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

Terry Dobson, longtime actor and musician, has died

11182129_10153223194264417_6063514439171344223_nTerry Dobson, who for 30-plus years served as a music director, keyboardist, actor, playwright and bon vivant in the Dallas theater community, died last night. He was 59.

It was hard to miss Terry. Standing six-foot-six and cutting a lanky silhouette with a Marty Feldman-esque mug, he towered over theater lobbies. But much of his career, mostly as the musical director at Theatre 3, was spent behind the scenes, arranging scores of the musicals performed there, usually leading the band and playing keyboards. He once arranged a piece for Stephen Sondheim which the composer was pleased with; he loved to tell that story.

But Terry could also be frequently seen in front of the limelights. He performed in the Tony Award-winning three-hander Art at FMPAT, as well as numerous shows at Theatre 3. He last trod the boards in Assassins playing the would-be presidential murderer Sam Byck.

But the show Terry will be most closely associated with will surely be My Own Private Diva, a more-or-less solo show about his journey from his native Slapout, Ala., to the big city of Dallas. The play was also a love letter to his best friend and muse, local actress Sally Soldo.

Soldo was with Terry and members of his family when he passed away last night in New York City. Plans are currently underway to arrange for a cremation. Dallas memorial services are pending.

Terry was a longtime HIV survivor, and was very open about his status. About a year ago, his health took a serious turn which necessitated him stepping down from his duties at Theatre 3. But in recent weeks, he had bounced back. Personally, I ran into Sally and Terry about a month ago at the Dallas Summer Musicals. He was in good spirits and alert and friendly. “He was in great shape and happy,” Soldo told me. “We were [recently] at [Theatre 3's production of] Hot Mikado and a big Easter celebration with his extended family. This was very sudden.”

His fatal illness was not only unexpected, but unrelated to his HIV status.  A few weeks ago, Terry took a trip to New York City to take in some Broadway shows. The day after one, he fell quickly ill and was admitted into a hospital. He had developed sepsis owing to a perforated ulcer. He was treated with antibiotics and seemed to be improving. Then he developed some abscesses and his condition worsened over the weekend. Soldo flew to his side Tuesday to meet with the family.

This is one of several sadnesses visited upon Theatre 3′s staff recently. The company’s founding producer, Jac Alder — the longest-serving artistic director of an arts organization in the U.S., having helmed it for more than 50 years — was recently admitted to Baylor’s ICU for treatment of pneumonia. Until he is released, which will hopefully be in a few days, plans for a memorial for Dobson are on hold.

“Terry hated memorial services,” Soldo said. “When he had to play music for them, he ducked out as soon as it was over. So I don’t know what we will be doing, but I am sure it will involve chocolate.”

Terry would have appreciated that.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEW: ‘Shear Madness’ at T3

shearmadness_verticle_1Theatre 3 has turned its smaller, downstairs Theatre Too space into a kind of living museum of reliable shows. I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change keep coming back, an Avenue Q ran there for upwards of a year. Currently, it’s the home for Shear Madness, one of the more enduring regional shows for nearly four decades. (It’s been playing in Boston since about 1980 and has been in the District of Columbia for 27 years.)

As much a game as a piece of theater, it’s set in Uptown Dallas’ Shear Madness salon (the location is flexible from production to production, as are the time-sensitive jokes with pop culture references). Run by flamboyant stylist Tony Whitcomb (B.J. Cleveland), it’s the setting for a murder, a respected concert pianist and Tony’s landlady. Who committed the crime? Tony? His saucy assistant, Barbara (Sherry Hopkins)? Muddle-headed socialite Mrs. Schubert (Gene Raye Price)? Shady antique dealer Eddie Lawrence (David Meglino)? Cops Nick (Bradley Campbell) and Mikey (Matthew Clark) want to find out.

And that’s where the audience comes in. Midway through Act 1, the house lights come up, and attendees are invited to ask questions, assist in restaging the events and suggest theories (which the characters might be able to explain away). The audience then even votes on who the killer is.

This isn’t the inventor of audience participation theater. Peter Pan requires children to clap if they want Tinkerbell to live, and British pantos — children’s holiday plays — rely on hissing, sing-alongs and such. And of course, both the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood and the film Clue vary their endings (one with audience votes, one with the luck of the draw). The effectiveness usually depends upon the improv skills of the cast and the engagement of the audience.

At press night for Shear Madness, the audience was involved but sometimes puzzled about how to proceed, and the finale lacked some punch. Until then, though, the play is a hoot — not subtle by any means, but silly fun. The one-liners include a slew of groaners (as up-to-date as references to Solange Knowles) with a Mad-Libs mentality (insert cagey reference to Dallas culture here). But the cast is energetic, with Cleveland exhausting as the frenetic flirt (following Pageant, this is the second show in a row with Cleveland where the audience votes on the outcome), and the slapstick works most of the time, especially in the garishly decorated set. Shear Madness is set to run most of the summer in Theatre Too; it’s a good way to get away from the heat and have a rollicking few hours of nonsense.

Through July 20 at Theatre 3.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

T3, TITAS unveil 2014-15 seasons

Dallas’ Doug Wright

It’s art awareness week in Dallas (unofficially), with Theatre 3 and TITAS announcing their new seasons, and WaterTower’s due on Thursday.

Theatre 3′s mainstage season officially opens in August, with Candy Barr’s Last Dance, by local playwright Ronnie Claire Edwards. It tells the story of the colorful Dallas stripper of the 1940s and ’50s. (Aug. 7–31.) It’s followed in the fall by gay Dallas-bred playwright Doug Wright’s most recent Broadway show, the musical Hands on a Hard Body, based on the documentary set in Texas. (Sept. 25–Oct. 19.)

The holiday production will be a musical by lesbian playwright and Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive) called Civil War Christmas, set along the Potomac during the bitter winter of 1864. (Nov. 20–Dec. 14.)

Texas favorite Jaston Williams is on deck for the debut of Jay Presson Allen’s Tru, a one-man show about Truman Capote. Williams has performed the play elsewhere, to great acclaim. (Jan. 8–Feb. 8, 2015.)  That’s followed by Hot Mikado, an outlandish adaptation of the Gilbert & Sullivan classic. (March 12–April 5.)

The sixth show of the season (scheduled for May 2015) has not be announced, but the season closer will be The Liar, Corneille’s classic comedy adapted by David Ives. (June 25–July 19.) In addition, the black box Theatre Too space will, once again, bring back gay writer Joe DiPietro’s I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change in time for Valentine’s Day. (Jan. 15, 2015 with no set closing date.) You can see more about the season, including season tickets, at Theatre3Dallas.com.

Over in the Arts District, TITAS — which is recent seasons has cultivated a dance-centric program — brings back some old favorites and new groups.

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MOMIX

The season kicks off with the popular experimental dance troupe MOMIX for two shows Sept. 12–13. MOMIX will be quickly followed by the debut of Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour — a music, not a dance program — on Sept. 19, then as quickly followed by the debut of Spectrum Dance Company on Sept. 27. All of those performances will be at the Winspear Opera House.

TITAS moves across the street to City Performance Hall for another debut, Brian Brooks Moving Company, Nov. 21 and 22.  It’s back to the Winspear in January for Ronald K Brown/Evidence on Jan. 17 (at the Winspear), then two shows from debut music artist Maya Beiser on March 6 and 7 (at CPH).

The architectural movement of Diavolo returns (again at CPH) for two shows on March 27 and 28, and the popular Parsons Dance Company is back at the Winspear with its sexy choreography April 25.

