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The Performing Arts

For fans of the performing arts, Houston is fertile ground. Few cities in the country can equal it in the quality of its resident orchestra, opera, ballet, and theater companies. In addition, there are several organizations that bring talented artists and companies here from around the country and the world, presenting everything from Broadway shows to Argentine tango groups to string quartets. Tickets aren't usually discounted for the opera, ballet, or symphony, but you should ask anyway. For information about performances, visit www.houston-guide.com or the websites of the various organizations listed below.

The symphony, the ballet, the opera, and the Alley Theatre (the city's largest and oldest theater company) all hold their performances in the theater district downtown. The opera and the ballet share the Wortham Center, 500 Texas Ave. (tel. 713/237-1439); the symphony plays a block away at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St. (tel. 713/227-3974); and the Alley Theatre is one of those rare companies that actually owns its own theater, located at 615 Texas Ave. (tel. 713/228-8421), cater-cornered from the symphony. Also in the theater district is Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby (tel. 713/315-2400), which is shared by the Society for Performing Arts and Theater Under the Stars.

The Society for the Performing Arts (SPA), 615 Louisiana St. (box office tel. 713/227-4772; www.spahouston.org), is a nonprofit organization that brings to Houston distinguished dance companies, jazz bands, theater productions, and soloists. Within SPA, there's a program called the Broadway Series, which brings popular productions from Broadway and London's West End. The organization uses Jones Hall, the Wortham Center, and the Hobby Center.

Following are brief descriptions of the principal organizations; there are many more, especially independent theater companies that present several plays a year.

Classical Music, Opera & Ballet -- The Houston Symphony (tel. 713/224-7575; www.houstonsymphony.org) is the city's oldest performing arts organization. Its season is from September to May, during which it holds about 100 concerts in Jones Hall. The classical series usually contains a number of newer compositions with visits by several guest conductors and soloists from around the world. There is also a pops series and a chamber music series, which often holds its performances at Rice University.

Da Camera of Houston (tel. 713/524-5050; www.dacamera.com) brings classical and jazz chamber music orchestras to the city and holds concerts either at the Wortham or in the lobby of the Menil Collection. You can buy tickets from the box office at 1427 Branard St. in the Montrose area.

The nationally acclaimed Houston Grand Opera is the fifth-largest opera company in the United States. Known for being innovative and premiering new operas such as Nixon in China, its productions of classical works are brilliant visual affairs. The opera season is from October to May. For tickets and information go to the Wortham Center box office at 550 Prairie St. during regular business hours, or buy online at www.houstongrandopera.org.

The Houston Ballet (tel. 713/227-2787; www.houstonballet.org) has garnered enormous critical acclaim from across the country. A lot of the credit belongs to director Ben Stevenson, who came to Houston more than 25 years ago under the condition that the company create its own school to teach dance as Stevenson believed it should be taught. This school, the Houston Ballet Academy, now supplies the company with 90% of its dancers, and its graduates dance in many other top ballet companies. The company tours a great deal but manages around 80 performances a year at the Wortham Center in Houston. You can buy tickets over the phone or at their website.

Theater -- The Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. (tel. 713/228-8421; www.alleytheatre.org), has won many awards for its productions. Its home holds a large theater and an arena theater, and during the year the company uses both to stage about 10 different productions, ranging from Shakespeare to Stoppard and even a musical or two. Ask about half-price tickets for sale the day of the show for weekday and Sunday performances. Pay-what-you-can days are sometimes offered, but you have to show up in person to buy the tickets. Box office hours are Monday through Saturday from 10am to 6:30pm and Sunday from noon to 6:30pm.

Theatre Under The Stars, 800 Bagby (tel. 713/558-8887; www.tuts.org), specializes in musicals that it either brings to town or produces itself, averaging 200 performances annually. The organization got its name from having first worked at Miller Outdoor Theater in Hermann Park. It uses the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.

The Ensemble Theatre, 3335 Main St. (tel. 713/520-0055; www.ensemblehouston.com), is the city's largest black theater company. Founded in 1976, the Ensemble has grown from a band of strolling players into a resident professional company of 40 actors and eight directors. Their specialty is African-American and experimental theater.

The Club & Music Scene

Having a night on the town in Houston doesn't require a lot of planning, but pick up a copy of the Houston Press, the free weekly that you can find at many restaurants and shops. It provides a good rundown of what musical and comedy acts are in town, and it includes a lot of advertising from the clubs. There's also the daily paper, the Chronicle, which has a well-organized entertainment section, and a pullout published on Thursdays. If you want to know what's going on in the clubs before you get to Houston, try their websites, www.houstonpress.com and www.chron.com.

In general, the most popular locations for nightspots are the following: downtown, around the theater district and Old Market Square; in the Montrose area; and south of the Galleria along Richmond Avenue (called the Richmond Strip). There are enough clubs in these places that you can move from one to another quickly and easily until you find something you like.

Megaclubs -- In the theater district in downtown Houston, a developer has converted the old convention center into a complex of restaurants, clubs, bars, and a movie theater. It's called Bayou Place (tel. 713/227-0957) and is located at 500 Texas Ave. It houses the Verizon Wireless Theater, which usually has live rock or jazz acts or comedy (tel. 713/230-1666; www.verizonwirelesstheater.com); the Hard Rock Cafe (tel. 713/227-1392), with some live acts on the weekends; and Slick Willie's (tel. 713/225-1277), a billiards club. Also, there are a few video and dance bars with canned music that are very popular with a younger crowd. The movie theater is called Angelika Film Center and Café (tel. 713/225-5232), which is a popular place to hang out in the evening before going clubbing or to a concert.

