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Stage Capsule Reviews

Our critics weigh in on local theater

Aïda Giuseppe Verdi's Aïda (1871) is supposed to knock our socks off aurally and visually, with moonlit temples on the banks of the Nile, sumptuous palace interiors, mysterious inner sanctums filled with incense and gloom, a split-level set (his own design) and, most famous of all, a majestic triumphal scene that trumps any parade by Barnum & Bailey. The story is a standard love triangle. Aïda, daughter of Ethiopian King Amonasro, who's waging war with Egypt, is now a slave to Egyptian princess Amneris, who's betrothed to Radames, Egypt's military commander. Radames, in turn, loves Aïda. Houston Grand Opera supplies Verdi's stunning, complex orchestral palette with splendid color and emotion, thanks to maestro Carlo Rizzi in a most impressive house debut. International super-diva Dolora Zajick (Amneris), one of the reigning Verdian mezzos, pours out titanic sound with power to spare, but Zvetelina Vassileva (Aïda) doesn't stand a chance. She goes flat, literally, straining to squarely hit those emotion-laden, quintessentially Verdian climaxes. Blustery tenor Marco Berti (Radames) doesn't even pretend to be in character — he plants his feet and shouts. Needless to say, there's not a hieroglyph of sex between him and his inamorata Aïda. Director Jo Davies and designer Zandra Rhodes doom this production. Davies's staging is lead-footed, and there's no depth or height to the scenic picture. Rhodes hasn't a clue how to construct an appropriate, or flattering, costume for singers of a certain...how shall we say...size. And throughout, her cartoony cut-out sets look as cheap and flimsy as painted cardboard. If Aïda's grand opera, where's the grand? Through May 5. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737.

Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure Decades before Basil Rathbone pinned the cinematic image of super-detective Sherlock Holmes onto our collective conscience -- that patrician nose, the superior attitude, the cold, aloof intellect -- Broadway superstar William Gillette (actor, playwright, director) had already been there, done that. In 1899, no less. Not only matinee-idol handsome with masculine stage presence to spare, Gillette was a stage innovator, too. He eschewed actory declamation, replacing it with a real-life rhythm and naturalness; he loved scenic effects and startled audiences with blackouts and fade-ins to punctuate his plays. For all his historic contributions to theater, though, his most lasting was his classic portrayal as Sherlock Holmes. Gillette reworked original Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stage play, and in so doing gave Holmes his deerstalker hat, meerschaum pipe, violin and the detective's immortal line "this is elementary, my dear fellow" -- all to Doyle's enthusiastic approval. The play was a smash hit throughout the world, and Gillette played in it, on and off, until 1932. He retired rich and famous to his "little" castle in Connecticut, now a state monument. You can witness Gillette's innovations a little bit in UpStage Theatre's production, especially the almost cinematic crosscutting of scenes and locales, but overall the company's efforts strain for naturalism and lightness of staging. The wayward accents need a volume of Berlitz to decipher, and only Lisa Williams (as sympathetic opera diva Irene Adler), Robert Lowe (as befuddled, warm Dr. Watson) and Freeman Williams (as thunderously evil Moriarty) act their roles instead of reading them. In UpStage's hands, this page from theater history is terribly dog-eared and smudged, when it should be crisp, exciting and terribly fun. Through May 5. 1703 Heights Blvd. 713-838-7191.

The Wisdom of EveIf nothing else, Mary Orr's play, based upon her 1946 Cosmopolitan short story and 1949 radio version that would be eclipsed by the exceptional film known as All About Eve, is the classic case study in how to adroitly adapt one medium into another. All credit, of course, goes to movie writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who mined ordinary Orr into sublime gold. He gave Orr class, literacy and sophistication. If the movie is on your all-time great list, the original play will shock and probably dismay, mainly through what's not there. Mankiewicz added so many layers: poison-tongued critic Addison DeWitt, deliciously dumb Miss Caswell (graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art), ample bitch-fest wit that had shimmering bons mots unheard since Wilde's day, the role of a lifetime for Bette Davis (as spoiled, neurotic, aging Broadway legend Margo Channing) and classic lines such as "fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night." Once you get past the let-down that your favorite lines and characters aren't going to show up, the play has its own set of virtues -- ifPlayhouse 1960 wouldn't play it as though this were Eugene O'Neill's More Stately Mansions. It couldn't be any slower if acted underwater. The cast needs a taser (and another week of rehearsal to smooth out the truly bumpy dramatics and to fully memorize their lines and cues). Even without Mankiewicz, Orr's story should snap; it has plenty of sharp edges all its own. Josie Kaul, as evil Eve, shows her malevolent hand right from the beginning, which deflates our surprise when she later reveals her fistful of aces. Maria Sirgo, as Margo's best friend Karen, whose reflected marquee light comes from her hubby playwright, is all common sense and catches the character's subtle goodness in a warm, loving performance. As theater goddess Margo, Carolyn Corsano Wong has a diva's sprightly timing and wicked way with a put-down, but her posture's all wrong. She should flaunt her divadom, not slump about as if taking out the garbage. Straighten up, honey, strut your stuff, you're Margo! And they're not! Through May 12. 6814 Gant. 281-587-8243.

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