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Grease and The Maiden's Prayer

Little girls love Grease. Apparently, so do a lot of grown-up girls and boys. The crowds for Theatre Under the Stars' production of the musical have been enormous. Even the hill at Miller Outdoor Theatre has been overflowing. Hot as it is, the production is worth the crowds, sweat and even the mosquitoes.

The energy of this cast leaps across the stage and into the muggy night, sweeping everyone along in its path. The high school love story of Sandy (Danette Holden) and Danny (Sean McDermott) is as curious as ever. The opposites who fell into summer love find each other again, but this time they're in the middle of hormone hell, otherwise known as the school cafeteria. He's in black leather; she's in saddle oxfords.

Danny tries to impress Sandy by joining the track team. Sandy impresses Danny by wearing spandex. Along the way they sing terrifically fun music with their great voices.

But the real stars of this show are in the supporting cast. Angela Pupello's version of the tough girl Rizzo is the most powerful performance. When Pupello puts her gorgeous voice into "There Are Worse Things I Could Do," it is the highlight of the night. Pupello can dance, too, and she's as beautiful as anyone who has ever shimmied into the tight-fitting clothes of the easy, red-lipped Rizzo.

Kerri Jill Garbis as Jan, one of the goofy girl gang members in Pink Ladies, glows with energy. And Steven Ward's Teen Angel, who sings "Beauty School Dropout," is dreamy as the angel with the good advice. Carolyn Houston Boone makes a lot fun out of her tiny role as Miss Lynch, the dried-up old school teacher who struts around with a ruler ready to rap knuckles.

Directed and choreographed by Michael Tapley, the cast is charming. The show is the finest family theater offered anywhere thus far this summer. And best of all, it's free!Houston's newest theater company, Unhinged Productions, has cannonballed onto the city's arts scene with a hit. Nicky Silver's The Maiden's Prayer, about the hideously hilarious sadness of unrequited love, is the first full production coming from Chris Jimmerson's homeless gay and lesbian theater company.

Though the script has an especially troubled second act, The Maiden's Prayer is rich with Silver's sardonic comedy. The story centers on four people who find themselves in various triangles of love. It starts with Cynthia (Deborah Hope) and Taylor's (Brady Smith) wedding. But what should be a champagne day is only foot-stomping misery for the bride's sister Libby (Anne Quakenbush), who burns with unrequited love for Taylor. And the worst part is that it was Libby who introduced Cynthia to the handsome blond groom.

As soon as the wedding march ends, Libby wrestles her ridiculous purple bridesmaid dress (designed with gleeful irony by Matthew Bartkowiak) onto the patio so that she can swig booze and rage at the wedding's injustice. "Everyone's feigning ignorance of the destruction in the air," shouts Libby.

Paul (Paul Nicely), the only other person on the patio, is in mourning, too. Paul, it turns out, is gay and infatuated with the groom, whom he has known since childhood.

Libby wails to Paul, who's just a stranger to her. She is the high-maintenance, lovable drunk who can't be ignored, and Quakenbush finds in this character a wonderfully befuddled and funny sweetness. Libby insists on wearing her heart on her sleeve, even when it rips her up inside. And she knows that "not all depressive, self-destructive, phobic urges are unhealthy."

Cynthia is a cold fish who manages to get her digs in the old-fashioned girly way; she's passive-aggressiveness personified. She finds Libby on the patio and gets her back by telling Paul that Libby "buys buttons" for a living.

"I buy closure for J. Crew," whines Libby, "buttons and zippers andŠ buttons," she says, slouching down in her chair.

These are sisters with a long and heated history. One of the strongest aspects of this production is the energy between Hope's cool, reserved Cynthia and Quakenbush's firecracker Libby. Love is hard, no matter what kind it is.

Nicely's Paul is calm, witty and wise, and becomes fast friends with Libby. He knows "people fall in love with their idea of who people are." But Paul's so in love with who he thinks Taylor is that he can't love anyone else.

All this makes perfect sense until the second act, when the play takes a strange and confusing detour into serious drama. It mutates into a mushy melodrama about death and destruction. Libby becomes a prostitute (button buyer is so much funnier), a very bad thing happens to Cynthia and Taylor, and poor Paul becomes nothing more than a sounding board for Taylor's overwrought angst.

The actors hold up this mess as best they can, but with all the weeping and chest-beating and fists flailing the floor, not much can be done.

Still, the first part of the play is pretty terrific, pointing to a very hopeful beginning for the new company.

Grease runs through July 24 at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 100 Concert Drive, Hermann Park, (713)284-8350. Free.

The Maiden's Prayer runs through August 8 at Stages Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, (713)52-STAGE. $21 - $30.

 
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