Theater review: Austin Playhouse’s “A Little Night Music” lightly charms

(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)

A Little Night Music, the now-classic Stephen Sondheim musical with a book by Hugh Wheeler, is perhaps the perfect springtime production. With its set-up of multiple spouses and lovers finding themselves on the same country estate, and its follow-through on the hijinks – both comedic and tragic – that ensue, the show sits comfortably on the cusp between the renewed vitality of springtime and the dolorous languor of summer heat.

Austin Playhouse’s new production of A Little Night Music, playing through June 26, is a fairly by-the-books presentation of Sondheim and Wheeler’s musical, with some delightfully witty and acerbic performances.

The show sounds wonderful, with an excellent orchestra (conducted by Cliff Bond, musical direction by Lyn Koenning) providing a backdrop to performers, including a quintet of remarkable singers (Jerreme Rodriguez, Sarah Fleming Walker, Devin Medley, Richard Roberts, and Natalie Cummings) who serve as a sort of Greek Chorus. Their amazing vocals are reflected in the heartfelt, emotional singing of many of the performers, particularly Connor Barr as the melancholy moralist Henrik and Boni Hester as the semi-hedonistic, yet also soulfully earnest, actress Desiree Armfeldt.

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Barr and Hester give strong performances between the songs, as well, hitting the acidic highs and lows that Sondheim and Wheeler’s text demands. Brian Coughlin, as the bombastic and slightly buffoonish Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, brings a boisterous, overly-testosteroned presence to the stage that provides some much-needed comedic absurdity, while Lara Wright, as his sarcastically long-suffering wife Charlotte Malcolm, provides the most emotionally and comically-centered performance of the evening, a highlight of the production.

On the whole, however, director Don Toner’s vision of A Little Night Music feels a bit too constrained. Part of this is simply a question of space – with a cast of almost 20 performers, Austin Playhouse’s stage appears rather tiny and cramped whenever more than four or five actors are present in a scene.

Along the same vein, the tone of the production also seems cramped, never quite achieving the madcap energy demanded by the story nor the whip-smart delivery needed to make the Oscar Wilde-sequel dialogue truly land, while at the same time never becoming quite as tragic or bittersweet as the more elegiac moments require.

A Little Night Music is a musical that lives and breathes on the edge of a knife, delicately teetering between the extremes of bedroom farce and Greek tragedy. Although Austin Playhouse’s production doesn’t quite maintain this balancing act, the text and performances still resonates, bringing to life a story of the desperate search for love and the ways in which it can sometimes only be found under the smile of the summer night.

www.austinplayhouse.com

Co-Lab Projects occupies vacant Congress Ave. space for exhibits

For all the hand-wringing over risings rents and increasing shortage of suitable space for artists and arts groups, one tiny non-profit visual arts organization is taking advantage of the changing landscape.

For the next year-ish, Co-Lab Projects will operate Demo Gallery at 721 Congress Avenue a long-empty retail space right next to to the historic Paramount and State theaters.

Photo by Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
“Youngsons: Live Free With Guys” at Co-Lab Projects’ Demo Gallery. Photo by Jeanne Claire van Ryzin.

After sitting empty for nearly two decades  — an eyesore on Austin’s prominent avenue — the shell of a building is now slated to be “car-free” apartment tower, designed by Austin architect Brad Nelsen.

While that project gets going, the developers have let Co-Lab have the rather raw high-ceilinged space for a longish-term pop-up gallery.

Opening its doors with the recent West Austin Studio Tour, Co-Lab kicked off with “Youngsons: Live Free With Guys,” featuring the lively, vibrant collaborative paintings of Drew Liverman and Michael Ricioppo.

 

 

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“Youngsons: Live Free With Guys” at Co-Lab Projects’ Demo Gallery. Photo by Jeanne Claire van Ryzin.

“Youngsons” runs through June 24. Opening July 2 is “Room With A View,” a solo exhibit by Adam Crosson who creates intriguing, thoughtful installations.

Gallery hours are 12 noon to 6 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays.

