A Guide to Austin's Musical Theatre Scene


Judy Arnold, Jacqui Cross and Yolanda Williams in Dreamgirls
photograph byKenny Braun

ig and shiny and fun. Want the essence of stage musicals? That's it. Just ask a kid. When we come to musicals as children, they're gigantic confections of comedy and melody, brimming with bodies -- almost more than a kid can count -- in splendiferous outfits as bright and brightly colored as a rainbow, all fresh faces spontaneously bursting into buoyant song and breathtaking dance, gliding down staircases and up musical scales. The spectacle seizes our eyes, the melodies catch in our ears. The world of musicals is a world of more: more love, more joy, more music. It feels good to be in it and to remember it after, to hum the snatches of it that we can carry with us. As we age, we may be drawn to musicals complex of form or dark in tone, or may stop being drawn to musicals altogether. But if we ever return to the sunny romances on which the form was built -- the shows of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Kern, Porter, Lerner & Loewe, Loesser, Bernstein, Willson, Herman, Coleman, Sondheim, and the like -- and are captivated anew, bank on it owing to that same stuff that enraptured us as children: a vision of life larger than our own, that shimmers and sparkles before us and lifts our hearts to touch.

In Austin, these are good days for getting that razzle-dazzle rush that stage musicals provide. The theatre scene is bustling with Broadway-brand beltin' and steppin', with revivals of the classics of the American musical theatre and productions of newer shows that serve up the form's classic pizzazz, with companies committed to the works of this cherished form, and with artists who are breathing sweet, imaginative life into them. Because Austinites are well-served by taking in a musical today, here's an all-too-brief overview of the musical theatre scene in Austin, a guide to some of the leading companies and people who make it their business to give Austin as much big and shiny and fun as it can handle.


ALL MUSICALS ALL THE TIME

Austin Musical Theatre: Old-School New Kids

Founded by Scott Thompson and Richard Byron, artists with years of experience performing, directing, and choreographing across the country who decided to give up the gypsy life to found their own musical theatre company in Austin. AMT may fill a big void in the city's musical theatre scene: year-round productions of traditional musicals on a Big Apple scale. Granted, they've produced only one show to date -- Peter Pan at the Paramount Theatre this past January -- but its bona fide Broadway talent and razzle dazzle choreography of the kind that made the Great White Way great made believers of a lot of people, critics and audiences alike. In the wings: West Side Story at the Paramount in November.

Violet Crown Players: Getting on Their Feet
New company dedicated to traditional American and English musical fare (roughly 1880-1980), from Broadway classics to Gilbert & Sullivan. Includes members from the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, prides itself on using local talent. Its home base, Scottish Rite Temple, says a lot about the company's sensibility: intimate in scale and style, with a strong sense of tradition and history. Debuted in April with Guys and Dolls, which was not a roaring success in terms of box office or production aspects, but its second show, Sondheim's A Little Night Music, done in July, showed growth. In the wings: H.M.S. Pinafore at the Scottish Rite Temple.

Zilker Summer Musical: The Tradition

A part of Austin's summer life for nearly four decades. Produces one old-school musical on a grand scale in Zilker Park every summer, always for free. Emphasis on spectacle and fun, with a crowd-friendly show that lends itself to big sets, elaborate costumes, and lots of performers -- realized with a blockbuster budget that makes its production values among the highest of any stage venture in town. Guided for years by director Bil Pfuderer, now has passed the directorial torch to Christopher Boyd, who staged 1996's Once Upon a Mattress and this year's Guys and Dolls. Occasionally bites off more than it can chew, but most often it's quality fun fare that is perfect for a warm midsummer's eve. On the boards: Guys and Dolls, at the Hillside through Aug 16.

The Gilbert & Sullivan Society: The Amateurs

Produces one show per year, always a G&S operetta, because, well, that's what they love. Does G&S' less popular shows as well as the old standbys (Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado, etc). Always utilizes great vocalists, some of whom have become G&S mainstays, and in recent years has been hiring professional directors and designers, who have boosted the quality of the work. The productions are intended as tributes to the work of G&S and a chance for audiences to see their favorite composers' work staged. May be tricky for folks who know little about these Victorians and are just hankering for a good, lots-of-singing-and-dancing musical. Most recent effort: Yeomen of the Guard.


MUSICALS OUR SPECIALTY

Zachary Scott Theatre Center: The Showplace

Currently Austin's leading professional theatre and leading producer of musicals. Favors non-traditional fare, from more recent Broadway and Off-Broadway work (Falsettos, Avenue X, Dreamgirls, Ruthless! The Musical) to shows based in pop, rock, and soul (Beehive, Buddy!, Forever Plaid, Love, Janis). Following the arrival of Managing Director Dave Steakley in the early Nineties and his success with the revue Beehive, Zach reinvented itself as a theatre, with musicals its bread and butter -- chiefly pop revues and modern material mounted with a high-gloss, showbiz approach. Currently savoring the success of The Gospel at Colonus, a work toward which Zach built for four years. Its core group of musical artists among the finest in town: Meredith Robertson, Janis Stinson, Joe York, Allen Robertson. On the boards: Love, Janis at ZSTC through Aug 31; Dreamgirls at the Paramount Theatre Aug 1-17. In the wings: The Taffetas, opening Nov 1 at ZSTC.


A MUSICAL IS A SOMETIME THING

Live Oak Theatre: Tried and True

Professional theatre that typically mounts two musicals a season, either a Broadway standard tested by time (A Little Night Music, 110 in the Shade, She Loves Me, Cabaret, Sweeney Todd) or a newer musical with a folksy bent (Pump Boys and Dinettes, Quilters, Woody Guthrie's American Song). As with its non-musical work, presentation tends toward the traditional, which works well in Live Oak's historic venue, the State Theatre on Congress. Surprises are few, but the core of regulars -- actor Steven Fromholz, actor-director Joe York, musical director Allen Robertson -- provide reliable and sometimes outstanding musical performances. In the wings: Man of La Mancha, opening Sep 5 at the State.

The Paramount Theatre: The Jewel

The city's theatrical jewel, a restored old opera house which hosts touring versions of revivals and fresh-from-Broadway musicals, concerts by Broadway stars, and the occasional local effort. Last year, presented Stomp!, Kiss of the Spider Woman, evenings with Mandy Patinkin and Betty Buckley, and Austin Musical Theatre's debut, Peter Pan. A grand place to catch big names and big shows without having to hop a flight for the Great White Way. In the wings: Damn Yankees in October, West Side Story in November.

UT Performing Arts Center: The BIG Show

Home to many of the University of Texas' performing spaces, in which it hosts touring productions of both musical and non-musical plays, as well as concerts by Broadway stars. Its largest venue, the Bass Concert Hall, has the space and technology to exhibit the megamusicals of today -- Les Miserables, The Who's Tommy, Cats -- on the scale and in the manner of the original productions. In the wings: Tommy Tune and Smokey Joe's Cafe in September and that 800-pound musical gorilla, Phantom of the Opera, in January.

Mary Moody Northen Theatre, St. Edward's

An academic program which mounts one to two musicals per season, a mix of standards (Cinderella, Grease) and newer work, with the occasional original piece (Walk With Me). As with most educational theatre programs (especially those at smaller schools), consistency of the work varies from show to show, based on the students in the undergraduate program. Still riding high on its recent production of Grease, directed and choreographed by Richard Byron and Scott Thompson of Austin Musical Theatre. Notable for its in-the-round space, one of the few venues in Austin with audiences on all four sides. In the wings: Little Shop of Horrors, opening Feb 24.

UT Department of Theatre & Dance

An academic program which typically mounts one musical a season, generally a newer work, either by current students (Views From a Roller Coaster, mythosystole) or department alums (Heartbeats, Branson or Bust). Given the school, its resources, and its ability to pull from undergraduates, grad students, and alumni, the production elements -- costumes, lights, and sets -- are always great; acting, directing, and script development can vary significantly show to show.

UT Opera Theatre

Academic program which typically mounts one musical per season, either one as close to opera as you can get, i.e., usually Sondheim (A Little Night Music, Into the Woods) or revues featuring Broadway standards. Like the Department of Theatre & Dance, boasts stunning production values and vocals (this is, after all, the opera department), but acting and direction may vary. Most recent effort: Into the Woods.


NO PEOPLE LIKE SHOW PEOPLE

Dave Steakley: The Golden Boy

Possibly the biggest name in Austin musical theatre today. Largely responsible for Zach's steady growth over the past five years (through his direction of a series of energetic, stylishly choreographed revues and musicals) and interest in new, challenging musicals. An unregenerate fan of pop music who seems able to unspool every dance move ever utilized on American Bandstand or Soul Train in the fall of a downbeat, he infuses his shows with pop energy and showmanship. But he also challenges himself as an artist and regularly takes on more dramatically and directorially demanding work. Has won notice outside Austin that led to gigs in other regional theatres. Hit Parade: Beehive, Rockin' Christmas Party, Forever Plaid, Dreamgirls, Avenue X, The Gospel at Colonus, Ruthless! The Musical.On the boards: Dreamgirls at the Paramount.

Karen Kuykendall & Sterling Price-McKinney: Scotch and Soda

Musical duo that has been performing together for a decade, generally under the nom de cabaret Cafe Manhattan. She has a gloriously deep, whiskey-voiced alto, he a droll, liquid tenor that complement each other smoothly and are as bracing as a cocktail. Their repertoire blends romantic pop standards by great American songwriters and newer material by Sondheim and the like, including original songs by Price-McKinney. Exceptional delivery laced with dry banter. Both contribute to the musical theatre scene, Kuykendall through performing on various stages (most recently, Cabaret at Live Oak) and Price-McKinney through his own musicals (The Late 20th Century Love Affair, The Electric Street).

Scott Thompson & Richard Byron: The Dynamic Duo


Richard Byron & Scott Thompson
photograph by Kenny Braun

New to town, but judging from the success of Peter Pan and their energetic choreography and direction of the Mary Moody Northen Theatre production of Grease in the spring, this duo should produce great theatre. Both have years of experience working in musical theatre across the country and it shows. Broadway moves and dazzling showmanship erupt like fountains out of their staging, which raises the bar a bit for other musical theatre companies in town. Hit Parade: Peter Pan, Grease. Currently casting West Side Story for November production at the Paramount.

Joe York: Mr. Versatility

Matinee-idol leading man with a burnished baritone who can melt a heart of ice with his singing and has a dynamic stage presence and sparkling wit, to boot. A mainstay of the local theatre scene for 20 years, playing both square-jawed musical heroes (e.g., Lancelot in Camelot, Billy Bigelow in Carousel) and less stalwart types -- Jud in Oklahoma!, Kodaly in She Loves Me, Sweeney in Sweeney Todd. Dazzling in every role. A man willing to "go there" to stretch his abilities and repetoire, a point best proven by his most recent turn, in drag, as that bitch Sylvia St. Croix in Ruthless! The Musical. Bonus points: Also directs and designs sets and is every bit as adept at that as he is at performing! (See Little Shop of Horrors, Cabaret, Quilters, et al.) Star Turns: Too many to list, but of late: Marvin in Falsettos, Starbuck in 110 in the Shade, Jud in Oklahoma!, Smudge in Forever Plaid, Sweeney in Sweeney Todd, Sylvia in Ruthless!

Meredith Robertson: The Can-Do Gal


Meredith Robertson
photograph by Kenny Braun

This gal can do it all. Equally comfortable singing or acting, playing comedy or drama, she is an actress of remarkable range and craft. Robertson always gives focused but friendly performances, her characters always easy to get next to. Lately, a staple at Zach, where she's proven she can carry a show (Born Yesterday, Jack and Jill) and belt with the best of 'em (Ruthless! The Musical). Star Turns: Trina in Falsettos, Amalia in She Loves Me, Rag Doll in Steadfast Tin Soldier, Barbara in Avenue X, Brünnhilde in Das Barbecü, Judy/Ginger in Ruthless! The Musical. On the boards: taking charge of the Save-a-Soul Mission as Sarah in the Zilker Summer Musical production of Guys and Dolls. (P.S. Married to Allen Robertson.)

Allen Robertson: The Music Man


Allen Robertson
photograph by Kenny Braun

It's nigh impossible to mount a musical locally without this man as musical director. He commonly works on six shows a year (it just seems like more) and is musical director of choice for Live Oak, Zach, and the Zilker Musical. Despite his heavy workload -- he routinely juggles two to three shows simultaneously -- Robertson gives each project the fullness of his impressive musical knowledge, a unique concept for the show's sound, unfailing professionalism, and abundant good humor. As if that weren't enough, he's a crackerjack composer of his own musicals. As honored and admired a figure as is working in the local musical scene. Hit Parade: (as composer) Beauty and the Beast, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Bremen Town Musicians; (as musical director) Nine, Little Me, Forever Plaid, She Loves Me, Cabaret, Avenue X, Quilters, Once Upon a Mattress, Sweeney Todd, The Gospel at Colonus, Ruthless!, Woody Guthrie's American Song. On the boards: Love, Janis, Guys and Dolls, Dreamgirls. (P.S. Married to Meredith Robertson.)

Dan Sullivan: A Stand-Up Guy



Dan Sullivan
photograph by Kenny Braun

The ubiquitous baritone who always turns in a solid performance. Possessed of that strong jaw and broad smile that makes him ideal for rugged romantic leads and willing to work anywhere that will have him. Infuses his characters with a general nice-guyness that makes him fun to watch, especially when coupled with his understated vocal skill. On his way to becoming the next Joe York. Star Turns: Siegfried in Das Barbecü, The Pharaoh in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Anthony in Sweeney Todd, Sam in Branson or Bust. On the boards: Rolling the bones as Sky Masterson in the Zilker Summer Musical production of Guys and Dolls.

Steven Fromholz: Down-to-Earth

A leading light of the progressive country scene in the Seventies who's carved out a second career for himself as an actor at Live Oak Theatre, in both musical and non-musical productions. Brings a down-to-earth quality to the roles he plays, which he can twist into a flinty meanness for the bad guys he plays. Star Turns: Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, Frederic in A Little Night Music, Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd, the guy who sings a helluva version of "This Land Is Your Land" in Woody Guthrie's American Song.

Janis Stinson: Power Booster

An electric performer whose very entrance can ratchet the level of energy onstage, no matter how high it may already be. Her round, rolling voice comes from deep within, and it speaks of love and longing and loss with authority, which bodes well for Blues in the Night, a star vehicle for Stinson on Zach's upcoming season. Still, Stinson has a sly wit and enough comic savvy to mine a laugh out of any moment she has a mind to. Especially adept at taking material and making it her own. Star Turns: Julia in Avenue X, Evangelist Antigone in The Gospel at Colonus, Eve in Ruthless! In the Wings: Blues in the Night in January.

Kara Bliss: The Girl Next Door



Kara Bliss
photograph byKenny Braun

Blessed with bright blond hair, a broad, toothsome smile and twinkling eyes, this performer radiates wholesomeness, the Norman Rockwell picture of the girl next door. Add to that a golden-toned singing voice and you have an artist ideal for playing those sweet, tender-hearted ingénues of the musical theatre. Bliss does well by such roles, but she's also able to stand that sweetness on its head, playing types who may look nice but are in fact naughty. Star Turns: Mabel in Pirates of Penzance, Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, Belle in Little Me. On the Boards: Leading the Hot Box girls as Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls.

Dede Clark: Everybody's Stage Mom

One of the most driven and energetic developers of the next generation of musical theatre stars. Clark runs kidsActing, a private performing arts school for youngsters that not only provides lessons for its students but unique opportunities for them to display their talents for the community, the best being an annual summer musical with songs commissioned from top Austin songwriters, among them Willie Nelson, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Marcia Ball, Steve Fromholz, and the Austin Lounge Lizards. Hit Parade: The Velveteen Rabbit, Bugs. On the boards: Monsters! through Aug 10 at the John Henry Faulk Theatre.

Noel Alford: The Professor

Longtime local musical force who's had a hand in everything from the Summer Musical to Esther's Follies. For some years has been heavily engaged in the work of kidsActing, teaching musical theatre classes, serving as musical director for the annual musical production, and contributing songs to these shows' scores. Hit Parade: The Velveteen Rabbit, Bugs. On the boards: Monsters! through Aug 10 at the John Henry Faulk Theatre.

Michael Raiford: Prankster of Style



Michael Railford
photograph by Kenny Braun

The man who creates the absolutely fabulous fantasy worlds of many of Zach's most popular musicals. Give him a smidgen of atmosphere regarding a musical -- say, Fifties retro lounge -- and he concocts a dazzlingly detailed piece of offbeat eye candy, part Happy Days hunting lodge, part Jetsons rumpus room. A vaulting imagination and wicked wit that enables him to embrace the spectacle of musicals and mock them as needs be. Hit Parade: Rockin' Christmas Party, Forever Plaid, Dreamgirls, The Gospel at Colonus, Ruthless! The Musical. On the boards: Dreamgirls.

Scotty Roberts: A Regular Joe

One of those deceptive artists whose unassuming demeanor masks an ability to play a broad range of roles and deliver rock-solid work no matter how demanding. Roberts has the stocky frame, soft voice, and warm eyes that mark him as Best Friend of the Lead, a role he's fulfilled with relaxed style in many a local musical. But don't think his talents end there; he knows how to play a joke, and his light comic style can be a joy to behold. Whatever the part, Roberts brings to it the persona of the regular Joe, an EveryGuy to whom we can all relate. Star Turns: Noah in 110 in the Shade, Sipos in She Loves Me, Bert in Annie, Mendel in Falsettos, the Beadle in Sweeney Todd.

Beehive: The Catalyst

Okay, not really a person but it is the show that changed the face of Austin musical theatre. Filled to the top with upbeat numbers from the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, it struck a chord with Austin audiences and they couldn't get enough. Its success started Zach down the pop musical road and helped prove that extended runs and revivals of hit shows are viable in Austin. It served as a training ground for talented musical artists -- among them, talented, versatile Felicia Dinwiddie -- and spawned some fine spin-off vehicles for Beehivers like Judy Arnold and Andra Mitrovich.


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