The cello concealed the small frame of 9-year-old Catherine Li of Katy as she forcefully pulled the instrument’s bow back and forth against the strings, not quite hitting the notes but nonetheless commanding attention like a concert cellist. Catherine was one of countless children who showed up Sunday afternoon at Jones Hall for the Performing Arts during the 25th annual Theater District Open House.
Catherine plays the violin a little but was eager to try her hand at the bigger instrument during the “instrument petting zoo” as her mother, Dong, 46, smiled on. Catherine and her mother, along with dad, Yun, 48, and brother, Andrew, 16, only have come to visit Jones Hall during the annual open house.
“We do enjoy the Houston Symphony as a community event,” Dong Li said about the family watching the orchestra perform at Cinco Ranch High School. “I at least plan to come during the holiday season for ‘The Nutcracker.’”
The Lis were among scores of families, couples and individuals walking through Downtown Houston’s Theater District in balmy 91-degree weather as live music reverberated from Jones Plaza. Those drawn to the events managed to escape the rain, unlike last year when Hurricane Harvey forced cancellation.
“If we can develop the habit for Houstonians to go see theater and participate in the arts, then that’s good for all of us. Getting people used to coming down here and seeing shows and have an experience, actually introducing them to all the possibilities,” said Kyle Young, Theater Under the Stars marketing and communications director.
At Jones Hall, audio engineer Ryan Samuelsen found a practical purpose for the event. Since the Houston Symphony is off in August, this allowed Samuelsen to ensure the equipment is running smoothly for the upcoming season’s shows.
“It’s kind of a trial for all the gear,” Samuelsen said. “Is everything still working after not being here for a month?”
Several feet away at the Alley Theatre, visitors did a self-guided backstage tour of the renovations the theater’s basement underwent following $22 million worth of damage from Harvey. The hurricane destroyed 84,000 props or 93 percent of the company’s prop inventory, according to Alley properties master Karin Rabe
In a nod to the theater overcoming the floods, the tour featured a wall painted deep blue using Astros’s yellow and orange colors to show how much water inundated the basement.
Sunday’s five-hour event served as a return for two companies that perform at the Wortham Theater Center, which has undergone reconstruction after it too was inundated.
“We’re just so excited to be back” at the Wortham, Houston Grand Opera soprano Dorothy Gal said before singing an aria for visitors. “It’s amazing just feeling the energy here. It feels like opera is alive again in the building. … It’s just been a wonderful time back here.”
Filling in as Clara, the young heroine of “The Nutcracker,” Houston Ballet performer McKhayla Pettingill was decked out in a gold-colored period dress as she sat at a red velvet-like throne and had photos snapped with eager kids. Pettingill, a corps ballet dancer, echoed Gal’s sentiments on returning.
“It feels really good to be back in the Wortham,” Pettingill said. “I missed it a lot. It feels like coming back home.”
About three blocks southwest at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, TUTS singer Simone Gundy, closed out a multiple-act show with a rendition of ABBA’s “Winner Takes It All” to cheers and applause from the audience as a disco ball lit up the auditorium. Students from Humphreys School of Musical Theatre ran out into the audience, handing out glow sticks. The half-hour show was an advance for TUTS’ upcoming 50th season, which includes “Mamma Mia” and five other musicals.