Capsule Stage Reviews: Anna Bolena, Bring It On, La Traviata, Mistakes Were Made

Anna Bolena Opera girl power is in full swing at Opera in the Heights as it mounts an exciting and dramatically sung production of Donizetti's first major work, from 1830. Anna put him on the international opera map. Donizetti had been slaving away in Naples and had composed at least 35 other operas when he struck gold with librettist Felice Romani's tale of Tutor royalty gone bad. As if finally struck by his muse, Donizetti followed Anna with 35 more operas, but this time including such masterpieces as L'elisir d'Amore, Lucia di Lammermoor, La fille du régiment and Don Pasquale. With dramatic pace and an almost volcanic fury, Maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo steers the OH production toward a heading that never falters. He keeps up the tension from the tumultuous prelude through all the personal melodrama and straight into that stupendous duet between Anna and Giovanna (powerhouse mezzo Sandra Schwarzhaupt) that crowns the opera. The score sounds all of one piece as it inevitably leads to Anna's mad scene, making this showstopper a logical extension of the drama, not something vocally tacked on to highlight the soprano. Thanks to Donizetti's mastery of theme and constant orchestral variation, the three-hour-plus score flies by, which is high praise indeed for one of these lengthy operas from the 1830s. As wrongly accused Anna, soprano Camille Zamora tears up the intimate space with her drama-filled voice and subtle acting. Zamora knows when to kick back and when to let go, as when she must shuffle her emotions between her former lover, Lord Percy (clear and rich tenor Lázaro Calderón), who has shown up unexpectedly at court, and her misplaced attentions toward King Enrico (cistern-deep bass Erik Kroncke), with whom she has never fallen in love. Donizetti sets all this to music of the highest caliber, as he paints the scenes with unrivaled emotion using lush, arching melodies. Stage director Brian Byrnes makes good use of designer Rachel Smith's stepped set, allowing for decorative and dramatic placing for maximum effect. And the costumes of Dena Scheh are handsomely Tudoresque and detailed, although the hooped gowns for Anna and Giovanna read more Scarlett than Elizabeth. OH's production is first-rate and spellbinding — operatic soap at its most cleansing. Through February 5. (We saw the emerald cast, which performs February 2 and 4; the ruby cast with Emily Newton as Anna, Natasha Flores as Giovanna and Zach Averyt as Percy performs February 3 and 5.) 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-861-5303. — DLG

Bring It On Borrowing only the title of the bubbly teen movie that starred Kirsten Dunst (2000) and its subsequent franchise of four straight-to-DVD releases, this sparkly new stage treatment, presented locally by Theatre Under the Stars, reinvigorates the genre that has witnessed the more white-bread High School Musical and TV mega-hit Glee. This is the work of extremely high-powered Broadway talents — director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, composer/lyricists Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tom Kitt, librettist Jeff Whitty and co-lyricist Amanda Green. The musical's sass and grit (and its precisely crafted genes) come directly from Avenue Q, In the Heights and Next to Normal. We're still in high school fantasyland, but the finger-snap attitude is mighty refreshing and downright exhilarating. After an introductory detour, the creators have wisely chosen to integrate the original story and plopped our preppy heroine Campbell (Taylor Louderman) and stubby sidekick Bridget (Ryann Redmond) into an inner-city school where they immediately become the outsiders. Bridget has so little self-esteem, she has nowhere else to go but up. The musical takes flight when hottie Danielle (Adrienne Warren) and her posse Nautica (Ariana DeBose) and drag queen La Cienega (Gregory Haney) roar into view. Everything at this new high school dances: rows of lockers, projection screens, light cues. The place fires up as Campbell is given a life lesson in attitude. The magic of it all is that there's not much to any of it, yet it makes such a pleasant impression. It's the details of the telling that make this musical so much fun, especially the game cast, who throw themselves, literally, into the cheerleading. The acrobatics blaze with daredevilry; the tumblers seem to be shot out of cannons as they're launched skyward. There are back flips, tricky releases and basket catches galore, accomplished with unflagging energy that would be the envy of any Olympic gymnast, while the hip-hop movement throughout is incredibly smooth and slinky. This is a high school musical with flawless skin, as only Broadway with its urban glamour could possibly imagine it. Go team, go! Through February 5. The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — DLG

