Those were the good shows.
Cruel and freaky in the way that makes you shut your eyes tight and wish yourself into a cornfield was Some Like It Hot at the Dallas Summer Musicals, the star attraction being Hollywood waxwork Tony Curtis. Puffed out like a toupeed armadillo, Curtis mugged, broke character and read his lines off prompt screens. Behind him, flimsy scenery flapped and fluttered like cheap prom decorations. How appalling was this tap-dancing turkey of a show? To borrow Curtis' own description of doing love scenes with Marilyn Monroe in the very fine film this Hot was based on, sitting through the gruesome three-hour stage version was "like kissing Hitler."
Still, the ovine herds stampeded into the frigid, acoustically abysmal Fair Park Music Hall, paying 50 bucks a pop to watch Curtis end his career on a succession of sour notes. They blew kisses at the old pouter pigeon and leapt to their feet for the inevitable unearned standing ovation.
If only the gullible mooks who flocked to Some Like It Hot or the gimmicky Wizard of Oz or the roaringly boring road company of The Lion King, which played a sold-out six-week run at Fair Park, had ventured into the smaller theater venues in Dallas, Fort Worth and the suburbs around and between. That's where they would have discovered the best acting, directing and new playwriting in 2002, too often happening before rows of empty seats.
Ergo the inequity of the mostly non-Equity Dallas theater biz. Schlocky commercial twaddle like The Lion King packs 'em in by the thousands while a gorgeous little drama like Barbette, with startlingly good acting and breathtaking aerial work by newcomer Joey Steakley and 70-something Jere Stevens Tulk, premieres at Kitchen Dog, earns scads of critical huzzahs and plays to minuscule audiences. The Dallas Theater Center loosens up and gets a hit with the slick and tuneful Blues in the Night (featuring the phenomenal Bernardine Mitchell), but the well-heeled theatergoers who love this one never make it over to the sweet and genuinely moving little musical drama The Last Session, produced by Uptown Players at the Trinity River Arts Center.
Small theaters struggled mightily to sell tickets in '02. Many offered "pay what you can" nights to help students and others afford to get in. But artistically even the tiniest companies kept shooting high, with two or three new shows opening almost every week of the year.
That's good for Dallas' large community of actors, whose numbers always are in flux as young ones dreamily seek stardom on the coasts and older ones pragmatically move back. A typical open audition for even barely paying productions in Dallas can draw hundreds of hopefuls. So it's a tribute to their talent that many of the best local thesps managed to stay steadily employed last year.
Among the top-tier performers, versatile Lulu Ward showed her range as twin divas in Pegasus Theatre's goofy black-and-white comedy Cross Stage Right: Die!, then played a speed-addicted, blowsy white trash mama in Ground Zero's premiere of the late Stuart Litchfield's dramedy The Abandoned Reservoir. Ward shone again this fall in dual roles in Echo Theatre's sparkling Cloud Nine.
Actress Cindee Mayfield madly scrubbing her armpits over a sink in Abandoned Reservoir provided one of the funniest moments in Dallas theater in the past 12 months. She also drew big laughs as a society doyenne in WaterTower Theatre's effervescent revival of the Kaufman and Hart comedy You Can't Take It With You.
Lawyer-turned-actor Ted Wold found himself in demand after a showstopping turn as a cross-dressing Southerner in Uptown Players' hilarious Sordid Lives. After that, Wold worked in Uptown's The Last Session, WaterTower's You Can't Take It With You and Plano Rep's Inspecting Carol. Good performances all.
Character actress Tina Parker, a founding member of the Kitchen Dog company, showed up as a man in the summer Shakespeare Festival of Dallas' Henry IV and this fall gave everyone the mal occhio as Goneril in the sleek SMU-Kitchen Dog co-production of King Lear. Next, Parker directs the Southwest premiere of George F. Walker's comedy Heaven, opening at Kitchen Dog on February 22.
Kitchen Dog was home to arguably the finest and most formidable performance by any woman on a local stage in '02: Shelley Tharp-Payton as Winnie in Samuel Beckett's notoriously difficult Happy Days. Buried up to her waist and then to her chin in a dirt mound, the vocally gifted Tharp-Payton found humor and resonance in a play famous for its obscure, repetitive dialogue.
Best performance by an actor in '02 came from college student Brian J. Smith as 15-year-old Alex the Droog in A Clockwork Orange at Collin County Community College's Quad C Theatre. This was without a doubt last year's most stunningly original and gut-twisting two hours of drama. Smith's performance was riveting. Adapted from the Anthony Burgess novella by Quad C's theater department director Brad Baker, who also directed the play, Orange sent a jolt to the cerebellum with its stylized story of angry kids and government mind control. This play was so good I saw it three times, my only repeat visits to any show in 2002. Admission price? Free with the donation of a stuffed toy for a local charity.
Smith, 21, was such a knockout he had local directors scouting him for spring shows. WaterTower's Terry Martin has just cast him in that theater's upcoming production of The Laramie Project opening January 24. Still to come at Quad C are the musical Baby, opening February 27, and Rebecca Gilman's controversial drama about stalking, Boy Gets Girl, opening April 24. If you've never journeyed out to Quad C's two-theater facility on Spring Creek Parkway, do it in '03. And don't forget the new stuffed animal.
One theater that seems to have found the secret to balancing art and commerce is Addison's WaterTower, where subscriptions were up 50 percent in 2002. Last year saw WaterTower stage a haunting version of Neil LaBute's Bash: Latterday Plays, a trio of monologues about gay-bashing and baby-killing, then turn around and put on the rousing family comedy You Can't Take It With You. For Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, WaterTower's artistic director Terry Martin somehow erased the clichés by giving a brave, fresh-feeling emphasis to the relationship between the dying Big Daddy (played by the wonderful R Bruce Elliott) and his alcoholic, homosexual son, Brick.
WaterTower's musicals Always...Patsy Cline and Rockin' Christmas Party, both directed by James Paul Lemons, turned into big-selling audience faves (both also starred the immensely talented singer Jenny Thurman). And if WaterTower's production of Lanford Wilson's new drama Book of Days was a letdown, it did sport worthy acting by Jane Willingham, Robert Prentiss and Lydia Mackay (terrific later in the year in Echo Theatre's Cloud Nine). There's rarely an empty seat at a WaterTower show, and unlike DTC and Theatre Three, which draw noticeably older patrons, the ticket-buyers at WaterTower tend to be younger and more enthusiastic, which makes going to the Addison theater just flat-out more fun.
Theatre Three skews toward the stuffy and geriatric, and having an up-and-down year artistically didn't help expand the demos. This theater did its best work with Side Show, an odd, fancifully staged musical about Violet and Daisy Hilton, Siamese twins who worked in vaudeville. In the leads, Julie Stirman and Jennifer Freeman bonded eerily perfectly, matching physically and vocally. Wish I had a cast recording of this one. Theatre Three did well by Alan Ayckbourn's futuristic sitcom Comic Potential, which introduced Dallas audiences to the comedy chops of dynamic young Fort Worth actress Dana Schultes. But there was also A Class Act, a perfectly awful musical bio about one-hit wonder Ed Kleban, the chronically depressed lyricist of A Chorus Line fame. To play the leading role, Theatre Three chose an actor who couldn't sing, dance or play the piano (so he just mimed it, which I wish he'd also done with his singing). Theatre Three stumbled again with the Rodgers and Hart revue Beguiled Again, just now winding up its run. Off-key singing (except for Sally Soldo), awkward dancing, costumes resembling lowrider upholstery...only a cameo by Tony Curtis could have made it worse.