Dallas Children's Theater Gives the Big Bad Wolf his Day in Court in the musical 3 Little Pigs; hear Etta sing in Deep Ellum production.
This week's big event over at the shiny barn in Arlington is all about possession of the pigskin, right? Coincidentally, Dallas Children's Theater, named by Time magazine one of the country's top five professional theaters for young audiences, has a stage filled with porkers. And one really unhappy wolf.
DCT proves there's more than one way to skin a pig. The old fairy tale undergoes a spiffy musical comedy makeover in The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!, getting its Southwest premiere in a super-sized production at DCT starring five of Dallas' first-string musical theater performers. The 70-minute show offers a rib-tickling good time for the kiddos, but there's plenty of cracklin' grown-up humor in it, too. Nothing too risqué though. That wouldn't be kosher.
Instead of the "once upon a time" set-up, this version, based on the children's book by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, begins after the deed's been done and the perp is standing trial. Alexander T. Wolf (played by Bob Hess, a master of droll comedy roles) is charged with double murder. Evidence shows he huffed, puffed and blew down the shoddily constructed houses of a pair of pigs, then gobbled them up. A third murder was attempted, it's alleged, but foiled by sturdier building materials. The eager prosecutor, pig-eared, curly-tailed Julia (Catherine Carpenter Cox, star of many a Lyric Stage musical), can't wait to convict Mr. Wolf and see him fry.
Narrating the courtroom proceedings is a porcine tabloid reporter (Lee Jamison). She gambols about the set—designer Randel Wright has created an oversized courtroom, turned it slightly askew and painted it the color of pickled pig's feet—commenting on the trial with Nancy Grace breathlessness. In the dock is a scholarly sow, Judge Prudence (Deborah Brown, last seen at DCT playing a cow in Click, Clack, Moo). In the jury box sit 12 bright pink puppet pigs. It's Law & Order: The Other White Meat.
Testifying for the prosecution are a series of witnesses, all pigs and all played by actor B.J. Cleveland. As a dim-witted construction worker pig, a nearsighted old lady pig, a cop and others, Cleveland is hilarious. He trots away with the show, hogging every opportunity to do a funny voice, make a silly face or shake his wiglet like a nervous piglet. Given more headcheese, er, headway to improvise, he'd probably work in a reference from Deliverance. He doesn't, proving he can play a pig without being a boar.
Directed with a strong eye for spectacle by Cheryl Denson and choreographed with lively steps by Jeremy Dumont (whose skilled tapping and snappy comic timing redeemed an otherwise sedated Drowsy Chaperone at Theatre Three), 3 Little Pigs moves like greased lightning. Book and lyrics by Robert Kauzlaric aren't exactly Comden and Green quality, but they're catchy and pleasant, even if the rhymes sometimes have too many words sausaged into each phrase in songs titled "Piggy World" and "Cheeseburgers Ain't Cute." Original music for this production by S-Ankh Rasa mixes bouncy pop rhythms with light jazz licks. (The cast sings to a recorded track.)
Listen carefully and you'll pick up some gentle messages in this show about laws of nature—put a carnivore near fresh meat and what's he supposed to do, ignore it or eat it?—and about the details of the judicial process. Mr. Wolf, appointed no defense attorney, finds himself in an all-pig kangaroo court, arguing that the whole huff-and-puff incident was misconstrued. And, he argues, can you really trust eyewitness testimony, especially if a witness wears glasses? (That's a plot turn right out of that well-known legal drama 12 Angry Hogs). The song about cheeseburgers is a reminder of how easy it is to consume beef, pork and chicken as long as someone else kills it. Not likely to turn any kids into vegans, but a good point to ponder on the way to McDonald's after the show.
The audience serves as the final jury for the case of Piggsylvania v. Wolf and, depending on the verdict determined by audience oinks, the show ends with an upbeat "Hurrah!" or a song sending Al Wolf to the pigpen-itentiary. The playwright, who attended opening night at DCT, says the vote is almost always in favor of the Wolf. Kids and adults, it seems, can't resist an underdog.
On Sunday and Monday nights for the next few weeks, there's something special at Tucker's Blues, a cozy, brick-walled jazz club in Deep Ellum. Dallas singer and actress Sheran Goodspeed Keyton has written and is performing a one-woman tribute to the great jazz-blues-soul singer Etta James in a two-hour show Keyton calls Simply Etta.
On its opening night, the show felt like a work in progress—too much talking and not enough singing. Keyton is one of Dallas' reigning musical theater divas, with a cra-mazing voice that's always on the verge of telling you she's not going, no, no, no, no, no. There's lots of good stuff in this show if Keyton can pare down the script to allow another song or five.
She plays Etta James as if the singer, in a club appearance, were looking back over her decades in the music biz and reliving some of the joys and sorrows of her long career. In real life, James, who just turned 73, has been battling leukemia and the onset of Alzheimer's. Keyton's portrayal, which isn't age-specific, makes reference to lapses in memory and it fits the character that the actress relies on notes in a journal to supply details of dates and names.
Wearing a blond wig (Etta was inspired to go platinum by the great actress Dorothy Dandridge) and working a flow-y blue velvet gown and sparkly rhinestone jewels, Keyton's Etta tells of a tough childhood in Los Angeles with an often-absent unwed teenage mother. Etta's father, it was later revealed, was white pool hustler "Minnesota Fats." One of the nicest moments in the narrative of this performance tells of Etta's first meeting with him when she was a young singing star.
Belting great tunes that include "W-O-M-A-N," "Downhome Blues," "Roll with Me, Henry" (later retitled "The Wallflower") and "A Sunday Kind of Love," Keyton is a marvelous facsimile of Etta James, echoing her phrasing, deep-throated soul and bone-rattling power. She can be riveting at the storytelling, too, getting into some of the dirt about Etta's days on the road with the Rolling Stones and her on-and-off affair with drugs and alcohol. Keyton isn't afraid to show off Etta's sexy siren side either, grinding her hips to a get-down B.B. King number with the lyrics "Rock me, baby/ Rock me like my back ain't got no bone."
At last, she gets to "At Last," Etta James' signature tune. The lead-in story takes aim at "that little heifer Beyonce" for singing it, in James' presence, at the Obama inaugural. In the diva rule book, you just don't sing another diva's song when she's in the room.
Backing up Keyton on keyboard is University of North Texas grad student Alejandro Serrano Ayuso. He's great. Keyton's great. The music's great. A bare stage, good tunes and a lady who can sing the blues. Simply Etta is simply terrific.
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