A mysterious tent will soon show up to the Katy Mills Mall area, with screams drifting across the pavement. A chainsaw roars inside. The black-and-white-striped peaks are topped with red lights and a sign that reads, “Paranormal Cirque.”

Not to fear, it's the latest effort by Cirque Italia that leans into the haunted vibes, suggesting freak show — especially thanks to the rated-R warnings plastered all over the website — but delivering dramatic set design and theatrical camp. It’ll be in Katy until January 19 after a first stop in Austin, and then moving to other Texas cities.

A chipper description by the show’s general manager, Benjamin Holland, encapsulates the tone of the show: “I'm also the contortionist with the show so, you know; I take all my bones out of place and then all the people scream and say, ‘Oh my God, no!’ And then I try and put them back, and everybody has a great time about it.”

I experienced the show during its Austin run to get a sneak peek.

The Cirque nails the look; it’s unbelievable that not just a circus, but an entire haunted house hits the road for just a couple of weeks or even a few days — and it looks stunning. It’s hard to tell if the floorboards creak on purpose, but that’s one reason a haunted circus is a perfectly natural thing. It’s also freezing inside (remember: it’s just a tent), and the show starts with a sinking siren that sounds like some countries’ emergency alert systems.

In order to get to the main seating, attendees are ushered through a maze densely populated by actors (presumably the circus performers in more concealing costumes), who love a chance to reach out and creepily stroke an arm or tickle a neck. Still, the most suspenseful part of my night was when I showed a staff member my seat number and they disappeared, sending someone with a folding chair.

I was the only person outside of regular seating — forming my own row on the circular runway the performers strutted on between acts — despite swathes of empty seats (not an empty house, by any means, but enough that I could have fit many other places). I waited, at first apprehensively, to be singled out for some embarrassing crowd work, which never happened. Maybe it was a prank. Maybe it was a welcoming, if ambiguous gesture to make sure the press invite had a clear view. In any case, I preferred just to watch, and the real audience participants seemed to have a good time.

Once the alarms sounded, the show itself was straightforward circus fare; just a little ruder, and in gothy, bloody costumes that felt better suited to an Austin audience than the more traditional aesthetic. Holland’s act was perhaps the best suited to the theme, beginning with a vaguely perverse walk around the audience on a leash, and containing some of the more unusual physical feats. The show’s impressive aerialists gave beautiful performances in menacing tones, and the show moved on to a slapstick clown gag, and a super-campy magic show.

For those who took the content warnings very seriously, there may have been a distinct lack of freak show elements; fire eating and sword swallowing, target practice, body suspension, etc. (Some videos of past performances do show different acts than the one in Austin so far, including a bow-and-arrow stunt.) Perhaps some viewers have proven especially fragile, but it seems more likely that the marketing is all just part of the theater.

“We actually put a motorcycle on a tightrope…and that's something people sometimes turn away [from], because that's pretty exhilarating,” says Holland. “We also have a lady who ties her hair, and then she is hanging just by her hair. She gets suspended all above the ring of the circus, swinging around in the air doing tricks. That one, if anything, is hard for me to watch, because I know her; she's a very nice lady.”

The show does deliver some wholesome if horror-based entertainment (with a fair amount of dry humping), good for casual dates and fans of the circus in all its forms. For those who frequent local comedy nights, this could be a fun way to shake up the routine.

“All the people are just normal people; nobody's actually scary,” says Holland. “The show ends and people leave. We just wait around and … get everything ready for the next people. But you know, people aren't really like that. I paint myself all with blood, and then I go around and I scream at people. [Then] the show's over and I go home, and I make dinner with my wife.”

After the Cirque leaves Katy for the rest of Texas, it is scheduled for Robstown (February 2-5), Mercedes (February 9-12), and Midland (February 23-March 5). Tickets ($10-50) are available at cirqueitalia.com.

Here are the top 12 things to do in Houston this weekend

weekend event planner

The first weekend of 2023 offers some feel-good fun in theater, music, and comedy starring some familiar names.

Fans of the romcom classic Pretty Woman will delight in the red-hot musical that's in town. Fans of David and Bowie and Elvis can celebrate the stars at a show honoring them both. And, fans of Elton John and Billy Joel can jam at a Houston Symphony show of the pair's greatest hits.

