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Capsule Reviews

Our critics weigh in on local theater

 The Great American Trailer Park Musical This frothy bubble of silliness now running at Stages Repertory Theatre requires absolutely zero brain power to get through. Cobbled together out of stereotypes and a sitcom-like plot, the featherweight bit of camp by David Nehls and Betsy Kelso celebrates white-trash ladies and the men they love in a funky little tale about a phobic housewife and her lonely-heart man. Setting the stage and guiding us through the story is a chorus of three women: Betty (Susan O. Koozin), a sturdy mother hen with a heart of gold who runs the whole shebang; Pickles (Mikah Horn), a young dumb-as-dirt, sweet-as-sugar blond who shows all the signs of suffering from a hysterical pregnancy; and Lin (Carolyn Johnson), strutting around with her cleavage out to there and worrying all the while about her man on death row. This cartoon strip of a story focuses on Norbert and Jeannie Garstecki, a long-married couple who love each other despite the fact that Jeannie (Melodie Smith) suffers from agoraphobia and hasn't set foot outside her little trailer home in years. Nothing in the story is surprising, but the music is entertaining, and Stages has put together a cast of solid singers who capture their characters in bold, broad and colorful strokes. Through September 3. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

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 Sanderses 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 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721.

Shakespeare's Women: Gnawing at My Soul Actress Lyndsay Sweeney gets four stars for her cut-and-paste abilities in her one-woman show that played in a limited run at Theatre Collide. It's the result that was less than stellar. Sweeney played a homeless woman, deranged and feral, who entered barefoot, pushing a battered shopping cart loaded with the detritus of her life. The Woman scratched her filthy head, greedily devoured the remains of a candy bar, rummaged through a trash can to find a half-drunk soda, and addressed us with "I prithee go and get me some repast" from The Taming of the Shrew. All dialogue was lifted from Shakespeare's female characters. So we got snippets such as Queen Margaret's "uncharitably with me have you dealt, and shamefully by you my hopes are butcher'd," while the Woman, glaring defiantly, wheeled the cart by us, and Gertrude's "sweets to the sweet" speech as the Woman ate the dirty candy. This worked, up to a point, but a question nags: Why bother? Shakespeare can be contorted to fit any situation, but the beautiful phrases, beautifully raved by Sweeney, didn't illuminate the Bard or clarify this particular woman beyond her obvious predicament. The most potent scene was when the Woman plucked a ragged monkey doll out of her cart, which spurred her fevered brain to remember a past lost. Constance's famous "grief" monologue from King John was chillingly affecting in Sweeney's telling of it, and we immediately thought, yes, Sweeney would be gangbusters in that role. The Woman herself was forgotten, or was that Ophelia...or Lady Macbeth...or Kate?

Speeding Motorcycle He's back! Jason Nodler, the founding artistic director of Infernal Bridegroom Productions, has returned to Houston and the Axiom to direct Speeding Motorcycle, a surprisingly sweet rock opera, which Nodler adapted from songs by Daniel Johnston with grant monies from the Rockefeller Foundation. For the uninitiated, Johnston is a cult musician-artist who lives in Waller, where he continues to write and draw despite the fact that he suffers from severe bipolar disorder. As one might expect, Johnston's musical world is inflected by mental illness and extreme loneliness. He writes often of unrequited love, deep despair and death. So it's a strange and altogether wonderful surprise that the story Nodler has constructed out of Johnston's powerful music is nothing if not uplifting. The weirdly moving story focuses on a man who falls in love with an undertaker. When she marries another undertaker, our hero -- who goes by the unlikely name of Joe the Boxer and is played by three different actors (Kyle Sturdivant, Cary Winscott and Joe Folladori) -- realizes the best way to attract his lover's attention might be to die. After all, she is an undertaker. As maudlin as this might sound (and Johnston's songs are often so woeful they can move one to tears), the utterly unpredictable story turns in some fascinating directions. Angels appear. So do preachers. We watch an undertaker care for a dead body. And somehow all this gets happier and happier. One might read this musical as mimicking the emotional manic-depressive roller coaster that bipolars ride. But it is sweeter to think of this show as the least ironic and perhaps most joyful production that Nodler has ever created. Through September 2. 2524 McKinney, 713-522-8443.

 
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