News Column

Notable area premieres highlight new season

August 24, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 24--The ultra-irreverent megahit "The Book of Mormon" looms large as the 800-pound gorilla of Houston's new theater season.

But the lineup boasts many significant area premieres, including two recent Tony winners for best play: Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike" and the National Theatre of Great Britain's "War Horse." It also has acclaimed works from no less than four Pultizer Prize winners: David Lindsay-Abaire, Donald Margulies, Lynn Nottage and Paula Vogel.

If the roster is especially strong in area premieres of notable plays, it rates less well in its exploration of the existing repertoire. When selecting works from the backlog of plays and musicals, companies are choosing almost exclusively the most familiar and frequently produced works, rather than rediscovering the many worthy, yet neglected, pieces. Still, some choices in this area are welcome, too -- works that, however well-known, have been too long away from Houston stages, and by great playwrights too little represented here.

Here are some of the 2013-14 offerings I'm anticipating with enthusiasm.

"The Book of Mormon" Sept. 3-15, Broadway at Hobby Center (sold out). "South Park" style humor meets Broadway courtesy of this often-profane satire of religion and musicals -- inevitably, since its book, music and lyrics were written by "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, in collaboration with "Avenue Q" co-creator Robert Lopez. The show equates the sunny attitudes and optimistic tropes of traditional musicals with Mormonism -- then juxtaposes that with scabrous content through its story of two innocent young Mormon missionaries determined to do good in war-ravaged, famine-ravaged, AIDS-ravaged Uganda. Almost unanimously, critics deemed this unusual mix not only the "filthiest and most offensive" musical ever, but also the sweetest, sincerest and most "innocent" show in years. "The Book of Mormon" swept the 2011 Tony Awards, winning nine, including best musical, book and score.

"The Pajama Game," Sept. 12-15, Bayou City Concert Musicals. "The Pajama Game" premiered in 1954, won the Tony as best musical and became one of the biggest hits of the decade. It boasts a terrific, hit-laden score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, and a smart book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell, setting its star-crossed love story against the unusual backdrop of a labor-versus-management showdown in a Midwestern pajama factory. The show became a hit all over again with director Kathleen Marshall's Tony-winning 2006 revival. Why that acclaimed production wasn't re-created here by either of the two big musical presenters at Hobby Center is one of the mysteries of recent seasons. But now, the ever-reliable Bayou City Concert Musicals steps up to give Houston its first staging in ages -- and the first since the hit revival. That makes it feel like a Houston premiere, which is why it's in this roundup.

"A Civil War Christmas," Nov. 29-Dec. 22, Main Street Theater. Paula Vogel's pageant play intertwines both real and imagined characters -- from President and Mrs. Lincoln to assorted soldiers, slaves and rebels -- to create a theatrical tapestry of life in America on Christmas Eve, 1864. The vignettes are decked in homespun renditions of traditional carols, hymns, marching songs and spirituals. Premiered at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., in 2008, the show played to critical acclaim off-Broadway last season. Talking Broadway deemed it "boldly inventive theater, warm and affecting, a fascinating interface of history and fiction." Vogel is best known for her 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner, "How I Learned to Drive."

"Other Desert Cities," Jan. 10-Feb. 2, Alley Theatre. Off-Broadway and regional favorite Jon Robin Baitz ("The Substance of Fire," "The Paris Letter") made his Broadway debut with this probing, dysfunctional-family drama, arguably his strongest play to date. After a six-year absence, Brooke Wyeth returns to celebrate Christmas with her parents, sister and aunt at their Palm Springs home. Brooke's liberal views and her parents' conservative politics make a volatile mix -- especially when she announces she will publish a memoir that revisits the most painful chapter of their history and exposes a family secret. A 2012 Tony nominee, it was called the best play of the season by the New York Times.

"By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, " March 20-April 14, Ensemble Theatre. Lynn Nottage's ingenious comedy ponders Golden Age Hollywood's attitudes about race and their repercussions right up to the present. The play chronicles the 70-year journey of Vera, a headstrong African-American maid and aspiring actress, and her tangled relationship with her employer Gloria, a white movie star struggling to maintain her own career. When both land roles in the same 1930s Southern epic (Vera inevitably cast as maid and confidante), their behind-the-scenes story leaves a complicated legacy -- later reflected in the elderly Vera's appearance on a TV talk show in the 1970s, and by film scholars debating her significance in the early 21st century. Critics have praised the play as "snappy, inventive satire." Perhaps best known for her widely produced "Intimate Apparel," Nottage won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for "Ruined."

"Time Stands Still," March 27-April 19, Main Street Theater. Donald Margulies' gripping drama, a 2010 Tony nominee for best play, centers on Sarah, a prize-winning photojournalist who returns home after being injured by a roadside bomb while covering the Iraq War. Sarah and reporter boyfriend James face a difficult re-adjustment, as he is plagued with guilt about leaving Sarah alone in the war zone when he left because of emotional burnout, weeks before her injury. While struggling toward physical and emotional recovery, they clash about whether to continue the sort of risky assignments to which they've been dedicated or switch to safer work. Besides the challenge of balancing love and career, "Time Stands Still" explores the cost of bearing witness and committing to causes larger than purely personal ones. Margulies won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for "Dinner With Friends," and his other notable works include "Collected Stories" and his Obie-winning "Sight Unseen."

"The Whipping Man," April 30-May 25, Stages Repertory Theatre. Matthew Lopez's three-man drama puts a fresh twist on the aftermath of the Civil War and the struggles of Reconstruction. Immediately following the war's end and the assassination of President Lincoln, a Jewish Confederate soldier returns to his ruined home and reunites with two former slaves, both raised as Jews by his family. As the three assemble a makeshift Passover Seder, they confront hard questions about their past and future, at a moment when everything they've known has changed. Acclaimed off-Broadway in 2011, the play has enjoyed more than two dozen regional stagings. The Associated Press wrote that it "raises fundamental questions that resonate in today's ongoing national conversations about civil rights and equality."

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," May 23-June 15, Alley Theatre. Obie winner Christopher Durang is known for his irreverent satire and playful wit, represented in such signature works as "Sister Mary Ignatius," "Beyond Therapy" and "Betty's Summer Vacation." In this farce, he riffs on characters and themes from the plays of Anton Chekhov, transplanted to contemporary America. Siblings Vanya and Sonia, who have spent their lives tending the family farm in Bucks County, Pa., find their routine disrupted by a visit from their irresponsible movie-star sister, Masha, accompanied by her latest boy toy. Critics deemed the play both hilarious and poignant. The Broadway production (which ends its run Sunday) won this year's Tony as best play.

"Good People," May 30-June 29, Alley Theatre. In this 2011 Tony nominee for best play, Lindsay-Abaire takes a tough and tender look at the insurmountable class divide. Set in working-class South Boston, it centers on Margie, a single mother coping with a disabled adult daughter, desperate after losing her job as a dollar-store cashier. A chance encounter with Mike, whom she dated briefly in high school and who has become a successful doctor, offers Margie a chance to escape the poverty trap -- if she is willing to exploit a secret from their past. The Boston Globe praised the play's "rare acuity of perception" and "substantial emotional wallop." Lindsay-Abaire first gained attention for surrealist comedies such as "Fuddy Mears" and "Kimberly Akimbo" and won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for "Rabbit Hole."

"War Horse" May 27-June 1, Broadway at Hobby Center. Story theater on an epic scale, "War Horse" was adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo's children's book about the bond of loyalty between English lad Albert and Joey, the beloved horse he trains. When Joey is sold as a cavalry horse and shipped to France during World War I, Albert sets out to rescue him, and an extraordinary adventure unfolds. Originated at the National Theatre of Great Britain, this unusual production blends dialogue, action, song and elaborate life-size puppets, created by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, that bring the equine characters to life. The show's London success prompted a Broadway mounting, in collaboration with Lincoln Center Theatre, which opened in 2011 to strong reviews and won five Tonys, including best play.

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(c)2013 Houston Chronicle

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