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A Closer Dallas/Fort Worth

J. Hugh Johnson reports on theatrical activity in Big D and its neighboring city. logo
South Pacific at The Dallas Theater Center, 1998
Live theater in Dallas has grown far beyond the city limits. Along with its neighbor and rival, Fort Worth, Dallas has a growing number of professional and semi-professional theaters, only a few of which existed 20 years ago. Today, the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, as the area is known, has so many up-and-coming theater companies that performance spaces are at a premium.

The old dinosaurs of live drama--a small handful of non-profit theaters that have stood for over four decades--give the Metroplex a sense of theatrical history. Dallas Summer Musicals began as an amphitheater for operettas 62 seasons ago and has since offered years of traditional American musical comedy mayhem plus star-vehicle reviews featuring the likes of Jack Benny, Mitzi Gaynor, and Carol Burnett. Under the reign of current executive producer Michael Jenkins, DSM has added a winter season of more edgy/contemporary fare, including shows like Rent and Dirty Blonde. Now booking productions at both the State Fair Music Hall and the historic Majestic Theater in downtown Dallas, Jenkins has expanded the summer season to include national tours. His business savvy has brought to town hugely popular national tours like the long-awaited Lion King and always-sold-out returns of Cats and Phantom. The happy result is the largest subscriber base in DSM history.

Two other Metroplex theaters can lay claim to 40-year-plus histories. The Dallas Theater Center, which utilizes both the low-tech Arts District Theater and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphries Theater, will shortly move into a new downtown complex. Famous for abruptly firing its artistic directors, including the celebrated Paul Baker and Adrian Hall, DTC is now under the direction of Yale School of Drama import Richard Hamburger. In addition to presenting cutting-edge new works, Hamburger has dabbled in traditional musicals: A hit 50th-anniversary production of South Pacific was followed by a less successful run of Guys & Dolls, which led to the canceling of this season's scheduled Carousel. Music fans should be delighted, however, by the soulful Blues in the Night, booked in February and March and featuring the tunes of Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, etc.

Although no longer a repertory company, DTC under Hamburger has begun to rediscover the strengths of the Metroplex acting pool. While principals still typically arrive from out-of-town with Yale credentials, local actors are finding their way onto DTC stages with greater frequency; for example, well known actor-directors Joel Farrell, Jerry Russell, T.A. Taylor, Doug Jackson, and Mark Waltz were all recently seen in a production of The Front Page. Expect to spot more local faces in the production of Our Town slated to close the current season.

Sharing DTC's longevity is Theatre Three. Co-founder and artistic director Jac Alder is the dean of Dallas theater, tenaciously clinging to an intelligent, maverick vision reflected in the highly effective architectural design of T3, with its steeply raked stadium seating and in-the-round intimacy. Theatre Three's eclectic source material ranges from Molière to Shaw to Sondheim; the company only shies away from Shakespeare. Alder's musical tributes to popular composers have yielded wonderful evenings of the songs of Harry Warren, Irving Berlin, and Kander & Ebb. A delightful, smash-hit production of the Joe DiPietro musical revue I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change! has broken all Theatre Three box office records and is expected to run for at least two full years in Theatre Too!, an intimate basement performance space here. Late last year, DiPietro visited Theatre Three while I Love You... and his family comedy Over the River and Through the Woods were playing simultaneously in the theater's two venues. T3's future looks especially bright thanks to a capital campaign a few seasons back which enabled the purchase of a new location in the Quadrangle shopping center.

A Fuller theatrical experience:
Fort Worth's Casa Mañana
To the west, Fort Worth's Casa Mañana, founded by the late Melvin O. Dacus more than 40 years ago, incorporates Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome design into an 1,800-seat theater-in-the-round. Although the house has always been too large to function effectively in that configuration, on ongoing capital campaign is intended to revive the fading charm of Fort Worth's "house of tomorrow." Meanwhile, the new, classically styled and angel-adorned Bass Performance Hall, wedged tightly in downtown Fort Worth's popular Sundance Square, has stolen Casa's theatrical thunder a bit since opening in 1998. But Bass Hall is not competition per se: the non-profit Casa organization now presents at both venues, offering national tours of shows like Les Misérables and locally produced versions of such standards as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Upcoming is a production of Fiddler on the Roof.

The Fort Worth scene also includes two professional theaters with 20-year histories--Circle Theatre and Stage West--and long-running, semi-professional companies like the rustic, outdoor Hip Pocket Theatre and the Granbury Opera House. Circle Theater has maintained a strong subscription base, typically showcasing highly commercial fare with an occasional Edward Albee play thrown into the mix. Meanwhile, Stage West's former movie house space (which gained a new façade last year) remains a popular destination for Neil Simon fans; over the years, the theater has produced every one of his plays. A couple of years back, Stage West merged with Fort Worth's Shakespeare in the Park to become the Allied Theater Group; this alliance has produced a number of successful shows, including the Sondheim review Putting It Together. Next up is a production of Tom Stoppard's hilarious The Real Inspector Hound.

Elsewhere in Fort Worth, the daring and prolific Sage & Silo Theater, which produced a dozen productions in its first year alone, is still going strong. Gay-themed works including Torch Song Trilogy, Bent, and The Rocky Horror Show have done particularly well for Sage & Silo. MoonWater Theatre, housed in the old Ridglea movie theater building, has made its mark under the guidance of the popular local actor Jeff Schmidt. Like many small theater companies, MoonWater periodically presents festivals of short new plays, always useful in cultivating new audiences.

In April, Lyric Stage at the Irving Arts Center will present Sundown, a new musical by Peter Link, Larry Rosler, and Joe Bravaco. Under the leadership of producer Steve Jones, the theater has presented a series of new musical works including Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones' Roadside last season, a show that later traveled to New York. Newer on the Dallas scene is the Trinity River Arts Center, housing the Kim Dawson Theater. TFM Productions has moved into the space with recent productions of The Fantasticks and Once on This Island after previously presenting Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz at the Irving Arts Center. But TFM producer Joe Cilaro plans to make an abrupt departure from such G-rated entertainments with a planned May production of Sam Shepard's Fool for Love, which will star Clarence Gilyard of TV's Walker, Texas Ranger.

Billy Gill and Rhonda Boutté in
The Fastest Clock in the Universe
at Kitchen Dog Theater
(Photo: Nicole Nelson)
The cutting-edge Kitchen Dog Theater, now housed at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary (The MAC) is preparing to take full advantage of its new, larger space with an April run of Coriolanus. Although The Undermain Theatre Company has been lying low of late, its Deep Ellum basement space has been used by the always enterprising Our Endeavors troupe, which has recently offered provocative works by Gertrude Stein and Kurt Vonnegut. Dallas's Echo Theatre only does plays written by women, such as a yearly benefit performance of The Vagina Monologues. Similarly, Wingspan, founded by director-actress Susan Sargeant, focuses on women-themed plays such as a one-woman show about Zelda Fitzgerald, works by Susan Songtag, and (occasionally) some lighter fare. To date, Wingspan's biggest box office success was Tom Ziegler's two-character comedy, Grace & Glorie, in which Sargeant costarred with veteran Broadway actress Beverly May.

Children's theater fans were particularly delighted with the recent Dallas Children's Theater production of Honk, a musical version of The Ugly Duckling presented at El Centro College. This 18-year-old organization, which includes a children's theater school and a national touring company, is planning a move this year into a new space that is now under construction. The new facility will feature a 350-seat auditorium as well as a black box theater that will be available for small theater companies to rent. And a good thing, too: Theater in Dallas/Fort Worth is healthy and growing, so new spaces are always welcome.

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