Winter has finally arrived on the bayou with an icy blast that probably won't last too long, but if you're in need of someplace to hunker down for the duration, look no farther than our own Winter Theater Season. During the next months, it's cozy and warm inside. You'll go to marvelous places and meet new people you never would have guessed could be so interesting. And in the grand scheme of things, the cost is a lot less than for a Caribbean vacation. You don't even need to pack a bag, just an open mind. And isn't that what travel – and theater – are all about?
The following overview is just that, a quick survey of what's been planned by our diverse, ever-inquisitive theater companies. Go, explore.
Every Broadway Musical Ever, the Musical!
January 13, 14, 15
Houston's newest venue, the funky Eado Playhouse, starts off with a weekend revue blitz of a flash-drive history of the Broadway musical. All your favorites will be showcased as they fly by, cabaret-style, Oklahoma to Hamilton, Gypsy to Sweeney Todd by an intrepid, talented troupe of Houston Broadway babies. This original production, a world premiere, I believe, will be catnip for all who sing “Memories” in the shower. You know who you are.
January 19 through February 4
Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street
For Mildred's Umbrella's production, playwright Mary Bonnett has adapted her 2014 Chicago-based drama about sex trafficking, originally titled Shadow Town, to a place closer to home, The Woodlands. This scalding dissection of perps and victims, based on interviews Bonnett conducted with dozens of sex trade survivors, is unstinting in its harsh reality. Featuring Seán Patrick Judge, Bobby Haworth and Sara Gaston, under Jennifer Decker's direction, it arrives with a serious disclaimer: “This play contains graphic subject matter and is suitable for mature audiences only.”
January 20 - February 12
See how the 1 percent lives and operates in Sarah Burgess's slash-and-burn X-ray of our current financial times. These hedge fund managers manage quite well, thank you, and usually operate without anesthetic. They flip commodities with the finesse of a diner's short-order cook churning out pancakes. Workers be damned, what's the bottom line and what's the profit share? If you have a soft spot for all things economic, you'll relish the backstabbing and power plays inside this private equity firm; if you think the barricades need more pitchforks, these pompous gargoyles are ripe for the guillotine. Either way, the art of the deal is deftly dealt, especially by Alley pros John Feltch, Jay Sullivan and Elizabeth Bunch as A-list Wall Streeters. Mind you, they've stashed the aces up their sleeves, and you will lose, but you'll go to bankruptcy court laughing. You can bet on it.
Nixon in China
January 20, 22m, 24, 26, 28
Houston Grand Opera
Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas
Commissioned in 1987 for Houston Grand Opera, John Adams's “minimalist” opera about Richard Nixon's historic 1972 trip to China, like the work of fellow contemporary Philip Glass, is full of arpeggios and repeated noodling, but Adams's style is more eclectic, mixing in jazz, big band and shades of Stravinsky. The work has gained in stature since its world premiere, becoming one of the few new operas to make a dent in the enduring rep that refuses to budge Puccini, Strauss, Verdi et al. Conducted by Robert Spano, baritone Scott Hendricks sings Nixon; soprano Andriana Chuchman, first lady Pat; baritone Chen-Yu Yuan, Chinese premiere Chou En-Lai; tenor Chad Shelton, wily old Mao; and bass Patrick Carfizzi, wily old Kissinger. Detente has never sounded so current.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
January 24 – 29
BBVA Compass Broadway at the Hobby
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby
Generously sprinkled with universal accolades, Simon Stephens's 2012 stage adaptation of Mark Haddon's award-winning best-seller, buoyed by Marianne Elliott's scene-stealing direction (War Horse), is a must-see. Wherever it plays, the show wows everyone with its stellar and acutely perceptive production, immense heart and thoroughly adorable leading man. Teenage Christopher, who suffers from a type of high-function autism, who hates to be touched, who is easily traumatized when daily life goes on its merry way without him, wants to know who killed the neighbor's dog, and he sets his math-enhanced mind to do it, no matter the dread of the world he feels pressing about him, constantly crushing him. Life is baited with traps, a veritable obstacle course, but this gut-busting drama is so high on life that tears flow in torrents. Wait until the final canine reveal; you'll know just what I mean.
