Elvis, Johnny Cash and more come to life in Zach’s ‘Million Dollar Quartet’

On Dec. 4, 1956, the tiny Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, was the site of a seminal moment in the history of rock ‘n’ roll: the recording of a jam session between rockabilly superstars Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. This recording session became known as the “Million Dollar Quartet,” catching all four artists at a crucial time when rock music was just starting to take America by storm.

Zach Theatre has taken on the Tony Award-winning musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” about famous faces Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Contributed by Charles Quinn

In 2006, a fictionalized version of that remarkable moment was turned into a jukebox musical by writer/director Floyd Mutrux, along with co-writer Colin Escott. Combining the music of the four artists, along with covers of a few other rock hits and some of the gospel music that was actually recorded that day, “Million Dollar Quartet” is as much a musical revue as it is a play.

The show’s music is almost entirely diegetic, coming from the performers on stage re-creating the recording session, and thus all four actors portraying the famous musicians need to be able to embody the roles sonically as well as physically. Fortunately, Zach Theatre’s new production features four leading men who are more than up to the task.

Rockabilly songwriter and recording artist Cole (who goes by just one name) is spot-on as a young, suave, top-of-his-career Elvis, whose bombastic physicality while performing is nicely offset by Cole’s subtle evocation of the King’s nervous stutter in conversation. Gavin Rohrer is a ball of manic energy as Lewis, riding the line between “bad boy” and “snot-nosed punk” while remaining just on the right side of likable. Corbin Mayer’s deep bass voice and quiet brooding, paired with a razor-sharp performing style, evoke the darker tones of Cash. Finally, the young Billy Cohen takes on Perkins’ cool stability and mean rhythm and blues guitar licks with a soulful energy that pairs well with the extravagant, impressive bass-playing of Adam Egizi as Brother Jay, Perkins’ brother and musical partner.

The cast is rounded out by Zachary Yanez as drummer Fluke, Emily Farr as Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne (replacing his real-life girlfriend of the time, Marilyn Evans), and Jeff Jeffers as Sam Phillips, Sun Records’ owner and the producer of early recordings by all four men. Farr is buoyant and sexy in the few numbers given to her to sing, though she is somewhat hobbled by a text that mostly seems to have use for her as a plot contrivance for the sake of exposition.

Jeffers, however, has far more to work with, as Phillips is arguably the protagonist of the show’s sparse storyline. Given several moments to shine, he quietly serves as the play’s backbone, with a reserved performance that brings some heart to what would otherwise be a disconnected collection of songs. Director Dave Steakley wisely keeps him at the center of the action in order to hold the story together, even though his role is far less showy than that of the four rock superstars.

As a text, “Million Dollar Quartet” is very flawed. It has sparse narrative momentum and even less structure, and in its celebration of these four particular musicians it pays extremely short shrift to the role of African-American musicians in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. However, Zach’s production of the show uses Jeffers’ willfully modest performance to tie together a series of knockout impersonations, high-energy performances and dynamite rockabilly songs to create a fun evening of toe-tapping, hand-clapping entertainment.

“Million Dollar Quartet”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 3
Where: Zach Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd.
Cost: $29-$81
Information: 512-476-0541, zachtheatre.org

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Activism and the AIDS epidemic: ‘The Normal Heart’ still resonates

When it first debuted in 1985, Larry Kramer’s play “The Normal Heart,” about the beginnings of the AIDS crisis in New York, was described by New York Times reviewer Frank Rich as “the most outspoken play around,” with “a subject that justifies its author’s unflagging, at times even hysterical, sense of urgency.”

The City Theatre is producing “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s searing drama about the world’s initial indifference to the AIDS plague. Contributed by Andy Berkovsky

 

Over two decades later, “The Normal Heart” has lost none of its fierceness, its power, nor, sadly, its urgency, as the City Theatre’s current production shows. Though we now live in an age where an HIV diagnosis is not necessarily a death sentence, as it was in the early 1980s, the play is less about the virus itself than it is about the political action it spurred in New York’s LGBTQ+ community. As such, City Theatre’s production feels as timely as ever, given that we live in an era of renewed interest in political activism.

