Capsule Stage Reviews: November 20, 2014

Hänsel und Gretel When Opera in the Heights announced it would perform Englebert Humperdinck's gargantuan fairy tale — gargantuan in the size of its orchestra — I immediately thought, what a boneheaded mistake, this'll never work. This late Romantic behemoth (1893), progeny of Wagner and stepchild of soon-to-be Richard Strauss, requires orchestral forces that intimate Lambert Hall doesn't possibly have space for, nor can maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo's small-scale ensemble do justice to the shimmering textures and tone painting that Humperdinck's most famous score calls for. This is epic musical theater; little Opera in the Heights can never pull this off. Look who's the bonehead! Perfect for the kids and immensely satisfying for any grownup operaphile, Hänsel und Gretel is a stunner, perhaps OH's most perfect realization. In a splendid orchestral reduction by Derek Clark, head of the music staff at Scottish Opera, Humperdinck's grand work only gains in clarity by this talented abridgment, losing none of its sparkle and mysterious youthfulness. The score sounds lush and ever-fresh, awhirl with witty counterpoint and intriguing instrumental details that emphasize its soaring singing line and folklore-like melodies. Listen for the resounding trumpets, the effervescent harp, the deep swoon of the strings. The opera is ripe and certainly juicy. Humperdinck dances right through it, much like his characters. Carreón-Robledo dances, too, and his superb orchestra follows like Ginger Rogers. To stave off hunger, siblings Hansel and Gretel (mezzo Megan Berti and soprano Allison Pohl) goof off instead of doing their chores. Mom (soprano Cassandra Black) loses her patience and sends them to pick berries in the forest. When Dad (Brian Shircliffe) returns from a successful day at the market selling brooms, bringing a needed basket of food with him, he's horrified to learn that the children are in the woods. That's where the evil witch lives, he cries! Dad and Mom rush into the forest to find them. Lost and frightened, the children fall asleep through the intervention of the Sandman (soprano Amanda Kingston). In the morning, awakened by the Dew Fairy (Kingston), they discover a tempting house made of gingerbread. As they nibble at it, they rouse the wicked witch (mezzo Claudia Chapa). I think you know the rest. This is all pretty simple stuff, but Humperdinck spins folksy straw into operatic gold. The work is awash in an almost Italianate lyricism, ironic since this opera was hailed as the most Germanic of all works since Wagner. You can hear that, for certain, but there's a sunny disposition in the music, an almost heady atmosphere of mist and moonlight, forest murmurs, bird calls, good times and simple faith. OH has found a director of real quality in Mary Birnbaum, whose eye for the telling gesture, the perfect comic effect or visual snap brings the fairy tale into our laps. Hansel falls asleep in the aisle; the witch's claw-like hands appear from behind the house before she emerges; during the "Evening Prayer," Mom and Dad, as if in the children's dream, spread out a spangly black cloth, like a starry night, and cloak their children under it; as Mom leaves, she quietly gestures to the heavens, and twinkly stars descend like night lights to watch over her sleeping son and daughter. Humperdinck supplies the softest of lullabies for punctuation. With its movable trees, rustic house and simple stage effects, the production, designed by Robert Rolden and Joshua Slisz, has the feel of a picture book come to life. Jim Elliot's colorful, subtle lighting is particularly effective, as is Dena Scheh's Bavarian-inspired look of lederhosen and dirndls. The future of opera is in mighty secure hands when the young cast is this assured. Full of charm and exceptional technique, these fine pros sail through Humperdinck's thick Wagnerian tessitura as if laughing. Opera in the Heights' production has it all: exceptionally vivid singing; a startlingly effective staging that's smart and witty; and an outstanding orchestral performance. Everything works. Humperdinck remains a one-opera guy. But he hit the heights with Hänsel und Gretel. So does Opera in the Heights. November 20 and 22. The Emerald cast (with Hilary Ginther, Katie Dixon and Jenni Bank) performs November 21 and 23. 1703 Heights Boulevard, 713-861-5303. — DLG

