The 5 Best Things to Do in Houston This Weekend: Magical Winter Lights and More

On Friday, the inaugural Magical Winter Lights lantern festival opens for a six-week run. It's a holiday festival, but not the one that first comes to mind. Yes, Santa will be on hand to take photos with kids, but that's pretty much the only evidence of Christmas on the fairgrounds.

Magical Winter Lights is huge. Like ginormous. There are more than 100 lantern sets (more on that in a minute), a full carnival, a large food court and a busy schedule of live performances. The lantern displays, each a replica of a famous landmark from around the world, are spread over more than nine acres, the carnival over another 200,000 square feet, and the dinosaurs dot an immense wooded area. (Oh, did we forget to mention the dinosaurs?)

Some $10 million is being poured into the festival, one of fewer than ten that will take place in the United States this year. It all seems highly ambitious. “It is,” laughs producer Yusi An of People Generation Global Communications. “I didn’t want to take baby steps. Lantern festivals have to be large scale, otherwise you don’t see the beauty of them. When people hear about a lantern festival, they think of the small lanterns hanging outside Chinese restaurants.”

These aren’t like that. They’re towering constructions, more like oversize movie sets than lamps.

An’s family is from Zigong, China, which is known as the Lantern Town in the South Kingdom. (The city’s also famous for the dinosaur finds uncovered there, hence the dinos in the festival.) She grew up attending the annual festivals. She’s been living in the United States for the last five years. Given Houston’s culturally diverse population and mild winter weather, she decided the city would be perfect for an outdoor Chinese lantern festival festival. “My goal is to bring a new holiday tradition to Houston. I want Houston to enjoy a new kind of light festival.”

The Eiffel Tower, Mayan pyramids and Roman Colosseum are among the landmarks seen at the festival. “Of course, we have something especially for Houstonians. We have the Houston Live Stock and Rodeo, the space shuttle and the sports teams. We’re also recreating the [Gerald D. Hines] Waterwall.

“People have started noticing the construction when they drive by. An Indian family stopped by the other day. They saw the Taj Majal being built and they were excited about a festival that would have a part of their culture.”

5 to 10 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 1 to 11 p.m. Fridays and -Saturdays; 1 to 10 p.m. Sundays. November 20 through January 10, 2016. Sam Houston Race Park, 7575 North Sam Houston Parkway West. For information, visit magicalwinterlights.com. $16 to $27.

Also for Friday, we suggest The Phantom of the Opera, returning to Houston courtesy of Broadway at the Hobby. 

There are new pyrotechnics and the iconic chandelier has added pizzazz. Dancing, lighting and set design have been updated. The story has been tweaked a bit — “We’re taking a more realistic approach. It’s less about a magician hypnotizing Christine and more about her making choices,” says the actress who plays her, Katie Travis. But the costumes are the same, and the songs, so memorably popular with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Charles Hart, remain.

The new production by Cameron Mackintosh tells the story of the mysterious man who haunts the opera house and the young female soprano who falls under his spell and is taken to his underground lair (by boat no less), where she discovers his secret.

Travis, who grew up in Michigan and studied opera at Central Michigan, had repeated auditions before she captured the role. She’s been on tour about a year and says she never tires of telling the story and singing the music. “I get to sing some of the best music ever written.”

She meets a lot of repeaters along the way, audience members who have seen the show hundreds of times, she says, and those “who see it only every ten years.” She describes her character as “a really smart girl who’s hit a fork in the road. She’s struggling with the death of her father, so she’s trying to cope with that. And she’s just doing the best she can.”

As for the lasting success of Phantom, Travis says, “I think the music is incredible. I also think that everyone can kind of relate to someone in the show. It’s just a show that people really love and relate to, and I’m very passionate about it and what we’re trying to say about showing people compassion and empathy and giving love. I think it’s just an important show with a great message and incredible music.”

7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; and 2 and 7:30 p.m. November 19. Through November 29. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit thehobbycenter.org. $50 to $170.

On Saturday Houston audiences have two opportunities to see Beyond Glory: A One Man Show Starring Stephen Lang. 

The well known actor's  career took a decisive turn in 2003 when he read Larry Smith’s Beyond Glory, a collection of oral histories by soldiers from WWII and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.

“I started out with no real purpose in mind to be honest but I was intrigued by this stuff,” he tells us. “As I read the book, the voices were coming through very, very clearly.” Lang sat down and wrote Beyond Glory: A One Man Show Starring Stephen Lang, a stage adaptation of the book. Within a year, he was presenting the one-man show in New York and Chicago, eventually going on tour. “I knew I wanted to present a diversity of stories – from the wars they fought to the service they were in. These people [in the book] were different ethnicities, different economic and geographical backgrounds. I wanted to show that.”

Lang included only eight veterans in the show; there were many more in the book. He says he didn’t have any trouble selecting the men for the play. “They kinda chose themselves. These were voices that just grabbed me deeply. I had to use them.”

Lang, who has performed the show at the gates of the Arlington Cemetery, on military bases overseas and at theaters across the country, says that the show, while centered on veterans, doesn’t have a political message.

“It’s about courage and sacrifice, about honor, those ideals are common to everyone. This is the opposite of political theater; there’s no politics whatsoever in this show and yet, at least to my way of thinking, it has teeth. There’s nothing homogenized or namby pamby. It’s serious stuff. I feel that in that sense things have gotten beyond politics. Really, this show is my statement about theater. It’s about as good as I have to offer. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a red state or a blue state or any of that business, this is a story that resonates with you.”

2 and 8 p.m. November 21. Queensbury Theatre, 12777 Queensbury Lane. For information, call 713-467-4497 or visit beyondglorytheplay.com. $25 to $100. 

The women weren’t allowed to use telescopes. It was considered unfit for them to work late at night in the dark. But in the early days of the modern era of astronomy, just after the turn of the century in 1900, women brought something special to the science: They were patient, they were careful and they could record detailed observations. In Silent Sky, playwright Lauren Gunderson tells the story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt and other women working in the Harvard Observatory who would study photographs on glass plates of the night sky and record everything they saw. One of our picks for Saturday, the Main Street Theater's production has proved so popular, its run has been extended. (More on that below.) 

“They were called computers because they measured,” says Rebecca Greene Udden, who is directing the play and as Main Street Theater’s artistic director selected this work to begin the theater’s 40th-anniversary season, this time in a newly remodeled facility. “It’s hard to comprehend the painstaking and detailed work that these women did. Originally men did this work, but the men didn’t have the patience for it.”

The women weren’t considered astronomers — although some had intense interest in the sciences — but were brought in by James Pickering, who ran the Harvard Observatory at this time — and who started by hiring his housekeeper, who ended up running the department for a while, Udden says. “Pickering’s goal was not to make extraordinary discoveries; it was simply to catalog the stars in the sky and provide data that other people could work with. And the women did the cataloging,” she says. As it turned out, the women made discoveries of their own, and Leavitt (there really was a Henrietta Swan Leavitt who graduated from Radcliffe) made a very important one that made it possible for scientists to calculate the distance to the stars.

Udden says she was drawn by both Gunderson’s writing and the story she told. “I like the language. I think it has a very musical quality. I, of course, love the story of this unsung woman whose discovery made so much possible. Her finding actually allowed people using her finding to measure the distance to the stars. Somebody would have figured this out, but she did it. It was just an incredible advance for the field. But you never hear about her; she’s completely forgotten. She was respected in a very small circle, but she wasn’t an astronomer; she wasn’t one of the big boys. I love her story; I love the passion [with which] this character pursues her goals.”

Silent Sky has been extended to December 6. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and November 25; 3 p.m. Sundays. No performance on November 26. Through December 6. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard. For information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $20 to $39.

Any production that casts the very talented and grown-up Cindy Lou Parker as a child character is sure to be successful; she was voted best actress in her portrayal of little Timmy at Cone Man Running Productions’ Smattering in June.

Theatre Southwest’s 11th Annual Readers Theatre, our pick for Sunday, features a dozen original shorts selected from a pool of 603 entries. “It’s supposed to be two five-year-old kids, and one of them is called Mary and one is called Joseph, talking about religion, but not religion,” says director Ananka Kohnitz, about Parker’s role in Stephen Kaplan’s For Unto Us. “It’s funny and serious.

“We have one actor, every time he submits something, he’s such a good writer, he’s so witty, and he writes things that nobody else writes,” says Kohnitz, about Ron Burch’s Objectum Sexuality, featuring a psychiatrist and his patient. “The patient has a relationship with a rocking chair, he’s in love with it.

“Actors love doing this. I remind them [that] this is voice acting, that they have to entertain the audience with [just] their voice. Carl Masterson, who works all over town, he’s reading. We have Dave Osbie Shepard, who’s incredibly talented; he’ll be doing Squeegee Man. Dabrina Sandifer, she works all over town, and she does directing, too,” says Kohnitz.

3 p.m. November 22. Theatre Southwest, 8944 Clarkcrest. For information, call 713-661-9505 or visit theatresouthwest.org. $10.

Margaret Downing and Susie Tommaney contributed to this post. 
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Olivia Flores Alvarez