Bold casting choices make Broadway in Austin’s ‘Hamilton’ a whole new beast.

With Hamilton coming to a major streaming service, it’s become a cultural touchstone available to millions worldwide, giving producer of the live show a decision to make. They could bring in similar performers and soundalikes and make plenty of money, or they could create new opportunities for performers to make these characters their own. For their newest production, Broadway Across America’s latest tour has thankfully chosen the latter, and we are better off for it, as the cast creates new dynamics and relationships that create a new and intriguing experience, even as we enjoy the tunes and moves we love. This version of Hamilton doesn’t try to re-write the book, but makes enough small changes that to keep the experience fresh and powerful, no matter how many times you’ve seen the show.

Of course, we can’t start talking about Hamilton without mentioning its central character. Though I love Lin-Manuel Miranda for his raw energy and vigor, Edred Utomi brings what may be the most cool and charismatic Hamilton I’ve come across. Carrying both his youthful, spirited moments in the early stages and the more somber moments near the play’s end, throughout there’s a sense of charm that’s refreshing. This is a Hamilton that’s believably reliable with the ladies, someone with such raw magnetism that it makes sense that so many people would be drawn to this historical figure.

One of the more intriguing changes this production makes is casting an older actor as George Washington. Casting a more seasoned performer like Paul Oakley Stovall completely changes the dynamic between Washington and Hamilton, changing what’s usually a brotherly relationship into more of a paternal one, creating new opportunities for exploration of both the characters and their relationship, and making moments like “One Last Time” even more powerful. You’d be hard-pressed to find a dry eye in the house when Stovall smoothly teaches the audience how to say goodbye. It helps that Stovall is such a powerful presence, his regal bearing and smooth, velvety voice making him instantly likable and respected presence, and truly one of the highlights of the piece.

Few performers can match the raw charisma of Leslie Odom, Jr., so it’s a smart choice that Josh Tower chose to take a different direction for Burr. This Burr is a much more subdued character, meeker and more easily overpowered by the cool, collected Hamilton, making his Burr slightly more villainous. This doesn’t mean he’s without his sympathetic moments, as his rendition of “Dear Theodosia” is sure to bring a few tears to a few eyes, and his work in the later stages of the play is heartbreaking, but he’s at his best when he’s plotting to better his station, and the explosive vigor he brings to “Room Where it Happens”is a riot. Being a more reserved character makes his scenes with Hamilton and the crew in the early stages especially fun, as his stature of an outcast is even further solidified.

I could continue for another fifteen paragraphs about the smart choices made among the cast, from the slick, boy-band-esque confidence of David Park as Jefferson; the crystalline beauty and perfection of Zoe Jensen’s Eliza; the vitriol and fury of Peter Matthew Smith’s King George; to the invigorating stage presence of Stephanie Umoh’s Angelica, there’s hardly a bad apple in the bunch, all set against the same wonder and polish that we’ve come to love from the musical. If the production can keep creating these kind of smart, new choices and creating these kind of dynamics in the future, there’s potential for Hamilton to keep delighting audiences for decades to come, as no matter how many times you see the show, there’s always new moments to discover from a talented cast and smart crew.

Thanks to making a few small tweaks, while keeping all the elements people love from the Original Broadway Production, creators of this rendition of Hamilton were able to create something fun for newcomers and diehards alike. Even if you’ve already experienced Lin Manual Miranda’s musical masterpiece, there’s still plenty of room for new experiences with this cast and crew.

Hamilton is playing at the Bass Concert Hall through December 19th.

Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus

Summer Stock Austin’s ‘Bring it On’ is an evening of pure energy and joy, and a perfect return to the theatre

For nearly a decade, Summer Stock has been a highlight for me each year. Despite the time crunch and the low budget inherent in the program, I’ve rarely seen a subpar show from the company, and so it was absolute delight that their latest production would be my return to the theatre after over a year away; and what a return it was! Bring It On is a vibrant production with smart direction from Summer Stock co-founder Ginger Morris and her team, which, like so many of Summer Stock’s best productions, knows that its most useful capital is its talented cast, and utilizes each of its performers to their best, pulling amazing performance from each, thereby elevating the cast as a whole.

One of the highlights of Summer Stock every year is getting to check in with talented high school and college students who return, and in Bring it On, it’s a delight to see Hannah Roberts back at center stage again. Her take on Wednesday in Addams Family was a delight, and here she shows even further improvement as Campbell, a character who spends almost the entirety of the play on stage, carrying much of the action of her shoulders. The music in Bring It On, especially in the early stages, can also fall on to the more complicated side, and Robert’s ability to shape these melodically and structurally complicated compositions is nothing short of awe-worthy. She keeps all of this up while also showcasing careful character work, never breaking face and keeping that spunky but headstrong attitude until the play’s final curtain call.

There are certain performers that demand your attention the moment they appear on stage. Before she says her first word, or has her own solo-number McKenlee Wilson brings a beguiling energy, and once her main number starts one can tell they’re in for something special. Despite her young age, she shows obvious star potential, having control of her instrument both vocally and physically, landing neither a step nor note out of place. She also shows amazing chemistry with her co-leads, playing both her disgust and delight with care, her performance even helping to fill in a few narrative holes the musical creates. It obvious why her character Danielle would rule the school, as Wilson carries a presence that you simply can’t ignore.

