New “Phantom of the Opera” builds suspense with reimagined staging

Cameron Mackintosh at Prince Edward Theatre, London. 2013 Tribune Media Service

Cameron Mackintosh calls it “the 25-year itch.”

The producer of musicals such as “Les Misérables,” “Cats,” “Miss Saigon,” “Oliver” and “Mary Poppins,” feels the need to refresh some of his past successes about every 25 years as well as some classics. He’s recently redone “Miss Saigon” and “Les Misérables,” but also done classics “My Fair Lady” twice and “Oliver” three times.

“It’s something I love doing just as much” as creating original musicals, he says. “It’s a great challenge.”

One of his reimaginings is coming to Austin this week as part of the Broadway in Austin series. “The Phantom of the Opera,” which Mackintosh created with Andrew Lloyd Webber, first appeared on stage in 1986 in London and then as a fresh take in 2012. It comes to Bass Concert Hall April 19 through April 30.

Mackintosh says he doesn’t redo a musical just to redo it.

“Because I know it inside and out, I’m my own greatest critic,” he says. “Is something as good or just change for change’s sake, which I don’t agree with,” he asks himself.

If that’s the case, then he says he keeps at it until it is just as good, probably better.

Derrick Davis (The Phantom) and Katie Travis (Christine) star in “The Phantom of the Opera.” Matthew Murphy

While the script and music are essentially the same in this “Phantom,” the staging is vastly different in ways that will surprise audiences who saw the original.

“Anyone who has seen it, hasn’t seen it like this,” he says. “The material is exactly the same with a few little tweaks, but just the way the show works is very different.”

Audiences who saw the 1980s “Phantom,” won’t be disappointed by the change, Mackintosh says. “They are seeing something they may know, but as long as it’s good, they love the difference.”

For those who have never seen a “Phantom,” will feel like they are seeing something new, he says.

“The brilliant musicals can be re-examined by a different generation,” he says. “They will have a different viewpoint.”

For this reimagined “Phantom,” Mackintosh went back to the 1910 book by Gaston Leroux and thought about who this phantom was. He was an inventor.

SEE THE PROPS OF THIS “PHANTOM”

This new version takes the hall of mirrors in the book and makes it an essential element. The whole stage opens and closes and becomes things. Mackintosh likens it to a giant Advent calendar. “We can go places that we could never go in the original,” Mackintosh says.

Doors open and the Phantom appears. We see a whole lot more of the backstage of the famous opera house the Phantom occupies. We watch the Phantom stalk Christine as parts of the stage move to show us the Phantom’s movement throughout the theater.

GO BACK STAGE WITH “PHANTOM”

“The approach is more visceral,” he says. “It’s much more real world.” It also feels more dangerous, less high romance, Mackintosh says.

Many of the signature scenes of the original: the falling chandelier, the boat ride descent into the Phantom’s lair, are done completely differently.

“It’s more shocking what it does,” Mackintosh says of the chandelier. Scenes like the boat ride, he says, “are equally striking, but in different ways.”

The way the chandelier works would not have been possible 30 years ago. Advances in computers and lighting technology make it all possible.

“What I love about this show is it’s its own thing,” he says.

SEE HOW THE ORIGINAL COSTUMES INFORMED THE NEW ONES

Mackintosh says he currently has 30 to 40 productions going on around the world at any given time. His newest work is a new version of “Half of Sixpence,” a little-known 1963 musical based on an H.G. Wells book “Kipps” that was turned into a 1968 movie. It’s now in London. He also is bringing “Hamilton” to London. This fall, he’s bringing a new “Les Misérables” to North American stages. His “Miss Saigon,” which is currently on Broadway, will be touring North America 18 months from now. Both, fingers crossed, will make their way to Austin.

WATCH A WIG BEING MADE FOR THE SHOW

“The Phantom of the Opera”

When: 8 p.m. April 19-22, April 25-29, 1 p.m. April 20 and April 22 and April 30, 2 p.m. April 22 and April 29, 7 p.m. April 22 and April 29.

Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive

Tickets:  $30 and up.

