Show from ‘Hamilton’ creator takes Zach Theatre to new ‘Heights’

Contributed by Kirk Tuck

Before the award-winning pop culture phenomenon that is “Hamilton,” writer/composer Lin-Manuel Miranda had already taken the Broadway world by storm with his first Tony-winning musical, “In the Heights.”

With music and lyrics by Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, the show tells the story of a group of diverse, multicultural neighbors living and working on the same block in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. What the show was most notable for, though, was its mix of musical styles — hip-hop, salsa, meringue — to create a sound that was new to the Broadway stage, a sound that Miranda would later expand even further with “Hamilton.”

Thanks in part to the success of “Hamilton,” “In the Heights” has had a popular resurgence at regional theaters, and Austin’s Zach Theatre has just mounted its own production, running through July 2. To make sure their version stays in keeping with the energy of the show’s Broadway run, Zach has brought in director/choreographer Michael Balderrama, who was a cast member in that original run and served as the resident director/choreographer for its national tour. Zach and Balderrama even utilize scenic designer Anna Louizos’ original set, which cleverly re-creates the various storefronts and apartments of an entire Manhattan block without overcrowding the stage.

RELATED: How you can get tickets to see “Hamilton” in Austin

It’s very clear from watching this production of “In the Heights” that the director is a choreographer, as the characters’ movements and dances reveal as much of their inner life as the script and lyrics do. Hudes’ book is, in some ways, the weakest part of the show, as it hews to highly traditional notions of family and community, and so the added layer of characterization embedded within the choreography makes for a stronger presentation of the musical as a whole.

Of course, inventive, engaging choreography and a dynamic score mixing a variety of musical styles can’t succeed without a cast that can pull them off, and the cast of “In the Heights” — mixing local talent with performers from out of town (some of whom have been a part of the show’s national tour) — keeps the show’s energy running high from beginning to end.

Keith Contreras-McDonald is given the difficult task of re-creating Usnavi, a role made famous by Miranda himself, and he pulls it off with boyish charm and innocence, particularly in his relationships with his younger cousin Sonny (Nicolas Garza) and love interest Vanessa (Alicia Taylor Tomasko). As another pair of young lovers, Benny and Nina, Vincent J. Hooper and Cristina Oeschger steal the show with a mixture of chemistry and earnestness that lets us see their inner workings throughout the course of the evolving plot.

“In the Heights” is a triumph for Zach Theatre, a production that brings energy and vitality to their stage thanks to text and sound that resonate with contemporary audiences. Though ultimately telling something of a small, intimate story of love and family/community devotion, the sheer vibrancy of the show’s music demands a large-scale, vibrant production, which Zach and Balderrama deliver with energy and skill.

“In the Heights”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through July 2
Where: Zach Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd.
Cost: $29-$81
Information: zachtheatre.org

 

 

Feminism, comedy and the Reign of Terror meet in ‘The Revolutionists’

“The Revolutionists” looks at larger themes of women’s rights and revolution through the relationships of four women. Contributed by by Errich Petersen

Given today’s political climate, it is easy to draw parallels between various historical dramas and the current state of America. Portrayals of turbulent periods in history have much to say about the repetition of the past in the present, and Austin’s theater companies are not shying away from material that can easily be interpolated within a contemporary context.

Such is the case with Shrewd Productions’ “The Revolutionists,” playing at the Santa Cruz Center for Culture through June 25. Written by Lauren Gunderson and originally produced in 2015, the black comedy about four women in the French Revolution speaks to issues of women’s rights that remain unresolved today.

Director Rudy Ramirez neither shies away from nor leans into the comparisons between the French Reign of Terror and today’s America but rather allows the text to seduce audience members into reaching those conclusions on their own. Gunderson’s play does this through a variety of tried-and-true theatrical tricks, including high comedy, bleak drama and dream-like reverie. As a text it’s somewhat hard to pin down, with a light, comedic, almost sitcom-esque first act (which feels like it could be cut down a bit) and a brutal, moving second act featuring key moments of beautiful and simple theatricality.

Fortunately, Ramirez and his talented quartet of actresses are able to mine the somewhat uneven text for its moments of both great wit and moving tragedy. Sarah Marie Curry, as playwright Olympe De Gouge, provides the heart of the production, as well as the most extreme emotional transition, as she begins to watch what little power and privilege she holds disappear among the corruption of the Reign of Terror. Her friend Marianne Angelle, an activist for Caribbean freedom from French occupation, is presented with a steady intellectual bent by Valoneecia Tolbert, the conscience of the play. Gricelda Silva, as assassin Charlotte Corday, brings in an element of in-your-face punk rock attitude, while Shannon Grounds’ oblivious-yet-likable Marie Antoinette provides reams of comic relief undergirded by a strong sense of personal tragedy.

The show’s creative team (set designer Chris Conard, lighting designer Patrick Anthony and sound designer David DeMaris) wisely sticks to a rather minimalist aesthetic, allowing the text and the performances to hold sway. The one exception is Jennifer Rose Davis’ gorgeous costumes, which provide the period-placement for the action while simultaneously evoking the central characters of each of the women.

Though dealing with large themes — the rights of women, the excesses of revolution, the fortitude to outlast corrupt regimes — “The Revolutionists” is an intimate play, dealing with the relationships of the four women and the emotional toll that these issues take on them. Shrewd Productions’ mounting of the show focuses intently on this intimacy, creating a dark, funny and moving tribute to the long, ongoing history of the fight for women’s rights.

“The Revolutionists”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through June 25, with additional performance 8 p.m. June 19
Where: Santa Cruz Studio Theater, 1805 E. Seventh St.
Cost: $15-$37.50
Information: revolutionists.brownpapertickets.com.

 

‘Scheherazade’ is timely and necessary piece of political theater

Contributed by Errich Petersen

According to their website, Austin’s Generic Ensemble Company “makes the invisible visible through bold, socially relevant, body-centered theatre.” In the past, this has included works like “Robin Hood: An Elegy” and “The Mikado: Reclaimed” that have focused on loosely adapting classic texts into contemporary, collaboratively devised works that tell the infrequently heard stories of people of color in today’s America.

Now, the company has done it again with “Scheherazade,” playing through June 17 at the Vortex Theatre. The show, directed by kt shorb with a script devised by the entire ensemble (compiled and edited by Annie Kim Hedrick and Leena Warsi), updates the storytelling conceit of “The Arabian Nights” to explore one woman’s experience of being Muslim and queer in a world hostile to both of those identities.

The framing story of “Scheherazade” follows Leila Suleman (played by Laura J. Khalil) as she attempts to re-enter the United States after having spent time abroad in the Middle East searching for her best friend Yousef (Donnesh Amrollah), who has either been forced to go into hiding or been killed over his homosexuality. At the airport, she comes up against racist Department of Homeland Security agent Ginny Wight (Laura Baggs), who is obsessed with catching a terrorist.

Contributed by Errich Petersen

The interactions between Leila and Wight are counterpoised against a variety of flashbacks, showing both a mythologized vision of Leila’s childhood with Yousef and Wight’s intense, pop culture-infused fantasy of becoming a hero through stopping a terrorist plot in the course of her job. These scenes intentionally play off one another, showcasing the role that our own fantasies and self-created narratives play in our lives and interactions, both for good and ill. The moments of memory and fantasy also allow for various explorations of theatrical possibility, from dance to symbolism to agitprop.

Austin theater, as a microcosm of American theater in general, can often rightly be accused of being overwhelmingly white, which is what makes GenEnCo’s work, both in “Scheherazade” and more generally, so important and so overwhelmingly vital to our community. The cast, the majority of whom are actors of color, are clearly speaking from their own experiences with pain and trauma, which creates a visceral connection that overcomes some of the actors’ less technically adapt performances. There is, ultimately, passionate, painful truth in this art that creates the beating heart of the production.

