Bold choices

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Courtesy photo/UNT Department of Dance and Drama
Devin Miller, front, dazzled as Nick Bottom in the world-premiere musical A Jazz Dream at the University of North Texas.
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Colorful, creative decisions defined the best of 2012

Denton’s performing arts scene was both busy and bright this year. While there were number of exemplary performances and solid directorial work, we’ve looked back over this year’s memorable moments and chosen the cream of the crop.

 

Simple Simon? Simply hilarious.

Music Theatre of Denton capped off its 27th season with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The charmer of a musical takes aim at the geeky but lovable spelling bee savants of Putnam County.

The entire ensemble was played expertly by a committed bunch of actor-singers: the guy who spells out every word with his foot, the girl who whispers each letter into her hands, a nostalgic former champion, and a Boy Scout who hits puberty at the most inconvenient time.

But the best of the bunch was Leaf Coneybear, thanks to performer Derek C. Whitener. Leaf is a lonely home-school student who seems like he isn’t capable of adding 2 and 2, much less spelling a 14-letter word. Whitener played the character with warmth and sincerity. And when the time came for Coneybear to introduce his finger puppet pal, all of the actor’s sweetness and imagination connected in a laugh-out-loud performance.

 

A chance well taken

Denton’s nonprofit theater companies have been conservative and cautious in the 40-something seasons they’ve been making art for audiences. But in the past few years, the same companies have been exploring newer works about contemporary themes. (Of course, as long as there are men and women and white-hot love, Romeo and Juliet will be relevant.)

But Music Theatre of Denton decided to take a chance on Avenue Q during its 27th season.

Avenue Q is a musical for adults — with puppets reminiscent of those from Sesame Street and the Muppets.

The story follows Princeton, a college graduate with an English degree, few job prospects and a meager amount of money. As he makes connections with his neighbors on Avenue Q — hardly a high-rent neighborhood — he meets Kate Monster (Avenue Q’s world is divided between regular humans and people made of plush) and affections start to grow.

What makes this show a gamble? It takes on racial tensions, sexuality and Internet pornography — and that’s just the short list.

Music Theatre of Denton’s smart ensemble sailed through the jokes, the songs and the difficult art form of puppetry.

Audiences loved it, and Avenue Q helped the company out of a financial slump brought on by recession-era frugality and the busy Denton theater season, with University of North Texas, Texas Woman’s University, Fight Boy Theatre and Sundown Collaborative Theatre all presenting full seasons.

 

Classical mechanical

There was a lot to enjoy about UNT’s A Jazz Dream, a world-premiere musical adaptation of the Shakespearean comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

New York-based director Maggie Harrer joined Dallas-Fort-Worth freelance designer Bob Lavallee for the premiere, which opened in November.

The musical still needs revision, given that most of the numbers (written and arranged by UNT jazz graduate students under professor Richard DeRosa) were in the first half.

But at least one performance nearly made the lopsided production balance out: Devin Miller as Nick Bottom, one of the “mechanicals,” traveling performers who have been hired to entertain the wealthy elite.

Bottom is a working-class guy who dreams of stardom that could come with performing at a royal wedding. He’s also a hopeless ham.

Miller nearly stole the show with his strutting, preening and upstaging ways. Miller’s timing is perfect, and each choice earned the buy-in from the other mechanicals hoping to make their big break in a staging of Pyramus and Thisbe. The clincher? Bottom’s death scene as Pyramus — a scene so rambunctiously over the top that the performers had to wait for the laughter to crest before getting on with bidding adieu to a hard-fallen soldier.

Honorable mention goes to: Caroline Dubberly as Helena.

 

One dead day

Denton’s Day of the Dead became a street festival in 2011. In October, it grew by leagues. (Full disclosure: The Denton Record-Chronicle’s Little d After Dark was a sponsor and parade organizer.) It was a particular activity that drew thousands: the Day of the Dead coffin races. Local companies engaged the most creative DIY folks in Denton to build coffins fashioned with go-cart wheels.

Some carts zoomed down Hickory Street. Others crept to a halt after scooting about 10 feet. Regardless, the crowd cheered and laughed. And true to race-crowd form, the audience enjoyed every crash.

The festival was the dream of the event’s founder and creator, David Pierce. The UNT graduate is a freelance trombone player, a composer and arranger and a private teacher. Denton’s Day of the Dead festival grew up around Pierce’s Halloween musical, Cirque du Horror.

In spite of the festival’s star attraction being out on the asphalt, Pierce wrote new numbers for the musical — as is usual for the composer. “Annubis” was groovy and cheeky, and “13 Seconds,” was both a technical and clever song about how much time a severed head lives after the chop. “Hideous as Me” was a pretty, Broadway-worthy number about the dueling dilemmas between the minds of a two-headed man. “Winter’s Gifts,” though, was Cirque du Horror’s best moment, and Pierce’s.

It whet our appetite for the Day of the Dead in 2013.

 

Chasing musical rabbits

Hares on the Mountain began as a fun side project for Denton polymath George Neal.

Then things got good. Really good.

Hares on the Mountain — Neal, Petra Kelly on fiddle, Tony Ferraro on guitar and bass, Ryan Thomas Becker on guitar and bass, Justin Collins on drums and Cory P. Coleman on mandolin — used Sunday afternoons at Dan’s Silverleaf to shore up their act. Branding themselves as “danger folk,” Hares on the Mountain sharpened their performance chops as a pub band that invites sing-alongs until something feral and primal takes over and drives the music to a wild place.

The local band brought in boatloads of attention and praise this year. It also produced a self-titled album. Listen and be a believer by visiting http://haresonthemountain.com.

 

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is cbreeding@dentonrc.com.


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