Capsule Stage Reviews: February 12, 2015

Character Man Jim Brochu's one-man musical tribute to those unsung supporting players of Broadway's golden age radiates such a warm autumnal glow, you want to rush right out and buy every original Broadway cast album of the shows Brochu so lovingly remembers. (If you're already a Broadway baby, you have these albums, probably on vinyl.) Young Brochu was at ground zero when the acting bug got him, selling orange drink at the back of the Alvin Theater during the run of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, starring legendary Zero Mostel, with its classy second-banana lineup that included John Carradine, Jack Gilford and David Burns, Brochu's mentor and nominal third star of this show. How Brochu got to the concession stand is a fun story in itself, but just one of many nimble jaunts he takes down his sweet and tuneful memory lane. As you may know, character men are not stars, but do the grunt work propping up the romantic leading men, usually with sly, split-second comedy timing and a well-aimed spritz from old vaudeville's seltzer bottle. To be a character man requires "peculiarities," winks Brochu, usually because fame and whatever fortune accrues come late in a career. Take David Burns, a veteran's veteran, and Brochu's father's best friend. The original Banjo in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939), Burns didn't truly see his star take off until the early '60s, winning two Tony awards for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical in the landmark musicals The Music Man and Hello, Dolly. He never stopped working, dying onstage in Philadelphia during the out-town run of Kander and Ebb's 70, Girls, 70. That's the way to go out for a character man, Brochu boasts wistfully, with laughter and applause. As a kid, sitting in the corner of Burns's dressing room, Brochu listened and learned as the great and near-great came backstage and dissed each other and the business. It was the greatest education in the world. He was hooked at once. Throughout this gentle "I was there" memoir, Brochu pays tribute to a raft of other players, supporting and higher, who made an indelible impression on the young man: Zero Mostel (whom Brochu impersonated so perceptively in his previous one-man show Zero Hour), Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, George S. Irving, Cyril Richard, Barney Martin, Lou Jacobi, Bert Lahr, Charles Nelson Reilly, Kathleen Freeman. But none had as much of an influence as did his father, a widower and alcoholic, who loved actors and had a permanent Friday night bar seat at Sardi's, the watering hole of the Great White Way. "I never knew my father drank, until I saw him sober." Rim shot! A bon vivant of the old school, the elder Brochus encouraged his son and practically shoved him into Burns's arms. He dated Joan Crawford in the '60s. "Who wouldn't want Joan Crawford for a mother?" Brochu excitedly adds with tongue firmly planted in cheek. In a lilting scene, Brochu recalls his father's death when he tells his son how he almost became an actor, turning down an offer for a screen test at Paramount's Astoria Studios for a respectable and more lucrative position on Wall Street. Requesting a song from his son, Brochu croons a soft, touching rendition of "Give My Regards to Broadway." It's a quietly profound testament. (Adam Stout, at the piano, accompanies Brochu with consummate skill.) Other pertinent musical numbers are sprinkled throughout, and Brochu imbues the songs with old-fashioned brio. With irrepressible style, he channels Mostel in his signature "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler; all four old Forum vets in "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid"; Barney Martin in "Mr. Cellophane" from Chicago — the song's theme of ordinary, overlooked people is an apt description of how character actors are known to the public; Jack Gilford in "Meeskite" from Cabaret; and a deliciously blue comic ditty that George S. Irving put across with absolute deadpan, "The Butler's Song" from So Long, 174th Street, a forgotten musical bomb adapted from Carl Reiner's Enter Laughing that lasted 16 performances. Brochu seems to have known everybody in the business. They changed his life. The love is real. So is our thanks. Through February 15. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. 713-527-0123. — DLG

The Magic Flute Mozart's final opera, a grand fairy tale filled with lofty philosophy and low-brow vaudeville, is the work that gave him the most pleasure. Not only was it his most profitable hit, running daily sold-out performances at Emmanuel Schikaneder's suburban, middle-class Theater auf der Wieden, but the Viennese had finally warmed up to his incomparable stylish music. He never lived to see Flute conquer the world, for he died two months after the premiere. Mozart loved this German theater of stage effects, low comedy and fantastic plots, and with Schikaneder he wrote a blockbuster, a German singspiel, very much like a Broadway show — a story told through dialogue, songs and dance. The theater had been refurbished into a state-of-the-art house, and could accomplish every type of scenic effect from balloon ascensions to walks through fire. It was the perfect place to stage Flute with its epic panoramas of ancient Egypt, jungle animals dancing to a magic tune, a hellish Queen of the Night who vanishes into damnation's flames, priestly rituals, a trio of boys floating overhead in that newfangled contraption the balloon, and feather-trimmed bird catcher Papageno, the everyman doofus out for a good time with a bottle of wine in one hand and a comely wench in the other. This life-affirming opera is Mozart at his most sunny. The work's wide range of styles — treacherous coloratura for the treacherous Queen, classic Italianate legato for prince Tamino, crystalline and chasm-deep sound for Sarastro, leader of the forces of light, and folk tunes for rowdy Papageno — seamlessly weave together. Flute is indeed an opera for the entire family; there's something for everybody. In this sparse but handsome production from English National Opera, with color-coded sets and stylish costumes by Tony award-winner Bob Crowley and rather perfunctory direction by Sir Nicholas Hytner, Mozart's own magic is put to three severe tests. Why, in this day and age, does Houston Grand Opera perform this work in English! If the opera's in German, sing it in German. Why muck around, ill-fitting an entirely different language with its particular cadence and stress into the original's musical beat, like Cinderella's stepsisters' cutting off toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper? It makes a bloody mess and fools nobody. To the cast's credit, though, their diction is superb, all the more disheartening to hear Jeremy Sams's ungainly rhymes so sharp and crisp. As for the dialogue scenes, they, too, are the bane of contemporary houses when singers have to speak lines. They throw their voices out in a most unnatural way, as if they're Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. It's stilted in the extreme. And then there is maestro Robert Spano, music director of Atlanta Symphony and Aspen Music Institute. With his impressive list of credentials, conducting all over the world in all the great houses, you would think he'd know better than to let Mozart drag his feet. I thought this wonderful opera, full of spritz and majesty, would never end. But there were bright spots, one a supernova. Soprano Kathryn Lewek was a jaw-dropping Queen of the Night, her signature role throughout the world. Her shimmery, pinprick voice is in full command of Mozart's most showstopping arias. Her Act I "Zum Leiden" ("In Grief"), which builds from a lament to a piercing accusation, is only the tease for perhaps the most famous — and famously difficult — of all coloratura outbursts in the rep, her Act II "Wrath of Hell" aria that everyone somewhere has heard, even if they've never heard of Magic Flute. That she nails this aria is not news, but that she breathes real fire into this wan production is. Everything comes alive when she's onstage. Make room for Lewek. She burns. February 14. Student performance February 13m. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover
Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman