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The Best Local Musical Theater

Who knew that the only locally produced, professional musical theater was staged in Irving? Steven Jones’ Lyric Stage theater company aims to correct this ignorance.
By Glenn Arbery |
EN GARDE: To paraphrase Al Pacino in Heat, Jones’ animus keeps him sharp, on the edge, where he needs to be.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Back in September of last year, Steven Jones’ Lyric Stage produced one of the best musicals ever performed in Dallas, a production of Carousel that will be ranked as the standard for anything that follows it. Everything about it was superb, from the 40-piece orchestra conducted by Jay Dias to the principal actors and singers directed by Cheryl Denson. Seasoned critics wept in their seats at the sheer beauty of it.

The hitch, as anybody with a nose to look down can tell you, is that it wasn’t in Dallas at all. It was in Irving. So Lyric Stage is—what?—a community theater out there? Some collection of wannabes doing Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland? Who would name a child, much less a whole city, Irving? The very name, to paraphrase Keats, is like a dork, a nerd, a schlemiel. Irving. Can anything good come out of Irving? This is to forget, as it is sometimes convenient to do, that Texas Stadium, still the home of the Dallas Cowboys, happens to be in Irving. The University of Dallas, whose intellectual superiority to SMU and UTD in anything relating to the Western tradition is so evident as to be laughable (of course, I teach there), sits across Loop 12 from Texas Stadium—that is to say, in Irving. Unquestionably, Lyric Stage is in Irving and of Irving. It has tied its fortunes to the Irving Arts Center on MacArthur Boulevard from its beginning in 1993. But it is not for Irving alone.

Yet Dallas does not know it, even though Lyric Stage has tried valiantly to get the city’s attention, including staging a one-night production of Sweeney Todd at the Meyerson in 2006. But Dallas Summer Musicals [cue ominous music] distracts the city’s attention. Mention Dallas Summer Musicals or its head, Michael Jenkins, to Steven Jones, and you see the definition of “high dudgeon” enacted before you. Since last summer, Jones has been telling the story of how an ad for Lyric’s 2007–2008 season that he placed in the Playbill for Monty Python’s Spamalot, one of last year’s Dallas Summer Musicals, strangely disappeared. Elaine Liner blogged about it on the Dallas Observer’s Unfair Park back in late June. Jones still had his umbrage on call when I  spoke to him in early December about his show this month, They’re Playing Our Song—which we never quite got to.

He and Jay Dias went to see Spamalot, and, thumbing through the Playbill, Dias discovered where the Lyric Stage ad had been cut out of the program. “The ad was printed, and they cut the thing out of the book!” Jones cries in comic outrage. “The show hadn’t started yet, so I went over house right and walked down and there was a box of them down there, and I just opened them and pulled them out to see—and they hadn’t cut those yet! So I got a whole big handful of the ones with the ad in the Playbill.” So who would do that? It had to be a labor-intensive process to get it out—and was Playbill footing the bill for that? As Liner put it in June, that’s “more than 70,000 issues that had to have surgery performed on them, one by one.”

Michael Jenkins flatly denies it. “That was totally with Playbill,” he told me. “They deliver them and we pass them out.” When I reminded him of what Steven Jones said about finding the uncut programs, he responded, “Steven says a lot of things.” Just as I was getting off the phone, he added, “Dallas Summer Musicals had absolutely nothing to do with that.”

A quarrel about an ad sounds fairly petty in itself, but for Jones, it obviously taps into a deeper rancor. For Jones, Dallas Summer Musicals today has great resources, but little merit. “It’s road shows, it’s national tours”—big budgets, high ticket costs, no local talent. To put it as mildly as possible, he does not care for Michael Jenkins. One wonders whether, in his mind, Jenkins might have cut out the ad because he envies the artistic respectability of Lyric Stage.

Maybe what drives Jones is simply being the underdog, but it seems to go deeper still. There’s a fierce edge evident in him, a combination of the Baptist morality he was brought up in—he still sings in the church choir—and the business ethics that keep him from ever letting his theater go into the red. Unlike many theaters in the area, Lyric Stage does not divide duties between an artistic director and a managing director. One person is listed on the contacts page of their website: Founding Producer Steven Jones. That’s because he cuts out the cost of having a staff and hires helpers on an ad hoc basis. He is Lyric Stage. He lived for years in a small apartment off Lovers Lane, not even taking a salary but supporting himself by leading Broadway tours for student groups in the summer.

He actually had a professional option. “I’m a non-practicing dentist,” he says, not laughing (so hold the Little Shop of Horrors jokes). His other degree from Baylor is in business. At one point in his life, he thought he was coming back to Dallas to start a dental practice. Instead, after a few years of singing in productions in New York and up and down the East Coast, he started Lyric Stage very close to MacArthur High School, from which he graduated. In Irving.

He prides himself on being able, not just to stay afloat, but to put on lavish productions like the sold-out performances of Carousel, on which he actually made a little money, counting the contributions from the National Endowment for the Arts. When the city of Irving cut back his annual appropriation a couple of years back, he was furious—but he responded by cutting his own costs and making do. He knows his audience, but more important, he shares their tastes. “One of the things they love is that they know they can come here and not be embarrassed,” he says. Some productions push the envelope; he specifically mentions the language in last year’s world premiere, The Winner, about Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1948 senatorial campaign against Coke Stevenson. He came out before every show to warn the audience about it.

“I don’t want to produce a show ever that you couldn’t bring somebody—anybody—with you and not be comfortable to sit there and watch it. So many companies are ‘How far out can we go, how far can we push that button?’ Well, why? Most of the stuff is garbage, and just because every other word is a four-letter word—it’s just bad writing. Enough is enough.” But sometimes there’s a moral arbiter even more exacting than he is. “We’ve produced a few things—A Little Night Music. My mom had a fit over A Little Night Music. I was like, what?”

Ultimately, his animus comes down to the matter of local recognition. A playwright he met in New York told him that he had wanted to meet Jones for years because at the Manhattan Theatre Club, he had heard Lyric Stage was a good place to send new musicals. “We have much more of a reputation in New York City than in Dallas. In the late ’90s or 2000, we had a patron in New York City at Colony Records, and Dallas came up in the conversation with the person behind the counter. ‘Oh, Dallas,’ this person said, ‘you’ve got Lyric Stage.’ ” Not, you notice, “You’ve got Dallas Summer Musicals.”

He wants Dallas to understand what Lyric Stage is. “We’re doing with our large-scale shows what Tom Hughes used to do with Dallas Summer Musicals back in the ’70s: a locally produced season, which hasn’t happened since the mid-’80s,” Jones says. “It’s easy to get here, it’s easy to park, there are comfortable performance spaces—and it’s a bargain.”

Still, suppose everything goes south. Suppose Jones has to dust off his dental credentials and start a practice. Suppose that one day, a certain somebody who doesn’t recognize him comes in, sits down in his chair, leans back. The sharp, stainless-steel implements glisten temptingly.

But wait, wait. That’s Sweeney Todd.

For info on They’re Playing Our Song, see the sidebar on this page. Glenn Arbery is a senior editor at People Newspapers and a contributing editor to D Magazine. Write to [email protected].

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