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Capsule Reviews

Our critics weigh in on local theater

 The Bad Seed Meet little Miss Rhoda Penmark (Katerina Pasat), an eight-year-old so neat, clean and tidy, she's every mother's dream. She charms with sweetness and composure and has perfect penmanship. But when she isn't rewarded with her school's coveted medal, she takes matters into her own dainty -- yet deadly -- hands. There are hints that this might not be the first time darling Rhoda has resorted to unsavory tactics when she doesn't get what she wants. Maxwell Anderson's 1954 psychological thriller, adapted from William March's phenomenally successful book, overplays the creaky theme of heredity versus environment, but it's a genuine crowd-pleaser on stage. There's nothing so satisfying as watching a sweet little girl commit multiple murders and then act as if there's nothing wrong in the world. Rhoda's mother faces the shocking avalanche of facts with mounting consternation and incredulity, and in a finely detailed performance, Malinda Dunlop plays her to the hilt. Pasat certainly has "creepy" down pat, and her psychotic stares are wonderfully chilling, but Rhoda's duplicitous charms and smiles unfortunately are played down. Theatre Southwest's loving, chilling, stylish production conjures up the rich look of '50s Hollywood cinematography. Through March 12. 8944-A Clarckcrest, 713-661-9505.

I Sing! The angsty twentysomethings who populate I Sing! are as youthfully narcissistic as they come. The young New Yorkers manage to fill up two hours of song and dance on the tiny stage at Theater LaB by singing about their own sorry love problems. Those include all the usual suspects: the dreaded question of sexual orientation, the icky feeling of loving your best friend's girl, the fellow who's too bone-headed to know a good thing when he's got it. Of course, everyone's heart breaks -- just a little bit -- at some point. But for all the characters' musical hand-wringing, the show by Sam Forman, Benjamin Salka and Eli Bolin (who went to college together) says nothing original about the rocky road to love. Still, the young cast at Theater LaB leaps and frolics about the stage with hardworking, earnest glee. And they uncover some fresh moments in this otherwise too-familiar landscape. Especially good is Josh Wright, who plays Alan, the young Hebrew teacher who falls in love with Heidi. Tall and thin, the young actor beams with infectious joy every time he steps on stage. Beth Hempen's Heidi is also appealing. Her face fills up with rich and surprisingly moving emotion when she sings. On the down side, at multiple moments the young cast members push their voices beyond the comfort range, often reaching the breaking point, which does nothing for the already thin music. But even with its flaws, I Sing! -- directed and choreographed by Linda Phenix with more dancing than this show needs -- is a pleasant confection. And though the story trots dutifully over a well-worn path, it moves so lightly, it just might appeal to anyone wrapped up in the sweet pain of new love. Through March 6. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.

Les Misťrables On its latest national tour, this blockbuster megamusical adapted from Victor Hugo's classic novel displays both remarkable staying power and enduring appeal. It's been slightly pared down from the gargantuan production seen for almost two decades on Broadway (and still playing in London), but everything's in sync: the finely detailed ensemble cast, co-directors John Caird's and Trevor Nunn's fluid pacing, designer John Napier's revolving stage and barricades, and, most important, Claude-Michel Schonberg's soaring, emotive pop-operatic anthems, which perfectly capture the soul of this ultra-romantic/ultra-earthy tale. Swirling underneath the story of thief Jean Valjean (Randal Keith) and his ultimate redemption is a bold denunciation of 19th-century French social ills. The criminal justice system, represented by the stolid Inspector Javert (Robert Hunt), who hounds Valjean through the decades, is corrupt and unduly harsh. Among the downtrodden are a prostitute (Tonya Dixon), her illegitimate daughter (Leslie Henstock), a young revolutionary (Adam Jacobs) and a street urchin (Melissa Lyons). Hugo's great theme that "to love another person is to see the face of God" is trumpeted in affecting arch-romantic music that, if sung in Italian, might pass for Puccini. It works like gangbusters in the context of the universal struggle of the hopeless. A juggernaut of contemporary musical theater in all its grandeur, Les Mis will not disappoint, and may even enlighten. Through March 6 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-629-3700.

Martha Graham Dance Company After a two-year hiatus due to a nasty lawsuit, Martha Graham Dance Company returned to the stage with full force and fresh faces. The Society for the Performing Arts-presented program, jam-packed with Graham classics, featured works dating from 1936 to 1958, all of which demonstrate Graham's mastery of the architecture of emotion and her keen sense of the body's lines. Sketches from Chronicle (1936), Graham's lament on war, is the most powerful. The opening section, "Spectre-1914," demonstrates her famous ability to extend the body with fabric. Soloist Elizabeth Auclair exuded a larger-than-life quality as she swirled her tremendous skirt. The 17 statuesque women in clingy black dresses with twisted arms and contracted spines set a solemn mood, crossing the stage in a dirgelike, stilted walk that spoke of longing and loss. Diversion of Angels showcases Graham's light side. Free of the usual angst, Diversion explores the innocence of love through bold strokes of color that represent different aspects of love. Katherine Crockett danced the "woman in white" with a royal elegance; Virginie Mecene gave ample fire to the "woman in red"; and Yuko Suzuki spent most of her time playfully airborne as the "woman in yellow." Errand into the Maze (1947), danced with precision and passion by Alessandra Prosperi and Christophe Jeannot, retells the Greek myth of Ariadne and the Minotaur. A spare but effective set by Isamu Noguchi framed the dance with intensity. Embattled Garden (1958), which examines the life of Lilith, Adam's first wife, featured another set by Noguchi. Brightly colored and surreal, it nicely complemented Graham's economy of movement.

 
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