Bernstein’s ‘Mass’ is nothing less than an Austin triumph

Leonard Bernstein‘s “Mass” is about nothing less than a profound loss of faith, Not just personal, but also national, even universal.

Premiering in 1971 during some of the most grim days of the Vietnam War, the great composer’s theatrical take on the traditional Mass structure was to deconstruct it and put it back together.

In this case, last week’s cover of Austin360 predicted the triumphant outcome.

He poses a saintly Celebrant against competing masses of singers, dancers and instrumentalists.

First one group, then others, and ultimately the Celebrant himself lose the comforts of faith and peace and smash the religious images that adorn the altar at the center of the stage. If this spirtual chaos can seem heart-rending today — and at the Long Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, it was — one can only imagine the effect on buttoned-up audiences right after the 1960s, a decade that tore apart conventional social norms on so many fronts.

No wonder its debut at the Kennedy Center was so controversial. Not only that, the two-hour spectacle that begins with Broadway-Bernstein’s “Simple Song” — sung too softly here — ricochets musically among Copland-Bernstein, Stravinsky-Bernstein and the sometimes unsettling High-Modernist-Bernstein.

RELATED: In a coup, Austin lands Leonard Bernstein marvel.

All this added up to an evening of almost overwhelming sensation, thanks primarily to Peter Bay, who has dreamed of conducting this towering piece since he witnessed the Kennedy Center premiere 47 years ago.

Let’s break it down:

  • Children’s choirs: The combined troupes, led by multiple directors, provided moments of joyful respite from the the heavier drama of “Mass.” Their brightly-clad innocence and sweet harmonies elicited an audible “aw” from the audience every time they appeared. Despite Michael Krauss‘s large, never crowded and gorgeously sacred set, the kids were by default and musical necessity required to cluster downstage. While stationed there, they were the stars of the show.
  • Bernstein100Austin Chorus: Placed upstage of the altar, this formidable group of singers, dressed for most of the action in dark robes, provided a sort of solemn anchor for everything else. Led primarily by Craig Hella Johnson of Conspirare, their sound was rock-solid and responded to whatever challenge Bernstein and Bay threw at them. It would be interesting to hear some of their sections done separately in concert. They would hold up.
  • Street Chorus: While the upstage choir blended into a whole, this group of two dozen or so singer-actors — dressed in street clothes and semi-seated to the side — injected particularized humanity into their roles. While they clearly represented some of the social subsets from the early 1970s, the performers made each part their own, thanks in part to stage director Josh Miller‘s efforts to distinguish each individual’s profile. Their solo meditations on faith and doubt really got the show’s near-operatic project rolling.
  • Dancers and Acolytes: Not having seen a stage version of “Mass” before, I could only imagine — or rather, struggle to imagine — the function of these mostly silent figures dressed in plain black-and-white cassocks. Yet, choreographed by Jennifer Hart, they kept the show in almost constant motion, delineating sections and amplifying the major themes. Included onstage were some of Ballet Austin‘s finest dancers, who know how to make movement into theater. If you don’t have the dancers, you don’t have “Mass.”
  • Celebrant: At first, baritone Jubilant Sykes provided the warm, soulful heart of the show. Wearing his vestments lightly and employing the full range of his stunning voice, Sykes tried to reach out and mend the rips in the social-sacramental fabric around him, not easy to do when there are 300 other performers around you. Yet when it came time for the Celebrant to break down and lose his personal connection to God, Sykes, defrocked in a solo spotlight, gave us a raw psychological study that could have been drawn from the most terrifying Greek tragedy.
  • Austin Symphony Orchestra+: Austin’s primary classical ensemble was supported by rock, jazz and marching band musicians. Yet they carried the preponderance of the musical weight triumphantly under Bay’s baton and, let’s be plain, they have never sounded more urgent or imperative. Especially during the interludes, they shed any mundane notion of constraints or equivocation. And as the audience made abundantly clear during the curtain calls, this was pinnacle so far in the career of conductor Bay. That’s not to say it’s downhill from here, but with this monumental “Mass,” all the participating Austin performing arts groups proved our city can aspire to almost anything. (And it made profit that will go back to the arts groups, says co-producer Mela Sarajane Dailey.)

In a play about uncertainty, one thing is certain: These actors are fantastic

“We hold very different perspectives on experiences we imagine we’re sharing.” So speaks Alex, one of two characters in Simon Stephens’ “Heisenberg.” It’s a line that serves as the perfect summation of the play’s themes, and Zach Theatre’s new production plays off those differing perspectives to create a dynamic performance with two astonishing leads.

Zach Theatre’s newest summer production, “Heisenberg,” tells the story of an unlikely pair who meet at a London train station. Contributed by Kirk Tuck

“Heisenberg” begins with the incidental meeting between Alex, a 75-year-old London butcher, and Georgie, a 42-year-old American expatriate whose 19-year-old son has abandoned her. The unlikely courtship between the pair is at the heart of the play, which explores the uncertainty in all relationships as well as the vague ways in which we influence others without even realizing it.

Plays with only two actors live and die on the chemistry of their performers, and in Harvey Guion and Liz Beckham, “Heisenberg” has an engaging, charming, heartbreaking pair. Beckham’s manic externalization of every passing thought is the perfect counter to Guion’s quiet insularity, and when the two meet in the middle, the result is nothing short of magical. Indeed, their remarkable pairing — guided by the deft directorial hand of Nat Miller, who very effectively uses staging in the round to highlight the couples’ varying perspectives — might just exceed the source material.

Stephens’ text is deft and subtle, featuring some unexpected narrative twists and deeply romantic moments. However, its ending is a bit abrupt, leaving some of the themes (as well as the plot-line) unsatisfyingly unresolved, and not in a meaningful way.

“Heisenberg” is, to be fair, a very good play; Beckham and Guion, however, are more than very good: They are excellent.

Zach is known in Austin for its large-scale productions on the massive Topfer Stage, so it is a welcome and refreshing change of pace to see them produce a smaller-scale piece on the Kleberg Stage that focuses less on spectacle and more on some truly remarkable performances. Beckham, Guion and Miller have proved that there is room for such subtlety even in Austin’s biggest theater company.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through July 22
Where: 202 S. Lamar Blvd.
Cost: $30-$58

Have some cheesy good fun with ‘The Book of Liz’

Siblings Amy and David Sedaris may not be best known as playwrights, but writing together as “The Talent Family” they have co-authored several comedic scripts, including “The Book of Liz,” which is running through June 30 at Trinity Street Theatre, courtesy of Different Stages.

“The Book of Liz.” Contributed by Bret Brookshire

“The Book of Liz” is, more than anything else, a very silly play, and this is not an insult — silliness is clearly the intended goal of both the playwright and the production. It tells the story of Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, a member of the “Squeamish” religious order (picture a food-obsessed parody of the Amish) and the creator of the signature, wildly popular cheese balls that the order sells in order to remain financially afloat. When she begins to chafe under the order’s male domination, Liz decides to run away and finds herself facing the modern world (and an eclectic array of contemporary characters) for the first time in her life.

The Sedaris’ comedy here is of a gentle kind, more akin to the NPR-friendly humor of David’s writings than the off-the-wall zaniness characterized by Amy’s television work. It is very much like an extended sketch one might hear or see on “A Prairie Home Companion”; none of the jokes are particularly sharp or mean-spirited, but they elicit more than a few wry chuckles and deeper laughs at the pure goofiness of it all.

Different Stages’ production is entirely in on the joke; it highlights this good-natured silliness at every opportunity, ranging from broad characterizations and pantomimed props to over-the-top fake beards. Director Robert Tolaro is not trying to push the envelope here, or to produce searing social commentary, but rather just to get the audience to smile, and in that he wholly succeeds.

The cast, as well, is completely in tune with the text’s gentle humor. Miriam Rubin, as the put-upon Liz, is sweetly and smartly charming, a wonderful juxtaposition to the zanier antics of the rest of the cast. Robert L. Berry’s sonorous voice is put to great use in the dual role of the head of the Squeamish order, Reverend Tollhouse, and the manager at the restaurant where Liz ends up working. Katherine Schroeder, as both a sister in the order and a recovering alcoholic doctor whom Liz visits, provides a slow, subtle comedic burn that ramps up into some of the deepest belly laughs of the play.

The younger members of the cast — Sunshine Garrison, Christian Huey and Beau Paul — all show their comedic chops in their ability to shift between a variety of different character types. In a surprise appearance as the narrator of the play, Different Stages producer (and recent Austin Arts Hall of Fame inductee) Norman Blumensaadt also provides an unexpected highlight, moving the story along with dapper charm and bouncy feet.

If “The Book of Liz” could be described in one word, it would be “cute,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. It is also, though, surprisingly sweet and tender in its final few moments, providing a bit of insight about the roles of both tradition and change in our contemporary world. And, of course, it is at all times willfully, lightheartedly and unselfconsciously cheesy.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through June 30
Where: Black Box Theater, 901 Trinity St.
Cost: $15-$30

What is love? ‘The Afterparty’ looks at how art and science influence our deepest questions

When the universe ends, is it also the end of love? Is being taken up into the stars by the gods a reward or a punishment? How do science, poetry and the cosmos interweave meaningfully in human lives?

These are the questions raised by playwright Reina Hardy in the world premiere of “The Afterparty,” produced by Shrewd Productions and playing through June 30th at the Vortex.

“The Afterparty” is a mixture of science fiction, magical realism and memory play, told through the eyes of Claire, a poet whose favorite topics include the stars, science and mythology. She ruminates over her long-dead first love, a young boy named Devon, before being taken into the stars for a semi-mystical party where historical figures Aristophanes, Johannes Kepler and Henrietta Swan Leavitt greet her.

The text mixes poetry, comedy and surrealism to explore the ways in which human narratives interweave science and mythology in order to come to a greater understanding of the human condition, particularly the most mysterious part of that condition: love. The layered investigation of these issues is interesting and nuanced, but at times Hardy exchanges the exploration of her metaphors for grounded character interactions, creating a narrative that is told to us as much as it is shown. In addition, the story starts off rather slow and runs somewhat longer than a play focused more on ideas than on characters can sustain.

Where Hardy excels, however, is at creating moments in the text for visual and physical exploration, which director Liz Fisher choreographs beautifully. Ann Marie Gordon’s set, Patrick Anthony’s lights, Nick Hart’s music and sound design and Andrew McIntyre’s projections all combine organically to create an atmospheric space that truly feels cosmic at times. The relatively small black box theater of the Vortex becomes infinite and expansive thanks to the clockwork synchronicity of these technical elements.

“The Afterparty” also sports a talented cast, headed by Shannon Grounds as Claire. Grounds is able to sell both the poetic and comedic sides of the character, particularly when playing off Ja’Michael Darnell’s lovably innocent portrayal of Devon. As Aristophanes, Kepler and Leavitt, respectively, Rommel Sulit, Trey Deason and Valoneecia Tolbert bring vivacious life to the second act, imbuing it with a comic zing that is somewhat lacking in the first half.

Though uneven in places, “The Afterparty” is an aesthetically pleasing exploration of the overlap between art and science that poetically focuses on the cosmic questions we ask when we look up at the stars.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through June 30
Where: The Vortex, 2307 Manor Road
Cost: $15-$35

‘Little Bird’ looks at ways young women are looked at by men

“Little Bird,” a new play by Nicole Oglesby now playing at the Dougherty Arts Center, is only the second production from one of Austin’s newest theater companies, the Heartland Theatre Collective. Formed by Oglesby and Marian Kansas (who directs “Little Bird”) after they graduated from the University of Texas, Heartland describes its mission as telling “rich, powerful stories of Texan women of the past, present, and future that feature female artists working in Austin.”

Franny Harold and Laney Neumann in “Little Bird.” Contributed by Daniel Ellsworth

Like the company’s first production, “Dust” (also an Oglesby/Kansas collaboration), “Little Bird” weaves a rich, emotionally nuanced tapestry around a story that is vital to women. While “Dust” was a period piece, “Little Bird” is much more contemporary. Set in an East Texas bayou, it tells the story of two teenage girls, best friends Willa and Peg, as they find themselves on the cusp of womanhood and suddenly under the gaze of predatory men.

