Buggery nights

‘Closer to Heaven’ wallows in sex, drugs & rock; ‘33 Variations’ hits wrong note

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

BRINGING SEXY BACK  | Morgana Shaw, center, leads a menagerie of freaks in Uptown Players’ ‘Closer to Heaven.’ (Photo courtesy Mike Morgan)
BRINGING SEXY BACK | Morgana Shaw, center, leads a menagerie of freaks in Uptown Players’ ‘Closer to Heaven.’ (Photo courtesy Mike Morgan)

ON THE BOARDS
CLOSER TO HEAVEN at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Through Oct. 24. UptownPlayers.org

33 VARIATIONS at Theatre Three, 2900 Routh St. in the Quadrangle. Through Oct. 31. Theatre3Dallas.com

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The opening 10 minutes of Closer to Heaven, the season ender from Uptown Players, is an exhausting, non-stop carnival of music and movement. If only it could sustain that energy.

This is as hardcore as a musical usually gets — edgy, dark stuff. (Andy Redmon’s set looks like the decaying remnants of a Satanic altar.) But it gets lost in a weak score and plot that turns too trite, too soon.

The program says it’s set in 1999, but the sound and story are pure 1987: Dave (Evan Fuller), a straight young Irish boy, comes to the big city to work at a club, eventually becoming an exotic dancer. On the way, he gets exposed to gay sex, drugs and electronica, becoming corrupt and losing the innocence that made him so attractive.

These were all clichés by the time Christopher Atkins shook his ass in another “heaven” set potboiler, A Night in Heaven.  The addition of gay themes makes them no fresher here.

And yet, Closer to Heaven works — on the margins, at least. As flawed as the show is, it’s still compelling. I enjoyed large swaths of it, almost against my better judgment — at least in Act 1. By Act 2, it starts to resemble an indie gay film more than a structured musical, as the plot shifts to a relationship between two men that comes almost from nowhere.

The performances surpass the material. If the androgynous Master of Ceremonies from Cabaret were a coke whore and more clearly a woman, she’d probably look and sound a lot like Morgana Shaw’s Billie Trix. In her leather fetish garb, it seems as if the director, Bruce Coleman — here and with his bondage-themed take on Equus last winter — is working through some S&M fantasies at Uptown. In Shaw, in thigh-high latex platform boots, he’s found an excellent medium.

Shaw doesn’t blink at the excesses, channeling equal parts Marlene Dietrich and Nico Icon, and she gets (by far) the best lines to have fun with. “They say my voice is ‘living in,’” Billie growls with Teutonic predation. “Your voice would be lived in if you sucked as many cocks as I have.” That’s just one of the shocking moments in the production, and the fact it’s still possible to be shocking onstage these days says something.

Coy Covington, nearly unrecognizable as a sleazy boy band entrepreneur, gets some droll moments (he seems to know it’s best not to take the script too seriously). As Covington’s toadie Flynn, Mikey Abrams steals laughs as an Eve Arden type with bits of Jack McFarland, Ethel Mertz and Rachel Berry.

Unfortunately, the Pet Shop Boys’ music doesn’t translate to stage like Elton John’s and ABBA’s do. (The Act 2 “overture,” a nasty, disorienting mess, just puzzled the opening-night audience.) Their songs are hopelessly pop-sounding, without the theatrical flourishes of a Broadway score. Numbers just drift off without conclusion, as if the next track will fade over it. The lyrics are too literal, and the final song repetitive to the point of annoyance. That’s a bad note to leave on when it kicks off so well.

Two centuries earlier, music played a big role in the lives of some other Europeans. In 1819, Ludwig van Beethoven (Bruce Elliott) took on the challenge of composing 33 variations on a “small waltz,” becoming virtually obsessed with it and startling the world with his eventual output. In the present day, musicologist

Katherine Brandt (Sharon Garrison) head to Bonn to research Beethoven’s letters, trying to parse what he saw in this trivial little ditty.

Brandt doesn’t have much time. She’s been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and is slowly losing motor coordination. She’s as obsessed with figuring out the mystery as Ludwig Van was writing it, to the exclusion and disappointment of her estranged daughter (Lydia Mackay).

33 Variations, Moises Kaufman’s 2009 Broadway hit now presented by Theatre Three, is staged by director Jac Alder with the same bombast as the “Ninth Symphony.” Where’s the deft, limber subtlety of Mozart, or even Beethoven’s own “Moonlight Sonata?” Everything about it is melodramatic and big — too big.

