Trouble Puppet’s ‘American Blood Song’ is an epic, painfully honest look at one of the darkest parts of American history

When most of us look back on America’s history, we like to remember the good times: the victories, the discoveries, the stories of heroes and brave men. There is, however, an importance in never forgetting the darker moments that make up our past, those shadowy corners that we dare not even whisper about in mixed company. Trouble Puppet Theatre have taken it upon themselves to shine a light into one of those dusky corners with their latest, the solemn, soul-rending puppet operetta, American Blood Song, an exploration of the trials and torments of the members of the Donner Party, an infamous group of settlers forced into extreme conditions thanks to some bad advice and stubborn leadership. What writer/director Connor Hopkins and his crew create, however, is not the familiar story we know, as he twists it, to tell his story from mostly the mouths of the women of this doomed company, showing us the story of bright-eyed daughters, abused wives, and overtaxed mothers, and how they are led astray by the actions of over-confident men.

Before walking into the performance, one can be forgiven for thinking puppetry and tragedy seem like an ill-fitting marriage. Particularly in American culture, puppetry is seen as an art form for children, full of joy and whimsy, and American Blood Song is about as far from whimsical as one can imagine, a descent into despair and decay, an exploration of the darkest sides of the human experience. With live actors, the whole exercise would become too extreme, but by making these characters puppets, there’s a certain remove that makes it more palatable. This is not to say that American Blood Song is an easy watch, far from it. We see mutilation, cannibalism, murder, and the death of children and animals, and even in the form of puppets, it can be an extreme journey. As you’re reading this, you can probably imagine that, if handled poorly, this could all become a tad bit silly, but luckily, one thing that saves this from going in the wrong direction is the emotionally honest performances.

One often forgets the importance of the human element in a puppet performance, but Trouble Puppet has always made sure to have the best talents behind the wheel, and this has never been so evident than in this production. Even with the beautiful, elaborate puppets and landscapes the company create, it’s the skilled stable of actors that provide the real heart of the characters. The detailed features and gorgeous costumes of Tamzene Donner go some way in telling her story, but without Caroline Reck’s soulful delivery, without her soft, silky, plaintive voice carrying us through, the play would hit with far less power; the horrible events that befall the 13-year-old Virginia Reed would not carry the same weight without Marina DeYoe-Pedraza injecting a playful, awkward innocence into the her voice; without Zac Crofford’s soaring baritone, Lansford Hastings would not come off as half as effective a villain; and William Eddy’s reluctant heroism would not hit such impressive heights without the strong, stalwart voice of Zac Carr behind the scenes. Each of these performers, and the handful of others talented actors, create crystalline moments of pure emotion that stick in your mind, lingering with you in the days to follow.

One mustn’t think that American Blood Song is without its moments of levity, however. There are few writers with a more keen ear for gallows humor than Connor Hopkins, and in this production, he and his company are able to bring in moments of humor while still being respectful to these historical figures. In particular one of the earliest scenes, involving a revolving door of shysters trying to steal the money of gullible travelers, is one of the funnier moments I’ve seen this year. Even in the melancholy moments that make up the latter half of the operetta, there’s time for a cheeky little ditty about cannibalism that helps to lighten the mood. It’s still a harsh road through American Blood Song, but Hopkins makes sure that there are still chances to crack a smile from time to time, even if the times are tough.

We mustn’t forget the other important ingredient in making American Blood Song work so well: Mother Falcon. Even in the most triumphant of songs (such as the recurring tune, “America”), there’s a sense of unease, of something being not quite right, a soft underlying rumble of cello, the quick, sudden quirk of an electric guitar that keeps us on our toes. The entire score brims with sorrowful passages, a delicate clarinet or a mournful sax drifting softly across the audience, wrapping us within the cold, the despair, and holding us fast. With just three performers, Mother Falcon creates an entire sonic landscape, helping to give texture and dimension to this immersive, sorrowful puppet landscape we find ourselves in throughout the later stages of the piece.

