Zach’s ‘In the Heights’ is a lively, sizzling start to the summer season

Thanks the world phenomenon that was Hamilton, and an Oscar nomination for his work on Disney’s Moana, Lin-Manuel Miranda has quickly become a household name, but before he was treading the boards as a founding father or singing for the president, he was winning over musicals fans with his vibrant, joyous look at life in the one of the most colorful parts of Manhattan with In the Heights. Zach Theatre is now bringing this hit musical to Austin, with a production that would make Miranda proud, full of fire, passion, and the sweltering heat of the New York summer.

In the Heights follows the lives of those living in New York’s Washington Heights during one of the hottest parts of the summer. We’re first introduced to Bodega owner Usnavi, through whom we meet the myriad figures that call the Heights home, and who take us through one special sweltering New York summer, complete with blackouts, heartbreak, and even violence, but always with the latinx flair this neighborhood is known for. Zach has brought in the big guns to bring their work to life, led by director Michael Balderamma, who cut his teeth as dance captain and original cast member of the original Off-Broadway production, and who has numerous other Broadway hits to his name. He is currently the choreographer for the Chicago production of Hamilton, so having his hand guiding all the action of Zach’s In the Heights is a big win. Helping him along the way is musical director, and two-time Emmy award-winner, Allen Robertson, a mainstay of the Austin musical scene, and a well respected composer and producer in his own right. These two icons come together with a talented team to create a lively, powerful night of theatrical thrills.

The Washington Heights of Miranda’s In the Heights bursts with energy, full of snappy music and quick choreography, and Balderamma and company do their part to keep the action moving. His actors, and even sets, are in contact motion, never hitting a false step, and with blasts of trumpets and the toe-tapping beat of Latin percussion, the skilled orchestra works to keep the scene hopping. The cast do their part to keep the action moving as well, performing with a vibrant zeal that truly adds a soul and spirit to their lively neighborhood. Add it all up with the sunny lighting and the inspired costume choices, and you have one of the hottest shows Zach’s produced in years.

In addition to bringing in some big guns behind the scenes, Zach has called in talent from around the country to fill out its cast. In particular, Alicia Taylor Tomasko shows the skills that made her a New York theatre regular. Here she plays the lovely but harried Vanessa, a woman trying to make her way out of the heights, while always being pulled in by the culture and people of Heights.  It also doesn’t help that she has caught the eye of our protagonist, Usnavi. She’s a woman divided, and Tomasko plays the necessary combination of sassy and strong with aplomb. Her footwork is on point, showing off moves that I’ve rarely seen the likes of on Austin stages, and her voice is clear and strong, with plenty of passion and fire. A good Vanessa is essential to a good production of In the Heights, and the role is in good hands with Tomasko.

Taking on a role made famous by Lin-Manuel Miranda is no mean feat, so Chicago Theatre native Keith Contreras-McDonald had a lot to live up to. Luckily, thanks to his charm and goofiness, he becomes almost instantly endearing. The musical doesn’t give him the standout musical moments of some of his fellow performers, but he carries the piece thanks to his wonderful acting chops. His chemistry with Sarro’s Vanessa is always believable, and, in fact, his relationships with all of the cast is solid throughout. He’s at his best in the small, more emotion-laden moments, helping to sell the stakes and bring the tears in some of the play’s more sombre sequences.

Though the team behind Zach’s In the Heights have brought in several big talents to inhabit their characters, one of the play’s true delights is seeing how many talented locals fill out the cast. For instance, this critic has enjoyed watching actor Vincent Hooper make his way from background player in Summer Stock performances, to the starring on the big stages of Zach Theatre, and here he takes center stage, never feeling out of place among the more seasoned talent.  Indeed, his performance as Benny is one of the most emotionally honest in the piece, as he takes us on one of the most full character arcs in the piece. Whether bringing humor or pathos, Hooper proves himself a capable performer, and is living proof that Austin talent can stand toe-to-toe with the that of New York or Chicago.

A pleasant surprise came from another local performer, and California transplant, Christina Oeschger, who wows from her first notes, showcasing a voice like polished glass: smooth, clear, and full brilliance. She brings out the intelligence of her character,  a bright young girl having trouble facing the world outside Washington Heights, and sells this from her very stance and diction. This is combined with an innocence in her eyes that charms the audience quickly, which is only amplified once she belts her first note, putting her stunning voice on full display. It’s easy to see that there’s a bright future in front of Oeschger, and one hopes she finds herself on other Austin stages again soon.

With a clear vision and exuberant passion, Zach plunges audiences headfirst into the wild world of Washington Heights, given some real gravitas thanks to a game production team and an indefatigable group of talented young actors from around the country. It’s the perfect kind of crowd-pleasing entertainment that makes for a splendid intro to the summer season, that will have you humming the tunes the whole ride home.

In the Heights is playing at Zach’s Topfer Theatre through July 2nd. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit Zach’s website at zachtheatre.org.

Photo courtesy of Kirk Tuck.

Humor and spectacle take center stage in Broadway Across America’s ‘Something Rotten’

It’s becoming increasingly rare to find a true musical comedy on stage. Sure, there’s plenty of satire, plenty of serious musicals with funny moments, but the true goofy, ribald, laugh-em-ups are a dying breed. Luckily, Something Rotten! provides just the laughs you’re looking for, with a comical look at 1590s England, and two men making a musical about eggs. It’s grand spectacle, featuring a skilled cast and some toe-tapping tunes, that, while never exploring major themes, also never takes itself too seriously.

As Something Rotten! begins, we’re transported to Renaissance England, where several playwrights of the era are doing their best work, but none more so than the talk of town, William Shakespeare. The bard’s shadow looms large over all these writers, and our play follows two of them, Nick and Nigel Bottom, who have the talent and gumption, just never the opportunity to create the next big thing. To find the way to one-up Shakespeare, they enlist the help of a wacky sooth-Sayer named Thomas Nostradamus (who declares he “has just as much talent as his famous uncle”), to discover the next big thing in theatre. What they discover is the strange form of art known as “The Musical”, and from there we’re taken on a wild ride through the history of musical history, in a daffy downward spiral through songs about the Black Death and eggs, all culminating in a climactic production of “Omelet: The Musical!”.

Something Rotten! truly excels with its sense of spectacle. Though at first the play keeps things simple, with quick wit, humor, and goofy pratfalls, but by the time we reach the show-stopping number “A Musical”, a wild ride through the history of musical theatre, things ramp to eleven, and we’re presented with everything from tap dance to chorus lines to elaborate set changes. This is taken to an even higher level as the show reaches is climax, the absolutely jaw-dropping titular song, which gives us even more references to famous musicals, as well as dancing eggs, cowboys, chimney sweeps, and even an actual recipe for omelets. The energy is kept at high throughout, keeping the audience enthralled through the final ovation.

In the play’s early stages, we see Rob McClure’s Nick Bottom as a lovable jerk, with his skill for humor on full display, but it’s not until the play reached the latter parts of the first act that we truly get to see the talents that made this man a Tony award nominee. When he’s allowed to let loose his skills, we find him an incredible tap dancer, a skilled vocalist, and hilarious physical actor, showing him to be a true Renaissance man. The choreography throughout is on point, but McClure’s skills cannot be denied, pulling off intricate sequences that most comedic actors wouldn’t even attempt. His over-the-top personality fits in perfectly with the rest of the cast, making him the perfect foil to his John Grisetti’s softer, more romantic Nigel Bottom, and the perfect companion to the lovably energetic performance by Maggie Lakis as Bea.

We cannot, of course, talk about this production of Something Rotten! without mentioning the star at its center. It was a smart choice to cast a marquee name such as Adam Pascale, a well-known name throughout the world thanks to his performance as Roger in most original productions of “Rent”, as the bigger-than-life William Shakespeare. His chops are on full display here, with his singing and dancing second-to-none, but what truly surprises here is his talent for humor. The character he plays is so haughty and grandiose that it requires that the actor give their 200%  to it just to make it believable, and Pascal is more than up to the task. He pushes so much energy into his performance at Shakespeare that he bursts at the seams with it, each gesture and phrasing eliciting torrents of giggles throughout the theatre, and when he takes on a disguise to infiltrate the Bottom Brothers’ production, things only get more fun. It’s a well measured performance, that fits perfectly within the loom of the show to create a colorful piece of the rich tapestry that is Something Rotten!

With so many big names and personalities taking center stage in Something Rotten!, we mustn’t forget the fine work being done by its supporting cast. In particular, Blake Hammond as Thomas Nostradamus, the nephew of the real Nostradamus, whose talent for broad humor cannot be understated. He arrives on the scene with the amazing number “A Musical”, and brings major laughs with every future appearance, whether it be from his slapstick physicality, or from his frequent non-sequiturs on musical history. Also pulling out nice work is Jeff Brooks as Shylock, who wants to be remembered by Shakespeare as “the really nice Jew”, and who brings an equal sense of sarcasm and sweetness that we don’t find in many places in the piece, making his appearance in his handfuls of scenes a delight. We should also take a moment to appreciate the work being pulled off by Maggie Lakis as Nick’s wife Bea, who wows with her first number “Right Hand Man”, and only gets better from there, as she dons male disguises in order to get work in the male-dominated culture in which she lived, creating many comical situations.

There’s nothing especially deep or meaningful in Something Rotten!, and that’s okay. There’s space in every diet for a little fluff and sweetness, and Something Rotten! is that big piece of chocolate cake. A laugh riot, this goofy, shiny, and highly entertaining journey into a wildly inaccurate Elizabethan England brings a talented cast together to care a fine slice of sweet, sweet theatrical pleasure.

“Nevermore” is a polished, professional night of gothic wonder

Those who know Edgar Allen Poe probably know him for two things: for being one of the greatest writers in American history, and for having an incredibly depressing life. With their latest production, Nevermore, madcap musical mavens Doctuh Mistuh productions, led by their fearless leader Michael McKelvey, combine these two elements to create a beautiful work, dripping with melancholy, while at the same time, bursting with energy. The catchy tunes, created by Johnathan Christenson, are brought to life beautifully by a group of talented performers, to create a darkly whimsical journey into the darkest corners of the poet’s life.

Nevermore presents almost the totality of Poe’s life, which in the wrong hands could be unwieldy. In many cases where a creator tries to tell the entire tale of a person’s life, the narrative can become muddy, and the pace can move too quickly. Christenson has found a healthy balance, shining light on to the most important details, while never staying too long in one place. It helps that our lead, Tyler Jones, is excellent at playing all of Poe’s facets, whether it be the optimistic youngster or the raving drunk at the end of his life.

At first, the play’s staging may seem shockingly simplistic, but by stripping away the lavish sets and extravagant lighting, McKelvey and company have allowed the story they’re telling to take center stage. The audience is allowed to use their imagination, letting us set these dusty hallways and gloomy cemeteries in any way we see fit. It opens up the narrative, allowing each audience member to take these words, songs, and characters, and set them in a world of our own. After all, what’s more frightening or magical than what we see in our imaginations?

One production element that is far from absent is the costumes, produced with careful thought by Glenda Wolfe. Capturing a sense of the time and place, while at the same time flirting with a touch of Burtonesque dark whimsy, the costumes help to present an image of each of the characters before they say their first words. The way each piece plays with Sam Chesney’s lighting and Rocker Verastique’s subtle, but impressive, choreography, helps to create the gothic atmosphere that so permeates so much of the action.

With every performance, Jess Hughes shows us new dimensions to her talent, and in Nevermore, she has a full gamut on display. Playing everything from Poe’s child bride to his beloved foster mother, Hughes ability to transform is nearly unparalleled in the city, and with just a slight tonal shift and a difference of posture, she becomes someone completely different.Not only are each of these character distinct, they also have an emotional honesty to them, with Hughes bringing her trademark sensitivity to each of these fragile characters.

Doctuh Mistuh regular Matt Connely hits the stage with the fury of a thunderstorm as he makes his first entrance, and he carries this intensity with him throughout. The stage explodes anytime he appears, and it’s a delight to see him every time. His performance as Poe’s foster father Jock Allen is of particular quality, as he casts a towering, intimidating figure, making the strained relationship between the man and his son feel believable. Though he’s had small roles over the years, it’s wonderful to see him take so large a role in a production, and one hopes other directors can find a place for this bold performer.