Who Am I This Time? (& Other Conundrums of Love)
January 25 through February 12
Stages Repertory Theatre
3201 Allen Parkway
After what playwright Aaron Posner accomplished with his riff on Chekhov for Stages, Stupid F***ing Bird, what will he do to Kurt Vonnegut? This is adapted from a trio of Vonnegut comic short stories ("Long Walk to Forever," "Who Am I This Time?" and "Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son"), and the subject of love, “pure and complicated” and very funny, gets skewed and put back together. Posner's deft theatricality should marry brilliantly with Vonnegut's mordant view of humanity without its pants on.
January 26 - February 26
The monumental Mahalia Jackson, the queen of gospel music for decades and a leading figure in the civil rights movement, receives a deserved musical bio tribute from inspirational author Tom Stolz (When Heaven Meets Earth, The Gospel According to St. Mark). If one theater company can do a musical tribute, it's Ensemble. This pairing of the fabulously expressive Jackson, known to friends as “snake hips” for her movements while singing (discreetly kept out of camera range during all her numerous appearances in the '50s and '60s on the likes of The Ed Sullivan Show and The Bell Telephone Hour), should be putty in this company's loving hands. Her great friend Dr. Martin Luther King apotheosized, “A voice like this one comes not once in a century, but once in a millennium.” He got that right. Hallelujah!
February 9 - March 4
Obsidian Theater, 3522 White Oak
Houston's awash in award-winning musicals this season, and here's one of the most novel, Mark “Stew” Stewart and Heidi Rodewald's striking journey of a young black musician on his personal magical mystery tour. Wailing like a rock star, the “young man” goes on a timely pilgrim's progress, passing through gospel, punk, jazz, but mostly rock. Naturally drugs and sex play a part in his self-discovery as he moves through the United States, Amsterdam and then to Berlin's counterculture revolution. Earthy and tuneful, he finds himself, eventually, not exactly back where he started, but in a more mature place where the remainder of his voyage can now truly begin.
February 10 - March 4
Poor Trevor, nobody understands him and he so wants to be understood. You realize he was once a star. I mean, he acted with Morgan Fairchild, for crying out loud. Why can't he continue his career in showbiz? Well, for one thing, he's too old and not cute enough anymore. But the real reason is that Mom won't let him. She's taken a real shine to him since her husband and child died recently. Why, these two sleep together, drink together, take baths together; she even lets him drive the car. This is creepy enough backstory, but Trevor, you see, is a chimpanzee, played by a guy. While he cavorts around the living room in Nick Jones's brutally funny comedy, you already know what's going to eventually happen. We read all about it a few years ago when Sandra Herold's chimp, raised as a pampered child, went berserk at the family home in Connecticut and chewed off the neighbor's face. Jones (Orange Is the New Black, rock musical Grizzly Adams) takes off from this premise of the impossibility of animal/human interaction and runs with it as if Usain Bolt.
To Kill a Mockingbird
February 11 – March 5
It's not Christopher Sergei's stage adaptation of Harper Lee's American classic novel that draws us to this venue; it's A.D.'s brand-spanking-new venue. After years of fund-raising and no doubt countless prayers – and as of this writing, because of falling oil prices and general economic ennui, they're not done with either – Houston's “theater of ministry” and one of our town's longest-operating companies has a state-of-the-art facility for its new home, the Jeannette and L.M. George Theater. The complex near the Galleria will house three theaters, multiple classrooms and administrative offices. Right now, the main theater is ready for business, and for those of us who saw numerous fine productions at the company's worn venue on Alabama, it's about time. God speed, A.D. Players.
