Lawndale Art Center

In late 2009, Lawndale Art Center presented a group show that transformed the place into a dimension-shifting sci-fi world. It was a thrill to explore the building's three floors feeling like an invisible spy or an investigator of strange phenomena. Monica Vidal and Jasmyne Graybill fused the organic and synthetic to Cronenbergian heights of freakiness. Shawn Smith forcefully evolved (or devolved) nature into a two-room horror show in which time-traveling, pixilated vultures feasted on obsolete technology. Linking it all together was Kia Neill's second-floor "Grotto," a dark, tight cave with hanging stalactites and blinking crystals overgrown with Spanish moss — one of the most otherworldly things we've experienced in Houston in a while. It was genuinely disorienting, weird and hilarious, and it transported us out of Lawndale in a really cool way. But perhaps the best part of the journey was stepping out of Neill's "Grotto" onto the elevator, pushing the button to the first floor, turning around and watching the curtain close on that otherworldly realm.

Nouveau Antique Art Bar

With more than 100 vintage, always-lit Tiffany-style lamps, Midtown's Nouveau Antique Art Bar is both an aesthete's refuge and a stoner's paradise. The bar's surreal glow makes it a perfect spot for networking at one of the many corporate-underwritten happy hours — which, be aware, can get pretty crowded — that have come to roost there, or just soaking up the $1 Lone Star cans one by one. (With a happy hour that stretches until 9 p.m., that can be a lot of Lone Star.) The atmosphere and clientele vary from night to night — expect a steady diet of Mazzy Star and Cat Power at the Tuesday ladies' night; Wednesday's all-Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald evenings are ideal for unwinding with a tasty Tito's martini; and both the volume and mingling-singles factor get way turned up on weekends — but whenever you go, expect your fellow patrons to be gainfully employed and well versed in the arts. Nouveau offers a free drink for any ticket stub from a local symphony, theater, ballet or opera production.

Located between the Arts and Wellness sections on the second floor, the bathroom at the Borders bookstore at the corner of Kirby and Alabama is an oasis of tranquility. Unlike many stores, even other Borders, this shop does not lock its loo or require any sort of staff permission to use it. There are two sinks, a hands-free dryer, plenty of toilet paper and toilet seat covers, and even a baby-changing collapsible table. It offers enough privacy and room — as we have witnessed — for two grown men to bathe in the sinks, do a bit of grooming and then put on fresh outfits. An oversized poster of Thelonious Monk adds to the literate atmosphere.

There's no doubt that at least some of the deals that shaped the modern oil and gas industry were hatched at the bar and at dinner tables in Houston's Petroleum Club. It's been referenced, for example, as a favorite spot of the former President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, and has an elite subgroup called Don't Mess with Oil. The club opened in 1947 and moved to its current location at the top of the ExxonMobil building in 1963. But don't think the Petroleum Club is reserved for the old and über-rich. The club's Young Professionals Association hosts poker and cigar nights, as well as monthly happy hours.

Early this year, The Menil Collection's high-profile curator of modern and contemporary art, Franklin Sirmans, became head curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It's seemed like a natural path for Sirmans, who worked with LACMA director Michael Govan at New York's Dia Center before relocating to Houston. While here, Sirmans delivered some knockout exhibitions that re-energized the Menil and shone a distinct light on the permanent collection, most recently the exhilarating building-wide Maurizio Cattelan art-scavenger-hunt. In collaboration with Cattelan, Sirmans cherry-picked works from the collection that juxtaposed well with Cattelan's absurdist sculpture and mixed-media works, and also installed the Italian artist's work within the museum's permanent exhibits, resulting in the most interesting gush of interpretations we've had the pleasure of considering. L.A.'s gain, Houston's loss.

Warren's Inn

The walls of Warren's Inn are already covered in plaques commemorating the bar's previous Best of Houston® wins for everything from Best Jukebox to Best Bar, period, so we just hope there's room for one more. But until we find a better place to relax with an after-work cocktail or two, or lube up for a show at Jones Hall or Verizon Wireless Theater, we'll keep throwing the awards Warren's way. (We're not holding our breath.) Besides the ritzy decor, jukebox that squeezes in college-rock heroes R.E.M. and Morrissey among generous helpings of jazz, blues and soul, and liberal pours — watch those martinis — Warren's fosters an atmosphere that's much more down-home than those fancy chandeliers might lead you to believe; the off-duty bartenders can often be found carrying on animated conversations with the dependable crew of regulars on the other side of the bar. And if you do find yourself a little tipsy after a couple of those martinis, we recommend the tasty egg salad or tuna sandwiches with a side of deliciously salty potato chips.

There's no doubt as to this year's winner for Student Theater Production — hands down it's The Drowsy Chaperone produced by Episcopal High School. Led by the charming and delightful Stephanie Styles in the role of showgirl Janet Van de Graaff, the spoof of Broadway musicals swept the prestigious Tommy Tune Awards, getting a total of 15 nominations and six wins, including the awards for Best Musical, Best Direction and Best Choreography. Styles took home the award for Best Leading Actress (and also won a scholarship for her performance), and it's easy to see why — she was the perfect mix of ingenue and strumpet, attacking the deceptively complex score with impressive vocal control and mastery.

by Craig Malisow

Yes, Houston is an oil town. But it's also one of the few cities in the nation with permanent, professional companies in opera, ballet, music and theater, all of which attract visitors to the city.

One of the best ways to ensure that the performing arts stick around is by encouraging and nurturing up-and-coming talent. Which is why, in 2002, Theatre Under the Stars launched the Tommy Tune Awards to honor excellence in high-school musical theater.

As TUTS's Web site explains, the awards are "designed not only to acknowledge remarkable artists in musical theatre at the high school level, but also to encourage their future in the profession by providing an opportunity to win scholarships, compete on a national level, and receive recognition from their peers."

For the 2009/2010 awards season, Episcopal High nailed the Musical, Direction, Costume Design, Ensemble/Chorus and Choreography categories for its production of The Drowsy Chaperone. Eight students took home a scholarship award.

Named after Tommy Tune, nine-time Tony Award winner and Lamar High graduate, the Tommy Tune Awards competition is a massive undertaking, with more than 150 schools invited to participate each year. Only the first 45 schools to apply are accepted. A three-judge panel evaluates and scores each production, and, showing that the judges aren't just playing around, the scores are tabulated by an accounting firm. The ceremony is held at the Hobby Center, where the winners get to perform.

The awards are not only an incredible honor for the winning schools and students, but a real boon to the arts in general. Not every city is lucky enough to have such a legendary theater figure willing to lend his name to a program that fosters creativity at the high school level.

At Lamar, Tune was taught by Ruth Denney, who would go on to found the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. So when Tune allowed his name to be used for the awards, he stated, "High school theater was extremely important for me in helping to shape my later career. I was fortunate to be encouraged at Lamar by a great teacher, Ruth Denney. The recognition provided by these awards can provide the encouragement that a gifted student may need to become a successful professional."

The annual awards ceremony is free and open to the general public. Attending is a great way to show support for local high school theater — and who knows, you might just get a chance to see tomorrow's big stars today.

Best Of Houston®

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