Plus, some funny folk stage some serious comedy this weekend. Enjoy; here are your best bets for the weekend.

Thursday, January 5

The Riot presents "Live LAUGH Love" Comedians on Relationships

We’re nowhere near Valentine’s Day, but you can still head over to the legendary Rudyard's comedy room to catch comedians share their dating experiences and answer your questions about relationships. The club features comedy shows with the funniest comedians you've seen on Netflix, HBO, Comedy Central, at the Comedy Store and Comedy Cellar. They also serve tasty food, draught beer, wine, Delta-8, and cocktails in an intimate and casual setting. 7 pm.

Memorial Hermann Broadway at the Hobby Center: Pretty Woman

Based on one of Hollywood’s most beloved romantic stories of all time, this stage-musical version of the 1990 movie that made Julia Roberts a star springs to life with a powerhouse creative team led by two-time, Tony-winning director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell. The production features an original score by Grammy winner Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance & a book by Garry Marshall, the movie’s late director, and screenwriter J. F. Lawton. 7:30 pm (8 pm Friday; 2 and 8 pm Saturday; 2 and 7:30 pm Sunday).

ISHIDA presents Stirs up still things

Stirs up still things includes world premieres by ISHIDA based on original poetic narratives and works by emerging and renowned, international choreographers. “Among dim shapes” follows an intimate relationship and the ghosts they carry, triggered by archetypal patterns. The program also includes a new creation by Swedish dancer, film director, and choreographer John Wannehag (formerly with Tanzmainz), and a new work by award-winning, British-Finnish choreographer Kristian Lever. 8 pm (2 pm Sunday).

Friday, January 6

Vitacca Vocational School for Dance presents Winter Works

This Friday and Saturday, Vitacca Vocational School for Dance presents this two-act performance, featuring Vitacca Studio Company dancers in a restaged excerpt of La Bayadere and original contemporary works. These works are created by 2022-23 guest artists Greg Dolbashian, Jess Hendricks, Sean Aaron Carmon, Garrett Smith and Kelly Ann Vitacca. 7 pm.

Improv Houston presents Bill Bellamy

Using his experiences growing up in Newark, former MTV VJ (and creator of the phrase “booty call”) Bill Bellamy started doing stand-up while he was a student at Rutgers University. Bellamy quickly discovered how much he enjoyed making people laugh, and began honing his skills at small comedy clubs around the country and was soon making waves in clubs and on shows like HBO’s Def Comedy Jam. 7:30 and 9:45 pm (7 and 9 pm Saturday; 7:30 pm Sunday).

Houston Symphony presents The Music of Elton John and Billy Joel

From “Rocket Man” to “Piano Man,” the iconic hits of two classic rock legends come alive in this special concert. Piano-and-vocal talent Michael Cavanaugh — handpicked by Billy Joel to recreate his music in the Broadway musical Movin’ Out — delivers electrifying renditions of the songs you know and love, including “Tiny Dancer,” “Uptown Girl,” “Your Song,” “New York State of Mind,” “Saturday Night’s Alright,” and many more. 8 pm (2:30 pm Sunday).

Saturday, January 7

Community Artists' Collective presents Morgan Newton: "When I Think of Home" opening reception

The Community Artists’ Collective opens the new year with a solo exhibition by local artist Morgan Newton. The paintings included in this exhibition mark a stylistic shift that conveys the aesthetic and spiritual blossoming of Newton’s pursuit to internalize familial notions of home and cultivate home within herself. Newton centers Black female figures as symbols for her life experiences, in idealized, chromatic and in some cases, fantastically celestial environments to suggest the infinite potential of the nurtured self. Through Saturday, February 4. 2 pm.

Splice Records presents 14th Annual BowiElvis Fest

Yes, there will be many David Bowie-related events popping off this weekend. But, of course, the Continental Club and Splice Records will have its annual birthday party for Bowie and Elvis Presley, two of the most beloved and influential artists of the previous century. This year’s fest will feature music by Swimwear Department, Pecos Hank, Brian Scartocci, and Henry & the Invisibles. 6:30 pm.

