By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
What started four years ago as a one-night-only fundraiser for the upstart Uptown Players has evolved into such a sell-out event that they now stretch Broadway Our Way over two weekends. This year's edition, subtitled Divas Unleashed, is a ferociously fun celebration of the theater's previous season that invites cast members from some of those shows to sing and dance their little gypsy hearts out. Crowding the spotlight are 19 of this town's best performers, including some promising up-and-comers and a few veteran still-arounders. BOW, as the actors have dubbed it, is their prime time to shine.
The twist to this revue has boys singing show tunes written for female characters. Girls sing boys' big numbers. And if there's a duet love ballad, you can bet it'll end with a same-sex smooch. Uptown is the Gal-halla of gay-themed material.
This year's show blows wet kisses to recent Broadway hits. Cameron McElyea and Tony Martin, two of the self-confessed straight actors in the cast, sing Avenue Q's comic "If You Were Gay." Suave Donald Fowler is in fine voice on the difficult and haunting "Fable" from Light in the Piazza, sung in that show by the leading lady. Stephanie Hall, Amy Stephenson, Lisa-Gabrielle Greene and Patty Breckinridge do cross-sex camp in two numbers from Altar Boyz. Those lead right into "Heaven on My Mind" from Jesus Christ Superstar. BOW's writer-director Andi Allen makes sure the flow from song to song makes sense in a winking, witty way.
Young William Blake, eliminated way too early from the pack of pimply-faced belters on last year's American Idol, co-starred in Uptown's production of The Who's Tommy and here shows off his muscular vocal cords and newly slim physique on "Sooner or Later" from Putting It Together and "All That Jazz" from Chicago (danced by the cast with Fosse-esque grinds). Blake's a born showstopper, and he does it twice in Broadway Our Way. Any minute now somebody will "discover" this kid and let him do the real Broadway his way.
Both weekends of BOWfeature cameos by theater pros from 'round cheer. In the performance reviewed it was Coy Covington, appearing in the first half of the show in a tuxedo to sing an elegant "I Got Lost in His Arms" from Annie Get Your Gun. He returned later in full-glam female get-up (he specializes in women's roles, but don't call him a drag queen or you'll get a press-on nail up the nose) and romped through a pee-in-the-britches funny rendition of "The Grass Is Always Greener" from And the World Goes Round with B.J. Cleveland (who always looks like the late Totie Fields, in or out of a dress). The second weekend's guest is M. Denise Lee, still the diva of all divas in Dallas musicals and last heard blowing the doors off Dallas Theater Center in Crowns.
Stand-up comic Paul J. Williams, co-founder of the Queertown comedy troupe, serves as host of BOW and keeps things moving along with some wisecracks and inside jokes about Uptown shows past and future.
Musical director Lee Harris handles keyboards expertly along with assistant conductor Jeff Crouse and percussionist Jaime Reyes. If the trio wasn't playing in full view of the audience, you'd swear there were three times that many musicians backing up the big-voiced cast.
What hasn't changed is Kleinmann's patented "Living Black and White" visual design that turns the onstage proceedings into a monochromatic mystery. The show begins with a scratchy black-and-white film that depicts a murder (a magician dies during a dangerous "bullet catch" trick). Then the screen rolls up to reveal a stage bathed in the same silvers and grays of an old Hollywood movie. The only color is the actors' tongues, which they're careful to keep tucked inside their black-lipsticked mouths. It's pretty spectacular to watch, even if the plot of the comic mystery itself is as thin as a crackly old strip of celluloid.
Style over substance is OK for Pegasus. Kleinmann's plays are pretty silly affairs centering on the character he plays, hapless detective Harry Hunsacker, a would-be actor who would remain clueless on any case if not for his smarter assistant, Nigel Grouse (Timothy Honnoll, reprising the role). Hunsacker and Grouse stumble into the spooky mansion of the dead magician on the very night the will is being read. But who killed him? Pert assistant Tracy (Carrie Slaughter)? Creepy butler and maid (Steven-Shayle Rhodes, Leslie Patrick)? Or someone else in the large cast?
Kleinmann's too clever to let the butler be the villain, but the ending isn't all that astonishing. Characters aren't well-developed. Jokes are hokey. And on opening night, many of the sleight-of-hand tricks Kleinmann and others attempted either didn't work or were too small to be seen from the upper rows.
Mind Over Murder! may not be the resounding revival Pegagus needs to get all of its old fans back in new seats, but it is good to see that even after a long lay-off, Kleinmann and Hunsacker are still on the case.
There was great work to be found on nearly every stage last year. Even Theatre Three, which I usually pound like a dusty rug, managed 90 minutes of beauty with their early fall production of Metamorphoses, a sexy take on mythology played in an onstage swimming pool.
Great theater is made of wonderful little moments that stick with you long after the curtain rings down. Among the best last year: actress Lynn Blackburn's slithery entrance in Theatre Britain's fine production of Noel Coward's Hay Fever; Bryan Keith Moore in Kitchen Dog's staging of Sam Shepard's Buried Child, menacingly ripping pages from a paperback book; Marisa Diotalevi frantically pantomiming a five-minute toilette in Contemporary Theatre's Parallel Lives; Quad C's Julie Painter bustling around the kitchen in The Beauty Queen of Leenane as her old mum (Carolyn Wickwire) sits dead in a rocking chair; Wickwire again, skipping like a schoolgirl in Richardson Theatre Centre's wonderful Mornings at Seven; Terry Vandivort's subtle drunk scenes in Uptown's Southern Baptist Sissies; the actors of Second Thought Theatre fencing with pool noodles in their smart new take on King Ubu; Patrick Johnson singing "Laugh! Laugh! Laugh!" in Our Endeavors Theater Collective's original vaudeville musical The Last One-Nighter on the Death Trail; Ian Lesonand Diane Worman naked and itching with the drug crazies in KDT's Bug and then, in a complete turnaround, Leson playing a gay New Yorker in CTD's heartwarming Visiting Mr. Green; Stephanie J. Block hitting notes so pure and rich as Elphaba in the touring production of Wicked that the first act deserved a standing ovation (the tour returns here in 2007).
Theatergoers live for those goosebump performances. Looking at some of the season lineups for 2006, this could be another bonanza year. Among ones I'm booking early for: the Pulitzer-winning I Am My Own Wife, opening at Dallas Theater Center in March; the provocative 2003 Tony winner Take Me Out, about a gay baseball player, at WaterTower Theatre in May; Dallas Shakespeare's June revival of Randy Tallman and Steven Mackenroth's musical version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which premiered at Dallas Theater Center 30 years ago and now will be staged by Dallas' best director, Rene Moreno. I saw it way back when--about 10 times, as I remember--and fell in love with the score and the hilarious scenes of Rude Mechanicals and dancing fairies.
Resolved for 2006: See more live theater. Remember, every time a theater seat sits empty, a dancing fairy dies. Or has to get a day job.