”
(The program will include a photo montage of locals who have died of AIDS.)

Nevertheless, Santos’ plan for A Gathering was a scope that extended beyond our borders — both Dallas’ and the gay community’s.

“One of the discussions I’ve had with everyone is that it doesn’t all have to be about the gay community and doesn’t have to be literal. We all know the impact on the gay community, but this is a global issue — gay, straight, single, married. It is a human issue.

“As we’re talking about a particular emotion, we noted that something taken out of context can be very helpful — it doesn’t all have to be Rent and The Normal Heart and Angels in America. There will be a microphone close to the audience where people [including former Mayor Laura Miller and various TV news anchors] will do readings.

“We include facts that deal with the impact of AIDS in Africa, so we have a piece of choreography that’s a tribute to [ composer and activist] Fela Kuti, who died of AIDS. We have a statement about discrimination. The opera is sending us a countertenor to sing for us. Some of the AIDS quilt panels will be flown in and be on display.”

While some tickets have been set aside for clients of the AIDS organizations served by the benefit, Santos’ great hope is that the entire community turns out to participate and reflect on AIDS.

“I hope the community comes out for it. It will be an amazing show, a real spectacular,” he said.

Participating organizations include the AT&T Performing Arts Center, Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Bruce Wood Dance Project, CharlieUniformTango, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Dallas Opera, Dallas Theater Center, SMU Meadows School for the Arts, Texas Ballet Theater, TITAS and the Turtle Creek Chorale. Vocalists include Gary Lynn Floyd, Damon K. Clark, Denise Lee, Patty Breckenridge, John Holiday, Rachel Dupard and Cory Cooper.

Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St. Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. $12–$200. 214-880-0202.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 2, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Life as a Cabret

Scorsese shows a soft side with the children’s fantasy ‘Hugo;’ von Trier mixes opera with sci-fi in the navel-and-star-gazing drama ‘Melancholia’

HUGO

SAFETY LAST | The well worn kid-lit saw of an orphan (Asa Butterfield) hiding from thoughtless adults is given a silent-movie send up by Martin Scorsese in ‘Hugo.’

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

It would be nice to blame J.K. Rowling for ruining children’s literature for all time, but in fact Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis and others bear some of the responsibility. It has become now all-too-formulaic how (popular, at least) kid fantasy stories play out: An orphaned or neglected moppet (who came from the most loving family imaginable before falling on hard times) discovers a new friend, a nemesis who eventually becomes a friend, and an antagonist while living in a magical, Gothic castle that brings him extraordinary abilities.

Go ahead. Apply it to any kid’s fiction. I dare ya.

Hugo, the film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, cleaves so closely to this recipe, it would be momentous if even one second of the plot were able to catch you by surprise. It does not.

Hugo (the impossibly saucer-eyed Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of a Parisian train station (circa 1930), surreptitiously winding the giant clocks so no one will know his caretaker-uncle has disappeared and send Hugo to an orphanage. He scavenges food and supplies from shops in the station, eventually getting caught by Georges (Ben Kingsley), a curmudgeonly tinkerer and toy salesman. Georges has a secret (in this genre, everyone has a secret that could be easily told, except it wouldn’t leave any mystery; it’s borne of an WASPy sense of emotional repression and a desire to allow the plot to stretch out), so Hugo enlists Georges’ ward Hermione… er, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) to help him retrieve the notebook the man took from him.

The notebook, of course, is just another storytelling device (the McGuffin) that ultimately proves irrelevant, as so much of Hugo is. The film’s real goal is to stand as a paean to the silent film era, and especially the work of pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies.

And that’s where Hugo begins to get interesting.

The mushy themes and soft sense of innocent delight are ill-fitted to the director, Martin Scorsese, whose most prominent use of a child prior to this was probably Jodie Foster’s teen prostitute in Taxi Driver. Scorsese doesn’t approach most of the material with that harsh eye of his; he actually seems lost in it, charming himself with the story’s doe-eyed wonder. (The train station is as improbably kooky as the Wonka Candy Factory.)

But Scorsese sustains the film during its more familiar and less compelling periods with a movie fanatic’s appreciation for the art of the silent film. It is a victory of form over substance, as Scorsese recreates the visual cues first explored by the likes of Melies, as well as Chaplin, Keaton,

Harold Lloyd. Indeed, two key scenes mirror one another: One where Hugo takes Isabelle to her first movie (Lloyd’s Safety Last, where the comedian dangles dangerously from a tower while holding on to the hands of a clockface), and one later, where Hugo does the same thing while being chased by a station cop (Sacha Baron Cohen, whose rubbery face was made for silent film).

The structuring, photography and editing are such loving and eerily accurate reproductions of film classics, you’re tempted to hold your hands over your ears and experience Hugo the way Melies’ audiences would have A Trip to the Moon.

Still, a tone of wistful nostalgia permeates Hugo, and eventually dominates it. The fact it was made in (admittedly effective) 3D, however, only highlights its failings: Melies didn’t have such technology to keep audiences in awe. We may have come a long way since 1895 in some particulars, but originality of story is still in short supply.
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3

MARRIAGE AT THE END OF THE WORLD | ‘Melancholia’ is a sci-fi drama, about a bride (Kirsten Dunst, left), her citrus-lipped sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg, right) and the heavenly body hurtling toward earth.