"Youngsons: Live Free With Guys" at Co-Lab Projects' Demo Gallery. Photo by Jeanne Claire van Ryzin.
“Youngsons: Live Free With Guys” at Co-Lab Projects’ Demo Gallery. Photo by Jeanne Claire van Ryzin.

Co-Lab has been footloose for a while after leaving the East Austin location it had for several years where organizers kept producing a steady stream of exhibits and happenings.

The artist-run group has always been skilled when it comes to the pop-up, staking out art exhibits in all kinds of venues.

Nimbleness proved a good strategy for this smaller arts organization in Austin’s rapidly changing and ever pricier urban landscape.

Mural on the Eighth Street side of 721 Congress Ave. where Co-Lab Projects is operating a pop-up gallery for the next year. Photo by Jeanne Claire van Ryzin.
Mural on the Eighth Street side of 721 Congress Ave. where Co-Lab Projects is operating a pop-up gallery for the next year. Photo by Jeanne Claire van Ryzin.

Umlauf Museum offers free admission all summer

The Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum is offering free admission through Aug. 31, thanks to its fundraising efforts during the citywide Amplify Austin campaign.

Umlauf Sculpture Garden. Alberto Martínez AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Umlauf Sculpture Garden. Alberto Martínez AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Next to Zilker Park, the museum’s six-acre grounds and exhibit pavilion have dozens of sculptures made by Charles Umlauf, the late modernist artist and University of Texas art professor

Umlauf museum curators have re-created the artist’s studio in the museum gallery for the current exhibit, “Studio in the Museum: An Interactive Recreation of Charles Umlauf’s Studio”

A pair of built-in vignettes of original tools, workbench, drafting table, sculpture stands and artwork pulled directly from Umlauf’s actual studio anchor the display. Interactive areas offer visitors the chance to try out their sculpting skills and create a portrait of Charles Umlauf in clay.

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, 605 Robert E. Lee Road
umlaufsculpture.org

And check out the Austin360 interactive map of arts and culture museums.

 

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Films about vaudeville, Frida Kahlo on Ransom Centers free summer series

The Harry Ransom Center is hosting a three-movie free film series this summer.

The films dovetail with the center’s collections from Samuel Beckett’s experimental film, to the whackiness of 1920s vaudeville and even a biopic of Frida Kahlo, whose “Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird,” is currently on view in the Ransom Center’s lobby.

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Fort Worth Majestic Program. Hoblitzelle-Interstate Collection. Ransom Center.

Screenings happen in the center’s 125-seat Prothro Theater. Doors open 30 minutes in advance of the 7 p.m. screenings.

The Ransom Center is located at 21st and Guadalupe streets on the edge of the UT campus.

“Film” and “Notfilm”
7 p.m. June 16

  • Samuel Beckett’s sole film project, “Film” (1965), stars Buster Keaton and was directed by Alan Schneider. Recently restored, “Film” will be followed by “Notfilm,” a feature-length experimental essay on “Film.” Runtime of “Film” is 22 minutes, and “Notfilm” run time is 128 minutes.

“Vaudeville and Vitaphone”
7 p.m. June 30

  • In the early days of talkies, Warner Brothers hired some of the top variety stars of the day to create “living sound” recordings of their acts. This “Vaudeville and Vitaphone” series of rarely-seen short films breathes life into the extensive vaudeville collections at the Ransom Center.

“Frida”
7 p.m. July 14

  • Salma Hayek stars as Frida Kahlo in the 2002 film “Frida,” directed by Julie Taymor. Run time is 123 minutes, rated R.

Umlauf Museum recreates sculptor’s studio

For 50 years, sculptor and seminal University of Texas art professor Charles Umlauf lived on a bluff above Barton Springs Road where he maintained a studio in which he created his figurative modernist sculptures that brought him significant national attention.

USE THIS PHOTO ON TOP OF THREE SAME SIZE LEDE 03.22.13 -- A path leads to the Umlauf studio with its high, north-facing windows. Alberto Martínez AMERICAN-STATESMAN
A path leads to the Umlauf studio with its high, north-facing windows. Alberto Martínez AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Before his death in 1994, Umlauf donated his property to the city. And on the parcel below the bluff, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum opened in 1991.