The perfect musical for the season, Doctuh Mistuh have created another hit with Nevermore, the kind of dark, bizarre, and original musicals that have made Doctuh Mistuh such a respected name in Austin theatre. McKelvey and company show no signs of stopping, and one can only imagine the kind of wild productions that the company has on the horizon. I, for one, will be waiting with baited breath.

Nevermore is playing through November 5th at Austin Playhouse. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit Doctuh Mistuh’s website at doctuhmistuh.org.

Picture Courtesy of Doctuh Mistuh productions.

‘Addams Family’ is a polished, if corny, musical comedy

Over its decade-spanning existence, Summer Stock Austin has become a city institution, creating some of the most memorial music moments in Austin theatre history, and it has given birth to many skilled performers in Austin, and throughout the country. It’s a fantastic showcase for young performers, giving them a chance to perform for large audiences without paying a dime, and in the process enriching the Austin theatre experience. With the departure of their previous director, Michael McKelvey, there was some concern that the quality of their productions might dip, but with their latest production, the campy, creepy, corny The Addams Family: The Musical, one can see the organization is still in good hands.

The Addams Family follows the Addams as they prepare to meet Wednesday’s new boyfriend, whom the young woman met while hunting birds in Central Park. Of course, this revelation sits poorly with her family, particular her mother, and this feeling is only exacerbated when the boy’s family sends a ghastly gift: flowers! Secrets are kept, lies are told, loves are gained and lost, and Gomez is put in the precarious situation of being stuck between letting down his daughter and lying to his wife, which are, as one musical number states “Two Things He Could Never Do”. This explodes in a riotous night of music and mayhem that only the Addams could provide, as old school meets ghoul school in a beautifully chaotic way.

Coming into Addams Family is like being reintroduced to old friends, but know that these characters share more in common with their original comic strip counterparts than their film versions.  Fester and Grandma are goofier than in the TV and film versions, and everything, on the whole, is raised to a higher camp level. Unfortunately, Gomez also loses much of his suaveness, here replaced by a level of cheesy comedy that while refreshing, takes him all the further from the dashing figure Raul Julia presents in the films. This all makes things much funnier, on the whole, but can be disorienting for those who are only familiar with the Addams Family films.

The true showstopper here is Mariel Ardila as Morticia. Though she turned heads last year in Summer Stock’s Footloose, her turn as the sultry yet sassy matriarch of the Addams clan is nothing short of star-making. Not only does she cut a fine figure in the gorgeous, if incredibly revealing, costumes by Rachel Koske, she proves more than a pretty face with a stern and polished affect that you can’t help but admire. Her voice is one of the best in the cast, and there are few other performers that slip so easily into Ginger Morris’s complex choreography. Despite being many years his senior, she forms a fast chemistry with Benjamin Roberts’ Gomez, and the couple’s playful banter is one of the play’s highlights. There’s a bright future ahead for this college Junior, and one can only hope she finds her way back to Austin stages in the near future.

One of the major issues with Addams Family the Musical is just how corny it is, and it takes a true comedic talent to cut through such heavy layers of cheese. Benjamin Roberts is one such performer. While still in high school, the actor proves to have better timing than many working comedians, and brightens every scene he’s in. He still falls prey to just how lame the jokes become in some stages, but he tries to sell the material as best he can, and never loses his thick Spanish accent.

Summer Stock Austin has once again kicked off its season with a rollicking crowd-favorite, a corny, yet humorous, comedy that serves as a talent show for a handful of skilled performers. It may not have the flash or polish of some of Summer Stock’s best, like Sweeney Todd, Legally Blonde, or Little Shop of Horrors, but Addams Family: The Musical is still a fun, sweet, and energetic take on these classic characters, given a fine production by these talented young actors.

The Addams Family: The Musical is playing at the Long Center’s Rollins Stage through August 13th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit Summer Stock Austin’s site at summerstockaustin.org.

Photo courtesy of Summer Stock Austin

‘Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical’ is a sassy, if slight, slice of musical camp

Doctuh Mistuh has never shied away from the audacious. They’ve presented musicals such as “Silence!”, the Silence of the Lambs Musical, “Reefer Madness: The Musical”, and “Evil Dead: The Musical”, but perhaps none of those has reached the level of audacity of their latest. With “Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical”, Doctuh Mistuh plumbs levels of boldness unmatched in town, by bringing the Off-Broadway musical of the infamous 70s porn to Austin audiences. The result is a campy, sassy, but slight, experience, full of plenty of hilarious moments and over-the-top characters to keep both the deviants and the innocents satisfied.

If I was to say “this production of “Debbie Does Dallas: the Musical” lacks depth”, I would perhaps be laughed out of the industry, and yet, I can’t help but express the sentiment. Even in productions of Doctuh Mistuh’s most frivolous and light musicals, such as “Silence!” or “Reefer Madness”, there was still a compelling narrative, a through line and development that kept you attached to the action. “Debbie Does Dallas” on the other hand often feels like it’s just going through the motion, stringing along just enough of a threadbare narrative to hang double entendres and awkward pseudo-sex scenes on. This isn’t to say the play it not full of notable moments, as the play is stuffed with wonderful morsels of humor, especially anytime two of the cheerleaders partake in their “Stretches”. One just wishes that there could have been something more to hold on to, a more thorough storyline to keep you interested when the constant humor and awkwardness gets tiring.

One department in which Doctuh Mistuh always succeeds is with its performers, and in this “Debbie Does Dallas” does not disappoint. Each actress provides the pluck and passion to make their part sing, as they each provide a confidence surprising for their age. They don’t shy away from any of the sexier moments, able to exude cheeky sensuality to create some notable cheesecake. Though there’s actually very little singing in the show, those few moments where there does come a moment to sing, the ensemble does not shy away from showing off their skills. The men join them in equal measure, each showing off a gift for humor and physicality, the play demanding a lot of these young actors. That each actor in the piece has the confidence and composure to take part in the lunacy and ribaldry is a testament to just how much talent they bring to the table, and to the skill director Michael McKelvey has in guiding them on their way.

“Debbie Does Dallas” is far from Doctuh Mistuh’s best production, especially since both director Michael McKelvey and Doctuh Mistuh have produced several amazing works throughout 2015, but it’s still a musical well worth your time. It’s full of plenty of ribald humor to keep audience’s in stitches, even if other moments can get a tad to awkward or loose. It’s light, it’s fun, and it’s campy as heck, and an entertaining way to spend an evening.

Photo Courtesy of Doctuh Mistuh Productions

‘The Little Mermaid’: First act flounders, but talent bubbles to the surface

Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” is one of the most celebrated and loved animated films in history, so it was only a matter of time before it made its way to the Broadway Stage. Now, Broadway Across America has brought the Broadway hit to Austin, along with everyone’s favorite characters, scenes, and song. It also brings with it new story lines and songs, with diminishing returns, some of which turn out to be home runs, and some don’t quite rise to reach classic status.

Where the piece falls apartment, more than anything is on the production side of things. Compared to the spectacle of the other Disney musicals, “The Little Mermaid” falls short, especially in its first half. Numbers like “Under the Sea”, the show’s most well-known number, could be much more powerful if given the same treatment as the Lion King’s “Circle of Life”, but as it’s presented on stage, it lacks a certain energy or verve. It doesn’t help that “The Little Mermaid” is the one of the vibrant and lively of Disney’s creations, which has the added limitation of taking place mostly under the water, but one can’t help but think steps could have been taken to make the numbers more energetic or original. It’s endemic of most the plays problems, as scenes with take place against blank backgrounds, when they could have been given much more dynamic environments.

The play is at its best when its characters are in motion, during the various dancing moments, and in particular swimming scenes, and no performer is more in touch with their body than Allison Wood as Ariel. Graceful, lithe, and compact, each movement she makes speaks to her character, with each little swirl, each sway of her hips or flutter of her feet creating meaning and purpose. Her crystal-clear voice also helps to sell her childish innocence, as do her wide, expressive eyes. It all comes together to create one of the most memorable characters in the piece.

Though its romantic leads do a fine job, the real star of this show s Melvin Abston as Sebastian. Playing the jittery, but still caring confidante, he brings an exuberance to the role that’s practically contagious. Vocally, he also carries his songs well, his textured baritone becoming the best parts of numbers like “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl”, which lose steam on the production side of things. The stage always becomes a little brighter when he’s on stage, and he saves many moments that simply wouldn’t stand without the power of his performance.

There’s plenty to love in Broadway Across America’s “The Little Mermaid”, especially for anyone who comes with their childlike whimsy intact and their nostalgia goggles firmly planted. In particular, several of the performances are truly accomplished, especially that of our leads and Melvin Abston as Sebastian. However, the play fails to rise to the level of Broadway spectacle present in productions like “The Lion King” or “Beauty and the Beast”, and makes lazy choices in many sections. In the end, it’s not quite worth it for the investment, though classic Disney fans will find plenty to love.

Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars

Zach Theatre celebrates The Duke with the lively, hot ‘Sophisticated Ladies’

Duke Ellington was one of the most celebrated and influential music men of his times, and Zach is looking to celebrate his work with their latest production, a conflagration of song and dance called “Sophisticated Ladies”. Bringing in the big guns, Zach has called in none other than Tony Award-winner Jennifer Holliday to lead the party, along with a collection of some of the best singers, dancers, and musicians the city, the state, and even the country have to offer. The result is a lively, hot, and ever-enjoyable production, full of undeniable energy and memorable tunes that you’ll be humming all the way home.

Jennifer Holliday is one of the biggest gets in Zach Theatre history, and it’s easy to see why they took the trouble to bring her in. When she sings, everything else seems to stop, your attention gripped tight to this gorgeous voice. That’s not to say she only sells the ballads, as she brings the heat when poppier numbers come to call. Backed by an absolutely exhilarating live band, she brings the music to life, making it feel all the more modern. Holliday’s far from the only amazing voice to take the stage, as Louisiana soul singer, Chanel Haynes-Schwartz, brings many emotional moments to the stage, her rendition of of many of the more sombre numbers sure to bring a tear to anyone’s eye with its raw emotion.

It’s not just the ladies bringing the vocal talent in this production, as the show also brings out its fair share of gentlemen to bring life to the Duke’s tunes. Of particular note is Brian Whitted, whose velvety smooth voice really helps to breathe some life into some of Ellington’s most well known tunes, such as the enjoyable “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”, all while tearing up the keys on his piano, and leading the band in the process. Also getting his chance to show off his vocal prowess is JP Qualters, whose powerful voice really helps sell the tunes to the back rows, keeping in pace with even Holliday herself in some of their duets.

Though the vocal theatrics are notable, the most sizzling moments of “Sophisticated Ladies” come when the dancing starts. Intricate but energetic, each dance number is a wonder, knocking the socks off even the most hardened of viewers. Afra Hines steals the stage nearly every time she shows up, her stunning visage and body awareness making her captivating to watch. She sells each movement with ease, her flexibility and movement making each of her number snap alive every time. Also showing incredible ability for body movement is Christa Oliver who’s shown amazing work in previous productions such as “The Gospel at Colonus” and here shows off an amazing range, showing off a skill for everything modern dance, to jazz, to swing, and even tap.

If you’re looking for stars of tap, however, you’ll find plenty of folks to deliver. Not the least of which is Matthew Shields, who becomes unforgettable the moment his feet hit the wood. Never stepping out of rhythm, Shields plays his time in the limelight with amazing liveliness, and only becomes more impressive when he’s joined by his fellow dancers. When the entire group comes together, it’s awe-inspiring, as music and actor come together for a glorious marriage.

Cool music, hot dance numbers, and soaring vocals highlight this whizz-bang of a musical, with the top talents around pulling out all the stops to take the audience on a non-stop roller coaster ride. It’s foot-tapping, finger-snapping fun, and another engaging evening of entertainment from the most celebrated company in town.

“Sophisticated Ladies” is playing at Zach’s Topfer Theatre through August 23rd. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit zachtheatre.org

Photo Courtesy of Kirk Tuck