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Fall for Art

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OutSmart’s 2008 Arts Preview: an autumnal guide to Houston’s finest, onstage.
 
By D.L. Groover. Photo by Paul Kolnik   If you can pry yourself away from the 24/7 coverage of the presidential election and get outside the house for some air, you’ll find plenty of splendid entertainment to clear away the cobwebs and refresh the batteries. Houston’s fall theater season is replete with toxic waste, a clueless teen armed with a video post, a bitchy rehash of the Bush/Kerry debates, an ancient Roman stabbed to death, a bitchy rehash of the Nixon/Frost interviews, high-tech motion-capture dance, a drag stripper, a gay playwright plotting the death of his young lover, a rumble between Sharks and Jets, and a comedy played in a blackout. Good luck.

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September arts
October arts
November arts
December arts

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Through September 13
A Murder of Crows
What better way to start off the season than a good kick in the ass from theater bad boy and poet Mac Wellman (Dracula, Terminal Hip, 7 Blowjobs), who never fails to find the right metaphors for our particular, peculiar American lives. Trailer trash Susie can predict the weather, but what blows into her backwater town surprises even her. She’ll never be the same again. “I feel strange among my kind and I don’t even know who my kind are,” she says as toxic sludge encroaches upon her backyard, and a trio of crows tap dance and comment slyly. She almost welcomes it. A Houston premiere from Mildred’s Umbrella. Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch. 832/418-0585.  

Through September 21
Third
Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winner Wendy Wasserstein’s last play is replete with those signature touches that swirl throughout her work (The Heidi Chronicles, The Sisters Rosensweig): gender politics, a begrudging nod to the feminists, a main character who is an independent single women looking for love, a comedian’s smile between the heartache, and a warm heart. Here, a liberal professor is forced to confront her own limiting stereotypes when she accuses her elite, pampered student Woodson Bull III (“Third”) of plagiarism. He’s not at all what she thinks he is. Main Street Theatre at Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose. 713/524-6706.

September 3–28
Unbeatable
They sing, they dance, they do chemo in this pre-off Broadway premiere musical about breast cancer. I hear the groans, but there’re a lot of laughs between the tears to keep this dark subject hopping to the pop tunes of Kevin Fisher and Todd Schroeder. Created by Laurie Frey, this is a co-production between Phoenix Theatre, Pink Ribbons Project, and Stages. Hope is eternal. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. 713/527-0123.

PalJoey
Spencer Plachy (see Pal Joey , September 4–7)

September 4–7
Pal Joey
Hope’s eternal, but so are cads. And here’s the musical father of them all, Joey Evans, opportunist, narcissist, smalltime hoofer who loves ’em and leaves ’em, via John O’Hara’s scandalous book, Richard Rodgers’ incandescent score, and Lorenz Hart’s peerless lyrics. This classic from 1940—amazingly it opened Christmas Day with Gene Kelly in the lead in what turned out to be his movie audition—is a heel’s rise and rise, set to such perennials as “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” and “I Could Write a Book.” You can get the sexy flavor by this lyric from gay Hart: “Couldn’t sleep/And wouldn’t sleep/Until I could sleep where I shouldn’t sleep…” Paul Hope’s Bayou City Concert Musicals sets the standard for concert stagings, and these annual performances (never staying around long enough) are greedily savored by Houstonian Broadway babies. Heinen Theatre, 3517 Austin. 713/465-6484.

September 4–14
Onegin
Choreographer John Cranko and the artists of Houston Ballet invite you to czarist Russia for a remounting of this 1965 classic dance adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s immortal poem. Young Titania loves Onegin, but he only loves himself. Later, ironically, when his heart has melted, hers has hardened. Lives are destroyed, duels are fought, balls are attended, and passions swirl across the stage in aching pas de deux and joyous country dances. The imperial mise en scene is rendered through the lush costumes and scenery by Elisabeth Dalton, but the master behind it all is Tchaikovsky and his haunting score. A modern classical ballet not to be missed. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. 713/227-2787.