The cast comes at the excess from both ends. Jane Fonda played Brandt on Broadway, and it’s difficult to imagine her playing the part with the same noisy desperation as Garrison. Garrison projects her frustration too prosaically, furrowing her brow and snarling her lips in confusion. She undermines the drama. (It doesn’t help that when she’s rolled out for a CT scan, she looks like a Luann platter being slid along the counter at Luby’s.)

Gordon Fox, as Beethoven’s shrill assistant, Schindler, turns the comedy into something out of a silent film.

He’s all moon-faced surprises and overwrought gestures. He acts like Renfield to Beethoven’s Dracula. I half expected him to eat bugs. Minor parts by two young actors are performed with distracting incompetence.

Elliott is a clear exception, capturing the maestro’s bravado and his neuroses with depth and understanding, and exceeding in the comedy as well. (I’d love to see him try the Joe Sears roles in Greater Tuna.)

The costumes, especially the period clothing, are a disaster; what should be elaborately brocaded frocks look like cheap cotton hand-me-downs in need of a good pressing. Compared to the exquisite work done just a few month ago at Circle Theatre for Bach at Leipzig, they pale.

The same is true of the plays. Bach was conceived as a fugue; 33 Variations? Intentionally or not, it’s a dirge.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 8, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

‘Bradleyville’ staged reading today at Kalita Humphreys Theater

Randy Moore reprises his role as Col. J.C. Kinkaid in this staged readon of the Preston Jones, pictured, play, Bradleyville. The event is hosted by the Dallas Theater Center Guild and Uptown Players.  After the reading, Dallas Theater Center’s Kevin Moriarty will lead a discussion of the playwright’s work.

DEETS: Kalita Humphreys Theater,3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. 7 p.m. Free.

—  Rich Lopez

What has he done to deserve this?

Music director Adam Wright glams Uptown Players’ Pet Shop Boys musical

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer lopez@dallasvoice.com

WEST END GAYS | ‘Closer to Heaven’ explores the dark world of gay ’80s  London through the music of the Pet Shop Boys.  (Photo courtesy  Mike Morgan)
WEST END GAYS | ‘Closer to Heaven’ explores the dark world of gay ’80s London through the music of the Pet Shop Boys. (Photo courtesy Mike Morgan)

CLOSER TO HEAVEN
Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd.
Oct. 1–24. $30–$40.
UptownPlayers.org

………………………………………..

Mention the Pet Shop Boys and what comes to mind is techno-pop — hardly the stuff of musical theater. But when Uptown Players opens Closer To Heaven Friday, that mindset will change. The company is producing the sole stage venture by the band, which comes with the same tone as their albums. And that means the production’s musical director, Adam Wright — whose background is in classical and jazz music — is doing some major gear-shifting.

“We had to reconstruct a lot of the music,” he says. “The music that was sent with the materials had just two parts and not a lot to go off of.”

His job might have gone easier if Wright were in communication with the Pet Shop Boys … or if he was already a fan.

“The extent of my communication with them was through their Twitter updates,” he says. “I’d love to learn more about how they program and write. I wasn’t as much a fan as some of the people in the cast. My parents did buy me the Liza Minnelli album Results they produced. I’m certainly more of a fan now after working on this.”

The subject of the musical is perhaps more relatable to Wright. Set in gay London in the 1980s, it’s a dark show with racy queer content he can appreciate. But the task of turning that vibe into a musical theater idiom was a challenge.

Wright had only the original London cast recording to work from, which is dominated by the Pet Shop Boys electronica sound, which he orchestrated for a six-man band to offer a live concert experience. His priority, however, was staying true to the songs PSB wrote.

“With electric drums and two keyboards, we can mimic some of that techno sound,” he says. “There are some guitar moments. It’s really intricate programming and having the band makes it easier and way less complicated.”

His musicians will not only recreate the dance beats, but also meld them in accord with choreography and plot — and PSB’s signature style.

“There is a lot more going on in the songs than you think, so it was pretty daunting,” he says. “Normally with a live band, embellishments are added, but we had to stick to the appropriate style. Even the minimal songs have a repetitive, dance-y nature.”

All that required a close collaboration between Wright, director Bruce Coleman and choreographer John de los Santos. Wright especially sympathized with the challenge de los Santos faced of balancing fluid and narrative movement against Wright’s job to keep the proper but continuous beat of the music — and to primarily keep the audience interested.

“There have been ups and downs in this creative process,” he says. “I’ve certainly felt overwhelmed, but I enjoy the challenge doing new things. That motivates me even if I have to pace in a circle for an hour until it comes to me.”

With weeks of preparation and arranging, Wright’s work still hadn’t clicked with him until Uptown began running the full show in rehearsals. After seeing it as one cohesive piece, he settled and relieved some of his stress going in.

“At that point, it felt possible and easy,” he says. Now he’s more concerned if the audience will be fans: Many out-of-towners are flying in especially for the show, which makes its North American debut — but Uptown knows this is difficult material. The litmus test will be opening night.

“I know some expect a certain kind of music in theater, but the nice thing is the show starts with a bang and they’ll know right away what they are in for. “

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 1, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Lee Park Fest: The Unsung Fun of Pride

“Thunder is good, thunder is impressive,” said Twain, “but it’s lightning that does all the work.” The same is true with Dallas Pride: Everyone talks about the parade, but it’s the festival in Lee Park, with food, concerts and booths, that provides the best views  of gay life in town. Dallas Voice will have a booth as always, handing out goodie bags and such, but we know focus will probably center on our neighbor, Advanced Skin Fitness, who this year tapped trainer and bodybuilding champ Tony DaVinci, pictured, to man (and we mean man) its kiosk, signing autographs and passing out flyers. We’re over here, guys! Thanks for noticing.

Festival in Lee Park at Turtle Creek Blvd.
11 a.m. DallasVoice.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 17, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

New and old

From creaky Victorian melodramas to well-worn musicals, something’s afoot

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

CRISPNESS, CAROL  |  Wendy Welch’s parody of Carol Channing is a spectacular highlight of ‘Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits’ from Uptown Players.
CRISPNESS, CAROL | Wendy Welch’s parody of Carol Channing is a spectacular highlight of ‘Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits’ from Uptown Players.

ON THE BOARD
FORBIDDEN BROADWAY’S GREATEST HITS

at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Through Aug. 29.
UptownPlayers.org

SHERLOCK HOLMES IN THE CRUCIFER OF BLOOD
at Theatre Three, 2900 Routh St. in the Quadrangle. Through Sep. 5.
Theatre3Dallas.com

THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE,
2819 Forest Ridge Road, Bedford. Through Aug. 22.
OnStageinBedford.com

Every January, Uptown Players’ fundraiser Broadway Our Way takes songs from musicals, adds a large cast and performs a revue, as the men sing the women’s parts and the women sing the men’s. So when Tyce Green steps onstage in Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits in a red wrap dress, doing Patti LuPone doing Mama Rose better than Patti herself (he’s just as crazy), you might think but for the sweltering heat you’re watching an encore — outtakes from last season’s fundraiser.

That is the curse and the joy of this show, mined from the long-running satire of Broadway seasons that has played off-Broadway for decades. Is Uptown Players cannibalizing itself or just giving the audience more of what it wants? Let’s go with the latter.

Aside from Green, there’s no gender-bending in the musical numbers, which tweak songs from The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Bob Fosse and other legends of theater who deserve to be taken down a peg for the impudence of being successful.

A small risk of the show, in fact, is that it demands a working knowledge of musical theater in order to get most of the jokes. (Uptown Players’ theater-queen heavy subscriber base is safely in that camp.) Skewering Idina Menzel presupposed most people know who the hell Idina Menzel is. But if you do, the Defying Gravity number is priceless.

Certainly the cast members, who cycle through costumes like Cher on speed, are at home with the humor and the music. All are talented, though Wendy Welch steals the show, first with a grotesque parody of Carol Channing then as a fright-wigged Fantine from Les Mis — making a twofer attack on poor LuPone. Don’t worry though — they kid because they love. And there’s a lot of love here.

Sherlock Homes
PROBLEM SOLVER | Chuck Huber, right, makes for an engaging Sherlock Holmes in Theatre Three’s talky ‘Crucifer of Blood.’

When you name your play Sherlock Holmes in the Crucifer of Blood, here’s a suggestion: Get to Sherlock as quickly as possible. The prologue of this play really should be called a prolong — it slowly lays the foundation for the plot with needlessly talky exposition before we have any idea of Victorian London’s premiere consulting detective will figure in. And it’s not even set in England, but in India! Talk about your Black Hole of Calcutta.

Too bad director Jeffrey Schmidt didn’t turn that half-hour sequence and make it a sharply-edited 15-minute video, because once we get to the heart of the play — Holmes’ inescapable logic flawlessly unraveling a twisted (though not especially interesting) mystery that’s bits of The Mummy and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, though hardly the best bits — the play gets fun.

The first time that Holmes, played by Chuck Huber, off-handedly deduces the ownership of a watch presented to him by Dr. Watson (Austin Tindle, wearing an awkward false moustache that looks like it fell off a pair of plastic novelty glasses), the audience titters with delight. That’s what we’ve come for, not lepers and pith helmets and a box of jewels that looks like an accessory snatched up from Pottery Barn.

