Announcing the 2017 Houston Theater Awards

It's Alas, Poor Yorick! time...EXPAND
It's Alas, Poor Yorick! time...
Photo by Max Burkhalter/Props by The Wilde Collection

Has there ever been a bad season in Houston theater? Not one we can think of. Certainly not the 2016-17 season, which we honor now. New companies sprouted, and there’s always room for more. We can never have enough. Dirt Dogs, Gravity Players, Rogue and Firecracker debuted; the old standbys Alley, Main Street, A.D. Players, Ensemble and Stages merrily rolled along; and young pup Obsidian Theater in association with Standing Room Only Productions surprised with smashing productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Passing Strange.

The smaller companies, 4th Wall, Mildred’s Umbrella, Horse Head and Classical, cemented their place in the big leagues with shows like True West, Church and In a Word. TUTS recently announced a new artistic director, but musical chaos wasn’t in evidence at Hobby Center with Into the Woods, Fun Home and An American in Paris wowing us with the power of song and dance.

As usual, and we wouldn’t have it any other way, the season was filled with more than ample highlights. The Alley tatted up the Neuhaus Theatre with the hip-hop world premiere Syncing Ink, then presented the National Theatre of Scotland’s shockingly good teen vampire tale, Let The Right One In, then turned on a dime for the ultra-hip high-finance Dry Powder and, in a co-production on its way to Broadway (they hope), the mom/daughter switching-bodies musical, Freaky Friday.

Main Street traipsed through Tudor England for its dual Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and A.D. Players, in its new facility (what a beauty!), opened our hearts with the classic You Can’t Take It With You; while Stages slapped us hard with the gritty My Mañana Comes and the drug-addled angst of Luna Gale.

There were classics galore: Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (Dirt Dogs), Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata (Classical), Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (Alley), Much Ado About Nothing (4th Wall), Antony and Cleopatra (Obsidian Theater with SRO), Richard III and Twelfth Night (Houston Shakespeare Festival). A diverse and rich array of contemporary voices popped up at all the venues: Kenneth Lonergan, Rebecca Gilman, Jethro Compton, Elizabeth Irwin, Sarah Burgess, Mickle Maher, Donald Barthelme, Lauren Yee and Stephen Adly Guirgis. We were enriched, thrilled, elated, never bored. Congratulations to all our award-winners. You made Houston the place to be for theater. — D.L. Groover

Best Play/Production:
Lobby Hero (4th Wall Theatre Company)

It’s a world in a lobby, a world in which no one really means to harm anyone else, but does so anyway. Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero has four main characters, all flawed, all trying if not to get ahead in life, then to at least get by.

Working under the direction of Kim Tobin-Lehl and Jennifer Dean, these characters glide, rocket and talk their way in and out of the lobby of a New York City apartment. Security guard Jeff (Adam Gibbs) looks harmless but can’t stop talking. His supervisor, William (Joseph “Joe P” Palmore), tries to be upright in every part of his life, but lies for his brother. Making matters worse, he confides in Jeff, who, wanting to impress the rookie cop Dawn (Chelsea Ryan McCurdy), passes the information on to her. Dawn is under the thumb of Bill (Drake Simpson) and has her own demons to confront. And Bill has the smallest shade of goodness in him of all the characters.

With not a false note struck the entire evening, this talented group of actors made the audience take notice of the type of people usually overlooked in life in this clever dramedy. Shades of gray abound and there are betrayals aplenty, but at the end the picture painted is so real, so human, that it seems almost as if it could not have gone any other way.

Finalists: Dry Powder (Alley Theatre), Luna Gale (Stages Repertory Theatre), Trevor (The Catastrophic Theatre) and True West (4th Wall Theatre Company) .

Best Musical:
Passing Strange (Obsidian Theater with SRO)

Once again, Obsidian Theater with SRO shows us that you don’t need a big budget, large stage or fancy set to put on a musical that blows the roof off the place. All you need is an obscene amount of talent and a show that feels just as relevant and exciting as it did when it first hit the stage in 2008.

The semi-autobiographical story of a young, middle-class African-American man who takes off from his church-abiding home to travel to Europe in search of artistic and personal identity is a universal finding-yourself tale, one based on the experiences of the show’s creator, Stew. But the epiphany that your culture isn’t something you go looking for, it’s something inherently in you (in a place where love and pain reside equally), is indeed a message we can all heed today, no matter our economic background or the color of our skin.

Plus there’s the music. Oh the music! And this production, under the musical direction of Faith Fossett, did it more than justice. Even the shyest audience members couldn’t help but dance in their seats to the resplendent rock-infused melodies, chock full of drum-pumping lyrical personality and wit. Band members filled the tiny set, providing a thrilling concert-like atmosphere for the talented ensemble to rise to and match.

Choreographer Eric Dano brilliantly navigated the small space and gave us plenty of variation in style, including one Bob Fosse-esque number that brought the house down. Director Vance Johnson ensured that our protagonist’s misadventures with sex, drugs, politics and art always felt authentic and were pulsing with youthful urgency. Add on a cast of fresh new faces that had us riveted to their every note and move, and that’s what you call a musical slam dunk.

Finalists: Freaky Friday (Alley Theatre), Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Obsidian Theater with SRO), Into the Woods (Theatre Under The Stars) and Panto Wonderful Wizard (Stages Repertory Theatre).