Information: BroadwayinAustin.com, Bass Concert Hall box office, all Texas Box Office Outlets, 512-477-6060

Zach Theatre announces its 2017-2018 season shows. Forecast: Rain expected

Zach Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” will return. Photo by Kirk Tuck.

Zach Theatre has announced its next season of shows, which includes classic musicals, the story of an intimate connection and two Christmas classics.

Find the family theater shows on the Raising Austin blog. 

The season kicks off with the musical made famous by Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly: “Singing in the Rain,” directed by Abe Reybold, choreographed by Dominque Kelley and musical direction by Allen Robertson. Sept. 27-Oct. 29.

Return to the land of Tuna for “A Tuna Christmas,” the classic from Austin’s Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard. It’s directed by Dave Steakley. Nov. 1-Dec. 31.

 

“A Christmas Carol,” directed by Bryan Bradford but adapted by Dave Steakley returns with musical direction by Robertson and choreographed by Christa Oliver-Torres. Nov. 22-Dec. 31, Topher Stage

The musical about artist George Seurat, “Sunday in the Park with George,” takes the stage under Steakley’s direction, with musical direction by Robertson and starring Cecil Washington Jr. May 30-June 24, 2018, Topher Stage.

“Heisenberg” is the story of a couple who meet in a London train station. Will they connect? It’s being directed by Nat Miller, Zach’s director of education. June 20-July 22, Kleberg Stage.

Capitalizing on the popular live-action movie, Zach brings the Disney musical “Beauty and the Beast” to Austin. It’s being directed by Reybold with musical direction by Robertson. July 11-Sept. 2, 2018, Topher Stage.

Find tickets at zachtheatre.org.

 

“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” one worth seeing at Bass Concert Hall

Julia Knitel portrays Carole King in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.” Contributed by Joan Marcus.

“Beautiful,” the story of how Carole King went from a 16-year-old aspiring songwriter to the Grammy winning singer songwriter of the “Tapestry” album, truly is beautiful. In fact, it’s one of the best productions that has come through Bass Concert Hall and Broadway in Austin.

This production did not suffer the sound problems that have plagued other Broadway in Austin productions in this theater. That’s a very good thing because this musical is smart, witty, rocking and soulful — things that would have been missed if the audience could not have heard the lyrics or the smart quips that get exchanged.

Often when you see Broadway in Austin productions, you feel like you’re getting Broadway, but not quite on the same level. Having seen this musical on Broadway before it won two Tonys, it is every bit as good here as it was there, except it feels bigger in this larger space.

Julia Knitel as Carole King has her voice in both song and speech. She captivates when she sings, but she also draws in your attention in the quiet moments of heartache that were King’s years married to her lyricist Gerry Goffin. In our performance, Goffin was played by Andrew Brewer, who did not miss a beat stepping into this role. Sometimes when you get an understudy, the performance feels serviceable, but the chemistry is not quite right. That wasn’t the case here.

Also strong in this performance are the King-Goffin rivals and and friends: Erika Olson as Cynthia Weil and Ben Fankhauser as Barry Mann. She is smart and sophisticated in a way that Carole King envies and could never pull off. He is nerdy and anxiety-filled in a way that Goffin never appears to be, but truly is. Both couples do a great job mirroring each other.

The magic of the musical is the music. Hit after hit written by King and Goffin and Weil and Mann are unveiled as we see how these songs came to be. We see the songwriters pour over each note and lyric and then we see the singers like Janelle Woods, Little Eva, the Righteous Brothers, the Shirelles and the Drifters sing them.

They had the audience rocking with them and trying really hard not to sing along. The audience was boisterous at times, especially when King finally stood up for herself with Goffin. Knitel had brought them with her every step of the way.

After the show, audience member after audience member turned to their friends and said loudly how much fun that was, how much they loved the music. They shared stories of first hearing a King-Goffin song or a Weil-Mann song.

If you grew up listening to King’s music, even if you didn’t know it was hers, this musical is for you.

“Beautiful.” 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 7 p.m. Sunday. $35-$150. Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive. texasperformingarts.org.

