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.

Alchemia_3_Credit_Max_Pucciariello

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

Column Awards: Full list of winners

columnIt’s not as well covered at the Oscars, but days after Hollywood hands out its treasures, The Column Awards — honoring North Texas theater — dished out its awards.

The Columns break down their awards into Equity and Non-Equity productions, which virtually doubles the recipients and leads to, for instance ICT MainStage, a Non-Equity company, walking away with the most wins of the evening (12). But multiple award-winning companies also include Uptown Players (6), Theatre Three (5), WaterTower Theatre (4) and Dallas Theater Center and Lyric Stage (3 apiece).

The complete list of winners after the jump.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

T3 gives final extension to ‘Ave. Q’

It doesn’t suck to be Avenue Q. The show is almost certainly the second longest running Dallas production in history; it started in June for a planned four-week run; that was soon extended to 10 weeks and now, with a just-announced  extension to Dec. 9, will have run 23 weeks before closing — second only to another T3 show, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, which ran more than two years after its initial opening.

Theatre 3 is promising that this extension of Avenue Q will be its last. And we believe them. Why? Because T3 has already announced another show in the downstairs Theatre Too’s 99-seat auditorium …. the latest revival of I Love You, You’re Perfect.

The very gay show — which included the 51-year-old theater’s first float in Dallas’ Pride Parade, a kind of wedding processional for its two gay characters  — won awards from the Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum last month.

The first performance of the extension, on Nov. 2, will kick off with a sing-along version. Come on… you know the Internet is for porn.

Get tickets here.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

DFW Theater Critics Forum bestows annual honors

B.J. Cleveland, center, won a best actor award from the DFW Theater Critics Forum, along with its director, Michael Serrecchia.

It was a banner year for Theatre 3 at the annual Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum luncheon, with three shows — The Farnsworth Invention, Superior Donuts and Avenue Q, which is still running — collectively garnering 10 awards, the most for any company. The star of Donuts, Van Quattro, also received the Emerging Artist Award.

It was a love fest for love, too, as partners Michael Serrecchia and Michael Robinson were both recognized for Avenue Q — Serrecchia for directing, and Robinson for designing the puppets.

Terry Vandivort, a staple at Theatre 3 for decades, received an award for his performance at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas in its The Night of the Iguana, alongside co-winner Ashley Wood. The show was also recognized for Rene Moreno’s direction. Moreno was additionally cited for directing August: Osage County at WaterTower and Coriolanus at Shakespeare Dallas.

Uptown Players received several nods as well: For B.J. Cleveland’s leading role in The Producers, wrapping up its run this week (as well as Serrecchia’s direction), and for Lulu Ward’s performance in last year’s Pride Performing Arts Festival for The New Century. (I declared her 2011′s Actor of the Year for the role.)

The gay-penned surprise hit musical Bring It On was the clear favorite among national tours.

In total, 30 shows were recognized and 41 awards given by the participating critics: Arnold Wayne Jones, Dallas Voice; Elaine Liner, Dallas Observer; Mark Lowry, Perry Stewart and Martha Heimberg, TheaterJones; Lawson Taitte, Dallas Morning News; Lance Lusk, Lindsey Wilson and Liz Jonhstone, FrontRow/D Magazine; Alexandra Bonifield, CriticalRant; and Punch Shaw, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Here’s the complete list:

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEW: Cowardly lines — “Present Laughter”

I’ve often said, “The difference between gay men and British men is more one of degree than of kind.” If you want an ideal exponent of what that means, look no further than Present Laughterthe current mainstage production (and 51st season opener) at Theatre 3. Written by Noel Coward in 1938, it embodies the arch but randy character of English drawing room comedies: Tons of sophisticates mincing around in extravagant clothes, smoking too much, sleeping with each other and making catty remarks. It might as well be brunch in Cedar Springs.

In fact, that’s what’s really missing from this production: A contemporary feel. Ditch the 1938 setting, the European accents and all the dahhhlings and “quites and rah-thers; move it to 1987, set it in Chelsea and throw in a few totallys and shoulder pads, and you still have a saucy period piece but without all the baggage of datedness. (Look closely, and the play is as gay as a weekend on Fire Island … if only it could let loose from the social mores of its era.)

