Theater season has much tried and true, but some fresh choices, too
The 2014-15 Houston theater season will not be the most adventurous the city has seen – not by a long shot. But consider some mitigating circumstances.
The Alley Theatre is treading cautiously during its time at the University of Houston, while its downtown home undergoes massive renovation. Apart from one notable Houston premiere ("The Old Friends," which opened Wednesday), the seven-show subscription series stresses cozily familiar fare such as "Dracula" and "All My Sons" – even "The Foreigner" again, for gosh sakes!
Holding its fire until the fall 2015 grand re-opening downtown may be understandable under the circumstances. Still, it's a disappointing reversal of last season, which offered six Houston premieres and only two plays previously produced here.
Main Street Theater, which usually can be counted upon for some of the city's most interesting programming, also is coping with renovation this season – in this case, with drastically reductive results. Main Street will produce just two shows: one in September at its Rice Village home, before departing for the venue's renovation; the other, the Stephen Sondheim revue "Putting It Together," to be staged at Ovations cabaret in January.
Big musical presenters Theatre Under The Stars and Broadway at Hobby Center will bring several recent and current Broadway hits of interest, including "Kinky Boots," "Once" and "Newsies," and, in the revival/revisal category, "Anything Goes" and "Cinderella." Channeling the direct-from-Broadway pipeline is the prerequisite for these groups, the least they can do. Otherwise, the presenters' overexposed selections might have been made in their sleep – from "The Music Man" (a deservedly beloved classic) to such negligible entries as "Mamma Mia" and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."
For whatever reason, one sees a degree of retrenchment at other theaters around town – whether in companies doing shows they've staged before (or that other Houston theaters staged recently), or in the increase of solo shows and two-handers.
Even Classical Theatre Company, created to produce neglected world theater classics, seems to be dodging that mission in two of its three shows. "The Cherry Orchard," no question there. But "The Speckled Band"? Do we need another adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes mystery? And, most especially, do we need another adaptation of "A Christmas Carol"?
The stress on the predictable is one side of the coin in the season's lineup. Yet the other side is this. Even amid all the familiar, if you look in the right places (and at the right times), you can still find some intriguing, off-the-beaten-path prospects. Here are some of the promising ones.
"New Girl in Town:" Bayou City Concert Musicals will give the Houston premiere of the 1957 Broadway hit based on Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer-winning play "Anna Christie," about a former prostitute struggling to start her life anew. The show marked the Broadway debut of composer and lyricist Bob Merrill ("Carnival!," the lyrics for "Funny Girl") and was a famous vehicle for Gwen Verdon, who won a Tony. Director Paul Hope and his team should find fascinating opportunities, especially given the racy dance opportunities in a show originally choreographed by Bob Fosse. Sept. 4-7; 713-465-6484, bayoucityconcertmusicals.org.
"The God Game:" Stark Naked Theatre Company launches its new season with the area premiere of Suzanne Bradbeer's provocative political drama. It's about a moderate Republican senator who is tapped as a vice presidential prospect – but faces questions about his religious beliefs. The timely play drew strong reviews in its premiere at the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, N.Y., earlier this year. Sept. 5-20; 832-866-6514, starknakedtheatre.com.
"Peace in Our Time:" Main Street Theater follows its recent delightful mounting of Noël Coward's "Fallen Angels" with Coward's atypical and rarely produced 1947 drama. It imagines an alternate outcome to World War II, following a group of Londoners as they cope with life under Nazi occupation. Main Street artistic director Rebecca Greene Udden directs this collaboration with the University of Houston School of Theater and Dance. Sept. 18-Oct. 19; 713-524-6706, mainstreettheater.org.
"Detroit:" Lisa D'Amour is an acknowledged force in avant-garde theater. Catastrophic Theatre and artistic director Jason Nodler have championed her work in Houston with "Anna Bella Eema" and the world premiere of her "Hide Town." Now, the company is preparing the Houston premiere of the Obie-winning "Detroit." Set in any "first-ring suburb" of a major metropolis (not necessarily Detroit), it depicts two neighboring couples (including one husband newly unemployed) sharing barbecue and reflects upon all types of contemporary angst, especially involving upward, downward and/or nonexistent mobility. Sept. 26-Oct. 18; 713-522-2723, catastrophictheatre.com.