“Scheherazade” is political theater at its most raw and most direct, giving a voice to a marginalized group of creators who revel in the chance to tell their own story, a story that demands to be heard.

‘Scheherazade’
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through June 17
Where: 2307 Manor Road
Cost: $15-$35
Information: 512-478-5282, vortexrep.org

 

 

‘The Phantom of the Opera’ is the height of Broadway spectacle

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

“The Phantom of the Opera,” composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Charles Hart’s “rock opera” adaptation of Gaston Leroux’ classic French novel “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra” is officially in the third decade of its original run. Premiering in London in 1986 before transferring to Broadway in 1988, the musical has become an international sensation, and is the longest-running show in the history of Broadway.

Now, it once again comes to Austin, courtesy of Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts and playing through April 30th at Bass Concert Hall. This is a relatively new staging of the show, directed by Laurence Connor and produced by Cameron Mackintosh. It started touring in 2012, while the original Broadway and London runs (directed by Harold Prince) continue unabated.

Though Connor has reimagined the look and design of “Phantom,” adding a few new technical tricks to the show’s repertoire, the music and lyrics, as well as the book by Webber and Richard Stigler, have remained the same. What Connor has achieved most successfully is to reinvigorate the sense of large-scale grandiosity and spectacle in “Phantom.”

“Phantom” is decidedly melodramatic, with one-dimensional characters and a decided lack of subtlety, but that is, after all, part of the charm that has allowed it to last for over thirty years. Connor’s production leans into this, focusing on an epic design scope. Paul Brown’s set is monolithic yet surprisingly mobile and mutable, dwarfing the actors in order to create an immense sense of scale. Maria Björnson’s costumes are sumptuous and plentiful, lending the show much of its sense of pageantry. Paule Constable’s lighting, unusually for such a large show, is largely done from the side, emphasizing the production’s fusion of opera and ballet with musical theater.

The touring cast of “Phantom” is also up to the challenge of reaching the melodramatic heights this kind of design scheme requires. Katie Travis, as tortured ingénue Christina Daaé, is a perfect counterpoint to the good-guy leading man bluster of Jordan Craig’s Raoul. Derrick Davis, as the titular Phantom, provides the strongest performance, thanks in no small part to a script that provides him with much deeper nuance than any of the other stock characters.

The true stars of “Phantom,” though, in both its original form and in this production, are the epic, operatic music and the large-scale spectacle that only money can buy. In this, the production does not disappoint, nor does it spare any expense.

“The Phantom of the Opera” is a bit like a blockbuster movie; it’s quite entertaining and enjoyable, the spectacle is often breathtaking, but ultimately it doesn’t have a larger point other than to provide an evening’s diversion, which it does with great gusto.

‘The Phantom of the Opera”
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 1 and 7 p.m. Sunday through April 30
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
Cost: $34-$154
Information: 512-471-9166, texasperformingarts.org.

 

Hilarity, heartbreak come together as a family breaks down in ‘The Herd’

Deep explorations of family dynamics and personal tragedies are certainly no stranger to the stage, but what is more unusual is to find those classic tropes of the Anglo-American stage mixed with broad comedy and sitcom-esque set-ups.

Such is the case, though, with British playwright Rory Kinnear’s 2013 drama “The Herd,” which is now receiving its Texas premiere courtesy of Jarrott Productions at Trinity Street Theatre.

“The Herd” tells the story of a middle-class family living in the London suburbs as they await the arrival of Andy, a young man with severe mental and physical disabilities, for his 21st birthday party. While they wait, Claire, Andy’s sister, surprises her mother and grandparents with the arrival of her boyfriend, Mark. Meanwhile, Andy’s father —long estranged from the rest of the family — also shows up. Hilarity and heartbreak ensue.

