Saturday, December 15, 2018

Visions of Sugar Plums: Ballet Lubbock's The Nutcracker

Ignoring any production of The Nutcracker is tempting. It is ubiquitous. It has been done before, and it will be done again, why not ignore it in favor of something shiny and new? Because that would be a big mistake. Ballet Lubbock’s production of The Nutcracker under the direction of Yvonne Racz Key brings enough technical prowess to earn your attention, and more than enough layers of emotion and magic to hold it from beginning to end.

One of the things that makes this Nutcracker so unique is that Ballet Lubbock uses a live orchestra for the show—a luxury that many companies throughout Texas have done away with in recent years. Under the baton of David In-Jae Cho, the Nutcracker orchestra and choir add a bit of magic to the ballet danced above them. It creates a performance that is richer, more present, and more alive than could possibly be achieved with canned music. Score another point for Ballet Lubbock.

The performances from Racz Key’s cast are pleasing across the board, with a few notable stand-outs. Katrina Gould as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Lawrence Rines as the Cavalier do not disappoint in their featured dances. Gould’s limbs move effortlessly through space, alternating between smooth curves and explosively sharp edges as she floats through The Kingdom of the Sweets. Rines’s body does not appear to be bound by the laws of gravity; when he takes off, his silhouette floats in the air like a mist, leaving you to wonder if his feet will never touch the ground again. Brynn Hunt as the Snow Queen commands your attention from the second she enters the stage, and we happily comply. Hunt has the ability to make everything she does, from the simple to the elaborate, look as easy as taking a breath. The true standouts of the evening are Sydney Mora and Marcos Antonio Vasquez as the Arabian Dancers. While this thought of dance doesn’t immediately conjure the excitement that one feels from other features in the show (everyone always clamors for the Russian), Racz Key has created a breathtaking duet. Mora and Vasquez pair so well together that they may as well be two parts of the same body. Their movements flow in and out of each other like water, creating a tone at the same time inviting and forbidden.

Technical aspects are seamlessly integrated into the production. Lighting design from James Bush never calls attention to itself, instead allowing all of the focus to be on the dancers onstage. Even so, Bush creates several striking images through his lighting. The differentiation throughout the string of national dances in Act II is so clear that one could tell exactly which country was being represented without a note of music being heard. His design for the aforementioned Arabian Dance is especially effective, sculpting a dreamlike atmosphere upon which Mora and Vasquez paint their stunning portrait. Costumes by Leticia Delgado add notes of grandeur to the proceedings. The work gives us what we expect from The Nutcracker while also adding splashes of color and scale that surprise and delight. Sets and special effects have a few tricks up their sleeves that won’t be spoiled here; you’ll have to see it for yourself.

Ballet Lubbock has done us all an excellent service in showing how and why The Nutcracker continues to be a perennial favorite. The ingredients all come together to create a performance that could melt even the iciest of holiday hearts. It is truly enchanting.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Nick Payne's Constellations at Hub Theatre Group

Allison Roberts and Bob Chanda
Our fate is written in the stars. It's an old story. A Folktale. Perhaps it's a tired Hollywood trope. Or maybe there is no such thing as fate. Maybe everything is free will and every choice we make shatters the future into infinite possibility. The answer is unclear. In Hub Theatre Group’s production of Constellations by Nick Payne, our preconceived notions of fate and destiny are turned on their heads, for better and for worse.

In present-day England, a chance encounter between a man and a woman begins a romantic journey that defies the boundaries of what we know and delves into the infinite possibilities offered by quantum physics. Yes, you read that right. Constellations is both a romantic tale and a crash course in the multiverse theory of quantum physics. What could have been written as a plodding and jargon-heavy theatrical event has instead been massaged by playwright Nick Payne into a play that is sometimes charming, sometimes alarming, at turns heartbreaking and uplifting—almost as if Payne’s script also adheres to the multiverse principle that all possibilities exist at the same time. The action unfolds in a series of vignettes, a purgatory with variations, in which we watch Marianne (Allison Roberts) and Rolland (Bob Chanda) live multiple different possibilities of the same scenes of their lives. Sometimes the results are vastly different. Sometimes the only difference is a single word used to describe someone’s crotch. What follows is a look at the sometimes-monumental consequences of innocuous decisions made from minute to minute.

