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Reinterpreting Lady Gaga & "Stalking" Paula Abdul, Houston's Music Box Theater

Friday the 13th turned out to be a lucky opening night for Music Box Theater, Houston’s newest theater. Owners and newlyweds Brad Scarborough and Rebekah Dahl have made the old Radio Music Theatre space their own while still keeping some of the comic spirit of the RMT shows.

Scarborough and Dahl picked friends, and fellow veteran Masquerade Theatre actors, Luke Wrobel, Cay Taylor and Colton Berry to join the MBT company. For this first show, Opening the Box an introduction to the company and their voices, they filled the stage with music, bantering, pop culture spoofing, music, impressions, a few Houston jokes, and more music.

I never realized Houston lacked a permanent cabaret-style theater until it appeared. So here you go, Houston.

The impressions are fun. Luke Wrobel does a mean Bono and Cay Taylor does an even meaner (in a nice way) Martha Stewart. But on opening night, the company tended to get more laughs when they played “exaggerated versions” of themselves. In an interview with CultureMap Rebekah Dahl told us that the company would be playing characters based on their own personalities.  Opening night, they did appear to be having the most fun making fun of themselves.

In the first act, a short scene where Dahl played a freaked-out “Rebekah Dahl” and Taylor played a vegan-calm “Cay Taylor” proved the two have the comic timing of classic female comedy duos as they debated performing in this new/old space at Colquitt vs. the larger space at the Hobby Center in their Masquerade days.

Meanwhile, Colton Berry gets great milage (Nissan Leaf kind of milage) out of spoofing his American Idol past. The running gag culminated in the funniest bit of the first act, his performance of The Turtles' “Happy Together,” which is apparently the song that plays inside “Colton Berry’s” head when he’s stalking Paula Abdul. Later in the show with help from the audience, he gets in some sharp digs at Randy and Simon, as well.

Scarborough as a goofy “Brad Scarborough” spends time during the show contemplating how sturdy or flimsy the theatrical fourth wall might be in such an intimate setting, going so far as to poke at it with a golf club.

Luke Wrobel plays “show director, Luke Wrobel” who spends sections of the show trying to calm the other exaggerated versions down, for some reason using impressions of Frank Sinatra and Bono to do it. My one quibble with “Luke” is that he needs to establish his directorship authority earlier in the show.

And my one complaint was that those exaggerated selves and their exaggerated issues seemed to be dropped by the end of the show. I thought they were funny enough to extend a little more consistently until the close. They also helped to create smooth segues into the music.

A good example of one such funny transition from comedy bit to music came later in the show as “Rebekah Dahl” and “Colton Berry” have a fight over who gets to dress up as Lady Gaga. “Cay Taylor” registers her vegan protest against meat dresses, and then Dahl and Taylor settle in for a sultry “Poker Face” duet.

Gaga herself does an acoustic version of the song and Glee did a wildly inappropriate--as is the Glee way--mother/daughter duet version, but Dahl puts what, to my ears, sounds like a bit of country twang into it, a new spin that refreshes the often covered song.

The absolute best balance of music and comedy in the show also came during the second act with a routine of famous broadway characters singing equally famous classic rock tunes. Ever wonder what the King of Siam’s, from the King and I, rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” might sound like, or how well Little Orphan Annie might belt Heart’s “Crazy on You”? Well, the Music Box crew have and want to share. The Steve Miller Band’s “Joker” is particularly poignant when emoted bravely by The Phantom of the Opera.

The company took a rather convoluted route, involving Time Life Music Collections, to get to the bit, but it’s definitely worth the set up and was actually too short. I’m not sure they could stretch the routine into a whole show, but I was left wanting more.

Two of my favorite, not particularly funny but beautiful rendered, song covers were Taylor’s gorgeous take on the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” with the rest of the MBT crew providing a cappella backup, and Wrobel’s final solo, “Over the Rainbow.”

In their earlier interview, Dahl and Scarborough told us they would be paying attention to audiences' reactions to help them edit and make changes to the show. Opening the Box is scheduled to run until August, so it might be interesting to check back with the company and see if the show evolves as they get more comfortable with their new space and audiences.

An evening of cabaret, Houston style, might just be the thing to stay cool on a hot summer night. No meat dress allowed, but I’m betting if you’re Paula Abdul you’ll get in free. 

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