Directors Carl Gonzales and Lacey Cannon Gonzales certainly don’t shy away from the text’s anger. The story follows the lives of several AIDS activists, and as they go ignored by the government and see the epidemic only grow worse, their righteous fury grows from scene to scene. The ensemble cast does not pull back from these outbursts, most notably McArthur Moore as Mickey Marcus (whose slow-burn joviality early in the play lends true ferocity to his later anger), and Laura Ray as Emma Brookner, who is given the show’s most overtly political monologue.

What lends “The Normal Heart” much of its power, 20 years on, is that it isn’t merely an easy narrative of us-against-them activism. Rather, it explores the different shades of response to the AIDS crisis by different members of New York’s gay male community. In the debates between sex positivity and absolute abstinence (to prevent transmission), between compromising with government officials and excoriating them in the public, and between being in or out of the closet, each of Kramer’s characters is right, even when they are diametrically opposed. Activism is no easy feat, even in the face of biological annihilation, and today’s crop of young activists could learn much from the story told in “The Normal Heart.”

City Theatre’s production of the play is both timely (coming on the heels of Pride celebrations across the world and in terms of our current national political climate) and simple, with an elegant, multi-purpose set that keeps the focus on the characters and the politics rather than the specific setting of each scene. By the end of the play, the detritus of props from previous scenes bleeds into the following ones, creating a literal representation of the way the ghosts of the departed haunt those who remain alive.

With a powerful message that still sadly resonates today, “The Normal Heart” remains a crucial piece of American drama, and the City Theatre is to be applauded for bringing it back to the stage.

“The Normal Heart”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through July 16
Where: 3823 Airport Blvd.
Cost: $10-$25
Information: 512-524-2870, citytheatreaustin.org

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New to Gilbert & Sullivan? ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ is the show for you

Gilbert & Sullivan Austin are taking on Gilbert & Sullivan’s classic “The Pirates of Penzance.” Contributed

I have a confession to make. One that is somewhat shameful for a theater critic to admit.

I’d never seen a Gilbert & Sullivan production.

My interest in live theater has always skewed towards the performative, experimental and experiential, with a love for actors, poetry and subtle emotions. Gilbert & Sullivan, with their deliberately over-the-top comic operas, never appealed to me, and their production today seems to appeal to fans of classical music and opera more than followers of musical theater.

It was consequently an eye-opener to see Gilbert & Sullivan Austin’s new production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” playing through June 25 in the Worley Barton Theater at Brentwood Christian School. Overcoming my prejudices and experiencing the work of librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan first-hand showed me which aspects of my suppositions were right and which were wrong.

The focus of Gilbert & Sullivan Austin’s “The Pirates of Penzance” is, to be sure, the music. Most of the performers are classically trained musicians, rather than trained actors and actresses, and the entire cast, from the impressive soprano of Suzanne Lis as Mabel to the rich baritone of Russell Gregory as the Sergeant of Police, sounds wonderful, even if they falter a bit during the dialogue sequences (though the richly baroque comedy of Sam Johnson as the Pirate King is a strong exception to this). The impressive Gillman Light Opera Orchestra, under the baton of music director Jeffrey Jones-Ragona, is also to be praised.

However, within that musical emphasis, there is an extraordinary amount of poetry to be found, from Sullivan’s rich score, to Gilbert’s complicated rhymes and still-punchy comedic patter, to the vocal nuances of the talented singers.

Director/choreographer Ralph MacPhail Jr. puts the full emphasis of the production on those singers, whose mellifluous tones capture the satirical whimsy of a plot full of deliberately silly twists and turns, focusing on a group of not-so-terrible pirates, virginal young women and cowardly policemen.

If you’re a Gilbert & Sullivan virgin yourself, you’ll find that Gilbert & Sullivan Austin’s “Pirates of Penzance” is an excellent primer for their work. If you’re already a fan, this production is right up your alley.

