This week’s takeaways: Life+Style

After two weeks of “soft opening” service, last night Monica’s Nueva Cocina and ME Lounge on Cedar Springs in the ilume had its “official” opening with open bar and passed hors d’oeuvres. Monica told me there’s always a honeymoon phase where people love ya … it’s six months on when you know if you’re a hit. I’ve eaten there a few times already. A review will come next month, but you might wanna start making your reservations…

Over at the Winspear, Chicago (pictured) is back, and it’s surprisingly not stale, even after countless productions ever since the 1996 revival. And John O’Hurley can actually sing! And if you go on Tuesday — or even if you just have some free time — I’ll be doing my usually GLBT Broadway lecture at 7 p.m. in Hamon Hall before the show, pointing out ways you might enjoy the gay text and subtext better. Then on Thursday, Casa Manana puts on a local professional production of Greater Tuna — something of a coup, as authors-stars Jaston Williams and Joe Sears often guard licensing carefully in their home turf. But with David Coffee in many of the roles, it’s sure to be funny. And Sweeney Todd continues over at KD Studio Theatre.

The fourth annual Pink Party features tons of musicians and other acts (burlesque? Uh-huh) on both floors of the ladies’ club, all raising money for breast cancer research. It’s at Sue Ellen’s tonight. There will be fundraising as well with the men, ginning up bucks for Resource Center Dallas. Honey Pot II: Summer Chill is a Sunday afternoon beer bash at Dallas Eagle, with members of the Dallas Diablos in attendance.

There are also several drag opportunities this week. In addition to the shows at the Rose Room and other clubs, Cassie Nova hosts the “turnabout” show of Caven employees at JR.’s on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, Celeste Martinez is M.C. of Miss Gay Highland Park at the Round-Up Saloon.

And at the movies, the last performance by Whitney Houston is preserved in the new release Sparkle, with American Idol winner Jordin Sparks sharing screen time.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

This week’s takeaways: Life+Style

After a slightly slow patch for both theater and concerts, this week things are heating up — especially for those looking for something with gay appeal.

Gay crooner Jay Brannan returns to Dallas on Monday for an appearance at Sons of Hermann Hall, and The Voice‘s Nakia is generating buzz in the bear community — he’ll be at All Good Cafe Friday night. And the local singers are nothing to sneeze at, either, as the Voice of Pride contest has its final round in the Rose Room on Sunday night.

Over at Level Ground Arts, John de los Santos directs Andi Allen and Shane Strawbridge in Sondheim’s masterpiece, Sweeney Todd. Meanwhile, the very gay-friendly shows Present Laughter, The Importance of Being Lovely, Avenue Q and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat continue their runs (Joseph closes on Sunday). Then on Tuesday, Chicago opens at the Winspear for a two-week run.

The Bourne Legacy — the espionage series reboot with Jeremy Renner as the new superspy — opens Friday alongside Zach Galifianakis as a superfey congressional candidate in The Campaign.

On the more interactive side, both AWOL — The Leather Knights’ A Weekend of Leather event — and Fruit Bowl get underway this weekend. Whichever you go to, expect to see a lot of balls.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Going bi (coastal)

2 weeks, 2 cities, 2 coasts! Part 1 of our U.S. winter east-to-west tour: NYC

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BERN THE FLOOR | Bernadette Peters returns to B’way for more Sondheim in the smash revival of ‘Follies.’ (Photo courtesy Joan Marcus)

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

What’s it like to, in one week, clock time on both major coasts in America’s two largest cities? For New York in winter, it’s all about theater; in Hollywood, it’s about the movies (and the weather, a welcome break from the cold). And both have great places to eat.
First up: NYC. This time of year, the wind bites through you there, so a trip has to be based on the theater season, which is at its midpoint. Some of the hits have become apparent and new ones promise something great in the spring.

Follies isn’t the not-to-miss Sondheim experience that A Little Night Music was last year — at least after Bernadette Peters took over for Catherine Zeta-Jones — but it is all Bernadette, without replacement — though she shares the limelight with Jan Maxwell, who almost steals the show. Seldom staged because of its huge cast, elaborate costumes and sets, Follies is a nostalgic take on the fate of musical theater as viewed from 40 years ago; little has changed.

But it also crystallized Sondheim’s peculiar thematic preoccupation with nostalgia. See it, and you instantly realize how many of his shows are about the wistful, bittersweet resignation from looking back on one’s youth: In Follies, the younger selves of the ageing chorus girls; in Sweeney Todd, a life lost to a corrupt judge; the rekindling of a long-dead romance in Night Music; the simplicity (or not?) of the fairy tale world of Into the Woods. This production is a wonderful reminder of that and much more, beautifully performed by an exceptional cast.

Follies closes this weekend; not so Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which officially opened last week. The quintessential American opera, set along Charleston’s Catfish Row, it evokes rural life through the sound of the spiritual mixed with honkytonk abandon. This new production, with the incomparable Audra McDonald in the lead and Dallas’ own Cedric Neal among the company, was the only show every employee at the TKTS booth unconditionally recommended … and for good reason. Get up and see it.

Both of those shows are revivals; original musicals are in short supply this season — at least those with any staying power. Bonnie & Clyde and the Dallas-bred Lysistrata Jones died quickly (the latter despite a rave in the New York Times; still, look for Liz Mikel a possible Tony nominee in May). Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark continues to draw crowds in amounts equal to the contempt held by the theater community, but it has been around since 2010 thanks to a record-setting six months of previews.

The big new musicals of the season have yet to open: Rebecca, Once, Newsies, Ghost and the pastiche Nice Work if You Can Get It (more Gershwin). So go up now for some plays, which are significantly less expensive to see and good seats are more readily available.

Another revival, Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, isn’t totally successful, although its tight second act — featuring a tremendously devilish performance by Jim Dale as a sleazy preacher in South Africa trying to trick an old lady into giving up her house — nearly vindicates the logy first act, which prattled on endlessly and without seeming point. By the end, though, you realize the message of faith versus religion versus spirituality, plus you get to see a classic theater actor, Rosemary Harris, onstage right next door to Spider-Man (she played Aunt Mae in the film versions — how’s that for coincidence?).

The best new plays now running should be on any theatergoer’s list. Seminar is Theresa Rebeck’s smart, fast-paced comedy about a pompous but oh-so-perceptive writing teacher instructing four aspiring novelists about how bad they really are … and how they could be great. As the sardonic anti-hero, the magnificent Alan Rickman commands the stage. At a climactic point, he delivers a monologue that could have seemed trite and mawkish, except that Rebeck’s writing is so strong and he’s such an accomplished actor it works wonderfully. Hamish Linklater provides a terrific foil, and Lily Rabe, as a tart upper-class dilettante, handles Sam Gold’s bullet direction masterfully. No one even pauses for the laughs. That’s a good way to get audiences back  — so they can hear the jokes they missed this first time.

David Henry Hwang returns to Broadway with his best play since the gender-bending M. Butterfly. Chinglish(which closes Jan. 29) pits a plainspoken Midwesterner against the opaque business customs and complex social rules of China, but the point is broader. The problem of communication is not just between two cultures, but between men and women, and business-folk trying to gain an edge. Intelligently plotted and sharply directed by Leigh Silverman (the use of supertitles projected on the dazzlingly versatile set is inspired), it benefits from a memorable performance by Jennifer Lim as a canny Chinese functionary.

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GRADE A | Public, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Nolita, offers great food in a high school themed setting. (Photo courtesy Public)

Of course, a theater trip to New York necessarily includes more than theater: You have to eat while you’re there, and the tradition of the pre- and post-theater meal is as honored as the show itself. It’s easy to get stuck along the stand-bys around Times Square (I always stop by John’s Pizzeria), but two newish restaurants — one far uptown, one far down — make for inventive off-the-beaten-path dining experiences.

Public, a Michelin-starred resto in Nolita, boasts something few Midtown restaurants can: space. Inspired by a public high school: Its dining rooms are lined with card catalogues, its security-glass doored bathrooms so authentic you expect to get a swirly, its menus presented on clipboards in a style that calls an exam paper (for a minute, I worried the waiter would grade me on how well I ordered). If it were all gimmick and no follow-through, these conceits would probably seem annoyingly twee, but they take a backseat to the food.

Its fusion dining from chef Brad Farmerie, with diverse dishes like roasted foie gras on a buttered brioche that’s richly flavorful, both fruity and salty; the scallops, while not fully caramelized, were so well-dressed with a miso salsa as to make you forgive that. For entrees, the Chatham cod’s fleshy, moist but well-charred preparation is not to miss, nor are the medallions of rare venison on a chewy blue cheese mash evocative of gnocchi. Add a great wine list, and Public is the perfect out-of-the-way find that makes a New York trip fun.

Red Rooster from celebrichef Marcus Samuelsson is out of the way in a different direction. Born in Africa but adopted by Swedes, Samuelsson gained fame at Aquavit, which made Scandinavian food hip. Now, he’s embraced the food of the African-American community.

He dropped Red Rooster, which opened about a year ago, in the middle of Harlem at the famed intersection of Lenox Avenue and 125th Street (the Apollo Theater is around the corner), giving neighbors, savvy downtowners and adventurous out-of-towners a polished (if slightly pricey) take on down-home cooking.

Samuelsson offers up droll reinventions of soul food classic like must-have “yard bird” (that’s just chicken — $24) fried in a crisp batter that has hints of cinnamon, perched on a bed of cheesy mashed potatoes and with a spicy-spicy house sauce that could bring out the secret flavors in a rice cake.

His Helga’s meatballs ($24) are equally delish, a kind of strange take on Thanksgiving with a lingonberry relish and paper-thin but crunchy housemade pickles, served alongside dill potatoes. It’s remarkable, how this comfort food warms you even though you’d never had it before. Hint: Start your meal with a side of mini tacos and tostadas ($9), four bite-sized bits of ceviche that are the perfect way to whet your appetite.

The bar is exceptional both in appearance (a bulbous horseshoe, topped in shiny copper) and substance — a drink menu worth repeated visits. Try the flight of craft beers ($9), or the Brownstoner ($12), a dazzling modification of the Manhattan. There’s even live music some evenings, giving you the true Harlem experience without having to brave a pub-and-club crawl in the frigid cold.

You don’t have to worry about the cold in Los Angeles … which will be the upcoming part 2.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 20, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

‘Shop’ keeper

Little Shop of Horrors may have the catchiest pop score composed for a Broadway musical in the past 30 years. There has been rock-ier, toe-tapping-er, more bombastic music written in that time perhaps, but for the sheer joy of storytelling through sprightly, smart songs? I can think of no comparisons. It remains the only cast album I ever purchased during intermission of its performance; even if there were no songs in Act 2, I reasoned, Act 1 was a worthy investment, starting with the anthemic fugue “Skid Row” and continuing through its pastiche of doo-wop choruses and power ballads like “Suddenly, Seymour.” (The team that wrote it, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, went on to be Disney’s resident writing geniuses: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin.)

The production by WaterTower Theatre, now onstage in Addison, doesn’t do full justice to its very able source material. Long before Avenue Q, Little Shop pioneered the use of puppets to turn kiddie entertainment into something adult and disturbing: It’s Sweeney Todd with jokes.

Or it should be. There are missed comic opportunities in the story of schlubby floral shop worker Seymour (Jason Kennedy) who cultivates a man-eating plant to win the affections of abused shopgirl Audrey (Mary Gilbreath Grim, pictured with Kennedy). There are missteps in the design as well (the normally reliable Aaron Patrick Turner eschews character-appropriate costumes — Audrey for one should be a lot trashier — for pretty, tailored pieces that make no sense). But the magic of the show works its way through.

