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Capsule Reviews

Our critics weigh in on local theater

Black CoffeeAgatha Christie's classic murder mystery Black Coffee gets off and running when a crotchety rich old man is murdered with a poisoned cup of coffee. Suspects abound. There's the beautiful, platinum-haired Lucia Amory (Robin Terry). There's sweet old spinster Miss Caroline Amory (a wonderfully loopy Bettye Fitzpatrick), who's taken a few too many sips from the "vitamin" bottle, as she calls it. And then there's Richard Armory (Philip Lehl), the old man's creepy, desperate-for-money son. These and others skulking around the dinner party are all prime targets for Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (James Black). Only Poirot can untangle the murderous mess, which he does by the end of the night, despite the bumblings of his amusingly thick-headed sidekick, Captain Arthur Hastings, O.B.E. (Todd Waite). The two men make a funny pair, and Black, an Alley favorite, enjoys playing the pasty-faced Belgian detective who wears his jet-black hair combed back and his thin mustache curled. Poirot's flair for melodrama is supported by John Ambrosone's lush lighting, which gives the whole production the feel of an old '30s film. And Gregory Boyd has directed the old show with wit and energy, so that by Act III the production all but frolics. Act I is slowed down by too much exposition, but once the show gets rolling, the charms of the Alley company take over and make this mystery a lot of fun to solve. Through July 18. 615 Texas Ave., 713-228-8421.

ChessWith music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (the two male B's from the Swedish pop sensation ABBA) and lyrics by Tim Rice (Evita, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast), this cold war-inspired musical about a world chess championship match has gone down in Broadway annals as one of the great stinkers, on par with Moose Murders and Vampire Chronicles. Chess was a concept album long before it was a show, and it spawned two hit singles, "One Night in Bangkok" and "I Know Him So Well." In 1986, the "rock opera" opened in London and played for three years. Drastically overhauled for the New York premiere, the show opened in April 1988 and closed three months later after being almost unanimously panned and losing $6 million. It was an epic disaster with a heavy-handed, convoluted plot; eardrum-rupturing amplification; dumb, gargantuan scenic effects; and a running time of over three hours. But in its present incarnation at Masquerade Theatre, Chess is an unqualified success. Stripped of all its empty excess and spectacle, this minimalist production allows the show to shine bright and clear. The cast is superb, the singing splendid and the drama clean and slickly directed by Phillip Duggins. And the score has many beauties, rendered with full pop wailing and dramatic surety by the sterling cast: Rebekah Dahl, Luther Chakurian, Ilich Guardiola, Alex Stutler, Jennifer McCoy-Miller, Stephanie Bradow, Chad Knesek and Russell Freeman. Once considered a dog, this original musical has gotten itself a pedigree. Through August 8. 1537 N. Shepherd, 713-861-7045.

Life Beyond the LoopThat loony Fertle family is on hiatus until September, so instead you'll just have to content yourself with Radio Music Theatre's hilarious parody Life Beyond the Loop. The show is as bracing as a headfirst dunk into a bucket of ice water. Here, the superb comic trio (author Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills -- with sound- and music-effects wizards Mark Cain and Pat Southard) takes us to Houston-area planned community Precious Trees and proceeds to shake out enough nuts to feed the elephants at the zoo. Among the numerous topical items and persons expertly lambasted: our new accident-prone Metro, the unstoppable developer Tilman Fertitta, the nudie bar/restaurant Kajankers, George and Barbara Bush, the sleazy televangelist Jiffy Dillman and the incompetent Spy Eye News, with its consumer advocate Damuel Madd ("I'm Dam Madd"). There's a plot -- there's always a good plot at RMT's three-ring circus -- but it's only an excuse for timely gags, razor-sharp timing and brilliant song parodies. And let's not forget the Margaret Mueller Miller Mitchell...something, something...Pavilion, the "instant damnation" of Al Franken, Uncle Dan's insane furniture commercials and the dessert of choice at Precious Trees: pudding! Through August 28. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

The Sound of MusicThe last collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein turned into their most crowd-pleasing hit ever. Written as a shameless vehicle for Broadway superstar Mary Martin, this 1959 musical about an Austrian nun-turned-governess, her brood and her romance with their father -- which takes place as the Nazis are invading -- draws audiences like flies. All the high spots of the fabled R&H music machine are in place at Masquerade Theatre: the young virginal heroine, the older autocrat, the ready-made family, the older and wiser earth-mother figure, the syrupy lyrics (what the hell is "a lark learning to pray"?), those beguiling and lilting waltzes, the hymnlike anthems. Of course, that's all this show ever was, highlights -- there's nothing in between. It's best not to stand in the way of this "family musical" juggernaut, and the folks at Masquerade just move aside and let those who can't get enough of perky Maria and her cuddly Von Trapp septet have their bliss. If you're one of the many relatives of the adorable seven children (14, if you count both Blue and Green casts), you'll love this rendition. With her Broadway-belter voice and an assured stage presence, Monica Passley turns oldest daughter Leisl into a real character (no small feat in this sketchy book). While there's no chemistry between Laura Gray's Maria and Luther Chakurian's Georg (not that there's any in the script, either), he still manages to wring the utmost pathos out of the show's ode to Austria, "Edelweiss." A word of caution to Gray: Cute and perky as you are as Maria, if you keep standing pigeon-toed to indicate childlike innocence, you may get stuck in that position. Knock it off. Through August 8. 1637 N. Shepherd, 713-861-7045.

 
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