Kinnear does a spectacular job balancing the masks of comedy and tragedy throughout the play, infusing the characters with both familial warmth and deep-seated, simmering resentments. The entire story is told in one act, with no intermission, unfolding in real time, a dramaturgical challenge that Kinnear deftly tackles by skillfully maneuvering characters on- and off-stage to create a series of confrontations both comedic and, sometimes, cruel.

As one might expect, the success of a play like this relies largely on the cast. Director Robert Tolaro and the design team support the story mostly by staying unobtrusive and allowing the cast to play within the immaculately realistic set crafted by designer Desiderio Roybal. Tolaro’s faith in his cast pays off, as all the performances are strong, and some are quite staggering.

Amber Quick imbues Claire with a deep inner life that comes out through both vivaciousness and despair, leaving her ultimate motivations something of a mystery to the audience, to her family and, perhaps, even to herself. Janelle Buchanan, as Andy’s grandmother Patricia, presents a much more externalized character, who vacillates between an icy sense of superiority and a fierce maternal instinct to protect her loved ones. Caught betwixt the two is Jan Phillips’ Carol, Andy’s mother, whose love for her son is visibly breaking her down even as she presents a surface veneer of holding everything together.

“The Herd” is far from the flashiest of productions, which is fitting for what is a somewhat subdued text, where the drama and laughs all arise from realistic characters in relatable situations. It is a quiet, stoic presentation of a family pushed to the brink by the tragedies of fate and the choices that its members have made in reaction to circumstance. Jarrott Productions’ presentation of that story is very direct and simple, in a thoroughly intimate and moving way.

‘The Herd’ 
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through April 30 (2 p.m. matinee and no evening performance April 29)
Where: Trinity Street Theatre, 901 Trinity St.
Cost: $18-$30
Information: jarrottproductions.com

‘Hir’ upends conventions of gender and family with dark hilarity

From left, Roxy Becker, Jay Byrd, and Nate Jackson star in "Hir" by Taylor Mac, at the Off Center through Jan. 22.  Contributed by Capital T Theatre
From left, Roxy Becker, Jay Byrd and Nate Jackson star in “Hir.” Contributed by Capital T Theatre

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

I’m a big fan of the black comedies that seem to be the stock in trade for Austin’s Capital T Theatre company. I leave most of their productions a little out of breath from having laughed so hard, and sometimes from my choked sorrow at their tragic endings. Much of the company’s work in recent years— “Year of the Rooster,” “Trevor” and “Hand to God,” for example — have been big, muscular, athletic character pieces that focus on physicality as much as philosophy.

Capital T’s current production—Taylor Mac’s “Hir,” directed by Delanté G. Keys and playing at the Off Center through Jan. 22 — is something of a departure in this regard. Not that it isn’t funny, nor are the performances anything less than physically demanding, but “Hir” is ultimately a comedy of ideas as much as it is a comedy of characters, where the philosophical and sociopolitical ideologies on stage are as important as the relationships being explored.

“Hir” begins with Isaac, a young man who has been working in the Marines mortuary division in the Middle East, returning home to his family’s run-down, lower middle class suburban house. Far from receiving a hero’s welcome, however, Isaac finds that the entire house and family have been upended in the years that he’s been gone.

His abusive father, Arnold, suffered a debilitating stroke and is now subject to the whims of his mother, Paige, who has liberated herself from his control by treating him like a pet and doing everything around the house the exact opposite as he used to (thus keeping it freezing cold and covered in clutter and mess). Meanwhile, Isaac’s teenage sister, Max, has begun transitioning into a boy who prefers the pronouns “ze” and “hir” instead of “he” and “him.”

“Hir” is a play of identity politics, and the ways in which we, as the audience, identify and sympathize with the various characters is in constant flux throughout the performance. Isaac’s ostensible normality is quickly stripped away as we discover the extent of his post-traumatic stress disorder, while Paige’s overbearing nonconformity gets viewed through the lens of her own anguish. Their struggle with each other — which pulls in Arnold and Max as pawns—becomes the conflict of the play, and its dark heart.