Rock -- One of the best venues for catching live rock acts is the old Houston institution known as Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak (tel. 713/862-3838). It occupies an old Polish dance hall near the Heights neighborhood and gets talented local and touring bands. Look for their advertisement in the Houston Press to see who's playing while you're in town and to check ticket prices.

For alternative rock acts in a suitably grungy place, go to the Engine Room (tel. 713/654-7846). It's in the southeast part of downtown at 1515 Pease near the intersection with La Branch. This club gets a mostly 20-something clientele, which comes to hear bands that are as far away from pop as they can get.

Jazz -- To hear some jazz, your best bet is one of two club/restaurants downtown that are fairly similar and close by each other. If you're not wild about the band at one, you can walk over to the other. The more formal and expensive one is in the old Rice Hotel and is called Sambuca Jazz Café, 909 Texas Ave. (tel. 713/224-5299). It gets a dressed-up crowd and lines up some talented bands. The Red Cat Jazz Café is at 924 Congress (tel. 713/226-7870), 3 blocks away. I heard a great band here playing interesting arrangements of bebop standards. Both cafes require a minimum consumption depending on the night of the week and which band is playing.

Another option is to check out some swing band music at Scott Gertner's Skybar (tel. 713/520-9688) in the Montrose area. It's on the top floor of a 10-story building at the corner of Montrose and Hawthorne at 3400 Montrose Blvd. There are often guest bands playing other varieties of jazz. The club has a dance floor and a rooftop terrace with a great view.

Blues -- Try the Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club, 5731 Kirby Dr. (tel. 713/523-9999), in the Rice Village. This club lines up a lot of local blues talent that is uncommonly good, as well as touring zydeco acts. The clientele is a real mix of everything from yuppies to bikers. Admission can be anywhere between $5 and $15, depending upon the act.

Folk & Acoustic -- Anderson Fair, 2007 Grant (tel. 713/528-8576), is the place to play if you're a folk singer. The club is a survivor from the 1960s, and looks every bit the product of its age. In its many years it has nurtured several folk artists who went on to become big names in folk, including Nancy Griffith. That it opens only Fridays and Saturdays only adds to its aura of counterculture. People of all ages hang out here, though there are a lot of former hippies. It's located a block off Montrose, behind the Montrose Art Supply building.

Another folk and bluegrass institution in Houston is McGonigel's Mucky Duck (tel. 713/528-5999). It offers pub grub and burgers, wine and beer, and live music every night (except Sun, when it's closed). Wednesday Irish jam sessions are free, as are Mondays. The club is at 2425 Norfolk, near Kirby Drive where it intersects the Southwest Freeway.

Country & Western -- Blanco's (tel. 713/439-0072) is a Texas-style honky-tonk that packs 'em in Mondays through Fridays, attracting all sorts, from River Oaks types to tool pushers. Lots of good Texas bands like to play here, so it's a good opportunity to see a well-known band in a small venue. There's a midsize dance floor. Monday through Wednesday is open-mic night, usually with one or another local band. Thursday and Friday offer live music, and the club is closed on Saturdays for private parties. It's located at 3406 W. Alabama, between Kirby Drive and Buffalo Speedway. When there's live music, the cover ranges from $5 to $15.

The Bar Scene

La Carafe, 813 Congress (tel. 713/229-9399), has been around for ages, and the small two-story brick building it occupies, even longer. In fact, it is the oldest commercial building in the city and sits slightly askew on a tiny lot facing Old Market Square. Its jukebox is something of a relic, too, with the most eclectic mix possible and some obscure choices. The clientele is mostly older downtowners who were here before the resurgence, office types, in-line skaters, and reporters from the Chronicle. For sheer character, no place can beat it.

Another bar with a unique flavor is Marfreless, 2006 Peden (tel. 713/528-0083). This is the darkest bar I've ever been in. The background music is always classical, and the ambience is understated. Little alcoves here and there are considered romantic. The only trouble is finding the bar itself. It's in the River Oaks Shopping Center on West Gray. If you stand facing the River Oaks Theater, walk left and then make a right into the parking lot. Look for an unmarked door under a metal stairway.

Gay & Lesbian Nightlife

Most of Houston's gay nightlife centers on the Montrose area, where you'll find more than a dozen gay bars and clubs mostly along lower Westheimer Road and Pacific Street. For current news, pick up a copy of Houston Voice.

For a large and popular dance club, go to Rich's, 2401 San Jacinto (tel. 713/759-9606), in the downtown area. Rich's gets a mixed crowd that's mostly gay men and women. It's noted for its lights and decorations and a large dance floor with a mezzanine level. It's very popular on Saturdays. For something more low-key, try EJ's, 2517 Ralph (tel. 713/527-9071), in the Montrose area. It's just north of the 2500 block of Westheimer. Gay men of all ages come for drinks and perhaps a game of pool. There's also a dance floor, and a small stage for the occasional drag show.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.