Summer Stock Austin's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying succeeds on the infectious energy of every member of its enthusiastic cast

My high school drama teacher had a unique approach to watching plays. It wasn't the leads he focused on but rather those of us relegated to background roles. You could be portraying a dialogue-less set-piece, but if you broke character for even a second, he'd catch you. While attending Summer Stock Austin's production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, I decided to apply his method.

During the opening ensemble number, my eyes scanned the chorus, stopping at a performer situated so far stage right that I had to crane my neck to see him. This young man, on tiptoe with his body contorted mid-dance move, stood frozen with Zenlike stillness. Silently marveling at this supporting player's dedication (and balance), I realized what my former teacher was getting at.

An intensive musical theatre program for high school and college thespians, Summer Stock Austin marries enthusiasm and experience. Students work alongside theatre professionals and university faculty to mount three productions in three weeks, then run them in rep for three more. The first to open this summer is How to Succeed, which follows quick-witted window washer J. Pierrepont Finch on his way up the corporate ladder. It's a classic story about dreaming big and reaching goals – and it's the enthusiasm of this production, exemplified here by one dedicated chorus boy, that hammers these themes home.

A passionate ensemble is often a telling reflection of the time and effort put into a show. In that regard, this How to Succeed displays elbow grease from nearly everyone involved. Between the intricate visual gags staged by director and SSA co-founder Ginger Morris, and the blocking of choreographers Taylor Edward and Sara Burke enlivening every corner of Ia Ensterä's sprawling set, nothing sells this sendup of Sixties extravagance more than the actors leaving it all onstage.

Feeding off the ensemble's infectious energy are predominantly college-aged leads. In the role of upstart Finch, Ithaca College sophomore Tristen Tierney displays a wide-eyed pep that's grounded by the headstrong portrayal of love interest Rosemary by rising Oklahoma City University junior Maddie Reese. Meanwhile, as boorish boss J.B. Bigley and his outrageous mistress, Hedy La Rue, Texas State University senior Holden Fox and Arizona State University junior Greta Perlmutter aptly navigate the sexist satire of an oft problematic script with tongue-in-cheek comedic chops.

Despite Morris' best efforts to rein in the cast's fervor, How to Succeed's roller-coaster pace is vulnerable to dialogue slip-ups; momentarily missed tech cues can noticeably throw off this speedy tempo. Furthermore, actors occasionally come across like they're performing in a bubble, treating performances as personal auditions – something most evident when actors talk over one another, more focused on delivering their own lines than creating an organic exchange.

These flaws, however, can mostly be forgiven, for they're the side effects of a raw excitement that makes Summer Stock Austin's How to Succeed a fitting selection for this cast and crew. The combined vigor of the leads and chorus members ensures the world of big business feels as daunting and spry as ever. This shared gusto bolsters the production's main takeaway: In the professional world (as on the stage), a little heart and moxie goes a long way.

As the vim established in Act I's chorus number spilled into Act II and continued through the climax, I couldn't help but think back to my former teacher's eye for detail. Sometimes it takes a high school chorus member balancing on his tiptoes, far from where one could reasonably expect an audience's eyes to roam, to prove to the old cliche: There are no small parts, only small actors.

-Trey Gutierrez

Summer Stock Austin's Rob1n: This new musical brings Sherwood Forest's noble outlaw to our time with a message of togetherness

"Juntos! Together!"

That cry is heard again and again in Rob1n, the musical update of everyone's favorite outlaw archer, and it's a big part of what makes this Summer Stock Austin show hit the bull's-eye on your heart. Along with making the bow-wielding Hood into a 21st century Latina, creators Damon Brown and Allen Robertsonhave expanded her mission from redistributing wealth to building community. In every encounter, this Robin stresses the importance of looking out for each other and the value of collaboration. She can't turn away from someone in need because she knows that when people come together, when they act as neighbors, when they join forces, they can accomplish anything, no matter how unlikely – like, say, "liberating" $20 million from the vaults of a certain Big Pharma tycoon.

See, in this modern-day reinvention of the medieval legend, King John has become Joan King, CEO of King Pharmaceuticals and a figure only Martin Shkreli could love. She's pushing her board on a plan to take the drug her company can produce for only a dollar a pill and jack up the price to several hundred dollars per – way beyond what someone like the mom of Robin's new friend Midge could pay. Joan never tries to disguise her disdain for the poor people who couldn't afford the drug – or all poor people, frankly. As played by Lily Myatt, Joan wears her contempt for the indigent like a pair of Manolo Blahnik alligator pumps – with pride. Indeed, on top of the whole price-gouging thing, she's plotting to lay off scores of her low-income workers and, once they can't pay rent on the housing she owns, turn them out into the streets.

