Theatre 3 plans benefit concert to assist Derek Whitener

Theatre 3 announced today that it would be holding a special fundraising concert to benefit out actor and producer Derek Whitener.

Whitener, the artistic director of Firehouse Theatre in Farmers Branch, was brutally beaten with a pipe last week as he exited the Target near Cityplace east of Uptown. He has been at Baylor Hospital in serious condition ever since; he had to undergo brain surgery and has reportedly yet to speak.

The concert — which will be at T3 in the Quadrangle on Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 7:30 p.m. — is being organized by Calvin Scott Roberts, currently in Theatre 3’s presentation of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. He will be joined by Janelle Lutz, his co-star in that show, as well as Ian Mead Moore, Keith J. Warren, Alexandra Cassens and more.  Admission is free, but a cash donation to aid Whitener is requested.

In addition, supporters who can or cannot attend are directed to the GoFundMe page established by Whitener’s family. You can donate here.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Sign of the times

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Don Jones has been translating the arts for the hearing-impaired for more than a quarter century, but he’s not the only one … at least not anymore. Last month, Theatre 3 announced its partnership with the Deaf Action Center to begin interpreted performances of its shows this coming season, in both the mainstage and smaller Theatre Too space.

The first show to received simultaneous performance in American Sign Language is The Novelist, pictured, which is currently running, but if you missed it, just plan to attend the second Thursday of every show this season (except for Day Light, which will be interpreted on the third Thursday).

“Everyone at Theatre 3 is pleased about our new collaboration with Deaf Action Center,” says Merrie Brewer, T3’s managing director. “We truly want everyone to feel at home here.”

Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 12, 2016.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Stage review: ‘Psycho Beach Party’

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It is a testament to the complete saturation of absurdism in a Charles Busch play that literally any female character can effortlessly be turned into a man in drag. In the original off-Broadway version of Psycho Beach Party, Busch himself played the ingenue teen; in the film, he created a new role for himself as a female detective; and in the latest incarnation — at Theatre 3 until July 10 — Coy Covington dons a dress to play the ingenue’s mother, the kooky over-protective Mrs. Forrest. The lesson? Men in petticoats = comedy gold.

As its name suggest, Psycho Beach Party is a spoof of the dumb coastal comedies of the 1960s like Where the Boys Are and Beach Blanket Bingo — inane, predictable, empty-calorie bites of eye candy. But Busch’s construct is more subversive: He combines that quintessential ’60s film genre with two others (Grand Guignol melodramas and lurid slasher films), throws in a substantial dose of homoeroticism and a Marilyn Monroe wannabe (Grace Neeley, stealing her scenes), and voila! A pastiche punch that exemplifies camp.

The secret weapon of PBP is that it cannot be over-played, as Covington proves in his over-the-top scenes. He twirls and mugs and winks like Bette Davis taking a bong hit from Joan Crawford’s LSD-laced cremains. And Jenna Anderson as the flat-chested teen with more psychotic personalities than Sybil plays the ugly duckling loser with as much gusto as the crazy alter egos. And you really can’t under-estimate the appeal of a quartet of bikini-clad musclemen (Jacob Lewis, Blake Lee, Heath Billups, Zach Valdez) shaking their moneymakers with a seductive innocence that raises the temperature in the theater.

Director Bruce R. Coleman doesn’t hold back, tossing in every kitschy music cue and outrageous dance move he can, though the pacing flails wildly from madcap to stagnant. Then again, so did those beach movies. …

Arnold Wayne Jones

Theatre 3, 2900 Routh St. Through July 10. Theatre3Dallas.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 1, 2016.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Theatre Too announces upcoming season

nancegroup2BBruce R. Coleman, the acting artistic director of Theatre 3, has announced the 2016–17 season for the company’s downstairs black box space, called Theatre Too.

The season starts with The Sum of Us (Sept. 1–25), a comedy-drama about the relationship between a widower and his gay son. Mark C. Guerra will direct. Next up will be A Christmas Carol: The Radio Show (Nov. 25–Dec. 11), which returns from last year’s run. B.J. Cleveland, pictured, once again performs the one-man tour-de-force. Another popular staple takes over after that, with I Love You, You’re Perfect Now Change (Dec. 29–Feb. 12, 2017… though expect an extension, as usually happens with this show). The romantic musical revue will be directed by Cleveland.