"Marie Antoinette:" Stages introduces Houston audiences to emerging playwright David Adjmi with the Houston premiere of his surrealistic, 21st-century take on the ill-fated, let-'em-eat-cake 18th-century queen. From the talk the play generated in its 2012 premiere at American Repertory Theatre and Yale Repertory Theatre, then as an off-Broadway hit at Soho Rep in 2013, it's audiences who may lose their heads. Oct. 10-Nov. 2; 713-527-0123,stagestheatre.com.
"Red Death:" Mildred's Umbrella Theatre Company scores the season's daily double, by providing a second dose of Lisa D'Amour. This one takes off from a fascinating premise, a 21st-century riff on Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Masque of the Red Death," as protagonist Jane braves far-flung adventures seeking the origin of evil and the cause behind the human fear of death. Oct. 9-25; 832-463-0409, mildredsumbrella.com.
"What I Learned in Paris:" The Ensemble Theatre stages the Houston premiere of Pearl Cleage's romantic comedy, premiered at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre in 2012. Set against the backdrop of 1973 Atlanta and the election of Maynard Ferguson as the city's first African-American mayor, it centers on Evie, a liberated woman involved with the mayoral campaign, and her politically ambitious ex-husband, who's trying to sidestep a scandal. Given the Ensemble's success with Cleage's "The Nacirema Society" and "Blues for an Alabama Sky," there's every reason to expect another winner from this distinctive dramatist. March 19-April 12; 713-520-0055, ensemblehouston.com.
"Tristan & Yseult:" The Alley will introduce the innovative British troupe Kneehigh to Houston with this touring production, an ingenious retelling of the ancient legend about a king who falls madly in love with the sister of his sworn enemy. Kneehigh has been getting high marks from critics and audiences alike since its birth in 1980. This particular Kneehigh enterprise has toured extensively, to consistently breathless acclaim. April 29-May 24; 713-220-5700, alleytheatre.org.
"Mack and Mabel:" Stages tackles the legendary cult musical that ran for just two months in its 1974 Broadway premiere, but has been renowned since for its rousing, memorable Jerry Herman score. With book by Herman's "Hello, Dolly!" collaborator Michael Stewart, the show sets its bittersweet love story against the colorful backdrop of cinema's earliest days, chronicling the rise of famed silent-film director Mack Sennett and his tumultuous relationship with Mabel Normand, his greatest female star. May 22-June 28; 713-527-0123,stagestheatre.com.
"Stage Kiss:" Stark Naked Theatre will give the Houston premiere of the latest from Sarah Ruhl, the marvelous mind behind the Tony-nominated "In the Next Room" and the Blackburn Prize-winning "The Clean House." "Stage Kiss," which drew raves off-Broadway earlier this year, wittily blends classic romantic comedy and contemporary sensibility. In a play-within-a-play construct, an actor and actress, who have a romantic history together, find themselves cast opposite each other in a 1930s comedy, as a man and woman comparably "in recovery" from a past relationship. May 28-June 13; 832-866-6514, starknakedtheatre.com.
Theater District Open House
Get a jump on the season when Houston's arts organizations host the 21st annual TransCanada Theater District Open House presented by Bank of America, noon-4 p.m. Sunday. Nine organizations will stage events: Alley Theatre, Broadway at the Hobby Center, Da Camera of Houston, Houston Ballet, Houston Grand Opera, Houston Symphony, Society for the Performing Arts, Theatre Under The Stars and Uniquely Houston.
The free showcase includes musical-theater shows, backstage tours, an instrument petting zoo, a costume trunk and the chance to meet performers. Other attractions include food trucks, a photo-booth experience at the Wortham Theater Center and a free Houston Symphony concert at 4 p.m. Events will be held at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas; Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby; Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana; and Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas.