Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
by Craig Malisow
Yes, Houston is an oil town. But it's also one of the few cities in the nation with permanent, professional companies in opera, ballet, music and theater, all of which attract visitors to the city.
One of the best ways to ensure that the performing arts stick around is by encouraging and nurturing up-and-coming talent. Which is why, in 2002, Theatre Under the Stars launched the Tommy Tune Awards to honor excellence in high-school musical theater.
As TUTS's Web site explains, the awards are "designed not only to acknowledge remarkable artists in musical theatre at the high school level, but also to encourage their future in the profession by providing an opportunity to win scholarships, compete on a national level, and receive recognition from their peers."
For the 2009/2010 awards season, Episcopal High nailed the Musical, Direction, Costume Design, Ensemble/Chorus and Choreography categories for its production of The Drowsy Chaperone. Eight students took home a scholarship award.
Named after Tommy Tune, nine-time Tony Award winner and Lamar High graduate, the Tommy Tune Awards competition is a massive undertaking, with more than 150 schools invited to participate each year. Only the first 45 schools to apply are accepted. A three-judge panel evaluates and scores each production, and, showing that the judges aren't just playing around, the scores are tabulated by an accounting firm. The ceremony is held at the Hobby Center, where the winners get to perform.
The awards are not only an incredible honor for the winning schools and students, but a real boon to the arts in general. Not every city is lucky enough to have such a legendary theater figure willing to lend his name to a program that fosters creativity at the high school level.
At Lamar, Tune was taught by Ruth Denney, who would go on to found the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. So when Tune allowed his name to be used for the awards, he stated, "High school theater was extremely important for me in helping to shape my later career. I was fortunate to be encouraged at Lamar by a great teacher, Ruth Denney. The recognition provided by these awards can provide the encouragement that a gifted student may need to become a successful professional."
The annual awards ceremony is free and open to the general public. Attending is a great way to show support for local high school theater — and who knows, you might just get a chance to see tomorrow's big stars today.
Like its big-brother Music Hall next door, the Bronze Peacock Room at House of Blues welcomes all kinds of music, from punk-rock princess Exene Cervenka to hip-hop royalty Rakim to the Kate Bush-y alt-pop of Mexico's Ximena Sariñana, but lately it's also been putting the "blues" back in "House of Blues." Mississippi-born growler Paul Thorn stopped by not long ago, but the best example came back in May, when HOB co-founder Dan Aykroyd hosted a night of local performers topped by formidable soul shouter Diunna Greenleaf and a lights-out set by Little Joe Washington in one of his last appearances before being hospitalized for emergency bowel surgery (he's on the mend now, thankfully). With the promise of more to come, the Bronze Peacock has finally begun to embrace the legacy of its bygone Fifth Ward namesake, proving there's still a lot of life — and ticket sales — in the blues yet.
What a definitive production this was — bare bones and minimal in look, but so rich in context and essence. Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Tony Award-winning classic from 1970 is a plotless, existential musical with perpetual bachelor Bobby (Luther Chakurian), his five pairs of friends and his three bedmates, who all wonder why such a catch isn't married. A very New York show, it's a dissection of modern life that includes marriage, commitment and what it's like to live in Manhattan, all jazzed by Sondheim's patented razor-sharp lyrics and adroit melodies. Masquerade's own patented ensemble cast outdid themselves, with truly splendid work from Chakurian (a very conflicted Bobby), Rebekah Dahl (a sharp-tongued Joanne, who got the show's bitchiest tune, the nervous breakdown-induced "The Ladies Who Lunch"), Allison Sumrall (who rightly stopped the show as neurotic Amy with her tongue-twisting patter of "Getting Married Today") and Kristina Sullivan (a comic delight as the stoned, innocent Jennie, who brought warmth into the bleakness). The ever-capable actors, expert direction by Phillip Duggins and Broadway-caliber orchestra under maestro Richard Spitz made this the musical of the year.
Rachel Brady has long worked as a scientist by day, but she's always loved reading fiction. One day she went from reading to writing, just to see if she could, she says. The result was Final Approach, published earlier this year. As readers might guess from the title, airplanes play a major role in Final Approach. Set in a skydiving school just outside of Houston, the book chronicles the adventures of Emily Locke as she does some undercover snooping into the case of a missing boy. Along the way, she runs into a weathered cowboy who might steal her heart — if he isn't the bad guy. Then there's her over-the-top friend Jeannie, who has turned being sassy into an art form. Brady's next book, Dead Lift, will hit shelves in December, and buzz is already building.
Happily, Houston finds itself with an abundance of good film festivals. Some focus on indie films, others on cinema from a certain country or region, still others on the stories of a particular ethnic group or sect. But only the Cinema Arts Festival Houston hones in on films by and about artists. The 2009 fest, Cinema Arts' inaugural edition, included appearances by Hollywood insiders such as Tilda Swinton and Guillermo Arriaga. It had a line-up of films in an immense range of periods and genres, from the 1924 silent film classic Peter Pan accompanied by a new score to the then yet-to-be-released Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. More than 6,000 viewers flocked to various screening venues around town, including Discovery Green, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and a portable screening room just large enough for ten or so people.
Just last year Houston drinkers were relegated to driving or walking from bar to bar if they wanted to hop from joints off Washington Avenue or Midtown. In the past year, jitney services have popped up in town to haul the thirsty and party-hungry to far-flung places when walking or driving is either a chore or ill-advised for legal reasons. Cops don't really like it when you drink ten shots of Patrón and take to the wheel of your SUV. The biggest jitney to make the scene is the Washington Wave, which quickly became the leader in the nascent industry. Each bus in its fleet comes decked out with a sound system, a DVD player, and free water, candy and condoms if you are thirsty, hungry or plan to get lucky.