Tag Archives: TUTS

From PARTY PEOPLE to INTO THE WOODS

Last weekend I had the opportunity to see the ambitious and necessary Party People by UNIVERSES at The Public Theater in New York City. Weaving oral histories of members of the Black Panthers Party and the Young Lords Party with the contemporary sociopolitical climate, Party People is an incredibly powerful multi-sensory and genre-bending performance that left me inspired (Clips here, here, and here). Come to find out, my day was teeming with inspiration, at times from the unlikeliest of places. When I left the theatre, I met with playwright Maria Alexandria Beech on Lafayette St. She had just seen The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, the new documentary about Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, the 1981 musical that closed after only 16 performances and has since become an iconic Broadway musical. While I was jacked up about Party People, our conversation quickly went to Sondheim (as can happen with two musical theatre nerds). “I love Sondheim. I do,” I confessed to Alex. This shouldn’t have been news, but I felt the need to tell my Twitter bestie (who I was just meeting in person for the first time!)… Sondheim inspires me (and so does Alex).

So while my brain has been in theatre overload this week, still living in the powerful performances of Party People and Vietgone, I was also looking forward to seeing Sondheim’s Into the Woods at Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS). I was looking to be inspired in a different way.

Full disclosure: I’m an Into the Woods junkie. It’s not my favorite Sondheim show; I’m not even sure it would be in my top 5, but I love it. Whether it’s both cast recordings, the filmed Broadway version, the movie, or Fiasco Theater’s masterfully stripped-down Off-Broadway revival, I’ve enjoyed every iteration of the show that I’ve come across. So when TUTS announced their season with Into the Woods filling the slot usually reserved for holiday-themed shows, I marked it on my calendar as a must-see in the Houston theatre season.

While I’ve never been one to formally review theatre, I do want to give some takeaways from TUTS’s top-notch production of Into the Woods.

  • Nearly 30 years after it first opened, there are no surprises with Into the Woods. The first act gives us the happily-ever-after of our famed fairytale characters and our lead duo—The Baker and The Baker’s Wife. Act two shows us what happens after the happily-ever-after. In short, happily-ever-after doesn’t exist. At least not as we know it. I must confess: my interest in the show begins to peak once Sondheim begins maiming and killing off characters. I’ve always enjoyed a dark musical and act two is indeed dark.
  • The Baker’s Wife’s Shoes. Confession. Anytime the superb Stephanie Gibson was on stage, I simply could not take my eyes away from her shoes. I couldn’t. When she tried to give Cinderella those blue and yellow shoes, I was a little jealous that she wasn’t gifting them to me. Not that I had a gold slipper or anything, but I digress. All of this is to say that the design team knocked it out of the park. Not only were Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes well-realized across the board, but Kevin Depinet’s scenic design was lush, filling Sarofim Hall in ways I’ve seldom seen. Even so, I had a hard time paying attention to the show whenever the actors were near the lip of the stage because I was afraid they would slide right into the orchestra pit. While the design choice to have the set extend into the pit was visually appealing, it took me out of the show more often than not.
  • Emily Skinner as the Witch. I’ll be honest, it took me some time to warm up to Skinner. And this isn’t entirely Skinner’s fault. One of the issues with iconic characters is that audiences inevitably will associate them with the actor who created the role. In this case, I find it impossible to think of Into the Woods and not think of Bernadette Peters. Once I forgot about Peters, I was able to live in Skinner’s world. In many ways, Skinner breaks the mold for the Witch and the opening of “Last Midnight” is just what I needed last night.
  • By this point Into the Woods has surely been produced every conceivable way, but Robert Longbottom’s direction took the show to new places at times (for me, at least). The show began with a bare stage, save for a costume rack and actors dressed in simple black clothes. They ran to the rack, grabbed their costumes, and the show began. Interesting. Unfortunately, except for a few moments (such as when Cinderella gets her ball gown), this concept wasn’t revisited until the show’s finale. After killing the giant, The Baker, Cinderella, Jack, and Little Red come out in contemporary black clothes. They now seem to be reflecting on not only the story they are in, but the story they have just told. During “Children Will Listen,” the adult actors enter dressed in black while child actors accompany them dressed in miniature versions of the iconic adult costumes. At first, I questioned this choice, but by the end of the song, it put a smile on my face. If anything, I thought it was a beautiful touch to give these kids an opportunity to perform in a professional production of Into the Woods.
Mildred Ruiz-Sapp in "Party People" by UNIVERSES

Mildred Ruiz-Sapp in “Party People” by UNIVERSES

Thoughts on Theatre Under The Stars’ IN THE HEIGHTS

After I saw In the Heights on Broadway in 2008, I left the Richard Rodgers, went to my hotel room, and immediately tried to break dance. Hilarity ensued. Graffiti Pete I was not. Fast forward 8 years to Theatre Under The Stars’ (TUTS) production of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ hit musical, and I am still trying to move like the fictional residents of Washington Heights.

Dear reader, I have never and likely will never be able to break dance, pop-n-lock, or anything in between. No amount of In the Heights will fix that. But that doesn’t change my relationship with the show. As a musical theatre-phile and Spanish-speaker, seeing the show in 2008 was the first time that I felt these two worlds collide. Even though I am not Latino and don’t necessarily relate to the characters in the show, I felt represented in some odd way.  And, as a Latin@ theatre scholar, I’m invested in the skyrocketing careers of both Miranda and Hudes, two of only three Latin@ playwrights to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (the other is Nilo Cruz).

In many ways, I feel like In the Heights always keeps coming back to me. And then one night you are scrolling through your Facebook news feed and there is In the Heights embroiled in controversy over the casting and hiring of artistic staff at Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre. Enraged, I checked my facts, and wrote a blog, thinking that no one would read it (See: “Casting an ‘Authentic’ In the Heights”). The next day it quickly went viral (well, viral for trevorboffone.com). All of a sudden, people were citing me and interviewing me about my thoughts on race, ethnicity, and casting in the show. Soon thereafter, I started writing an article about race, ethnicity, power, whitewashing, and representation in post-Hamilton productions of the show to submit to a peer-reviewed academic journal. And all the while, I was keeping my eyes on TUTS’ 2016-17 season opening performance of the show.

While I won’t formally review the show here and will save my detailed thoughts for later, I do want to take some time to address several thoughts about TUTS’ production of In the Heights.

Usnavi is everything—When Usnavi makes his entrance at the top of the show, he introduces the audience to the familia to which we are about to bear witness. He is the show’s narrator and, therefore, we enter the community through him. Given this, the actor must be able to carry the show, not in the same way as Mamma Rose or Tevye, but Usnavi must make the audience fall for him. We need to not only want to visit his bodega, but we need to feel like we already frequent it and take our coffee light and sweet. This is to say that casting this character is pivotal to a successful production that speaks with the Latin@ community. As such, Usnavi is a beloved musical theatre character and one of the few Latin@ characters to lead a Broadway musical. TUTS made a great choice in casting Anthony Lee Medina as Usnavi. Medina’s tweet below just shows how much this role means to him and the Latin@ community. Not to mention it reiterates the importance of casting this role with a Latino actor. How often do Latin@s get to play dream roles that are roles specifically written for them?

Stepping into a role so closely associated with Lin-Manuel Miranda surely must have been daunting, but Medina delivers as the man in the Kangol hat. Medina is charismatic, funny, and engaging. In addition to being a first-class actor, he raps with ease and dances like a drunk Chita Rivera. Medina is ready for the spotlight and there is no reason he shouldn’t play Curly, Pippin, or Bobby (give him a few years!).

Jonathan Arana as Piragua Guy & Anthony Lee Medina as Usnavi. Photo by Os Galindo

Jonathan Arana as Piragua Guy & Anthony Lee Medina as Usnavi. Photo by Os Galindo

Sheldon Epps—Last week, I told The Houston Chronicle’s Theatre Critic Wei-Huan Chen that Sheldon Epps leadership as Artistic Advisor at TUTS was a big move in a city whose major arts organizations are so heavily run by Anglos. Given the fact that Houston is the nation’s most racially diverse city, a black person in such a high leadership position shouldn’t be surprising nor should we consider it a “big move,” but here, in 2016, it is. That Epps came in and replaced Shrek, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Grease with In the Heights, Into the Woods, and Dreamgirls just demonstrates that he is looking to center TUTS as one of the leading producers of musical theatre in the country and produce work that speaks to Houston in 2016. While In the Heights and Dreamgirls offer a rare opportunity for local audiences to see people of color on a major stage (How many times have you seen two dozen people of color on stage at the Hobby Center?), Into the Woods also offers the opportunity to cast people of color in leading roles. Why not a black Baker? Or a Latina Baker’s Wife? An Indian-American Jack? Simple casting choices could potentially have a significant ripple effect in Houston. Just look at the new layers that The Catastrophic Theatre added to their 2016 production of Buried Child by casting a black woman as Shelly. To put it simply, it was a revelation and shed new light on a show that has been around for almost 40 years. We need more of this work and TUTS can be be a leader in providing access for actors of color in Houston.

Hopefully, programming diversity on stage will bring more diverse crowds into the Hobby Center. However, if TUTS really wants to build audiences and draw new people to the theatre, then it absolutely must address the high cost of tickets. The cheapest seats for In the Heights are $46.50 including fees, not to mention parking which is $12 in the Hobby Center garage. Why not offer discounted tickets for veterans and people under 35, rush seats, etc? TUTS does have a Student & Senior Rush Policy (Student and Senior (65+) rush is available starting one hour before curtain with valid id. Tickets are 50% off in price levels 2-5). However, this information is not easily accessible on their website, leading many to believe that they don’t offer such discounts. I recognize that with touring shows discounted tickets might not be possible, but for TUTS-produced shows such as In the Heights, discounted tickets have the potential to be a game changer. In the Heights should not be a luxury. People should not be turned off from seeing this important show based on ticket prices alone.

The Cast of In The Heights. Photo by Os Galindo

The Cast of In The Heights. Photo by Os Galindo