Despite a few line flubs, Huber makes an engaging Holmes, though Jakie Cabe, as the incompetent flatfoot Inspector Lestrade, may be the only one who fully explores the small amount of comedy there is; Paul Giovanni’s 1978 play has too much creaky dialogue to feel very modern otherwise.

As a Gollum-like hoarder of his precious lucre, Gregory Lush has the best accent in the bunch, plus tremendous brio as a queeny old military officer.

Schmidt’s failure to punch up the beginning as a director is almost made up for by his inventive set design and Aaron Patrick Turner’s endlessly intriguing costumes. Using style to mask weaknesses in substance? Elementary, my dear.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a charming musical with a funny but sentimental script by Rachel Sheinkin and inventive songs by William Finn that are disarmingly poignant about the stresses of childhood. The show practically sells itself.

That’s especially true in the production from OnStage in Bedford, which, sadly, oversells. Way, way oversells. The director, Kyle Macy, doesn’t seem to trust in the material, having his cast take what should be Clare Danes in My So-Called Life and turning them into Screech from Saved by the Bell. Use your inside voices, kids.

Kristin Spiers as a former spelling champ, Amanda Gupton as a tender speller and Phillip Cole-White as a punk “comfort counselor” get their characters best (and the women are both lovely singers), though they don’t quite make up for blahness of the others. Still, if there’s ever been a show that could withstand a bad production, this one might be it.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 13, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Uptown Players delivers ‘Forbidden Broadway’

Musical theater is getting snarky

In Uptown Players’ Forbidden Broadway, Gerard Alessandrini has written a revue that pokes fun at our favorite musicals. We’d normally deem this sacrilege, if it didn’t sound so funny. Rent, Les Misérables, Fiddler on the Roof all get a sassy redux in this new show directed by B.J. Cleveland.

DEETS: Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd.2 p.m. $30–$40. UptownPlayers.org.

—  Rich Lopez

Gays on strike!

No ‘Regrets’ for Rudnick farce

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

WEDDED BLISS | A gay man (B.J. Cleveland) takes a stand against his flighty friend (Mary-Margaret Pyeatt) in Uptown’s sophisticated fizz. (Photo by Mike Morgan)

REGRETS ONLY
Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd.
Through June 27.
UptownPlayers.org



The world inhabited by Hank Hadley and the McCullough family is one of cocktail parties, witty repartee and comforting superficiality. The first real issue anyone has had to deal with is the loss to cancer, after 28 years together, of Hank’s (B.J. Cleveland) partner. Even that sad news is softened when then McCullough’s daughter Spencer (Melissa Farmer) announces her engagement. She wants Hank, a famous fashion designer, to make her wedding dress.

But Hank is having second thoughts. Spencer and her father Jack (Dennis Canright), both lawyers, have agreed to draft a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Hank and Jack’s wife Tibby (Mary-Margaret Pyeatt) are apolitical, but this issue hits close to home. Maybe Hank — maybe all gay people — should go on strike.

In Regrets Only, Paul Rudnick turns a hot-button issue like gay marriage into the stuff of frothy fun, full of delicious zingers (“If you wanna kill sincerity, add crab cakes and God” one person observes of weddings) even while tackling serious matters. When’s the last time you heard a cogent discussion of gay marriage between opposite camps that didn’t become loud, angry and hectoring diatribes?

Because for me, it was last week at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.

Although there’s no music (other than director Coy Covington’s whimsical insertion of incidental tunes at the act breaks), in terms of its old-fashioned appeal with an updated outlook, it calls to mind the musical The Drowsy Chaperone: A fantasy with concrete ideas and sentimentality that completely avoids mawkishness.

Indeed, this is throwback entertainment in the best sense. Despite its contemporary issues, Regrets Only most resembles Dinner at Eight and other bubbly, smart, ’30s-era comedies: The perfectly appointed drawing room, the banter as sparkling as a magnum of champagne, the lovely costumes. This production has all that, especially an elegant and expensive looking set by Andy Redmon (nothing’s more disappointing that when a Park Avenue penthouse looks like a Park Slope coldwater flat; this one doesn’t).

The cast is flawless, with Cleveland uncharacteristically demure — he’s easily upstaged by Cynthia Matthews as a saucy maid (her riff on fashion is brilliant) and works effortlessly with Pyeatt on creating an authentic friendship.

Rudnick can be a bit too inside baseball, with obscure but hysterical theater jokes (David Mamet and Neil LaBute? Risky), but even potentially dour moments are buoyed like helium, and the second act farce is winningly executed.

Like the best cocktail, Covington has delivered delightful brew that goes to your head for 90 minutes and leaves you happy and refreshed. I’ll drink to that.

This article appeared in the National Pride edition in the Dallas Voice print edition June 18, 2010.

—  Dallasvoice