Let Them Entertain You

Austin musical theatre pulls out all the showstoppers in celebratory revue

Leslie Stevens in Austin Musical Theatre's <i>Sweet Charity</i>
Leslie Stevens in Austin Musical Theatre's Sweet Charity

OK, we're deep into the second act, and we need that rock-'em, sock-'em number that electrifies the audience, reminding them why they're there. Think "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy or "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" from Guys and Dolls. Well, here comes a ditty called Celebrate Austin Musical Theatre that is bound to, as the song says, razzle-dazzle 'em.

This revue of song-and-dance spectaculars from AMT's first 15 shows, opening Jan. 28, qualifies as the troupe's own "11-o'clock number." See, the story of Austin Musical Theatre is itself a musical, replete with kids-with-a-dream beginnings, against-all-odds successes, and nail-chewing jams. Act I started with Scott Thompson and Richard Byron peddling their vision of an Austin company staging Broadway-quality musicals to anyone who'd listen, then took them through a triumphant debut and 14 more stunning shows. Then, Dramatic Tension: The act ended with the company in peril, deep in debt and facing a two-week deadline to raise $500,000 or it would be a goner.

Act II opened with the company having raised only $100,000 but still winning a reprieve from the board of directors and the support of an angel, Greater Tuna producer Charles Duggan, who agreed to back a concert-style retrospective of AMT's greatest hits. Veterans of AMT shows volunteered to lend a hand in the company's hour of need. The local hoofers have been dancing their toes off since Boxing Day, the corps of Austin stars -- including Jacqui Cross, Greg Holt, Scotty Roberts, and Sandy Walper -- are all in voice, the guest artists have flown in from all corners of the country. What could be next in this musical but a big-belting, high-kicking, pull-out-the-stops showstopper?

That's what Thompson and Byron have crafted their revue to be: The show is nothing but showstoppers -- "Oklahoma!," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "76 Trombones," West Side Story's "America," plus a host of songs from shows AMT wants to do, like The King and I, Sweeney Todd, Chicago, The Wiz. With arrangements by music director Fred Barton and performers who know how to stop a show -- Anneliese van der Pol and Kevin Earley (Oklahoma!'s Laurie and Curly); Armen Dirtadian (Fiddler's Tevye); LuAnn Aronson (The Music Man's Marian and My Fair Lady's Eliza); and Leslie Stevens (Sweet Charity's Charity) -- these aren't some mellow show tunes served up by Lawrence Welk.

Still, dazzling musical routines don't come together with no effort. They're demanding, and this show full of them requires more than most. Dancers have had just one month to learn moves from a dozen shows with a dozen different styles of choreography that all work different sets of muscles. The guests travel halfway across the country, have only one intense week to rehearse, and get next to no pay. So why line up for this seven-day boot camp, a week of shows, and little more compensation than the applause you get? The answers sound like they're straight from a musical: loyalty, to help friends, to do the work they love.

"They've given me so much," Leslie Stevens says of the folks at AMT. "They work on a really high level all the way around. The taste and the demands of the artistic staff are so high. The attention to detail and respect they have for the shows' original productions are not something you find everywhere. [Thompson, Byron, and Barton] know everything, they know every version of everything, and that helps you find the best way to present things. Not that they're copycats; they find the spirit inside the work and bring that to life. I had a great time here. When Scott described this show to me, it sounded like fantastic fun, and I wanted to see these people that I had such a good time with again."

Stevens' sentiments are not unique; given the spirit of generosity fueling this show, an alternate title might well be What I Did for Love. In fact, that song from A Chorus Line will serve as the finale for Celebrate Austin Musical Theatre, and when the audience hears that, no doubt it will inspire them to support this embattled company that is so giving, so enthusiastic, so passionate. After all, in the musical story of Austin Musical Theatre, what else can follow the 11-o'clock number but a happy ending? end story


Celebrate Austin Musical Theatre runs Jan. 28-Feb. 2 at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. For tickets, call 469-SHOW.

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