February 11 through March 12
Main Street Theater
Do people behave like electrons? When they collide and bounce off each other, do they have a clue where they're going or how to get there? Can you ever predict such random arcs? Why do people act so strangely? Michael Frayn's 2000 Tony Award for Best Play ponders such weighty matters as two old friends, long estranged, who fought on opposite sides in WW II – Werner Heisenberg for the Nazis, Niels Bohr for the Allies, both searching for war's holy grail, the atomic bomb – confront each other's morality, ethics and mortality. All this from the Afterlife. This dense play, full of particle physics and nuclear subterfuge, responsibility and loss, is a far cry from Frayn's other masterpiece, the radiantly goofy backstage farce Noises Off, but the shear unknowingness of the heavens and the way of Man are made deeply personal and full of star shine. If there's one play this season for thinking adults, it's Copenhagen.
An American in Paris
February 21 – March 5
Theatre Under the Stars
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts
Adapted gingerly by Craig Lucas from the immortal Vincente Minnelli/Alan Jay Lerner 1951 MGM musical starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, this new musical, a multiple Tony Award-winner from 2015, receives immense pep from Christopher Wheeldon's adroit direction and vibrant choreography. One of international ballet's most acclaimed dancemakers, Wheeldon displays special theatricality in making us forget Kelly and all that MGM gloss, replacing it with an exuberant set design by master Bob Crowley and 59 Projections, as well as adding a plethora of Gershwin songs not used in the movie. There's great joy in this show and an overwhelming love for dancing. S'Marvelous, as the Gershwin brothers would say.
March 2 – 12
Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas
In Stanton Welch's version, enhanced by that marvelously prickly score by Sergei Prokofiev, feisty tomboy Cinderella doesn't fall for the prince; she doesn't even like the puffed-up popinjay. But look at his valet, Dandini. What a guy! Follow your heart is the warm lesson to be learned in this entrancing ballet. In panto tradition, Stepmother and Stepdaughters are played by men in drag, en pointe, too, making the roles technically demanding as well as fun to watch. Following Grimm more than Disney, the ballet is darker than usual, but true love does save the day, as we should suspect from that celestial nighttime sky designed vibrantly by Kristen Fredrikson and lit to perfection by Lisa Pinkham. Let's dance.
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The King and I
March 14 – 19
BBVA Compass Broadway at the Hobby
If you think you know all there is to know about Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic romance, you've not seen Barlett Sher's eyeful that won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical Revival. If the national tour is anything remotely like the Lincoln Center Theater production, including that steamship entrance over the orchestra pit, those luminous paper lanterns and the character interplay that seems almost newly minted, then you will surely have a getting-to-know-you moment.
Antony and Cleopatra
March 16 through April 8
3522 White Oak
Love and lust among the ruins. Shakespeare's glorious tragedy (c. 1606) isn't as well known or beloved as Hamlet or Othello, but this paean to politics and the intensely personal and the rawly erotic is in a rarefied class by itself, and has influenced every modern version of the lovers' story from Bernard Shaw and Cecil B. DeMille to Joseph L. Mankiewicz. To quote faithful soldier Enobarbus after he describes the Egyptian queen's ripe entrance into Taurus by gilded barge, he might just as well have been describing the play: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety. Other women cloy the appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where most she satisfies...she did make defect perfection, and, breathless, power breathe forth.”
April 22, 25, 29, May 4, May 7m
Houston Grand Opera
Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas
Richard Wagner's colossal summation to his mythic four-part The Ring of the Nibelungen (1876) finishes off the tale with nothing less than the destruction of the old Teutonic gods with the conflagration of Valhalla, the flooding of the Rhine, the funeral pyre of hero Siegfried, the self-immolation of once demi-goddess Brünnhilde, and, through cleansing ash and smoke, the ultimate rise of mankind, now freed from godly interference. One of the grandest of all operas, it's the most old-fashioned in the series, with stunning choruses, actual duets and clashing melodrama for days. Wagner wrote the libretto in 1849, calling it Siegfried's Death, and then realized he needed to augment the hero's background to fill in the gaps to explain why his heldentenor blundered into this predicament. When he decided on four different operas, the Ring cycle was born, all 16 hours of it. Twenty years later, interrupted by the composition of two other masterpieces, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the epic was completed, staged at his own festival hall in Bayreuth and blazed into history. The opera lasts five and a half hours, but for us Ring-heads, it's much too ungodly short!