One obvious star coming out of Bring It On is Rebekah Freeland as the dorky, but lovable Bridget. Combining amazing comedic timing with real sensitivity, she creates a truly captivating performance. She carries her humorous notes with gusto, tackling her role with a raw physicality that brings on plenty of laughs, but when the time comes for her to explore the emotional dimensions of the character, diving deep into the self-consciousness and doubts that lurk within the darker parts of so many teenagers, she becomes just as, if not more, charming. The way she keeps this balance in control is laudable, especially as it leads up to one of the show’s most successful numbers “It Ain’t No Thing”, where she’s able to let her freak flag fly with an explosive burst of both musical talent and comedy.

This only dips a toe into the talent pool on display in Bring It On. Scene-stealing performance abound throughout, whether it be the fiery spirit of Christian Patty’s La Cienega; the delicious villainy of Abigal Bensman as antagonist Eva; the grounded likability of Erica Cortina’s Nautica; Sadie Dickerson’s lovable nastiness as frenemy Skylar; or even the astonishing rap game of Andrew Delagarza and Tre Kanaley, who practically carry one of the show’s later numbers. From the leading players, to background dancers, to walk-on extras, everyone gives 150% to the production, creating a living, breathing world, and that’s before mentioning the absolute staggering talent and athleticism of the actual cheerleaders and dance crew members brought in to inject even more believability into the work. Despite an undoubtable time crunch and limited budget, Morris and company have carefully crafted a world bursting with relentless vitality and verisimilitude.

The creators of Summer Stock’s Bring It On seem to have one goal in mind: to keep its audience entertained, and in that, they’ve crafted a truly noteworthy experience. In the final stages of the play, as the room erupts into cheers, its hard not to get taken in by the pure energy surging through the theatre. Even the coldest of hearts will find themselves clapping and shouting along, fired up by the unbridled exuberance of it all. It’s the part of the experience I’ve been missing most since the lockdown, the one thing that only live theatre can give you: that one magic moment of community, of knowing you’re experiencing something that has never happened before, may never happen again, but that will stick in your mind for ages.

“Bring It On” is playing through this Sunday, August 1st. For more information, and to buy tickets, visit

Photo courtesy of Summer Stock Austin.

Jarrott Productions’ ‘The Niceties’ is an audacious, confrontational, and ever-so-relevant piece of theatrical dynamite

One of the most ever-present arguments in theatrical history has been over the “purpose of theatre”. Is it simply there to entertain, to create a moment of afternoon diversion from the banality of life? Or is it there to educate, to teach people something about the world around them, or even something about themselves? While people will constantly argue this point, and while there are fine arguments to made on either side, I feel that at its best, theatre should leave you a different person than the person you were when you walked in the door, and few plays have reached so deep into my core than the latest from Jarrott Productions, Eleanor Burgess’s incendiary Off-Broadway hit, “The Niceties”. Diving deep into the dark of heart of millennial society, watching “The Niceties” is like entering a war zone, where the battle lines are not so clearly drawn, but where landmines lie in wait at every step. It’s difficult viewing, and it’s sure to make quite a few people very upset, but it’s one of the most edifying experiences I’ve undergone in some time.

As “The Niceties” begins, you can be excused for thinking you’re getting a rather typical story of a simple collegiate disagreement, as African-American student Zoe walks in to discuss her latest term paper with her professor, Janene, which has a rather controversial premise: the Revolutionary War succeeded thanks in large part to the institution of slavery. What begins as a simple disagreement with this thesis statement soon tumbles into deep, murky quagmire, as weaknesses are revealed, patience is tested, and the darkest parts of both of our participant are brought into the light. As the First Act comes to its tense, breathless conclusion, one wonders just how much further this play can take us, until we’re thrown right back into the lion’s den as the fight is redoubled in its later stages. It makes for a tense, difficult play to watch, but also a spectacle of car-crash intensity you can’t look away from.

With a play so full of bold, audacious ideas, it’s important to have performers we can sympathize with, so it’s impressive that both of the actors here are able to play their characters so flawlessly. Jacqui Calloway takes on Zoe with a unique sensitivity, which makes her fiery explosions as the play progresses hit so powerfully. It’d be too easy to just write her off as just another “hysterical millennial”, if not for the grace Calloway brings to the role (and of course Burgess’ sharp writing), and as the play progresses, the anger feels backed by a righteousness that makes her arguments all the stronger. On the other side, it’d be easy to write Janene off as a pompous dinosaur, if not for the charm and intelligence Francesca Christian brings to her role. In many ways Janene could be seen as the villain of the piece, but Christian is so endearing in the role that it’s difficult to dislike her. If one of these actresses were off their game, the whole conceit of the play would fall apart, so it’s a testament to both of these actors’ skills that the play works as well as it does, and also a testament to the skills of director Jeremy Rashad Brown, who keeps firm hold of the reins even as the play and its characters buck and kick.

“The Niceties” doesn’t provide easy answers, partly because it doesn’t pose easy questions. It pulls deep into the frustrations at the heart of contemporary society, those elements that lie deep within us all, but that we’re often too afraid to voice, ever-afraid to break the facade of civility that keeps society moving. “The Niceties” shows us the dangers of keeping your head below ground, however, as it helps us to realize that our worst selves are just a slight string-tug away. As the play begins, Janene is not shown as some pompous racist, and Zoe is not shown to be a whiny millennial, and it’s because we’re coming from a place of trust that the truths we’re forced to face hit so hard. These people could be us. In no insignificant way, these people are us. One of the true heartbreaking, harrowing elements of “The Niceties” is that it makes us look at what’s wrong with ourselves, with what’s wrong with our institutions, and our society.

“The Niceties” has the potential to make a lot of people very angry. It’s a shot across the bow, a cherry bomb thrown into the well of society, blowing away the shards of pretense with which we live our days, leaving us with a bleeding, raw heart. What “The Niceties” does provide, for those brave enough for a little self-reflection, is a treasure trove of difficult, fiery conversations. “The Niceties” doesn’t tie up its loose ends, and therefore invites the audience to try to do so themselves.

First with last year’s “Admissions”, and now with “The Niceties”, Jarrott Productions has proven itself a company unafraid of bringing controversial ideas to Austin stages. It would be so easy for them to fill their season with fun, lighthearted plays, which would bring in huge crowds, and make them plenty of money in the process, but David Jarrott and company prefer to take a more dangerous route. Jarrott Productions is a company looking to start conversations, to wake people up to the problems in the world around them, and maybe even better themselves in the process, which is perhaps the most noble aspiration a theatre company can have. The company is turning itself into one of the most essential voices in Austin theatre, and I for one can’t wait to see what else they have up their sleeves.

“The Niceties” is playing at the Trinity Street Theatre through February 2nd. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit

Photo courtesy of Carlo Lorenzo Garcia

‘Rigoletto’ is a gorgeously-wrought, emotionally devastating take on an opera mainstay

Though I consider myself well-informed in most pieces of the theatre world, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still a novice when it comes to opera. Though I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen, and I know many of the composers and their work, for most productions I have the pleasure of seeing from Austin Opera, I’m coming in practically blind. I was, therefore, not prepared for the emotional napalm that is Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, the wrenching tale of a tortured clown, whose life falls apart after a father’s curse. Polished and beautifully produced, Austin Opera have crafted a gorgeously built emotional roller coaster, that’s sure to leave you with a lump in your throat as the final piercing notes play.

As the curtains open on Austin Opera’s latest production of Verdi’s classic, we’re presented with one of the most draw-droppingly beautiful tableaus I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in some time, with Chad R. Jung’s gorgeous lighting and the beautiful costuming of Susan Memmott Allred coming together in dazzling, earthy tones reminiscent of the Dutch masters. Indeed, if it wasn’t the subsequent action, one could be forgiven for thinking they were taking in a Rembrandt. This beautiful aesthetic carries through most of Austin Opera’s latest, with the impeccable sets and costumes giving the ambiance a luxe, expensive feel that helps immerse us into the court of the period, creating a tangible world, which in turn makes the emotional journey we’re about embark upon take on that much more power.

Michael Chioldi has been a mainstay on the Long Center boards in numerous productions, but I believe this may be the role for which he’s remembered. The titular role of Rigoletto is not an easy one to pull off, as in many ways the horrific events that unfold upon him are of his own doing, and even in his darkest moments there’s a thought that, had he gone forward with a little more foresight, or a little more concern, all of the bloodshed might have been avoided. There’s also a sense of foolishness to the character which would hurt the sympathy in the hands of a lesser actor, but luckily Chioldi is able to carry these many elements on his talented shoulders, giving us a glimmering, multifaceted performance that tugs on our heartstrings despite his character’s questionable actions.

Rigoletto may skirt the line between sympathetic and villainous, but the Duke dances all over it. The character is, of course, the antagonist of the piece, but there’s an earnestness to his actions that one can’t help but appreciate. It certainly complicates things that Kang Wang is such a charismatic presence, and one can see why so many women would be pining after him. For his part, Wang is able to carry a difficult dychotomy with gusto, creating some of the best moments of the production with his cunning and charm.

One mustn’t forget the real rising star of the piece, Madison Leonard, whose effervescent, adorable performance as Gilda practically busts off the stage with youthful exuberance. Her moments of gaiety are lovely moments of respite from the emotional devastation that makes us so much of Rigoletto’s running time, and nearly every time she’s on stage you can’t help but crack smile (at least, until that last act comes along). She shows such a devotion to her role, and has the gorgeous, clear voice to match, that one can only imagine a long, storied career from her in the years to come. One hopes she finds her way back to the Austin stage sooner rather the later.

Opera is, other than perhaps dance, the most concentrated presentation of human emotion the arts has to offer, and “Rigoletto” is a testament to this fact. It’s nearly thee hours of emotional warfare, with Verdi’s gorgeous music underscoring one of the most heartbreaking stories in canon, and Austin Opera’s talented team has provided a polished, poignant presentation of this crushing classic. Though it may be a tough sit for those not used to the tempo of Verdi’s work, fans of the medium will find joys aplenty in Austin Opera’s latest work.

The final presention of Austin Opera’s “Rigoletto” is playing Sunday, November 11th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit

Photos courtesy of Austin opera.

Capital T’s ‘It Is Magic’ is a harrowing, hilarious journey into the eldritch heart of the theatrical experience

Often, when I’m watching a play of a particular quality, it feels as if I’m watching something miraculous. That somehow all of these disparate elements can come together to create such moments of wonder, there must be some curious alchemy at work. So as I sit, watching Capital T’s newest, their latest collaboration with writer Mickle Maher, a mystical work called “It Is Magic”, I can’t help but sneak a grin. This hilarious, surprisingly harrowing tale of the troubled production of an all-adult version of “The Three Pigs”, shows the true sorcery at the heart of the theatre.  A talented cast and a skilled production team, all under the deft hands of director Mark Pickell, come together to create a night of theatre that must be seen to be believed.

