Start your weekend with a blood bath. Friday is the opening night for the Houston Grand Opera's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
At the center of the action is, of course, Sweeney Todd, a barber with a taste for revenge, and Mrs. Lovett, a shop owner who isn't above popping a little human flesh into her pies. With her pastry shop on the decline and the prospect of a life sinking even further into poverty, Mrs. Lovett decides upon drastic, gruesome measures to keep her business going and to try to improve her fortunes in life. Susan Bullock plays the lethal lady in Houston Grand Opera's upcoming production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
This venture is a first for Bulllock, an opera singer who's done everything from Puccini's Madame Butterfly to Wagner's Ring to Strauss's Elektra (considered one of the bloodiest operas, so maybe it was good training for her role in Sweeney Todd). "It's very challenging. Sondheim is very clever. He's a genius and his music is tricky. It's really quite difficult music. The words are incredible and just the odd change of the rhyme," Bullock says. "Then there's all the spoken dialogue. In my normal repertoire, I don't speak a word. And I have to conquer a Cockney accent."
Bullock, who grew up in Manchester, England, the daughter of two police officers, said she was originally going to be a pianist but she had to have two "arts" areas to apply to a local academy, and when the people there heard her sing, they told her she might want to rethink that.
Describing her character, Bullock says: "She's the sort of Lady Macbeth of this opera. She is the power behind the throne. She's very sharp-witted, has her eye on everything all the time. But there's also a part of her that I find quite touching.
Basically, she just wants to be married and have a family, and have a normal kind of life. She really does like Toby, the young boy, but she knows in the end he is going to have to go, he's going to have to go the same way as everybody else because she's ultimately driven by a wish to elevate herself socially. She is a monster, but there are sides to her." Asked why the show has been such a success, Bullock laughs and says: "It's ghastly, really, but people just love it. The melodies are great."
See Sweeney Todd at 7:30 p.m. April 24 and 29, May 2, 8 and 9; 2 p.m. April 26. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, visit houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-6737. $18 to $370.
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Get ready to be moved when Houston Arts Alliance offers up Voices of the Spirit 5 this weekend, with both a Saturday and Sunday performance. The annual concert, which focuses on the faith music of four very different cultures, was originally conceived as a component of HAA's Sacred Songs, Sacred Sites.
"That program, which was originally done in Zilkha Hall, was so well received that we decided to bring it back with a new set of musicians every year," said Pat Jasper, HAA's director of folklife and traditional arts. "Two years ago, we shifted to the Asia Society. There's an intimacy to the theater that somehow matches the intimacy of the devotional music that we present. This year, I think, we have a pretty exciting lineup."
The show opens with the Cortez Family, siblings who began singing in their grandfather's church, Greater Faith Missionary Baptist Church in Acres Homes, more than 20 years ago. "They're followed immediately afterward by a young cantor who has just joined Beth Israel; [Daniel Mutlu] has become the toast of the Jewish community," said Jasper. "He's going to be performing repertoire from the golden age of American Jewish music."
"He is followed by a wonderful couple that are pretty renowned," Jasper said of the husband-and-wife team David and Chandrakantha Courtney. "They're institutions in the Indian community. One thing that's exciting to me is that they're going to be accompanied by sitar, tabla and esraj, as well as play the tanpura."
Danza Chinelos del Estado de Guerrero and Banda Viento Morelense de los Hermanos Campos, who all hail from the same region of central Mexico, close the evening. "[The dancers] wear these amazing outfits that involve velvet floor-length robes with lots of embroidery and sequins and rickrack," Jasper said about the costumes that portray the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. "They dance out of devotion to her. It's just amazing; it's really beautiful."
Enjoy Voices of the Spirit at 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday. Asia Society Texas Center, 1370 Southmore. For information, call 713-496-9901 or visit houstonartsalliance.com. Free.
With music by Benjamin Britten and choreographed by Houston Ballet's artistic director, Stanton Welch, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra is one of those pieces both illuminating and just plain fun to experience. This Friday and Saturday, student dancers in the Houston Ballet Academy will have a chance to show how they negotiate it as part of their Spring Showcase, which this year will feature four Welch creations, said to be the most in any Spring Showcase.
Simon Ball, principal dancer with the Houston Ballet, was put in charge of setting the orchestra guide piece, which involves 29 dancers. "There are five lines of people dancing at the same time, doing completely different things, all to the same music," he says, adding that although he danced the Viola role in the professional performance in 2014, he checked out the videotape over and over again to make sure he was getting everyone where they should be, noting that Welch is known for his preciseness.
"It's a really neat piece because you have not only the dancing going on but the narration going through each section -- woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion, so as an audience member you get to not only see the movement depicted but have the orchestra broken down. Especially for young audiences, when it's dissected and deconstructed for you and then it comes back together at the end, you really appreciate what goes into the dance, the music and the sensory experience." As for the dancers ranging in age from 13 to 18, Ball says he worked with them to master the technical parts, to work together as a company, to make things look as smooth as possible, but not to try so hard to emulate the professional company that they looked beyond their years and appeared unrealistic.
"These are very talented students. Most of them are taking themselves very, very seriously," Ball says. "It's the same steps, the same musicality, but I want for them to be a little more joyous, a little more innocent and a little more true to their age. As an audience member, you have to understand they're doing what's appropriate."
Besides the opportunity to perform before audiences at the Wortham, the student dancers get a good education in "what makes a good dancer a usable dancer, what company life is," Ball says. "You work as a corps and also have your solo moments. That's what makes you so valuable to be reliable, know your material, learn quickly, be clear when you do perform that'll get you the job. After that, it's up to you."
Students of the Houston Ballet Academy take the stage at 7 p.m. Friday; 1:30 p.m. Saturday. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, call 713‑227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $41 to $51.
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Colorado artist Amber Cobb is perhaps best known for her concrete sculpture of a full-size bed mattress and box spring, As I Adapt, demonstrating themes of resiliency (concrete) and vulnerability (sleep). It was this piece that caused Gray Contemporary, which works to promote emerging artists, to plan the new exhibition of her works, "Bed." The show has an opening reception on Saturday.
In most recent years, Cobb has produced sculptures featuring torn and stained mattresses and silicone rubber. "This is a new group of work that she's just produced," said Gray Contemporary's owner and director, Mel DeWees. "[Her work] deals with a lot of medical issues, a lot of surgeries through her youth, so there's always a sense of vulnerability and sexuality to her work."
The new works, which continue to incorporate silicone, are based on blankets wrapped around canvas. "The afghan blankets are a means of comfort, the insecurity, the dichotomy of sensuality," said DeWees. "She finds pleasure in it, but she also finds vulnerability and tension."
The show also will contain her wall hanging The Skin of 1000 Lovers, a patterned and ribbed silicone rubber construction that is flesh-colored with a stretched and glossy feel. "The silicone. Her experimentation really started with the mattress, and she started using it because of the similarity to skin, and because of the surgery that she's had to deal with," said DeWees. "She wanted to build it up, layer by layer, kind of like thick skin."
"She's getting to that nice, quiet place between sculptor and painter. She is 34 years old and her work is emotionally driven," said DeWees. "I'm really excited to see her work in Houston."
There's an opening reception at 6 to 8:30 p.m., April 23. Regular viewing hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays. Through May 19. 7026 Old Katy Road. For information, call 713-862-4425 or visit graycontemporary.com. Free.
Who doesn't love a classic comedy about a spendthrift old man and his scheming kids, especially when it's set in your own backyard? Audiences since the 17th century have admired The Miser, and now the University of Houston School of Theatre and Dance presents an updated, Houston-centric adaptation. It's our choice for Sunday.
Molière's original play, which premiered in 1668 in Paris, is a perfect example of commedia dell'arte, which tells stories through stereotypes that audiences in the 16th and 17th centuries would immediately recognize. The three main character categories are old men with power, servants and lovers -- and this play has all three. "Characters in this play are completely over the top. This form has evolved over time, and is very much a part of our contemporary comedy sensibility. You can see its roots in everything from Looney Tunes to sitcoms," said Sara Becker, a UH faculty member who directs the show.
The comedy pits a spendthrift widower, Harpagon, against his son, Cléante, and his daughter, Élise. Harpagon tries to marry Cléante's beloved himself while simultaneously scheming to win a wealthy husband for Élise, who only wants Valère, a young man employed by her father who also saved Élise from a watery grave.
"The plot is very much intact from Moliere's original. Where we've taken our licenses is asking ourselves what would Molière be writing if he were a Houstonian today," Becker said. "It's important to me that we are able to recognize ourselves in classical work; I think ultimately it's what makes classical work something we return to again and again. It keeps speaking to us."
The original play made avid use of satire and farce, as well as unusual theatrical elements such as characters speaking asides for the audience alone. The result is a hearty slapstick-style comedy.
"This style of comedy is very physical, so every piece of furniture had to be reinforced within an inch of its life so actors could jump off of it, roll around on it and have a great time," Becker said. "A hidden challenge is just how sturdy the costumes need to be. The actors in this type of style move like dancers, and their costumes need to be able to respond to that challenge."
John Strand has adapted this play before and set it in a 1980s Reagan-obsessed Washington, but this time he agreed to work with Becker to create a Bayou City version.
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"The original production was where I fell in love with John's writing. The audiences there recognized so much of themselves in it, and it was hilarious and fresh," Becker said.
"We've created something that is uniquely Houston, with each actor contributing his or her particular experience of our city. John was very open about collaborating with us on it, and we made sure it reflected our understanding of our beloved city."
See The Miser at 8 p.m. on April 24, 25, 28, 29, 30, May 1 and 2; 2 p.m. on April 26 and May 3. University of Houston, 4800 Calhoun. For information, call 713-743-2929 or visit uh.edu/class/theatre-and-dance. $20.
Margaret Downing, Susie Tommaney and Alexandra Doyle contributed to this post.