Uptown Players Do It Their Way; In the Heights Hits the Skids
Uptown Players, take a bow. Ten years ago this gay-focused theater company, started by executive producers Craig Lynch and Jeff Rane, put on little shows with little money in a tiny hole of a space off Stemmons Freeway. Now they occupy the 400-seat, city-owned, Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater on Turtle Creek. They've grown up, staging hot plays and major musicals in a big way, all starring the area's top talent.
With the annual Broadway Our Way fundraising spectacular, running one more weekend at Kalita, Uptown is able to remind audiences that they deserve a lot of credit for nurturing and developing many of the musical theater actors now regarded as divas and divos on Dallas stages. Sharing the spotlight in this year's Broadway Our Way: B.J. Cleveland (who also wrote and directed the show), Jeff Kinman, Tony and Sara Shelby-Martin, Coy Covington, Max Swarner, Amy Stevenson, Darius Anthony Robinson, Lon Barrera, Thomas Renner, Beth Albright, Kayla Carlyle, Linda Leonard, Chad Peterson, Jim Johnson, Angel Velasco, Paul J. Williams, Marisa Diotalevi, Mark Oristano, Whitney Hennen, Arianna Movassagh, Stephanie Riggs, Kelly McCain, Michael Albee, Brendan Cyrus, Sergio Antonio Garcia, Rick Starkweather, Summer Kenny and Kevin Moore. These performers have a special home at Uptown, though they work all over, and always seem most relaxed in the freewheeling atmo of this musical revue. (Another early Uptown star was Cedric Neal, currently appearing in The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess on Broadway.)
Running right at three hours, Broadway Our Way pays tribute to musicals, new and old. Uptown flips the script by letting the men sing numbers written for women, a gimmick that pays off with good laughs on a song like "Big Spender" from Sweet Charity, as guys strike saucy poses draped Fosse-style over a ballet barre. Women, meanwhile, are awarded songs for men, like "Standing on the Corner" from Most Happy Fella (the one about "watchin' all the girls go by") and "Turn It Off," the showstopper from current Broadway smash The Book of Mormon about flicking off bad emotions and gay urges "like a light switch." Beth Albright, done up like a sister-wife, also solos on Mormon's dogma-spouting anthem "I Believe." (Note to those hearing it for the first time: Adherents to this religion actually do believe the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri, just like the song says.)
More lavish than any Broadway Our Way before it, this year's production underscores the polish and confidence Uptown Players have poured into their work since moving into Kalita a few years ago. They also offer a preview of the musical comedy The Producers, which they're doing this summer. Mel Brooks' lyrics for one song in that show about showbiz say "So keep your Strindbergs and Ibsens at bay. Keep it gay! Keep it gay! Keep it gay!"
That philosophy seems to be working for Uptown Players. They shouldn't change a thing.
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If you're expecting to see a 21st century West Side Story, In the Heights will leave you down in the dumps.
The Broadway tour of the Tony-winning 2008 musical is winding up its stop at the Winspear Opera House and it's not bad; it's just not great. Set on a street corner in Manhattan's Washington Heights — Upper West Side Story, if you will — the show introduces one-dimensional black and Latino characters, each striving to buy the winning ticket to the American dream.
Young Vanessa (Presilah Nuñez) is home for a visit, scared to tell her parents, owners of a car service, that she wants to quit Stanford University because it's just too hard. Bodega owner Usnavi (the dynamic and charming Perry Young, playing the role originated by the show's composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda) cares for his aged abuela (Christina Aranda in the most stereotypical role) and is sad to see other businesses on the block going under. Hairdresser Daniela (Tauren Hagans) is moving her popular shop to another side of the borough, another sign of a community losing its center.
And a center is what In the Heights lacks. The concept by Miranda, with a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, is simply a series of loosely connected vignettes depicting turning points in the characters' lives. (New York Times critic Charles Isherwood called the show "basically a salsa-flavored soap opera.") What passes for a plot is a shallow storyline about Usnavi selling someone the winning lottery numbers. Which character has the ticket, and thus a ticket out of a crummy neighborhood, is supposed to be a big surprise. It's more of a disappointing "who cares?"
Directed by Thomas Kail, with hip-hop choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, In the Heights never hits them.
Public confessions as short performance pieces are trending now on stages coast to coast. A "story slam" series called The Moth has popped up in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. Now Dallas has its own version taking wing with Oral Fixation (An Obsession with True Life Tales).
Producer Nicole Stewart brought the idea back with her from a stint in L.A. and has set it up as a monthly event in the big theater at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary. Each show has a theme. Earlier this month it was "One-Night Stand." For the April 17 show it will be "Have a Field Day." In May it's "Cooking with Gas." The themes are writing prompts and anyone can submit a 10-minute monologue that expresses the topic, however obliquely. Pieces must be personal and true, says Stewart. If chosen, monologues are performed by their writers. There are no restrictions on language or content.
The March Oral Fixation played to a full house at The MAC and included several funny, ribald stories of one-night-only sexual encounters, and one woman's story of her relationship to her "one nightstand," a piece of furniture she inherited. Playwright Mac Lower shared his story of an evening of passion with an older women who had once been his high school Spanish teacher. The encounter has its moments of farce, as when she leaves him standing naked in the bedroom while she goes to turn on the stereo: "I heard the music begin to play. How'm I supposed to keep an erection to Enya?"
Writer Ryan Creery began his monologue with light comedy — "We met two smooth talkers. We'll call them Ron and Jeremy" — and then worked step by step through a sadistic date-rape and its psychological aftermath. "I've learned to love without waiting for the bruise," he said at the end.
Confession is good for the soul, they say. And these evenings of personal, provocative confessional stories are good for the teller and the listener. They are theater at its most basic, the shared experience, raw and riveting.
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