 The play begins in a very inauspicious locale, the basement of a community theatre somewhere in the Midwest. Here, we follow director Deb and her sister, struggling actress Sandy, as they attempt to find the perfect lead for their adult version of “The Three Pigs”, as a production of Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play” debuts upstairs. When a strange woman appears for her audition, things explode in a glorious, mythology-fueled way that takes the play in a bold, unique, and absolutely insane direction. By the time the play reaches it end, we’ll find fire, blood, and a sense of dark wonder that the audience would have never seen coming from the play’s simple beginning.

Casting Katherine Catmull and Rebecca Robinson as sisters is such inspired casting that one wonders why directors haven’t been doing it for years. Watching these two celebrated actresses work together is one of the true highlights of the play, their chemistry jaw-dropping. Catmull’s stolid passion plays perfectly against Robinson’s more free-spirited Sandy, and once the manic energy of Jill Blackwood is thrown into the mix, the entire theatre becomes electric. The three together create an acting masterclass, with each playing off the other with gusto to create moments of pure theatrical enchantment. These three, working together, create such an enthralling atmosphere that they become the most interesting thing in the room, and once the play reaches it’s end, you’d give anything just to spend another moment in their presence.

With performances as powerful as those three, it would be a task for even the most seasoned actor to match them, which is what makes John Christopher’s performance as Tim so impressive. The actor is quickly becoming one of the empathetic performers in Austin theatre, and here he uses this ability to add a touch of softness to what can come across as a hard, cynical production for most of its running time. Whether he’s running his ludicrous lines for his Big Bad Wolf auditions, or dripping with the blood of a theatre critic, he tackles his role with a refreshing earnestness that helps you sympathize with his plight. Some of the play’s funniest moments stem from how his touching sincerity meshes with the sometimes outrageous events happening on stage, acting as an Everyman to the wildness whirling all around him.

And then there’s Robert Pierson. After his decimating performance in “The Strangerer”, it’s obvious that Pierson is a perfect fit for the work of Mickle Maher, and he uses his manic energy perfectly in his performance as charismatic artistic director, and perhaps eldritch horror, Ken. Here, Pierson uses this energy to imbue Ken with a sense of effortless charm, which as the play goes on he starts to weaponize to hypnotize, and even manipulate the audience. The things we see him do on stage can be verge on pure evil, and its a testament to his talents that the audience follows his on his journey, even to its final, fiery end. “It Is Magic” goes to some bizarre places, even for a Maher play, so its to Pierson’s credit (and to the credit of the rest of this expert cast), that the play remains, if not believable, never less than enthralling.

“It Is Magic” may seem like a clever, attention-grabbing title, but as you leave the theatre, vapor still on your breath, eyes dazzled by the flashing lights of Patrick Anthony’s clever lighting design, you’ll find it’s a simple truth. What we see on stage is nothing short of witchcraft, the performers bringing forth something awe-inspiring, something primal, something abyssal. Our shared experience can only be explained by a simple phrase: It. Is. Magic.

“It Is Magic” is playing at the Hyde Park Theatre through November 23rd. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit

Image courtesy of Capital T Theatre.

Jarrott Productions’ “Admissions” is a stunning examination of race in millennial America

Race is a tricky subject to tackle in any medium. Take one wrong turn, and your piece becomes offensive and you’re booed off the stage. Go too saccharine or over-the-top, and your piece loses its believability, therefore making it all but worthless. There are so many pitfalls in creating a piece that examines race, that when one comes along that not only creates an engaging narrative, but also starts an intriguing conversation about privilege and diversity, then one can’t help but stand up and pay attention. Joshua Harmon’s Admissions is one such play, being given a solid production by Jarrott Productions, the story of how one family is forced to face their own prejudices when their son faces rejection from his college of choice, while his friend, part-black, gets admitted. What follows is not your standard demonization of racism or a treatise on white guilt, but a subtle, thorough examination of how privilege and millennial social structures can make the gulf between social responsibility and white pride surprisingly narrow.

There are those actors whose name alone brings a smile to the face, whose presence in a program alone will elevate a piece. Rebecca Robinson is one such name. She tackles each role with an emotional acuity that allows her to transform every time, though one does begin to wonder if she’s becoming a tad typecast as of late. As Sherri, she has to walk a tricky high-wire act, where, even in the earliest moments of the play, her character runs into a number of race-related potholes. Celebrated for the diversity that she brought to the school (eighteen percent!) as its Admissions Director, her beliefs are put to the test when she faces the results of a set of admission standards in her own home. The way she struggles in the face of these challenges makes for an fascinating character, and in the wrong hands this would all fall apart in a mess of screams and sobs, but there’s something about the way Robinson shapes her emotions that makes even the most volatile moments take on crystalline, multi-faceted shape. Her anger is not just anger, but a mix of frustration, sadness, regret, privilege, and you feel it all with every conversation she has. The nuance she brings to the role adds a humanity, an earnestness to the proceedings, that helps ground the action, helping us to relate to not just her character, but also those around her, which is the sign of a particular strong actor. It’s always a delight to see Robinson on stage, and Admissions is proof of just why she’s so celebrated in this city.