The season wraps up in May with two shows from Malandain’s Ballet Biarritz (May 1 and 2, at CPH), and the local debut of Ballet West (May 29 and 30, at the Winspear). And as always, TITAS hosts its Command Performance Gala at the Winspear on May 16. Tickets and more information available at ATTPAC.org.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

‘Ave. Q’ hosts Halloween sing-along

T2 Ave QTheatre 3 has brought back its hit musical Avenue Q — the show with the singing puppets having sex and cursing up a storm — through November, but the best time to see it might be tonight: That’s when the theater is hosting an audience costume party and sing-along. If you’re familiar with the show, you know you’ve always wanted to chime in during “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and express your agreement that the Internet is, in fact, for porn, or discuss that beard Canadian “girlfriend” who lives in Alberta …  no, her name is Alberta, she lives in Vancouver … Anyway, you get the point.

There’ll be a costume contest as well, so superfans should feel free to show up as Lucy the Slut or even the Bad Idea Bears. But it’s not a bad idea to get your freak on. (Furries welcome as well.)

Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, click here.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEW: ‘City of Angels’ at Theatre 3

Alexander Ross, seated, sings up a storm with Nikki McDonald, Gregory Lush and Lee Jamison.

City of Angels is a good musical that’s difficult to get right. The last local production, at Flower Mound Performing Arts Theatre some years ago, had a killer cast (Gary Floyd, Patty Breckenridge) and a stage the size usually reserved for postage stamps. It was fun but crowded.

Theatre 3, which is mounting the latest version, has more space but not much more success wrangling it. There are tons of scenes, meaning scene changes need to occur at the end of songs or while the action is taking place; it’s distracting — made more so because the script is a clever bit of story-within-a-story that requires some attention. In 1940s L.A., hardboiled private eye Stone (Gregory Lush) is hired to investigate the disappearance of an heiress (Nikki McDonald), only, a la Chinatown, gets more than he bargained for.

Only Stone isn’t real, he’s the movie creation of Stine (Alexander Ross), a novelist hired by a Hollywood studio to adapt his book into a screenplay. Stine thinks he’s Faulkner, but he’s not even Hammett. He argues with the studio head (who’s also the director and producer of the film — yeah, like that happens) over every line of dialogue, taking a sanctimonious attitude about his art while cheating on his wife with the boss’s secretary (Lee Jamison).

Larry Gelbart’s book is a thinly veiled defense of the writer’s craft, something more respected on stages than movie screens, but Stine is so prickly about the beauty of his novel he doesn’t seem to want to learn how to make a movie. Ultimately, it’s difficult to take his side.

The score, by Cy Coleman and David Zippel, has the Big Band sound of an old Bette Midler album, though Zippel’s lyrics are gimmicky, sometimes painfully so (your fertile lies can fertilize…? I’ve been through DeMille…? Ugh!). Still, it’s worth it to listen to some terrific singers belt out tunes.

The show rests largely on its close-harmony duets, especially “What You Don’t Know About Women: (sung by Jamison and Kassiani Menas) and “You’re Nothing With Me” (sung by Lush and Ross). Their vocal performances in City of Angels reach the heavens.

Runs at Theatre 3 through July 13.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEWS: ‘Enron,’ ‘Too Many Girls’

enron_6aIf you haven’t said or heard the names associated with the Enron scandal in the decade since it was in the news — Jeff Skilling, Ken Lay, Andy Fastow — the first time they are spoken in Lucy Prebble’s play Enron, now playing at Theatre 3, you react viscerally, the way you might to Goebbles, Himmler or Mengele: The architects of a financial holocaust that popped the American economy in ways that continue to reverberate. It’s a feeling of disgust and curiosity.

It’s odd, that gut muscle memory that causes you to heave ever-so-slightly when you see the dramatization of such boondoggle buzzwords as credit-default swap, derivatives, energy trading, deregulation and even “irrational exuberance.” (The show uses a lot of multi-media elements, including Dow Jones ticker scrolls and audio-visual echoes from the 1990s.) You sense pangs of guilt by association for being in the room with Fastow (David Goodwin) as he shares with Skilling (Chris Hury) his plan to prop up Enron’s stock with a corporate shell game of shell corporations. The audience has the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to know where the plan in headed, but you can’t help but feel contempt for those in the room with them who didn’t say, “What the fuck are you talking about?” It’s as if everyone was too stupid — or too greedy — to call foul on the emperor’s new clothes.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones