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Capsule Reviews

Our critic weighs in on local theater

 Mister Roberts It's hard keeping those crisp navy whites cleaned and pressed when you're on a "can" of a cargo ship called the USS Reluctant, somewhere in the South Pacific during the waning days of World War II, out of harm's way. The Reluctant is delivering needed supplies, but its crew, under the thumb of a by-the-book martinet of a commander, is bored and itching for action. Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan's 1948 Tony Award-winner (Best Play, Actor, Direction) arrives at the port of Country Playhouse more rusted than necessary, probably because the captain was relieved of duty two days before opening night, and his role is now played by director Steve Carpentier. Choppy seas ahead! This change of command has put a pall over the production -- there's a tentative quality throughout, with noticeable hesitations in tempo and line readings. The large cast is game, though, and there's little doubt that by the end of the run, the crew will be nicely shipshape. Nelson Heggen's Mister Roberts, one of the sailors aching to see action before war's end, is stalwart and quietly commanding in an American sort of way. Heggen can slide down the ship's ladder with the devil-may-care attitude of Errol Flynn in Seahawk. Thomas Blanton's Ensign Pulver (the role that catapulted Jack Lemmon to stardom) is a big lecherous kid, out to do as little work as possible, unless it involves sweet-talking navy nurses. Carpentier's captain is suitably gruff, pompous and jealous of Roberts's popularity with the crew. And as Doc, Joe Floyd manages to portray reserve and levelheadedness during all the ship's shenanigans while slyly hinting that he knows more than he lets on. The crew of misfits is ably mismatched, and the camaraderie of men at war is convincingly portrayed. Through July 16. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

The Phantom of the Opera This British import has been savaged, accused of contributing to the demise of Broadway with its empty spectacle and phenomenal success. But the touring rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1988 Tony Award-winning superproduction should put that canard to rest once and for all. In fact, it's just the type of show Broadway needs. Melodious, clever and opulent beyond belief, it's a wonderful blend of the spangly showmanship of Flo Ziegfeld with the visual panache of Cecil B. DeMille. The dark romance, based upon the B-grade 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux, is a variant of Beauty and the Beast, with Beauty being the aspiring opera singer Christine, who falls under the erotic spell of the Beast, here the psychotic yet talented Phantom, who lives in the subterranean caverns beneath the opera house he haunts. When he doesn't get what he wants (i.e., Christine), he goes batty and starts killing stagehands and dropping chandeliers. In production designer Maria Bjornson's rich settings and lavish costumes, there are massive swags with equally massive tassels, a fireball-spitting staff, fields of candles that rise from the dank mists, an elephant, a corps of ballerinas right out of Degas, an ornate pump organ, a gilt- and cherub-encrusted proscenium arch, blinding sparks and, of course, that naughty chandelier that goes bump in irritating slo-mo. The cast for this Broadway in Houston production features many veterans of former runs, so we're in capable, musically sound hands; these vets know which way to run when the complicated stage pictures of master showbiz magician/director Harold Prince start rising, falling or moving sideways. Sir Webber's lush, Puccini-inspired score is lyrically evergreen in this hearing, thanks to Gary Mauer's dangerous, sexy Phantom; Elizabeth Southard's inquisitive, not-too-innocent Christine (Southard alternates in the role with Marie Danvers); Michael Shawn Lewis's robust male ingénue; Patti Davidson-Gorbea's mysterious all-in-black ballet mistress who knows where the skeletons are buried; and Kim Stengel's pompous opera diva. Phantom is a classic musical, and all its glories are on eye-popping display this month. Go see for yourself what all the shouting's been about. Through July 31. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 801 Bagby, 713-629-3700.

The Tale of the Allergist's Wife Consider Theater LaB's sparkling rendition of Charles Busch's Tale of the Allergist's Wife an early Christmas present. You'll kick yourself if you miss it. This literate, witty and sexy comedy has playwright Busch going mainstream, after decades of gay camp classics including Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommy, Die. If you're familiar with Busch's work as both writer and drag actor, you weren't surprised by all the breathless acclaim he's gotten lately -- or his Tony Award nomination for Best Play in 2001. Marjorie (Terri Carter), married for more than 30 years, is in a midlife rut. Hell, she's in a chasm. Depressed and taking out her frustrations on the Disney megastore by smashing pricey figurines, she's "curious, yes; profound, no!" Marjorie is hungry for life's meaning but thinks she's of limited intellect. Her loving husband (Mike Lovell), an allergist, is worried, but more concerned with his exalted position among his devoted students. Marjorie's Jewish yenta mom, Frieda (Dorothy Edwards), whose primary concern is undergoing yet another colonoscopy -- her third in six months -- just wants her to buck up. "Go, do volunteer work, make yourself useful," she crows while apotheosizing her bowel movements. Marjorie is pushed out of her lethargy -- they all are -- by the magical appearance of her childhood friend Lee (Josephine John), whose sophisticated yet sinister fairy godmother changes everything. The laughs are nonstop, even when the conversation turns to Marjorie's beloved German novelist, Hermann Hesse, and the deeper significance of Siddhartha. Sex, of course, is the great liberator, bringing morning-after guilt along with wonderful repercussions. Carter is splendid as out-of-sorts Marjorie, as is Edwards as Frieda, but it's John who centers the show with her sleek elegance and name-dropping and her panther sultriness. Lee is the great enigma, the girl who's both good and bad, seductive and creepy -- and John portrays her magnificently. Through July 30. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.

 
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