Yet his bluffside studio and home stayed private. And Umlauf’s studio remained untouched, materials and tools in place as if the artist had simply stepped out.

We were allowed into Umlauf’s studio for a story in 2013, a year after the sculptor’s widow died and the museum took formal possession of the Umlauf home and studio.

 A work table in the Umlauf in the Umlauf studio. Alberto Martínez AMERICAN-STATESMAN
A work table in Umlauf’s studio. Alberto Martínez AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Now, in a creative undertaking, Umlauf museum curators have re-created the artist’s studio in the museum gallery.

A pair of built-in vignettes of original tools, workbench, drafting table, sculpture stands and artwork pulled directly from Umlauf’s actual studio anchor the display. Interactive areas offer visitors the chance to try out their sculpting skills and create a portrait of Charles Umlauf in clay.

“Studio in the Museum: An Interactive Recreation of Charles Umlauf’s Studio”
Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Exhibit continues through Oct 16
Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, 605 Robert E. Lee Road
umlaufsculpture.org. 

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And check out our guide and map of Austin’s museums.

 

 

Austin composer Graham Reynolds nets $95,000 Creative Capital award

A chamber opera by Austin alt classical composer Graham Reynolds is one of 46 projects nation-wide that have been awarded a coveted Creative Capital Awards.

Graham Reynolds
Graham Reynolds

The awards give artists $50,000 in funding for a specific project as well as $45,000 worth of career development services provided by Creative Capital, an organization whose arts philanthropy is inspired by venture principals.

Reynolds won support for “Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance,” an experimental chamber opera.

Winners were selected from a pool of 2,500  established and emerging artists.

Reynolds performs this Saturday, premiering his latest piece “In the Face of Trouble,” a four-part piece for solo piano and live processing that riffs off of Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano in E Major.

Noted pianist Michelle Schumann will perform the Beethoven Sonata followed by Reynold’s piece which he wrote just for here.  Details here.

Michelle Schumann
Michelle Schumann

Theater review: Zach Theatre’s “The Santaland Diaries” gets a cabaret makeover

(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance writer Wes Eichenwald.)

 

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Meredith McCall, Jason Connor and Martin Burke in “The Santaland Diaries.” Photo by Kirk Tuck.

When the Holidays with a capital ‘H’ come around, so do certain staples of the stage, as inevitable as bluebonnets and SXSW in spring. We speak of the “Nutcrackers” and “Christmas Carols,” those reliable cash cows purpose-built to herd well-padded bottoms of all ages into theater seats. In the past two decades a decidedly minor-key, adult-oriented, dyspeptic addition to the canon has joined them, a corrective comment on the American way of Christmas: “The Santaland Diaries.”

The inextricable bond between Christmas and shopping, as if true holiday spirit can only be found in a major department store, is at the heart of “Diaries,” which made David Sedaris a household name – in households tuned in to NPR, anyway – after he wrote the original essay in 1992. The story, a semi-true account of how he was driven by job-seeker desperation to don the cap and bells as Crumpet the elf at Macy’s Santaland, was first staged in 1996.

But who needs Sedaris when we’ve got Martin Burke, who first played Crumpet at the Zach in 1998 and continued it annually for some 15 years (in 2012 he swore he was retiring the role; happily, it didn’t stick).

Burke has the jaundiced, self-hating misfit-elf schtick down cold, but helping him in no small measure to spice up this season’s holiday punch is his longtime friend Meredith McCall, the veteran Austin actress and singer who’s trod the Zach’s boards at least as much as her co-conspirator. Accompanied by stoic but up-for-anything pianist/musical director Jason Connor and (sometimes) Burke, the elegant McCall, resplendent in several shimmering ‘50s style dresses and gowns, set the foundation of a warm and laughter-filled evening with 45 minutes of cabaret, ranging from traditional Christmas songs with Austin-specific lyrics written by director Abe Reybold (plenty of traffic jokes; anyone who crawled forever down Mopac and Lamar to get to the show could relate) and topical takes (“Text Me Merry Christmas”) to lesser-known numbers like the delicious Brecht-Weill parody “Surabaya Santa” where a sardonic Mrs. Claus takes center stage at last. There are also some very silly and very non-PC bits of business.