There’s another revival of sorts with The Empress, The Lady and The Pearl, Part II: Miss Billie and Miss Freddie (March 23–April 16, 2017). Denise Lee, who played blues legend Bessie Smith (“The Empress”) in Part I earlier this year, comes back, this time as Billie Holliday. The season will end with Con McPherson’s thriller The Birds (May 25–June 18, 2017), based on the Daphne Du Maurier novella (and also the basis for the Hitchcock film). Tickets are available here.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Time and tide

‘Show Boat,’ ‘Big Meal,’ ‘Empress’ movingly portray the full landscape of life

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Lara Tetter, above right, steals scenes in Dallas Opera’s ‘Show Boat. (Photo by Karen Almond)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Theater is a matter of life and death in North Texas this month — literally.

Screen shot 2016-04-21 at 3.00.58 PMAt WaterTower Theatre, the entire life-cycle is at issue in The Big Meal, a tender, funny, painfully real portrait of a family from courtship to death. It starts with two 20somethings Nicki and Sam (Kia Boyer and Garret Storms), meeting for an awkward first date or two, usually over dinner and drinks. With the chime of a bell, it’s now at least a decade later, with Nicki and Sam now played by Sherry Hopkins and Jakie Cabe. They reignite their relationship, and to the surprise of both, agree to marry … just so long as they don’t have children. A chime later, and two rug-rats (Kennedy Waterman and Alex Duva) come running in — apparently the call of biology was too much to resist.

The play continues on that way, with abrupt changes of setting and time … as well as cast. At first, John S. Davies and Lois Sonnier Hart play Sam’s parents; by they end, they are portraying Sam and Nicki themselves, now great-grandparents of pairs of kids (Cabe and Hopkins), grandkids (Storms and Boyer), etc.

Sound confusing? It’s really not, though it does demand your attention, something you willing give over as you become inextricably rapt by the authenticity of the lives of this family, which include dating, divorce, infidelity, cancer and of course death — the “big meal” in playwright Dan LeFranc’s construct. Each time the stage manager steps onstage with a full plate of food and a napkin-wrap of silverware, it’s someone’s turn to eat … and walk off-stage forever. Dinner becomes a form of Russian roulette.

Initially, the speed of the transitions, and the unmiked voices, force you to strain a bit to catch everything. And then you realize that director Emily Scott Banks is doing that intentionally, making you lean forward and engage. It’s a crafty way to rope you in, and for 100 uninterrupted minutes, she makes you laugh and breaks your heart. By the end, with Sam quaking from Parkinson’s, his mind fading as Nicki feeds him one last time, you’re wrecked. (Damn her montage of couples — gay and straight — and exquisite use of music to pluck at our emotions!)

The cast ably serves Banks’ vision. Storms is a protean actor who, better than anyone on North Texas stages right now, fluidly transforms from one type to another (a scene where he portrays every boyfriend Boyer’s character ever brought home is a subtle tour-de-force). Waterman — barely a teen — wowed audiences in Harbor and Daffodil Girls, and cements her rep as a “kid” actor with mature talent. Of all local theater companies, WaterTower seems the one most consistently occupied with telling the human experience with kitchen-sink verisimilitude. The Big Meal adds to that catalogue, a kind of modern-day Our Town. Come prepared to cry.

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Kia Boyer and Garret Storms, above, begin a romance that becomes an entire lifetime in WTT’s ‘Big Meal.’ (Photo by Karen Almond)

You might well cry throughout Show Boat, too — the final production of the Dallas Opera’s current season and the first time the company has produced an American-style musical, not a traditional opera (though it’s actually more of an operetta). The songs — “Ol’ Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Bill” — are firmly ensconced as charter entrants in the Great American Songbook, and as delivered here, wrenching arias as well-honed as Mozart’s “Porgi amor” or Offenbach’s “Barcarolle.” Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II may not have reputations as “opera composers,” but their work stands with some of the greats.

It helps that the Dallas Opera has assembled a cast that not only sings with the strength of opera, but can act up a storm.
The story revolves around Magnolia Hawks (soprano Andriana Chuchman), a young girl touring with her parents about the Cotton Blossom, a moving river boat that wanders the Mississippi at the turn of the last century, performing overwrought melodramas for residents of the port towns. She meets the gambler Gaylord Ravenal (baritone Michael Todd Simpson), a tall and impressive dandy who sweeps her off her feet, giving her and their daughter a good life until his losses pile up, and Magnolia is forced to work for a living, becoming a celebrated singer.

Chuchman and Simpson have real chemistry, which you feel during their duet “Make Believe.” But it’s soprano Alyson Cambridge as the tragic Miss Julie LaVerne, a half-black actress “passing” for white in the segregated south, who delivers the show’s major knockout punch. “Bill” sounds like a novelty song — a sweet, goofy ballad about a woman infatuated by her seemingly average boyfriend — but Cambridge turns it in a breathtaking torch song of an alcoholic has-been, giving her all at the end of her career. And basso-profundo Morris Robinson brings it for his (and the show’s) signature song, “Ol’ Man River.”

As is often the case, the comic role of Cap’n Andy is a scene-stealer, and the limber dancer Lara Teeter commits grand theft. It’s a joyously upbeat performance in a show filled with as many dour moments as colorful bustles — the prototype for the modern musical, conducted with brio by Emmanuel Villaume.

Music is essential to another downbeat story about life and death. It’s Oct. 4, 1970, and Janis Joplin (Marisa Diotalevi) is drowning her sorrows in an L.A. hotel room when her idol — the late blues great Bessie Smith (M. Denise Lee) — seems to step out of the album she’s listening to and enters Janis’ world. Janis has died of a drug overdose and is just beginning to realize it; Bessie apparently is there to ease her transition into the afterlife.

The meeting of these musical greats, both cut down at the peak of their skills (Joplin at age 27, Smith at 43), forms the crux of Dianne Tucker’s reverie on American Music The Empress and the Pearl, now at Theatre 3’s downstairs space. Through songs (mostly Smith’s), conversation and some theatrical exposition, Tucker delineates the similarities between the performers, but also their differences as people and artists.

It’s not a balanced portrait. Joplin comes off as the more ungrateful and self-destructive of the two, a self-indulgent narcissist who ruined her raspy voice by burning out her soulfulness too recklessly, as well as ill-conceived romances with men and women. That’s something she shared with Smith, a sexually voracious singer who truly lived the blues.

Neither Lee nor Diotalevi look or sound much like their avatars, but it hardly matters; Lee in particular has the rich vocal chops to turn the small underground space into a Depression-era speakeasy. You can practically smell the gin in this cabaret.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 22, 2016.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

STAGE REVIEW: ‘Light Up the Sky’

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Hess, Cavanaugh, Coffee and Mackay play up the comedy in ‘Light Up the Sky’

Post-modernism has made it all but impossible to enjoy certain mid-century comedies anymore. Audiences are savvy now — they carry irony with them like rosaries at a convent. At times, it’s more of an impediment than it should be, as with Light Up the Sky, the Moss Hart-written play now at Theatre 3.

The premise is pure Inside Showbiz: A new play is getting its first out-of-town tryout in Boston and all those who’ve read it agree it’s a work of genius on par with Aristotles Poetics. At least until opening night, when walkouts, titters and the opinions of the producer (David Coffee), star’s mom (Ivy Opdyke) and even a rival playwright (Doug Fowler) proclaim it an allegorical disaster. That’s when the star (Lydia Mackay), producer and director (Bob Hess) start blaming each other, and especially the playwright (Seth Monhollon), for saddling them with a bomb.

The leading roles are as impeccably performed as the script allows. Hess received an ovation for his entrance before delivering a line of dialogue, coming at us with more camp than a Boy Scout Jamboree. Coffee’s blustery slow-burning mogul and Mackay’s cryptic diva banter like The Honeymooners. Opdyke’s droll, drunken sass and Jessica Cavanaugh’s charm add fine support.

But the script is its own distraction. We know too much now about how the business — and art — of the stage really work; musicals like The Producers and Curtains are set in basically the same era, but written with a contemporary eye that let’s you know they’re in on the joke. Not so here, where the very conceit of the plot is hard to swallow. The dialogue is frequently clunky and painfully expositional; Monhollon and Fowler in particular are sentenced to speak Hart’s Big Pronouncements about The Theatuh. That’s a big hurdle to clear, but this cast does its game best.

Theatre 3, 2900 Routh St. Through April 3.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Stage reviews: ‘Grand Hotel,’ ‘Picnic’

Pyeatt and Deaton in ‘Grand Hotel’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Memorial service tonight for Jac Alder

jacalder01Jac Alder, the long-serving founder and artistic director of Theatre 3 who died in late May at 80 after a long illness, will be remembered in a memorial service tonight.

The service will be held at City Performance Hall, 2520 Flora St., in the Downtown Arts District. Complimentary parking will be provided at the Lexus Silver Parking Garage next door. It begins at 6 p.m.

Friends and colleagues, as well as fans of Theatre 3 and Alder’s more than half-century of dedication to theater in North Texas, are all invited to attend.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Lights will be dimmed Friday in honor of Jac Alder

City Performance Hall and the Winspear Opera House will darken their marquee and lobby lights on Friday at 7 p.m. in honor of Theatre 3 founder Jac Alder, who died last week at age 80tides-1. He was the longest  continuously-serving arts company director in the U.S.

Theatre 3’s board also issued a statement mourning Alder’s passing today. The board revealed the establishment of the Jac Alder Memorial Fund to continue the arts leader’s legacy. A memorial honoring him will be held at CPH on July 13 at 6 p.m.

Bruce Coleman was announced as acting artistic director, with Marty Van Kleeck serving as advisor.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Remembering Jac Alder

A photo I took of Jac as the Arts District went online.

I’ve known Jac Alder for many years, but not nearly as many — not by a long shot — as he has been an arts leader in Dallas. In fact, he has led Theatre 3 for longer than I have been alive … and I’m not a kid. So yeah, maybe for a decade or so I was privileged to say, “Hi, Jac,” or even set up a photo shoot with him or get an exclusive or two in a private conversation, but if you wanna know someone who knew Jac Alder best, well, hell — it wasn’t me.

In many ways, I bet it was Terry Dobson, who was the music director at T3 for nearly 35 years and worked closely with Jac. Sadly, Terry died of sepsis just a few weeks ago … just as Jac checked into the hospital in respiratory distress. Jac’s condition was serious, but he seemed to be improving last I heard. So when word spread last night that Alder had passed away at age 80 … well, it’s a lot to digest in a short period of time.

Jac was widely acknowledged as the longest-serving artistic director of any arts organization in the U.S., which he cofounded (with his late wife Norma Young) in 1961; notably, Jac died just after the final show of the company’s 54th season concluded — Jac knew how to make a timely exit.

That’s because he did it all — not only as a producer and artistic director, but also as an actor (I saw him several time trod the boards, and he was brilliant each time), an entrepreneur (he turned himself in a puppet to give the curtain speech at Avenue Q), a director and occasionally as a designer. He could be prickly, but also droll; fiercely opinionated but also flexible; charming (the first time I met him he told me, “I’ve heard many excellent things about you … but I won’t say from whom”) and defiant. As a critic, I would sometimes write negative reviews of shows he produced, and I could usually tell when he disagreed with me, but never was he rude. He was the gentleman of Dallas theater.

He was savvy, as well, in helping Theatre 3 grow. When it had a reputation for doing “safe” work, he took some risks and put on plays with nudity (Metamorphoses, The Wild Party, The Full Monty), interspersed with Agatha Christie thrillers and song-filled revues. The mission statement of Theatre 3 says it took its name from the interplay between author, actor and audience; Jac really tried to embody that in every production. No one cared more about theater that Jac.

Few cared more about his fellow man, as well. Jac nurtured the young careers of such folks as Morgan Fairchild and Doug Wright; he was well-known to employ theater professionals who needed work so that they could keep their health insurance; he was supportive of AIDS causes and a long-standing friend of the gay community. Theatre 3 embraced its Uptown neighbors.

So, I didn’t know Jac as well as many other people. But I knew him well enough: Through his largesse, his artistry, his commitment. He wasn’t a tall man; but he was a giant.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones