“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

‘Heathers: The Musical’ is a dark, hilarious take on the cult classic

For the past several years, Doctuh Mistuh Productions, led by award-winner Michael McKelvey, has been bringing Austinites some of the best cult musicals around, and have gained heavy praise in the process. Just last year, their production of Silence: The Musical, a campy, musical rendition of Silence of the Lambs, won the B. Iden Payne Award for Best Musical, and with their latest, they might be on the path for a repeat. Bringing together the talented writers and musicians behind the much acclaimed “Legally Blonde: the Musical” and “Reefer Madness: The Musical”, “Heathers: the Musical” brings the cult classic film to life on stage, complete with all the sass, sex, and violence that made the original film so fun, with the addition of some tunes you’ll be humming for days (though you may not want to sing them in mixed company).

“Heathers: The Musical” follows high school outcast Veronica, and her rise and fall from popularity at the hands of a popular group of girls called The Heathers. Soon, the play becomes a tale of bloody, and bloody hilarious, revenge, that goes down dark avenues while still maintaining a natural, if crude, sense of humor.

There’s a lot of pressure on anyone who takes up the role of Veronica, as Winona Ryder made the role one of the most iconic of the decade in the original film. Luckily, Aline Mayagoitia brings an everywoman charm to the role, her vulnerability and earnestness helping us to empathize with her plight. As the play swings wildly into broad humor and parody, in many ways Veronica helps to keep us grounded, and Mayagoitia’s performance absolutely succeeds in that, while still giving us plenty of moments that are simply a delight to watch.

Few roles have fit Gray Randolph’s punk rock aesthetic better than the bad-boy JD, as he seems born to play the trench-coat clad misanthrope, a character made famous by Christian Slater in the original film. He also shines musically here, hitting one his career-best musical moments in the show-stopping duet “Seventeen”, where his vocal honesty rips right into your heart, creating an emotionally relevant moment in a play where dark humor rules the roost.

The highlight of the show is the trio of loveliness that is The Heathers. While they could very easily become a homogenous whole in the wrong hands, here each of the Heathers bring something wholly different to the table. Heather McNamara is played with surprising sensitivity by Kassiani Menas, who manages to pull off her harsher edges while still making us believe her pain later in the show, particularly during her soulful, late-show number “Lifeboat”. Heather Duke, on the other hand, is played with brassy cruelty by Celeste Castillo, with everything from her stance to her facial expressions selling the invidious nastiness, while also exuding a sensuality that’s hard to ignore.

The real star of the trio, however, is Taylor Bryant as Heather Chandler. She positively glows on stage, seeming to pull every source of light straight to herself the moment she appears on stage. Bryant carries herself with the poise and presence of an old hand, despite her young age, imbuing her role with an cutting edge, while at the same time, making Heather Chandler undeniably likable. It’s professionalism all the way down, and a performance worthy of the biggest stages.

With pitch-black humor, top tier performances, and surprisingly catchy tunes, “Heathers: The Musical” is yet another polished, pitch-perfect production this year for Michael McKelvey, whose acclaimed production of “Chicago” is barely off stage over at Austin Playhouse. It may not be a play for children, or those who can’t handle a little raunch and rowdiness, but any fan of the original film will find plenty to love in this crystallized piece of musical marvelousness.

“Heathers: The Musical” is playing at the Salvage Vanguard through July 11th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit Doctuh Mistuh’s website at doctuhmistuh.org

Photo Courtesy of Doctuh Mistuh Productions

‘The Last Five Years’ is a heartbreaking, delicate piece of musical gorgeousness

In recent years, Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years” has been getting a lot of attention, culminating in a major motion pictures starring Anna Kendrick, but before all that, some five years ago, Penfold Theatre brought forth their own production of the play, which garnered the fledgling company heavy praise, and as well as numerous awards, including the Austin Critics Table Award for Best Musical. Now, the company, led by the immense talent that is Michael McKelvey, is re-staging the hit, bringing back most of the original cast and crew, and in the process creating magic once again, providing the kind of theatrical lightning that, luckily, actually can strike the same place twice

The story at the heart of “The Last Five Years”, the tale of two young lovers in New York, is nothing new, but it’s the way that it’s told that makes it fascinating. We start the play with Cathy, our young heroine, a struggling actress, as she discovers her husband has left her. In the next song, we meet said husband, Jamie, an up-and-coming writer, right at the beginning of the relationship. We continue this back-and-forth throughout, with the actors never sharing scenes, until right before the intermission, where we see the proposal and marriage. From there, we see the rest of the story, with Cathy springing towards the starry-eyed beginning of the love affair, and Jamie making his way to its tragic end.

The role of Cathy is a bit of an acting test for a young musical actress, as it takes a very versatile performer to take on the role. Sarcastic, sensitive, and vulnerable, Cathy can be a complex animal, and the journey that she goes on throughout the play is a roller coaster, so it’s to Sara Burke’s credit that her performance feels so authentic. When I first saw her on stage at an early age as the title character in “Sweet Charity”, it was immediately evident that there something special about her, but here she reaches heights I never would have imagined, reaching down and finding a real vulnerability to her person, and a kind of a cabaret bravado and courage that leaves audiences in awe. Indeed, her plucky rendition of “A Summer in Ohio” was one of the most delightful moments this critic has had the honor of seeing in quite some time.

David Gallagher, Burke’s partner in the play, may not meet her belt for belt, but what he brings to the table is an emotional earnestness that’s hard not to admire. He never seems to be just acting out the part, but living it, wearing it like his favorite coat. This isn’t to say he doesn’t have the pipes to get the job done, as the constant syncopation and key changes that lurk within Jamie’s songs are a trick in and of themselves, and Gallagher plays these off with aplomb. He also helps us to empathize with his character, which can be a difficult task considering his actions can be morally suspect throughout the play.

Penfold Theatre’s “The Last Five Years” is an emotional gut punch, featuring a pair brilliantly entertaining and blistering soul-wrenching performances from its two leads, who give what could possibly be the performances of their careers. Penfold continues on their roll of charming, sensitive plays, expertly creating such emotionally relevant experiences that you’ll wonder why they don’t provide Kleenex when you purchase your tickets, because believe me, after this one, you’ll need them.

“The Last Five Years” is playing at Trinity Street theatre through April 12, and runs an hour and forty minutes. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit penfoldtheatre.org.

Photo Courtesy of Kimberley Mead