Jason Moran said it best, right before he let his nimble fingers do the rest of the talking with an evocative medley Wednesday at Miller Outdoor Theatre: “In this moment of rebuilding, we can count on artists to show us the way.”
The Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist came home to join virtuosic artists from all seven of Theater District Houston’s resident companies for a historic, cathartic show that demonstrated inspired resilience, honored local heroes and raised funds for the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.
Such a confab is unlikely ever to happen again.
The Alley Theatre, Da Camera, Houston Ballet, Houston Grand Opera, Houston Symphony, Society for the Performing Arts and Theatre Under The Stars plan their programs years in advance. Their all-volunteer “Houston Strong” show gelled as something of a miracle, in a few weeks, at a time when all of the companies are dealing with the significant venue and revenue losses and scrambling to reconfigure their tattered seasons.
Against a shared backdrop that evoked a night sky full of glittering stars, the performers looked and sounded as beautifully diverse as the city they represent. A marvelous, collaborative orchestra made up of artists from the symphony and the orchestras of the ballet and opera held the show together musically. Patrick Summers and Ermanno Florio took turns at the podium. Everyone involved – performers, costumers, stagehands and company staff – donated their time and talent, with the support of their various unions.
Every element of the show gave Houstonians another reason to feel Houston proud.
Moran wasn’t the only superstar who came from afar to help: Soprano Ana María Martínez, a Houston opera favorite, opened the night with a soulful “La Patenera,” and former Houston Symphony concertmaster Frank Huang led the strings in “Summer” from Astor Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.”
Among the powerful solo voices: Josie de Guzman’s impassioned, bilingual narration of Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait,” with the symphony; Michelle Elaine’s stirring monologue from August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean; Vonzell Solomon’s powerful “Hero,” from “Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight” and Charlotte Maltby’s strong “Hold On” from “The Secret Garden.” (Solomon and Maltby shared the stage with students from the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre.)
The dancing bodies made wordless magic: Houston Ballet’s excerpt from George Balanchine’s white tutu-fest “Symphony in C” was delightfully pure and elegant, and the seemingly weightless Nozomi Ijima and Chun Wai Chan were paired divinely in a pas de six from Stanton Welch’s stylized “Powder.”
Society for the Performing Arts brought in four terrific up-and-comers from Ailey II, the junior company of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Their spirited turn in the gospel classic “Wade in the Water” stirred up a whole new energy in the wake of Harvey.Classical fires burned brightly when pianist Sarah Rothenberg and the Harlem Quartet stoked every note of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major and super talents from the opera studio delivered a bracing “Brindisi” from “La Traviata.” Emotions surged as the combined orchestra lit up Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” during a video montage of Hurricane Harvey scenes.
The night just brought one wave after another, for more than two hours. The first act played to a packed house; and for Miller, it was an unusually well-behaved and respectful crowd. (No kiddos running amuck down the aisles.)
Not just tooting their own horns, the company directors presented plaques to four local heroes for their work during the storm. They recognized artist Paul Middendorf, who organized rescues and set up the Houston Rescue Clinic; El Bolillo bakery owner Kirk Michaelis, whose stranded staff baked thousands of loves of bread for people in need (and is still providing it); KHOU reporter Brandi Smith, who saved a truck driver’s life by flagging down a Harris County Sheriff’s boat crew in the middle of a broadcast; and Axelrad bar owner Adam Brackman, who helped rescue dozens of people from floodwaters.
Emcees Debra Duncan (belting an impromptu bar or two) and Khambrel Marshall kept the tone upbeat.
Those who left before the second act missed Moran, Huang, the Ailey dancers and an ending that didn’t leave a dry eye. The opera returned, in force, with the uplifting “Make Our Garden Grow” from Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.” Then many of the performers returned to the stage to lead the audience in “God Bless America.”
Their message: We’re all in this together. Voices rose all the way to the top of the hill.