Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
The black gloom of irony inherent in Stephen Sondheim's peerless 1979 musical was elevated by its epic sweep on every level: Grand Guignol-like revenge melodrama, characters who ranged from virginal to debauched, bleak world view of the powerlessness of the powerless, bouncy English music hall roots, cinematic staging, immaculate lyrics and gloriously robust music. In the hands of Masquerade Theatre director Phillip Duggins and music director Paula Smith, Sondheim's chilling work about the avenging "demon barber of Fleet Street" and his murderous killing spree was a tasty showcase for Houston's only musical theater company, and they chowed down on it as if it were one of Mrs. Lovett's savory meat pies. Leads Luther Chakurian and Rebekah Dahl, as Sweeney's amoral accomplice, were incandescent, as were young lovers Braden Hunt and Kristina Sullivan, and all supporting players. Sondheim's blistering work peeled the paint off Zilkha Hall. Ravishing.
Intense and passionate, Luther Chakurian, a mainstay of Masquerade Theatre for nearly a decade, embodies this multitalented musical company with highly stylized, brooding performances that grab you by the throat and take your breath away. Starring in three of the group's most intriguing recent shows, Jane Eyre, Sweeney Todd and Parade, he emitted dark sexiness as troubled Victorian Rochester, scared the bejesus out of us as avenging demon barber Todd and personified the terrified, yet innocent, accused child molester Leo Franks. Chakurian has a softer side, too. Witness this year's dance-happy Cornelius in Hello, Dolly and his knuckle-dragging, gnat-picking Wickersham Brother in Seussical. Blessed with a most idiosyncratic singing voice, edgy and coarse as if his tonsils have been dipped in sulfuric acid, he soars in the contemporary pop anthems that the current crop of composers is so fond of (like Wildhorn's Jekyll and Hyde). Yet, he also brings a refreshingly different, masculine sound to romantic ballads. Chakurian's superb Sweeney, vengeful, full of wrath, as focused as a heat-seeking ICBM, was Houston's most distinctive portrayal of 2007 — beautifully sung, impeccably acted, wicked as hell.
There are numerous actresses who gave radiant performances this year, all of them at least a generation, if not two, younger than our winning pick. But our heart goes out to theater veteran, and consummate pro, Jeannette Clift George. Playing obsessed, drab Carrie Watts in Horton Foote's masterpiece The Trip to Bountiful, George oozed humanity, compassion and humility as she fought her doughy son and unsympathetic daughter-in-law to realize her dream of visiting her family's Gulf Coast farm. Wily trooper that she is — and has been for decades — George ran with Foote's overflowing, impressionistic drama as if an Olympian; she didn't even get winded. What Foote didn't supply, George showed. A mesmerizing, distinctive stage presence, always vividly alive on stage, she brightens the theater and gives tasty lessons to all her younger colleagues, as she so bountifully demonstrates for those lucky spectators in the audience.
Texas Gallery manages to be both blue-chip and hip. Opening in 1971, they were the first to show artists like Chuck Close, Brice Marden, Ed Rusche and William Wegman in Houston. They've shown Lynda Benglis since 1972. Some 30 years ago, they exhibited her bronze cast of a double-headed dildo and put an image of it on the postcards they mailed out for the show, a pretty ballsy (so to speak) move at the time. Today they show legends like Robert Rauschenberg, as well as Houston artists like Francesca Fuchs, Rachel Hecker and David McGee. Outside of the business, Texas Gallery owner Fredericka Hunter and director Ian Glennie founded ArtPix, a nonprofit established to present and archive contemporary art in a digital format. DVDs and CD- and DVD-ROMs from their series present everything from contemporary art from New Zealand to performance art from the '60s to an interactive tour of the Edward James surrealist garden in Mexico.
Clint Willour is everywhere — but quietly. His intense involvement in the Houston art scene is about the art rather than his ego. Curator of the Galveston Arts Center, Willour not only puts together great shows at his own institution, he has curated and juried hundreds of exhibitions all over Houston, Texas, and the world. Willour is at every art opening worth seeing. He visits studios and volunteers his time for myriad committees and boards. Noted for his keen eye and dry sense of humor, Willour is a trusted advisor to all kinds of people in the art world. He's also an enthusiastic advocate for young and emerging artists, giving thoughtful, insightful portfolio reviews everywhere, from FotoFest's biennial "Meeting Place" to the People's Republic of China. Willour, who was named Texas Patron of the Year in 2006 by the Art League Houston, is also an astute collector — operating on a budget. Nevertheless, he generously donates to institutions. Over the years Willour has given more that 1,000 artworks to the MFAH; bought for modest amounts of money at the time, they're now valued at $1.2 million.
Pipilotti Rist's video work is lush, elegant, absurd — and hard to sum up. But "Wishing for Synchronicity," organized by the CAMH's Paola Morsiani, created a riveting and fabulous retrospective of the Swiss artist's work. While most video art ends up being shown in or on a black box, Rist's show took over the entire main floor of the CAMH, creating a city-like environment filled with video. There were sprawling video projections and small, intimate works. Hypnotic footage shot in sunlit ocean spread across the corner of a carpeted space; a video projector rotated, spilling images over walls and ceiling and through lace curtains; a miniature video screen inset in the floor showed a tiny woman yelling "I am a worm and you are a flower" in four languages. Fans of video art and the newly converted came in droves, over and over again.
Bill Davenport embraces his inner hobbyist when he makes art. He's built wonky wood sculptures that look like shop-class rejects. He's crocheted objects and needlepointed drawings. He's painted trompe l'oeil replicas of old paperbacks. In his recent work, he's made outsized sculptures from insulating foam board and joint compound that look like props from Shrek with half-timbered ceilings, dungeon doors and massive wagon wheels. Davenport's latest work explores kitschy domesticity with a giant cuckoo clock from foam board and a hefty rock fireplace made entirely from papier-mâché. Now Davenport and his quirky, witty work are up for the prestigious (and lucrative) Arthouse Texas Prize, which comes with $30,000. A goofball Renaissance man, Davenport's other activities include collecting macramé owls, writing a blog with posts from the journal he kept as a 12-year-old, and clever, lucid art writing for Glasstire and the Houston Chronicle. Davenport came from Massachusetts to Houston as a CORE Fellow in 1990 and stayed on; we're glad he did.
Otabenga Jones & Associates may have hit the big time, but they're not letting it go to their heads. OJ&A — aka Dawolu Jabari Anderson, Jamal Cyrus, Kenya Evans and Robert A. Pruitt — first met in a freshman art class at Texas Southern University. The collective's inclusion in the 2006 Whitney Biennial put OJ&A on the radar of all kinds of people. They've had a New York gallery exhibition, and they have a show at the Menil Collection. They even received a celebrity-style mention in Vanity Fair, which they thought was "weird." They remain nice, down-to-earth guys — with some pretty freakin' great art. Unless somebody goes and marries Yoko, this fab four should be around for a long time.
Isabella Court opened in 1929, the year the Great Depression began, but the lovely Spanish-style building is a survivor that made it onto the National Register of Historic Places. Purchased in 1991 by Trudy Hutchings, Isabella Court has been lovingly preserved and restored. The building's stunning courtyard is legendary, and its original murals, faded with time, lend the building a romantic elegance. The apartments may have central air now, but each still has its own milk box out front. Originally designed as a mixed-use building with commercial space on the bottom and apartments on top, the residential space has always drawn artsy tenants, but now the downstairs commercial space is pretty darn artsy as well. Commercial tenants fled during light rail construction, but now the downstairs is fully leased — three galleries, an art consultant and an architecture firm call the building home. Isabella Court has become an art destination.
Houston Ballet's opening-night performance of Christopher Wheeldon's Carnival of Animals had the audience roaring, thanks to a special performance by two-time Tony Award-winner John Lithgow. The multitalented actor and children's book author wrote the dialogue for this family-friendly ballet, and he performed it with scene-chewing zeal in Houston for two nights during the May premiere. He danced the part of Mabel Buntz, the school nurse who does a waltz as a "pert pachyderm." Even without the legendary Lithgow, this cute, sassy ballet is the best one for children since The Nutcracker (and more fun for the parents, too). But with him, it was an elephantine event.
Unfortunately, the most memorable and original name for a band is Doo Doo Butter. No other moniker could better burn "disgusting" into a person's mind. What it means exactly — well, we'll let you figure it out on your own. Doo Doo Butter is just gross on so many levels that you can't escape it, nor fail to admire it. But, hey, if you think that's bad, you should check out their songs. It should come as no surprise that a band with such a ridiculous name would have even more ridiculous songs, like the aptly named ballad "Bukkake."
The legendary ska/norteño/rockabilly/punk vatos rudos went out the way they came in — playing a packed house full of brawling, beered-up pachucos and peckerwoods. (There were no less than four fights that night at the Continental Club.) Their particular only-in-Houston brand of Second Ward psychosis and Navigation Boulevard madness might never be heard again. Since then, frontman Felipe Galvan has kept a pretty low profile, while various sidemen have gone on to form such bands as Ryan Scroggins and the Trenchtown Texans and the Umbrella Man.