Where are the women in architecture? New Austin exhibit tries to answer that

Attendees study the "Women in Architecture: Shape the Conversation" exhibit opening night. Atelier Wong Photography
Attendees study the “Women in Architecture: Shape the Conversation” exhibit opening night. Atelier Wong Photography

Where are women in architecture?

That’s the essential question that “Shape the Conversation” asks. The three-part exhibit, which is housed in a pop-up gallery on West Second Street and at the University of Texas School of Architecture, has its roots in a national survey of architects that came out of San Francisco and a follow up exhibit in Houston.

Architect Wendy Dunnam Tita brought the exhibit to Austin and worked with Ingrid Spencer, the executive director of the Austin Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, to open the exhibit. Atelier Wong Photography
Architect Wendy Dunnam Tita brought the exhibit to Austin and worked with Ingrid Spencer, the executive director of the Austin Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, to open the exhibit. Atelier Wong Photography

In 2011, a committee at the San Francisco chapter of American Institute of Architects conducted a survey of architects and found that the people coming out of architecture schools were equally male and female, but only 18 percent of the licensed architects were female. The project to figure out why that was was called “The Missing 32 Percent.”

The Houston chapter of AIA helped to answer the above question by celebrating the work of women in its 2013 exhibit “Women in Architecture: 1850 to the Future.” Architects from around Texas saw the exhibit as part of the statewide convention that year. “We were all talking about it,” says Austinite Wendy Dunnam Tita, the committee chair of Women in Architecture and its “Shape the Conversation” and a principal at Page architecture firm. “It rippled through the convention. Have you been to the exhibit yet?”

She knew she wanted to get the exhibit in Austin.

She set about not only figuring out how to get the exhibit here, finding a place to fit the 80-foot-long exhibit as well as discovering how women were playing a role in architecture in Austin.

The "Shaping Austin" portion features a geometric map that charts where projects done by women are in Austin. Andrea Calo Photography
The “Shaping Austin” portion features a geometric map that charts where projects done by women are in Austin. Andrea Calo Photography

Once the committee gave up trying to find an 80-foot-long wall, like it had been displayed on in Houston, the members realized they could find a pop-up shop and wrap it around the walls of the space. The exhibit is three-dimensional squares with photos and text on them that pop out of the wall. A fuchsia band of paint ties the squares together as it winds around corners. Large white numbers tell you what decade you’re in. The exhibit, which was updated to 2015, is meant to begin at the year 2015 and go backward to 1850. Each decade features meaningful quotes about working as a woman in architecture as well as highlighting firsts, recognizing defining projects and notable female architects.

Ray Eames is there with her “Eames Molded Plywood Chair,” which became iconic of the Mid-century Modern style, as is Maya Lin, a student at Yale University who won a national design competition in 1981 for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Natalie De Blois is recognized for designing the headquarters of PepsiCo Headquarters and the Union Carbide Building both in New York City in 1960. Her biographer, Nathaniel Owings writes: “Her mind and hands worked marvels in design and only she and God would ever know just how many great solutions, with the imprimatur of one of the male heroes of SOM (her firm), owned much more to her than was attributed by either SOM or the client.”

Louise Blanchard Bethune is noted for being the first female member of AIA in 1898. Alice J. Hands and Mary B. Gannon, whose Gannon and Hands are recognized as starting the first female-owned architecture firm in the United States in 1894. You see old newspaper stories with headlines like “Girl Architects Organize a Firm. First of its Kind. It’s Expected to Show That Women Need Only Opportunity.”

Notable female architects give their advice, like this gem from Charlotte Perriand: “There is one thing I never did, and that was flirt. That is, I didn’t ‘dabble.’ I created and produced, and my job was important. There was mutual respect, mutual recognition.”

The exhibit also takes note of male architects who promoted women and help them break through the all-male network of apprenticeships.

It highlights a letter from Frank Lloyd Wright: “To Anyone, Anywhere: Miss Isabel Roberts was my assistant in the practice of Architecture for several years and I can recommend her without reservation to anyone requiring the services of an Architect.”

Of course, it points to sexism. Perriand was originally rejected by noted Swiss architect Le Corbusier by being told “We don’t embroider cushions here.”

Zaha Hadid, who was the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004, has this quote in the exhibit: “Would they call me a diva if I were a guy?”