Pia
Pia Zadora, 1985, Polaroid (See Andy Warhol, September 12)

September 12–October 18

Andy Warhol’s ‘Celebutants, Groupies, and Friends’
Warhol always had a camera in his hand — and left behind thousands of photographs, from parties and vacations with friends to portraits commissioned by personalities such as Princess Caroline of Monaco and the rock star Billy Squier. This year, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts gifted the collection to colleges across the nation, including about 150 Polaroids and black-and-white prints to the University of Houston. An opening reception takes place September 12. Free. 6–8 p.m. Blaffer Gallery, in the Fine Arts Building, entrance 16 off Cullen Blvd. Celebutants, Groupies, and Friends: A Photographic Legacy from the Andy Warhol Foundation is on view from September 13–October 18. Info: www.blaffergallery.org or 713/743-9530.

 September 12–October 20
All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten
Before he became an overnight sensation with his 1986 feel-good book of essays, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum had been a Unitarian minister, soft rocker, accomplished painter, and IBM salesman. But when he settled on author, he hit the jackpot. Fulghum’s soft self-help “notions,” full of haze and new-age gas, nonetheless hit a nerve and remained a bestseller for years. This 1992 stage adaptation by Ernest Zulia, with music and lyrics by David Caldwell, serves up Fulghum’s warm heartfelt philosophy in mini vignettes that give the impression of being swathed under plenty of comfy hugs and vats of chicken soup. Is that so bad? A.D. Players. 2710 W. Alabama. 713/526-2721.

ColorPurple
Shug Avery (Angela Robinson, left) sings “Too Beautiful for Words” to Celie (Jeannette Bayardelle) in The Color Purple. September 16–28.

September 16–28
The Color Purple
This extremely popular musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the southern black woman’s experience arrives in Houston on its post-Broadway tour, thanks to Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS). It covers four decades and three continents as it breathlessly relates the survival story of put-upon Celie, her abasement and eventual rise, through the diverse influences of archetypal black women: strong-willed Sofia, sexy Shug, and emancipated Nettie. She finds happiness, of sorts, and self-esteem in making pants, and is finally reunited with her grown children. The score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray amps up the pop quotient with its gospel-revival-anthem type of songs, while Marsha Norman’s book speeds through the momentous events like calendar pages dropping away. Overall, though, it’s inspiring and joyous. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. 713/558-8887.
 
September 18–28
Classically Modern
Houston Ballet’s fall repertory is an eye-popping example of just what classical ballet can do. With these works, it can knock your socks off! Any program that showcases Balanchine’s masterpiece Symphony in C (one out of so many) and Jerome Robbins’ intimate and sensual Afternoon of a Faun is truly all you need. Icing on the cake, though, is tastily slathered on with the Houston premiere of Dutch master dancemaker Hans van Manen’s bravura three-men Solo, set to Bach, and HB’s artistic director Stanton Welch’s world premiere Medieval Baebes, set to the free-wheeling music of the bestselling female early-music group that uses medieval instruments as a starting point for its distinctive, haunting sound. Houston Ballet. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. 713/227-2787.

September 18–October 5
Shylock, the Jew of Venice
For its first production, Houston’s newest theater troupe tackles a pared-down but no less evocative rendition of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, setting the adaptation in a WWII concentration camp. Founding member J.J. Johnston rephrases Classical Theatre Company’s mission statement: classical theater “is the basis for all theater and is perpetually popular. Its stories have stood the test of time.” There’s always room in Houston for more live theater. We wish them well. Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch. 713-963-9665.

September 25–27; October 2–4, 10–11
Madame Butterfly
Giocomo Puccini’s 1904 opera about the tragic love of naïve Cio-Cio-San for the American bounder Pinkerton who abandons her after a sham marriage was pretty much a disaster at its world premiere, albeit conducted by the legendary Arturo Toscanini. The Milan audience didn’t like the Japanese-inspired music and hooted its disapproval, while also hooting their knowledge of the affair between Toscanini and Rosina Storchio, the soprano singing Butterfly. But the opera couldn’t be pinned down, and it soon spread its wings around the globe and hasn’t touched ground since. One of the most beloved works in the rep, it deserves all its accolades. It’s a powerhouse of passion, lush soaring melody, and deeply felt characterization. Pinkerton may desire Butterfly only for the easy sex (she’s supposed to be 15!), but their glorious love duet and arias are anything but quickies. Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. 713/861-5303.