The Museum of FIne Arts, Houston presents The Conformist

When a member of Mussolini’s secret police and his new bride travel to Paris for their honeymoon, Marcello plans to assassinate his former college professor, an outspoken anti-Fascist living in exile. But Marcello’s political and romantic loyalties are tested when he meets the professor’s alluring young wife. A commentary on Fascism and beauty alike, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 masterpiece is acclaimed for its sumptuous visuals and extravagant, artful cinematography. 7 pm (2 pm Sunday).

Sunday, January 8

Italian Cultural & Community Center presents Festa della Befana 2023

Come learn about this Italian holiday tradition with your family. Children will receive sweets from Befana when she comes to visit. L a Befana is an old, kind woman who flies by broomstick on the night of January 5, dropping off goodies for kids to wake up to. According to the legend, the three kings asked her to come with them to bring gifts to baby Jesus. Now, she flies on her broomstick and brings treats to children each year on Three Kings' Day. 3 pm.

Leonard "Lowdown" Brown and Jonn Richardson Play Lucky's Guitar at Emmit's Place

Do you know the story of Lucky Peterson and his ostrich-covered guitar? If you don’t, read it here. And, after that, you can check out this very special, afternoon event. At the request of the current owners, both Leonard “Lowdown” Brown and Jonn Richardson will be playing this custom, ostrich-covered guitar before it is lovingly returned home to Lucky Peterson’s family. A wonderful story of this guitar and its journey home – 15 years in the making. 5 pm.

The Gumbo Jam

It’s time once again to get all funky and well-fed, at this Louisiana-inspired jam session with a serious food menu. This session is home to all things hip-hop and jazz. Singers, rappers, poets, musicians and, of course, horn players from all over come to party in the loose, laid-back vibe of Matthew Hartnett & The Gumbo All-Stars. If you like to dance, eat good food, and hear great music, this is the place. And, yes, there will be hookahs! 8 pm.

Photo courtesy of Wheel of Fortune Live

Wheel of Fortune Live spins into Houston with puzzles, prizes, and celebrity host

Give It A Spin

We’re all subject to the wheel of fortune, but not all get to watch it turn onstage. Lucky Houstonians will get that chance on January 27, 2023, when “Wheel of Fortune Live” comes to town.

This “theatrical experience” is not exactly the same as the long-running game show — since it’s not broadcast — but there are still opportunities to win big prizes.

The Sony Pictures Television-backed stage show is the only official experience outside of the filmed show, and it’s traveling across the country to make sure everyone gets a chance to see it. The tour will also stop in Grand Prairie January 24, Austin on January 25, and San Antonio on January 26.

Although hosts Pat Sajak and Vanna White, arguably even more iconic than the wheel that serves as the main game mechanic, are sitting this one out, there will be new celebrities carrying the torch.

Antiques Roadshow host Mark L. Walberg and singer Clay Aiken will split hosting duties depending on the date, and it is yet undecided who will host at any of the four Texas shows, all in 2023. The wheel, of course, will be there — or at least a replica. Audience members will be invited to compete for prizes including $10,000 in cash and trips abroad.

Wheel of Fortune (referring to a metaphor hundreds of years old, which compares fate to a wheel that ensures someone will not always be up or down) has been on air since 1975, now encompassing a catalog of several thousands of episodes.

Amazingly, the show changes very little from episode to episode, but has kept viewers entertained with endless puzzles. Some younger viewers may vaguely recognize the show or newly engage with it, especially thanks to a new celebrity variation, which has cultural icons like Snoop Dogg making questionable guesses like “baking onions.”

Three contestants face a series of crossword-like word puzzles, which they need to solve by guessing letters as allowed by a buying system. For each turn, they spin the wheel of fortune, which randomly lands on a dollar amount, prize, or penalty. “I’d like to buy a vowel,” is a seemingly odd and recognizable phrase from this unique game, which turns the resource management of board games into actual stakes, as the players spend winnings they hope to walk away with at the end of the show.

Unlike games like Jeopardy! and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, this game is especially audience-participant friendly, as it doesn’t require any special knowledge past being a quick thinker, and occasionally knowing common English phrases.

