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