Theater Under the Stars Reviews
Theater Under the Stars NEXT OPENING SEPTEMBER 25TH
By Austin Green
September 18, 2014 — I was so busy fighting downtown traffic this evening to fully realize that’s where I was going but once I entered Sarofim Hall, there was no mistaking Downtown Houston was where I arrived. Sarofim Hall is a massive, glorious building to behold. Upon entering the theatre doors, I was blown away by the sheer size of it. Hundreds of my fellow audience members can tell you the same thing, this was going to be quite the show.
18 musical numbers and the orchestral excellence and choreographic poise helped weave the numbers together into a fluid and “Fabulous” experience.
“Victor Victoria” was vibrant throughout. The sets were intricate and beautiful and the lighting was just as alluring. But the real praise goes to the cast and orchestra. The subterranean artists provided half the show with no tangible reminders besides the fluttering and frantic hands of the conductor reaching up from beneath the stage. The cast never missed a beat and I was most impressed by their ability to really hit the production’s many, flamboyant punch-lines. The gender identity overtones were strong but not overbearing. I believe that “Victor Victoria” was victorious in drawing the curtains back on what is acceptable in our society today. Among my favorite characters are Carroll Todd (Tony Sheldon) the gay manager of Victoria, the star. His performance was quintessential. Victoria’s role was filled by Anastasia Barzee, who was on point but not as on point as Angel Rida. She embodied Norma Cassidy to perfection. The sassy, windy-city girl spirit that she exuded on stage was one of the most entertaining of the night.
All in all, “Victor and Victoria” was lively and engaging and it proved itself to be one of the better productions I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing.
By Mehran Khavarian
June 14, 2014– The parking was well organized and patrolled by security officers to direct traffic; however, upon leaving, it was quite crowded and difficult due to street construction. The play took place in the Theatre Under The Stars, and well, it felt like a magical moment. Filled with dressy folks in a luxurious theater, the event was quite similar to the movie. Little Mermaid was portrayed by audio graphics and symphony orchestrated to make it feel like you were actually “under the sea.” Through the costume identities and identical voices, the audience felt as if they were a part of the play, if not the movie.
However, some parts did need improvement or further attention. Ursula’s tentacles,for one, seemed rather unattached, having to be carried by the eels and Ariel to represent actual tentacles. If the tentacles were robotic or mechanical it would have been much more appealing. Additionally, the background costumes were not very uniformed and stood out against the background, showing actual human figures rather than the scene.
Other than small misfits mainly due to costumes, the event resembled the movie. The stage was very nice and the effects caused by the symphony and audio enhancements were lively. Every time the Trident shook, the lights and audio represented the wrath of Poseidon’s Trident with power. The seats also portrayed the event well, being royal blue and comfortable. As for the introduction, it was quite lengthy trying to get the audience “into the sea” and in character as if we were part of the cast; however, it could have been a little better.
Overall I would rate the event as a 4 out of 5 stars based on these reasons, and would definitely recommend any fan of Disney to visit this act.
June 14, 2014 — The Theatre Under The Stars is an amazing Theatre literally set under the stars; the lights were in star shapes. TUTS is a very small place, but once the musical starts you forget all of the limited space. At the beginning of the show the orchestra intro was too long. Yet, it really set the scene of being under the water. The music was magical and just like the movie. You can tell all of the hard work they had put into making the music exactly like the sound track of the movie. As the play began, the actors where already throwing stunts at you and it made you feel like the actual scenes in the movie. I commend the choreographer of the musical, for making it as realistic as possible.
I had very few complaints with the play, and overall I thought the musical was lovely. The first complaint other than the long intro would be the costumes of the people you are not supposed to notice. The background was blue due to the “under the sea” feeling, yet these background performers were wearing neon orange and green. Making them very noticeable and distracting from the main characters. There were also these background fish people that took the attention away from Ariel and the Prince. I feel like the costume designers could have done better on that. One other thing that I though was very out of the ordinary is in the musical Ursula had two electric eels that would move her tentacles for her and is was very strange. These characters did this a numerous amount of times and it was taking the moment away from her.
Apart from the few complaints I enjoyed the musical very much. I would recommend this to anyone of any age that likes The Little Mermaid. The music was exciting and the actors were amazing. Everything put together makes the audience feel like there are apart of the musical and just lightens up their night. I would rate this musical a 9 on a 1 to 10 scale.
“Hands On A Hardbody” is TUTS Underground’s season closing show
June 13, 2014 –“Hands On A Hardbody” is TUTS Underground’s season closing show, a new program aimed at a young professional demographic that, according to its website, is “edgy, captivating, rockin’ and a little risqué.” The heavy gospel and country musical is based on the mid-1990’s award winning documentary of the same name that follows an endurance competition in Longview TX. In both the documentary and the musical, participants put their name in a drawing to win a chance to see who can keep their hand on a brand new pick-up truck the longest. We’re talking days without sleep, malnutrition, and some very strange sleep deprived psychosis. Some serious musical/comedy fodder is going on here.
From the get-go the evening is different from your average musical experience: they allow alcohol in the theater with caveat that it remains in a lidded plastic cup. The theater lobby is filled with young adults, and there’s impromptu “beer garden” thrown together with couches and a rolling bar outside. It would not have been my choicest hangout otherwise, but before and during intermission it’s a great place to mingle and chat.
The musical features vivid characters, quite a few of them comical caricatures of those in the documentary. If you’re not from ‘round here, yes people like this do exist. Not everyone can afford dental care, and some can and do subsist on Cheetos and Lonestar.
Although the character development is at a minimum, there is a depth to each, and over the course of two hours they belt out their back stories and motivation for wanting the car: there is a Laredo born Latino who needs the truck for Texas A&M veterinary school, a gospel singing songstress who want to be able to drive her kids to school, a mother with six kids on welfare, a girl who is sick of her Schwinn and an ex-Marine who doesn’t say much. There is also the villain, the winner from a few years ago who has a dubious history, looks like he smells like old fish tackle and talks mean game with a convincing drawl. For all parties involved, winning this truck would drastically improve their quality of life.
The set is simple: there’s gleaming Nissan pick-up truck that rotates so that no character is left out of site on the Dark Side of the Truck. There are no set changes, costume changes or huge special effects (unless you count the truck, which I do). The acting is good, but not great. Some of the characters fall into that typical drama kid quick pose/gesture miming that is distracting. The singing, on the whole, is better than your average high school musical but not the best. I’m not sure if it was the nerves of opening night or just a lack of talent, but there is some off-key going on here. The music is, surprisingly, penned by Phish’s Trey Anastasio. It’s decent music, but I doubt you’ll be running out to buy the album.
The highlight of the show, in my opinion, is the Laredo-based Jesus’ monologue and solo. This guy can really act, and really really sing. Although his motive for winning the truck is far less noble, his performance had me rootin’ for ‘em.
Evita is now playing. It’s May 6, 2014. The crowd is ready for a classic musical. The theater is impressive. The orchestra begins to play in the pit. Wow! The music is doggone good throughout the whole show. The sets and lighting are everything they need to be. The Narrator, ‘Che’ begins to sing. His tune is sung a bit like a boot dropping: phrase, phrase phrase in a not-quite staccato delivery but I can hear every single word he sings. I can hear every word he sings without straining. He sounds good and I’m just taking in the story of Evita Peron. I’m lost in listening, I am carried along the spine of the musical. Here we have the familiar songs and tunes. Here we have excitement on stage. I’m so happy I came to the show. I can see the entirety of the action and sets, being seated in LL 6, right behind where the overhang in the back of the theater starts. Go see the show!!! It’s Evita! Right here in Houston I am transported to Argentina. Musicals are fun! Theater Under the Stars is such a wonderful asset to the Houston scene. This is a national touring company, the best that English-speaking theater has to offer.
I’m sure it’s just because of where I was seated, way back there, that I missed some parts of the performance. I tried to pay attention, but maybe I missed where the relationship of Che and Evita was defined. Is he just narrator? I can’t see how he’s relating to her. If he is just a person, what is the dance number they do together? What is he to her? What is she to him? The one night stands were amusing and well staged, in my opinion. As I watched, I began to wonder if the high notes Evita was singing were a way of telling the audience that she was weak and poor. Some of the high notes seemed almost shrill. I was carried along through the first act by the familiar music, by the narration. The chorus was crowd and cozy friends, but not distracting, even if sometimes a little linear. Peron’s lover’s silence when ousted was mute and, once again, I probably just couldn’t see it from my seat, but I saw no resistance to Evita pushing her out into the street and didn’t see the type of silence she then sang about. Did the narrator take in the waif or just escort her off stage?
Once again, I apologize if I just didn’t see from where I was sitting, but some of the other things I didn’t see were indications of the sweeping changes in the character of Evita. Maybe Evita stayed the same throughout her life and that’s why I didn’t see an arc of character transitions as she sleeps her way to the top, as she becomes famous, as she becomes a queen, as she makes a powerful and intelligent man love her, as she tries to be a modern Robin Hood, as she steps over everyone, as she becomes sick and dies.
