Youth isn't the only thing wasted on the young. So is excellence. Children in this city have no idea how good they have it with the reliably excellent shows at the Coterie Theatre. Kids aren't discriminating. They watch any old crap and like it, as long as it's entertaining. But Jeff Church, the Coterie's longtime producing artistic director, consistently mounts high-quality content with brilliance, hoisting kids' cultural standards without their even realizing it.
Take Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, the Coterie's holiday show. Based on Judith Viorst's best-selling classic, the musical version is set to a jazzy score by renowned musical director Shelly Markham and features book and lyrics written by Viorst herself. Originally, it was commissioned by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It has been staged hundreds of times since its 1989 debut, though possibly never with the exceptional style and pizzazz of this production.
Jordan Janota comes out punchy in his professional set-design debut, with a stunning, primary-colors-bright, pow-zap-zoinks backdrop that looks like Roy Lichtenstein zoomed in 1,000 percent on a color copier. Kids don't know Lichtenstein from Frankenstein, but they know awesome when it whacks them in the cornea. While the adults admire the pop-art shout-out, their offspring get giggly every time the set jumps a dimension, via sproing-out elements and hidden doors. The exaggerated angles of Janota's roll-out furniture further spin the vertigo. Ron Megee's fantastic props increase the fun, most comically with the lunatic dentist's nightmarishly oversized instruments.
Director Missy Koonce has imported two of her principals — half the cast — from the Unicorn Theatre's fabulous [title of show]: KC Comeaux in the title role and Jessalyn Kincaid as his mother. Comeaux excels at woebegone, utilizing his slight build and floppy limbs to portray the frustrated 6-year-old Alexander, whose bad day starts with gum in the hair and spirals downward to lima beans. It's hard to deliver sulk with animation, but Comeaux compensates with sprightly physical humor and makes the most of his antihero's moments of impishness.
The multitalented Kincaid doesn't get to stretch as Alexander's wryly sympathetic mother but makes a fine straight woman to Martin Buchanan's broad supporting characters, sneaking laughs with Mom's well-meaning cluelessness.
Koonce expertly drives the show's speedy pace with whiz-bang energy. Her blocking gets across the antic, fidgety energy of children, but it's her razzle-dazzle choreography that keeps the audience agog, especially an all-out routine on "Shoes" that brings down the house — adults because of the Chorus Line reference, shorties because it's magnificent entertainment.
Emily Shackelford, Steven Eubank, Francisco Villegas and Price Messick are suitably goofy as Alexander's siblings and schoolmates, but the hardworking Buchanan puts the show in his pocket and steals it away clean. He should be pelted at curtain call with bouquets of kudos for his meticulously detailed portrayals of an entire handful of demented adults. Particularly inspired are the cheerfully sinister dentist and a soft-shoeing shoe salesman whose radiant inner life is manifest in just one gracefully zany dance. All his characters — even decent, workaday Dad — sport spikes of mild madness and an underbelly of pathos, crosshatchings probably lost on youngsters but richly appreciated by grown-ups.
Indeed, accompanying minors isn't necessary to attend Alexander. Anyone, especially Viorst fans, will enjoy this exuberant, entertaining, not-a-boring-minute, excellent show.
Alexander's day is nothing compared with the one suffered by Norma, the eponymous heroine of Vincenzo Bellini's quintessential bel canto opera, which just completed its widely praised run at the Lyric Theatre. Soprano Brenda Harris was incendiary as the Druid high priestess who sacrifices everything for love.
In one of the most technically demanding roles in the opera canon, a supple-voiced Harris showed absolute focus. She hit her many daunting high notes with great expressiveness — luxuriant diminuendos and breathtaking trills — and seemingly little effort. Harris' take on "Casta Diva," Norma's best-known aria, was exemplary, if a trifle measured, but in the second act she shone. A phenomenal actress and singer, Harris let her voice turn molten as Norma chose her fate. An evocative sylvan setting and lighting effects helped set the otherworldly mood, as did sensitive orchestral support under Lyric Opera Artistic Director and Conductor Ward Holmquist.
Holmquist took a risk on this notoriously thorny work (never before tackled at the Lyric) and created the most transcendent moments onstage so far this season.
With two popular, lighthearted comedies — Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro — ushering in the spring season, the Lyric Opera is set to waltz out of its old home and into the minty new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. But, for now, Norma's dark, ravishing music and Harris' searing voice will carry us through winter.