The Women in Architecture exhibit showcases the variety and breadth of women’s contribution in creating the building blocks of today’s architecture.

AIA Austin did it’s own survey of its license architects to figure out how women have and are playing a role in our architecture. It asked respondents to identify projects that were designed by women. The results are visualized in the “Shaping Austin” part of the exhibit. On a geometrically-shaped three-dimensional map of Austin, hexagon-shaped papers jut out. Each one serves as a pin on the map with the name of the project, the address and the year completed. The result is a very full map.

“Shaping Austin” also includes a list of the 315 licensed female architects in Austin and a graph of the number of women licensed by year and a graph of the number of years in practice of Austin’s female architects.

It also graphs the projects they worked on by type of project and the square footage, as well as the role they played on those projects. From that you can see that women tended to work in residential rather than commercial projects and were project architects, project designers or project managers, but less likely to be the principal designer or lead architect.

Dunnam Tita says the goal was to “pull off the cloak of invisibility” of women in architecture in Austin.

The exhibit features an event series to facilitate conversation about the survey’s findings and about the history. Luncheon roundtable events at different firms include topics like “What’s it Been Like and Where are we Going?” and “Bragging Rights: Promoting Ourselves and Each Other.” They will also deal with the very real pull of raising a family vs. having a profession with topics like “Women in Architecture: Work/Life Balance,” “Comparing Notes on Growing as a Professional While Raising a Family” and “Life and Career After Graduation: 1, 5, and 10 Years Out.”

The conversation won’t end there. The money raised by exhibit sponsorships and donations is going to a new leadership development program designed to bring more diversity to the architecture scene here. The program will begin in 2018.

Shape the Conversation

Three exhibits highlighting the role of women in architecture.

“Women in Architecture: 1850 to the Future.” 249 W. Second St., 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through March 2.

“Women in Architecture: Shaping Austin.” 249 W. Second St., 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through March 2.

“National Outlook, Local Stories.” Goldsmith Hall, University of Texas School of Architecture, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday through March 2.

Information: https://aiaaustin.org/committee/women-architecture

Theater review: ‘Town Musicians of Mumbai’ brings Bollywood to fable at Scottish Rite

Seeing family theater at Scottish Rite is a different experience than the other theaters in town. A young audience can sit on a carpeted area in front of the stage while their parents sit in the seats behind or to the side. This makes this young audience feel like they really are a part of the show. Even as they wait for the show to start, the audience is invited to color their coloring page programs with the provided crayons.

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When Scottish Rite turns the classic fable, “The Town Musicians of Bremen,” into the Bollywood version, “The Town Musicians of Mumbai,” the audience feels like they are in the forest with the animals and the robbers. So much so that when Donkey (Sean Gajjar), breaks the fourth wall and wonders out loud about what he’s going to do now that the farmer wants to put him out to pasture, the young audience has no problem answering him, even if he didn’t really ask for their help. In many ways, this production invites this from the fourth wall breaking to the group chicken dance at the end.

The dancing and the music give this production its energy. Live music from the Sacred Cowgirls Band — Pauravi Rana on keyboard, Marguerite Elliott on violin, and Kim Roche on bass — keeps the play moving along and gives the audience different ways to experience the story.

Donkey decides to head to the big city of Mumbai to become a singer. After all, he believes he has a great voice (It is very evident when you hear him braying that he does not). Off he goes through the forest to get to Mumbai. Meanwhile, we meet two bumbling robbers (Robert Deike and Chris Humphrey) who have stolen gold, fabrics and food from a wedding party. They run from a tiger and find a cave for their hideout.

Along Donkey’s journey, he meets a Dog (Minnie Homchowdhury), who is so old that her master is going to send her to the animal shelter because she can no longer be a watchdog. Dog also has a lovely howl (not really) and decides to join Donkey in Mumbai. Then they meet Cat (Preya Patel), who has a screeching meow, and has been replaced by a cute kitten. The merry band of musicians is complete when they meet Rooster (Megan Ortiz), who is going to be put in the curry pot, and has a lovely ear-ringing cockadoodledoo.

