Bayou City Concert Musicals Hits a Home Run with One Touch of Venus

Rob Flebbe and Danica Dawn Johnston.
Rob Flebbe and Danica Dawn Johnston.
Photo courtesy BCCM

The setup:

I realize it's rather late in the season to offer our hapless Astros any advice that would get them out of the basement, but here goes -- replace those losers with Bayou City Concert Musicals. If there's any team in Houston that consistently hits for the fences, it's BCCM. With the musical comedy rarity One Touch of Venus (1943), this favorite troupe hits another homer. BCCM has had a 13-year continual home-run derby that includes Follies, A Little Night Music, Assassins, Pal Joey and Finian's Rainbow. The Astros should be so lucky.

The execution:

Let's talk management. You can't beat this ace Broadway triptych: music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden Nash, book by Nash and S.J. Perelman. Fresh from his smash hit Lady in the Dark (1941), Weill hit his stride with Venus, pulsing it with erotic sass, a bit of his own patented Weimar syncopation and a whole lot of plain old Broadway belt. Each song is a delight, whether smoldering with sex ("Speak Low"), love lost ("West Wind") or all-out comedy spritz ("Way Out West in Jersey" and "The Trouble With Women"). Everybody gets to sing in this musical.

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What pulls this show together are the unparalleled Nash lyrics that have a freshness and laugh-out-loud quality that are unique in musical theater. Famed for his silly, but smart, verses for The New Yorker, Nash surpassed himself with his sophisticated vernacular wordplay that rivals any lyrics until Sondheim, although Nash is a lot funnier. Perelman, another New Yorker alum, noted for his satiric and wicked essays, had previously given Groucho Marx much of his distinctively surreal movie personality in Monkey Business (1931) and Horsefeathers (1932). Here, his world-weary and wisecracker style is put to superlative use, mocking the great and not-so-great, knocking them all down from their pedestals, while he elevates the lovelorn.

It's a very satisfying book, and fairly simple. By slipping his fiancée's engagement ring upon an antique statue of Venus, nebbish barber Rodney (Rob Flebbe, he of the plangent tenor) accidentally brings the goddess to life. The goddess of love (Danica Dawn Johnston, a living goddess all by herself) immediately falls for him, which brings inconsequential Rodney a whole new sense of self. Havoc ensues with his strident girlfriend (Susan Draper); her battle-ax mother (Susan Koozin); rich art patron Savory (Joe Kirkendall), who has fallen for this incredible beauty; and Savory's arch secretary Molly (Grace Givens), whose smartass comments are some of the show's highlights.

Vaudeville characters inhabit the place: Detective Taxi (Jim Salners) and lower-rent assistant Stanley (Jon Egging) trip over each other in their inept search to find the missing statue; crazed Zuvetli (Randall W. Jobe in harem pants and turban) has been sent by his village to bring back their venerated statue; then there's mad Dr. Rook (Charles Bailey), a psychiatrist evaluating Rodney 's fantastic story; and Mrs. Moats (Sylvia Froman), Rodney's shocked landlady, who finds him in Venus's marmoreal arms.

But the story's really about finding love, and how that changes everyone. Of course, when Rodney glorifies their future life together in suburbia ("Wooden Wedding"), Venus has second thoughts. But she's given her word that they'll always be together. What's a goddess to do? Perelman, Nash and Weill know precisely what to do, and they give us one of musicals' most charmed endings.

Under Paul Hope's fluid and wise direction, the cast is heavenly. Flebbe and Johnston are, in a word, superb as timid soul Rodney and sexy incarnation Venus. Like that old movie convention, when bookworm Rodney takes off his glasses, he suddenly becomes Tyrone Power, although he's sung like a star from the beginning. Johnston radiates glamour as if lit from within and is incapable of making a wrong move. She sings like a diva, which only completes the package. A wonderful surprise is Kirkendall (our first Houston Press Theater Award-winner for Best Actor for his performance in the dramatic Coast of Utopia), who has the baritone chops of Brian Stokes Mitchell. Who knew? In the flinty Eve Arden role of Molly, Givens sets off sparks and gets to strut her own brand of wise urbanity with the title song and the little ditty about the idle rich, "Very, Very, Very."

Broadway shows from the '40s have their own conventions, and even the so-called "classics" have a peculiar style all their own. Hope brings out the show's uniqueness and then lets everyone shine. Venus, a hidden gem not seen in Houston until this production, exudes cool sophistication and sexy glamour -- it's not a surprise to learn that the authors wrote it originally for Marlene Dietrich, the ultimate glamour-puss. But it's also a throwback to shows that preceded it, those fluff entertainments filled with baggy-pants comics and huffy mothers-in-law. This wonderful fantasy, right in the midst of WW II, has clear eyes. It winks at sex with a cool urban nod, yet finds redemption in the suburbs. Once Rodney unleashes his inner man, the authors seem to say, he's at home anywhere.

Highly praised at the time for their originality, the dances came from Agnes de Mille, who had just choreographed Oklahoma, which had opened down the street from Venus not less than five months earlier. No one can match de Mille's particular theatricality (nor does BCCM have the resources for a fully staged rendition), but BCCM's choreographer, Melissa Pritchett, distills the show's two ballet sequences, "Forty Minutes for Lunch" and "Venus in Ozone Heights," into highly enjoyable, and telling, interludes. Pat Padilla's '40s pastiche costumes are spot-on with cheeky humor and retro glam; and the 18-piece orchestra -- yes, 18-piece! -- under maestro Dominique Røyem swings up a storm.

The verdict:

Already famous for those edgy German satires, The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Kurt Weill, once he escaped the Nazis, found a true American voice when he appeared on Broadway (Johnny Johnson, Knickerbocker Holiday, Lady in the Dark, Street Scene, Lost in the Stars). His music already had the sophistication, but Nash and Perelman made him laugh.

Forget the 'Stros. You want something hit out of the ballpark, hurry over to Heinen Theatre and see one of the best, and rarest, American musicals performed to perfection. This one's outta here!

One Touch of Venus runs only through this weekend at Heinen Theatre, 3517 Austin. See it 8 p.m. Friday; 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. To purchase tickets, visit the company website or call 713-465-6484.

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Heinen Theatre

3517 Austin St.
Houston, TX 77007

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