Grapevine — If in one day at the same venue you can see a children’s show, a family-friendly musical and a profanity-laced, adults-only musical, then you might be at Grapevine’s Ohlook Performing Arts Center, easily one of the weirdest theater outfits in North Texas.
And that’s a label they wear with pride.
This summer alone, those titles have included Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Green Day’s American Idiot, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s terrific Dogfight, plus the regional premieres of the gloriously vulgar and brilliant Jerry Springer: The Opera and the Silence of the Lambs spoof Silence! The Musical, which closes Ohlook’s summer season this week with 11 p.m. shows on Friday and Saturday. On one weekend this summer, it was possible to spend a weekend night following the wholesome Beauty and the Beast with the uber-naughty Jerry Springer, which except for a few “you’re going to hell!” phone calls, escaped the controversy that has met it at other productions. (In London, where it debuted in 2003, there was a court case alleging blasphemy, and the show’s producers won).
Don’t worry, though, the year’s not over yet: This fall (oh)look for the world premiere of the musical Dula, about a Confederate soldier accused of murdering a woman and who inspired the folk song “Tom Dooley”; plus Bat Boy: The Musical, Rock of Ages and late-night returns of Evil Dead: The Musical and The Rock Horror Show: Christmas Edition.
It’s at those late-night shows—with the crew having just changed over sets from one show to the other in a teensy space—where things get rowdy. It’s BYOB, and typically, beer can-popping audience members whoop and holler throughout the show, which is more prevalent in something like Silence! than at a more serious musical like Dogfight.
But if your audience isn’t having a good time, you might want to reevaluate your goals.
That’s never been a problem with Ohlook.
The group was formed in 2002 when married opera singers Jill Blalock Lord and Matthew Lord, who met in a 1990s San Francisco Opera production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (she played the title role), were asked to create a musical theater program for youth in Grapevine. They did, performing shows in the Lancaster Theater, part of the Palace Arts Center on Main Street in downtown Grapevine.
Their school and productions soon grew, and they moved into a tiny theater just behind the Main Street shops, where Ohlook became known for trying out new musicals—it was among the first local theaters to do [title of show] and even produced a concert version of Justin Paul and Benj Pasek’s Edges before that script was published—as well as standards of the repertoire, such as Little Shop of Horrors and Peter Pan. Students who performed there in high school would typically return to their theater home in the summers when home from college.
"I think it's Jill’s willingness to be creative," says Alex B. Heika, who was one of those kids, and has graduated to director. "Treating us less like students and more like collaborative actors has kept us coming back."
But it’s the late-night series that has had local theater lovers and critics shouting “oh look!”
The Lords, unfazed by copious amounts of stage blood and cussin’, had created a monster that could showcase kid actors in family-friendly works during the day and then thrill audiences with 11 p.m. fare like the blood-spurting Evil Dead: The Musical, the camptastic Reefer Madness, a surprisingly not-so-bloody musical about Lizzie Borden or, perhaps most famously, a controversial parody of Annie in which the lead character was a transsexual orphan and the show’s title, which rhymes with “Annie,” is now considered a pejorative for transsexual. They’ve also done Carrie: The Musical and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, as well as kids’ titles like Charlotte’s Web.
In 2006, Matthew Lord co-founded the 3 Redneck Tenors, a group whose membership has changed along the way, but has had successful season-long runs in Branson and around the country, and made it to the Las Vegas round in the second season of America’s Got Talent. His opera chops—he has performed at the Metropolitan Opera and can be heard on the original cast recording of Andre Previn's opera of A Streetcar Named Desire—are evident.
He also wrote that Annie parody, which was the raunchiest show I’ve seen at Ohlook, until Jerry Springer, that is. Lord claims to have another parody of a classic American musical in the works.
In 2011, the company’s production of Bert V. Royal’s Dog Sees God won Best Show at the National Community Theater Festival in Rochester, N.Y., besting 12 shows from across the country and one from Belgium. In 2013, Ohlook moved into a new home in a Grapevine strip mall, and last year expanded with a space next door, giving it more rehearsal, classroom and storage space.
As for this summer, American Idiot was probably the most ambitious production I’ve seen from this group, as it included six musicians, both in the tiny orchestra pit in the audience and behind and on stage. This is no small feat for such a small space, which seats less than 100. And it’s another reason Ohlook, which is pay-to-play for the non-late night productions (“people pay for music and other lessons,” says Jill Lord), is worth checking out.
Because the Lords come from opera backgrounds, live music is a must. Even if it’s just a keyboardist.
Dogfight featured some solid performances, but it was difficult to not compare it to WaterTower Theatre’s excellent 2014 regional premiere of that title. Jill Lord has formed a relationship with Pasek and Paul. The duo even came to Grapevine and taught musical theater workshops at her space last year.
Jerry Springer, which was directed by Heika, was easily the best production I’ve seen from Ohlook over the years. I’m a fan of the show, having seen it in London in 2005, and this production delivered the operatic goods—and had some very funny touches with the chorus. If you told me a 17-year-old would be playing Jerry, I would have sneered, but Mason King was terrific in mimicking Springer’s vocal and physical mannerisms. (If only that wig had been better.) It was so popular it extended one weekend, and here's hoping it returns in future seasons. You can read Gregory Isaacs’ review of the production here.
And then there’s Silence! Directed by Jill Blalock Lord and with musical direction by Kelley Poche Rodriguez, this one is exactly what you’d expect: A straight-up parody of the 1991 Oscar-winning movie version of the Thomas Harris novel.
The movie has become such a pop culture staple, with endlessly quotable lines, that it’s easy to riff on the performances by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, as well as some of the unforgettable images and scenes: Hannibal Lecture in that mask on the dolly; that naked-tuck shot of Buffalo Bill; the put-the-lotion-in-the-basket screaming.
It’s not in the same league—musically or otherwise—as Jerry Springer, but where that opera is going for bigger commentary about celebrity, talk shows, good vs. evil and having your “Jerry Springer moment,” Silence is nothing more than Cliff Notes’ parody of a well-known movie. It’s not as funny as Evil Dead: The Musical, which is a better parody, perhaps because while that original B-movie might be a cult classic, but it’s not nearly as recognizable to general audiences as Silence of the Lambs.
Some of the songs are based around famous bits of dialogue, such as "If I Could Smell Her C***" and "Put the Fucking Lotion in the Basket"; and the Ohlook ensemble gives them the appropriate over-the-top treatment.
As Buffalo Bill, Evan Spreen delivers the requisite creeps, and as Hannibal Lecter, David Lewis does a convincing Anthony Hopkins. He nails the fava bean/chianti line. For my money the funniest bits are when Clarice talks, and Lacey Jane Dangerstone does an impressive imitation of Jodie Foster, with that odd lispy thing (a world like “self” becomes “shelf”). There’s even a song called "Thish Ish It."
Like a lot of shows at Ohlook, it’s bare-bones and, because the stage is so small, they create other levels to perform on—sometimes with the actors having to crouch on those upper levels so they won’t knock their heads on the lighting grid.
If you get a chance to see one of Ohlook’s late-night shows, do it. Bring your own beer/wine, and get ready to yell and laugh and maybe even get some stage blood on you especially if you’re in the “splatter zone.”
Ohlook is definitely having its Jerry Springer moment. And, like that still-running TV show, it looks to have a long run.