Best Actor:
Kyle Sturdivant as Trevor in Trevor (The Catastrophic Theatre)

From the minute Kyle Sturdivant bursts onto the stage, full of controlled human — but not quite human — energy, we know this is going to be a tour de force performance. Barefooted, dressed like a little boy but with the language skills of an adult, Sturdivant not only plays Trevor, the former showbiz chimpanzee who’s wrestling with his now-defunct career and pining for past glory days; he is Trevor.

We watched him move with utter fascination. All eyes were on his lumbering, bow-legged heavy steps, his arms hanging heavily at his sides. His wrists limp until his knuckles plowed down on surfaces to help steady him. Hugging his beloved keeper included a gentle nibble on her shoulder or an exploration of her ear. Excitement caused him to bounce up and down, bending both knees in dance. Anger sent him spinning around with arms flailing. It was a remarkably detailed and nuance-filled performance.

But it wasn’t just the physical that made Sturdivant a marvel on set; it was also his impeccable comedic timing. This is a role that could easily have tipped over the edge from funny to overblown. But here Sturdivant kept the over-the-topness in check with a rewardingly taut pull on the absurdity of the whole thing.

Then, just when we thought that well-deserved laughs would be our appreciative offering back to Sturdivant, he orchestrated an about face, giving us a powerfully wrenching primate emotion that left us gasping for breath.
After a performance like that, somebody give this man a banana.

Finalists: Nick Farco as Austin in True West (4th Wall Theatre Company), Luis Galindo as Jackie in The Motherfucker with the Hat (Obsidian Theater with SRO), Adam Gibbs as Jeff in Lobby Hero (4th Wall Theatre Company) and Drake Simpson as Lee in True West (4th Wall Theatre Company).

Best Actress:
Carolyn Johnson as Caroline in Luna Gale (Stages Repertory Theatre)

Two teenage meth heads are hunkered down in a hospital emergency room. They’re not there for themselves — their baby, Luna Gale, is being seen by doctors — but it’s really clear that neither of them is quite right. Enter Child Protective Services in the person of Caroline (Carolyn Johnson), a veteran social worker who is both tough and fragile, funny and guarded. Of course the child must be removed from the parents until they clean themselves up and learn how to better take care of her. Enter grandma, who seems the perfect solution right up until she talks about her religion and the End Times she is preparing for. She seems to be under the thumb of her pastor. Caroline is torn, because people of faith make her very, very wary. But can the kids clean up their act? Could they be good parents?

What follows is a constant shift of moral ground as Caroline struggles for the right answer in a bureaucratic minefield at work and is not above manipulating events herself. Johnson, a master at conveying a range of emotion in a gesture, a momentary look away, a measured pause, has never been finer. She embodies a woman doing a difficult, soul-sucking job, burdened with all the responsibilities of making the right choices every single time. Sometimes emphatic and sure, she also falls prey to all her uncertainties — not convinced she has the definitive best answer. Johnson shows us a flawed woman trying to be righteous in her own way, but exhausted by too many cases with too many sad endings. Her own life has not been without its private tragedies.

The play is entitled Luna Gale but really it’s about Caroline, who is as in need of rescue as any of the children she’s assigned. Caroline may have faltered, but Johnson never does in a gripping, eloquent portrayal that, despite the lies, rings with nothing but truth.

Finalists: Elizabeth Bunch as Jenny in Dry Powder (Alley Theatre), Tamarie Cooper as Carol in Song About Himself (The Catastrophic Theatre), Asia Craft as Mahalia Jackson in Mahalia (The Ensemble Theatre), Rachael Logue as Matt in Matt & Ben (Rogue Productions) and Chelsea Ryan McCurdy as Ben in Matt & Ben (Rogue Productions).

Best Supporting Actress:
Bree Welch as Marie Antoinette in The Revolutionists (Main Street Theater)

Lauren Gunderson puts a feminist serio-comedy spin on the French Revolution and sets it twirling toward us with a sharp ironic edge. Playwright and pamphleteer Olympe de Gouges brays about the rights of disenfranchised women citizens, urging truth and equality. Country girl Charlotte Corday, overwhelmed by furious dudgeon, is giddy with the thought of killing Jacobin hate-maker Marat. Marianne Angelle fights for home country Saint-Domingue with an ardent fervor similar to her French sisters.

But who truly sets this play spinning is the ill-fated queen of France, Marie Antoinette. In Welch’s treatment, as frilly as her costume, Marie is a one-percenter with a vengeance. Cluelessness becomes her. She flounces, drops bon mots as if they were beloved bon bons, but never once puts us at a distance. She draws us to her ample bosom and allows us to laugh with her. It’s not her fault there’s rioting in the streets, she confesses while straightening her poof and rearranging the feathers in it; she only wants pretty clothes and a trumpet fanfare upon her every entrance. What does she know about the poor? She wants as far away from them as she can get. “I care,” she says defensively with a wicked wink. “I just need better press.”

Welch runs away with the play, the most non-revolutionist imaginable. Petulant and childish, she holds the stage by being the most alive on it. She doesn’t dither but rightly surmises what her fate will be — immortality. Between bouts of velvety quips, she’s clearheaded enough to see that it’s always the women who have to change, not the men. Of all the many lofty messages Gunderson sprinkles throughout, this one, coming from the mouth of one tipsy babe, is prescient. Welch makes the statement ring. She makes the play shine.

