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Capsule Reviews

Our critics weigh in on local theater

Black ComedyThe Alley Theatre's Summer Chills season is supposed to provide Houstonians breezy, easy shows that will distract us from the dreadful Gulf Coast heat. Happily, that's exactly what Peter Shaffer's Black Comedydoes. An English farce written in the '60s, the amusing popsicle of a one-act features a bumbling young artist with one too many girlfriends, who gets in trouble one night when the power goes out just when he's about to present his work to a famous collector. The plot gets even wackier when his silly neighbors show up along with his both his girlfriends and one angry father. The fact that all this happens in the dark -- because, of course, there is no power -- only makes the night more ridiculous. Director Gregory Boyd uses a convention called Chinese darkness in which the characters can be seen by the audience but not by each other. Watching them fumble about the stage, nearly missing each other as they go about trying to make their way through the evening, is laugh-out-loud funny. The cast is a delight, with Jeffrey Bean, Paul Hope and Annalee Jefferies standing out as the kookiest of all the characters (Jefferies is a scream as an old biddy neighbor who guzzles down one too many glasses of gin). And while Black Comedy is not the kind of powerhouse, life-altering theater that the Alley does during the regular season, that's perfectly okay. Summer is supposed to be fun. Through August 6. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

Brooklyn the Musical Though it might come as a surprise to all you pop-culture snobs out there, one of the best things about Brooklyn the Musical, which ran last week at Miller Outdoor Theatre courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars, was Diana DeGarmo, ex-American Idol finalist. This girl has some mighty pipes, and even better, she has all the charisma it takes to carry a Broadway bonanza. As the title character Brooklyn, DeGarmo was as beautiful to look at as she was astonishing to listen to. And with a little help from director Jeff Calhoun, the girl showed off her acting ability, which was impressive. Written by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson, the musical tells a "fairy tale" about a singer who travels to New York searching for her long-lost father. Once she arrives, she becomes the next big sensation. Unfortunately, not everyone is thrilled with the young woman's success. As the evil diva Paradice, Tony Award-winning Melba Moore held up her end of the show and delivered a wonderfully brassy bad girl. When Brooklyn and Paradice entered into a contest á la American Idol, in which they let the people decide who was going to win all the big contracts, Moore and DeGarmo brought down the house. And while there was a little too much trilling and pop-sounding silliness in some of the delivery (not to mention one unfortunate extended high note from Moore), the overall effect was thrilling. It was clear to most everyone in the audience that they were in the presence of some big talent.

Little Shop of Horrors Audrey II, the man-eating plant from Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's Little Shop of Horrors is back at her carnivorous adventures. Brought to Houston this summer by Masquerade Theatre (running on alternate nights with You're a Good Man Charlie Brown), the energetic musical, especially in this incarnation, is a zippy little treat of a show. It features everything from a sadistic, motorcycle-riding dentist to a girl-band chorus of "street urchins," who all come together on "skid row" where a lonely guy named Seymour (Braden Hunt) works in a broken-down flower shop. Owned by Mr. Muschnik (David Higginbotham), the flower shop is losing money fast, until the day that Seymour puts an exotic plant in the shop window. The plant that Seymour names Audrey II (after Audrey I, the girl he secretly loves) brings the shop so much attention that Muschnik starts making money hand over fist. Trouble is, Audrey II grows only when Seymour feeds it blood, lots and lots of blood. When folks starts showing up dead, the plot and Audrey II just grow wilder and wilder. For those who have seen Horrors, the biggest difference between this production and many others produced in Houston over the past few years is the enthusiasm cast director Phillip Duggins has put together. Each performer belts out the tunes with joy, and the group handles Kristin Hanka's chipper choreography with gleeful feet. The musical makes for a good family outing that even adults will likely enjoy. Through July 29 at Zilkha Hall in the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713315-2525.

Smoke on the Mountain The highly entertaining and sweetly sentimental Smoke on the Mountain may be A.D. Players' best show of the season. Connie Ray and Alan Bailey's charming musical takes the audience back to the '30s, when bluegrass gospel was in its heyday. The show opens on Reverend Oglethorpe (Kevin Dean), the young pastor of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina. It's Saturday night, and he has asked the Sanders Family Singers to grace his flock with a night of joyful music praising the Lord. Only trouble is, the singing group is late. Nervously eyeballing the door, Oglethorpe kills time by preaching a bit, telling us all that God "scratches where the world itches." Turns out a little preaching is all that's needed, for soon enough the entertainment shows up. And after recovering from a little bus accident, they fill up the stage with some of the best bluegrass you're likely to hear anywhere in town this summer. Guitars, a stand-up base, a washboard, a mandolin, a cow bell -- you name it, the Sanders family knows how to play it. It's even fun to hear the testifying each family member does between songs. The cast features some lovely singers, including Gerry Poland as the saved sinner Uncle Stanley Sanders, and Karen Hodgin as Vera Sanders, the mother hen who tells a hysterical story featuring a june bug tied to a string. There's some conflict over whether the Sanders should be dancing on stage -- folks don't dance in the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. But mostly everybody stays in high spirits, and a wonderful time is had by all. Through August 27 at the Grace Theater, 2710 West Alabama, 713-526-2721.

You're a Good Man Charlie Brown Clark Gesner's 1967 off-Broadway hit holds up remarkably well, given the decades of pop-culture-based musicals that have passed across New York stages since. Just look at the compelling production now being presented by Masquerade Theatre. In most ways the show seems as though it could have been written yesterday. Perhaps that's because the musical is so faithful to its progenitor, Charles M. Schulz's quirky comic strip Peanuts about dear old Charlie Brown, the round-headed boy who can't seem to get anything right. Like the strip, the show is episodic and whimsically philosophical as it muses on how one goes about finding happiness in a world where kites won't fly and Little League games seem impossible to win. And director Phillip Duggins has done a lovely job of finding strong singers who capture their iconic characters with recognizable gestures, including the funny dancing done on the TV versions of the strip. Especially strong are Rebekah Dahl's bossy Lucy, Braden Hunt's Snoopy and Beth Hempen's loudmouthed Sally, who wails whenever things don't go her way. And at the end, when the entire company comes together to sing "Happiness," which in this world includes "two kinds of ice cream" and "tying your shoes for the very first time," the lines couldn't sound more true. Through July 30 at Zilkha Hall in the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-315-2525.

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