Underground Houston

TRAVEL FEATURE by Willard Manus

HOUSTON, TEXAS -- Houston doesn't give up its secrets easily. While many of its assets are obvious, such as its tubular skyscrapers, NASA-run Space Center, domed ballparks, Galleria shopping mall, Texas Medical Center (birthplace of the heart transplant), innumerable golf courses, bars and steak houses, some attractions are off the main radar, even hidden from view.

Some of this has to do with the hot, muggy weather, which discourages office employees from going outside during the day. Eating and shopping are all done underground, in the network of climate-controlled pedestrian tunnels which have been built everywhere downtown. These elaborate tunnels connect to the corporate, civic and arts centers of this huge, sprawling city (the fourth largest--and fastest-growing--city in the USA) and are without doubt a worthy tourist attraction.

Trolleys, busses and a new MetroRail line also make accessible many of Houston's other less-obvious attractions, such as its museums, many of which (Fine Arts, Menil Collection, Contemporary Arts) are world-class, thanks to the philanthropy of the oil community. The Museum District also plays home to several small, "boutique" museums like The Rothko and the Byzantine Chapel, places of beauty, peace and repose.

Houston's Theater District is also thriving, home to such outstanding performing arts organizations as the Alley Theatre, Houston Grand Opera and Houston Symphony. At the Wortham Theater Center--every bit as grand and glittering as L.A.'s Chandler Pavilion--I caught a performance of Houston Ballet's LA FILLE MAL GARDEE (or It's Only a Short Step From Bad to Good). One of the oldest ballet librettos in history--it was created in 1789 for a theater in Bordeaux--it was for many years a modern staple at London's Covent Garden, with choreography by the late Frederick Ashton and lead dancing by Alexander Grant. Grant, now in his 80s, was on hand to oversee Houston's revival of LA FILLE, which is a charming, comic tale about Lise, a rebellious young girl (Sara Webb) who refuses to marry the rich oaf (Dominic Walsh) her parents have picked out for her, preferring instead the poor but handsome Colas (Simon Ball).

Webb is not only a gifted dancer but an expressive actor; thus, she was easily able to convey Lise's teenage feistiness and impetuousness. Webb filled the stage with her athleticism and musicality, not only making dazzling leaps and runs but delivering the tricky footwork Ashton always demanded of his lead dancers. Webb is a star, no doubt of it, a prima ballerina who will no doubt go on to achieve world fame. (Visit www.houstonballet.org)

The next night, for a change of pace, I caught a production of THE COMPLETE WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (ABRIDGED) at Houston's leading African-American theatre, the Ensemble, Written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield (who first performed the show in northern California twenty years ago), the Shakespeare spoof starred Keith Caldwell, Alvaro Saar Rios and Henry Edwards, a multi-ethnic cast with a gift for comedy--especially low comedy of the Mel Brooks/Monty Python kind. Their parodies and burlesques of Titus Andronicus, Othello and Hamlet were a hoot.(713-520-0055)

While in Houston, I also had the chance to sample some of the city's finer hotels, including The Derek, a new, coolly elegant establishment, The Houstonian Hotel & Spa, memorable for its luxury, service and facilities, The Hilton America, within walking distance of Toyota Center and the George R. Brown Convention Center, and The Courtyard at Marriott, once the home of the Humble Oil Co. and now a landmark attraction (and right across the street from famed Foley's Department Store).