Bayou City Theatrics
Bayou City Theatrics NEXT OPENING OCTOBER 24th –Rocky Horror!!!!
Some Clues You Ignore
October 9, 2014 — I get to the theater and it’s in the historic Rice Hotel building or right next to it. Nice marquis over the front entrance. Nice wooden floor in the lobby. Nice bar. Nice, nice people. I get into the theater and there’s a black wooden wedge of a riser for seating almost filling a high, high ceilinged room with beautiful roof details and state of the art acoustic dampening design. The bathrooms are the amazingly fancy remnants of some long gone restaurant. The lighting instruments are mostly par cans which don’t focus or shape the light. The seats are plastic folding chairs. The stage setting is rags hanging. To me, these are clues that this theater isn’t funded by a giant endowment.
The music starts and I think I hear a brass instrument blowing on the second floor but it is overridden by piped-in music. I take it to be a live recording of the music. It sounds less canned than a studio karaoke package. Danica Dawn Johnston makes a good first impression as Velma. She’s strong: strong body, strong dancing, strong faces. Roxie does her opening. I find myself wondering about the attitude she portrays. Wouldn’t it be funnier to play innocent without signaling ‘evil intent’ in the facial expressions just before singing ‘had it coming’ For the rest of the first act I keep asking myself if I’m some kind of lookist. Do I just not like the face of the Derrien Kellum as Roxie? Would Roxie allow anyone, ever to see her as nasty or unlikable? Why is she doing puff tough, you know, like a bird making itself bigger, — no that would have been cool– more like, a cat tensing up to arch its back, but you see in its eyes that the dog is way too big—no that would have been cool too – uh—Why do hip-hop tough in jazzy Chicago?. For the whole first act, Roxie scowls. Who would pay to see that? Who would take pictures of that? Who would make Roxie famous for that? Is Dannica just a great singer and good dancer? I find myself concerned about the strength of Dannica’s acting in her first speaking and interacting scene, but the announcement said it was professional theater. I’m misreading the clues that this is community theater. I’m concerned that I’m not sexually embarrassed by the garter-leo costumes they’re all wearing. So much of the first act is guys and gals getting undressed and dressed while they’re acting and I’m not uncomfortable, not wiggling around in my front row seat. What is the play Chicago if not ‘hot’, ‘sexy’, ‘confrontational moral turpitude ’, ‘wrong’, ‘guilty voyeuristic pleasure’? What’s the bone right in front of the pelvis? No one seems to be leading themselves around by that pelvic mound. It’s a bit like Fosse without attention to detail. Because of the unfocused lighting, the actors really needed to ‘find the light’ for their ‘moments’ and if they didn’t, their expressions got lost in the shadows. I think there are clues in the script that the players do engage the audience. This cast was holding that fourth wall up so hard that it seemed they thought they might drop a line or skip a step if they made eye contact with the audience. When you go to see the show, ( which is almost sold out, so get tickets ASAP), try to sit between the 3rd and 7th rows or right on the front row. There’s a stage mike somewhere, I think and the Public Address PA is mostly aimed at those rows. The sound of the actors is, of course, much better when you don’t hear the amplified part, but sometimes that acoustic sound got lost during the first act. The acting and singing in the first act was often tentative and reserved. The players didn’t seem to be making ‘big choices’. At this moment, writing this, some hours after the show, the most memorable thing in Act One was the ‘shit’ take Velma did when Roxie announced she was pregnant. The timing, intensity, everything about it was great. She even found the light. So, maybe all those clues told me that this theater is straining to ‘pull it off’, to put on the show, to get the lights on at intermission. That’s what I liked about it.
Some clues you ignore. Some you can’t. This is a theater that actually NEEDS its audience. It NEEDS your support. It NEEDS help, volunteers and workers and ticket sales and donations. I go around this town, nowadays. and I see the 100 million dollar foundations, theaters that only need audiences to justify their expenses, house managers ordering volunteer ushers with distain to wash the windows to prove that they submit to the pecking order and getting away with it because there are waiting lists of people who want to help. And here in this Kaleidoscope theater they are building drama like we did when Houston was just a football town. A new hero of mine actually attended the performance tonight. He was a board member of The Chocolate Bayou Theater. That was WAY before Stages held that Actors’ Equity audition where/when only ONE equity actor showed up. That was when they LAUGHED at us for trying to present theater in this football land, in this cultural desert that was Houston. The wonderful impresario — I don’t remember his name — was a BIG reason why we have a much richer cultural desert today. He made theater work when theater was IMPOSSIBLE in Houston, especially edgy theater. Yeah, sure, Marat Sade would breeze through town and air his gonads, but the fire marshals were there to keep things from getting too far out of hand.
And there we all were, on a Thursday night, every one of us able to claim this Chocolate Bayou man as our precursor, putting on and witnessing desperate, underfunded, fledgling,…..uh…. not quite dangerous ….theater. It was inspiring. During intermission I discovered that there was a live band upstairs playing all the music. I really thought it was a recording. I was completely fooled by the quality of the musical performance. Even the out-of-tune notes made it seem more like a pre-recorded karaoke track, but it was live music. The singing was darn good when you could hear it clearly, which was most of the time. There was a really nice duet with Velma and Heather Hall as Mama in Act Two. The staging made good use of the space. The boy actors were fun. The girl actors were….uh….ballsy – sometimes literally. This show, this cast, did good renditions of all the songs, live and raw and real and they did not do great disservice to the memory of the dance numbers, which only had noticeable imprecision because of how tight they were in general. During the second act, Roxie smiled and glowed at the praise heaped on her because she was pregnant. The scowl was gone!!! Oh, Roxie, Roxie, why did you make me wait to see your face? That scowl distracted me from believing you were real and you do smile so well and even have other faces too! Razzle Dazzle guy could have been a bit more dazzling on that number, but that character and part isn’t easy to pull off without copying others and Kyle Ezer seems to have come up with his own take on the role. Brecht did it in a one room apartment. Go see Jane Volke do it in a historic landmark, cut apart as it may be. This was a good show, cut apart as I may have made it seem. I don’t just list actors in reviews. I don’t see the reason to do that, but the Chocolate Bayou hero guy was there and this theater is new and fresh like theater was then, so please let me praise, Dannica Dawn Johnston, Derrien Kellum, Fong Chau, Brain Chambers, Michelle Mayo, Erica Bundy, Jessica rohe, Ashley Carfine, Misty Chambers, Heather Hall, Kyle Exer, Christian Quiroga, Tori Shoemaker, Luke Hamilton, Jane Volke, Hannah Connant, Ryan Norwood, Tyler Murphy, Toberto De Guzman, Harry Ochsenbein, Logan Shoemaker, Don Newman, Carol Daubert, Shannon Page, Buzz Belmont, Megan Vaughn, Taylor McWhorter, Brandie Frye, and those two wonderful guys who were volunteering in the front for pulling off this difficult show with style and grace.