It’s clear to even casual observers that Burke was born to play the hapless elf subjected to one humiliation after another in Santaland. The actor is possessed of a huge head with swept-back pompadour, set on a compact torso that never stops moving, suggesting a living caricature of himself or an occasionally profane wind-up doll. The Whisenhunt Stage, an intimate round bandbox of a theater, almost ensures the audience is part of the show, proven by Burke’s frequent comic interactions with some of them (good sports, all); at one point, he had us all rise from our seats to do the Wave.

The interplay and physical comedy between Burke and McCall was priceless; as one bit of Burkian stage business led to another – this is likely the only show with spot-on impressions of Miley Cyrus and Billie Holiday – she played the role of tolerant but patronizing straight woman to perfection. (For those with long memories, she pretty much channeled Keely Smith during the Louis Prima era.) This held true during the “Diaries” itself, as McCall moved into the role of Santaland hostess/elf dominatrix, where her chemistry with Burke allowed for tons of looseness and ad-libbing. If the show makes it safe for us to laugh at what we do to ourselves every December, sanity peeks through at the end, hope and love triumphing (if briefly) over cynicism, echoing McCall’s standout rendition of David Friedman’s touching, wise “The Truth About Christmas” in the cabaret segment.

This edition of “Santaland” is something special: rather than a one-man show, it’s a real three-person effort. Burke, McCall and Connor have created something all too rare in this town, an Austin approximation of a New York-style piano-bar cabaret with a holiday slant. It’s all about kindred spirits having fun, showing off, and in doing a little soul-baring, getting under the audience’s collective skin. Those attending the festivities knew they were among friends – no, among family – and they were home.

“The Santaland Diaries” contains through Dec, 27 at the Whisenhunt Stage at Zach Theatre, $59  zachtheatre.org

Theater review: Doctuh Mistuh Productions’ of “The Rocky Horror Show”

(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Cate Blouke.)

 

For anyone who has ever even thought about attending a midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” or who’s seen the movie and delighted in its wacky campy humor, Doctuh Mistuh Productions’ “The Rocky Horror Show,” playing through July 11 at Salvage Vanguard Theatre, is an absolutely necessary experience.11168394_942711552417943_4622373073052659769_n

If, by some strange turn of events, you’ve never seen “Rocky Horror” in theaters or at home, this will be an evening of theater you won’t quickly forget. The basic premise is that a couple’s car breaks down, and they seek shelter and aid from a castle full of (what turn out to be) sex-crazed aliens. But all you really need to know is that it’s strange, sexy, and awesome.

The 85 minutes of science-fiction, burlesque show shenanigans are as hilarious as they are fabulous. And if you’ve enjoyed shouting at the screen in the past, shouting at the actors is a whole new level of fun.

The live show offers additional delights via persistent peanut-gallery comments from the off-stage ensemble – adding raunchy tag lines to even the most innocuous statements.

A sixteen-person rendition of “Time Warp” is just one of the treats the show has in store. Keaton Jadwin provides a stand out performance as Riff Raff, hitting the high notes with gusto and leaving us wanting more.

Celeste Castillo opens and closes the show with saucy singing as the Usherette. Chase Brewer is adorably uptight as Brad, and Sarah Zeringue’s tap-dancing rendition of Columbia is truly delightful. We also get hilarious appearances from Jose Villarreal (Dr. Scott) and Stephen Mercantel (Narrator).

Gray Randolph stars as Frank, and when the already-tall actor makes his entrance in seven-inch stilettos, he dominates the stage in more ways than one. He also displays a delightful penchant for showing off his posterior as he struts around in fishnets and a g-string for much of the performance.

Glenda Barnes’ costumes bedazzle the stage with sparkle and sex appeal. The actors triumphantly dash around stage in stilettos, corsets, and stockings, providing enough eye candy to satisfy audiences of any persuasion.