There’s a difference between the nostalgia of Hugo and Melancholia, the new drama by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. Von Trier was one of the founders of the Dogme 95 filmmaking philosophy that touted minimalism over artifice, but his career has been a testament to the theory’s unworkability. Even in the wedding scenes in Melancholia that seem lifted directly from Festen (the first true Dogme feature — significantly, from a different director) reveal how the idea of steering clear of genre pictures is a boondoggle: Dogme 95 has become a shorthand for uncomfortable family get-togethers. (In the U.S., Rachel Getting Married felt like a Dogme film.)

When Von Trier is being minimalistic, he composes scenes steeped in pain and awkward, raw emotions, but his flamboyant side cannot resist peaking through, as it did in his masterpiece, Breaking the Waves.  Melancholia begins with an extended sequence of still shots, supersaturated in colors that make David LaChapelle photos look washed out, all set to a long, graceful overture from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. This isn’t film, it’s opera — big and bold and crazed with feeling.

Only it takes too much to get going. The confrontations — Charlotte Rampling giving an inappropriate wedding toast, Kirsten Dunst chastising Stellan Skarsgard and having her wedding called off, Charlotte Gainsbourg staring at something off-camera with a perpetual grimace clenched on her face — roll out with slow deliberation. There’s a lot going on here — not the least of which is a huge planet called Melancholia hurtling toward the earth, about to destroy all life on the planet — but it’s all so clinically presented, you don’t get caught up in it.

End of the world scenarios, from Last Night to Deep Impact to Armageddon, always trigger some amount of introspection, but Melancholia could use a little extroversion. It’s as caught up in itself as Hugo is the kid-lit genre, with no escape velocity.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 25, 2011.

 

—  Kevin Thomas

Sorry? No, ‘Grateful’

John Bucchino calls Stephen Schwartz his best friend and Stephen Sondheim his mentor. So how come he’s not a huge fan of musical theater?

I WRITE THE SONGS  |  Composer John Bucchino has his turn performing his music with a cabaret show at Theatre 3, which is holding a mini-festival of his music this fall.

I WRITE THE SONGS | Composer John Bucchino has his turn performing his music with a cabaret show at Theatre 3, which is holding a mini-festival of his music this fall.

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

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AN EVENING OF CABARET
Theatre 3, 2900 Routh St. in the Quadrangle. Nov. 17. 7:30 p.m.
$50. Theatre3Dallas.com.

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If you look at John Bucchino’s web page, you’re immediately struck by how, under “biography,” he lists only the compositions he’s written and recordings made of his songs and awards he’s received. No date of birth, no hometown, no pet peeves. It’s as if his life story can be expressed through his work alone.

And the thing is, Bucchino doesn’t really disagree with that.

“I guess I do feel that way,” he says with a sudden flash. “I figure on a website, it’s not about me as a person but me as a songwriter. I do feel the work — especially It’s Only Life and the albums — are incredibly open and incredibly vulnerable insights into me. Ninety percent of them are directly from experiences in my life. I’m so wrapped up in what I do — probably unhealthily so — but I’m perfectly open. I need to get those two things in a better balance.”

In fact, doing so might make for a good song.

It’s not as if Bucchino doesn’t have a fascinating story of his own. One of the most respected composers of cabaret songs for more than two decades, he broke into Broadway with the acclaimed 2008 musical A Catered Affair, which wraps up its regional premiere at Theatre 3 Saturday. But that’s hardly your last chance to experience Bucchino. On Nov. 17 — his birthday! — he’ll perform his one-man show at Theatre 3, and the next day, previews of his revue It’s Only Life begin in the Theatre Too space. It’s a mini-festival of Bucchino in Uptown.

It’s surprising — to Bucchino, especially — that he’s become a staple of Theatre 3’s schedule, since he personally never had much interest in musicals. Even today, while he numbers Stephen Sondheim as a mentor and calls Stephen Schwartz his best friend of 25 years (he even claims credit for getting Wicked made; more on that later), he doesn’t really “get” lots of theater references. In fact, he never intended to be a composer at all.
“When I started writing songs, my goal was to be a singer-songwriter,” he says. “I started out playing piano at age 1; it became my favorite toy and still is. I just started noodling around with songwriting, which naturally evolved out of playing piano in high school. I figured I’d be a [piano playing pop star] a la Elton John or Billy Joel. But noooobody was interested in me — they wouldn’t give me the time of day. It wasn’t on my radar that other people could sing my songs, but that’s what took off.”

His songs have been recorded by everyone from Barbara Cook (“It doesn’t get better than Barbara Cook — her version of ‘Sweet Dreams’ just knocks my socks off. But her version of anything knocks my socks off”), Kristen Chenoweth, Audra MacDonald and Patti LuPone; he wrote the music for a children’s book by Julie Andrews and her daughter; he calls Grateful probably his most important work. The song was also a watershed for him.

