By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
If things are unusually quiet on some local stages right now, it's because most of the biggest, baddest voices in Dallas musical theater are singing like mad in Broadway Our Way, the annual fundraising revue at Oak Lawn's Uptown Players. The cast is an all-star lineup of area divas and divos: Denise Lee, Natalie King, Kayla Carlyle, Sara Shelby-Martin, Amy Stevenson, Wendy Welch, Linda Leonard, Coy Covington, Darius Anthony Robinson, Angel Velasco, Drew Kelly, Jeff Kinman and more (with special guests at every performance). If you've been to a big musical at Uptown Players, Theatre Three, WaterTower Theatre or Dallas Children's Theater in the past few years, chances are you've seen and heard one or more of these actor-singers in a starring role. What fun to find them all together, belting their faces off atop the revolving stage at Kalita Humphreys Theater.
What started 10 years ago as a one-night-only showcase to raise cash for Uptown Players—who themselves have evolved from a tiny group in an office park to residency in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed playhouse—now is a two-weekend extravaganza and a highlight of the troupe's season. The company, dedicated to staging musicals and plays reflecting gay life, imbues the revue with a gender-tweaking twist: Women sing Broadway show tunes written for male characters while men do emotional showstoppers meant for female voices. The result is sometimes hilarious, as when Darius Robinson struts and hip-thrusts through Hairspray's sassy "Big, Blonde and Beautiful." But the switch can also produce poignant moments, such as Kayla Carlyle's simple, soaring vocal on "Sailing" from the William Finn musical A New Brain.
This year, the Broadway Our Way song list includes tunes from contemporary Broadway hits, including The Little Mermaid, Rock of Ages, Memphis and the just-opened Sister Act: The Musical and Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. But there are golden oldies, too, songs for diehard musical theater queens who crave a dose of Sweet Charity ("Something Better than This," sung by a male trio); Wicked ("I'm Not That Girl," sung nicely by Rick Starkweather); or Evita ("Another Suitcase," given a whole new subtext performed in fab glam-drag by Coy Covington).
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Pop music sneaks into the program by way of jukebox musicals. Lee, King, Shelby-Martin and Stevenson blend their powerful lady-voices on a tightly harmonized "Blackbird" from Rain: The Beatles Tribute. "Spice up Your Life," from Spice Girls Musical (yes, there really was one), benefits from the giddy mugging and exuberant singing and dancing of "Spice Boys" Robinson, Velasco, Kinman, Kelly and Michael Albee. Velasco provides another highlight of the evening with his gutsy turn on "Listen," Beyonce's solo ballad from the movie (and lately the road tour) of Dreamgirls.
Serving as master of ceremonies for the 150-minute show—subtitle: Divas Rising—is Dallas actor-comedian Paul J. Williams. In the opening act, Williams appears in a pink polyester frock, pillbox hat and sensible shoes as his character "Sister Helen Holy," a tut-tutting Southern church-lady bent on sussing out the sins of various audience members (watch out). A deft comic quick with ad libs, Williams later pops back in between songs to perform sketches written by Andi Allen (who also directed). That's Williams on his knees as Jersey Shore's Bumpit-wearing dwarfling Snooki, and later in a mean black wig verbally jousting with Covington as the two become Sue Sylvester and "Coach Beast" from Glee. At the top of the second half, Williams returns in smart linen trousers and jacket to sing the dark and witty "Madam's Song" from Side by Side by Sondheim. He's the show's MVP.
Providing tight arrangements for all this is a five-piece onstage band that sounds terrific. Co-conductors Adam C. Wright and Kevin Gunter are on keyboards; Steve Begnoche plays percussion; Rick Norman's on bass next to guitarist Jason Bennett. The show looks slick this year, too. Andy Redmon's scenery places the performers in and around an upended bento box that goes 'round and 'round on that revolve. Lighting by Amanda West does lovely things with color and contrast. Costumes coordinated by Suzi Cranford play off combinations of black, white and shocking pink.
As always, Uptown uses Broadway Our Way to preview the company's upcoming productions. They're doing two big musicals this summer: gender-bending Victor/Victoria (opening July 29) and the Tony-winning rock musical Next to Normal, the first regional production of that show since it closed on Broadway. Opening June 10, Next to Normal will star Patty Breckenridge and Gary Floyd, just about the only local powerhouse vocalists who aren't appearing right now in Broadway Our Way. Perhaps they're resting up.
Debuting at The Green Zone, the Shrek-colored box in the Design District, is a new artistic "collective" called Dead White Zombies. Their first production is blahblah, an aptly titled new play by University of Texas-Dallas professor Thomas Riccio. It's not good.
Riccio has directed the production, which is a problem. It's hard for a playwright to stage his own work. Words become precious and flaws are ignored. A more objective director could have helped Riccio pare down a talky, meandering script and given his actors more to do than wander nervously across a bare stage.
There isn't much to hang onto plotwise, either. Out for a walk, a young couple, Joyce (Lori McCarty) and Karl (Abel Flores Jr.), sneak into what they assume to be an empty mansion. Instead they find rooms occupied by a neurotic rock star (Iknur Ozgur, a dead ringer for Gina Gershon), a hyper teenager (Mardi Robinson), a bald baron (Brad Hennigan), a giggling exhibitionist (Raquel Lydia Leal) and a monster (Ben Miró). Joyce and Karl get separated on their through-the-looking-glass adventure and spend close to two hours trying to get out of the house—or whatever alternative reality or psychological weirdness the house symbolizes.
Characters say things like, "Do you want to talk about the philosophy of exhaustion?" and "I'm having a bird moment." There are endless repetitions of banalities such as "We have to talk" and "Everything happens for a reason." The baron, wearing Spider-man underwear, grabs his crotch and says, "The balls speak in mysterious ways."
Actually, everyone here seems to be talking out of his or her ass. It's a prolonged, profane mess.
If Riccio was going for something akin to a mash-up of Alice in Wonderland and Sartre's No Exit, he's only succeeded in making the audience feel trapped and confused. As the actors shriek on and on about shaved pussies, talking scrotums and vibrating testicles, you'll begin to obsess about another organ—the eardrum—and how to puncture it. Look under the seats for a pencil stub, hairpin or rusty nail. Really, anything pointy will do.