On the other side of the coin is another element I love to see in a work, a talented newcomer. Tucker Shepherd plays Charlie, Sherri’s son and a bright, intelligent, opinionated young man, who, as the play begins, has just found he was not getting into Yale. The emotional intelligence that Shepherd brings to this role is nothing short of staggering, especially given his young age and inexperience on the stage. He has one tricky monologue early on, where he is forced to confront his own privilege and racial tendencies (and even sexism), going on off on a tirade that would crucify the character in lesser hands. It’s a compliment to his commitment and courage as an actor that when he finishes, we’re left not just with contempt, or even pity, but a sense of understanding. Charlie is also the role that goes through the most changes over the course of the play, leaving Shepherd with quite a bit of heavy lifting. but the actor proves himself up to the task, turning and twisting the psychological journey of his character in a understated, delicate way, that keeps audiences engaged and sympathetic. The actor has quite a future ahead of him, and if his future performances can be of this high a caliber, we can hope but see him again sooner rather than later.

In a play as heady and powerful, a little bit of levity can go a long way, and that is just what Jennifer Underwood brings to the table as Roberta. The unfortunate creator of the university’s admissions brochure, she’s tasked with showing a more diverse student body in the brochure’s images, and the steps she takes to make this happen is nothing short of hilarious. Like every character in the play, she’s forced to come to terms with her own racial insensitivities, though through her we see how they can take a more subtle form. Roberta claims to not “see race”, and goes too far when tasked with showing a more “diverse student body”, but her intentions are good, and she never acts out of malice. There’s an undeniable charm and sweetness that Underwood brings to the table, a sense that even at her character’s most stern or inept moments, we can’t help but love and understand her. The actress makes sure the character doesn’t come off as one-note or hokey, bringing personality to the role that might not have been evident on the page. We don’t spend very long with the character of Roberta, but Underwood makes sure those moments are memorable, and hilaroius.

Admissions had a challenge the moment it began, in that any examination of race was going to be studied with a fine-toothed comb. Fortunately, this subtle, intriguing examination of race and privilege was not just intelligently crafted, but the production it was given was fine-tuned (which we’ve come to expect from director David Jarrott), and played with rare emotional intelligence. The actors show respect for their themes, giving them room to breathe and live, never straying into cloying or radical territory, but always remaining aware of the more sensitive aspects of the optics at play, creating an engrossing, heartfelt, and delicate work of art. It can be a difficult sit at times, and one that forces us to examine our own privilege, but isn’t coming away a changed, or even better, person the sign of a truly successful piece of theatre?

Admissions is playing at the Trinity Street Playhouse through October 6th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit

Photo courtesy of Jarrott Productions.

Theatre en Bloc’s “Dance Nation” is a dazzling post modern satire with surprising heart

I first came upon “Dance Nation” on a random October night, a light rain falling on a too-hot Autumn afternoon. Though I had made other plans that night, the play had gripped me, leaving me unable to escape its world. The moment I finished it, I knew that someone in this city must produce it, and low-and-behold, just a few months later, it would be gracing the stages of the Long Center, in the hands of one of Austin’s most talented directors. Theatre en Bloc’s production of this bold, unique work keeps everything I first loved about the work intact, while filling it with life and artistry that elevates an already incredible work to new heights.

“Dance Nation” is one of the most audacious pieces of theatre I’ve seen in some time. Though on paper, the story of a group of dancer striving to win a competition seems rote, Clare Barron turns this on its head in a delightfully batty way, giving us a warts-and-all look at the life of the teenage girl, complete with sex talks, period talk, and so much more. The play is full of nudity, sexually explicit and raunchy dialogue, and other extreme moments that might have the more mild-mannered in the audience blushing, but despite it all, it never seems gratuitous, but instead helps in building the play’s universe, grounding the action, and aiding the audience’s ability to empathize with these dancers.

Realism isn’t quite what Barron is going for here, however. From the early stages, it’s obvious that the action here is taken to a more extreme level. For one, these dancers, ranged from 11-14, are cast with actors of all ages, making for a disorienting time in the play’s early moments, but also leading to some of the play’s funniest moments. Much of the dialogue and action of the play is also presented in a highly stylized, even post-modern style, with everything from dialog to movement being exaggerated to the most extreme manner, making for a huge challenge for each of our actors, as one moment they’ll be hissing or whispering their lines, and the next they’ll be screaming at the top of their lungs, or even writing on the ground like vampires.

Though the play brings plenty of shocked laughs, there are also moments of surprising pathos. There are numerous moments in Barron’ story that are sure to bring a few tears, as the earnest desires of many of our characters make them very sympathetic, and their struggles are sure to remind us of our own foibles. One of the more surprising moments of real emotion comes from the more comical character, Maeve, a playful, youthful dancer, head always adorned with cat ears, but who is played by older actress Elise Jacobs, a fun, odd piece of casting. She gets her moment to shine, however, near the end of the play where she is given her own monologue, during which we’re regaled with a recollection from her youth, which is drawn in a very poignant and heart-rending way by the monologue’s end. It’s all part of what makes “Dance Nation” such a wonder, in that it’s able to bring out so many shocks and laughs while never losing sight of its heart.