“It was Saturday. I was cleaning house and suddenly found myself at the piano playing the chorus for ‘Grateful’ and I just started to cry. But that’s as far as it went for month. Then came the sweat of crafting these lyrics and bridge around this perfect chorus,” he says.

Bucchino invited his friend Art Garfunkel over to listen to it and give feedback. As soon as it was over, Garfunkel said, “Don’t give that to anyone else: It’s mine.”

“From that reaction, I knew something was going to happen with it,” he says.

Still, his ascension to Broadway was a long one.

“I didn’t really know about live theater. I kind of thought of pop songwriting as somehow cooler — theater writing as less complex and two dimensional,” he says. “But Stephen Schwartz is the one who encouraged me to write for the theater.”

How can a gay guy involved in music not be a theater queen? Bucchino seems unfazed by the idea. He says he “wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with Stephen Sondheim” when Broadway’s greatest composer-lyricist called to say he was “really excited by my work.” But then came the pressure to produce something he wasn’t wholly conversant in. “It became terrifying to write for musical theater, because all these lofty people were encouraging me.”

A Catered Affair is his only show to open for a Broadway run, but his song cycles have been staples of regional theaters; Theatre 3’s Terry Dobson has been an especially enthusiastic supporter. (“I’m still not a musical theater geek just because I’ve done it,” he says.)

So how does he take responsibility for Wicked?

“Holly Near [for whom he has been a long-time accompanist] and I had gotten a gig to do a lesbian music festival on Maui. Stephen [Schwartz] was working on [the score for the animated film] Prince of Egypt in Los Angeles. I told him to come with me and we could hang out. He did. We were on a snorkeling trip with Holly and her partner and she said, ‘I just read the most interesting book.’” It turned out to be Wicked. When she described it to Schwartz, he immediately saw the potential to become a musical. “So if I hadn’t invited Stephen to vacation with us, it would never have happened!” Bucchino crows.

Bucchino acknowledges some have called his songs “not immediately hummable,” but that’s a good thing.

“That’s because you haven’t heard them before. I’d like to think that’s a reflection of my unique voice. What I go for in my writing is surprising inevitability — a chord progression or turn of phrase that makes you say, ‘I didn’t expect it to go there but, gee! How satisfying.’ I think the songs that are immediately memorable are derivative or formulaic in a way,” he says.

He also strives for a timelessness of sentiment, which is why, although often recorded by gay artists, his songs are usually gender neutral.

“If you look at the love songs on the Grateful CD, because I had not come out or to terms with my sexuality, I just decided not to use pronouns. There are no ‘he’ or ‘her,’ but ‘you.’ Maybe that’s a copout but also makes them more universal. We’re all people — gay or straight, male or female, we all go through the same stuff. I’m trying to reach that commonality which transcends gender or sexual orientation. Sometimes I wish my art were more overlapping into commerce, but I’m happy doing what I do.”

What’s the word? Oh, right: Grateful.

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

—  Michael Stephens

Gay Troubadour

Gary Lynn Floyd has a new name, a new CD and a new reality TV show

Screen-Shot-2011-10-04-at-9.45.55-AM

HAT TRICK | Floyd’s CD release party coincides with filming for his appearance on the new reality series ‘Troubador, TX.’

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

Gary Floyd has made a big decision: It’s time to use his middle name.

For years, if you Googled him, you’d be just as likely to get another gay Texas-based musician (he of the Butthole Surfers) as Dallas’ premier crooner. While he has “nothing against butthole surfing,” he says, it’s time to stake out his own identity.

May we introduce Gary Lynn Floyd.

People might not mistake them anymore anyway. This Floyd could set himself apart by being one of the musicians profiled on the new reality series Troubadour, Tx.

“They follow about 24 singer-songwriters — what we’re doing to make our way through the music business,” he explains. That means hauling his keyboard up the backstairs of Woody’s for a patio concert.

Piano? Gay bar? This ain’t no Logo show. The nationally syndicated series (available locally on KTXA Sundays at 10 p.m.) is about Texas musicians, most of whom are shit-kickin’ straight guitar-strummers, not gay pianists with a background in Christian music.

“I wasn’t really sure they knew what they were getting when they asked me,” Floyd says. He was recruited by a friend from the music business over the summer; he began filming in late August, and has shot for about four days so far.

Floyd hass been impressed by the production values, especially considering the quick turnaround — the series has already begun airing, even though production is still underway. Floyd is not sure when his profile will air — perhaps by the end of the month, perhaps early in 2012. But he’s still filming.

Screen shot 2011-11-03 at 7.04.21 PMIn fact, Floyd’s last planned segment shoots this Sunday at the Interfaith Peace Chapel at the Cathedral of Hope. The event will also serves as the launch party for Floyd’s latest CD.

“The [disc] is called Then+Now — it’s sort of a retrospective of my songs,” he says. “It combines the best songwriting,” and includes a duet with Denise Lee that he had never recorded. It promises to be a great showcase for his talents as well as his appeal to a variety of audiences. (A portion of proceeds will benefit the chapel.)

“I hope people show up!” Floyd says. No worries: If there’s one thing Dallasites have shown themselves good at lately, it’s appearing on reality TV.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 4, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas