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Capsule Reviews

Our critics weigh in on local theater

 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.

Spider's Web The opening of Spider's Web is classic Agatha Christie. Through the stately windows of a proper English drawing room, we can see that it's a dark and stormy night. At center stage is a blindfolded man. Surely something nefarious is under way. But the evil lurking in the Alley Theatre's charmed production of this comic whodunit remains a mystery till the nail-biting end. This is a thriller in which twists and turns abound. Only one thing's for certain: Clarissa Hailsham-Brown (Elizabeth Heflin), the pretty redhead at the center of this story, is absolutely not the killer. The plot follows Clarissa's evening as the police try to find the murderer. There's lots of delightful clowning involving a dead body, thanks to the very funny Jeffrey Bean, Ty Mayberry and John Tyson. In fact, as directed by Gregory Boyd, the entire cast is immensely likable. Heflin, who is positively glowing these days, is especially lovely as the supremely mischievous and good-natured Clarissa. Philip Lehl plays the only obviously malevolent character with all the oily ease of a hungry shark. James Belcher is good at looking naughty. And in her plaid pinafore, Lauren Opper makes a perfect English schoolgirl. Agatha Christie's Spider's Web is terribly long by today's standards. All three acts, including two intermissions, take three hours to complete; the show's a regular theatrical marathon. What a wonder it is, then, that the Alley's production of the classic mystery is so delightfully persuasive that audience members (many of whom were children on opening night) stay pinned to the edges of their seats until the surprising end. Through July 31. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

Unhinged, Uncut and Uncensored The Houston playwrights responsible for Unhinged Productions' summer fest of short GLBT plays surely had the best of intentions. But that doesn't mean anyone should create a play out of routine, scatological TV-sketch gags, as does Christopher Lewis in The Bump, a play about a sad-sack who discovers a sore on his penis and wanly fantasizes during his visit to the doctor. Nor is a play with nebulously written characters a good idea; in Lisa Bunse's Starbucked, two former lesbian lovers talk around their affair using "cream" and "coffee" as euphemisms and more pregnant pauses than Pinter himself. Also to be avoided is barbless political satire -- witness Fernando Dovalina's Land of the Free, a futuristic, blandly unfunny satire about what'll happen if the Marriage Amendment passes nationwide. The remaining three plays work better but suffer from speedy windups, extraneous padding and unreal characters. Terms and Conditions by Steve Stewart is fun, thanks to a frisky performance by Julia Traber, who can turn an ordinary "hello" into a sarcastic put-down worthy of Eve Arden. Traber is the butch lover of femme Natalie (Nicki Thomas). They both want babies from Natalie's incredulous former boyfriend (Alan Heckner), who ultimately balks. Wine and Wafers by Ed Vela is polished, structurally adroit and the most consistently acted, telling the story of Catholic teen Norman (Phillip Hays), who comes out to his devout dad (John Stevens) and young sassy brother (Al Falik) during communion. Dad is thoroughly sympathetic to Norman's confession, but the play's softly dramatic power is unnecessarily sapped by the clergy's shenanigans in the confessionals. Blanche Davidian by Joey Berner has the most promise and the quirkiest premise. The Man (Alan Heckner), a palooka living in some remote rural region, purchases a mail-order bride. Who should arrive but a whiny drag queen (Glen Lambert) who could give bitch lessons to both Bette and Joan. The vibrant, comic culture clash cries out for a second act. Through August 7. Midtown Art Center, 3414 La Branch, 713-899-0468.

 
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