Texas State’s ‘A Chorus Line’ is a singular sensation

When it first hit Broadway in 1975, “A Chorus Line” was a critical and commercial sensation. Praised for providing a raw, realistic glimpse into the lives of Broadway chorus dancers, the musical won the Pulitzer Prize for drama as well as multiple Tony Awards, and would go on to become the longest running show in Broadway history at the time.

Texas State University is kicking off a new season of college theater with a production of “A Chorus Line.” Contributed

In part because of its stark simplicity (the setting is a bare theater stage), the show has become a staple of local and regional theater companies, as well as at colleges, community theaters and even high schools. But, does a show that was ultra-contemporary in its time still resonate over 40 years later?

Texas State University’s Department of Theatre and Dance’s new production of “A Chorus Line” reminds us that, yes, this show still has a lot to say about youth, desire, individuality, conformity and, ultimately, the nature of musical theater itself.

Not only does this production reassert the power of the show, but it also puts a huge spotlight on the immense amount of talent that the Department of Theatre and Dance is turning out. And because it is fully sponsored by Legacy Mutual Mortgage, all ticket sales will go towards student scholarships.

 RELATED: Taking Texas State to the top in musical theater

“A Chorus Line” is a true ensemble piece, with no real leading actors or supporting players. Telling the story of a daylong audition for a Broadway musical overseen by a director who wants to probe into the dancers’ psychologies as much as their work histories, the show highlights each auditioner in turn. Conceived (and originally directed and choreographed) by Michael Bennett, with a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, lyrics by Edward Kleban, and music by Marvin Hamlisch, part of the point of the show was to explore the stories of the nameless, faceless Broadway chorus line dancers whose individualities are sublimated into a singular performance of perfectly synced motions.

The irony of this process, and the heartbreak of this erasure of individuality, has never been clearer than in Texas State’s production. Director/choreographer Cassie Abate and musical director Greg Bolin put full faith in their talented cast of younger performers, whose athletic dancing skills, powerful vocals and heartbreaking performances fill up the bare stage more than any complex set ever could.

LEARN MORE: Broadway classic “A Chrous Line” connects with Texas State performers

Similarly, the scenic design by Cheri Prough DeVol, lighting design by Ethan Jones and sound design by Jason Taylor work seamlessly to keep the focus on the line of dancers, while Stacey Johnson’s costume design evokes the 1970s setting without falling into cheesy clichés.

The true stars of this production, though, are the student actors making up the line of auditioning dancers (complimented by faculty member Nick Lawson as the director, Zach, creating an age and powerful differential that gives the show its inherent tension). Continuing the ironies at the heart of the show, it would be almost unfair to single out any particular performance because almost all the actors have standout, show-stopping moments. However, Emma Hearn’s manic, desperate dance solo does deserve special mention, as do the heartbreaking earnestness of Anna Uzele’s musical numbers and the acrobatic shenanigans of CK Anderson.

“A Chorus Line” has always been a show that speaks especially to the lovers of musical theater and the bittersweet reality of dedicating your life to it. Texas State’s dynamic, emotional, engaging new production holds true to this tradition, and it’s clear that for the young performers this show was entirely done for love.

“A CHORUS LINE”
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26-30, 2 p.m. Sept. 30-Oct. 1
Where: Patti Strickel Harrison Theatre, 405 Moon St., San Marcos
Cost: $8-$18
Information: theatreanddance.txstate.edu/Productions/Current-Season.html

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Making ‘A Chorus Line’ come alive at Texas State

The Broadway mega-hit “A Chorus Line” opens at the Texas State University Performing Arts Center in San Marcos on Sept. 26.

SEE FULL STORY HERE.

Liliana Rose, Jacob Burns, Emma Hearn and Ben Toomer play characters auditioning for a Broadway show in “A Chorus Line.” Contributed

We visited a run-through rehearsal and interview director/choreographer Cassie Abate to prep you for the show. Here’s a peek:

“What would you encounter if you dropped by a run-through rehearsal of “A Chorus Line” 2 1/2 weeks before it opened at Texas State University?

Actually, something very close to a fully consummated version of the hit 1975 show about performers auditioning to appear on a Broadway chorus line, meanwhile revealing their personal histories.

White light illuminates a few pieces of scenery. Young performers line up in studio togs. The late Marvin Hamlisch’s genius score, though rehearsed this night without orchestra or microphones, shines through.