It would work, too, because Coward — for all his stiff-upper-lipness and pre-war British pluck — was a racy playwright in his day, and sometimes it’s jarring to read between the lines and see what’s actually going on. Present Laughter concerns famous stage actor Garry Essendine (Gregory Lush) and his inappropriate tomcatting with a teenaged nymphette and a married socialite (Lisa-Gabrielle Green) while still technically married to his estranged wife (Lydia Mackay), who nevertheless drops in on a daily basis. There’s more screwing going on off-stage here than at a Stanley Tools factory.

Sex is a driving force for Coward’s plots and always has been; it’s interesting arriving at the insights he does and seeing how modern they still seem, such as Garry’s vanity about ageing and from matinee idol to middle aged icon. He was a gay man when men couldn’t be gay, at least onstage, and yet audiences would watch it play out, down to his fag-hag assistant Monica (Arianna Movassagh), a Della Street-Miss Moneypenny who somehow holds his life together.

Although Theatre 3 does not update the setting or the quaint turns of phrase, director Bruce Coleman did at least have to sense to cast Lush, Mackay and Movassagh, three actors who are as effortless at this kind of whip-smart wordplay and any you could find. Lush especially is an excellent surrogate for Coward himself, his long, Bob Hope-like nose standing in as a rapier as he thrusts and parries his barbs with clarity and style. Lush played Henry Higgins in Theatre 3′s production of Pygmalion once, and you see the similarities in the characters — even in the overall plays themselves.

In fact, points of Present Laughter seem like a combo of My Fair Lady and Deathtrap, only Coward doesn’t follow a simple format. The plot is rangy and unfocussed, a sort of self-reflective idyll on Coward himself as he moved from boy wonder to theater establishment. It’s post-modern in that way, a sex romp about how stale and pointless sex romps are.

But Coleman doesn’t mine as many laughs out of the comedy as he could; while not an out-right farce, it has elements of one that could be tightened with more imaginative staging (a weird elevated set throws off the speed of some entrances and exits). It’s left to the actors (including Sherry Etzel affecting two outrageous accents for two characters) to ratchet up the madcappery. It’s a comedy in search of a purpose.

Present Laughter plays at Theatre 3 through Sept. 2.

 

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEWS: DTC’s “Joseph,” T3′s “Ave. Q”

Sydney James Harcourt as a buff Joseph. (Photo courtesy Karen Almond)

The problem with the Webber and Rice musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has always been its roots as a kids’ Sunday school pageant. It was written to be 20 minutes of Bible education set to music; when they decided to expand it, you could tell where they were padding. The result is tuneful, light enjoyment — 70 minutes of anachronistic songs about the Old Testament. But there’s never been a lot of meat to it; it’s a sing-along show with a Broadway attitude.

Or at least it used to be. Joel Ferrell, who directs and choreographs the version now playing at the Dallas Theater Center, has found a way around Joseph‘s weaknesses. First, the DTC has licensed the extended score, including a mega-mix curtain call medley that reiterates the entire score in digest form.

Second, he’s given a shape to the story it has always been in desperate need of: Instead of the show just being what it is, we now have a reason for it. A group of school kids trudge through a museum with a stern security guard (Liz Mikel). One of the children is fascinated by a copy of the Torah, and the guard takes note. She tell him the story of Joseph and his 11 brothers, and as she does, the stage opens into a Pee-Wee’s playhouse of colorful stagecraft; the kid even imagines himself as the baby brother in the tribe. This conceit does more than bookend the play: It explains to hip weirdness the show has always wrestled with, specifically, songs (and some characters) that seem unexpectedly modern. Why is Pharaoh be portrayed as Elvis? It makes sense if a 21st century child projects his ideas onto a story. And it gives Ferrell the chance to ratchet up the disconnects. The brothers now are skateboarding iPod junkies in baggy shorts and ball caps.

The change does two important things: It raises the energy level of the show, and it allows Ferrell to mount one of the gayest family musicals you’ll ever seen. (Maybe those are the same thing.)

—  Arnold Wayne Jones