Photo by Claire McAdams

The 5 Best Things to Do in Houston This Weekend: LMNOP and More

Start your weekend off right and catch LMNOP -- A New Muzical on Friday. Letters are falling from the sky. Well, actually, from a monument in town, and the local leaders in an island community take this as a sign that they should no longer be using the ones that hit the ground and ban them one by one. Based on the novel Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, LMNOP -- A New Muzical, with music by Paul Loesel and book and lyrics by Scott Burkell (Ho Ho Humbug at Stark Naked Theatre Company) is the latest production at TUTS Underground. Jason Gotay (last seen at TUTS in Bring It On: The Musical) plays Nate Warren, the just-returned boyfriend of our heroine, young Ella (Madeline Trumble, Broadway Newsies), who spearheads the fight against government extremism.

Gotay (Broadway Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) says he'd heard about the show, which has been performed in only a couple of other places, and wanted in. "It's always a dream to be part of the development process. And it's really fun to collaborate with the writers." At the same time, there's a high degree of difficulty factor because the actors cannot stray from the script, he says. Once a letter is banned, the writers and actors can no longer use it in the show. "Just today we were staging a scene, writers still making little cuts, little edits so we make certain we don't use letters that have already been banned, and one of the difficult things about this show for the actors, if we don't remember our lines word for word, we're in big trouble. Because we can't kind of create things in the moment because we might be using an illegal letter. That's what's so brilliant, that the characters are so frustrated because they can't use the words they want."

Audiences should find the show thought-provoking, Gotay says. "It really makes you ask some big questions about what would happen if you lose that freedom of speech."

7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 3 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Through April 19. Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $25 to $49.

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Noted philanthropist and museum professional Alice C. Simkins first began collecting art in the mid-1970s. Forty years later, that private collection includes pivotal pieces from American artists of the early 20th century; a select group of these works is on display in the exhibit "American Modern: Works from the Collection of Alice C. Simkins" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, one of our picks for Saturday.

"Simkins is very well educated and brings a sophisticated eye to what she collects," says Alison de Lima Greene, curator of Contemporary Art and Special Projects at the museum. "The exhibit includes 17 works on paper and two small sculptures." Texas artist Dorothy Austin, who sculpted pieces for the Texas Centennial in 1936 and the 1939 New York World's Fair, knew Simkins. "We have one of the last pieces she made, called Acrobat, before she abandoned sculpting."

One of Austin's mentors, William Zorach, sculpted the other piece in the exhibit. The exhibit also includes a rarely seen Georgia O'Keeffe. "Every time people have an opportunity to see a new Georgia O'Keeffe, it brings a sense of excitement," says de Lima Greene. "It's a really spectacular watercolor from 1916. I think people will be very, very interested."

"The pieces are small-scale, intimate works. There's a wonderful long, narrow Stuart Davis called Jazz. It will be a nice discovery for people," de Lima Greene says, noting that the artist used white paint to blot out some areas to paint over.

10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 12:15 to 7 p.m. Sundays. Through July 19. 1001 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-639-7300 or visit mfah.org. $15.

Another choice for Saturday is Richard Wagner's Die Walküre (The Valkyrie). In it Brünnhilde is the favorite daughter of the god Wotan (Odin) as well as a Valkyrie, one of the women who according to Norse myth determine who lives or dies in battle. In this, the second of the four operas that make up The Ring of the Nibelung, Brünnhilde, trying to do the right thing, disobeys her father when he orders her to make sure his son Siegmund dies in battle and as a result, loses her immortality and is put into an enchanted sleep surrounded by a ring of fire by her really upset dad. That's the abbreviated version (there's also adultery and incest and an immortal wife not too pleased with her husband's extracurricular activities). Yes, this is dysfunctional.

But what is highly functional is the arrival of American soprano (and frequent Houston Grand Opera visiting artist) Christine Goerke who will sing the Brünnhilde role and who just did it in Toronto to great acclaim. Goerke, who previously was known for singing Mozart and Handel was anointed by The New York Times in November 2013 when she sang the Dyer's Wife's role in Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten. She told us that she'd been building up to tackling heavier voice roles starting ten years ago. "I was ready to start getting my feet wet about eight years ago, but the minute someone realizes you are a viable option in this repertoire, unfortunately, we have cast it five years out. So you go to the back of the line. You cover and you study. And in the last three to four years, I've actually gotten to do a lot of it, but HGO was the first one to ask me to do a Ring."

