Broadway in Austin’s ‘Cats’ is a whimsical piece of pure nostalgic spectacle

As a critic, I try to walk into most productions as blind as possible. I may read a play to get some context, or look up some information on a historical figure if they’re the subject of a work, but on the whole, I try to remain as impartial as possible, keeping expectations minimal and on a level ground. That said, there are some productions that carry with them added weight. Cats is one of my family’s favorite musicals. My sisters and I wore out an old VHS tape of the Broadway production, playing it over and over, and later, my nieces and nephews did the same, and it was always one of my mother’s dreams to see a live production of it. This is the weight I couldn’t help but carry into Broadway in Austin’s production of the musical, a musical that had followed me around since my childhood. Could anything ever live up to those kind of expectations? In a word, yes, but let’s examine further.

When you spend so much time with a musical, it almost becomes a part of you. Even hearing someone mention Skimbleshanks is enough to make me grin, for instance, as it brings back memories of an elementary school theatre arts production, or those tapes, where he was far and away my favorite Gelical Cat (pretty good for a character who only spends about twenty minutes on stage). Mistoffelees, Macavity, Deuteronomy, these characters all hold a special place in my heart, so seeing them live on stage, you would think it comes with an automatic joy. However, there’s the rub. Broadway in Austin’s production could have gone very badly. With such extreme nostalgia comes expectation, and though there’s a joy that comes with meeting those expectations, there’s also the very likely disappointment that will come with not meeting them. After all, if someone has memories of one of the best productions of a particular musical, it can be a difficult task to overcome that to create something worthwhile.

It’s to director Trevor Nunn’s credit, and the credit of all his team, that this production not only met my expectations, but exceeded them. What Nunn and company have created here is very smart, as it clings to the parts of the musical that Cats lovers enjoy, while adding just enough to keep things fresh and interesting. We can still sing and clap along as Mistoffelees does his incredibly footwork, still beam with joy when Skimbleshanks finally shows appears, vest and all, and weep when Grizabella is finally accepted by her peers. What Nunn added is the polished production, from the fine costume work, to the gorgeous set design, to the absolutely stunning lighting design, the latter of which elevates every scene, as they know when to keep the work subtle, and when to explode in a flurry of insane tricks, keeping the momentum lively and the action moving, and making some of the show’s best moments shine even brighter.

Certain pieces of art need no introduction. You don’t need someone to tell you that the Mona Lisa is working checking out, or that The Barber of Seville is a hot show. In much the same way, most of the people reading this will already know whether or not they’re going to enjoy Cats. That said, what Broadway in Austin has brought us is a visually sumptuous, wackily whimsical presentation of the White Way mainstay, full of stunning choreography, impressive production, and polished performers. Nunn has provided the epitome of Cats production with this tour, creating an unforgettable experience for lovers of the musical, which may even turn some reluctant naysayers.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy.

Filigree’s ‘100 Planes’ is subtle, yet powerful, examination of women in the military

As our military industrial complex becomes more integrated in modern times, what does it really take for a woman to succeed as an officer? That’s the question at the heart of Lila Rose Kaplan’s intriguing work, 100 Planes, being given a worthy interpretation by Filigree Theatre and director Elizabeth V. Newman. Here, we follow Lieutenant Kay McClure, a plucky, awkward, but incredibly skilled young pilot who has always dreamed of flying, and who idolizes the famous pilot, Major Anne Clarkson. When Clarkson begins looking for recruits to pilot her new, top-of-the-line hybrid plane, Kay becomes obsessed with taking the spot, but does she have the drive to follow through on all the hardships that will come her way, and is she willing to sacrifice the ones she loves, and even a bit of herself, to make her dreams a reality? Though it may go overly dramatic in its last act, 100 Planes is an intriguing look at a sector not often examined in theatrical works, and does so with a subtle, nuanced hand that not only shines a light on to the darknesses within the complex itself, but also examines the toll the pressure of working in said complex can have on a person.

One of the most intriguing elements of 100 Planes is the way it examines femininity in masculine spaces. Early on we’re shown that in the military complex in which the action plays, femininity is liability, an invitation for abuse, seen as a frivolity to the higher-ups. It’s fascinating to see the moments when our characters are allowed to show their feminine qualities, whether it’s Kay’s attachment to her heart pillow, or something as small as Major Clarkson’s gift of a rose to her girlfriend. On the flip side, however, much of the play’s tension lies in the explosive reaction that occurs when one tries to tamp down or eliminate their traditionally feminine characteristics, as part of the incendiary finale of the play can be seen as a reaction to an unbridled pursuit of a masculine ideal. That our protagonist only finds the peace she seeks by embracing her softer, emotional qualities can’t be seen as a coincidence.

Taking on the characters in 100 Planes is no small feat, as each of them, by nature of their employment, is forced to tone down their emotions in order to fit in to the military environment. This forces most of the actors’ decisions to be subtle ones, to play with the affect in ways that won’t detract from the verisimilitude of their environs. This can, at times, effect chemistry between the two romantic leads, as their romance is forced at times to play against what at times feels like a brick wall, but it’s to lead actress Alani Rose Chock’s credit that the relationship feels genuine. Chock injects an awkwardness into her character that makes even her most buttoned-up moments endearing, as one can tell there’s always a sweetness underlining even her most rigid moments.

Brennan Patrick, for his part, plays as the perfect counterpart to these women. If the play is an examination of femininity in masculine places, the sensitivity and emotional nature of Patrick’s character seems to be exploration of these feminine qualities in men. Though he never comes off as effete, his deep adoration for Chock’s Kay, and his resolute pursuit of truth and peace make for an interesting counterpoint to the stern masculinity at play in many of the corners of military industrial complex in which this play spends most of its time. Patrick is an excellent counterweight to a play that can come off as a bit stern and overbearing at times, providing an affecting, emotional core to the piece that’s quite refreshing.

If we’re speaking of emotional arcs, no actor pulls theirs off more effectively than Brittany Flurry as Monique. From her earliest moments, it’s clear that Monique is a figure that’s been ground down by the complex, forced into her surly disposition by both the military and an overly-determined lover. She’s been pulled along and pushed around so long, the chip on her shoulder has become a yoke she’s forced to bear. Watching her break down near the end of the play’s run is one of the most powerful moments in the production, and Flurry sells it with aplomb, bringing a slight tear to even the hardened audience member.

Though many of the supporting performance are quite impressive, none of this would work without fine performances from our two leads, the hardened Major and her promising new recruit. Their relationships is an intriguing one, as the harshness of Major Clarkson, played with gruff determination by Karen Harrison, is buoyed beautifully by Chock’s plucky resolve to become the best. Their dance is a measured one, an intricate waltz that becomes more treacherous as the play continues, with motives being questioned and allegiances changing with every movement. These characters are slightly let down in the later stages of the work, as a few predictable, overly-dramatic elements take them away from situations that could be more emotionally satisfying, but one the whole, these two play their complicated game with an intelligence and drive that’s admirable.

Though it doesn’t quite stick the landing, 100 Planes is a powerful look at how women fight to survive in masculine spaces, and the disastrous effects this struggle can have on the psyche. The play forces the performers to step up to a higher level of emotional intelligence, and they mostly rise to meet it, creating a nuanced piece of drama that’s sure to leave the audience shaken.

100 Planes is playing at the Mastrogorge Theatre through April 13th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit filigreetheatre.com.

Photo courtesy of Steve Rogers.

‘Waitress’ is a hearty slice of Southern charm, with a big dollop of heart

Though it doesn’t get much attention today, when it was released 2007, the film Waitress was a bit of a revelation, one of the most celebrated romantic comedies of its time, proving Keri Russell had a life beyond Felicity. Though its fame faded in the years that followed, the story gained a new life thanks to the team of award-winning pop princess Sara Bareilles and writer Jesse Nelson, who turned the indie favorite into a Broadway phenomenon.  After winning several Tonys, the Broadway is finally making its way to Austin stages thanks to Broadway Across America, who bring all the frothy joy, toe-tapping tunes, and tear-jerking drama, along with a talented cast of professionals that carry the music, and the emotion, all the way to the rafters.

Waitress takes us to a quiet diner in an unnamed Southern town, and follows the travails of the titular waitress Jenna, whose kindness is matched only by her troubles. Married to an abusive husband, pregnant with a baby she didn’t expect, and barely making ends meet, her only source of solace is also her greatest talent: pie-making. When a handsome doctor and a pie competition enter the picture, a way out begins to take form, but can she shake the responsibilities of her life in order to make a new start? The resulting journey is charming, dramatic, and surprisingly ribald, with an extended cast that adds fascinating and fun texture to the proceedings, and some great tunes that help to put words to the surprisingly complex emotions of the characters. It tackles some serious issues, but always keeps things light, showing that hope and friendship can help you through even the darkest of nights.

Finding the right Jenna is a tricky balance. You need someone who brings not just charm but a certain strength of personality, a stony resolve that endears her to the audience, even as her faults come to the fore, someone with solid comedic chops, but who’s also able to carry the dramatic weight this narrative brings .  Christine Dwyer brings no shortage of adorable quirk to her role, but there’s always something more going on behind her eyes, a strength that keeps her going through all her hardships. She’s the anchor that keeps the goofy cast grounded, while still bringing plenty of humor in her own right. The chemistry with strikes up not just with the hunky, but sensitive doctor (played with a delightful charisma by Steven Good), but also with her two fellow waitresses, creating a living, breathing cast that’s never less than lovable.

It’s always a delight when an actor can build a small role into something show-stopping, and Jeremy Morse is doing just that from the moment he appears as the foppish, but persistent, Ogie. He tackles the role with an ecstatic energy, that radiates out palpably to the entire audience, especially in his opening song, “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me”, one of the show’s best numbers, a spirited, toe-tapping tune, which instantly endears him to viewers. His vigorous spirit plays perfectly with the awkward, quirky energy that Jessie Shelton bring to her role as the shy waitress Dawn, the two of them creating some of the best chemistry in the show. These two play so well together that, when they’re off stage, the audience can’t help but sit in anticipation for their next appearance.

Waitress isn’t as emotionally devastating or socially relevant as many of its contemporaries, but sometimes a charming, fun slice of hilarity and heart makes for a well balanced meal, and there are few musicals that offer this up more heartily. It’s one of most fun evenings you’ll have at the theatre, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, so grab your tickets and make sure not to miss this sweet little piece of romantic comedy gold.

Waitress is playing through Sunday the 27th, so be sure to grab your tickets fast at Austin.broadway.com.

Photo courtesy of Broadway Across America.

‘Actually’ is an emotionally acute examination of race and sex in modern America

I have always been fond of plays performed in atypical places. I have seen plays in parks, bars, homes, and everything in between, and though the productions aren’t always better for it, when things go perfectly, the locale adds another dimension to the performance. As I walked into the lecture hall where Actually, the new production by fledgling company Workhound, was being produced, I was taken aback a second, as this was, indeed, a white board-clad, florescently-lit classroom, a strange place for a play to be performed. As the play went on, however, I realized just what this play provided: intimacy. Anna Ziegler’s words probably would have been effective behind a proscenium, but when the actors are just a few feet away, staring directly at you, you can help but feel the devastation, letting this tsunami of an experience wash over you with all the more ferocity.

Actually is a play about sexual assault. There are no two ways about it, and it’s what makes the play such a hard sit, and even more difficult sell. By its very nature, it’s a high barrier to entry for some people, as, though we of course never see the actions depicted on stage, there are scenes within that could be triggering. This is in no way meant to dissuade anyone from seeing the play, but I feel I would not being doing my due diligence if this was not brought up. The play tackles the subject with respect, clarity, and honesty, but even the director and actors acknowledge the nature of the subject at the heart of the play. 