September 26–October 5
Man of La Mancha
Ah, yes, “to dream the impossible dream,” as hero Cervantes sings so triumphantly in the Mitch Lee/Joe Darion/Dale Wasserman 1965 Tony Award-winner. You already know this super hit song from this musical adaptation loosely based on the life of the Spanish genius who wrote Don Quixote, but there are other gems sprinkled throughout, especially when sultry Aldonza plies her trade. The show’s top-heavy and awfully serious in its inspirational message, but there’s powerful emotion at work, witness the 2,000-plus Broadway performances and countless international tours. Masquerade Theatre. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. 713/861-7045.  

PattiLaBelle
Patti LaBelle (see October 2)

October 2
Patti LaBelleNeed we say anything else? If gay favorite Miss LaBelle requires an intro, some-  thing’s very wrong with the world. Suffice it to say, the construction crew had better be standing by, for Miss One-and-Only’s gonna blow the roof off Jones Hall. 615 Louisiana. 713/227-4SPA.

October 3
The Essence of Mercury
Known as the Grand Concertos, Opus 6 has twelve of G. F. Handel’s most amazing works. Composed in 1739 as the “Great Saxon” turned away from the less-than-popular bombast of his Italian-inspired operas and reinvented the musical form he would make his own, the oratorio, Handel wrote these pieces at the rate of one every three days, completing the set in one month. Even for one so speedy, it’s an astounding feat. There’s no rush to be heard in these string beauties, though, only sublime music as interpreted by Houston’s preeminent Baroque orchestra, Mercury Baroque. Wortham Center, 501 Texas. 713/533-0080

October 3–19
Julius Caesar
This Shakespeare masterpiece from c.1599 may have been the first production performed at the legendary Globe, the theater where Shakespeare had a share of the profits. Wondrously crafted, this revenge play zips by, the shortest of all his works. It’s full of subtle social commentary, finely wrought characters, and the most famous of all speeches, Antony‘s funeral oration: “Friends, Romans, Countrymen.” At the sunset of Elizabeth I’s reign, plays and books about Caesar were rampant, as they dealt with the social chaos of a ruler-less empire—warnings of what might happen to England without an heir—none though were better than this, a big hit even at its premiere. Town Center Theatre, 3800 S. Panther Creek Drive. The Woodlands. 832/592-9697.

October 3–25
To Kill a Mockingbird
If you’re a writer and write only one book in your entire career, you might as well make it this one—a worldwide, perennially beloved modern classic that wins a Pulitzer Prize, and later is adapted into an iconic film and this literate stage version. Harper Lee only had this one book inside her. Once confidante and best friend to Truman Capote, Lee remains obsessive in her quest for privacy, eschewing interviews and any unseemly hints at publicity. Set in a racially charged small Southern town in the ’30s, the play swirls with the potent themes of tolerance, goodness, and evil—all in capital letters. A memoir told by tomboy Scout, her recollections are bathed in the amber dust of nostalgia, but the book’s famous court case and plea for justice blows this away with drama’s immediacy and impact. Playhouse 1960. 6814 Gant. 281/587-8243.

October 3–November 1
West Side Story
Perhaps the most innovative modern adaptation of a Shakespeare play, this 1957 classic musical is one of a kind. For all this show’s groundbreaking firsts, our favorite and seldom-mentioned fact is that all the creators were gay, every last one of them: Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Arthur Laurents (book), Jerome Robbins (director/choreographer), Oliver Smith (set design), Irene Sharaff (costumes), Jean Rosenthal (lighting), and Larry Kert (the original Tony). I don’t think that has ever happened before or since. For all its straight links to Romeo and Juliet, the show does  have a unique sexual frisson, what with all those chorus boys in tight T-shirts and jeans playing rough trade. Really, who doesn’t like show tunes? East-end Theatre Company. 2001 Postoffice, Galveston. 409/762-3556.

October 3–November 2
Cyrano de Bergerac
Edmund Rostand’s 1897 sweeping epic on the life of 17th-century Parisian poet de Bergerac is probably the last of the great romantic stage dramas. A gigantic weepy with flashes of steel, it has everything a swooning love story should have except the divan: grandiose language and biting wit, a manly hero with a grandiose fatal flaw (his enormous proboscis), electrifying sword fights, a noble theme of self-sacrifice and unrequited love, and a picture-book locale appliquéd with plumes, swirling capes, and velvet and lace. The play’s been such a hit ever since its premiere that the figure of Cyrano with his big honker writing love letters to the woman he adores on behalf of someone else has entered the world’s consciousness. In sublime irony, lovely Roxanne doesn’t realize Cyrano’s undying devotion until it’s too late. And it was there all along, right under her pretty little nose. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. 713/220-5700.

