New Seasons: Zach Scott Theatre

Zach Scott Theatre, one of Austin’s oldest companies, has just announced their latest season, and it has the potential to be one of their most interesting in years. Mixing upbeat musical fair with deep, thoughtful contemporary dramas, Zach seems to reaching out to a wide stretch of audiences. Here’s a rundown of just what Zach’s bringing to the table for their 18-19 Season:

 

Once

September 19 – October 28, 2018

Directed by Dave Steakley

Musical Direction by Allen Robertson

Scenic Design by Donald Eastman

Winner of eight Tonys, including Best Musical, Once will be making its regional premiere when it hits Zach stages this September, and Zach’s going all out to transport you to the rustic streets of Dublin. The lobby will be transformed into an Irish pub, which will surely get you in the right mood for the intricate music and heartbreaking story of this piece, based upon the Oscar-award winning film. This story of two ill-fated lovers has become one of the most celebrating romances of the twenty-first century, and I for one can’t wait to be swept away to the streets of Dublin by by Glen Hasard and Markéta Irglová’s stunning songs (played live on stage by the actors themselves!) It has all the potential to be one of the most memorable musicals of the season.

 

NOTES FROM THE FIELD

February 27 – March 31, 2019

 

Directed by Dave Steakley

With Smith’s “Notes From the Field”, Zach is producing one of its provocative pieces in ages, an in depth look at a segment of society caught in a system that’s dooming them to failure. Culled from interviewing from over 250 sources, this one-woman show presents the story of 18 different individuals, who each tell the story of incarcerated youth, and the broken systems that put them where they are today. Through “Notes From the Field”, Smith brings into into the lives of young men and women, from their own mouths, as well as those of their parents, teachers, and administrators. It’s a powerful play, soon airing on HBO, that will surely have people long after the curtain falls.

 

MATILDA THE MUSICAL
April 3 – May 12, 2019

 

Directed by Abe Reybold and Nat Miller

Musical Direction by Allen Robertson

On the lighter side of things, directors Abe Reybold and Nat Miller are bringing one of Broadway’s most joyful shows to the Austin stage with Matilda. Based on the Roald Dahl book, this story of the trials and tribulations of a precocious psychic is a perfect piece for people of all ages. Running for 1,555 performances on Broadway, as well as making a splash at the West End and on tour, this wildly popular musical featuring music by awardd-winner Tim Minchin may be one of the biggest shows Zach’s produced, so one doesn’t want to miss the grandeur or spectacle on display come next year.

 

THE BALLAD OF KLOOK AND VINETTE

April 24 – May 26, 2019

This soulful, world-premiere chamber musical by Che Walker, Anoushka Lucas and Omar Lyefook, looks to be a complete 180 from the lavish, upbeat nature of Matilda. A tender story of two drifters hoping to find understanding in each other, The Ballad of Klook and Vinette has the potential the be one of the most poignant moments of Zach’s season, especially as it’s using the intimacy of Zach’s Kleberg stage to help sell its emotional tale. It’s an interesting choice for Zach, showing they’re willilng to take chances, and with the right cast, this could be the highlight of the season.

 

FIRE AND AIR
June 12 – July 14, 2019

Coming off its world premiere on the New York stage, the latest from the legendary Terrence McNally follows the infamous Ballets Russes, and its creator, Sergei Diaghilev, as well Diaghilev’s tempestuous relationship with dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Receving raves from its early performances, this could create some powerful, exciting moments on the Topfer stage, and with dance such a built-in part of the play, we can only expect some fine footwork and gorgeous costumes on display, two things at which Zach has always excelled.

 

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH

July 31 – September 8, 2019

Directed by Dave Steakley

The Broadway favorite makes its way back to Austin stages to close out Zach’s 18-19 Season with hard-rocking energy. This simple tale of a German rock siren trying to make her way in America has become one of the most popular musicals of the century, making a star out of its creator John Cameron Mitchell, and its just the type of weird, punk performance that Austinites will go crazy for. Its a bold stroke in a season full of wide swings, and one that’s sure to bring in the crowds.

 

With their latest season, Zach looks to be taking quite a few chances, and I certainly can’t wait to see if those chances pay off in the coming year. Be sure to visit Zach’s website at zachtheatre.org  for more information, and maybe even pick up some season tickets starting in May, so you won’t miss any of the wildness.

 

 

Zach’s ‘In the Heights’ is a lively, sizzling start to the summer season

Thanks the world phenomenon that was Hamilton, and an Oscar nomination for his work on Disney’s Moana, Lin-Manuel Miranda has quickly become a household name, but before he was treading the boards as a founding father or singing for the president, he was winning over musicals fans with his vibrant, joyous look at life in the one of the most colorful parts of Manhattan with In the Heights. Zach Theatre is now bringing this hit musical to Austin, with a production that would make Miranda proud, full of fire, passion, and the sweltering heat of the New York summer.