As each new member joins the team, we are treated to a performance of animal song and dance. Each animal has its own way of moving that is indicative of its species that goes along with the group choreography.

Meanwhile, the robbers are enjoying their feast, when they settle down for the night. Along comes the musicians, who see the feast, and decide to sing for their supper.

Of course, the robbers can’t make out that its just a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster that have invaded their cave. They run off, leaving their riches for the musicians to enjoy.

Scottish Rite Theater is truly a theater where you could bring any age and it would be OK. In fact, on Saturday morning, we saw kids from toddlers to grade-schoolers as well as their parents and grandparents. We even saw a father bring his adult daughter, who had developmental delays, and she could enjoy theater just as much as the kids on the carpet without judgment. This was also some of the most diverse audiences we’ve seen at local family theater shows, both in age, heritage and language spoken at home.

At 45 minutes, it’s a short show that moves quickly, making it a great introduction to theater for younger audiences.

‘the Town Musicians of Mumbai’ continues through April 30 at scottishritetheater.org

Zach Theatre’s “James and the Giant Peach,” charms, entertains

Zach Theatre’s “James and the Giant Peach” brings the classic book by Roald Dahl to life through April 10. The musical plays right to elementary schoolers’ love for physical humor.

"James and the Giant Peach" is at Zach Theatre through April 10. Kirk Tuck
“James and the Giant Peach” is at Zach Theatre through April 10. Kirk Tuck

 

The aunts, Spiker (Amber Quick) and Sponge (Kim Stacy), in particular, supply much of the humor, as well as the fear. They see the orphan James (played by young actors Chris Carpenter and Diego Rodriguez) as a commodity to work for them. They make their living as both pick pockets and con artists. And, of course, when a magic giant peach grows on their property, they see it as another way to make money. They have gotten rich selling the rights to the peach in advance.

One night, they banish James from the house and he find his way into the peach, where insects have grown magically to the size of humans.

Soon the peach, escapes the tree and rolls off the cliffs of Dover, making its way to the Atlantic Ocean and eventually to New York City. Still scheming, the aunts, have taken all their money and booked a cruise. Of course, from their deck chairs, they see the peach floating on the water and vow to get it back.

zach-Peach3-4145The insects — Ladybug (Jessica O’Brien), Spider (Megan Wright), Centipede (Russel Taylor), Grasshopper (Michael Marchese) and Earthworm (Gustavo Gomez) — and James form a family on their journey and they protect one another and the peach.

One of the strongest elements of this play is this question of what is a family? James has lost his only to be plopped into life with two aunts who are less-than hospitable. The insects have all lost their families to pesticide sprayed by the aunts. Yet, together, James and the insects overcome their differences and create a lasting bond.

Like a family, the cast works well together. Harmonies are particularly tight in the large musical numbers. It is a true ensemble cast. Each character is given a chance to shine with unique characteristics and costuming, but also opportunities to take a back seat and support another character. It’s a good lesson in working together for young kids.

There are a few scary parts — James’ dream about his parents’ death by  a runaway rhinoceros, in particular, but the musical quickly moves along. For that reason, the musical is better suited for elementary school-age kids rather than preschoolers.

The costumes, which were originally designed for Alliance Theatre by Sydney Lenior, are particularly smart. How do you make a man look like an earthworm? Salmon-colored fabric that is given thick rings nested together, just as an earthworm’s body does. How do you make a centipede’s many legs? Fabric belts coming off of the shirt and boots. It’s all very smart.

At an hour and 15 minutes, this is one of Zach Theatre’s longest musicals for family audiences. Some members of the audiences squirmed a bit in the middle, and we saw a couple trips to the bathroom in our elementary school student audience.

Some of the biggest laughs come from Sponge, the aunt who will never be called skinny. Many of her jokes are about her love of food and her figure. In this age of worrying about girl’s body image and obesity, it was just too much. One or two jokes, maybe, but constant jokes on this line becomes unsettling.

Still “James and the Giant Peach” is worth seeing. Kids will love all the insects and love to hate the aunts. Sometimes Zach Theatre opts to use adults in their 20s to play young children. In this case, it opted to use an actual boy. In our performance, Diego Rodriguez was particularly strong with a beautiful voice. His age makes him even more identifiable to a young audience.

“James and the Giant Peach.”

When: 11 a.m. Saturday, March, 12, 19, 26; April 2, 9. 2 p.m. Sunday, Saturday, March 12, 13, 19, 20, 26, 27; April 2, 3, 9; and 4:30 p.m. April 10

Where: Zach Theatre’s Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside Drive

Tickets: $29 adults, $26 children

Information: zachtheatre.org

Review: “Tomás and the Library Lady” at Zach Theatre makes reading entertaining

“Tomás and the Library Lady,” Zach Theatre’s theater for all play based on the Pat Mora book, does a great job at making reading come to life.

The bilingual play, adapted by José Cruz González, is the story of Tomás Rivera, who was born in Crystal City to migrant farm workers. One year when the family took work in Iowa, he met a librarian who helped him learn to love reading. Rivera later became the chancellor of the University of California at Riverside.

For this production, Zach Theatre is working with University of Texas at Austin theater and dance department. Director Tamara Carroll is getting her master’s degree there and this staging is her thesis production.

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Benjamin Bazan (Tomás) and Claire Stephen as The Library Lady. in Zach Theatre’s bilingual Tomás and the Library Lady. Credit: Kirk Tuck

One day, while sent to town to mail a letter, Tomás finds the library and the librarian invites him inside. She helps him learn how to read in English and he teachers her Spanish.

Much of the stories he reads or the family tells are illustrated not just with the actors, but with videos projected on screens above the set. The whimsical illustrations help the otherwise sparse set come to life.

Three actors play all the parts, and the audience sometimes gets to see the costume changes. Martinique Duchene, who plays the mother, transforms into the grandfather by adding a bandana shaped like a mustache. Benjamin Bazan transforms from Tomás to his father by the addition of a hat. The two UT students who share the role of the library lady Claire Stephen and Kathleen Brown, take off a skirt and scarf to become Tomás’ brother Enrique, and they put on a black shirt, black coat and glasses to become the evil teacher.

All three actors become narrators to introduce the story and to move the story along. At times, some of the narration feels a little heavy handed, but luckily the play does not rely on too much narration.

The play is easy to understandable for English speakers and for mostly Spanish speakers. The audience I saw it with were preschoolers and elementary school kids, split pretty evenly between Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites. This led to some of the Spanish jokes having certain kids laughing hysterically while others had to catch up, which was an interesting turn of events. It further emphasized what it might be like to live in a world where you cannot understand what is being said, just as Tomás experience in his former school with the teacher who insisted on English-only.

“Tomás and the Library Lady”

For ages 5 and up.

When: 2 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 14.

Where: Whisenhunt Stage, 1510 Toomey Road.

Tickets: $12 children, $16 adults. zachtheatre.org.

Special events:

Author Pat Mora question-and-answer session. The author will be here for the 2 p.m. Feb. 13 show with everyone in the audience getting a free book, in partnership with Center for the Book.

Special autism/sensory friendly show 11 a.m. Saturday. The house lights will remain up, the sound will be lower, glow sticks will signal something upsetting might happen and there will be special places for breaks from the show.

More on Zach’s bilingual program

Read past stories and reviews online at austin360.com:

“Tomás and the Library Lady,” story 

“Cenicienta” review, story

“Salt & Pepper” story

“The Little Mermaid” at Bass Concert Hall enchants visually, emotionally

“The Little Mermaid” musical, which is onstage at Bass Concert Hall through Sunday, is magical. Characters fly through the air, skate and dance as if they are swimming through the ocean. It’s one of the few musicals that use all the stage from top to bottom, back to front. You never know where Ariel will appear next.

Disney's "The Little Mermaid" stars Alison Woods as Ariel.
Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” stars Alison Woods as Ariel.

The musical rounds out the Disney movie by creating back story as well as letting us into the minds of more than just the lead character, Ariel. Ursula the sea witch is actually King Triton’s older sister. Who knew? Triton loves Ariel the most because she has her mother’s voice. And that mother is the reason why Triton hates humans. He thinks his wife was killed by them.