Constellations doesn’t go as far as declaring one way or another whether fate exists or doesn’t,
Chanda and Roberts
which is the point. At one point in the play, Marianne declares “We’ve asked the same questions time after time and come up with two completely different answers.” It is fitting that the play suffers the same fate.

In a romantic show such as this, chemistry is everything. Unfortunately for this production, the chemistry between actors is overshadowed by the physics of the universe. The apparent age difference between Chanda and Roberts is jarring, and it provides an early hurdle for the cast to overcome. Thankfully, they mostly succeed in their task. Their relationship is appropriately awkward when it needs to be, passionate in others, and ultimately devastating. Watching these two try and fail to get it right again and again makes the moments where things work out for them all the more precious.

Technical elements of the performance are unobtrusive, allowing the script to take center stage. The set is made up of a single ramped platform, and the lights are hung on a string. What could be seen as a minimal design instead opens up the possibilities of the infinite. With little to completely tell the audience where or when we are, director Paula Chanda is free to play with time and space inside a temporal starfield of memory, fate, and destiny. The only real misstep in the direction is that with all the changes and variations from choice to choice, their lives are missing the big peaks and valleys that make existing interesting and memorable. Paula Chanda has instead opted for an understated performance that creeps under the skin instead of exploding in our faces.

The real star of the show is original music by Christopher J. Smith. His composition evokes a night sky full of stars and possibilities. The atmosphere shifts seamlessly from comforting clarity to tense dissonance and falls in line with the themes of Payne’s script. In moments where the music is gone, a sense of longing rises, wishing for its quick return. It serves as a safe place, a reminder of where we are in the world.

A script that is as smart as Payne’s Constellations doesn’t come around very often, and Hub Theatre Group should be commended for taking on such a play. Whatever its faults, this tale of multiple universes is universal and well worth a trip to look at the night sky.

Who - Hub Theatre Group
What - Constellations by Nick Payne
Where - Talkington Center for the Arts Black Box Theatre, All Saints Episcopal School, 3222 103rd Street, Lubbock, Texas, 79423
When - Through August 31
How - Tickets at www.hubtheatregroup.org



Sunday, July 29, 2018

Q&A: Hand to God by Robert Askins at WaterTower Theatre

Tyrone and Parker Gray
photo: Shane Strawbridge
Hand to God by Robert Askins, the “darkly delightful” (The New York Times), blasphemous Broadway hit that has been taking the country by storm, makes its regional debut at WaterTower Theatre this week. Texas native Robert Askins thrusts the audience into a surreal church basement, where a young man’s foul-mouthed hand puppet—which may be possessed by the devil—wreaks havoc and exposes hypocrisy with ruthlessness and side-splitting humor. This season-closing production is an immersive experience directed by Joanie Schultz. The production also stars Shannon McGrann as Margery, Debbie Ruegsegger as Jessica, Garret Storms as Timothy, and Thomas Ward as Pastor Greg.

I met up with Parker Gray, who plays Jason, and Tyrone the Puppet, who plays himself, for a conversation about their relationship and the play.

To read the full interview, visit TheaterJones.com.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Starting a Revolution: A Q&A with the Cast of The Revolutionists

From left: Dani Holway, Jennifer Kuenzer,
Marianne Galloway, and Sky Williams
Photo by Ashley H. White
I was able to sit down and have a chat with the four cast members of Lauren Gunderson's The Revolutionists, opening this weekend from Imprint Theatreworks at the Margo Jones Theatre.

For the full Q&A, visit TheaterJones.com.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

FIT Review: IMPRINT Theatreworks' Suckers

Photo: IMPRINT Theatreworks
Love songs have a corner on the market. Among those songs, no consensus exists about the nature of love. Is it a many splendored thing? Can you buy it? Would you do anything for it (but not that)? Does it just stink? IMPRINT Theatreworks’ production of Suckers by local playwright Devin Berg wades its way into the choppy waters of love and manages to make it to the other side without any hint of capsizing.

For the full review, visit TheaterJones.com

FIT Review: The Tragical Farce of Jimmy Pine


Photo: Camp Death Productions

Under the direction of Andi Allen, Camp Death Productions’ staging of Ben Schroth’s The Tragical Farce of Jimmy Pine leaves much to be desired. While there are shining moments, the production fails to deliver as either a farce or a tragedy (despite the title’s assertion that it is both), leading to a less-than-satisfying experience.

For the full review, visit TheaterJones.com.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Orchard and the Trees

Emily Scott Banks in The Cherry Orchard
photo by Evan Michael Woods
The Classics Theatre Project’s debut, Dallas playwright Ben Schroth’s new adaptation of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, begins performances June 21 at the Trinity River Arts Center (opening night is Jan. 23, running through July 14). The production is directed by TCTP artistic director Joey Folsom with an ensemble cast led by Emily Scott Banks and Taylor Harris. The company is professional, using some Actor’s Equity contracts, and plans to produce two other (TBA) works in its first season.

Playwright Ben Schroth and director Joey Folsom took time out of their busy rehearsal schedule to answer a few questions for me. You can read the full interview at TheaterJones.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

It's a Sister Act: Illness Leads to Role Switch in Texas Tech's Little Women

Maddie Bryan Prepares for a Performance
of Little Women.
Photo by Anna Ruth Aaron-Despain

Standing on the Texas Tech Theatre mainstage on Friday night, sophomore music theatre major Maddie Bryan was trying to calm her nerves. She was forgetting to breathe, and she kept fidgeting and twiddling her thumbs. Her director was walking her through what she would be doing on stage that night. She had been working on the show for nearly two months, but tonight she would be doing a role she hadn’t rehearsed for a second.

It was 1:30pm when Bryan got the call that Jordan Sheets, the senior theatre major playing the starring role of Jo March in Texas Tech’s production of Little Women would not be able to perform in the 7:30pm show, and Bryan would be going on in her place.

It’s a story that has been presented time and time again in plays and musicals. The lead actor can’t perform for whatever reason and another actor is thrust into the spotlight. It’s how Shirley MacLaine got her big break on Broadway. The same with Sutton Foster (who, coincidentally, originated the role of Jo March). The plots of 42nd Street, Phantom of the Opera, and The Understudy all revolve around this theatrical mythos. But now, for students at Texas Tech University, it was happening for real.

Bryan had been playing the role of Meg March up until this point. When asked to step into the lead role, she felt anxious.

“I wasn’t gonna say no,” said Bryan with a laugh. “I got to the theatre right at 2:30, scarfed down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a banana, and started to work immediately.”

With Bryan moving from the role of Meg to Jo, there was another problem: who was going to play the role of Meg?

“When I walked into the theatre, I heard someone singing my songs,” Bryan said. “I turned the corner, and it was Casey Joiner.”

Joiner had served the production as accompanist during the entirety of the rehearsal period. When asked by the director for her opinion on who could play Meg, Joiner volunteered herself.

“Since I had been there since day one, I was willing to step in,” Joiner said. “I just wanted the students to feel like they got everything they expected and could have gotten out of the show.”

(From Left) Maddie Bryan, Baylee Hale, Jordan Sheets,
and Julia Rhea.
Photo by Dori Bosnyak
Bryan remembers someone curling her hair while she started her makeup. Someone else was putting on her microphone as she was finishing her lipstick. All the while, she was listening to the songs she would have to sing on repeat. The cast tried to remain calm.

At 7:30, the curtain rose, and the cast was off and running with everyone doing their best to make sure that none of the cracks in the fa├žade were showing.

“People would be pushing me in an acting way, guiding me, making it look natural,” said Bryan. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Sophomore Baylee Hale, who plays the role of Beth, had a different reaction to everything going on around her.

“For the first couple of numbers, I was backstage laughing hysterically,” Hale said with a grin. “It felt like a prank, like any moment someone would walk out and say, ‘Gotcha!’”

After the final curtain fell, Bryan and Joiner were shoved down front for an extra round of applause.

Although she wasn’t able to attend the performances, Sheets said she learned a valuable lesson from the ordeal.

“I had no idea how supportive and how much of a family this theatre department was until this happened. No matter what happens, these people have your back.”

Bryan took it all as a learning experience.

“It was an incredible opportunity,” Bryan said. “This sort of thing happens all the time in professional theatres. You’ve got to be ready.”

“The show must go on.”

Little Women continues through April 22 in the Charles E. Maedgen, Jr. Mainstage Theatre, located at 2812 18th Street between Boston and Flint Avenues. For tickets and more information, call (806)742-3603 or visit theatre.ttu.edu.

--Shane Strawbridge