Theatre Under the Stars Plans to Stay on Its New Course

In the Heights signaled a new direction for TUTS. Now what's next?
In the Heights signaled a new direction for TUTS. Now what's next? Photo by Os Galindo

In the Heights signaled a new direction for TUTS. Now what's next? - PHOTO BY OS GALINDO
In the Heights signaled a new direction for TUTS. Now what's next?
Photo by Os Galindo

New and classic works, Broadway staples and Broadway hopefuls, family friendly and edgier – that’s the kind of programming Theatre Under the Stars decided to go with for its 2017-18 season. As for the continuing question of what to do with Zilkha Hall and whether there will ever be anything like TUTS Underground again, well both are still stuck on pause.

“Internally, we call it the new TUTS,” says Executive Director Hillary Hart who joined Theatre Under the Stars in December 2016.  “We’re not abandoning the legacy of the organization, We have such a beautiful foundation. Now it’s time for us to decide for the next 50 years what do we want to do."

Halfway through the present season there was a definite course correction when TUTS Artistic Director Bruce Lumpkin left and Sheldon Epps came in not as artistic director but as “artistic advisor,” discarding some of what had been planned and signing up other shows. Epps' decision to bring in In the Heights with its predominantly Hispanic cast was applauded as a breakthrough (although In the Heights had been at the Hobby courtesy of Broadway Across America in 2010) . Although there was a lot of speculation about whether Epps would stay on, in February he opted instead to leave saying he wanted the freedom to be involved in theater across the country. He is directing Dreamgirls, the next TUTS offering in the present season.

"Sheldon did a brilliant job," Hart said. "I so grateful they found him to come in and steward the organization for the last year.  He has such a beautiful vision. We have launched a national search for a permanent artistic director. I think the fundamental aspects of what Sheldon started this season will be something this new artistic director can come in and build upon. We aren’t looking to change course but we certainly want to make sure the new person coming in has the opportunity to see their vision come to fruition on our stages. "

Still since Epps selected the 2017-18 season, including shared presentation of Hamilton with BBVA Compass Broadway at the Hobby, his legacy will be with Houston for a while.

Looking to that season , Hart said they are balancing the new with works that deserve another look and family friendly offerings as well. Part of the new is Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight making TUTS the latest theater group to offer something different than A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker in December.  "I think it's important for us to make sure that we're providing again something that is tied into the holidays. I thin what we're wanting to do is to offer that alternative holiday delight. The other thing is that the show is very interactive. It has a lot of pop culture references."

“Secret Garden is a perennial musical. It was a beautiful production when it was first produced. And having the opportunity to engage in what is a significant revival including some rewrites to the book and to the score itself gives us a phenomenal opportunity for us to engage in what I consider to be an investment in the future of the musical canon,” Hart said.

Memphis is back. "I do think that Memphis is an important production in the American canon. I think that it deserves a fresh look." Looking toward the future, Hart said, "doesn't mean that we'll be abandoning the classics. It means that the lens through which we tell those stories has changed. We wanted the opportunity to produce Memphis through a new lens, through new eyes."

Guys + Dolls, another classic has also undergone some revisions that according to Hart will offer several surprises for audiences.

As for Bright Star, Hart said: "There are some works when they are first produced that don't necessarily  get the recognition they deserve. Bright Star is a beautiful, beautiful story. It has a non-traditional approach to the music."

When asked about Zilkha Hall which is nearly always dark these days and the TUTS Underground programming with its edgier fare and lower ticket prices (bringing in a younger audience), Hart said:

"Zilkha Hall is a beautiful space and although we don't have anything officially programmed there yet, I would say that the TUTS Underground series I think is an important program, certainly one that I don't think has gone away forever, I think how we work and choose to present work through that program may change a little bit and certainly that will be part of the new artistic director's vision. "

In 2019 TUTS will reach its 50th anniversary. Hart said TUTS is determined to represent Houston and its diverse interests. How that translates to programming means:

"It's about having a healthy balance to a season. Making sure that we are balancing the more accessible work that we have traditionally produced and some of the newer accessible work coming out of New York. Also balancing that with some of the edgier works, things that might not have a broader appeal, things we view that might be important to the conversations we are having in our community."

Here's the 2017-18 season from Theatre Under the Stars with descriptions from TUTS:

The 5th Avenue Theatre / Shakespeare Theatre Company Production of
The Secret Garden - October 10-22, 2017

"Based on the 1911 novel of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnett, THE SECRET GARDEN tells the story of Mary Lennox, a young English girl born and raised in the British Raj. She loses both of her parents when she is 10 years old during a cholera outbreak and she is sent off to England to live with an uncle and a cousin whom she’s never met. The musical's script and lyrics are by Marsha Norman, with music by Lucy Simon. It premiered on Broadway in 1991 and ran for 709 performances. This dark and mysterious gothic thriller brings to exuberant life a saga of deception, grief, jealousy, love and ultimately, rebirth."

Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight - December 6-24, 2017

"The familiar story of Sleeping Beauty gets mixed up with contemporary pop culture creating a holiday treat. Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight is a modern twist on the classic fairy tale, set to a contemporary score featuring the music of Aloe Blacc, Blondie, Bruno Mars, Jessie J, John Legend, Katy Perry, Mariah Carey, LMFAO, Pharrell Williams and Survivor.

"Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight is based on the European fairy tale where a Princess named Aurora has a curse put on her by an evil fairy Carabosse. By her 18th birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on a spindle and fall asleep for 100 years. The Royal Family live under protection from Silly Billy and Nanny Tickle, but Aurora does prick her finger and falls asleep for 100 years. A handsome Prince saves the day by defeating the wicked fairy and giving Aurora a true love kiss."

Memphis - February 20-March 4, 2018

"From the underground dance clubs of 1950s Memphis, Tennessee, comes the Tony Award® winning musical.

"Inspired by actual events, Memphis is about a white radio DJ who wants to change the world and a black club singer who is ready for her big break. Come along on their incredible journey to the ends of the airwaves – filled with laughter, soaring emotion and roof-raising rock ‘n’ roll. Winner of four 2010 Tony Awards® including Best Musical, MEMPHIS features a Tony®-winning book by Joe DiPietro (I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change and All Shook Up) and a Tony®-winning original score with music by Bon Jovi founding member David Bryan."
Bright Star - March 13-25, 2018

From Grammy®, Emmy® and Academy Award®-winning Steve Martin and Grammy Award®-winning Edie Brickell comes Bright Star, the five-time Tony®-nominated, new Broadway musical that The New York Times called "a shining achievement." Directed by Tony® winner Walter Bobbie and inspired by a real event, this original musical tells a sweeping tale of love and redemption set against the rich backdrop of the American South in the 1920s and ‘40s."

Hamilton - May 1-13, 2018
By Special Arrangement with BBVA Compass Broadway at the Hobby Center

"Hamilton is the story of America's Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the West Indies who became George Washington's right-hand man during the Revolutionary War and was the new nation’s first Treasury Secretary. Featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, blues, rap, R&B, and Broadway, Hamilton is the story of America then, as told by America now.

"With book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, direction by Thomas Kail, choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler and musical supervision and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire, Hamilton is based on Ron Chernow’s biography of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton."

Guys + Dolls - June 12-24, 2018

"Travel back to a time when gangsters and gamblers ruled the underworld of New York City. This classic musical with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, based on some of the short stories by Damon Runyon premiered on Broadway in 1950, and the following year won five Tony Awards® in every category in which it was nominated, including Best Musical." 

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