Because these performers are part of the San Marcos school’s nationally ranked musical theater program, not only is the singing and dancing already top-notch, the original anecdotes that grew out of a singular play development process — it somewhat resembled group therapy for working chorus members — are deeply felt and communicated.”

Young actor gives star turn as troubled, tempestuous ‘Prodigal Son’

Playwright John Patrick Shanley, despite a long career that includes winning an Academy Award for the screenplay to the 1987 Cher film “Moonstruck,” is perhaps best known these days for his Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Doubt,” which was also turned into a critically acclaimed movie starring Meryl Streep.

Sam Domino, left, and Kelly Koonce in Jarrott Productions’ “Prodigal Son.” Contributed by Steve Williams

In his more recent play “Prodigal Son,” Shanley returns to many of the themes of “Doubt,” but with a much more personal, semi-autobiographical (and thus very male-centered) lens. Set in a New Hampshire boys prep school in the 1960s, “Prodigal Son” follows Shanley’s avatar Jim Quinn, a troubled boy from the Bronx given a scholarship to the school, as he tries to negotiate education, adolescence and the poetic yearning to find his place in the world.

Jarrott Productions’ new mounting of “Prodigal Son” captures the austerity of the cold New England climate as well as the heated passions of Jim’s youthfulness. As such, the play can be something of a mixed bag, with some scenes, redolent with simmering tension and emotional sensuality, evocative of Tennessee Williams, while others feature philosophical debates about the nature of faith that are more in the vein of George Bernard Shaw.

THEATER REVIEW: Girl power puts ‘The Wolves’ ahead of the pack

Director Bryan Bradford has created a production that seems to deliberately skirt this line, with reserved performances from the cast of adult teachers juxtaposed against young Sam Domino’s nuanced, troubled, tempestuous portrayal of Jim. Though Jim is prone to long philosophical proclamations and dramatic, emotional outbursts, Domino shines in the character’s quieter moments, showing us Jim’s painful loneliness and discomfort with his own body.

As various members of the school’s faculty, David R. Jarrott, Kelly Koonce and Holly Shupp Salas all provide much more dispassionate performances, which works best in scenes where they are set directly against Jim. Though only really given one scene in which to shine, Tucker Martin’s wistful boyishness as Jim’s roommate Austin helps to create the play’s strongest moments of youthful longing and idyll within such a cool, reserved setting.

That setting, itself, is created in large part from Chris Conard’s slightly impressionistic scenery and tightly focused lighting, as well as Glenda Wolfe’s period-perfect costume design.

As a text, “Prodigal Son” is very much in the tradition of the modernist drama of Arthur Miller, and in many ways it feels like a play not just about the 1960s but also from that era. It eschews the formalist theatrics of more contemporary works to focus instead on acute character study. Jarrott Productions’ version of the play intensifies that study through a dynamic performance from a young leading man, one to watch for in the Austin theatrical scene.

“PRODIGAL SON”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 15
Where: Trinity Street Theatre, 901 Trinity St.
Cost: $15-$30
Information: jarrottproductions.com

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Girl power puts ‘The Wolves’ ahead of the pack

In theater, as in film and television, we often find a significant lack of quality roles for female performers. Fortunately, most Austin theater companies are well aware of this imbalance in so many classic dramatic texts, and they work hard to choose works that showcase diversity.

From left, Sydney Huddleston, Annika Lekven, Adrian Collins, Maria Latiolais, Kelsey Buckley, Estrella Saldaña, Kenzie Stewart, and Shonagh Smith in Hyde Park Theatre’s production of “The Wolves,” by Sarah DeLappe. Contributed by Bret Brookshire.

The venerable Hyde Park Theater, known for its presentation of darkly comedic contemporary dramas, has gone a step further this year, with three tersely-titled plays all written by women — Annie Baker’s “John,” Jen Silverman’s “The Moors,” and now Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves.”

Playing through Oct. 21, “The Wolves” is the perfect show with which to wrap up such a female-centric season. The short, tight, realistic play follows a girls indoor league soccer team (the titular Wolves) through one winter season as they face trials and tragedies both intimate and intense.

DeLappe does a superb job exploring the nine members of the team, who each have a unique personality, outlook and way of speaking. The show begins with a great deal of overlapping conversation, and even overlapping dialogue, as various members of the team simultaneously discuss tampons and the war crimes of the Khmer Rouge. Through many scenes like this one, which mix personal concerns with a wider awareness of the world, we slowly gain insight into the unique foibles and quiet strengths of each girl.