“The Pirates of Penzance”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through June 25, with additional matinee 2 p.m. June 24
Where: Worley Barton Theater at Brentwood Christian School, 11908 N. Lamar Blvd.
Cost: $8-$27
Information: gilbertsullivan.org/SummerProduction

 

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‘Around the World in 80 Days’ is free fun for the whole family

Penfold in the Park this year will produce “Around the World in 80 Days,” a Jules Verne adventure novel that Penfold Theatre has given a feminine spin. Contributed by Penfold Theatre

Jules Verne’s classic adventure novel “Around the World in Eighty Days” tells the story of British gentleman-turned-adventurer Phileas Fogg as he attempts to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days in order to win a bet. Penfold Theatre’s adaptation of that story (playing, for free, through June 24 at the Round Rock Amphitheater) has turned it into a fun, frenzied, family-friendly outdoor production with a direct message of female empowerment.

In taking on Verne’s novel, director and adapter Emily Rankin has made two decisive choices — to turn the story into a comedy, and to turn the two main characters from men into women. Indeed, the first moments of the play address this very circumstance, with the narrator (played by Megan Sherrod) expecting to introduce Phileas Fogg but finding herself confronted, instead, by Ms. Phyllida Fogg (Jessica Hughes).

Similarly, Phyllida’s valet and sidekick, Passepartout (Eva McQuade), becomes female, while love interest Aouda from the novel becomes Sir Niles Adams (Ryan Crowder). The majority of the narrative still follows much of the same story beats as Verne’s novel, with Phyllida and Passepartout desperately trying to stay on schedule as Detective Fix (Robert Berry) following doggedly behind them, believing that Phyllida has robbed a bank back in London.

With the exception of Hughes, each member of the show’s cast must assume a variety of personalities (particularly Tanuj Potra, credited as playing “everyone else”), often with broad, cartoonish characteristics. Though this constant back-and-forth means that there’s limited development for most of the characters, it plays well to the show’s primary audience of children and families.

“Around the World in 80 Days” is goofy, with sight gags and corny jokes aplenty, and it knows not to take itself too seriously. The show’s set (designed by Chris Conard) and props deliberately evoke laughter rather than striving for verisimilitude, focusing the show’s energy instead on the wackiness of the characters’ misadventures and interactions.

Indeed, the show excels at presenting a fun, engaging romp of an adventure that draws in the younger audience members (sometimes literally, when they are asked to come to the stage and participate as extras). There’s enough metatextual humor and wordplay to keep the older crowd engaged, though, particularly in the humorous asides of McQuade as Passepartout. Meanwhile, Berry, as Detective Fix, is given the biggest opportunity by the script to show his character’s depth, while Hughes commands the stage as a strong, confidant, empowering leading lady.

Penfold Theatre’s “Around the World in 80 Days” is pure charm, designed to delight children while still entertaining their parents. At this, it definitely succeeds.

Around the World in 80 Days
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through June 24
Where: Round Rock Amphitheater, 301 W. Bagdad Ave., Round Rock
Cost: Free
Information: penfoldtheatre.org

Fascism and flamboyant musical acts: “Cabaret” remains powerful, disturbing

“Cabaret” at St. Edward’s University. Contributed by David Long

When the national tour of the famous Sam Mendes-directed revival of “Cabaret” came through Austin last year, its message about the dangers of remaining blind to fascism resonated during the presidential primaries. Although the St. Edward’s University Department of Performing Arts’ new production of “Cabaret” at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre is, of course, less polished than a big-budget Broadway tour, it is perhaps all the more powerful for it, and certainly more disturbing given the current political climate.