Dance Nation is replete with one of the most talented casts I’ve seen together in some time. Seeing Austin all-stars like Sarah Danko, Susan Myburgh, Amy Downing, and the rest of the talented cast share the stage is nothing short of a wonder, and throw Dennis Bailey into the mix and it becomes something truly special. Each actor is able to breathe their own unique life into their characters, so that each one seems to be living their own separate narrative. You feel that, at any point in the play, we could spin off and follow any of the play’s characters, and still have an amazing time, and that is the sign of excellent production, and a testament to the ability of this cast.

Though I wish I had the time to go through and celebrate each of the performers, special notice must be given to the work done by Katy Atkinson as Ashlee. The young performer shows skills well beyond her years, using her raw charisma to give life to her explosive monologue early in the piece. She carries herself with such confidence and polish that you’re bound to be awe-stricken by the time she leaves the stage. She also elevates nearly every scene she’s in, with her remarkable physicality and bold choices.

Being such a fan of the original work, Theatre en Bloc’s “Dance Nation” had a lot to prove, but Jenny Lavery, as always, pulls off something magical here, elevating an already astounding piece of writing into something audiences will be talking about for months. Featuring one of the best casts ever assembled in Austin, the play is bold, audacious, and hilarious, while never losing its heart or emotional relevance. It may not be for everyone, and indeed, can be difficult to recommend to some theatre-goers, but for those willing to take the leap, it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.

Photo courtesy of Theatre en Bloc.

‘Les Miserables’: Broadway in Austin brings a spectacular, heart-rending rendition of a Broadway classic

Some feelings are evergreen. Holst’s “Mars” will always quicken the heartbeat; “Psycho”‘s shower scene will always have one’s nerves on end; and, no matter how often you see it, a powerful rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” will always leave one in tears. The musical “Les Miserables” is a piece of art which, despite running for over a quarter of a decade, has not lost an ounce of it power, as the latest tour, brought to us by the fine people at Broadway in Austin, proves. With no flashy gimmicks, with no stunt casting, with no major changes, this production of “Les Miserables” is just as emotionally devastating and satisfying as it was so many years ago, if not more so, with a fine cast of both newcomers and mainstays, who all give it their all create one of the best iterations of the musical this critic has seen.

Jean Valjean is one of the great, meaty roles of the Broadway canon, perhaps the meatiest. It’s a challenging role, requiring not only stage presence and a prodigious singing talent, but also the acting ability to play a character from his younger years to his final, aged death. It’s been performed by luminaries such as Colm Wilkinson an Hugh Jackman, so any actors stepping up to play the role knows that will have huge shoes to fill. Luckily, Nick Cartell brings just the right balance of skills to fill those shoes. His vocal work alone would leave him worthy of praise, with his sharp, beautiful falsetto absolutely soaring, perfectly, in his rendition of “Bring Him Home”, which is only a cap to the wonderful work he does throughout. He also brings an amazing presence to the role, commanding our attention at every turn, and creating great chemistry between the equally imposing performance of Josh David as Javert.

Josh Davis as ‘Inspector Javert’ and Nick Cartell as ‘Jean Valjean’ in the new national tour of LES MISÉRABLES. Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy

As Javert, Josh Davis plays the perfect foil to Cartell’s Valjean, with his tall, gaunt stature with sunken features, a figure of looming doom constantly following close behind our hero. His deep, resonant voice booms through the theatre, running up the spine and practically bringing shivers to the audience. It’s a bit of pitch-perfect casting, as it casts Javert as almost a grim reaper figure, an arch-nemesis just waiting for Valjean to make one wrong move. This does minimize some of the sympathy that certain performers may bring to the role, but it also, in its own way, helps to streamline the relationship, something that is appreciated in a narrative this dense. Davis, for his part, plays the role to perfection, with his commanding presence and unique vocal style, and will have most of the audience awed by the time he leaves the stage.

“I Dreamed a Dream” is a number that most people in America know by heart. It’s a soaring, tear-wrenching ballad, sung to the rafters that blows open all the windows. It’s fascinating, then, to see what Mary Kate Moore does with the song, choosing to use the soft beauty of her smooth, crystalline voice to keep the song low, to let every emotion slowly seep out of her, not with any lack of power, but without the usually explosive volume. What this does is create a more intimate moment, a moment that feels more personal to the character, which in many ways is much more fitting to the song in question. Indeed, this is the way Moore handles her performance as a whole as Fantine, bringing a more grounded feel to the character that helps us relate to her plight. It’s important that we get emphasize with Fantine, and quickly, as she spends so little time on stage, but her fate pushes forward much of the momentum of the story, so she has to be likable, pitiable, and venerable, three things that Moore brings here with gusto. Even though I’ve seen this play upwards dozen times, I couldn’t help getting misty-eyed during this rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”, and by the time she comes to her final destination, I was not alone with my weeping.

Paige Smallwood as ‘Éponine’ in the new national tour of LES MISÉRABLES. Photo Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

One of the true breakout stars of the piece, however, is Paige Smallwood as Eponine. Eponine is one of the most sympathetic characters in the piece, a child raised by horrible parents, stealing and begging in the streets to stay afloat, yet full of caring and love. It’s a difficult role to pull off, as it requires a soft heart but a strong backbone, a sensitive strength that comes from within. Smallwood carries this well, with a voice like that of broken glass: clear, smooth, and beautiful, yet sharp, piercing, sometimes even dangerous. The moments she’s on stage are some of the highlights of the piece, and “On My Own” has rarely carried so much raw emotion than when performed by Smallwood. If there’s any justice in the world, Smallwood will have a bright future ahead of her, as she has the talent to propel herself into dazzling heights.

