By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Finally -- after 15 or so years of planning and scheming and begging money and plotting political machinations, after enduring endless seasons of cramped spaces, crumbling infrastructure and shabby, faded surroundings that screamed Podunk to the rest of the show-business world, after three years with no home at all -- the day had arrived.
The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts was ready at last. (Almost ready, anyway, and what would such an opening be without a few furiously crossed fingers?)
At a cost of $100 million, the theater that will replace the dilapidated Depression-era Music Hall is going to make a bold bid to be the top musical-theater venue outside of Broadway. Just as baseball stadia across the country are no longer being built to share space with football or soccer teams, the Hobby Center's main 2,600-seat theater has been designed specifically to house the Broadway musical.
There's plenty of space above, below and on either side of the stage to handle the multimillion-dollar spectacles that audiences now expect. Cheap-seat patrons who thought they were in another area code when straining to see the stage at Jones Hall will be right on top of the action at the Hobby. And all of it will take place under a planetariumlike domed ceiling featuring 2,000 fiber-optic "stars" replicating the Texas night sky.
That ceiling will make true once again the largely anachronistic name of the main tenant of the building, Theatre Under the Stars. For 35 years, TUTS has been putting on musicals in Houston but, with the exception of one free show a year, has long since abandoned Hermann Park's Miller Outdoor Theatre.
Now TUTS has announced its biggest season ever -- the first in its glorious new home, the palace built largely for its benefit.
Brimming with pride, TUTS staged a press conference to let the world know what shows had made the cut to be put on in this most important of all years. To shout out just what would be presented in that magnificent venue after it opens in May.
To do so, it brought along the star of the opening production; the star who, along with his show, would forever be remembered as having the honor of opening the Hobby Center.
Hey, Houston, TUTS said at that press conference, bursting with peacock pride, meet Tony Curtis. Who'll be coming to town in a warmed-over rehash of a mediocre 30-year-old musical called Sugar, which is now called Some Like It Hot.
Besides immediately putting to rest any lingering questions of whether Tony Curtis was still ummm around, TUTS head Frank Young also announced the rest of the inaugural season: yet another production of My Fair Lady, being presented by TUTS for the fifth time; a theatrical interpretation of the movie version of The Wizard of Oz; the 1948 musical Kiss Me Kate, recently revived on Broadway; and another show yet to be determined.
Oh, and the world premiere of a project TUTS has been developing for years: a musical version of the campy, cult Bette Davis-Joan Crawford horror movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, with music by the man who wrote "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini" and "Johnny Angel."
"The season will include six full-scale musical theatre productions featuring some of the finest creative talents in the field of musical theatre," the TUTS press release boasted.
Well, at least they're full-scale.
Behind the scenes and not for publication, some grumbling was heard among the Hobby Center people about the schedule. The Houston Chronicle's theater critic, Everett Evans, did another in a long series of angry articles blasting TUTS's choices.
It didn't faze Young at all. Not only was Tony Curtis alive, not only was he "singing on pitch," according to officials, but -- in a TUTS-ian moment if ever there was one -- Young beamed a few days later that Curtis "is taking tap lessons!"
Much of Houston's arts community simply shrugged their shoulders about the new TUTS season; "That's Frank" was heard more than once. For others, their thoughts were summed up best by Mary Lou Aleskie, executive director of the critically acclaimed Da Camera society.
"You build an amazing $100 million performing arts facility, and what you get is Tony Curtis taking tap lessons," she said. "You don't know whether to laugh or cry."
Frank Young knows what to do: sell, sell, sell. Whether it's his constant battle with the Chronicle's elitist theater critic, or an ever-growing threat from the deep-pockets media giant Clear Channel Entertainment, Young tirelessly and maniacally revels in the frantic world of keeping happy what he calls the blue-hairs, the loyal thousands of customers who make up his impressively large subscriber base.
For 35 years, Young has been the force behind TUTS, transforming it from a near-spontaneous free show in the park to a multimillion-dollar nonprofit organization with a surprisingly considerable influence in the theater world.
"Frank is probably one of the most powerful and positive forces in musical theater today; he's given great visibility to regional theaters as developers of new works," says Van Kaplan, executive producer of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and a national figure in the theater industry.