To give all this back story, the musical adds a lot of songs — a lot. More than half are not in the movie. They blend well, though, and feel like they should have been, but if you have “Little Mermaid” purists, it will be a tough sell. And if you have little ones, the hour and 23 minute movie becomes a two and a half hour musical with a 15 minute intermission. It also feels like all the secondary characters: Prince Eric, his adviser Grimsby, Ariel’s friend Flounder, the crazy seagull Scuttle, King Triton, Ariel’s sisters, and Ursula’s henchmen Flotsam and Jetsam were all given their signature song, which doesn’t always move this story forward.

Still, as a production, it is visually stunning, incredibly heartwarming and stunning. Alison Woods, who plays Ariel, has her precociousness and naiveté down. Her voice sounds straight from the movie, not an easy task considering the range that Ariel is expected to have. Jennifer Allen as Ursula is pure fun in her evilness. She gives a memorable performance and the choreography smartly uses her eight octopus legs to be characters of their own.

Also of note, the is one of the first productions at Bass Concert Hall where the sound was well done. It did not feel as if the actors were singing through mud and you could understand the lyrics almost all of the time. There was no whispers from the audience of “What did she say?” Instead, a lot of kids and even adults were repeating the lyrics or lines during intermission or after the show in approval of their cleverness.

“The Little Mermaid

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.Sunday.

Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive

Tickets: $35-$115

Information: texasperformingarts.org

Theater review: Twist gives us honey pot full of fun at Zach Theatre’s “Winnie the Pooh”

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh, Sara Burke as Piglet. Photo by Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh, Sara Burke as Piglet. Photo by Kirk Tuck

“Winnie the Pooh,” Zach Theatre’s opening musical in this year’s family series, lets children into the secret of theater. It starts with musician Allen Robertson warming up the audience by teaching the “Winnie the Pooh” dance.

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Russel Taylor, Will Cleveland, J. Quinton Johnson, Allen Robertson, and Sara Burke. Credit: Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Russel Taylor, Will Cleveland, J. Quinton Johnson, Allen Robertson, and Sara Burke.
Credit: Kirk Tuck

Later he appears on stage with the crew of the play: a set designer, a prop master, a stage hand and a costumer. They are going about their business, but suddenly they notice that there is an audience. Robertson declares, that no, it’s not an audience, it’s the backup dancers. This, of course, brings some giggles.

Indeed, there is an audience, and we’re told that we’ve come two weeks too early. But wait, we’ve paid money for this show! The behind-the-scenes crew will just have to put on the musical for us. They find the book on stage and begin sorting out who will play what.

It’s a delightful twist to this classic tale and the musical, which was written in 1964 by le Clanche du Rand with music from Allan J. Friedman and lyrics by author A.A. Milne and Kristin Sergel. The musical originally just starts with Pooh doing his morning exercises, not this behind-the-scenes crew turned actors vignette.

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh. Credit: Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh.
Credit: Kirk Tuck

The twist allows a young audience to not have to suspend disbelief. We know it’s not really a bear, an owl, a kangaroo, a piglet, a rabbit and a donkey. Instead, it’s an adult stage crew trying to play legendary animal characters. We see them try to transform into these animals by finding hats, scarves, shirts, jackets and aprons to fit their characters. We see them give one another stage directions, such as rabbits hop, so hop more.

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Sara Burke as Piglet and Russel Taylor as Eeyore. Credit: Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Sara Burke as Piglet and Russel Taylor as Eeyore.
Credit: Kirk Tuck

The fun is that the crew is very similar to their animal characters. The set designer who is chosen to play Pooh (Will Cleveland) is also a slow-motion kind of guy. The costumer (Sara Burke) has a ton of energy and positivity, perfect for Piglet and Roo. She also has the smarts of Owl. Another stage hand (J. Quinton Johnson) becomes the leader and narrator, qualities like Christopher Robin and Rabbit. The highlight is Russel, (Russel Taylor), who has as much enthusiasm as Eeyore, as he gets dragged into this production to play Eeyore and later awkwardly Kanga. He brought the biggest laughs, especially during the song-and-dance numbers.

Throughout, Allen Robertson plays the on-stage musician and coaches the crew-turned-actors on how to sing.

The kids in the audience of Friday night’s opener loved being part of the action. They loved being asked to dance and do the movements with the actors on stage; after all, they are the backup dancers, right? They loved with the actors talked to them.

If you come into this musical thinking you’re going to see a straight version of “Winnie the Pooh,” you might be disappointed, but probably you’ll be delighted with the change.

Zach Theatre’s education director Nat Miller, who directs this show, doesn’t do things in traditional ways. Last year, “The Three Little Pigs” were rock stars. Cinderella was alive in the imagination of a bilingual girl who created her out of a funnel with a doiley on it in “Cenicienta.”

This year, Zach is presenting a storybook season with “Winnie the Pooh,” running now through Dec. 12, the bilingual “Tomás and the Library Lady,” Jan. 15-Feb. 14; “James and the Giant Peach,” Feb. 19-April 10; and “Alice in Wonderland,” March 4-May 14. We can’t wait to see the twists that Miller finds for “James” and “Alice.”

“Winnie the Pooh.” 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 12. An autism and sensory-friendly performance is scheduled for 11 a.m. Oct. 31. $15-$20. Kleberg Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd. zachtheatre.org.

Summer Stock Austin’s “Tortoise and Hare,” a moving tale of tolerance, self-acceptance

 

"Tortoise and Hare" is Summer Stock Austin's family  show at the Long Center. Kama chases Harper as Kama trains for the race. Summer Stock Austin
“Tortoise and Hare” is Summer Stock Austin’s family show at the Long Center. Kama chases Harper as Kama trains for the race.
Summer Stock Austin

Summer Stock Austin’s family musical “Tortoise and Hare” is really fun. You’ll be rocking to the reggae, calypso and rap beats of the music and lyrics by Allen Robertson, of the Biscuit Brothers. Robertson and Damon Brown wrote the book, and Robertson directs the show.

It’s a definite twist on the classic story, giving it much more depth. While you might think of this as a children’s fable, this production really is for the whole family.

Kama (Lena Owens) is the leader of the tortoises, a species of smart, thoughtful creatures who work hard cultivating gardens. Jackson (Patrick Regner) is the leader of the hares, a species of reckless teenagers who are all about looks. They have long raided the tortoises’ gardens, but now they’ve decided to take over the tortoises’ lands. When the hares arrive, Jackson cannot believe that Kama is their leader. After all, she’s a girl.

Kama stands up to his threats and challenges him to a race. The winner will get control of the tortoises’ land.

After the hares leave, Kama begins to have serious doubts, but then the hare Harper (Kalie Naftzger) returns to bring back the book she took from Kama’s brother Simon (Donelvan Thigpen). Harper doesn’t know how to read, but she’s curious and she’s also tired of Jackson putting her down as a girl and only talking about her beauty.

Harper joins team tortoise and trains Kama to try to make her run as fast as a hare. Soon, it becomes clear, that while Kama is faster than she was, she’ll never be as fast as a hare. Harper, meanwhile, has been learning to read and has the idea that all the tortoises can help Kama by doing research so that Kama will know the obstacles she will face and the best route she should take.

Of course, you know the end of the story. The tortoise wins because “slow and steady wins the race,” but there’s more to this story. It’s about a friendships between rivals who take a pause to see one another and themselves. It’s a great lesson in era of racial tensions.

The costuming is smart with the hares wearing stylish clothes in grays, blacks, whites and reds. The tortoises use earth tones in their clothing and wear backpacks for shells. The set uses multiple levels of black stage risers to represent the hills and beach areas of this land.

The cast of high school and college students are poised and professional, while being endearing and relatable. This productions does not feel like the actors have only had the material for three weeks, while doing two other plays: “Guys & Dolls” and “Into the Woods.”

You don’t have to have a kid to go see this production. In fact, most of the audience on Friday morning was not children. Instead it was teens and college students and their parents. You just have to be ready to enjoy many catchy tunes with life lessons.

“Tortoise and Hare”

10 a.m Saturday, Wednesday, Aug. 7 and Aug. 8; 2 p.m. Sunday and Aug. 9. $14 adults, $9 children 4-12. The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive. thelongcenter.org