Finalists: Patricia Duran as Veronica in The Motherfucker with the Hat (Obsidian Theater with SRO), Lindsay Ehrhardt as Alice in You Can’t Take It With You (A.D. Players), Madison Hart as Queen Margaret in Richard III (Houston Shakespeare Festival), Courtney Lomelo as Victoria in The Motherfucker with the Hat (Obsidian Theater with SRO), Darin Montemayor as Becky in Becky Shaw (Firecracker Productions) and Kara Young as Sweet Tea in Syncing Ink (Alley Theatre).

Best Supporting Actor:
Jeremy Gee as Peter in Luna Gale (Stages Repertory Theatre)

As one of the two teenage parents addicted to meth, Jeremy Gee begins his moments on stage in a daze. Accused of not being able to take care of his baby, who has been brought to the emergency room, Gee as Peter pretty well verifies that by his silence — he’s higher than a kite. Tanith Albright, playing his girlfriend, Karlie, punches him in the head several times to get his attention.

But it wasn’t just Gee’s ability to play a meth head that caught our attention. As he goes on to accept responsibility, to try to care not only for his baby but his troubled girlfriend and himself, it’s as if he’s waking after a long sleep. He has to grow up suddenly when Karlie’s mother, a devout Christian, tries to terminate his parental rights and permanently adopt Luna Gale herself. It is a haunting performance, filled with stops and starts, and we hold our breath wondering if he’s going to make it or just opt out.

When we first meet him, Gee as Peter is an inarticulate slacker, maybe with good intentions but unable to sustain them. He has, after all, neglected his infant daughter. Will she ever be safe with him? The ending is not all sunlight; Peter is moving to another state with his father. He has retained his parental rights but his father has primary guardianship. Gee does a wonderful job of portraying a young man filled with resolve and hope, but shadowed by past choices. He makes us believe and hope as well in second chances and the difficult journey ahead.

Finalists: Rutherford Cravens as Dodge in Buried Child (The Catastrophic Theatre), Atseko Factor as Jim “The Reverend” Mosten in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Stages Repertory Theatre), John Feltch as Rick in Dry Powder (Alley Theatre), Rhett Martinez as Tristan, Detective, Teacher and others in In a Word (Mildred’s Umbrella), Jay Sullivan as Seth in Dry Powder (Alley Theatre) and Blake Weir as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (Main Street Theater).

Best Breakthrough:
Blake Jackson as Hedwig Robinson in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Obsidian Theater with SRO)

As a washed-up East German glam rocker, Blake Jackson is the Norma Desmond of the rock world. His entrance alone is enough to stop hearts. In a blaze of light, all shockingly tattered, Jackson is ready for his close-up and then some. His Hedwig is fearlessly honest and honestly fearless. Blue eye shadow rings his face like a cracked-up raccoon; the blood-red lips painted á la Crawford erotically invite and repel; those arched black eyebrows could support a suspension bridge; cigarettes dangle from his earrings; his tacky and ripped denim miniskirt with fake leopard bustier and its broken-heart applique, along with those ubiquitous fishnet stockings and tsunami-tussled dirty blond wig, is an exacting metaphor for his/her life-quest of sad salaciousness. Hedwig’s looking for love, but he’s really looking for himself.

Not since Obsidian’s blistering American Idiot — also masterfully directed by Chris Patton and choreographed by Eric Dano — has there been such a fiery, well-thought-out show. Hedwig is a small show: two actors (a superbly tattered Rachel Landon as Yitzhak) and a rock band. Yet, what a world is brought to life. As with a grisly car crash, you can’t possibly look away.

After playing supporting roles for Stages (Big Fish and Who Am I This Time?), young Jackson, with this starring role, moves assuredly into the big leagues. He states in his bio that he plans to move to Houston after the show’s run to pursue a full-time acting career. It’s about time. The red carpet’s already rolled out. It awaits your star shine.

Best Trouper:
Allen Titel as Winston Smith in 1984 (Obsidian Theater)

Allen Titel’s performance in 1984 was torture. Not for us mind you, for him. As Winston Smith, the cog in the wheel/turned captured rebel in Orwell’s Big Brother state, Titel withstood a grueling one and half hours on stage being beaten, shoved, smacked, threatened by rats and electrocuted. He screamed, he grunted, he cowered, he drooled, he begged and he cried, sometimes all at once. It must have been exhausting to carry out night after night.

But seen early and late in the production’s run, Titel managed to bring the same energy and commitment to the punishing role. It was a true trouper performance. We just hope someone cuddled him, sang lullabies and fed him warm cookies for a long time once the show was over.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies offered a master class in costuming.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies offered a master class in costuming.
Photo by Pin Lim/Forest Photography

Best Costumes:
Margaret Crowley for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (Main Street Theater)

Outfitting a drama set in olden times is fraught with difficulty, more than many would suspect. It takes a discerning eye and a healthy perusal of period art, lithos, documents and letters to decide what shoes a character should wear.

Theater pro Margaret Crowley received a plum assignment in Mike Poulton’s stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s English Renaissance nest of spiders Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies at Main Street. She was hit by an embarrassment of riches — an atmospheric era that’s stuffed like a codpiece with political maneuvering, philandering, blood lust, illicit trysts, entrenched family ties and the will to survive no matter what. Men in tights behaving badly. We’re inside the palace intrigues swirling around vain and arrogant Henry VIII, Machiavellian royal secretary Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s unloved wife, Katherine of Aragon, and future love Anne Boleyn.

It’s a fragrant stew, made tastier through Crowley’s opulent and apt design. Fur, damask, brocade, velvet (those castles were damn cold) are on display. You can hear the fabrics swish, jeweled baubles glitter in the lights, ropes of pearls exude extravagant warmth, women are housed under gabled headdresses (a particular favorite of English grand dames), men wear soft shoes of baize or leather. Cromwell, somber yet poised to pounce, is draped in black and brown, better to lurk in the shadows, while Henry is all parade, radiating in the power of crimson and gold. Later, in Bring Up the Bodies, Henry is gouty, bloated and wracked with illness. Crowley gives him a splendid fat suit that mirrors his former attire. Crowley’s exemplary work was so pleasing to the eye, she just had to win.

Finalists: Gerald LaBita for The Chosen (Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston and Theatre LaB Houston), Nara Lesser for Shear Madness (Stages Repertory Theatre), Macy Lyne for The Ghost Sonata (Classical Theatre Company) and Leah Smith for Richard III (Houston Shakespeare Festival).

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Best Set Design:
Claire A. “Jac” Jones for Native Gardens (Main Street Theater)

The oohs and aahs were audible as we beheld Claire A. “Jac” Jones’s glorious home and garden set design for Native Gardens. We use the term beheld because to take in this enormous set, one that took up the entire floor of the Main Street stage, one had to first pause to appreciate its splendor in depicting two neighboring houses’ back decks and yards. Then once we took it all in, we had to then figure out how to gingerly walk the narrow pathways around the darn thing to get to our seats.

Replete with immaculate grass, yellow tulips, purple hydrangeas and elegant gray stone benches, one couple’s yard looked like a finely curated space that would impress Martha Stewart. The other yard, a work at the very beginning stages of progress, was a wasteland of patchy grass, a teetering birdbath and an oak tree that threatened to overtake the entire space. A fence dividing the properties allowed us to see through to the other yard no matter where in the theater we sat, which gave us a total voyeur’s eye view of the action.

It was the perfect representation of a comedic storyline that dealt with a clash of people-culture and horticulture. It was also a set perfectly designed to change and be halfway trashed every performance as neighborly tempers rose and flower petals went flying. It was set as metaphor and metaphor as set and, in this case, a beautifully realized piece of creative work.

Finalists: Malinda Beckham and James Thomas for Glengarry Glen Ross (Dirt Dogs Theatre Company), Liz Freese for You Can’t Take It With You (A.D. Players), Brad Kanouse for Shear Madness (Stages Repertory Theatre), Torsten Louis for My Mañana Comes (Stages Repertory Theatre), Ryan McGettigan for Lobby Hero (4th Wall Theatre Company) and Godspell (A.D. Players), and Jonathan Middents for Richard III (Houston Shakespeare Festival).

Best Lighting:
Clint Allen for Richard III (Houston Shakespeare Festival)

The light flashed upon the Miller Outdoor Theatre stage while a Black Sabbath guitar riff played in the background and there they were: members of King Henry’s court standing like rock stars. Coming out of the shadows, following the procession, was crippled Richard III (Houston Shakespeare Festival artistic director Jack Young in the title role). And he begins to address his audience — the only people privy to all his true intentions, which are, of course in this play, mean-spirited and evil.

Shadows and light continued to weave their magic during the show. A backlit white stage highlighted the mounting number of corpses strung up as one betrayal, one exigency after another is carried out. Ropes are highlighted and hidden; characters come into the light to say their piece and then disappear into the darkness. The light directs us whom to watch for. Gives us a heads-up for what might be next. As the night wore on and the natural light departed, the lighting on stage was all the more effective in creating a surreal effect.

Capitalizing upon the special conditions available to him at Houston’s outdoor theater, Clint Allen used every trick in his book of skills and talents to captivate an audience caught up in a 425-year-old classic. A master at work.

Finalists: John Baker for Glengarry Glen Ross (Dirt Dogs Theatre Company), Hudson Davis for Trevor (The Catastrophic Theatre), David Gipson with assist from Full Metal Jacket Video Design for Snow White (The Catastrophic Theatre), Eric Marsh for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (Main Street Theater) and Dustin Tannahill for Song About Himself (The Catastrophic Theatre).

Best Sound:
Anthony Barilla for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Stages Repertory Theatre)

You can almost hear the tumbleweeds rolling down the dusty main street of Twotrees, somewhere languishing in the American West, in Jethro Compton’s philosophizing adaptation of Dorothy Johnson’s short story The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Stages brings back the Western with this ironic look at our iconic past. There are no grand vistas, no Indian battles, no railroad chugging and spewing. We’re inside the Prairie Belle saloon.

Claustrophobic but boiled down to its essence, the splintery planked-and-shuttered wood bar is where civilization butts against the lawless country outside. Any moment now, Valance is going to barge through the upstage doors, guns ablazing, out for Ranse’s hide. Along with this steady drip drip of action about to erupt, Anthony Barilla’s eerie sound overlay ramps up our nervous anxiety. His score keeps us on constant edge. Marvelously atmospheric, the electronic background seems to breathe in spasms or hold its own breath until the moment passes. The drama is finely embossed by Barilla’s subtle, atmospheric work. A frequent collaborator on NPR’s This American Life, Barilla has graced many of our Houston theaters with his unique and always thrilling soundwork.