Maybe I expected to be pulled into the rebellion at the end of the first act. I always had the impression that that last scene of act one was the strongest in the play, or one of them. Maybe because I couldn’t see character, from my distance, only caricature, I lost empathy a bit. Maybe because I couldn’t see why I should, I didn’t cry when Evita sang “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” I tried to care about her dieing. I tried to ignore that her weakness was exposed in word before it was in her actions. Maybe I missed that too. I tried to care about the revolution. Maybe if I’d seen some difference in stature or posture as Colonel Perone became president. Or was he always just a murderous political soldier? Wow, those dancers’ kicks before the “money throwing freeze” got my attention, but I felt the play blurring into description and bald narration in the second act. This is how it was written, I know, and the written word creates challenges for the players to overcome. The theater was so impressive. I’m not sure I can blame the distance for the things I didn’t see — no bad seat in this fine house– and I certainly don’t want the singers/actors pantomiming emotion for the back row. I just didn’t see it, I guess, though I expected to.
At the performance of Murder Balled by TUTS Underground on April 18,2014, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, another boy gets girl, new boy doesn’t lose girl but old boy gets girl again, someone gets murdered. Of course, there is singing….and singing, like a rock operetta. Kristin Warren as “Narrator” starts singing from a spiral stairway while the guitar plays crunchy distortion. She has streaks of red dye in her hair, but I can’t understand the words she’s singing. She’s fighting with the overtones of a distorted PRS-looking guitar to bounce her sounds off the hard wall and into my ear. Why can’t I understand more than half of what she’s saying?
When I asked Andrew Harper the sound designer at the end of the show, the answer to that question might be something like “When pushed to enunciate over the level of the guitar, Kristin’s voice got shrill and kicked off the digital delay that was, I don’t know, enriching her voice, so that clarity was lost?” That’s my answer, anyway I don’t think that’s what he said. It seems the inherent inadequacies of the sound system, insufficient attention to how sound bounces off the walls of the auditorium, overdriving the microphone because she feels like she’s in a battle with the guitar timbre so she pushes her voice harder than the pre-set sound levels, and co-incidence of the room’s resonance, the frequency/pitch of the delay bouncing back and forth and the pitch at which she was fighting to be heard, just maybe, made her a bit hard to understand, even when I tried to read her lips. I noticed the same zingyness in Lauren Molina’s vocalizations as “Sara”in the beginning of the operetta. Thank goodness that for most of the rest of the performance the music was more ’laid back’ and the voices of the actors could be heard in their more natural beauty. I mention the sound issues because they were so noticeable at the top of the show and because of what I interpret as “Tom” Steel Burkhardt’s delicacy in working with his mike and the sound system. In contrast to the two ladies, in the beginning at least, his voice resonated with the theater, made it to the back row where I was sitting under the overhang and just plain charmed the heck out of me. I tell myself, maybe underestimating the limits of what one can do when in an electronically amplified environment, that Steel listened like the old masters of the theater to the way the sound waves bounced off the walls, that he used that imperfect sound system to fill the room with mellifluous, defined, controlled, beautiful sound.
Speaking of filling the room with sound, once there was vocal harmony, there was beauty. Any strain I had listening to the female voice ranges in the beginning was instantly mitigated by how their voices filled the theater with warmth and fullness any time more than one of the four of them sang. This was true for most of the show. The blending of their voices was practiced and artful and worth the price of the ticket.
Sound issues aside, I’m not sure the poster did the show justice. The poster is hot, steamy hot, whereas the sexuality in “Murder Ballad” has a cool reserve. I might not want a 10-year-old seeing Steel’s nose snuggling the crotch of Lauren’s leather pants, but I found myself wondering if the leather pants still smelled of leather so far into the performance, rather than becoming emotionally involved in the sex of it. No awkward nudity marred the presentation of this show and thank goodness for that.
Very little skin and even less laughter: It wasn’t until the humor of Kristin’s guffawing at Lauren, “Sara’s”excuses for being late and the chuckles of the audience at her wonderful delivery, that I realized how little laughter and how little dance there was in this musical.
This might be a good place to mention Kristin’s dance-like precision of movement in her portrayal of the “Narrator”. Pulling some tricks from Mick Jagger’s bag but mostly swooshing through a choreography of drunkenness and nymphet sensuality, Kristin was wonderful to see. It was testimony to that precision that the very few times when she went loosey-goosey that it seemed out of character, but this only happened for seconds in a more than hour long show.
I’ve heard that it isn’t a good idea to anger the technical staff of a show if you’re going to be on stage. With that in mind, the lighting designer must LOVE Kristin. The costume designer colludes with a very apt outfit which makes her arms and legs a focal point of the show. This is not such a bad idea if you want the audience to concentrate on her accomplishment of making movement so defining of her character and so watchable. The lighting colors reflecting off of the set are perfectly matched to the color of her skin to make the relative paleness of it and how it moves a star attraction.
All the voices were wonderful when they didn’t sound tired or like they were competing with the music to be THE rock star, the belting beauty, strained to express. The harmonies were very well composed and executed. In the beginning, I was concerned that I might only find pleasure when Steel was singing alone or when Pat McRoberts, who also managed to vibrate the room with sonorous tones, sang solo, or when there was harmony, but during the progress of the show each of the performers demonstrated surprising vocal excellence and emotional expression. When Steel was singing angrily, he transformed his face from comely to cantankerous. Some of Kristen’s bar-side songs in her lower register were hauntingly enticing.
Lauren Molina was completely believable as wife and wonton. She writhed and wrung very well. I don’t necessarily see her as inamorata but with Kristin there to alabaster paint the set, she didn’t need to be.
The show felt like one unending song. So, why the word orifice? Maybe that unrelenting music and the cast of four voices and the set with its inwardly aimed sight lines made me feel a bit sucked into an orifice. I’m not sure I see a justification for the word, which stuck out of the middle of the musical like , if I dare say it, a hemorrhoid. Every other word of the libretto was well justified. The poetry of the lyric was well-made.. Well crafted words in a rock musical setting without much, how do I say it, calypso to make your feet tap or much humor, but more like a long luscious poem in music.
If you’ll indulge me just a little longer I’d like to say a word about the directing. Bruce Lumpkin played magician and slight-of-hand artist with his staging. The absolutely scene-stealing alabaster nymph Kristen fades out of focus just when she really needs to. She made me laugh out loud one of the times she became visible again, arching her body back, letting her hair flow, stretching her abdomen. Wow! What a way to regain focus!! I was highly impressed by how Mr. Lumpkin moved the actors and focus around the stage. With such a high standard set, the closing 4 person tableaus before the blackout were less than inspiring to me, but what a magnificent ride until then. A little light comes up on Steel in the corner. Kristen sits at the bar and virtually disappears. Wow. Action played by one character at the same time as the principal action is being played by others and yet it all works, the balance of focus is contrapuntal and ‘according to Fuchs’, and just plain magic, in my opinion, the music of motion.
Robert and Lauren were engaging, almost making the children come alive in pantomime, carrying the plot while the others helped keep our attention.
As for the “full Murder Ballad experience”, I was told to expect with a real live bar on the stage and audience inclusion, I might have been clever enough to have summoned a paradox. Maybe I’m just the goofball audience member that became a focus of attention during the ‘audience at the bar’ part of the show, but having studied audience inclusion theater extensively, I found myself lost. I don’t mind playing the drunk at the party who amuses the sober aloof ones, but I’m not sure that is the point of immersion theater or the point, more specifically of this part of the play experience. . If I am invited to be on the set in a working bar where I have to pay real money for my drinks and am interacting with other audience members, none of whom are actors in the play, what part of me is actor and what part is audience drunkard? If I act a character, am I doing the show a favor by becoming a part of the play? If I stand or sit around the bar drinking and mingling, am I helping the show by making the bar more of a real bar? Am I networking? Am I mingling? Am I playing a part? With those questions in mind, what was the purpose of the police woman on duty telling me that someone ‘in charge’ had told her to ask me to stop giving my business cards to other patrons of the bar? I was pulled aside and told to refrain from giving any ’literature’ to anyone on theater grounds. So, was I to avoid trading business cards with audience members at the bar on stage, at intermission, at the actual bar that is a part of the theater? Is it really in the interest of the theater to keep me from giving my business card to other audience members with whom I am conversing? Of course, I might have been playing a part, acting like a photographer giving out cards that let the women and men I was addressing know I wanted to take pictures of them in swim suits. Was I the goofball in the audience making business acquaintance with people? Was I an actor giving out ’modeling cards’ as a part of the show, complementing the recipients and giving them a giggle? Was there really, really any reason for anyone to send the police woman to embarrass the new theater critic on the block, like I was doing something wrong? Hey, I loved the show, really. And, really, the funniest part of it, to me, was the ‘audience in the bar’ stuff and the blending of play and reality