Actually follows the relationship of Amber and Tom, two new college freshmen, both trying to break free from the boxes society has put them, who find themselves going to bed together after a night of drinking. Though hazy, when Amber awakes the next morning, she realizes the sex may have been something less than consensual. What follows is a well-balanced, thorough, and honest examination of what brought both of our characters to this point, bringing us through the racism, sexism, and other other biases that our societal structures place upon us, and how they can shape who we to become. Characters are never demonized, giving a clear-eyed view of each of their actions, even if those actions lead somewhere incredibly dark.

Though he’s shown solid work on stages all across town, few roles have given Kriston Woodreaux the ability to show off his range more than Actually. As the play begins, it’s easy to write off Woodreuax’s Thomas Anthony as a the typical macho alpha male, all swagger, good looks, and a sly smile. It doesn’t take long, though for us to see the layers beneath it all: the intelligence, the sensitivity, the tenderness.This is all aided greatly by the fact that Woodreaux is never afraid to be vulnerable. There were quite a few moments that had me nearly in tears, as Woodreaux was so connected to the role that you lose track of where he begins and Tom ends. There’s certainly anger there, but Woodreaux is sure to always show the pain beneath each outburst, whether stemming from his race, his upbringing, or even his attractiveness.

The play doesn’t have quite as meaty a role for Lauren Jacobs. By its nature, the role of Amber stands out much less, and so Jacob’s performance doesn’t reach the emotional extremes of Woodreaux’s. Amber is more reserved, withdrawn, almost the polar opposite to Tom’s charisma hurricane. What Jacobs does with the material, though, is not any less impressive than Woodreaux, as she sells the character through subtle cues: twitches, quick glances, vocal choices. In its own way, it’s even easier for certain members of the audience to relate to Jacob’s Amber, as her insecurities are constantly on display, brought out especially by the direct address style of the play, and Ziegler’s sharp writing.

In “Actually”, director Jeremy Lee Cudd has given audiences the chance to see two young actors rising to the top of their game, with a piece that could not be more timely. Though its subject matter may be tough to take at times, those able to experience the play are sure to leave changed people. Workhound is showing itself to be a company not afraid to tackle difficult subjects, and handle them with respect, all the while bringing passion and emotional honesty, and I for one hope to see much more from them in the future. 

Actually is playing in UT’s Winship Theatre Building through November 18th. For directions, tickets, and more information, visit their facebook at facebook.com/wrkhnd/.

Capital T’s ‘The Goat’ is a heartbreaking examination of family secrets

With so many theatre companies chasing the newest works, sometimes the classics don’t get the exposure they deserve on modern stages. Capital T seems to doing their part to alleviate this with their latest season, starting with one of the most acclaimed plays of the twenty-first century, Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia. An examination of the putrefying effect of family skeletons, it follows a successful family man whose life, and family, falls apart when a devastating, disgusting secret is revealed. Director Mark Pickell brings in some of Austin’s heaviest hitters to create all-star cast, who breathe new life into this classic, if under-performed, play.

In the early stages of the play, the theatre is full of, perhaps at times, uneasy, laughter, but as it reaches its final stretch, a stone-faced silence grips the audience. This is thanks to an emotional honesty that Albee brings to the material, which Pickell and company bring out with aplomb.  On a surface level, the material at the heart of The Goat is the stuff of classic farce, the idea of a man confessing a bestial affair to his wife being a pretty solid idea for a dark comedy. Albee knows this method is too easy, however, and prefers to explore the metaphor, to really dig deep into the deepest, darkest parts of the hearts of its characters, creating something much more devastating, and the play is that much better for it.

Rebecca Robinson was an actress born to play a role like Stevie. She’s an actress in touch her emotions, whose sensitivity helps to bring a verisimilitude to some scenes that would seem over-the-top if performed by another actress. When storms through her apartment, breaking expensive vases, we don’t see it as an overreaction, but as an information character choice. We feel  her anger, thanks in no small part to her emotive, expressive face. She forms a quick and early chemistry with Robert Pierson’s Martin, which makes her more impassioned moments later in the play hit with that much more weight, especially as the emotions become more muddled in the play’s late stages.

The play, of course, would not work without a solid actor in the role of Martin, the patriarch and goat-lover of the family, and Robert Pierson attacks the role with a mixture of ardor and vulnerability that helps the audience sympathize with his plight, as sordid as it is. His performance is more often than not subdued, even as the world explodes around him, and he acts a gentle, loving hand among the other characters who are splitting at the seams. His calmness can be infuriating, as we see how his actions are effecting his family, but he acts as a nice counterbalance to some of the more extreme emotions on display, especially when his son, Billy, enters the picture, played with fervent spirit by Preston Russ, as he handles the confusing feelings on display with a refreshing gentleness. It’s still difficult to truly side with Martin, but Pierson shows his love as pure and unselfish.

“The Goat, or Who is Sylvia” is one of those plays that could fall apart at so many stages, but thanks to a smart script, an emotionally honest cast, and a director who knows just how to perfectly pitch the action, the result is a poignant portrait of a family in crisis. Here’s hoping other companies take Capital T’s lead and dig up some of the more well-hidden treasure buried in years past, so that we can see what these talented casts and crews can do with real classics.

Photo courtesy of Capital T Theatre. 

‘The Afterparty’ is a dark, whimsical journey to a celestial dreamscape

The moment one steps into the Vortex Repertory Theatre, one knows they’re in for a magical evening. Most of the plays performed under its roof explode with life and originality, full of big ideas, and the talent to make those dreams a reality. The latest production calling the Vortex home is the newest from Shrewd Productions, one of the most unique voices in Austin theatre, a company with the habit of presenting offbeat theatrical wonders that you won’t find anywhere else. Written by the hyper-talented Reina Hardy, “The Afterparty” is as difficult to describe as it is mesmerizing to watch. Following a young woman named Claire over her thousands of years of existence, we see her first loves, both human and celestial, as well as her journey into the very heavens themselves, where she meets a cavalcade of historical figures and realizes just how important humanity can be. It’s the kind of high concept creation that could only come when minds like Hardy, Shrewds, and the Vortex come together, and it’s one unforgettable experience.

What does it sound like to talk to a star? What does it look like to see all the knowledge in the universe? These are just a few of the questions that the accomplished production team of “The Afterparty”, led by director Liz Fisher, were tasked with answering, and it’s a testament to their talents that such answers culminate in a true audio-visual feast. Patrick Anthony’s lighting design not only creates a haunting dreamscape, but also helps keep us captivated with quick light changes and flashes that almost hypnotize the audience, thanks in no small part to one of the hardest working strobe lights in town. Backing this all is music and sound design created by Nick Hart, whose eerie score sends pulses through the audience members’ bodies, creating the perfect soundscape for this dark, yet whimsical adventure. One can’t forget the work of Monica Pasut on costumes, who proves that costumes don’t need elaborate complexity to impress, as with a few clever fabric choices and a creative design sense she’s crafted outfits that not only look impressive, but help give unique personality to each of the play’s inhabitants. In the center of it all is one of the best designed props I’ve seen, a glowing book that captures the imagination as soon as it opens, that’s simply built but smartly used.

“The Afterparty” finds Claire in several moments throughout her life, so it is essential that she is performed by a dynamic actor. Claire is a creature of both youthful exuberance and a poet’s soulfulness, of strong resolve and sudden vulnerability. Shannon Grounds has proven herself to be a top-tier actress in the past, but “The Afterparty” may be her best performance in years, as she shows off impressive range while still maintaining genuineness, serving as an earnest anchor even as insanity swirls around her. Claire is a character forced to choose between the ethereal beauty of the cosmos and her own humanity, and its the grounded realness that Grounds brings to the role that truly makes the character, and the play, sing.