Though a world premiere, this is clearly a play that has undergone a lot of thought and revision, thanks in part to dramaturg (and, with Oglesby and Kansas, co-producer) Katy Matz. Oglesby’s text is complex, layered and emotionally difficult at times, dealing as it does with issues of abuse and pedophilia. Underneath the darkness, though, shines the light of the girls’ friendship, a beacon to pull them through the dark swampland of their troubles. The relationship between the two women is the heart of the show, and the two actresses portraying the girls in this production keep that heart beating fervently.

RELATED: ‘Dust’ announces a powerful new theater company

Kenzie Stewart’s exuberant, innocent Peg is a stark and powerful contrast to the more reserved Willa, played by Franny Harold with a kind of uncomfortable wisdom that a girl Willa’s age should not have. From the first scene, it is clear that Willa has been traumatized in her past, and the play hints that she will not be spared further trauma in the future. Laney Neumann plays Margot, a ghost whom only Willa can see and who was murdered by her own abuser. Her poised performance, undergirded by childlike, kinetic playfulness, serves as a commentary on the ways in which society sexualizes young women, often with tragic results.

Kenzie Stewart and Keith Paxton in “Little Bird.” Contributed by Daniel Ellsworth

Rounding out the cast is Keith Adam Paxton as “The Hunter,” a shorthand title for the transmutation role he takes on as all the men in the play. Oglesby deliberately keeps the story free of noble or protective males, showcasing instead how different types of men — from family members, to strangers, to boyfriends — can be predatory towards young women. Paxton’s strength here is in the subtle differentiation he shows between different types of abusers, some of whom are merely creepy while others are violently dangerous, raising important questions about contemporary male culpability.

“Little Bird” is a play of relationships and small character moments, and Kansas wisely puts all the focus on her quartet of performers. She takes advantage of the enormous depth of the Dougherty Arts Center’s stage, creating power dynamics out of negative space and crafting instant transitions on Amanda Perry’s transformative set design, with the aid of Lindsey McGowan’s lush, saturated lighting and Christabel Lin’s somber violin score (played live by the composer herself).

With both “Dust” and “Little Bird” making vital contributions to important conversations surrounding the lives of Texas women, the Heartland Theatre Collective promises to be an important voice in Austin theater in the years to come, and Oglesby and Kansas a creative collaboration to watch out for.

When: 7:30 p.m. June 14-16
Where: Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Road
Cost: $15-$25

Shakespeare in Round Rock: Free family fun for a summer night

‘Tis the season for theater under the stars, and Penfold Theatre continues its tradition of bringing outdoor productions to Round Rock with “Much Ado About Nothing,” playing for free through June 23 at the Round Rock Amphitheater.

Contributed by Kimberley Mead

At first blush, a bit of Shakespeare might not seem to be the most natural fit for Penfold’s outdoor summer production, which tends to play to more of a family audience than Austin Shakespeare’s own annual production in Zilker Park. Director Ryan Crowder, however, has created a smart, slimmed-down adaptation of the text. This leaner, meaner play cuts down on anything but the main plotline, following two pairs of lovers as they fall in and out of love (and sometimes both at once).

Set and lighting designer Chris Conard has created an inventive playing space, re-creating the porch and front yard of a rural Texas farmhouse in the late 1800s. The text holds up remarkably well to such a setting, working in concert with Conard’s set, Jennifer Davis’ simple, evocative costumes and sound designer Eliot Fisher’s bed of “A Prairie Home Companion”-esque fiddle music. This conceit also allows for several fun moments of live music and line dancing.

What such production choices ultimately achieve is to streamline the story, eliminating many side characters, gender-swapping a few others and casting two performers (Suzanne Balling and Taylor Flanagan) in multiple roles, so as to focus on the lovers’ storylines. Indeed, the villainous Don John, played by Balling with a delightful Southern drawl, is reduced to the bare essential stereotypes of a black-hatted villain who may or may not live in the outhouse, while Flanagan is called upon to ebulliently switch between three separate roles within one scene.