“Cabaret,” with a book by Joe Masterhoff, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, tells the story of a group of friends, neighbors and lovers in 1931 Berlin, just as the Nazi Party is rising to power. Its main storyline — the dual love stories of naïve American novelist Clifford Bradshaw with scandalous British cabaret singer Sally Bowles and German landlady Fraulein Schneider with Jewish-German shopkeeper Herr Schultz — is contrasted against wildly entertaining burlesque performances at the Kit Kat Club, helmed by an ambiguous and flamboyant Master of Ceremonies (known only as the Emcee).

“Cabaret” is starkly divided between a flirtatious first act, oozing with sex, and a second act that sees its characters coming to grips with the political reality that, though an important undercurrent, they had largely ignored throughout the first half. In this production, though, director/choreographer Danny Herman has toned down the first act’s over-the-top sexuality a bit, keeping it in the realm of the burlesque without engaging with the pornographic.

“Cabaret” at St. Edward’s University. Contributed by David Long

This proves to be a wise choice for two reasons. First, of course, is the young age of many of the performers. Second, and perhaps more importantly, by toning down the shock value of the sex in the first act, the first revelation of the full force of fascism at the end of Act One becomes even more shocking, and extremely disturbing.

The act division is so affecting here because the lead characters are so well drawn. Meredith McCall and Steve Ochoa, two of the professional actors working with the students, play Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz with such tenderness, humor and depth that watching them deal with the play’s political circumstances becomes a truly wrenching experience. The younger couple, Clifford (Owen Ziegler) and Sally (Emily Ott), face a more intimate sort of dilemma, though still driven by fine performances from the two student actors.

Ott is particularly at home during Bowles’ cabaret performances, where her charisma and showmanship truly shine. The Emcee, played by professional actor Jerreme Rodriguez, similarly steals the show whenever he is on stage, creating a version of the character that is slightly more clownish and less leering than traditional depictions, which makes for a delightful new way to view him.

There is powerful resonance between “Cabaret” and today’s politics, and this production takes full advantage of that fact. The impact of “Cabaret” has not lessened with age, and it serves as a potent and urgent reminder of the power of theater to arouse and disturb us with the dangers in our own world.

“Cabaret”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, with matinee performance 2 p.m. April 15, through April 15
Where: Mary Moody Northen Theatre, St. Edward’s University, 3001 S. Congress Ave.
Cost: $23-$28
Information: 512-448-8484, stedwards.edu/mary-moody-northen-theatre

Actress commands stage as Billie Holiday at Zach Theatre

Chanel is Billie Holiday in Zach Theatre’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” Contributed by Charles Quinn

 

In 1959, near the end of her life after decades of drug abuse, Billie Holiday still found the strength to perform at a variety of clubs, cabarets and other venues. Lanie Robertson’s musical play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” tells the story of one such imagined late-night performance at a club in South Philadelphia.

“Lady Day” is essentially a one-woman show revolving around its lead actress performing a series of Holiday’s songs connected by monologues about the highs and lows of her life. The successful Broadway run of the show was built around Audra McDonald, who won a record-breaking sixth Tony Award for her work, and all subsequent mountings need to have a startlingly powerful lead in order to be successful.

Zach Theatre’s new production of “Lady Day” has just such a lead in actress and recording artist Chanel. Joined on stage solely by members of a three-piece band, only one of whom ever speaks, and surrounded by small tables of audience members, Chanel takes Holiday on a transformative journey from bubbly jazz chanteuse to early civil rights activist to heartbroken heroin addict.

Holiday’s life was not one that solely consisted of sorrow, of course, and “Lady Day” emphasizes her strength just as much as it does her weaknesses. Early in the evening, she says, “Singing has always been the best part of living for me,” and we see that play out throughout the rest of the show. When she becomes lost in song, Chanel’s Holiday comes alive, revived from the various and numerous breakdowns she suffers during her monologues.

RELATED: Billie Holiday is back in town, this time at Zach Theatre

Chanel is a dynamic performer, both as an impressionist channeling Holiday’s voice and as a spectacular vocalist in her own right, but she gives “Lady Day” its power most forcefully in the deft way she displays Holiday’s struggle to shine through the adversity she had faced all her life. There is a simplicity to her performance that allows the depth of Holiday’s pain to shine through in moving and powerful ways.