I could go on for several thousand more words on this talented cast. Jasper Davenport gives one of the most charming rendition of Gavroche I’ve ever seen; Allison Guinn steals every scene she’s in as Madame Thernadier; Jillian Butler’s clear, birdsong voice elevates a role that’s usually fails to click with me in Cosette; Matt Shingledecker is a powerful presence as Enjorlas; Joshua Grosso brings an awkward, youthful energy to Marius that makes him incredibly endearing; and on and on, it’s a network of actors so talented that it would take far more words than anyone would want to read to really do them justice. The crew of this “Les Miserables” has done an astounding job in rounding up this collection of talents, and it has paid off in spades with one of the best casts the play has ever seen.

There’s a simplicity to the way this the crew of “Les Miserables” has chosen to present the piece. There are no flashy gimmicks, no bold acting choices, or stunt casting, only a polished production, solid cast choice, and some clever directing, which all comes together to create the very distillation of what “Les Miserables” should be, in all its of heart-racing, tear-inducing glory.

The company of LES MISÉRABLES performs “Master of the House” with J Anthony Crane as ‘Thénardier’ and Allison Guinn as ‘Madame Thénardier.’ Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy

Photos courtesy of Matthew Murphy.

Trouble Puppet’s ‘American Blood Song’ is an epic, painfully honest look at one of the darkest parts of American history

When most of us look back on America’s history, we like to remember the good times: the victories, the discoveries, the stories of heroes and brave men. There is, however, an importance in never forgetting the darker moments that make up our past, those shadowy corners that we dare not even whisper about in mixed company. Trouble Puppet Theatre have taken it upon themselves to shine a light into one of those dusky corners with their latest, the solemn, soul-rending puppet operetta, American Blood Song, an exploration of the trials and torments of the members of the Donner Party, an infamous group of settlers forced into extreme conditions thanks to some bad advice and stubborn leadership. What writer/director Connor Hopkins and his crew create, however, is not the familiar story we know, as he twists it, to tell his story from mostly the mouths of the women of this doomed company, showing us the story of bright-eyed daughters, abused wives, and overtaxed mothers, and how they are led astray by the actions of over-confident men.

Before walking into the performance, one can be forgiven for thinking puppetry and tragedy seem like an ill-fitting marriage. Particularly in American culture, puppetry is seen as an art form for children, full of joy and whimsy, and American Blood Song is about as far from whimsical as one can imagine, a descent into despair and decay, an exploration of the darkest sides of the human experience. With live actors, the whole exercise would become too extreme, but by making these characters puppets, there’s a certain remove that makes it more palatable. This is not to say that American Blood Song is an easy watch, far from it. We see mutilation, cannibalism, murder, and the death of children and animals, and even in the form of puppets, it can be an extreme journey. As you’re reading this, you can probably imagine that, if handled poorly, this could all become a tad bit silly, but luckily, one thing that saves this from going in the wrong direction is the emotionally honest performances.

One often forgets the importance of the human element in a puppet performance, but Trouble Puppet has always made sure to have the best talents behind the wheel, and this has never been so evident than in this production. Even with the beautiful, elaborate puppets and landscapes the company create, it’s the skilled stable of actors that provide the real heart of the characters. The detailed features and gorgeous costumes of Tamzene Donner go some way in telling her story, but without Caroline Reck’s soulful delivery, without her soft, silky, plaintive voice carrying us through, the play would hit with far less power; the horrible events that befall the 13-year-old Virginia Reed would not carry the same weight without Marina DeYoe-Pedraza injecting a playful, awkward innocence into the her voice; without Zac Crofford’s soaring baritone, Lansford Hastings would not come off as half as effective a villain; and William Eddy’s reluctant heroism would not hit such impressive heights without the strong, stalwart voice of Zac Carr behind the scenes. Each of these performers, and the handful of others talented actors, create crystalline moments of pure emotion that stick in your mind, lingering with you in the days to follow.

One mustn’t think that American Blood Song is without its moments of levity, however. There are few writers with a more keen ear for gallows humor than Connor Hopkins, and in this production, he and his company are able to bring in moments of humor while still being respectful to these historical figures. In particular one of the earliest scenes, involving a revolving door of shysters trying to steal the money of gullible travelers, is one of the funnier moments I’ve seen this year. Even in the melancholy moments that make up the latter half of the operetta, there’s time for a cheeky little ditty about cannibalism that helps to lighten the mood. It’s still a harsh road through American Blood Song, but Hopkins makes sure that there are still chances to crack a smile from time to time, even if the times are tough.

We mustn’t forget the other important ingredient in making American Blood Song work so well: Mother Falcon. Even in the most triumphant of songs (such as the recurring tune, “America”), there’s a sense of unease, of something being not quite right, a soft underlying rumble of cello, the quick, sudden quirk of an electric guitar that keeps us on our toes. The entire score brims with sorrowful passages, a delicate clarinet or a mournful sax drifting softly across the audience, wrapping us within the cold, the despair, and holding us fast. With just three performers, Mother Falcon creates an entire sonic landscape, helping to give texture and dimension to this immersive, sorrowful puppet landscape we find ourselves in throughout the later stages of the piece.