While Balling and Flanagan get to vacillate between a variety of characters, both serious and silly, the rest of the cast focus on more nuanced portrayals of the two pairs of lovers. As the young, engaged couple Hero and Claudio, Emily Christine Smith and Nathan Daniel Ford portray a sense of wistful naivete that nicely contrasts to the more cynical, knowing jibes of Jennifer Jennings and Nathan Jerkins as Beatrice and Benedick. These four have their moments of humor, too, but their laughs come more from the sarcasm and playfulness of Shakespeare’s words (though both Jennings and Jerkins have a few moments of broad physical comedy), and it is to the actors’ credit that they are able to make that language so nimble and active.

Penfold’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is, in short, a Shakespearean comedy that trims the textual fat while adding plenty of bells and whistles in order to create a light piece of summer fare that is suitable for the entire family.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through June 23
Where: Round Rock Amphitheater, 301 W. Bagdad Ave., Round Rock
Cost: Free

Zach’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ is as colorful as the art that inspired the musical

As a headline in the Guardian newspaper once noted, Stephen Sondheim might just be the Shakespeare of musical theater. But of his many works — ranging from “Company” to “Sweeney Todd” to “Into the Woods” — only one show earned him (along with collaborator James Lapine) a Pulitzer Prize in drama: “Sunday in the Park with George.” Zach Theatre’s new production of the classic musical is a fitting, complex and deceptively straightforward rendition of the show that fully exploits the many notes and colors of this layered, engaging text.

Jill Blackwood and Cecil Washington star in “Sunday in the Park with George.”

An in-depth exploration of “the art of making art,” “Sunday in the Park with George” tells the fictionalized story of French pointillist painter Georges Seurat (called George in the show) and the creation of his most famous work, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” as well as the effect of that work on the life of his great-grandson, also named George. Both versions of George try to master their world, their relationships and themselves through their artistic work, making sacrifices and compromises along the way.

Through both its songs (by Sondheim) and dialogue (by Lapine), “Sunday in the Park with George” shows the ways in which the life of an artist freely intermingles with his work, and vice versa. With numerous overlapping themes and motifs, this is Sondheim at his best, exploring issues that are clearly personal to his own artistic experience and expression.

RELATED: Jill Blackwood is an Austin star for all reasons

Zach’s production, directed by the company’s producing artistic director, Dave Steakley, is fully aware of the strength of Sondheim’s work and takes great pains never to overshadow it. From the large-scale set pieces (designed by Cliff Simon), to the costumes and hair/makeup (by Susan Branch Towne and Serrett Jensen, respectively) that bring Seurat’s painting to life, and the sumptuous and moving orchestra under the direction of Allen Robertson, each element of the production works intricately with every other piece to create a greater whole, much like Seurat’s pointillist method itself.

The standout exception is the lighting design by Sarah EC Maines, assisted by Carlos Nine, which is a character in its own right, creating paintings on the stage while interacting and collaborating with the performers. Some of the most breathtaking moments in the play, in fact, feature an actor or actress summoning and controlling light and imagery through the power of their voice.

Though the entire company is quite strong, the two leads of this production are truly remarkable. Jill Blackwood’s performance as the first George’s muse/lover, Dot, shines with a strength that is equally passionate and compassionate, imbuing a figure from a painting with inner life and light. Even more stunning, though, is Cecil Washington Jr.’s transformative portrayal of both versions of George — the stolid, outwardly unemotional elder, who inwardly roils with artistic furor, and the far more temperamental younger man who is artistically adrift at sea. Both versions feel effortlessly genuine.

“Sunday in the Park with George” is one of the greatest works from one of the masters of musical theater, a serious and soulful meditation on the nature of art and life. Zach Theatre’s production is a gorgeous, colorful and uplifting performance that takes the play’s most crucial elements and beautifully puts them together.

‘Sunday in the Park With George’
When: Various times through June 24
Where: The Topfer at Zach Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd.
Cost: $20-$150
Information: 512-476-0541,

Little-known musical ‘Lucky Stiff’ comes alive with comedic bits

The team of writer/lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty have together produced some classics of musical theater over the past three decades, including shows such as “Ragtime,” “Once on this Island” and the current Broadway production of “Anastasia.” Their first collaboration, though, came in 1988, in the form of an off-Broadway adaptation of Michael Butterworth’s 1983 novel “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.”