In the Heights follows the lives of those living in New York’s Washington Heights during one of the hottest parts of the summer. We’re first introduced to Bodega owner Usnavi, through whom we meet the myriad figures that call the Heights home, and who take us through one special sweltering New York summer, complete with blackouts, heartbreak, and even violence, but always with the latinx flair this neighborhood is known for. Zach has brought in the big guns to bring their work to life, led by director Michael Balderamma, who cut his teeth as dance captain and original cast member of the original Off-Broadway production, and who has numerous other Broadway hits to his name. He is currently the choreographer for the Chicago production of Hamilton, so having his hand guiding all the action of Zach’s In the Heights is a big win. Helping him along the way is musical director, and two-time Emmy award-winner, Allen Robertson, a mainstay of the Austin musical scene, and a well respected composer and producer in his own right. These two icons come together with a talented team to create a lively, powerful night of theatrical thrills.

The Washington Heights of Miranda’s In the Heights bursts with energy, full of snappy music and quick choreography, and Balderamma and company do their part to keep the action moving. His actors, and even sets, are in contact motion, never hitting a false step, and with blasts of trumpets and the toe-tapping beat of Latin percussion, the skilled orchestra works to keep the scene hopping. The cast do their part to keep the action moving as well, performing with a vibrant zeal that truly adds a soul and spirit to their lively neighborhood. Add it all up with the sunny lighting and the inspired costume choices, and you have one of the hottest shows Zach’s produced in years.

In addition to bringing in some big guns behind the scenes, Zach has called in talent from around the country to fill out its cast. In particular, Alicia Taylor Tomasko shows the skills that made her a New York theatre regular. Here she plays the lovely but harried Vanessa, a woman trying to make her way out of the heights, while always being pulled in by the culture and people of Heights.  It also doesn’t help that she has caught the eye of our protagonist, Usnavi. She’s a woman divided, and Tomasko plays the necessary combination of sassy and strong with aplomb. Her footwork is on point, showing off moves that I’ve rarely seen the likes of on Austin stages, and her voice is clear and strong, with plenty of passion and fire. A good Vanessa is essential to a good production of In the Heights, and the role is in good hands with Tomasko.

Taking on a role made famous by Lin-Manuel Miranda is no mean feat, so Chicago Theatre native Keith Contreras-McDonald had a lot to live up to. Luckily, thanks to his charm and goofiness, he becomes almost instantly endearing. The musical doesn’t give him the standout musical moments of some of his fellow performers, but he carries the piece thanks to his wonderful acting chops. His chemistry with Sarro’s Vanessa is always believable, and, in fact, his relationships with all of the cast is solid throughout. He’s at his best in the small, more emotion-laden moments, helping to sell the stakes and bring the tears in some of the play’s more sombre sequences.

Though the team behind Zach’s In the Heights have brought in several big talents to inhabit their characters, one of the play’s true delights is seeing how many talented locals fill out the cast. For instance, this critic has enjoyed watching actor Vincent Hooper make his way from background player in Summer Stock performances, to the starring on the big stages of Zach Theatre, and here he takes center stage, never feeling out of place among the more seasoned talent.  Indeed, his performance as Benny is one of the most emotionally honest in the piece, as he takes us on one of the most full character arcs in the piece. Whether bringing humor or pathos, Hooper proves himself a capable performer, and is living proof that Austin talent can stand toe-to-toe with the that of New York or Chicago.

A pleasant surprise came from another local performer, and California transplant, Christina Oeschger, who wows from her first notes, showcasing a voice like polished glass: smooth, clear, and full brilliance. She brings out the intelligence of her character,  a bright young girl having trouble facing the world outside Washington Heights, and sells this from her very stance and diction. This is combined with an innocence in her eyes that charms the audience quickly, which is only amplified once she belts her first note, putting her stunning voice on full display. It’s easy to see that there’s a bright future in front of Oeschger, and one hopes she finds herself on other Austin stages again soon.

With a clear vision and exuberant passion, Zach plunges audiences headfirst into the wild world of Washington Heights, given some real gravitas thanks to a game production team and an indefatigable group of talented young actors from around the country. It’s the perfect kind of crowd-pleasing entertainment that makes for a splendid intro to the summer season, that will have you humming the tunes the whole ride home.

In the Heights is playing at Zach’s Topfer Theatre through July 2nd. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit Zach’s website at zachtheatre.org.

Photo courtesy of Kirk Tuck.

Zach Theatre’s ‘Ann’ is a laugh-a-minute look at a Texas icon

It takes a special kind of talent to create a one-person show, to strip everything down to the barest of bones, until it’s just you, and the audience. Holland Taylor takes this challenge one step further with her one-woman show, “Ann”, as she presents the life of one of Texas’s most famous politicians, Ann Richards, the spitfire Democrat who somehow rose through the ranks to become Texas’s head honcho. Taylor pulls double duty here, both writing and performing this humorous piece of historical hilarity, taking us from Richards’ earliest days on the farm to her final days in New York, all while bringing charm, wit, and wisdom.

“Ann” follows the life of Ann Richards, focusing mostly on a single day in the middle of her tenure as Texas Governor, when she’s left with the decision of whether or not to offer a stay of execution for a young man. This story is told through an interesting framing device, where Richards is giving the Graduation Address to a group of a graduates from a nameless college. Through this, we see not only her years in office, but also her days as a child, recalling days of her kind father, and harsh mother, through her relationship with her whip-smart husband, her time running campaigns, and, finally to her own campaign. Some elements are not dealt with as deeply as one would wish, but Taylor does a fine job showing us the breadth of the icon’s life.

As “All the Way” did last year with the Texas in the sixties, one thing that “Ann” does beautifully is tell us not only the story of Ann Richards, but in its way, the story of Texas in the nineties. Throughout her conversations with various figures, we get an image of the shape the state was taking under her tutelage, and how indelible a presence she was during her time in office. The omission of anything involving the Bushes is a bit disappointing, as anyone who knows Richards’ history know she always had some fiery words to throw in the direction of one Bush or another, but we still get great interactions between Richards and many figures of the day, including several hilarious scenes involving phone calls with president Bill Clinton.

From the moment the play begins, we never truly see Holland Taylor, as she’s absolutely transformed into Ann Richards. Everything, from her dialect, to her gait, to her mannerisms, feel true to the character, and nothing ever feels forced. It’s obvious that Taylor has done her research, as it feels like the woman herself is visiting us throughout the play. One thing that Taylor captures best is Richards’ humor, with her many witticisms bringing about waves of riotous laughter. She’s candid, she’s tough, and she’s smart, and as we leave theatre, we can’t help but think that, in a way, it feels like we’ve just spent two hours with the former governor herself.

Though segments don’t reach quite as deeply as we could hope, it’s hard to find fault with the way Holland Taylor presents the life of Ann Richards. There is not a moment in the piece that feels inauthentic, and Taylor’s performance is nothing short of miraculous. She captures the humor, the bite, and the heart of the woman who so shaped Texas politics, and one would think the woman herself would be honored to see such a polished tribute.

“Ann” is playing at Zach’s Topfer Theatre through May 15. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit Zach’s website at zachtheatre.org.

Photo Courtesy of Ave Bonar

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

‘All the Way’ is a well-acted look at this nation’s turbulent past

“All the Way” drops its audience into 1960s America, right after the death of John F. Kennedy, one of our nation’s most beloved presidents. We follow Lyndon Baines Johnson following this horrific event, and during the period of his first year, a year with focused on fighting the horrible treatment of African Americans, and his attempt to bring about change, despite the protestations of his friends in the South. It’s harrowing and heartfelt, given just the right amount of humor thanks to Johnson’s enormous personality and charisma, and the crisp script by Robert Schenkkan. With the help of a skilled cast, and the fine guiding hand of Dave Steakley, Zach Theatre creates a powerful, professional production of this Tony nominee.

One of the play’s biggest successes is its portrayal of LBJ. Charismatic, fast-talking, and brash, LBJ was a Southern boy through and through, and Steve Vivovich takes on this role with gusto. From the moment he walks on to stage, he seems to be possessed by Johnson himself, bringing his swagger and charm in a very remarkable way. He doesn’t pull any punches, cursing up a storm and exerting his influence with the best of them. It never seems one note, however, as there are moments of true sensitivity mixed in, particularly one late in the play, during a final vote in the Senate over his Civil Rights Bill, in which Vivovich removes his armor, both literally and figuratively, showing the heart and emotion within.

Melvin Abston provides the second performance of Martin Luther King this year, and though it may lack the swagger present in Marc Pouhé’s performance in “The Mountaintop” earlier this year, what he does bring is authority. When Abston walks on to stage, his presence demands your attention, even as the large stage is filled with actors. His performance never feels forced or strained, and is full of dimension, showing King as more than just a speech-giving holy man, but as a man, with his own desires, and his own needs, and his own methods for getting things done.

Garry Peters is one of Austin’s best character actors, an actor who may not get as much attention as many other actors in town, but who pulls out amazing performance with almost every at bat. With his performance as Senator Richard Russell, he may give his best performance yet, as a Southern politician who’s forced between friendship and keeping his Southern values. Peters captures this balance with skill, bringing his trademark grump, while tempering it with some real affection towards LBJ. It’s a surprisingly sensitive performance, one that allows Peters to show real heart, and a range that’s hard to find.

“All the Way” run roughly three hours, and at time it does feel its length, but there’s never a time when you’re thoroughly engrossed in what’s happening on stage. Vivovich seems born to play the part of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and his supporting cast shines in equal measure throughout. It’s a thought-provoking picture of one of the nation’s most turbulent periods, and how with gumption, wit, and perseverance, a powerful man was able to at least help Americans take a large step forward towards equality.

“All the Way” is playing at Zach’s Topfer Theatre through May 10th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit Zach Theatre’s website at zachtheatre.org

Photo Courtesy of Kirk Tuck

‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ is a swashbuckling and hilarious night of theatre

In the world of theatre, it’s not too difficult to find a play that will enrich your soul, or tickle your emotions, but it’s difficult to find a piece that’s undeniably fun. Thankfully, Zach Theatre, led by award-winning director Michael Baron, has answered the call with a production of Rick Elice’s “Peter and the Starcatcher”, a clever prequel to the world-famous children story “Peter Pan” based upon the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, which takes several elements from the original story, throws them into the blender, and then forgets to put on the lid, creating an explosion of color, adventure, and swashbuckling excitement.

The plot of “Peter and the Starcatcher” can be a bit of a heavy load to take in at first. We find Lord Leonard Astor and his daughter, Molly, who are journeying to the island of Rundoon to transport a mysterious trunk, when they run afoul of a group of pirate who wish to have the trunk for themselves. What follows is a ridiculous roundabout, which leads everyone to an island full of flying crocodiles, Italian natives, and bizarre mermaids. It’s madcap, and it’s definitely silly, but it’s also the most fun I’ve had at the theatre in some time.

At times, “Peter and the Starcatcher” flies by the audience at remarkable speeds, and it’s a credit to director Michael Baron that he makes these scenes not only coherent, but a treat to take in. The play has a remarkable momentum, with many scenes playing off like Benny Hill sketches, until we’re allowed a moment to breathe, and take in the impeccably designed sets by Scott Groh, which is underscored by the sumptuous lighting design by Matt Webb. They really help to create a fascinating fantasyscape that’s at once reminiscent of the swashbuckling pirate adventures we know, and something all its own.

There’s not an ounce of shame on the stage at any time, and this confidence in the actors really pays off. They take wild chances, creating explosive and wild characters that take us on an impeccably crafted journey. In particular, J. Robert Moore’s Black Stache is so deliciously over-the-top that the stage gets a few steps brighter every time he arrives, striding across the boards with a gaunt and elegant style that you can’t help but be delighted by. He’s lithe, he’s silly, and he makes such entertaining choices, that it’s hard to not crack a smile when he traipses across the boards. Also bringing her share of delight is Sara Burke as the female lead, Molly. So rarely do we see a strong female character on stage, and Sara Burke carries this young girl with a rare composure, while still bringing that certain childish attitude to the role to remind us that this character is, after all, only a 13-year-old girl.

Of course, we mustn’t forget about the titular character, Peter, who will one day become the world famous Peter Pan. Here, he spends most of his time as an unnamed boy, and he carries the role with an awkward sincerity. He has fun and runs around as much as the other “lost boys”, but there’s something more guarded, more tucked away about him, until his last few moments. Watching this quiet, awkward boy become the Peter Pan we know and love is one of the delights of the show, and though we know where the road will end, we love seeing his journey in getting there. In particular, Peter’s relationship with Black Stache, the future Captain Hook, is well designed, as the two play off each other in really hilarious ways.

In the culinary journey that is the theatrical experience, “Peter and the Starcatcher” is a big slice of chocolate cake, but one can’t deny it’s a good one. It may not be particularly culturally fulfilling, but it’s colorful, loud, and silly fun. The action is fluid and dynamic, but rarely confusing, and one never knows what’s coming next (which is never more evident as in the opening scene of the third act). True all-ages entertainment, it’s a swashbuckling ride that’ll bring you back to the wonders of your youth.

“Peter and the Starcatcher” runs roughly 2 hours and 25 minutes with one intermission, and is playing at Zach Theatre’s Topfer Theatre through March 1st. For more information, to purchase tickets, visit Zach Theatre’s website at zachtheatre.org

Photo Courtesy of Kirk Tuck