October 3–December 7
Perspectives 163: Every
Sound You Can Imagine

Modern musical scores often look like modern art, so it’s no surprise when they’re hung on a gallery’s walls. Fifty years of them are exhibited at the Contemporary Arts Museum on lower Montrose. Many look like Rorschach blots or strange hieroglyphics; the scores of John Cage are strangely beautiful, even if you can’t possible read them. There’s a ready link between music and visual art, and this show puts that idea right in your face—or your ears. Contemporary Arts Museum. 5216 Montrose Blvd. 713/284-8250.

October 9–November 1
The Strangerer
“I love the theater,” admits President Bush as his straight-faced rationale for trying to stab, shoot, smother, and poison TV moderator Jim Lehrer during the 2004 presidential debates with John Kerry. In Mickle Maher’s astonishingly absurd and affecting political theater piece, with more than a passing nod to Camus’ The Stranger, Bush suffers an existential meltdown as he transforms politics into theater. It is anyway, he implies with characteristic smirk. Remote Kerry literally sleepwalks through it all, while Lehrer blathers pompously without a connection in his head. Instead of the usual paper-thin sketch comedy associated with political theater that tries to knock you unconscious, Maher has ideas to express, and he does so with surprising empathy. Everybody gets screwed, audience included. Catastrophic Theatre at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway. 713/223-8346.

seeHomeland
Laurie Anderson (see Homeland, October 10)

October 10
Homeland
If you give a twit for what pioneering multi-media performance artist and amped-up violinist Laurie Anderson has to say about the Iraq war, here’s your chance. In a dreamy mélange that uses poetry, songs, spoken word, electronic and live music, and eschews visuals this time, Anderson examines our current political landscape. Surprise, guess what evil she finds and who’s the villain? “It’s one of the more political things that I’ve done in quite a while,” she says about the show. “My work is stories, and we have a very story-savvy government.” Then she adds, “Why don’t entertainers become journalists?” Oh, dear God. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. 713-227-4SPA.

October 11–November 9
. . . and L.A. Is Burning
Main Street Theatre adds a distinctive feather to their cap with this world premiere by playwright Y York. You know she’s a different bird because she doesn’t use that pesky period after Y. Known for her serio-comedies that embrace political, environmental, and apocalyptic views, York peoples her polemical plays with idiosyncratic characters who take on the screwy world with missionary zeal. Here, York riffs on the Rodney King trial and subsequent riots. Can the world be changed from inside 
the modern office? Main Street Theatre, 2540 Times Blvd. 713/524-6706.

October 15–November 2
Wallflower
Running concurrently, Stages stages its own world premiere with Deborah Stein’s Wallflower . Stein has an eclectic—and electric—style, so we are looking forward to this one. In her previous work, she gave Hamlet’s Queen Gertrude a rock opera format in God Save Gertrude ; and Bone Portraits, about the invention of the x-ray, resembled a vaudevillian seltzer squirt. In Wallflower, she explores the YouTube phenomenon as a teenager’s angry video prompts all hell to break out. Think twice about pushing that Send button. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. 713/527-0123.

October 16–18
Titus Andronicus
The promotional material states that modern ballet choreographer Dominic Walsh will “offer a chilling abstract take on Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy.” We hope so, for a realistic take would cover the stage in blood and guts, as this early tragedy has a mutilation, ravishment, or outright killing in every scene. After his stunning neo-Goth take on Sleeping Beauty last season, this piece, we hope, should be just as novel since it boasts an original score composed and performed live by Two Star Symphony, along with set and costume design by artist Frederique de Montblanc. Please keep all hands inside the car. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. 713/315-2525.