American Blood Song can be a difficult sit, and it’s probably not for everyone, but as I was leaving, I was reminded why I go to the theatre. While many plays are entertaining, and still others present an intriguing look at modern life, the best plays are the ones that leave you contemplating something within yourself. Something about “American Blood Song” changes you, seeps into your blood and grasps your bones, leaving you shaken in a way that upsets you as you’re sitting in bed at night. By breathing life into these puppets, Connor Hopkins and company have animated these long-dead memories, turning them into living, breathing figures, not so different from ourselves, and if this wilderness, which tests the limits of human extremity, could turn these people into such monsters, what would it take for that same change to happen to you, or to me?

American Blood Song is playing through August 17th at the Vortex Repertory Theatre. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit

Photos courtesy of Andrew Stalick

Summer Stock’s “Sister Act” is a stunning display of fresh young talent

Some of my favorite productions over my years of reviewing have come from the humble stages of Summer Stock Austin. Those in the know surely have fond memories of their productions of Little Shop of Horrors, Sweeney Todd, or Legally Blonde, or even their legendary joint-production of Chess, if you were lucky enough to attend. Though the loss of Michael McKelvey hit the company hard, Summer Stock is still one of the highlights of my year, and this continues with their latest, “Sister Act”. I will be the first to say, “Sister Act” is far from my favorite musical, as the numbers don’t have the X-Factor of some of it contemporaries, and it’ss never funny enough nor deep enough to strike either side of the “comedy/drama” coin in any memorable way. That said, what Summer Stock, and director Daniel Adams, bring to the table is a group of talented young people on both sides of the desk, from cast to crew, each with a passion to create the best performance they can in just two weeks. It’s always staggering to behold just what they’re able to create with such a meager budget and tight time constraints, and despite technical issues, they’ve pulled out an soulful, solid production of this Broadway staple.

“Sister Act”, based on the hit film of the same name, follows Deloris, a singer turned moll turned informant, who, after running afoul of her violent gangster boyfriend, goes into hiding in the most unconventional place imaginable: a convent. This leads to some growing pains, as the larger-than-life Deloris must come to terms with her new staid, hallowed home, but when she’s put in charge of the convent’s choir, she proves that some lights shine much too brightly to be hidden under a bushel. Forgoing much of the joyful noise of the original film for somewhat lackluster songs by Alan Menken and Glen Slater, which don’t stand out as either’s best work, the musical still holds its own thanks to a solid premise and some whacky hijinks.

From the moment she arrives on stage, it’s obvious that Micaela Lamas is a star. She brings a sassy, soulful energy to the role of Deloris, reminiscent of Lizzo or comedian Nicole Byer, delighting with refreshing vocal chops and comedic timing in equal measure. She makes each of her numbers look easy, injecting them with an exhilarating exuberance that is infectious to behold, even if the songs themselves don’t shine quite as brightly. Even in the most ho-hum of numbers, Lamas is able to inject her own brand of vivacity into the proceedings, keeping the audience rapt and the action moving. She has the entire musical resting on her shoulders, and she attacks it with such aplomb that she makes it seems like the easiest thing in the world.

One of the true joys of attending Summer Stock each year is discovering talent on the rise. Much like the character she portrays, when first meet Maryanna Tollemache as Sister Mary Robert, she’s quiet and meek, mostly going ignored, but the moment she hits her first belt, you’ll be falling out of your chair. Tollemache’s instrument contains both strength and clarity, and even with a faulty mic she still blasts open the doors with her power. When she finally gets a chance to sing a song of her own, she demands our attention, injecting real pathos while keeping her voice clear and solid. She doesn’t slack in the acting department either, as she’s able to play both modest and timid, as well as cool and rebellious, taking on both with an admirable flair. She’s an actress to keep one’s eyes on, and as only a senior in high school, there’s no telling the heights she’ll hit in the years to come.

I had my reservations when Abby Holtfort first appeared as the Mother Superior. Though I had seen her give fine performances in the past, there is always a concern in young casts in how older characters would be handled, as taking on someone of both such an advanced age, with that much gravitas, can often be a challenge for young performers. Holtfort put all my doubts to rest, however, as the actress carries herself with a grace and solemnity that instantly endears her to the audience, especially when placed against the larger-the-life persona that Lamas exudes. She makes for the perfect foil, and watching these two leads interact is one of the true highlights of the piece.

Of course, I can’t leave here without mentioning the stellar work done by David Pena, Tristan Tierney, and and Jaiden Collier. The three portray a trio of bumbling gangsters, and they steal nearly every scene they’re in. They provide a pleasant diversion from the convent antics, and create some of the best set pieces in the production. In particular, Tierney proves himself to be a name to remember, as the actor brings in the charisma that made him such a hit in “How to Succeed in Business” to give his mobster a smarmy, greasy charm that’s undeniably hilarious.

“Sister Act” is far from the best musical that’s graced Summer Stock stages, but there’s no denying that the level of talent on display is colossal. From the smallest bit player to the play’s star, each brings wit, zeal, and an undeniable passion to their performance that’s hard not to love, which elevates even the most mediocre of pieces. I’ve never come away disappointed in a Summer Stock Austin production, and that certainly won’t start now, so be sure to check out these young performers giving it their all.

Photo courtesy of Summer Stock Austin .