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Theater LaB Houston celebrates its 22nd anniversary with ‘Vanities, the Musical’
by Donalevan Maines

Jimmy F. Phillips helps Theater LaB Houston celebrate its 22nd anniversary this month by holding up a mirror to three Texas women in Vanities, the Musical.

Director/choreographer Jimmy Phillips.
Director/choreographer Jimmy Phillips.

“What a ride and adventure it has been,” says TLH’s out producing director, Gerald LaBita. “This marks Jimmy’s 21st production with TLH. “He is the musical comedy’s director, choreographer, and designer.”

If Phillips were a character in the show, he would almost certainly be Kathy, the head cheerleader who organizes meetings, pep rallies, proms, sorority bashes, and reunions that involve Kathy and BFFs Mary and Joanne.

“Jimmy has so many talents. He has a great and unique gift as a theater professional because he can work across all mediums—directing, choreographing, designing, and acting in dramas, comedies, and musicals,” says LaBita. “Jimmy is a true Renaissance man in the Houston theater community.”

“I was born in Houston and grew up on the Houston-Pasadena border,” says Phillips, who graduated from South Houston High School in 1973—10 years after the first scene of Vanities.

Heifner wrote Vanities as a play in 1976, and he also wrote the script (or book) for the 2009 off-Broadway musical version that Phillips says includes a coda to three of the play’s scenes that were set in a rural gymnasium in 1963, a college sorority house in 1968, and a New York City apartment in 1974.

“I think he wanted to bring [the characters] up-to-date,” says Phillips, explaining that the musical reunites the women in 1990. “The book is [Heifner’s], and I’m sure he had a huge part in the score, although both the music and lyrics are completely credited to David Kirshenbaum.”

Some representative songs from the score include “An Organized Life,” “Friendship Isn’t What It Used to Be,” and “Letting Go.”

We’re number one: (l–r) Joanne {Shelby Bray), Kathy (Danica Johnston), and Mary (Robin Van Zandt) cheer it up in Theater LaB’s Vanities, the Musical.
We’re number one: (l–r) Joanne {Shelby Bray), Kathy (Danica Johnston), and Mary (Robin Van Zandt) cheer it up in Theater LaB’s Vanities, the Musical.

The play seemed to be performed everywhere back in the late 1970s and early ’80s, along with The Texas Trilogy by Preston Jones, which included Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Overlander (another drama about a Texas cheerleader whose life doesn’t turn out the way she assumes it will).

Heifner was specific in how Vanities is to be staged; his script even specifies the pre-show music to be played as the audience enters, with the three actresses already sitting onstage at makeup mirrors.

“The mirrors face the audience,” wrote Heifner. “All costume changes are made onstage in front of the audience. The purpose for this is that the audience should see the physical changes with the passage of time.”

Moreover, his script states, “The actresses do not leave the stage during the play. These transitions must not be rushed. They should be covered with music, but the music must not make a statement. It should be incidental.”

Like the play it’s based on, Phillips says Vanities, the Musical “takes place at a period of time when the whole fabric of America was changing—that whole era of naiveté. America was at a turning point.

“How drastically America changed is shown through these three women,” he explains. “They begin as girls with nothing on their minds but cheerleading and boys and having parties.”

Kathy is planning a football dance with the theme of “Over the Rainbow.” “We could make a huge rainbow out of chicken wire from one end of the gym to the other,” she says, “and stuff the chicken wire with colored Kleenex.”

Mary is worried because she keeps letting her boyfriend pet a little further each time he gives her a present. “He’s got more gifts lined up than I’ve got parts to give,” she says.

Joanne envies her friends for knowing what they will major in at college. “I want to go to college,” she says, “but I sure don’t care to learn anything.”

Phillips began studying theater at San Jacinto College in Pasadena, but a full scholarship to Stephens College (a girls’ school in Columbia, Missouri) lured him away for his junior and senior years.

“They auditioned young men from across the country and only had four openings per year,” he explains. “The school had a professional faculty of actors and would use young men to play juvenile parts.”

At Stephens College, Phillips says he appeared in the musicals Camelot, Li’l Abner, and South Pacific, and the plays The Importance of Being Earnest, King Lear, and The Royal Family.

Recalling his return to the Houston area in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in theater and dance, Phillips says, “It wasn’t until after I got out of college that I had a real boyfriend. It was never a big concern of mine. There was never any question in my mind about my sexuality—I always knew I was gay. But this was the late ’70s and early ’80s—there was no AIDS around, and the kind of fun we had, like going to drag shows at the Copa—it was a great, naïve time.”

In 1983, Phillips moved to New York City and worked for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the AIDS service organization whose genesis is portrayed in Larry Kramer’s drama, The Normal Heart. “I was as involved in that as I could possibly be,” says Phillips. “We watched so many talented people in the theater community succumb to that disease.”

Twenty-two years ago, Phillips was back home when he met his partner, Steven Jones, who is the musical director for Vanities, the Musical. They live in the Heights. “We met at Houston Ballet, where I was taking a class and he was the accompanist,” recalls Phillips. “I said, ‘The accompanist is cute,’ but somebody told me he was in a relationship with a dancer in the company. But he asked me out, and I don’t know what happened. We just sort of hit it off.”

In 1994, Phillips auditioned for the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins at the fledgling TLH in the Heights and was cast in the ensemble, as well as winning the part of former President Gerald Ford, who survived an assassination attempt by lesbian Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. “Jimmy did a bang-up job,” says TLH director LaBita. “During the time that followed, he proved himself to be a great friend and asset to TLH.”

“One never knows how long a theater company will last,” says Phillips. “I am very proud of my association with Jerry LaBita, who is very forward-thinking. He brings shows to Houston that normally wouldn’t be presented here. That’s his mission—to spotlight cutting-edge theater that’s contemporary and new.”

For the past 18 years, Phillips has taught middle-school theater at Annunciation Orthodox School in Montrose while playing roles such as MacMillian in Big, the Musical and Mushnick in Little Shop of Horrors for Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS); Major Bouvier in Grey Gardens and Peter in Company at Stages Repertory Theatre; and Cladwell in Urinetown and Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince in Into the Woods at Main Street Theater. He has directed plays such as The Little Dog Laughed, True Love Lies, and Barrymore, and has both directed and choreographed revues and musicals such as I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, A New Brain, and Pageant.

The cast of Vanities, the Musical includes Danica Johnston, Robin Van Zandt, and Shelby Bray.

What: Vanities, the Musical
When: April 8–May 3
Where: Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak 
Details: Tickets ($30 & $35) available online at thelabhou.org or by calling 713.868.7516.

Donalevan Maines also writes about 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche in this issue of OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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