October 17, 19, 24, 26m, 29, November 1
Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci
These one-act operatic warhorses of Italian verismo have been paired for so long it’s impossible, if not sacrilegious, to separate them. Both operas are “heavy breathers,” a late-19th-century form of stage realism akin to a Tanrantino movie today. Leoncavallo’s Pag is the better work, a backstager about adultery among a troupe of traveling performers. One of opera’s most famous tenor arias, “Vesti la giubba” (“Put on the costume”) graces this work, as Canio transforms into his clown character while his heart breaks over his wife’s infidelity. Short and violent, Pag packs a wallop; Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana lays there like a lump of uncooked pasta. Another tale of adultery, seduction, and infidelity, it pivots around a smothering mother love that only a Sicilian could relate to. Both of these operas are wildly popular, though, and their influence on opera’s history cannot be understated. Houston Grand Opera. Wortham Center, 501 Texas. 713/228-OPERA (6737).

October 17–November 9
Deathtrap
This twisty—some might say unbelievable—thriller from Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives) at least has that gay subtext to give it extra zing. Teaching a writing course and suffering a severe case of writer’s block, playwright Bruhl finds the perfect play written by one of his young students. It’s so good he knows it could make his fortune again, and so he decides to kill the kid and put his own name on the script. Simple, huh? Not if you’ve ever seen a mystery before. Once again, everyone’s got a secret. And then there’s that kiss… ACE Theatre. 17011 Bamwood.   281/587-1020.

October 21–November 2
Frost/Nixon
In 1977, when somewhat-faded TV journalist David Frost interviewed the really faded and disgraced former President Richard Nixon, some kind of TV history was made. Playwright Peter Morgan (known for his screenplays for The Queen and Last King of Scotland) takes history and bends it like Beckham, making it more real than reality. He also gave actor Frank Langella a tour-de-force role of a lifetime that bestowed upon him the Tony Award for best actor. On this tour from Broadway Across America, Stacy Keach should be a natural as RMN. See Nixon sweat, see Nixon vent. Politics and showbiz intertwine in a loving death struggle. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. 713/315-2500.

October 24–November 15
Sleuth
What a stylish and highly entertaining maze of a play. Anthony Shaffer (Death on the Nile, the creepy Wicker Man, Hitchcock’s Frenzy) penned this mystery/thriller in 1970, and it’s been causing goose bumps in audiences ever since. It played concurrently on London’s West End and Broadway, where it ran two years and won the Tony Award for best play. Mystery writer and games-player extraordinaire Andrew convinces his wife’s lover to commit a robbery, and nothing after that is quite what it seems. Tingly and ultra clever, Schaffer’s twisty play startles and then makes you laugh at being tricked. Theatre Southwest. 8944A Clarkcrest. 713/661-9505.

October 24–November 23
Secret Order
Who knew that a science lab filled with cuddly little rabbits could be so filled with suspense and backbiting. In Bob Clyman’s psychological science drama, innocent biologist Shumway seems to have found a cure for cancer. Sniffing out the monetary benefits and international prestige, with dreams of the Nobel Prize dancing in his head, he’s lured to NYC by the smarmy head of a renowned cancer research institute. Oh what a tangled web we weave, when in the lab we first deceive. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. 713/228-8421.
 
October 30
Portrait of Rachmaninov
If Edmund Rostand, as stated earlier, is the last great romantic dramatist, then Sergei Rachmaninov is surely the last great romantic composer. Under the aegis of the Society for the Performing Arts, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, New York City’s prestigious chamber music group, brings us a sonic portrait of this most international of Russians to the Wortham’s Cullen Theater. It’s an oil painting. Included on the lush, thickly painted canvas is the two-piano Suite No. 2, the Symphonic Dances scored for two pianos, and his brooding Trio elegiaque . Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. 713/227-4SPA.

October 30, November 2, 8, 12, 14
Beatrice and Benedict
Who knew that “taking the cure” would inaugurate an opera? Impresario Benazet, who ran the casino at the internationally famous German spa Baden-Baden, loved the music of Berlioz—one of the few who did at the time—and started his own mini Berlioz festival in the town, inviting the composer to conduct and play his own music, giving him carte blanche in everything. When Benazet suggested a world premiere, Berlioz practically leapt for joy. So does this work from 1862, a lithe, shining adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a delightful musical equivalent. One of Berlioz’ admirers said that Beatrice must have been composed by moonlight, and, boy, is that true. It has gossamer music, full of his patented rhythmic drive and impetuous melting lines of melody. It’s transparent music made of silver. Joyce DiDonato and Norman Reinhardt play the recalcitrant lovers. Houston Grand Opera. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. 713/228-OPERA (6737).

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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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