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Capsule Stage Reviews: Frozen, Jersey Boys, Love, Janis, Sugar Bean Sisters

Frozen The "Arctic frozen sea" of a pedophile's mind lies at the chilly center of Bryony Lavery's smart, mesmerizing Frozen. The play about a child killer and his victim's raging mother was so affecting when it opened on Broadway in 2004, it was nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Play. Thanks to Theater LaB Houston and director Ed Muth, Houstonians can now see what the excitement is all about. Told in a series of short monologues and scenes, the three-character story takes place over several decades, beginning with the abduction of a ten-year-old English child named Rhona. Her loss sends her mother Nancy (Andrea Hyde) into years of hand-wringing hope followed by seemingly endless grief. On the other side of the stage sits Ralph (Alan Heckner), a walking, talking nightmare. But he is fascinating. He describes his encounters with children on the street as if he were some sexy rogue stalking a singles bar, able to lure prepubescent girls with a lovely, low "hello." Finally, there's Agnetha (Julie Boneau), an American psychiatrist who specializes in serial killers. She argues that the brains of serial killers are wired differently from everyone else's, the result of head injuries and psychological abuse. They're not evil, they're ill; and difficult as it may be, they deserve some compassion. Technically, this production is a mess, and some of the performances feel a little off. But the production is still worthwhile — in fact, it's the hottest show of the season. Through February 9. Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516. — LW

Jersey Boys Jersey Boys, the 2006 Tony Award winner for Best Musical brought here by Broadway Across America, is a jukebox musical with a raft of solid gold hits to glean — the whole Four Seasons catalog. This treasure trove of nostalgia is one reason the show strikes such a resonant chord with audiences. Just hearing "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry" or "Walk Like a Man" will zip baby boomers magically back to their youth. Instead of plopping songs into a plot that was never intended to hold them, book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice use the songs to dexterously tell the group's story. What could be simpler? With some poetic license, the songs fit in the order they were recorded and overlap with the story of the Four Seasons. When it works best, it reveals character as it propels the narrative, as when Frankie's marriage breaks up and he sings "My Eyes Adored You." All four members of the group narrate the story, adding pieces to each other's puzzle. It's essentially Frankie Valli's story, but everybody gets an equal say, and this cohesion among the guys is an unwritten theme of the show, as are loyalty and keeping your word to your buddies. Director Des McAnuff, who's led the show since its inception at California's La Jolla Playhouse, keeps it smartly moving with a Top 40 sleekness. Nothing is allowed to slow down, least of all the spirited, pre-boy band moves stylishly choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. And the four Boys — Erik Bates, Steve Gouveia, Andrew Rannells and Christopher Kale Jones — are outstanding. Musical theater just doesn't get any better. Through February 9. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-629-3700. — DLG

Love, Janis Put on your tie-dyed crushed velvet, light up the blunt and pass around the Comfort, dude, because the wailing earth mother of Haight-Ashbury, the one and only Janis Joplin, is blowin' the roof off the Alley. With that unique booze-raspy voice and uncompromising fuck-you attitude, Joplin personified the '60s hippie generation. In Randall Myler's wobbly musical tribute — part concert, part bio — the certifiable star power is on amplified display with a blistering, full-throttle performance from Katrina Chester (who alternates with Mary Bridget Davies in the role of "singing" Janis), who so incredibly and accurately channels Joplin's timbre and stage mannerisms, it's spooky. She's backed up by a band so hyped up and on her same wavelength (brilliantly supervised by Eric Massimino, formerly of Big Brother and The Holding Company), you'd swear you're having flashbacks. But it's what's between the numbers that's such a downer. One performer sings the role of Janis, while another, the resourceful Marisa Ryan, acts the role by reading letters she wrote home. Loosely adapted from Laura Joplin's bio of her sister, the jukebox musical features repetitious readings of her approval-seeking letters home, and the juicy insider dish that she likes her pets. This standard, tissue-thin, little-girl-lost stuff may very well be true, but it hardly illuminates her gargantuan, self-destructive demons. One moment she plaintively asks her parents to be proud of her, then she melts steel with a blockbuster rendition of "Me and Bobby McGee," then she jabs a needle in her arm. Big disconnect here. Dead at 27 from drugs and booze, unparalleled powerhouse Joplin requires a more insightful requiem than this. Cut the dialogue, cue the pot smoke and let's party! Through February 10. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. — DLG

Sugar Bean Sisters Nathan Sanders's Southern gothic fantasy is a potent, odd mix of Tobacco Road's shabby poetics and Ma and Pa Kettle's whimsy, with a dollop of supermarket tabloid Weekly World News thrown in. After a slow start the play begins to captivate, and soon we lose ourselves in the pungent Florida swamps. As the last remaining members of the hardscrabble, dirt-poor Nettles family — Pa was lynched by the townspeople after he inadvertently poisoned 12 beauty queen contestants, Ma was eaten alive by flying cats and younger sis was set upon by gators — flinty Faye (Dottie McQuarrie) and flighty Willie Mae (Marianne Lyon) long to escape. Faye waits with sandwiches and a packed suitcase for the return of the flying saucer that will whisk her away, while Willie Mae pines for the return of her hair so she can woo a man and move to Salt Lake City to be near her beloved Mormon celestial kingdom. With a few backwoods plot twists involving the Reptile Woman (Julie Oliver in delicious scene-stealing mode), the Bishop Crumley (James Walsh), who may or may not be an angel, and a Las Vegas lounge singer under a voodoo curse (Helen Warwick, a bit too much in overdrive), the sisters' dreams don't evaporate under harsh reality, they metastasize. The production's a tad bumpy and needs tight­ening, but it leaves us pleasantly lightheaded nonetheless. Through February 16. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG

 
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