For tickets and show time see: www.doctuhmistuh.org

Mean, timeless and hilarious: Musical ‘Heathers’ delivers

(Regular freelance arts writer Cate Blouke reviews the Doctuh Mistuh production of “Heathers” at Salvage Vanguard Theatre.)

Mean girls are timeless, and high school is rough for everyone. It’s an awkward time as adolescence struggles to evolve into pre-adulthood, and teens can be especially vicious to each other.

But if you add some singing and dancing to the hormones and havoc, you get the hilarious musical adaptation “Heathers: A New Musical,” playing through July 11 at Salvage Vanguard Theatre.

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Based on the 1988 cult classic film, it’s the story of a bright but unpopular smart girl, Veronica (Aline Mayagoitia), who stumbles into the group of “it” girls (all, as you might guess, named Heather). The Heathers maintain their popularity through a combination of beauty and cruelty — staying on top by keeping others down. And when they turn on Veronica, her troubled teen boyfriend, JD (Gray Randolph), strikes back with deadly force.

Produced by Doctuh Mistah Productions under Michael McKelvey’s direction, the show is camp at its most delightful. McKelvey and his company boldly bring us musicals we otherwise wouldn’t get to see (such as last year’s production of “Silence! The Musical” — a joyfully ridiculous adaptation of “Silence of the Lambs”).

With a huge cast of talented performers drawn from musical theater programs across the country, McKelvey makes “Heathers” as much fun as one could hope for. The show features songs about (un)popularity, Slurpees and frustrated teenage sexuality.

Gray Randolph glides his way from sexy bad boy to creepy sociopath so smoothly that Aline Mayagoitia doesn’t know what hit her. But any former teenage girl can relate to Aline’s angsty love affair with her damaged fellow, and she does a great job of carrying the lead.

The three Heathers (Taylor Bryant, Kassiani Menas and Celeste Castilo) are all marvelously sexy and vicious, and as the dumb, bullying jocks (Kurt and Ram), Jeff Jordan and Ricky Gee add a lot of laughs to the show.

The choreography is snappy and the songs are hilarious, though the live band often competes with the vocals rather than accompanying them. That along with some technical and microphone hiccups detracted a bit from the show’s overall polish, but it’s still an impressive display of sinister silliness.

“Heathers” will run in repertory with a live version of “The Rocky Horror Show,” which opened Wednesday, as Doctuh Mistuh brings a delightful summer of cult classics to Austin that are even more fun on stage.

Quilt exhibit celebrates African American history, culture

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Renee Allen, “Juneteenth.” (Cotton fabric, cotton thread, acrylic paint, colored pencil)

Featuring artists from the Women of Color Quilters Network, the exhibit “And Still We Rise: Race, Culture and Visual Conversations” exhibit charts four centuries of African American history with 69 handcrafted contemporary story quilts.

The show opens Friday — the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth Emancipation Day — at the Bullock Museum.

Preview a few quilts from the exhibit in this slide show.

Arranged in chronological order, the quilts visually tell the stories of event including the first enslaved Africans brought over by Dutch traders in 1619, the 1839 slave revolt on the Spanish ship La Amistad, the 1865 Juneteenth Emancipation Day in Texas and the Civil Rights Movement.

Key figures in culture are honored too such as actress Hattie McDaniel — the first African American actor to win an Academy Award — and poet Langston Hughes.

 

Also opening Friday at the Bullock is “Reflections: African American Life from the Myrna Colley-Lee Collection.”

Selected from the private art collection of Myrna Colley-Lee — one of the foremost costume designers in the Black Theatre Movement — comes a gathering of mostly figurative and representational art that reflects the African American experience by noted modern and contemporary artists including Romare Bearden, James Van Der Zee, Elizabeth Catlett and Bettye Saar.

Both exhibits continue through Aug. 30.
Museum hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.
Bullock Museum, 1900 N. Congress Ave.
Admission: $8-$12
www.thestoryoftexas.com