Molly Karrasch, Huck Huckaby and Scott Shipman in “Lucky Stiff.” Contributed by Christopher Loveless

That musical, “Lucky Stiff,” never reached the same heights of success as the duo’s later works, and it’s easy to see why. It is a very light, zany romp that’s lacking in depth and abounding with clichés. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be quite fun, as proved by Austin Playhouse’s new production of the overlooked musical.

“Lucky Stiff” tells the story of an uptight English shoe salesman named Harry Witherspoon who is given a life-changing opportunity when he stands to inherit $6 million from his recently deceased uncle. All he has to do to obtain his inheritance is take his uncle’s taxidermied corpse on the vacation of a lifetime to Monte Carlo. He encounters a series of wacky, outlandish people along the way, most notably a woman named Annabel Glick who represents the charity that stands to inherit the money should he fail to scrupulously follow the terms of his uncle’s will.

As the founder of Doctuh Mistuh productions, which specializes in strange and unique musicals, director/musical director Michael McKelvey is the perfect fit for “Lucky Stiff.” Though some of the comedy of the text is more than a little aged, and none of the songs are particularly memorable, the delightful flourishes of clever staging, quiet visual gags and tiny character bits are what make this production come to life. It is, in short, a very good production of a fun-but-corny musical that features plenty of verve and charm.

The production is at its most charming in the moments of interaction between Witherspoon and Glick, played by Scott Shipman and Molly Karrasch, respectively. Both actors are relatively subdued and unassuming, particularly in comparison to the enjoyable extremes to which the rest of the cast go. The developing relationship between them is sold far more by the performances than by the text, providing an emotional core to what can at times feel like a somewhat directionless procession of comedic bits.

Those comedic bits, though, can be very funny, indeed. The entire cast fully commits to the world of the play with a reckless abandon that makes each moment a delight, even if the whole is lesser than the sum of those moments. Of particular note are the background shenanigans of Chase Brewer, Jess Hughes, Stephen Mercantel and Bernadette Nason (who each take on a variety of ever-shifting side characters), as well as Jerreme Rodriguez’s nebbishy, Jerry Lewis-like take on Vincent di Ruzzio, a bedraggled optometrist pulled into a wacky caper by his insensitive sister.

Although there’s a reason that “Lucky Stiff” is something of a forgotten musical, Austin Playhouse’s production is still a great deal of escapist fun with plenty of laughs, charm and life.

“Lucky Stiff”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through June 24
Where: 6001 Airport Blvd.
Cost: $17-$40

Broadway in Austin’s ‘An American in Paris’ is a spectacular production of a dated story

The 1951 movie musical “An American in Paris” — starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, with music and songs by George and Ira Gershwin — is a film classic that was adapted into a Broadway musical just a few years ago. Though the show closed in 2016, it lives on in the form of a national tour, playing now at Bass Concert Hall courtesy of Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts.

“An American in Paris” is the final show in Broadway in Austin’s 2017-2018 season. Contributed by Matthew Murphy

“An American in Paris” follows several artists living in Paris immediately after the Nazi occupation of France has ended — Americans Jerry Mulligan and Adam Hochberg, and Frenchman Henri Barrel. Though the three become fast friends, they suffer the misfortune of all falling in love with the same woman, ballet dancer Lise Dassi. Romantic entanglements ensue as all involved work towards the production of a new ballet, funded by Henri’s parents along with American heiress Milo Davenport, whom Jerry begins dating.

Though these convoluted love triangles are classic elements of stage and screen storytelling, it’s impossible to ignore how painfully dated much of the script feels. Adapted by Craig Lucas from the motion picture, the dialogue gives Lise virtually no agency whatsoever; she never expresses her own feelings, but rather has them told to the audience by the men who wish to possess her. Jerry, ostensibly the hero of the story, is the worst of all, coming across less as a young romantic and more as the kind of possessive man who would tell a woman he doesn’t know to smile. From the moment that he refuses to call Lise by her name, and instead dubs her Liza, the script makes it almost impossible to root for Jerry’s romantic overtures.

