Bruce Willis easily played the easy-going host — funny, how the role suited him — for several hundred high-paying theatergoers Wednesday night at the Wyly Theatre’s opening gala, the first of several galas this week at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. Audience members included Mayor Tom Leppert, Jerry Jones and the architects themselves, Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus. Willis extolled their “technologically — ah, technically un-comprehensible” new theater and introduced the performers.
The Wyly was set up in its most conventional layout (proscenium) and because there was amplified music all night, the performers were miked (except, at one point, hip-hop theater artist Will Power). So it was hard to determine what the acoustics would be like for a typical Dallas Theater Center performance. When Will Power eventually ditched the headset mike that had slipped off repeatedly during his very physical set, he delivered a touching, funny rap about his grandmother’s feet — electronically unaided. He could certainly be heard, but then he was chanting/singing, not simply speaking.
In one respect, the theater’s acoustics are a little too clear. Because of the lack of sound-softening carpeting and because of the hard-edged steel and concrete surfaces everywhere, anytime an audience member dropped a purse (bang) or a program (thud) or kicked a champagne flute (crash – crash – crash), it sounded as loud as a gunshot. Willis commented on this after intermission when a metallic clang from one part of the balcony led him to ask if any theatergoers were working out up there. It sounded as though we were “clanking iron.”
If there was a star of the evening, it was Broadway regular and SMU grad Debra Monk (above), who played Mrs. Elva Miller in James Lapine’s New York-bound comedy, Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing. Mrs. Miller was a one-joke novelty singing act in 1966, when Capitol Records released an album of this sunny, clueless, church-choir lady attempting to apply her best operatic trills to a number of pop hits like “These Boots Are Made for Walking” and “A Hard Day’s Night.” To give you some idea of the middle-aged housewife vs. the go-go-booted, hipster humor of the period: Garry Owens, the future Laugh-In announcer, used Mrs. Miller’s singing for promos on his KPMC station. Needless to say,celebrity status took Mrs. Miller by surprise, and part of the joke was that she never appeared to be in on the joke. She didn’t realize singing styles — indeed, the entire culture — had undergone a tectonic shift, but she seemingly approached all the trappings of stardom (look, there’s Mr. Ed Sullivan) with happy naivete.
Monk can most certainly sing — she’s been doing it ever since Pump Boys and Dinettes — but whenever Mrs. Miller got caught up (or lagged far behind) the spirit of the times, Monk would uncork a funny, soaring, vibrating head voice that sounded like Margaret Dumont being goosed.
Lapine’s song-filled play was reduced to only one act for tthe gala evening. But Monk returned in the second half to sing (straight-facedly) with Hollywood composer Alan Menken for a couple of numbers from Little Shop of Horrors, Menkin’s first big hit show. Menken was the evening finale. He’s a little bit like Elton John: He’s written so many blockbuster Disney-flavored Oscar-winners that his music has become the very air around us. He was an effortless, crowd-pleasing jukebox as he went through The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Pocahontas, finishing with a number from his musical version of A Christmas Carol — which prompted a full-cast singalong, including a candlelit walk-on from the Greater Dallas Children’s Chorus.