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

 

 

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.

‘The Great Society’ speaks powerfully to today through the politics of yesterday

Cecil Washington Jr., left, and Steve Vinovich portray Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson in "The Great Society" at Zach Theatre. Contributed by Kirk Tuck
Cecil Washington Jr., left, and Steve Vinovich portray Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson in “The Great Society” at Zach Theatre. Contributed by Kirk Tuck

This review written by freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal

The current political climate in the United States is tense, perhaps the worst it’s been in recent memory, but Robert Schenkkan’s “The Great Society,” playing through March 5 at Zach Theatre, reminds us that our country’s political history has seen many periods of great regression.

“The Great Society” is the second play about President Lyndon Baines Johnson written by Schenkkan, following his earlier “All the Way,” which won the 2014 Tony Award for best play and was made even more famous by Bryan Cranston’s Tony-winning portrayal of LBJ in the show’s Broadway run (later adapted into an HBO original film). Zach Theatre produced the Texas premiere of “All the Way” in 2015 and now presents the Texas premiere of “The Great Society” with the same key creative team of director Dave Steakley and powerhouse actor Steve Vinovich as LBJ.

In “The Great Society,” Schenkkan covers a great deal of ground, from LBJ’s re-election in 1964 through his decision not to run for another term — and the subsequent victory of Richard Nixon — in 1968. As a result, the play is quite long and does tend to meander some, veering between a character study of Johnson, a taut political thriller about the confluence of Johnson’s progressive domestic politics and his increasingly hawkish stance on Vietnam, and a look at the split in the civil rights movement between the pacifism of Martin Luther King Jr. and the rise of the more militant Black Power movement.

Not all these threads come together in a satisfying conclusion, but “The Great Society” is less about story structure than about revealing the tragic downfall of LBJ’s policies and the movement from “All the way with LBJ!” to “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” It’s in the dramatic re-creation of these historical and political events where Schenkkan’s writing shines as he crafts potent drama out of the many compromises that LBJ makes and the lies he tells in order to get his policies through, slowly betraying many of his most fervent allies and becoming increasingly paranoid about whom he can trust.

The tension of these moments would be impossible without the tour de force performance given by Vinovich, whose LBJ charms as much as he dismays, drawing as much sympathy and approbation as he does criticism. A large, top-notch ensemble, in an assortment of roles, provides varying degrees of counterbalance to the larger-than-life Southernism of Vinovich’s LBJ.

Of special note here is Cecil Washington Jr., who portrays civil rights icon King with strength, dignity and lyricism while simultaneously portraying a vulnerability that lets us see into the far-from-flawless man at the heart of the icon.

It should come as no surprise that “The Great Society” has particular resonance to contemporary politics, and the final scene (which does feel a bit tacked on) directly tackles this issue, pulling the audience right into current day fears of corruption and autocracy following in the footsteps of a noble attempt at progressivism. This is not an uplifting play, but it is a necessary one, and it is a vital study for all those who wish to learn from the past in order to gain some idea of what we might do in the present.

“The Great Society”

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through March 5

Where: Topfer Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd.

Cost: $29-$94

Info: 512-476-0541, zachtheatre.org

 

Theater review: Zach Theatre’s “One Man, Two Guvnors” is hundreds of laughs

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

One Man, Two Guvnors, playing through June 26 at Zach Theatre’s Topfer Theatre, is a show with a fascinating back-story.

Written by Richard Bean, the text is based on Servant of Two Masters, a 1746 play by the Italian writer Carlo Goldoni in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition. In 2011, Bean modernized the story, placing the action in Brighton, England, in the 1960s, with the Italian pantomime stock characters replaced by British gangsters and their employees.

Zach Theatre's "One Man, Two Guvnors." Photo by Kirk Tuck.
Zach Theatre’s “One Man, Two Guvnors.” Photo by Kirk Tuck.

Zach’s production of One Man, Two Guvnors is top-notch, mining the nostalgic, “Swinging London” period setting while at the same time provoking uproarious laughter from a contemporary audience. Taking a page from immersive theater, the house opens well before the show begins, with a live band performing hits from the British Invasion while audience members can purchase beer and wine from a bar on the stage (which is, of course, festooned with disco balls and a giant Union Jack on the backdrop).

Director Abe Reybold’s production is madcap in all the best ways, with copious entrances, exits, zany staging, and physical comedy galore (much of it performed impressively by the show’s “Fight and Physical Comedy Director,” Toby Minor). The “wacky misunderstandings” of the plot lead to plenty of opportunities for confused identities, lascivious jokes, and deliberate scenery chewing, all done with a wink (sometimes literally) to the audience. One Man, Two Guvnors does not take itself seriously, and it never asks the audience to do so, either.

Such a metatextual comedy requires talented performers, and the cast here does not disappoint. As the beleaguered, Harlequin-esque servant Francis Henshall, Martin Burke dominates the show with paunch and presence. Although funny throughout, he shines most brightly during moments of aside, ad-libbing, and audience interaction, never failing to charm even when his character acts less than salubrious.

Zach Theatre's "One Man, Two Guvnors." Photo by Kirk Tuck.
Zach Theatre’s “One Man, Two Guvnors.” Photo by Kirk Tuck.

Amy Downing as Rachel Crabbe and Tyler Jones as Stanley Stubbers – Henshall’s eponymous “two guvnors” – provide fantastic comedic foils to Burke, and never fail to keep the pace breakneck. Amber Quick, as Dolly, Henshall’s love interest, forces him to meet his vivacious match, adding some much-needed female perspective to a play that might otherwise be dominated by overly masculine energies. André Martin, as wannabe-actor Alan Dangle, steals nearly every scene he’s in with delightfully precise overacting of the worst (and thus most hilarious) kind.

The rest of the large, talented cast is similarly pitch perfect, as are The Craze, the band that both opens the show and serves as chorus (with some of the actors) between scenes, performing original songs by Grant Olding.

One Man, Two Guvnors makes no great statements about the human condition, but it does so knowingly and with a sly chuckle, without trying to add a layer of depth that it simply doesn’t need. With comedy both high and low, it is a riotously funny good time with a dynamic energy that is pure delight.

Zach Theatre's "One Man, Two Guvnors." Photo by Kirk Tuck.
Zach Theatre’s “One Man, Two Guvnors.” Photo by Kirk Tuck.

Theater review: Twist gives us honey pot full of fun at Zach Theatre’s “Winnie the Pooh”

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh, Sara Burke as Piglet. Photo by Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh, Sara Burke as Piglet. Photo by Kirk Tuck

“Winnie the Pooh,” Zach Theatre’s opening musical in this year’s family series, lets children into the secret of theater. It starts with musician Allen Robertson warming up the audience by teaching the “Winnie the Pooh” dance.

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Russel Taylor, Will Cleveland, J. Quinton Johnson, Allen Robertson, and Sara Burke. Credit: Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Russel Taylor, Will Cleveland, J. Quinton Johnson, Allen Robertson, and Sara Burke.
Credit: Kirk Tuck

Later he appears on stage with the crew of the play: a set designer, a prop master, a stage hand and a costumer. They are going about their business, but suddenly they notice that there is an audience. Robertson declares, that no, it’s not an audience, it’s the backup dancers. This, of course, brings some giggles.

Indeed, there is an audience, and we’re told that we’ve come two weeks too early. But wait, we’ve paid money for this show! The behind-the-scenes crew will just have to put on the musical for us. They find the book on stage and begin sorting out who will play what.

It’s a delightful twist to this classic tale and the musical, which was written in 1964 by le Clanche du Rand with music from Allan J. Friedman and lyrics by author A.A. Milne and Kristin Sergel. The musical originally just starts with Pooh doing his morning exercises, not this behind-the-scenes crew turned actors vignette.

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh. Credit: Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh.
Credit: Kirk Tuck

The twist allows a young audience to not have to suspend disbelief. We know it’s not really a bear, an owl, a kangaroo, a piglet, a rabbit and a donkey. Instead, it’s an adult stage crew trying to play legendary animal characters. We see them try to transform into these animals by finding hats, scarves, shirts, jackets and aprons to fit their characters. We see them give one another stage directions, such as rabbits hop, so hop more.

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Sara Burke as Piglet and Russel Taylor as Eeyore. Credit: Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Sara Burke as Piglet and Russel Taylor as Eeyore.
Credit: Kirk Tuck

The fun is that the crew is very similar to their animal characters. The set designer who is chosen to play Pooh (Will Cleveland) is also a slow-motion kind of guy. The costumer (Sara Burke) has a ton of energy and positivity, perfect for Piglet and Roo. She also has the smarts of Owl. Another stage hand (J. Quinton Johnson) becomes the leader and narrator, qualities like Christopher Robin and Rabbit. The highlight is Russel, (Russel Taylor), who has as much enthusiasm as Eeyore, as he gets dragged into this production to play Eeyore and later awkwardly Kanga. He brought the biggest laughs, especially during the song-and-dance numbers.

Throughout, Allen Robertson plays the on-stage musician and coaches the crew-turned-actors on how to sing.

The kids in the audience of Friday night’s opener loved being part of the action. They loved being asked to dance and do the movements with the actors on stage; after all, they are the backup dancers, right? They loved with the actors talked to them.

If you come into this musical thinking you’re going to see a straight version of “Winnie the Pooh,” you might be disappointed, but probably you’ll be delighted with the change.

Zach Theatre’s education director Nat Miller, who directs this show, doesn’t do things in traditional ways. Last year, “The Three Little Pigs” were rock stars. Cinderella was alive in the imagination of a bilingual girl who created her out of a funnel with a doiley on it in “Cenicienta.”

This year, Zach is presenting a storybook season with “Winnie the Pooh,” running now through Dec. 12, the bilingual “Tomás and the Library Lady,” Jan. 15-Feb. 14; “James and the Giant Peach,” Feb. 19-April 10; and “Alice in Wonderland,” March 4-May 14. We can’t wait to see the twists that Miller finds for “James” and “Alice.”

“Winnie the Pooh.” 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 12. An autism and sensory-friendly performance is scheduled for 11 a.m. Oct. 31. $15-$20. Kleberg Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd. zachtheatre.org.