Grim does an admirable job turning Audrey, so closely identified with Ellen Greene’s idiosyncratic charm on film and stage, into her own creation, and the tango between Seymour and his boss Mushnik (Randy Pearlman) is winsome. But the star of the show is Alex Organ in a host of roles, most notably a sadistic dentist. Organ (gangly, limber, rubber-mugged) commits fully, throws himself physically into every scene. He’s funny, cruel, goofy, protean — and, along with the score, an excellent reason to patronize this Little Shop.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

Through Aug. 21. WaterTowerTheatre.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 29, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

From light to darkness

‘B’way Our Way’ takes it up a notch; ‘Language of Angels’ best left unheard

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

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PUTTIN’ ON THE GLITZ | Coy Covington and Drew Kelly display some sassy showmanship in Uptown Players’ annual fundraiser, ‘Broadway Our Way: Divas Rising.’

I kind of miss the old Broadway Our Way, Uptown Players’ annual comedy-musical showcase that served as a season-kickoff and fundraiser for the gaycentric theater troupe. When the company performed at the Trinity River Arts Center in a 120-seat auditorium, there was intimacy and love as local actors, musicians and directors volunteered their time with limited sets and costumes to put on a show the old-fashioned way.

Now that the show (like all Uptown shows) is performed at the historic Kalita Humphreys Theater, there’s more gravitas and less camaraderie. It’s not just a fundraiser; it’s An Event.

When you walk into the latest incarnation, Divas Rising, you can’t help but be impressed by the monster set, the use of the giant lazy susan stage, the many costumes and two-dozen performers. It’s a true production.

We can lament the all-in-this-together quality falling by the wayside, but we have to acknowledge how important it is for Uptown, in its 10th season, to have come so far so fast. This is slick theater — and still mounted, as a labor of love, by the talent onstage and behind the scenes — as usual, Andi Allen wrote and directed, with hip parodies of Glee and a swishy camp sensibility that plays well with the mixed audience.

Among the performers are some of Dallas’ best, who sing songs originally written for members of the opposite sex. That allows Wendy Welch to soar on the (now-lesbified) love ballad “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd and Rick Starkweather to jerk unexpected tears from my eyes on “I’m Not That Girl” from Wicked. It gives Natalie King a perfect-fit 11 o’clock number in “Memphis Lives in Me” and host Paul J. Williams free rein to vamp with the audience as Sister Helen Holy.

This year’s version of BOW is perky in Act 1, downbeat in Act 2, but then, like Glee, it ends with “Don’t Stop Believin’.” We believe guys;
we still believe.
If BOW keeps it light and gay, Language of Angels, in the appropriately cavernous space at Theatre Too, is dark as night.

The premise is intriguing: While out with friends, a teenaged girl disappears in the labyrinth of caves in the North Carolina mountains. Was she killed? Did she slip? Or did something else entirely happen to her? And why?

These kinds of mysteries are perfect grist for drama, from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to the new AMC series The Killing to Peter Weir’s allegorical film Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s OK for these stories to luxuriate in the unanswerable, to raise existential questions and challenge us to understand.

Language of Angels does none of that, though it tries — oh, how it tries. It’s a muddle of naïve and conflicting ideas told out of time with deep pretension.

Playwright Naomi Iizuka is so fond of her own sense of language, she makes her characters say things they never would. (One beer-swilling mountain boy describes the “fuchsia” accents on his girlfriend’s tattoo; I doubt even the gay boys in Carolina say fuchsia, for crying out loud.) And it all takes place in near darkness. I doubt even the enhanced interrogation techniques usedat Gitmo to squeeze bin Laden’s location out of Taliban loyalists could be more excruciating than the first half hour of this play.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 13, 2011.

 


—  Kevin Thomas