Late: A Cowboy Song Sarah Ruhl is one of the most celebrated and awarded names in modern American Theater. Two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist? Check. Tony Award nominee for Best New play? Check. A Pen American Award? Sure. The prestigious and lucrative MacArthur "Genius Grant"? Yup, that too. So yes, the gal's got game, as they say. But chances are you would never have guessed this was going to be the case from her 2003 Late: A Cowboy Song. Written just as Ruhl was on the cusp of critical acclaim, the play, about an ill-matched, dichotomous young couple and the mysterious gender-bending female cowboy who threatens to undo them, didn't have critics widely singing her praises at all. But still, one can make the argument that there is value in paying attention to a marquee playwright's sophomoric efforts even if they're unsuccessful. You may suffer a bit along the way, but you also get to see the genesis of what gets perfected into greatness with more mature output — in this case, Ruhl's trademark sprinkling of the surreal and her ability to create characters she describes as occupying "the real world and also a suspended state." The characters Ruhl works with here are childhood sweethearts Mary (Lindsay Ehrhardt) and Crick (Jason Duga), now a young couple living together somewhere in Pittsburgh in a pre-Internet/cell-phone era. Young not only in age but in emotional maturity (Mary runs to her mother's house the minute a fight breaks out, while Crick thinks sex solves everything), the couple share a birthday and not much else. Crick loves art; Mary could care less. Crick obsessively watches the same old movies over and over; Mary can barely concentrate enough to make soup. Mary works and has some money; Crick is jobless and has none. Mary is always late; Crick is always waiting for her. With so little in common, it's a wonder these two are a couple at all. Yet in Ruhl's hands, as depicted in a series of domestic snapshots, they not only stay together but apparently still have the hots for each other. Fast-forward several creepy groping scenes later, and you get a pregnancy and marriage between the two. Ruhl throws added tension between the couple, first with the head-scratching and utterly unnecessary decision to give Mary and Crick a hermaphrodite child who is surgically altered to become a girl. Then Ruhl throws in a new, intense and secretive friendship between Mary and Red (the easy and charismatic Sara Ornelas), a girl the couple went to school with years ago. Androgynous and living the life of a cowboy outside the city limits, Red is the opposite of Crick. Unshowy and contented in her silences, charismatic and smooth, it's no wonder Mary falls for Red and can finally let her anxieties go. It's here we finally see glimpses of Ruhl's ability to write beautifully affecting yet simple dialogue. As Mary spends more time with Red in these engaging, sexually charged but platonic scenes, she finds it harder to leave her company and becomes purposefully late in returning home to her increasingly jealous/angry husband and infant daughter. Director Bree Bridger does her best to navigate the action between Ruhl's unconvincing realism and lovely but ultimately underdeveloped romanticism. She nicely mines the humour in Ruhl's script and does a fine job of staging Red's whimsical short songs that pepper the show. But a rush job on what should have been a deliciously frenetic whirlwind years' worth of holiday celebrations between Mary and Crick is clunky to the point of sapping all the gleeful energy out of the exercise. The cast all deliver good work in pIaces, and Ornelas's Red is liquid ease that manages to distract from the show's plentiful shortcomings. Duga nicely gives us a Crick who's both a man child and a bully, and Ehrhardt's Mary is an interesting basket of flakey pouts and tics. But ultimately the talented cast cannot plumb the depths of characters that Ruhl has rendered developmentally impotent or just plain implausible. Late: A Cowboy Song is far more successful at evoking moments and feelings than it is at making a point or giving us an intriguing narrative. Overstuffed with questions of gender and sexual politics set against an unsatisfying, surreal examination of marriage and squashed against a fanciful romance, the show tries to be too many things and ends up being not much of anything. Except maybe a glimpse at the seeds of the talent that Ruhl would go on to become. Through November 22. 14 PEWS, 800 Aurora Street, mildredsumbrella.com. — JG

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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
JIM J.TOMMANEY