“The Afterparty” is the kind of play that only the Reina Hardy could create. Bursting with creativity, but wildly intelligent, its filled with magic and the music of the spheres. In the hands of Liz Fisher and the Shrewd Production crew, the experience becomes something otherworldly, a waking dream, a fleeting phantasmagoria that you won’t want to end. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience the like of which you’re not likely to find again, so make sure you grab a seat, before it’s too late.

“The Afterparty” is playing at Vortex Repertory Theatre through June 30th. For more information, and to purchase tickets,visit shrewdproductions.com

Tears fall, voices soar, and hearts flutter in Austin Opera’s ‘La Traviata’

Guiseppe Verdi’s La Traviata is a near-perfect opera. It comes out of the gate with a bang, with one of the most famous songs in the opera canon, “Labiamo”, energizing the audience for the love story to come, slowly decrescendoing to more quiet love songs in the First Act’s back half. Just when it’s in danger of losing its audience, the piece brings the party, complete with matadors and fortune tellers, before descending into a heartbreaking finale. It moves naturally, and is all backed by Verdi’s gorgeous music, creating one of the most poignant and powerful pieces in the canon. Austin Opera’s production of the work, led by the skilled hands of stage director David Lefkowich and his crew, only helps cement this reputation, creating a production that allows the opera to speak for itself, with its own powerful voice, not resorting to tricks of radical staing, but still bringing all the lusciousness and luxury that makes the piece such a delight.

When played well, Verdi’s music feels like falling in love. Something about the grand, rich strings and softly flowing phrasing sets the heart aflutter, and when its coming out the mouths of singers like Marina Costa-Jackson and Michael Chioldi, it becomes something of a transcendent experience. There were many moments I found myself in awe, closed-eyed and mouth agape from the splendor of it all (surely missing important dialog or plot points in the process). The Austin Opera Orchestra, led skillfully by conductor Steve White, has never sounded better, carrying the Verdi’s moving passages with depth and grace.

At its heart, this production is a showcase of immense talent of Marina Costa-Jackson, who plays the iconic role of courtesan Violetta Valery. Though the opera gives her plenty of opportunities for vocal pyrotechnics, La Traviata is at its best when its using Costa-Jackson’s astounding vocal skills for emotional effect. In the quieter, more romantic moments in the play’s first act, she sings as if she is casting a spell upon her audience, making it nigh impossible to look away. As the play enters its second act, her voice weaves  mesmerically into Verdi’s gorgeous music, giving the sensation of floating out of one’s chair. Though the piece is sung entirely in Italian, dialog becomes secondary, as as Costa-Jackson’s emotive face tells a story all its own. Her wily, seductive smile and bewitching eyes make us fall in love easily early on, but it’s when Violetta’s forced into her more sorrowful moments where the singer truly shines. Her performance here is a study in the downward spiral, as we watch this bright-eyed wonder become sullen and sickly by the production’s end, and that Costa-Jackson is able to sell every moment, from the vibrant opening stanzas to her final, heartbreaking moments, is a powerful testament to her abilities as an actress.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing work being done by Michael Chioldi as Germont, whose all too brief moments on stage make up some of the most stunning passages of the work. The entire opera turns on his actions, so it’s essential that his performance is powerful, but it’s the tenderness he brings to the character that’s most refreshing. Even as he’s breaking Violetta’s heart, Chioldi’s shows a softness to Germont that belies just how much he cares for those affected. In addition, his full, powerful voice harmonizes surprisingly well with Costa-Jackson’s, adding another level to the cornucopia of mellifluousness on display, keeping the audience rapt.

When it’s at its best, there are few forms of art that portray emotion better than Opera. From the exaggerated characterizations to reliance on constant music, the feelings are forced to come to the fore, and when the right cast finds the right material, it can create a truly moving experience.  Austin Opera has done just this with La Traviata, transporting its audience into a world of richness, luxury, and wonder, and enveloping them in all of the romance, effervescence, and despair that an amazing tale like that of courtesan Violetta can deliver.