“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.

‘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

‘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