La Traviata Giuseppe Verdi's operatic masterpiece about life and love in the demimonde of 19th-century Paris, while tastefully sung in HGO's production, never fires up the necessary abandon nor catches the great passion needed to set this work aflame. Borrowed from Lyric Opera of Chicago, the production is no beauty, one of veteran stage designer Desmond Heeley's off works. Faded and musty-colored, it looks covered in dust. We're supposed to be inside Violetta's fevered dream. We know this because during Verdi's ethereal prelude, Violetta, on her deathbed divan, is haunted by her ghostly doppelganger. Whenever Violetta is wracked by coughs or stricken by some fatal premonition, she's plagued by this ghost lady holding out a camellia blossom. This is mighty ineffective. Meanwhile, the chorus is doing the slo-mo boogie in the background like bad Fellini outtakes. Aren't we degenerate, they hiss. See us writhe. Coming up through the ranks of HGO's studio program, soprano Albina Shagimuratova, like mezzo Joyce DiDonato, is a success story and house favorite. A natural coloratura, she can blaze through signature roles and toss off high Fs with flawless technique. There's no denying the beauty of her voice, even though its color hardly varies. But as an actress who's supposed to draw a dramatic character, she's a bit of a dull pencil. Verdi demands a complete person. A prodigious voice wows us, but Violetta must move us. Violetta's lover Alfredo fares better. Tenor Bryan Hymel was thrown into this drab production a little over a week ago when tenor David Lomeli fell ill. Hymel has done a tremendous job; Brad Shelton will take over for the show's final performances. Hymel has a clean, open sound, a real throwback to the voices of the '50s, like Mario Del Monaco. He sings like a real guy. Verdi and librettist Francesco Piave fashioned Alexandre Dumas's tale into a classic triangle. Violetta is the apex, and Alfredo and his father Germont share the base. It's Germont who, as bastion of middle-class morality, sets the plot in motion by convincing Violetta to give up Alfredo. While baritone Giovanni Meoni is always deeply expressive, especially in the lilting barcarole "Di Provenza," he still seems a decade too young to be Hymel's father. Verdi's masterpiece as presented by HGO, while not definitive, is worthy of attention. It's still Verdi, after all, and that's singing a mouthful. Through February 12. Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas, 713-237-1439. — DLG

Mistakes Were Made In what is virtually a one-man tour-de-force, stage producer Felix Artifex (David Matranga) tries to put together a B'way version of the French Revolution. He needs a hot actor, but the actor wants major rewriting and the playwright balks, testing the powers of persuasion of the would-be producer. The unstated running joke is that Felix is largely inarticulate. He is verbose but not glib, anxious but not persuasive, eager to deceive but void of invention, almost destitute of vocabulary, in short, a boy trying to fill a man's shoes. And this, as portrayed by local actor Matranga, is charm itself, permitting us to root for the success of chicanery, to identify with this antihero, subsisting on pills and energy drinks, with the enthusiasm and body language of a teenager. The mood swings are extreme — the office is wrecked in one tantrum — but the physical humor carries the comedy past the shoals of a less-than-perfect script into the safe harbor of hilarity. There are subplots, filling the need for incessant telephone calls to establish a frenetic pace. Playwright Craig Wright has given us a comedic romp in a sandbox, and Matranga bounces around the stage like a rubber ball, moves with the grace of a dancer, and matches his gestures to words and action with a flawless precision. Director John Moletress is the deft architect of this performance, with the admirable courage to take risks. Robin van Zandt adds humor as Felix's secretary, heard often but seen briefly. The set by Jodi Bobrovsky captures the lived-in look of an office built around a telephone. Brilliant acting and direction make the most of an amusing script, and create 90 minutes of compelling, lighthearted comedy to be savored for its freshness and originality. Through February 19. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JJT


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