Fortunately, the production of “An American in Paris” — majestically directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, with a sumptuous adaptation and arrangement of the Gershwins’ music and songs by Rob Fisher — far exceeds the borderline misogynist script.

If one were to eliminate the text entirely, and allow the dancing and mise en scène to tell the whole story, then the courtship between Jerry and Lise becomes infinitely more believable. Wheeldon excels at creating a romantic chemistry between the pair through the melding of their two dance styles.

RELATED: For this musical, the feet are as important as the beat

McGee Maddox, as Jerry, and Allison Walsh, as Lise, are especially strong given that they create likable characters despite the limitations of the script. Also of note are Ben Michael’s delightfully good-natured Henri, Matthew Scott’s sweetly sad-sack Adam and, particularly, Kirsten Scott’s commanding show of strength, nuance and charm as Milo.

Ultimately, despite the limitations of its story, “An American in Paris” is a visual and auditory feast. With kinetic projections from 59 Productions that actually enhance the storytelling (a rarity for such tools on the stage); angular, jutting set pieces (designed by Bob Crowley) that serve in deliberate contrast to the rounded, fluid movements of the dancers; and, of course, the sensuous choreography carried out by world-class dancers and the gorgeous Gershwin music intoned by an astounding orchestra and lush vocalists, there’s not a moment of the production that isn’t a delight to behold, even if the script is more than a little tone-deaf.

“An American in Paris”
When: 8 p.m. May 30-June 2, 2 p.m. June 2, and 1 and 7 p.m. June 3
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
Cost: $30-$125

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With science fiction and sexy one-liners, this puppet show is not for kids

At first blush, the concept for “Polly Mermaid: Apocalypse Wow” seems like a joke — a mutant mermaid created out of humanity’s trash lives in a post-apocalyptic plastic kingdom under the sea where her best friends are puppets made from the detritus of mankind. When a scientist who has created a matter-transmitter device discovers that she may be responsible for this plastic realm, she teams up with Polly to try and save both humanity and Polly’s plastic friends.

Contributed by Caroline Reck

Such is the concept behind Glass Half Full Theatre’s latest production. And, yes, it is a comedy, but there are also elements of surprising beauty and engaging storytelling.

The script for “Polly Mermaid: Apocalypse Wow,” written by Indigo Rael (who stars as Polly) and Caroline Reck (who also directs), establishes its semi-absurdist concept early on and then makes an odd, interesting choice — it treats the concept seriously. Though the first few scenes may feel a bit like a smutty, adult-oriented “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” soon the play convinces us of its world in which trash can talk and a port-a-potty can allow for travel across time and space. Like all good science fiction, once those rules are demonstrated, the rest of the story unfolds based on following through with the premise.

In this way, “Polly Mermaid” is simultaneously a fun romp, filled with double entendres and puppets made out of trash, and a serious piece of science fiction. Both strands come together in a message of acceptance and environmentalism (with some jabs at the current administration’s policies on both as an added bonus), though in some ways the absorbing story almost outshines that message.

The play’s strength isn’t just in its script, though. It also features beautiful stagecraft, with exquisitely clever puppets (designed by Rael and Reck) masterfully handled by the show’s “Scubuki” puppeteers — Gricelda Silva, Marina De-Yoe Pedraza, Karina Dominguez, Kelly Hasandras and Sarah Danko. The human performances by Rael as Polly and Katy Taylor as scientist Debora Déguderè are both standouts as well, mixing explicit jokes and sly winks to the audience with serious bits of exposition and philosophical musings. All of this is underscored by evocative music from Austin’s own Mother Falcon, with a mix of lighting from Rachel Atkinson and sound design from K. Eliot Haynes that creates a convincing underwater atmosphere.

“Polly Mermaid: Apocalypse Wow” is more than just an adult puppet show. Hidden underneath the sexy one-liners and beautiful-but-silly trash puppets is a fascinating piece of science fiction, and the show should appeal to audiences looking for either half of this engaging equation.

“Polly Mermaid: Apocalypse Wow”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through June 9
Where: The Vortex, 2307 Manor Road
Cost: $15-$35
Information: 512-478-5282,