Finalists: Chris Bakos for Song About Himself (The Catastrophic Theatre), Jesse Gustin for Richard III (Houston Shakespeare Festival), Jon Harvey for Dry Land (Mildred’s Umbrella), Andy McWilliams for The Ghost Sonata (Classical Theatre Company) and Tim Thompson for Snow White (The Catastrophic Theatre).

Best Director:
Kim Tobin-Lehl for True West (4th Wall Theatre Company)

Two brothers are housesitting for their absent mother, whose suburban California home seems to be located in one of the most desolate places on Earth. Lee is an anything-goes drifter, not above the occasional petty larceny. Austin is an Ivy grad, family man and published playwright. Opposites, they are envious of each other and fight about every possible thing. Their decades long sibling rivalry extends beyond words to a physical violence that shows us a darker layer even as we laugh at the comic antics. Identity, the American Dream and the common human desire to escape problems by re-inventing ourselves are all examined amid the mayhem in one of playwright Sam Shepard’s most memorable works.

All of this could easily have gotten way out of hand and become a complete farce if not for a director sure of her material and her actors. Kim Tobin-Lehl made use of every centimeter of her stage space as actors Nick Farco and Drake Simpson hurled themselves and an unfortunate typewriter back and forth with explosive power and impressive performances. Tobin-Lehl never allowed proceedings to tip into complete chaos no matter where the narrative seem to be heading.

The last incredible moments of the play left more than one audience member stunned and wondering if perhaps an actor had really been badly hurt (he wasn’t, we think). To reach that moment shows a deft hand at the controls and a confident marshaling of all resources on stage.

Finalists: Tamarie Cooper for Trevor (The Catastrophic Theatre), Greg Dean for Snow White (The Catastrophic Theatre), Justin Doran for Godspell (A.D. Players), Seth Gordon for Luna Gale (Stages Repertory Theatre), Chris Patton for Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Obsidian Theater with SRO), Leslie Swackhamer for My Mañana Comes (Stages Repertory Theatre) and Julia Traber for Dry Land (Mildred’s Umbrella).

Best Visiting Production:
Let the Right One In (The National Theatre of Scotland at the Alley Theatre)

A terrifying, haunting and enthralling thriller, Let The Right One In came to the Alley Theatre courtesy of a troupe from The National Theatre of Scotland. A tale of two lonely teenagers who find each other — one human, the other vampire — told the story of Cristian Ortega as Oskar, the boy who is bullied at school, and Lucy Mangan as Eli, the however ancient vampire.

Both actors inhabited their roles, making believable an impossible story, delivering lines both heartbreaking and edgy as the suspense grew by the moment. As the teens edged ever closer together, people around them who ventured into the woods ended up dead in grisly and blood-spattered fashion and Oskar began to understand that Eli was a different kind of animal.

This is a fairy tale in the tradition of the original Brothers Grimm, absent any sugar coating. Toss in a spare, spooky set design and a creepy music score that made audience members jump, and the result had audience members leaving the theater debating the merits of being the caretaker of an ancient being. It was spellbinding in so many ways.

Finalists: An Iliad (Rice University’s Moody Center for the Arts) and Cry Havoc (Stephan Wolfert at 4th Wall Theatre Company).

Best Touring Production:
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (BBVA Compass Broadway at the Hobby Center)

Not too many plays start with a dead dog, center stage. Even fewer make the prime suspect a kid, the main character in the play. Toss in a touch of high-functioning autism with a side of math genius and a pet rat and what do you have?

Surprisingly, not a mish-mash but a fully realized, enthralling play. Based on the award-winning novel by the same name, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time evolves as Christopher’s diary made into a play, which solves the plot problem of how a boy who doesn’t like to make eye contact and shies away from strangers can tell his story to the world.

Living in a world of math and science, Christopher wants to be an astronaut but the kind who spends his time alone in space sans crew. He does not succeed in everything he does, but he is successful in some things, which means there are possibilities ahead for him.

Bolstered by wonderful sounds and a techno set design that mutates from graph paper grid to walkways and star maps, the production enabled audiences to see the wonders of Christopher’s would-be worlds and the potential in anyone. Some of the most heartfelt scenes were with his father; they could touch hands if only for seconds. Moments of grace.

Finalists: Fun Home (Theatre Under The Stars) and The King and I (BBVA Compass Broadway at the Hobby Center).

Best Cabaret:
It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues (Queensbury Theatre)

The warm intimacy of Queensbury Theatre, one of Houston’s best stage spaces, got lowdown and dirty for It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, a 1999 Tony Award nominee for Best Musical. The revue might be slight, skipping through black music history, but a more sassy show would be hard to find. In more or less chronological order, Blues presents 38 numbers, all delivered by an octet of exceptional musical performers: Manny Berry, Lady Grace O. Dada, Michelle Davis, Mark Frazier, Darry Hearon, Cheyenne James, Rodrick Randall, Roenia Thompson. They give the show snap, charm and sexy energy.

The “blues” are introduced as rooted in African chants with everyone dressed in dashikis or kente cloth shirts. We’re transported to the Tidewater area, then into the deep rich soil of the Mississippi delta, or the hardscrabble life in the hills of Kentucky. During the ’20s Great Migration, the music travels to Chicago’s fabled South Side, where again it’s transformed. We discover that the “blues” we assumed was always a tragic lento lament of lost love or unbearable hardness encompassed gospel, toe-tapping comedy numbers, country or just plain sex. It can be jubilantly subversive and funny, so the authors tell us, and this particular romp through the “blues” is nothing if not raucous, upbeat and joyous. Except, that is, for one dramatic showstopper at the end of the second act: Roenia Thompson’s rendition of the Abel Meeropol classic “Strange Fruit,” made famous in the 1939 recording by Billie Holiday. This heartbreaking response to lynching is the “blues” incarnate. Alone in her spotlight, much like what Holiday demanded when she sang her signature song, Thompson digs deep and hard. It’s wrenching, utterly haunting, deeply moving.

With seamless direction by Roshunda Jones and lively choreography by Bethany White, the revue flew by. When not center stage, everybody was a backup singer or dancer. Nobody stayed still for long. They ran around the auditorium, jumped up on the two bars on each side of the stage, or sashayed in the background. It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues was nothin’ but pure delight. Forget the history lesson; it’s only there to get us to the next song, each beautifully executed. The “blues” never sounded so exciting, or so sunny.

Best Choreography For a Musical:
Krissy Richmond for Godspell (A.D. Players)

When you can take a grade-B show and elevate it to Broadway caliber, you know there are pros backstage and onstage working overtime. While this Sunday school/flower child musical from Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak tells the story of Jesus’s ministry and last days, through his parables, the treacly let’s-put-on-a-show overlay is hard to swallow. That’s where the miracle occurs. Director Justin Doran sets a celestial pace, allowing the actors free rein to roam and perform with an almost improvisational wash. The phenomenal cast is a who’s who of ace Houston musical performers. Andrew Carson, Joey Watkins, Mason Butler, Mark Ivy, Jeremy Gee, Chelsea Ryan McCurdy, Kristin Warren, Brooke Wilson, Teresa Zimmerman and the rest can belt, croon, put over a soft-shoe and hoof like pros.

But what truly raises the barre is the gifted, dare we say inspired, work of choreographer Krissy Richmond, former Houston Ballet principal and, later, Broadway star, and now guru to those wanna-be Broadway babies at The Kinkaid School as director of dance. Which is proof that she knows her way around a stage. She swathes Godspell with heavenly movement, a divine pastiche that echoes jazzy Fosse, the irrepressible Jack Cole glamour of Hollywood fame and plain old Broadway pizzazz. She makes each routine unique, filled with a bursting charm that drips charisma. She raises your pulse. They are dance-mad at A.D. Players, whether pounding a table, frugging in a backup group or shimmying in a kickline. So you think you can dance? Well, maybe if Krissy Richmond gives you the steps.

Finalists: Eric Dano for Passing Strange (Obsidian Theater with SRO), Gabriel Dionisio for Syncing Ink (Alley Theatre), Mitchell Greco for Five Course Love (Stages Repertory Theater), Melinda Pritchett and Krissy Richmond for Promises, Promises (Bayou City Concert Musicals), Kristin Warren for The Rocky Horror Show (Theatre Under The Stars) and Bethany White for It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues (Queensbury Theatre).

The ongoing production of The Man From Beyond
The ongoing production of The Man From Beyond
Photo by Strange Bird Immersive

Best Risk:
Strange Bird Immersive for The Man From Beyond

Take an empty space at The Silos at Sawyer Yards, invest oodles of money to beautifully decorate it like a surreal Victorian séance parlor, outfit the space with all the bells and whistles of an Escape Room game and then produce a show in it for an audience of only six people at a time. Oh yeah, and run the show indefinitely.
For most theater folks, not only would this be a task too arduous to undertake, it would be a risk that would frighten off even the most seasoned producers. But not Strange Bird Immersive, whose Houdini-themed hybrid theater/escape room show, The Man From Beyond, wowed us with its clever mashup of fright and delight.

Houston’s only ongoing immersive production, The Man From Beyond isn’t just a show that shuffles us around for the sake of it, or throws in the locked room notion and cheaps out on the dramatic bits. This is an effort that successfully gives us a hybrid experience, incorporating the best of immersive theater with the fun of an escape room experience.

It’s a risk that we hope continues to pay off for this clever and creative company.

Best Special Effects:
The Air Raid Sequence in Much Ado About Nothing (Main Street Theater/Prague Shakespeare Company)

Take Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and set it in a bunker. And make it a show within a show, a troupe of performers performing a live radio broadcast to boost the spirits of the Allies fighting in World War II. Director Guy Roberts of the Prague Shakespeare Company brought his singular vision and performers from his Prague Shakespeare Theatre to Houston in what has become a yearly tradition. Beatrice and Benedick exchanged their war of words, then switched into WWII-era characters doing cigarette commercials between the scenes.

And then there was the air raid siren, which really nothing could have prepared audiences for. The walls and ceiling seemed to close in as the unrelenting shrieking wail went on and on and on. We were all in the bunker at that glorious, scary, profoundly effective claustrophobic moment.