All four performers in “Hir” turn in solid work. Nate Jackson’s Isaac simmers with anger and trauma, while Roxy Becker, as Paige, is deliberately and delightfully off-putting with her abrasive cheerfulness covering up an inner darkness. Dillon Uriegas, as Max, is wonderful at portraying the ambiguities and confusion that plague a transitioning youth (as well as any listless teenager, regardless of gender). Jay Byrd, though, delivers a tour de force performance as Arnold, fully committing to the physical and mental debilitation of the character while still imbuing him with equal parts nobility and monstrosity.

Capped off with the usual top-notch Capital T design and production value, the intellectual script, dark conflicts, layered performances and unflinchingly intimate direction of “Hir” make for a powerful, if far from uplifting, evening of theater.

‘HIR’

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through Jan. 22

Where: The Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo St.

Cost: $20-$30

Information: capitalt.org

Theater review: “A Wolverine Walks Into a Bar” offers character sketches of aging misfits

Jaston Williams in "A Wolverine Walks Into A Bar."
Jaston Williams in “A Wolverine Walks Into A Bar.”

By Wes Eichenwald

Special to the American-Statesman

How you’ll likely feel about “A Wolverine Walks Into a Bar,” the latest show from playwright/actor Jaston Williams, co-creator of the “Tuna” plays, depends on how much affinity you have for his unique mix of cowboy poetry, throwaway one-liners, social satire and plenty of local flavor (especially with regard to West Texas, Oklahoma and San Antonio). The play, which runs 90 minutes with no intermission, is a series of six character sketches set in an unnamed bar. Though the set doesn’t change, it’s unclear whether it’s supposed to be the same bar from one sketch to the other. Three of the on-stage tables are occupied by audience members, who paid a handsome premium to be an arm’s length from the action.

Aside from the bar, the vignettes’ connecting thread is what happens to misfits and square pegs as they age into the country of the elderly. Williams switches off with Lauren Lane, a veteran Texas-bred actress (known for a featured role on “The Nanny,” among other things) and long-time Austinite. Trademark Williams zingers fly frequently, such as “We’re polite here in Texas, but it doesn’t come natural.” Although three directors are credited in the show, one sketch flows seamlessly into the next.

From the first vignette, with Lane as an aged, bent hippie reflecting on her life as she cadges a glass of water from the invisible bartender, to Williams’ drag turn as a red-hatted diva spinning tales of gadding about in Venice, to Lane’s paranoid flight attendant turned wedding planner, the monologues meander until they hit – not always a bullseye, but a decent enough percentage.

When Williams manifests in fringed buckskin jacket as an alcoholic Anglo drawn to Mexican culture and cursing in Spanish (he’s married to a Latina who turns her back on her heritage and insists on being called Mary instead of Maria), railing against Ayn Rand, the show finally fires on all cylinders as he taps into sentiments he may not have anticipated as being quite so relevant as now. Ditto for the final playlet, in which Williams and Lane finally interact onstage as an aging gay man who meets up with a lesbian he knew decades ago. They reminisce about the good old bad old days of repression and illegality. Again, more topical than he might have expected, and hugely entertaining. 

The duo’s talents and styles mesh well. Some of the sketches could use some tightening and focus – less attention on the throwaway one-liners, more on character study and social commentary, since the motley bunch of outsiders in “Wolverine” provide fertile ground for both – but as it stands, Williams, Lane and company have come up with a diverting evening that should delight and engage old fans and curious newcomers alike.

“A Wolverine Walks Into A Bar” continues Fridays through Sundays through Nov. 20 at Stateside at the Paramount, 719 Congress Ave.; shows Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday 2 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.; 512-472-5470; austintheatre.org