Director Michael Rader emphasizes this simplicity through a staging dynamic that represents the performance venue, allowing Chanel to roam around the stage, interacting with both her piano player/band leader Jimmy Powers (played by Kris KeyZ) and the audience members seated at the on-stage tables. As a result, however, sometimes (especially during the musical numbers) her back is turned to the bulk of the audience. Designer Michelle Ney’s set and costumes, though gorgeous, also feel a bit too beautiful for a story focusing on Holiday at the end of her life.

Ultimately, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” is the story of a complex, complicated, legendary lady of song and stage, and Zach Theatre’s production has found the perfect leading lady to portray her.

‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill’
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through April 30
Where: Zach Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd
Cost: $29-$140
Information: 512-476-0541, zachtheatre.org.

Quiet romanticism of ‘Bloomsday’ charms at Austin Playhouse

Huck Huckaby and Cyndi Williams in "Bloomsday." Contributed by Austin Playhouse
Huck Huckaby and Cyndi Williams in “Bloomsday.” Contributed by Austin Playhouse

This review was written by freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal

Austin playwright Stephen Dietz’s new play “Bloomsday,” receiving its Texas premiere production at Austin Playhouse through Feb. 5, is a lyrical, intriguing drama that belongs to the somewhat unique genre of “time-travel romance.” Some works have used this genre to great success (Audrey Niffenegger’s novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife”) and others to a lesser degree (Richard Curtis’ film “About Time”); “Bloomsday” fortunately falls into the former category.

Despite the time-traveling motif, “Bloomsday” is far from a work of science fiction. Indeed, it is left open to interpretation whether we are witnessing time travel, memory, fantasy or an intermingling of all three; this is, in many ways, the point of the play. Nevertheless, with its interactions between two temporal sets of a single pair of lovers, in both their younger and older incarnations, “Bloomsday” plays with the tropes and traditions of time-travel romance, but it does so in order to tease out the poetry of such encounters rather than the mechanical consequences of plot.

Robbi and Caithleen (or, as they’re known in their older versions, Robert and Cait) are the young couple at the heart of the play, meeting in Dublin, Ireland, on a Bloomsday walking tour that covers the parts of the city traveled by the character Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” The novel itself takes on a large role in the play, with its themes, characters and language recurring throughout and its famous modernist structure mirroring the achronological flow of events in “Bloomsday.”

Claire Grasso and Aaron Johnson in "Bloomsday." Contributed by Austin Playhouse
Claire Grasso and Aaron Johnson in “Bloomsday.” Contributed by Austin Playhouse

Because of this, the exact plot of the play remains ultimately vague, but it revolves around Robert and Cait revisiting their thirty-years-younger selves’ brief moment of romance. Though the specifics of the events (and the revisitation) are somewhat muddled, the emotional resonance is never lost.

Much of that resonance comes not just from a script with beautiful language but also from four performers who have a deft hand at expressing those words. Aaron Johnson and Claire Grasso, as the young Robbie and Caithleen, are pure charm, embodying youthful romance tinged with the fears and anxieties of an unknown, unsteady future. Huck Huckaby and Cyndi Williams are far more reserved and philosophical in their portrayal of the couple’s later days and express the text’s deep melancholy just as the younger actors do its hopefulness.

Director Don Toner and his design crew have wisely gone with a very bare, stripped-down production, with just a few set pieces, props and projections to create Dietz’s (and Joyce’s) Dublin. The minimalist approach allows for the actors to fill the stage with their own emotive strength, a move that best serves the text.

“Bloomsday” is a bittersweet love story awash in a sentiment that is equal parts American and Irish, and Austin Playhouse’s production, with four talented actors at its heart, does that story quiet, poetic justice.

“BLOOMSDAY”

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 5.

Where: Austin Playhouse, 6001 Airport Blvd.

Cost: $14-$36

austinplayhouse.com