Happiest Theater News:
The Jeannette & L.M. George Theater (A.D. Players)

In February 2017 — at the start of its 50th season — the Jeannette & L.M. George Theater near The Galleria became the new home for the A.D. Players after years of fund-raising. With more than 450 seats, state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems and an advanced rigging system, the theater is an impressive home for a group dedicated to presenting Christian and family-friendly themes. Built on solidly religious ground — there are six Bibles buried in the foundations along with scripture verses written on the floor and covered with carpet — the company’s new home at 5420 Westheimer allows it to show off its high-quality productions in a stunning, panoramic setting. A.D. Players has been performing some important productions for a while. Now its theater is just as impressive.

Saddest Theater News:
Stark Naked Theatre/4th Wall Theatre Company
Bayou City Concert Musicals

Kim Tobin-Lehl and Philip Lehl started Stark Naked Theatre seven years ago, hoping to present thought-provoking classic and modern day plays to Houston while at the same time paying actors a living wage. Sadly, despite general acclaim and no end of Houston Theater Awards accolades, they weren’t able to make a go of it, as they announced last week.

Even the decision to change the theater company’s name to 4th Wall Theatre (“Stark Naked,” they were told, scared away some donors) didn’t bring in enough money to sustain the operation. As actors, directors and artistic directors, this couple has enriched the Houston theater landscape. They say they are staying in Houston and will continue working as artists, but as of mid-December, they’ll close up shop as a theater company.
The loss is a significant one, but we can at least be grateful for all that they brought to Houston, not only in their productions, but in their nurturing of actors and directors, who all got to try on things they might otherwise not have been a part of.

Paul Hope’s Bayou City Concert Musicals was a lodestar for many musical groupies, a beacon of quality, wit and incredible entertainment.  Hope founded BCCM in 2000 to give audiences a chance to share his love of the Great White Way. Employing local talent exclusively, a full orchestra playing the show’s original compositions, minimal sets (if sets at all), droll costuming, inventive dance routines and some of the best direction this side of the footlights, Hope changed our perception of what a musical, an old one, could be to our lives. You might think that Stephen Sondheim’s classic Follies wouldn’t need a reworking, but when Hope programmed that haunting showbiz homage as BCCM’s first production, as a benefit for the Center for AIDS, it was a revelation. The following years unearthed such beauties as Assassins, One Touch of Venus, A Little Night Music, Finian’s Rainbow, She Loves Me, 70 Girls 70, The Secret Garden, The Pajama Game and Promises, Promises, BCCM’s final show.

But new subscribers were difficult to corral, and eventually the money ran out. On June 12, the board of directors called it quits. To BCCM, which brought us innumerable pleasures through the years, we say Godspeed.

Best Ensemble Cast:
Passing Strange (Obsidian Theater with SRO)

The next time someone says that he has to look outside Houston to cast top-quality musical theater talent, we’ll have two words for him: Passing Strange. With an ensemble of seven new and newly known to us talents, this is a cast overflowing with triple threats. Each of these über-talented artists sang, danced and acted as though they rightly owned the biggest stage in town, this despite performing in a space no bigger than a large classroom. And they did it in such perfect tandem, it’d be impossible to imagine the show working as well without all of them.

David Allen III as Youth, the protagonist of the show, gave us journey extraordinaire as he transformed from boy to man. RaMina Mirmortazavi sparkled as his devoted mother. In addition to portraying many other characters, Cantrell Williams played a pot-smoking, flamboyant preacher’s son with debauched flair. Also taking on several characters in the musical were cast members Estee Burks (especially notable as Youth’s Amsterdam lover), Orlanders Jones (wonderfully whacky as a self-involved hippie preener) and James Phillips (seductively memorable as a German Black Panther).

Overseeing it all was the show’s omniscient Narrator, Rodrick Randall, knocking it outta the park with his powerful singing and storytelling abilities.

As we looked around the stage at this cast, we couldn’t help but want to collect them all together. Promise us, we wanted to say, promise that you’ll all appear again in something else so that we can marvel at your chemistry and collective talent all over again. It’s a good wish to have had — a perfect tribute to this talented bunch.

Finalists: Becky Shaw (Firecracker Productions), Dry Powder (Alley Theatre), Lobby Hero (4th Wall Theatre Company) and Syncing Ink (Alley Theatre).

Chelsea Ryan McCurdy, seen here in Rogue Productions' Matt & Ben, was everywhere.
Chelsea Ryan McCurdy, seen here in Rogue Productions' Matt & Ben, was everywhere.
Photo by Claire Logue

Best Utility Player:
Chelsea Ryan McCurdy as Ben in Matt & Ben, as Barbie/Sofia/Gretchen/Rosalina/Kitty in Five Course Love, as Dawn in Lobby Hero, and in Godspell.

She can sing, she can dance, she can do comedy and drama with equal flair and she can even make us believe that she’s Ben Affleck. If Chelsea Ryan McCurdy wasn’t so much darn fun and intriguing to watch, we’d be seething with jealousy at the breadth of her talent.

This was the season of range for McCurdy as she effortlessly morphed from one character type to another. First, there was her spot-on frat boyish hilarity as Ben Affleck in the Rogue Productions (a company she co-created) staging of Matt & Ben. She followed her gender-bending role by showing off her amazingly strong pipes and distinctly female side in variously spandexed, latexed and bewigged outfits in the spoofy musical Five Course Love at Stages Repertory Theatre. Then, just when we thought straight-up comedy or singing was her thing, McCurdy wowed us as a tough-talking novice New York City police officer facing seat-squirming sexual harassment in 4th Wall Theatre Company’s production of the dark dramedy Lobby Hero. Then she gave us another bravura singing performance in Godspell.

But just because we’ve seen McCurdy do it all this season doesn’t mean we aren’t hungry for more. This is one utility player we can’t wait to see surprise us again and again. What’s next, puppets?

Best New Play/ Musical:
Syncing Ink by NSangou Njikam (Alley Theatre)

A hip-hop musical about a teenage boy who learns to express himself through rapping, by a playwright dedicated to telling stories from the African diaspora vantage point. How’s that for a bullseye modern-sensibilities world premiere idea?

Syncing Ink, by Baltimore playwright NSangou Njikam, started off as a workshop piece in the Alley All New Festival and went on to be the first play from the initiative to receive a full production. And it was full of DJ-spun music, freestyle rhyme, young male bravado, female power, and rap battles, all perfectly the real deal, and all in support of a sweet coming-of-age tale that everyone can relate to.

In his semi-autobiographical story, Njikam (who plays the show’s lead, Gordon) smartly steers clear of the stereotypical guns and gangs hip-hop narrative and instead sets his musical around a group of intellectually top-notch high school kids who embrace rap as their mode of creative expression. We loved watching the Charlie Brown-like character, Gordon, try and fail to get the rhymes right. We marveled as master rapper and bully Jamal smoked them all in song. We laughed as Jamal’s loyal comedic sidekick, Ice Cold, acted a fool. And we swooned watching the smart-mouthed Sweet Tea take on the boys at their own game.

Never once did Syncing Ink dumb any of its hip hop sensibilities down or condescend to the initiated. Instead we got music pumping and raps flying, all leading to one hell of a celebratory time in the theater.

Finalists: Front Porch Society by Melba Beaty (The Ensemble Theatre); Freaky Friday, book by Bridget Carpenter, music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Brian Yorkey (Alley Theatre in co-production with La Jolla Playhouse and Cleveland Play House); and Small Jokes About Monsters by Steven Strafford (The Landing Theatre Company).

Best Artistic Director:
Jason Nodler (The Catastrophic Theatre)

An artistic director has to juggle schedules, coordinate the team, pick his season’s plays, manage finances, cater to actors and hug everyone incessantly, all while pretending to have everything under control. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.

Whether Jason Nodler is a hugger, we know not, but he’s a mighty fine artistic director, leading Catastrophic through a superlative season. Having a built-in audience base doesn’t hurt, and Catastrophic audiences are loyal and vocal no matter what, but Nodler intrinsically gauges their mood and what will appeal across the board. He’s also blessed with a revolving stable of some of Houston’s finest actors, whose talents are highlighted and deepened by the roles Nodler thinks will do them, and the play they appear in, justice.

Nodler’s also committed enough to share the stage, letting Greg Dean go wild with his dream project, Snow White, or Tamarie Cooper usher us through Nick Jones’s phantasmagorical chimp bio, Trevor, or Jeff Miller focus a laser on Sam Shepard’s blasted American dreamscape, Buried Child. Nodler picked well this season, for his actors and his audience. What went on stage at Catastrophic’s home at MATCH was never less than innovative and provocative, the quality of its stagecraft constantly high, the love of theater potent and inspiring. A bouquet to you for a vibrant season. Maybe a hug too.

Finalists: Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl (4th Wall Theatre Company), Kenn McLaughlin (Stages Repertory Theatre) and Tom Stell (Obsidian Theater with SRO).

Best Season:
The Catastrophic Theatre

All our nominees had banner years. Who wouldn’t award the Alley Theatre for presenting The National Theatre of Scotland’s thrillingly theatrical Let the Right One In, or Main Street Theater’s romp through the byzantine Tudor dynasty in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, or Obsidian’s uplifting musical foray into sex, drugs, and rock and roll in Passing Strange, or Stages Repertory Theatre’s ultra-hip kitchen-sink drama (and we mean real kitchen sink) My Mañana Comes? It was a very good year for them all. There were dogs among them too, but then again, nobody’s perfect.

The Catastrophic Theatre roared back to life as Houston’s preeminent producer of edgy, cutting-edge, adult drama. Its fare was exceptionally stellar, always thought-provoking and produced with the company’s patented band of expertise and inky psychology. Existential irony is its calling card. Sam Shepard’s Buried Child opened the season on a high. Mickle Maher, perhaps Catastrophic’s mascot if not resident playwright, was represented by Song About Himself, a weird and wonderful sci-fi cry from the heart that gave Tamarie Cooper the role of a lifetime. Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner, another post-apocalyptic foray into Big Brother and the role of art in a repressive society, mesmerized in January.

Nick Jones’s darkly comic Trevor burst upon us in February, and we’ll never look at cuddly chimpanzees the same.

As its penultimate showcase, the company went deep with the world premiere of Greg Dean’s hypnotizing adaptation of Donald Barthelme’s Snow White, a whirligig retelling through raunch and heartache of the classic Grimm fairy tale. Disney should sue, but first the Brothers Grimm would have to sue Disney. All in all a most impressive season for all lovers of provocative theater.

Finalists: Alley Theatre, Main Street Theater, Obsidian Theater with SRO and Stages Repertory Theatre.

margaret.downing@houstonpress.com


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