She credits HGO Artistic Director Patrick Summers with being "one of the only people who really saw from the beginning where I was going and believed in me and held my hand all the way through."

And she loves her character, flawed and all, and says she's honored to sing the role ("You can count on one hand the singers who've gotten to sing her.") "She's so cool. This is only a third of her story. In this particular opera she's a teenager, she's a know-it-all, overzealous, well-meaning, over-energetic, very caring teenager, but she doesn't understand a thing that she thinks she understands."

Then there's also the music. "It's so epic. You can say what you will about Wagner (a noted anti-Semite) personally. But I firmly believe this music came through him from someplace else. This seems like God speaking through people. You, of course, get all the big, bombastic stuff that makes your hair stand on end. But you also get moments when there is nothing and you whisper in this music."

One thing you might watch out for in the third act -- Goerke says she gets so emotionally caught up in Wagner's music that she tends to cry and can't count the number of shirts she's ruined that her leading men were wearing.

Die Walküre is sung in German with projected English translation. Times for evening performances have been adjusted to accommodate the five-hour opera.

6 p.m. April 18, 22, 25 and 30; 2 p.m. May 3. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $20 to $396.

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It's cherry blossom season and time to head to the Japan Festival Houston 2015 at Hermann Park. The festival is one of our choices for Sunday. Along with Japanese food, entertainment, music, dancing and martial arts exhibitions, this year's festival features a roll-off competition between local sushi chefs. "In the style of Iron Chef, we're going to have some mystery ingredients in a basket and ask Houston's best sushi chefs to compete in a roll-off," says Justin Cooper, president of Japanese Festival of Houston, Inc. Anime, a cosplay fashion contest and groups are also on the schedule. Entertainment for children will include origami, calligraphy, Japanese painting, the Ikebana Club, tea ceremonies and face painting.

"We're trying to make everything as authentic as we can," says Cooper, noting vendors for Japanese kimonos, obis and bonsai trees are set to be on hand. The annual celebration of all things Japanese, the festival began some 22 years ago when construction was completed on the park's Japanese Garden. "A small group started having a springtime festival there, which would have been about the same time of year that the cherry blossoms come in bloom," said Cooper. "Now about 25,000 people attend."

10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Hermann Park, 6201 Hermann Park Drive. For information, call 713-426-0878 or visit houstonjapanfest.org. Free.

Another choice for Sunday is the Houston Symphony's upcoming Ohlsson Plays Chopin concer, during which the orchestra plays a game of "Which of these things is not like the other?" On the program is the much-adored First Piano Concerto by Frédéric Chopin, flanked by two modern works by an American composer, Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon. The program flows between the two full-bodied, fresh pieces that surround a piece featuring Garrick Ohlsson.

Robert Spano, currently the music director of the Atlanta Symphony and the Aspen Music Festival, conducts the concert and says the music and soloist are special to him. "It's a very personal program to me, in a most wonderful way. The Blue Cathedral was written for the 70th anniversary of the Curtis Institute, where Jennifer and I went to school, and we premiered it there. I'm very close to her music," he says. "The first professional orchestra concert that I ever conducted was with the Boston Symphony, and Ohlsson was my soloist. So, no matter what he's playing, it's always good to be back with him."

He goes on, "I'm very excited to be back in Houston because I love this orchestra. I haven't visited in a few years, and the orchestra hasn't played a lot of Higdon, so it's especially exciting for me to be able to bring this music that I love so much to them."

Some critics decry Chopin's First Piano Concerto, written in 1830, as overly simple, but fans often find this simplicity refreshing. Higdon's rich orchestrations will be a stark contrast to this Chopin piece. Her works are lush and full of warm orchestral color, very accessible.

"For me, contemporary music is a very dynamic environment. It's very different from, say, 1950, when people were either writing 12-tone music or aleatoric music. These days, it's a much wider and varied playing field," Spano says.

Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra, which premiered in 2002, requires a great deal of virtuosity, especially on the part of the principal players of each section. The third movement alone features solos from every section of the orchestra.

8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, 615 Louisiana. For information, call 713‑224‑7575 or visit houstonsymphony.org. $25 to $125.

Margaret Downing, Susie Tommaney and Alexandra Doyle contributed to this post.

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