American Blood Song can be a difficult sit, and it’s probably not for everyone, but as I was leaving, I was reminded why I go to the theatre. While many plays are entertaining, and still others present an intriguing look at modern life, the best plays are the ones that leave you contemplating something within yourself. Something about “American Blood Song” changes you, seeps into your blood and grasps your bones, leaving you shaken in a way that upsets you as you’re sitting in bed at night. By breathing life into these puppets, Connor Hopkins and company have animated these long-dead memories, turning them into living, breathing figures, not so different from ourselves, and if this wilderness, which tests the limits of human extremity, could turn these people into such monsters, what would it take for that same change to happen to you, or to me?

American Blood Song is playing through August 17th at the Vortex Repertory Theatre. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit troublepuppet.com.

Photos courtesy of Andrew Stalick

Summer Stock’s “Sister Act” is a stunning display of fresh young talent

Some of my favorite productions over my years of reviewing have come from the humble stages of Summer Stock Austin. Those in the know surely have fond memories of their productions of Little Shop of Horrors, Sweeney Todd, or Legally Blonde, or even their legendary joint-production of Chess, if you were lucky enough to attend. Though the loss of Michael McKelvey hit the company hard, Summer Stock is still one of the highlights of my year, and this continues with their latest, “Sister Act”. I will be the first to say, “Sister Act” is far from my favorite musical, as the numbers don’t have the X-Factor of some of it contemporaries, and it’ss never funny enough nor deep enough to strike either side of the “comedy/drama” coin in any memorable way. That said, what Summer Stock, and director Daniel Adams, bring to the table is a group of talented young people on both sides of the desk, from cast to crew, each with a passion to create the best performance they can in just two weeks. It’s always staggering to behold just what they’re able to create with such a meager budget and tight time constraints, and despite technical issues, they’ve pulled out an soulful, solid production of this Broadway staple.

“Sister Act”, based on the hit film of the same name, follows Deloris, a singer turned moll turned informant, who, after running afoul of her violent gangster boyfriend, goes into hiding in the most unconventional place imaginable: a convent. This leads to some growing pains, as the larger-than-life Deloris must come to terms with her new staid, hallowed home, but when she’s put in charge of the convent’s choir, she proves that some lights shine much too brightly to be hidden under a bushel. Forgoing much of the joyful noise of the original film for somewhat lackluster songs by Alan Menken and Glen Slater, which don’t stand out as either’s best work, the musical still holds its own thanks to a solid premise and some whacky hijinks.

From the moment she arrives on stage, it’s obvious that Micaela Lamas is a star. She brings a sassy, soulful energy to the role of Deloris, reminiscent of Lizzo or comedian Nicole Byer, delighting with refreshing vocal chops and comedic timing in equal measure. She makes each of her numbers look easy, injecting them with an exhilarating exuberance that is infectious to behold, even if the songs themselves don’t shine quite as brightly. Even in the most ho-hum of numbers, Lamas is able to inject her own brand of vivacity into the proceedings, keeping the audience rapt and the action moving. She has the entire musical resting on her shoulders, and she attacks it with such aplomb that she makes it seems like the easiest thing in the world.

One of the true joys of attending Summer Stock each year is discovering talent on the rise. Much like the character she portrays, when first meet Maryanna Tollemache as Sister Mary Robert, she’s quiet and meek, mostly going ignored, but the moment she hits her first belt, you’ll be falling out of your chair. Tollemache’s instrument contains both strength and clarity, and even with a faulty mic she still blasts open the doors with her power. When she finally gets a chance to sing a song of her own, she demands our attention, injecting real pathos while keeping her voice clear and solid. She doesn’t slack in the acting department either, as she’s able to play both modest and timid, as well as cool and rebellious, taking on both with an admirable flair. She’s an actress to keep one’s eyes on, and as only a senior in high school, there’s no telling the heights she’ll hit in the years to come.

I had my reservations when Abby Holtfort first appeared as the Mother Superior. Though I had seen her give fine performances in the past, there is always a concern in young casts in how older characters would be handled, as taking on someone of both such an advanced age, with that much gravitas, can often be a challenge for young performers. Holtfort put all my doubts to rest, however, as the actress carries herself with a grace and solemnity that instantly endears her to the audience, especially when placed against the larger-the-life persona that Lamas exudes. She makes for the perfect foil, and watching these two leads interact is one of the true highlights of the piece.