What is perhaps most impressive about “The Wolves” is the way in which it represents a realistic type of girl that we so rarely see on stage or on screen. The members of the soccer team are all high achievers who are legitimately concerned about both their own success and larger world issues. Their dialogue, in a naturalistic style reminiscent of David Mamet, is equally as goofy as it is cutting, ringing true to the way girls their age actually speak. Rather than falling into high school movie tropes, DeLappe shows us the charming, witty, sometimes obnoxious, highly driven girls that we all knew (or were) when we were young.

To that end, director Ken Webster has made two superb high-level choices with “The Wolves” — he has allowed the young cast to express all the messy awkwardness of youth and has taken on assistant director Rosalind Faires to help provide a female voice behind the scenes. With ultra-realistic set design by Mark Pickell, costumes by Cheryl Painter, lights by Don Day and sound by Robert S. Fisher, the audience is placed right on the field with these girls, let into both their tight camaraderie and their squabbling and infighting.

The nine girls who make up “The Wolves” are an acting ensemble in the truest sense of the world. Perhaps thanks to their relatively young age (most of them are recent or current college students), they guilelessly support one another as a full cast, with absolutely no upstaging or scenery chewing. The several scenes in which they flawlessly practice passing the soccer ball serve as a perfect metaphor for the amazing work they do together on stage, completely relying on and trusting one another. Each of them will be somebody to watch for on the Austin stage in the future.

With such a dynamite cast, directed pitch-perfectly in an excellent script, “The Wolves” truly leads the pack of current Austin productions.

‘THE WOLVES’
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Oct. 21
Where: Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd St.
Cost: $22-$26
Information: 512-479-7529, hydeparktheatre.com

 

 

 

From nun to genocidal monster: Paper Chairs’ ‘Catalina de Erauso’ looks at history through different lens

We are told early on in Elizabeth Doss’ “Catalina de Erauso” that the titular Catalina and her staged autobiography are a work of historical fiction. As we observe Catalina’s sometimes humorous, sometimes disturbing, increasingly outsized misadventures, the complexities and monstrosities of her life take on the shape and force of history, or, more accurately, historical interpretation.

Contributed by Erica Nix

“Catalina de Erauso” is the latest work by Doss, created with Austin’s Paper Chairs theater company, of which she is the co-artistic director and resident playwright. The production, directed by returning Paper Chairs co-founder Dustin Wills, launched the company’s 2017-2018 residency at the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, a nonprofit sustainable design and architecture firm in East Austin.

The firm’s unique campus — combining a variety of buildings, lean-tos, campers and other structures with wild growths of grass and more than a few mosquitoes (so don’t forget the bug spray) — helps to set the mood for a production that takes its cues from the conventions of traditional traveling theatrical troupes, children’s theater and even, to an extent, Punch and Judy puppet shows.

Alexis Scott plays Catalina, taking her through a picaresque journey from a spunky 14-year-old escaping from a life as a 17th century nun all the way through to becoming a conquering heroine/genocidal monster in the New World. Scott is perfect for the role, presenting the young Catalina with a charming, bouncy, hysterical energy that combines childlike enthusiasm with a much more adult sense of mania.

The rest of the cast take on a variety of roles (both human and animal) but together serve as a kind of Greek chorus of players simultaneously enacting and reacting to Catalina’s story. Their vibrancy and intentionally hyperbolic antics early in the play provide the show with its strongest conceit — using the over-the-top conventions of children’s theater to tell an increasingly dark, adult story.

Unfortunately, the second half of the play takes an extreme turn away from this conceit. In an attempt to infuse the play with both commentary and poetry, Doss and Wills go a bit too far with the metatextual winking that peppers the play, crossing over from self-referential to self-reverential. This is a shame, because Doss is clearly skilled enough to infuse the play with the messages she is trying to get across without having to resort to such heavy-handed techniques.

Though uneven in its second half, “Catalina de Erauso” is certainly an interesting experiment. Fueled by a broadly talented cast and a distinctive performance venue, it raises vital questions how we can relate — and relate to — history through the veils of fiction and theater.

“Catalina de Erauso”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Sept. 30
Where: Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, 8604 FM 969
Cost: $15-$25
Information: 512-686-6621, paperchairs.com

 

Austin Playhouse’s ‘This Random World’ reveals the hidden ties that bind us

Austin Playhouse has started its new season with, fittingly, a new work by playwright Steven Dietz. “This Random World” receives its local premiere at the venerable company under the direction of producing artistic director Don Toner, with a cast of some of Austin Playhouse’s best actors.

J. Ben Wolfe and Molly Karrasch are two of the actors in Austin Playhouse’s local premiere of Steven Dietz’s “This Random World.” Contributed

After producing Dietz’s lyrical, intimately focused “Bloomsday” last season, is is interesting to see Toner take on such a tonally different work from the playwright. A true ensemble piece, “This Random World” loosely revolves around the Ward family (mother Scottie, daughter Beth and son Tim), a morbid but jovial trio who face down a familial obsession with death both humorously and secretively.

“This Random World” is not bleak in its outlook, and despite moments of devastating sadness (undercut a bit by an unfortunately timed intermission) it is ultimately, like “Bloomsday,” wistfully optimistic. Along with mortality, it tackles topics as diverse as travel, breakups, mental health, and even how to write a proper obituary. Dietz takes on each of these subjects with a unique blend of humor and pathos, borne out by a talented cast.

Austin Playhouse mainstays Babs George, as Scottie, and Molly Karrasch, as Beth, are each uniquely quirky and soulful, and it is a delight to see Joey Banks, as Tim, given room to show his talents after a series of smaller roles in shows last season. Jacqui Cross and Carla Nickerson join them as sisters Bernadette and Rhonda, who are unfortunately given somewhat short shrift by the text but play their more stereotyped roles to the best extent possible. Finally, Jess Hughes and J. Ben Wolfe round out the cast as Claire and Gary (a couple in the midst of a breakup who each have, or end up having, ties to the Wards), imbuing their roles with depth and nuance.

“This Random World” is a complex text in terms of the interconnected relationships it keeps simmering just below the surface, revealed to the audience with a heaping of dramatic irony while the characters themselves remain unaware. However, it is relatively straightforward in its execution, with a series of simple scenes that continually mix and match the characters.

Toner follows this simple style in his direction, avoiding cluttering the stage with business outside of the actors’ interactions. Set designer Mike Toner keeps the trappings to a minimum, with each setting created through a few simple, iconic objects, allowing lighting designers Don Day and Chris Conard, along with sound designer Joel Mercado-See, to set the ambience and mood.

Taking a cue from such films as “Short Cuts” and “Magnolia” (and, more classically, the interconnectivity of plot and character in Shakespeare and Dickens), “This Random World” is a charming, funny, accessible play about the connections that we all miss amid our own self-obsessions.

“THIS RANDOM WORLD”
When: 8 p.m Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 1
Where: 6001 Airport Blvd.
Cost: $16-$36
Information: 512-476-0084, austinplayhouse.ticketleap.com/this-random-world/.

Spirited new Austin theater company Filigree debuts

The Filigree Theatre is the latest addition to Austin’s mushrooming arts community. Led by Elizabeth V. Newman and Stephanie Moore, it will hit the ground right away with a gala fundraiser on Thursday, Sept. 14 at Springdale Station.

Filigree Logo Name and Website cropped

Back in the 1990s, Austin launched a new arts group every other week. Despite the difficulties with finding suitable and affordable space to play, that trend seems to have returned.

This particular company hopes to bridge the arts communities in Los Angeles and Austin. While in its gestation, Filigree presented a well-received version of Daniel Arnold and  Medina Hahn‘s “Any Night” in both cities.

Filigree’s first season starts off officially with Harold Pinter‘s reverse-action “Betrayal,” starring David MoxhamEmily Rankin and J. Kevin Smith. It runs Sept. 28-Oct. 8 at the Santa Cruz Center.

Betrayal Poster 2.jpg

The season continues with Anna Ziegler‘s “A Delicate Ship” (Feb. 15-25, 2018) and Sheila Cowley‘s “Trio” (April 26-May 6, 2018).

‘Storm Still’ explores family dynamics through one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies

As one of Shakespeare’s most popular — and most performed — plays,  the tragedy “King Lear” is familiar to many theater patrons, at least the broad outlines. An elderly king asks his daughters how much each of them loves him, banishes the only daughter to speak truthfully and is destroyed by the power-grabbing machinations of the other two daughters and their husbands. To summarize the theme of the play in one sentence, plucked from Lear’s own dialogue, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!”

“Storm Still” gives a different take on “King Lear.” Contributed by Errich Petersen

Just who the thankless child is, and how sharp she can be, is explored in Gabrielle Reisman’s “Storm Still,” playing through Sept. 24 at the Vortex Theatre.

When Lear makes his claim, early in the play, he is referring to Cordelia, the one daughter to refuse to flatter him and state that she can’t compare her love for him to anything else. As the text unfolds, though, we come to view the other two daughters — Goneril and Regan — as the truly thankless children. In “Storm Still,” though, we are given a reinvented “King Lear” that asks us to see the story through the eyes of Goneril and Regan.

Three sisters, in the aftermath of their father’s slow senility and death, are cleaning up his backyard while, at the same time, playing out an abridged, modernized version of “King Lear,” something they used to do with their father before he became ill. We come to learn that the sisters are, themselves, named Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, and their lives hold an eerie resonance to the play.

As we discover more of the sisters’ history with each other and with their father, their play-acting of “Lear” gains greater resonance. This forces us to reconsider who should receive our pity — the daughter who fled from an abusive father or the two who remained behind to care for him the best they could, even as he grew increasingly difficult to handle.

Director Rudy Ramirez has mounted the Vortex’ production of “Storm Still” in the venue’s Outdoor Stage, creating the sensibility of an actual backyard. Though this doesn’t do wonders for the show’s sound quality, it allows scenic designer Ann Marie Gordon and prop/costume designer Indigo Rael to go wild with creativity, creating an immersive outdoor environment that deliberately blends the line between on-stage and off.

The three talented actresses at the heart of the production — Andreá Smith as Goneril, Jennifer Coy Jennings as Regan and Amelia Turner as Cordelia — revel in the opportunities this environment creates, utilizing small changes of space, props and costume to contort themselves into the entire cast of “King Lear.” What is most impressive, though, is how, even while in Shakespearean character (speaking in modernized dialogue), they remain true to the core of the sister they portray, creating layers of performative nuance that further blur the distinction between reality and fantasy.

This blurring of lines lies at the heart of “Storm Still,” as the three sisters find the boundary of their lives and those of Shakespeare’s characters to be a porous one. What bleeds through, they discover, is the thankless love that ultimately binds them together.

“STORM STILL”
When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through Sept. 24
Where: 2307 Manor Road
Cost: $15-$35
Information: 512-478-5282, vortexrep.org.

Singer Gabrielle Stravelli jazzes up Austin Cabaret Theatre

This is totally last minute, but singer Gabrielle Stravelli stops by the Sterling Center to perform for Austin Cabaret Theatre on Thursday.

I’ve been listening to Stravelli’s CD “Dream Ago” obsessively for the past couple of days. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a jazz or cabaret voice as distinctive as hers. The special beauty of this album is that it shows off her wide range of modes through mostly original music for which she contributed the lyrics.

Yet her treatment of standards such as “It Might As Well Be Spring” is fresh, fun and musically sophisticated.

While we are on the subject, we’re delighted to learn that Austin Cabaret Theatre is still a thing. In fact Stuart Moulton‘s long-distance project — he if firmly based in New York these days — has announced an Austin season on Facebook that includes Jesse Luttrell, Barb Jungr, Crystal Stark, Sam Harris, Ann Hampton Calloway, Amanda McBroom and Michele Brourman.

Add that to the Texas Performing Arts line-up that features Storm Large & Le BonheurSeth Rudetsky, Ute Lemper and more, and you’ve got a full plate of imported cabaret this season. Ah, for the days when Austin produced its own cabaret stars!

After Harvey, who preserves our culture?

The organized arts and humanities generally don’t save lives directly during emergency situations. Yet they save our culture — our shared memory — over the long run. Here are some ways the state and national communities are responding to Harvey and where the help will be most needed.

The Rockport Center for the Arts after Hurricane Harvey. Contributed by Rockport Center for the Arts

The National Endowment for the Humanities has pledged $1 million to cultural groups hurt by Harvey.

The National Endowment for the Arts is working with the Texas Commission on the Arts to assess the situation. NEA Chairwoman Jane Chu: “As the current situation stabilizes, the NEA is prepared to direct additional funds to these state arts agencies for re-granting to affected organizations, as we have done in the past.”

The Texas Library Association and Texas State Library and Archives Commission are working to coordinate a response for the affected library community.

While some smaller arts facilities have been devastated on the coast (see image from Rockport), the massive Houston Theatre District has sustained enormous damage, as it has in previous storms (much of it was built underground not far from Buffalo Bayou).

At the Alley Theatre, the small Neuhaus Theatre and its lobby were flooded. The same spaces were severely beat up during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

The Wortham Theatre Center, where Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet perform, took water on the Brown Theatre stage and out front of the house. The basement with its costume and prop storage, however, was totally flooded.

On the other hand, the Hobby Center and Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, came off relatively unscathed, although the parking garages were inundated.