Presale for “Wheel of Fortune Live” ($34.50) is open now. General sales open on November 18 at 10 am, and fans can visit wheeloffortunelive.com to see all tour dates.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

2 local booming 'burbs rank as top destination for movers, plus, why Houston isn't a great place to visit

this week's hot headlines

Editor's note: It's time to recap the top stories on CultureMap from this past week.

1. 2 Houston suburbs roll onto top-15 spots on U-Haul’s list of growing cities. They're the 13th and 19th most popular destinations for movers.

2. 2 smokin' Houston-area barbecue names fire up new restaurants in bustling 'burbs. Both restaurants are ranked among the state's 50 best barbecue joints by Texas Monthly.

3. Ken Hoffman chides New York Times' Houston travel guide and explains why our city isn't a great place to visit. Our columnist explains why 36 hours doesn't do Houston justice.

4. 10 Houston restaurants score coveted James Beard Award nominations. Perhaps one of them will follow up Julep's big win last year.

5. Houston Olympic superstar Simone Biles shares new Wheaties box cover with her legion of fans. It's the second time Biles has been featured on the cereal box.

Wildly popular Nashville hot chicken chain cancels plans for first Houston location

No Hattie B's for now

Looks like Houstonians will have to wait a little longer than expected to try one of the most famous suppliers of Nashville hot chicken. Hattie B’s has canceled its plans to open a location in the Heights, a representative tells CultureMap.

The representative cited “construction costs for the ground-up build and other issues with this particular site” as reasons for the decision not to move forward. An eagle-eyed user on the Houston Architecture Info forum spotted a leasing notice for the property at 1808 N. Shepherd Dr. that had been scheduled for Hattie B’s.

In response to CultureMap’s request for comment about the property being for lease, Hattie B’s supplied a statement from co-founder Nick Bishop, Jr.

“While we have made the very difficult decision not to move forward with the project in the Heights, our commitment to finding a home in Houston remains strong. We love this city and have always imagined a Hattie B's here.”

First announced in 2021, Hattie B’s intended to open a 3,800-square-foot restaurant designed by Texas’s acclaimed Michael Hsu Office of Architecture that would have had seating for 175 people. Potentially, the design could be utilized for a new location.

Founded in Nashville in 2012, Hattie B’s serves tenders, sandwiches, and bone-in chicken at five different spice levels: Southern (no heat), mild, medium, hot, and the signature Shut the Cluck Up. The restaurant has four locations in Nashville along with locations in Atlanta, Birmingham, Dallas, Las Vegas, and Memphis. It has plans to open in Austin next year.

Texas-based Cinemark theater chain hosts Oscars-themed movie marathon

big-screen moves

The Cinemark movie chain is giving movie buffs an opportunity to brush up on the Oscars.

Plano-based Cinemark Holdings, Inc. will host its annual Oscar Movie Week festival, this year running from Monday, March 6 through Sunday, March 12, in anticipation of the 95th Oscars ceremony, which airs on March 12 on ABC.

The theater chain will air all of this year’s Best Picture and Best Live Action and Animated Short Film nominees, at more than 120 participating Cinemark theaters nationwide.

According to a release, passes are now on sale now at Cinemark.com/movieweek.

A full Digital Festival Pass is $40 and includes showings for all Best Picture and Best Live Action and Animated Short Film nominees. There's a perk! If you purchase a festival pass, you get 50 percent off any size popcorn during Oscar Movie Week.

Individual showtime tickets will be available starting January 27 at standard pricing, with showtimes beginning March 6.

All Best Live Action and Animated Short Film nominees are bundled into one viewing for just $10 from March 10-12.

For other brushing up, take a look back at what CultureMap’s film critic, Alex Bentley, had to say about each of the nominees (listed in alphabetical order) when they were originally released.

Cinemark has been hosting other similar marathon events such its collaboration with ESPN to bring college football games to the big screen.

The event takes place at these theaters across the U.S., including the following locations in Texas:

  • Houston: Cinemark Memorial City
  • The Woodlands: Cinemark 17
  • Austin: Cinemark Southpark Meadows
  • Denton: Cinemark 14
  • Fort Worth: Ridgmar Mall
  • Grapevine: Cinemark Tinseltown
  • Plano: Cinemark Legacy
  • Plano: Cinemark West Plano
  • San Antonio: Cinemark San Antonio 16