Of course, I can’t leave here without mentioning the stellar work done by David Pena, Tristan Tierney, and and Jaiden Collier. The three portray a trio of bumbling gangsters, and they steal nearly every scene they’re in. They provide a pleasant diversion from the convent antics, and create some of the best set pieces in the production. In particular, Tierney proves himself to be a name to remember, as the actor brings in the charisma that made him such a hit in “How to Succeed in Business” to give his mobster a smarmy, greasy charm that’s undeniably hilarious.

“Sister Act” is far from the best musical that’s graced Summer Stock stages, but there’s no denying that the level of talent on display is colossal. From the smallest bit player to the play’s star, each brings wit, zeal, and an undeniable passion to their performance that’s hard not to love, which elevates even the most mediocre of pieces. I’ve never come away disappointed in a Summer Stock Austin production, and that certainly won’t start now, so be sure to check out these young performers giving it their all.

Photo courtesy of Summer Stock Austin .

‘Hamilton’: Historic hip hop Broadway mainstay gets powerful, poignant production

It’s been over a decade since Lin-Manuel Miranda stood before the president to perform a hip hop song about the life of Alexander Hamilton. Little did he know that one day that simple song would lead to one of the most celebrated pieces of media of the 21st Century, the record-breaking Tony, Grammy, and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Hamilton, which netted upwards of thousands of dollars a seat in its prime. After nearly a decade, this musical wonder has finally made its way to Austin audiences thanks to Broadway in Austin, who bring in a talented cast of Broadway vets along with other talented touring players, to create a polished, powerful production that will take audiences on an emotional, engaging journey through the life of one of the most underappreciated founding fathers, full of witty, raw, and well-written tunes, clever, subtle choreography, and smart direction that’s sure to satisfy even the most ardent Hamilton fan.

Even with the best tunes and finest supporting cast, the piece would fall apart without a steady force at its center, and thankfully Joseph Morales imbues the titular protagonist with a sensitivity that makes him likable, even in his darkest moments, all leveled out with a cocky confidence that makes him a believable Lothario. His soulful voice also gives his songs a different flavor than fans may be familiar with, a style that keeps the flair of Miranda’s delivery, while injecting a touch of extra heart into some of the more emotional moments. Morales makes smart choices throughout, creating a performance something distinctive, effervescent, and riveting.

Of course, Hamilton’s gonna need his right hand men (and women), and the major actors with whom he surrounds himself all bring something brilliant and unique to the table. Though he lacks the powerful, belting prowess of Leslie Odom Jr (what actor doesn’t), what Nik Walker brings to the roll of Aaron Burr is an emotional verisimilitude, a staunch confidence of character that helps the audience connect with his spirit. In many ways the musical Hamilton paints Burr as a very sympathetic character, and through his vulnerable performance, Walker helps the audience see into Burr’s heart and soul. Speaking of vulnerability, Erin Clemons brings tears of many shapes and sizes throughout, thanks to her sensitive performance as Hamilton’s wife Eliza. Her arc is one of the most heartbreaking in the show, and Clemons carries it with aplomb, selling each feeling as if it she’s ripping it from her own chest. When she belts out “Burn” in one of the show’s most gut-wrenching moments, prepare for the aisles to become flooded with the audience’s tears.

The production is also littered with several winning supporting performances. In particular, Fergie L. Phillipe, in the dual role of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, steals most of the scenes he’s in, even if he’s only in them for a moment. He’s fantastic at bringing out the humor in every situation, even if it’s just a single word. Another show-stopper is Jon Patrick Walker as King George, who’s over-the-top personality is perfect for the haughty king, and every time he appears on stage one can’t help but smile. We also mustn’t forget Kyle Scatliffe, playing the dual role of the talented revolutionary Marquis de Lafayette, as well as the cocky Congressman Thomas Jefferson, and he flounces into both with a cock-of-the walk confidence that makes him instantly likable. He also has the talent to balance this cockiness with the believability, never straying into over-the-top caricature.

Hamilton has become a legend in its time, a modern masterpiece, beloved by people around the world, so this touring production has a lot to live up, but luckily Broadway in Austin has brought us a polished production of this Broadway wonder. Full of toe-tapping tunes, pitch-perfect performances, and some real heart, this production will surprise any audience, whether they’re super-fans who’ve memorized every word of the cast album, or newcomers who barely know the play’s historical backbone.

Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus.

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.

‘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.