Robin being Robin, she's determined to stop Joan and aid the needy, but she won't do it alone. To get what she has in mind, Robin knows she'll need her crew – "Juntos! Together!" – and she sets about assembling a latter-day spin on the Merry Men: the Rev. Tuck, a preacher with a knack for hacking; John Little, the country-boy muscle; all-purpose backup duo Alanna and Scarlett; and young Midge, whose mad skills behind the wheel make her another Baby Driver. (As the precocious getaway artist, Mariela Denson proves as wise and funny beyond her years as she did playing the elf Mel in last summer's A Shoe Story.)

In any telling of the Robin Hood tale, we love to see the outlaws take down the King and his brutish Sheriff, but our delight in that is magnified here because Robertson and Brown have recast their mission as a modern heist, replete with red-carpet gala penetration, air-duct infiltration, high-tech security deactivation, and glitch-in-the-plan improvisation. The creators have a grand time playing with all the genre's tropes and giving their youthful cast some choice comedy – comedy, it's worth noting, that pays off best when the actors work as a team. (Juntos! Together!)

Every step of the way, Rob1n finds ways to reiterate its message of togetherness. Robin's stop at the Rev. Tuck's church comes as he's preaching a sermon on being a good neighbor (a sermon in song, delivered by Vincent Hooper with a gospel fervor that inspires). A trip to the forest to show Robin's ex Marian (an appealing Donalvan Thigpen) the fate of the poor people affected by his sister Joan's cruel policies winds up with a joyous salsa-fueled dance affirming the virtues of fraternidad, hermandad, communidad – a theme we can see in the way everyone onstage moves together. (Sara Burke provides the exuberant choreography.) The message is even audible in the harmonies of Robin, Alanna, and Scarlett as they try to persuade a reluctant John Little to sign on for the heist; their way to the heart of the big man (Keaton Pugh, giving John an IQ slightly below that of his wooden staff) is a Southern-fried tune right off the Dixie Chicks menu, with the women's voices weaving magically together like those of the Sirens of myth.

As in previous Robertson-Brown musicals for Summer Stock, Robertson also handles the direction, and there's staging here as playful as the script and score. In the archery contest between Robin and the Sheriff, arrows fly, but in the hands of performers who shuffle, slide, and moonwalk them to the targets across the stage. For a car chase, colored suitcases manipulated by actors represent the fast and the furious autos. They're delightful theatrical illusions created in the spirit of the story: through collaboration. And while our Robin here is as charismatic as any Hood should be – Savanna Cole is as sharp as an arrow's tip, and her aim is true – she doesn't position herself as leader. She's all about the team, the neighborhood, the community. And oh, how that makes this Robin the hero we need right now.

-Robert Faires

Trinity Adams wows as Annie Oakley for Summer Stock Austin

August 3, 2017  

Only two Austin theatrical performances this year have sent me into the streets singing, nay, shouting the praises of a performer. Both are relative newcomers to the scene, but if there’s any justice, they won’t ever become strangers.

The first was Chanel‘s profoundly inspired take on Billie Holiday in Zach Theatre‘s “Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill.” How many times I’ve turned over in my memory her point-on patter, unvarnished vulnerability, ravishing voice and total embrace of the audience.

The second was Trinity Adams as Annie Oakley in Summer Stuck Austin‘s “Annie Get Your Gun,” currently running at the Long Center. Just 17, Adams is an award-winning actor who recently graduated from Dripping Springs High School.

Hey, Dripping, do you know what ya got in this gal?

The minute Adams bounded onto the stage at the Rollins Studio Theatre, the room just expanded exponentially to take in her radiance. Not that everything she did in the Irving Berlin classic was big and grand, no, she electrified the audience with slightest grin or aside.

As my theater companion, Suzie Harriman, pointed out, she’s like Broadway star Sutton Foster. No matter where she is in director Scott Thompson‘s stage-filling production — you won’t believe how well these kids dance! — your eyes are drawn to Adams.

She was capably complemented by Max Corney and a host of other troupers. Almost all of them also appear in “Spamalot,” a wonderfully cute Summer Stock musical directed by Ginger Morris. In that show, I was particularly taken with Lydia Kam, Ben Roberts, Michael Morran, Coy Branscum and Matthew Kennedy.

But why kid? All the the Summer Stock players are talented. Adams, however, at this precious theatrical moment, shines like the brightest stars in the heavens.