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Fall 2021 Stage & Theater Preview

Fifteen must-see performances to welcome live theater back to Houston.

It has been a year and a half since we’ve been to the theater. With few exceptions, we’ve had to endure Theater-in-the-Zoom, which isn’t theater (nor even very good television). But the directors got to put on a show, the actors got to act, and everyone made the best of a horrible situation.  

That’s about to change. While the pandemic still rages, theater companies have planned a fall season and were rehearsing in mid-August. Safety precautions are unsettled, and nobody knows if audiences will be masked, distanced, or otherwise restricted. We’ve sorely missed theater, and we pray to the theater gods that this fall season is a renaissance for Houston theater. Glad to have you back where you belong.

MY FAIR LADY | September 14–19 
Broadway at the Hobby

photo by Joan Marcus

Forget Hamilton and Wicked—the greatest Broadway musical comedy is Frederick Loewe and Alan J. Lerner’s Edwardian-era-encrusted My Fair Lady. Overstuffed with sparkling songs and the best lyrics this side of Sondheim, Lady has it all. Add to it luscious costumes, elegant sets, and iconic characters, and it’s all there to be devoured like the high tea it is. This new production is the distinguished Lincoln Center revival directed by Bartlett Sher that won rapturous reviews. She’s only here for six days, so go and be entranced. You’ll feel like you could have danced all night.

Houston Ballet

photo by Leonel Nerio

For Houston balletomanes, there’s nothing more anticipated than the company’s annual Jubilee of Dance. It’s a grand smorgasbord, utilizing the entire company performing excerpts of future works in the coming season while showcasing the incredible depth of their dancers. The company, never less than exceptional, shines in this exemplary overview which will include artistic director Stanton Welch’s live-action adaptation of his buoyant video production of In Good Company, and samples from his phenomenal Divergence. The program also celebrates principal dancer/choreographer Melody Mennite’s 20th year with the company. Among her numerous starring roles, her indelible interpretation of France’s doomed queen in Welch’s Marie defines her passionate, all-out dancing. The Jubilee of Dance is always an unforgettable night at the ballet. 

HOOK’S TALE | October 1–17
Stages Houston

As a kid, I used to run around the house in a long bathrobe with a coat hanger for an arm, playing my favorite Disney character, Captain Hook. Playwright John Leonard Pielmeier (Agnes of God) has unearthed the pirate’s lost journal, where he writes about that egotistic whippersnapper Pan and his motley Neverland crew. In this one-man show, Donald Corren (who played Bobby Riggs in Balls) gets to strut and slow-burn as Barrie’s immortal buccaneer. 

SWEAT October 1–24
Alley Theatre

photo by Lynn Lane

Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer prize-winner about steel workers in hardscrabble Reading, Pennsylania, is hard-boiled, gritty, photo-realistic, and lyrical. These nine lives gather at the local bar and grouse about their fate, their country, each other, and their dead-end jobs. They all have stories to tell, fights to pick, and unburied jealousies. There are narratives and flights of remembrance about their young lives that held so much hope. This is contemporary kitchen-sink drama—earthy, and packing a relatable gut punch.

DARWIN IN MALIBU | October 2–24
Main Street Theater

What if evolutionist Charles Darwin lived in a beach house on Malibu and “met cute” agnostic anthropologist Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, an ardent critic of Darwinism? The conundrum of science versus heart weaves through this witty and incisive play, a riff of sorts on the famous 1860 Huxley and Wilberforce debate over Darwin’s newly published On the Origin of Species. London critics hailed it as “a hoot and a half” and “exceptionally spry,” but we’ll have to judge for ourselves.

ROCK OF AGES |October 5–17
Theatre Under The Stars’ Hobby Center

photo by Laura Hagen

1980s Sunset Strip rock venue The Bourbon Room is slated for demolition. Sweet, horny rock mavens sit around and do nothing while sweet, young ingénues fall in love, fall out of love, fall back in love and, miraculously, save the club. If ever a jukebox show that started off-Broadway was meant to glitter its way into the big time, this MTV glam-rock knockoff is the one. Big-hair ’80s glam rock screams into Houston, and if you wanna scream, too, here’s the show where you’re encouraged to do it. 

Classical Theatre Company

What better way to celebrate Halloween than with the classic stories of Edgar Allen Poe? No copyright issues, no diva writers breathing down your neck, no distant relatives defending their dearly beloved’s work as if it were set in concrete. The scares include The Fall of the House of Usher, The Tell-Tale Heart, William Wilson, and The Raven. With artistic director John Johnston’s affinity for classic texts, Poe will be in nifty hands. 

A.D. Players

Here’s Ken Ludwig’s latest: a two-actor love story about his parents, set around the letters they wrote to each other while medic dad was fighting in World War II and mom was battling Broadway as an aspiring actress. The epistolary play—somewhat like A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters—details the couple’s trials, tribulations, and deepening love. We know it’s going to end well, but the final clinch will no doubt trigger copious tears. Ludwig will probably win another Tony.

A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2 | October 14–November 6 
4th Wall Theatre Company

Belittled but beloved, wife Nora Helmer walks out on her husband and family at the end of Ibsen’s classic and slams the door on 19th-century theater. It’s the most significant sound effect ever. Lucas Hnath reimagines what would happen if she returned home 15 years later. Has she found herself? Is she liberated? Is she free? Does she still love Torvald? The turn-of-the-last-century has never seemed so contemporary.

72 MILES TO GO | October 15–November 14
Alley Theatre

photo by John Everett

When you think about it, 72 miles isn’t all that far. For Billy and Anita, it’s a world away. Anita is in Mexico waiting for the word that she can rejoin her family. Son Christian, brought here when he was a baby, doesn’t speak Spanish, and his teen sister Eva and brother Aaron are finding it hard to keep their American dream alive. Billy holds the family together as best he can, holding romantic dinners for Anita over the phone. With the threat of deportation swirling constantly, this is hot-button relevance at its best.

THE REVOLUTIONISTS | October 22–November 6
Dirt Dogs Theatre Company at MATCH

Playwright Lauren Gunderson (Miss Bennet, Silent Sky) shakes up the male-dominated French Revolution with equal parts humor and tragedy in this distaff dissection during the bloody Reign of Terror. Olympe de Gouges pens her feminist pamphlets, Charlotte Corday plots the death of Marat, and doomed, whiny Marie Antoinette can’t quite comprehend why anyone would want to chop off her head. “I need better press,” she demands from Olympe in this wondrously skewed view of women and power.

CARMEN | October 22–November 7
Houston Grand Opera at Wortham Theater Center

photo by Lynn Lane

If you’ve never been to the opera, Georges Bizet’s insanely sexy Carmen is the one to see. It shocked even the unshockable French at its premiere. No matter how many times we have seen Carmen destroy her lover, get another, and die at the hand of her ex, she is the epitome of modern. The opera is ever-fresh, sparkling with the heat of Seville, gypsy encampments, bullfights, and a will to love unfettered by convention. You wouldn’t bring Carmen home to meet your mother, but she wouldn’t care. 

Main Street Theater

Photo by Pin Lim / Forest Photography

Main Street has found a pleasant niche in the holiday trade with its Pride and Prejudice sequels Miss Bennet and The Wickhams. In only a few years, Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s Miss Bennet has become one of the most produced plays in the United States. It’s full of grace, woman-power, and Regency attitude. This is middle daughter Mary’s story, really—the unwed, bookish Bennet who finds her soulmate in the unimpressive (at first glance) Arthur. A match made in Old Hollywood heaven.

THE NUTCRACKER | November 26–December 24
Houston Ballet at Wortham Theater Center

photo by Amitava Sarkar

Put Tchaikovsky’s gloriously shimmering score under the razzle-dazzle of Broadway and the spectacle of Cecil B. DeMille, and you have Stanton Welch’s mind-blowing adaptation of this classic Christmas ballet. It’s an eye-popper, with intricate choreography that’s as crisp and sharp as an icicle. Kids of all ages will be mesmerized.

THE SNOWY DAY | December 9–19
Houston Grand Opera at Wortham Theater Center

In its perennial quest to find the perfect Christmas opera to rival Alley Theatre’s A Christmas Carol and Houston Ballet’s Nutcracker, Houston Grand Opera has had a hard time of it. Except for Menotti’s radiant fable Amahl and the Night Visitors—a sublime yuletide work for all ages—there hasn’t yet been an original, family-friendly holiday opera. This season’s entrant is a world premiere by composer Joel Thompson and librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney, adapted from the Caldecott-winning children’s book The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. Thompson and Pinkney have labored to keep our interest by adding characters to pad out the slim book. HGO studio artist Raven McMillon sings the pivotal role of Peter, the opera’s innocent snow catcher.

This article appears in the September 2021 edition of OutSmart magzine.


D.L. Groover

D.L. Groover writes on the arts for the Houston Press, OutSmart magazine, Arts & Culture, and Dance Source Houston. He has received two national awards for his theater criticism from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN), and has previously won three statewide Lone Star Press awards for the same. He is co-author of the irreverent appreciation Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin’s Press), now in its fourth printing.
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