Annie: Light and More Light

Paramount Theatre,through April 12

Running Time: 2 hrs, 25 min

You know it's coming... The Song. It's the signature piece of this 1977 musical, the one number everyone knows, that does its bit to bring people to this production. You can sense the audience waiting for it, too; they won't really settle into the show until they hear it for the first time, this song about light, about surviving the long, cold darkness of night and finding new hope, new life, in the dawn. With its refrain centered on the sun, this number promises a lot of light, perhaps more than one singer can honestly deliver. But then it finally arrives -- The Song -- and sure enough, the stage is awash in light. Not so much from designer Tony Tucci's illumination -- although that certainly adds a warm glow to the scene -- but from young Kerry Holden-David's face, radiant with optimism and enthusiasm, and her voice, which is as clear and bright and jubilant as a lark's in springtime. It is a wholly satisfying rendition of this familiar anthem, amply fulfilling the promise of light, enough perhaps to illuminate the entire production.

Perhaps, but we'll never know because light shines from every corner of this Austin Musical Theatre production. For their third AMT effort, company founders/directors/choreographers Scott Thompson and Richard Byron have produced a show abounding in luminescence: the dance steps sunny, the singing lustrous, the faces beaming, the settings and costumes resplendent. The brightness of it all is perfectly in keeping with this comic-strip story of spunky orphans and compassionate billionaires spreading light in an America darkened by the Great Depression. For book writer Thomas Meehan, composer Charles Strouse, and lyricist Martin Charnin, working from Harold Gray's classic comic "Little Orphan Annie," history isn't the point; it's only their touchstone for a modern myth of inspiration. The point is to keep your spirits up, hang on to your hopes, wait for the light that is bound to come.

It comes and comes and comes in AMT's version. Every cast member enters alight with joy, looking like they're as happy as they've ever been. Just when you think you've seen the brightest face in the company, someone else comes on who appears even brighter. Holden-David, as Annie, is a sun unto herself, but her peers, the nine other Austin girls playing orphans, provide plenty of wattage, and their singing and dancing positively sparkles. The girls' nemesis, Miss Hannigan, is realized with comic brilliance by Ruth Williamson. This accomplished New York artist creates a hangdog Hannigan beaten limp by life's injustices. With each assault, her limbs go slack and her face registers incredulity; you can tell she's thinking, Compared to me, Job had a cakewalk! Her singing, however, betrays her own delight; it booms forth like a cannon shot, full and loud, but with a sweet flourish. And on "Easy Street," the song she shares with Joe York and Lauren Adrian -- hilariously playing a pair of cheesy fleece artists, -- Williamson fires up the ol' Broadway razzmatazz, growling and strutting to beat the band. York and Adrian match her verve, and it sends a current right through you. The role of Daddy Warbucks doesn't allow for that much flash, but Broadway vet John Leslie Wolfe shines nevertheless. His stiff-necked gruffness is all bluff; he's a softie, just waiting for any excuse to proclaim his affection, whether it's for his city, N.Y.C., or his Annie, and we hear it in his warm, embracing baritone. And at his sides, adding to his radiance, are the slender, tender glow of Jill Crowley's Grace and the high-beam garrulousness of Thomas C. Parker's FDR.

All this takes place in a dazzling vision of New York City provided by scenic designer Christopher McCollum, who also gave us amazing views of that wonderful town in AMT's previous outing, West Side Story. Here, McCollum backs the stage with sky-scraping towers in cotton-candy pastel shades. As the day fades -- Tony Tucci's lights shifting to a seductive indigo -- it appears as if individual lights come on in every tiny window. The effect is enchanting. This is a fantasy land, we know, but it's the kind we hold close in dreams, the kind we hold on to while we're waiting for tomorrow. -- Robert Faires


Hyde Park Bar & Grill, through May 3

Austin's restaurant-cum-gallery spaces have proven a popular means of bringing local art to the palates of food lovers. In this artist-heavy yet gallery-lite town, it's a fortunate trend, one that draws the work of many quality artists to the walls of a bevy of busy eateries.

But with this trend comes a drawback. No matter the quality of the art -- or the food, for that matter -- the artworks will almost always take a back seat to an eatery's top priority: the dining experience. Like a jazz band playing in the corner of a busy dining room, a restaurant's wall hangings are usually considered as an afterthought, a component of the atmosphere that makes an establishment pleasant to visit.

Nonetheless, those folks willing to take a moment to peer over the neighboring diners' heads are apt to find some quality work, often much less costly work than that found in full-fledged galleries.

This collection of color photographs is a case in point. "Windows," from the Austin Fine Art Photography Group, is an exploration of -- you guessed it -- "windows, peepholes, and openings." The series presents a fine, albeit safe, body of works, with many pieces worth remembering and quite a few to appeal to window lovers and photography buffs.

Windows are a ubiquitous subject in the visual arts. With their metaphorical qualities and universal recognition, windows offer seemingly limitless options for artists. From the geranium-filled casement in Kathy Van Torme's Window in Ireland to the voyeuristic peek into a lady's antique-strewn parlor in Carol Shiraldi's Diana's Bedpost, these images are intimate and quiet, as though they were taken in a ghost town by people peering into strangers' homes, all empty of stirring souls.

Although this collection borders on monotony, it succeeds in doing what good photography can: bringing to our attention the qualities of everyday objects we are often reluctant to acknowledge or recognize.

This is a strong collection of works, worth the awkwardness of rubbernecking around tables. Yet it's an innately safe, conservative collection, no doubt due in part to the restaurant's obviously conservative environs. This leaves the viewer considering what more the photographers could (and may very well did) do, were they afforded a space solely devoted to the art -- a space unconcerned with diners' sensibilities. -- Cari Marshall


The Acting Studio, through April 18

Running Time: 90 min

Like water and sodium, the Greeks and the Trojans were a really volatile mix. For 10 years, these two communities beat the living snot out of each other in a brutal, horrific war over a Greek woman, Helen, who was kidnapped by a Trojan during a beauty contest. The Greeks, led by Helen's brother-in-law Agamemnon, decided to get her back, abandoning their families and farms, leaving behind a nation of elders, women, and children who were lost without the menfolk. Loss turned to bitterness, and Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's queen, got a little bit nutty as well as a little bit randy and took up with the son of the king's most hated rival, Aegisthus. With all of these plot points, Aeschylus, the playwright, had the makings of a kick-ass play, full of passion, bloodshed, and intrigue, like an ancient Dallas or a Mediterranean Melrose Place.

Instead, Aeschylus was hamstrung by the conventions of Greek theatre. All of the bloody stuff takes place offstage. All of the passion remains in the wings. All of the intrigue is simply talked about, and the audience never gets to see its machinations unfold. And then there's that damn chorus, an acting body that can't act on anything, only comment on its implications. Granted, all of this works really well when you are playing to an amphitheatre filled with rowdy Greeks who are rarely paying attention to the drama, need to have everything repeated 8,000 times, and are too far away to see any bloodshed even if it were onstage. Aeschylus' conventions fit his times and his audience's expectations.

Enter translator Robert Lowell, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was a rabid anti-war campaigner. Agamemnon seems right up his alley as it is a play about the horrors of war and the trials of those who stay behind. What you expect, however, is not what you get. Instead of transforming Aeschylus' drama into a gripping story about devastation, Lowell uses that damn chorus to be his personal mouthpiece to comment on the world, in keeping with the Greek traditions, conventions that refuse to sit right with a modern audience which is accustomed to being shown the drama instead of being sat down and given a lesson about it.

Still, there are ways around this. Offstage action could be brought onstage. The endless repetitions of plot points could be cut to the bare minimum. Essentially, the characters could be given something to do, instead of things to say. But, in this Different Stages production, none of this happens. These heads walk around talking about what they are thinking and feeling, like an endless session in a shrink's personal, tedious hell. Nothing surprising ever happens, since the chorus repeatedly tips the main players' hands, showing us all their cards and leaving little to chance. Granted, this convention works in an arena full of ADD Greeks. But it makes for a lousy night of theatre for a modern audience with different expectations.

And with nothing surprising ever occurring, it leaves the audience plenty of time to nitpick the production itself. While the cast is earnest, every member of it steps into the realm of melodrama as they struggle to push their parts to the limits in the effort to breathe some life into this static script. Matthew Kelbaugh's costumes and Sandra Fountain's sets seem to be fighting a war of their own, clashing over colors and textures. Laura Sandberg's lights illuminate both the stage and the audience. Royce Gehrels' direction does little to alleviate any of these problems; he does not seem to have helped any of these designers create a unified production or helped these actors find honest motivations for their over-blown characters.

Which is a pity. Greek tragedy is full of so many strong stories, intense emotions, and quick action, ripe for mining by any playwright worth his word processor. But we no longer live in a world that needs the classic models, conventions that mix with our own expectations like the Greeks and the Trojans.
-- Adrienne Martini

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