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Capsule Reviews

Our critic weighs in on local theater

 Bombay Dreams Set inside Bombay's thriving Hindu film industry (bigger than Hollywood and just as pervasive), this new hit musical has irrepressible charm, an exotic locale and a fresh and haunting score (by India's celebrated A.R. Rahman, whose gargantuan Lord of the Rings is wending its international way toward Broadway). There's Broadway sass, Indian dissonances, a social conscience, a lavish swirling production, the best touring cast you could imagine, percussion musicians in the side boxes drumming their hearts out, and a circular fountain that spurts real water. But for all its exotic novelty and raffish charm, the musical's inventive creators have given us the oldest story ever told. Talented slum boy Akaash (Sachin Bhatt), one of the Untouchables, the lowest of the low in caste-happy India, dreams of a Bollywood career. Denying his family, his friends and his own sense of self, he's seduced by the glamour, sex and power of the movies and becomes India's new young star. When his boyhood friend Sweetie (Aneesh Sheth), one of Bombay's revered, but reviled, transgenders, uncovers a dastardly plot to raze the slums, Akaash is slapped awake from his dissolute, selfish life and saves the day for all concerned. The story is so predictable, we can plot out the reversals and the surprises two scenes before they happen. This glaring flaw would be enough to doom any other production, but while the story line lulls us to sleep, the marvelous cast and those distinctive, propulsive songs work overtime to keep us awake and entertained. The musical works in spite of itself, and it is definitely worth a look-see. Through June 4. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-315-2525.

The Chalk Garden Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden is an old-fashioned English yarn about a governess with a dark secret who's hired by an eccentric grandmother (Jeannette Clift George) to care for a smart-mouthed, teenage granddaughter (Kacy Smith). After many scenes that involve a wacky houseman (Chip Simmons) and lots of metaphorical chitchat about how to care for the dying garden outside, it becomes clear that the governess (Cyndi Scarr Crittenden) is just what the strange family needs. Not only does she know a thing or two about flowers, she clearly knows how to tame a wild girl. The garden starts to grow, the adolescent becomes more civil, and the grandmother finds a friend. In fact, everything is going splendidly until one fateful afternoon when an old judge (David Parker) comes for lunch and tells the story of a young woman he once condemned to death for murder. All hell breaks loose! Secrets come to light! Emotions run high! It's easy enough to tell where the story is headed, but the fun is in the journey. Unfortunately, A.D. Players' production is marred by the performance of its star player, George. On opening night, the elderly actress, who is a charming performer and a still frankly beautiful woman, did fine through the first act. But by the middle of Act II, she was clearly getting tired. And by Act III, a stagehand was feeding her her lines. The show would have gone more smoothly had she simply carried a script. Because George shines with such natural charisma, it is difficult to watch and even more difficult to report her troubled performance. But when a theater charges $30 a ticket, the actors should know their lines. Through June 4. Grace Theater, 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721.

Hotter than Houston St. Peter doesn't know what to do with Stan Wetzel. Stan's not bad enough for hell, but he's certainly not worthy of heaven. There aren't enough stars for good deeds tallied on St. Pete's celestial tote board. Not yet, anyway. "Can't I go to that middle place?" Stan pleads. To earn his wings, he's transported to -- where else? -- the center of Montrose in 1977, with $50 and a Greensheet. Pete gives him his orders: Be a force for positive change, or the pearly gates will be forever closed. So begins Radio Music Theatre's zany summer production, one of its "infertle" musical comedies, in which the patented goofball family from Dumpster, Texas, does not appear. Instead, the company's inspired acting trio (Steve Farrell, who's also the playwright, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills) introduce us to a whole new galaxy of loonies, hucksters, shysters and clueless folks, as Stan's quest leads him through Houston's recent history of boom, bust and reboom. Barbara Bush and former mayor Kathy Whitmire make appearances, as does con man deluxe Aldine Bender. There's also Jake and Lunabelle, who live deep inside one of our streets' numerous potholes; a forever hopeful -- and scary -- duo in yellow rain hats who wait for the appearance of the bus; and Uncle Dan, the crappy-furniture salesman who advertises the "scoot and shoot," the ultimate recliner fitted with firearms. Steve Farrell's songs keep the laughs coming; among the best are the bus-stop anthem "The Bus Is Gonna Come," the correspondence-school-doctors' ditty "Can We Trust Him If He Survives?" and the toe-tapping "Who Took the Boom Out of Boomtown?" If we have to relive the hell of Houston's past, this is the way to do it. Through September 2. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

Johnny Guitar, The Musical Send yourself to summer camp a little early by heading to Theater LaB for this extremely funny musical adaptation of Nicholas Ray's 1954 film-noir western. The cult film was pretty much a parody to begin with, considering its subtext of womanly homoeroticism out on the range, its overheated dialogue and its inclusion of Joan Crawford in skintight jeans, acting more butch than the guys. New creators Nicholas van Hoogstraren (book) and Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins (music and lyrics) have taken the extant screenplay almost word for word, tossed in some '50s-type songs and created their own camp classic. Right from the start, as tumbleweed is pulled across the stage, we can sit back, relax and laugh ourselves silly. The hilarity continues with the show's cartoon cutout set design by Boris Kaplun, no-holds-barred performances, wonderfully goofy costuming (uncredited) and deft staging from director-choreographer Jimmy Phillips. The folks at Theater LaB deliver the goods -- and then some. Carolyn Johnson plays tough saloon owner Vienna, the gender-bending thorn in the townsfolk's side, with enough of Mommie Dearest's grand mannerisms and eyebrows to make you look twice. Mary Hooper, as rival Emma, who so hates Vienna that there's got to be more going on underneath that calico dress than even she lets on, belts out her songs and straps on her six-shooter with manly bravado. Jonathan McVay, as Johnny Guitar, Vienna's real love and former gunslinger, plays it cool, sings it hot and wears his own tight-fitting jeans; while Alex Stutler, as Johnny's rival the Dancin' Kid, is all burly posturing, with a lovely baritone to back it up. The sheriff and his posse of doo-wop singers, who keep popping up from behind the set, are nimbly handled by Craig Boucher, Josh Wright, John Berno and Luke Marsh. There's not a straight shooter in the house, and we wouldn't have it any other way. Through June 10. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.

South Pacific Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein and Josh Logan's 1949 musical based on the WWII stories of James Michener is, perhaps, the most perfect musical. Since its premiere, the splendid score ("Some Enchanted Evening," "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame," "I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair," "Bali Ha'i") has become engrained in our very culture; but seeing the show live, especially in Masquerade Theatre's powerful and affecting production, brings out its sonic, literary beauties with fresh appreciation. If you have a soft spot for originals Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, rest assured that Kristin Hanka (hick nurse Nellie Forbush) and John Gremillion (sophisticated, mysterious French planter Emile de Becque) soar with their own special magic, as do all the other multifaceted characters (native and military) on this unnamed island in the south Pacific. Gremillion, though not in the same vocal league as legendary Pinza with his operatic basso profundo, is the right age to connect with Nellie, and their on-again/off-again love affair is much more believable. (The very mature Pinza paired with the dewy Martin always seemed a little creepy.) Especially appealing are Stephanie Bradow as that ultracapitalist Bloody Mary, who pimps out her daughter to Lieutenant Cable (a charming Braden Hunt), and Russell Freeman as scheming Seabee Luther Billis. The seductive qualities inherent in this R&H classic are much in evidence and supply a welcoming "enchanted evening" in the theater. Through June 4. Zilkha Hall, Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-315-2525.

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