Capsule Stage Reviews: The Drowsy Chaperone, The Heiress, Mr. Marmalade, Present Laughter, Time of My Life, The Vagina Monologues

The Drowsy Chaperone Thank you, Canada! If that country didn't produce anything else in its history, it would forever have our undying gratitude for this absolutely fabulous show. There's nothing like The Drowsy Chaperone in the Broadway canon, and no original musical in recent memory can touch its free spirit or wit. It's nonstop smiles from the lights-out opening line "I hate theater" to the aviatrix-in-a-biplane ending, in which our narrator, The Man in Chair, flies away — again — into his own personal little world of Broadway musicals. A multiple Tony Award-winner from 2006 presented by Theatre Under the Stars, this show is a glorious, heartfelt, postmodern homage to the power of musicals to make us forget our troubles and "disappear for a while." It works like gangbusters. Whenever he feels blue, The Man in Chair (Jonathan Crombie) plays show tunes. This time, only his all-time favorite, 1928's Drowsy Chaperone, will do. He plays the original cast recording — yes, remember records? — and his drab apartment comes to life as the musical invades and transforms it. Periodically, he stops the action to comment on forgotten musical stars of yesteryear or the current state of showbiz. His asides overlay the silly plot with respectful reverence, while making fun of it at the same time. The Drowsy Chaperone is never smug in its cleverness, and that's part of its immense charm. While the show-within-the-show is a hilarious parody of a '20s musical, with its whimsical theatrical conventions and broad racial stereotypes (before they were "banished to Disney"), it's also testament to why musicals continue to have such a powerful hold over our psyche. Through June 1. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. 713-315-2525. — DLG

The Heiress Concisely adapted by Augustus and Ruth Goetz, Henry James's short psychological novel Washington Square (1880) became a successful Tony-winning Broadway play (1947) and then an equally successful Oscar-winning movie (1949). Writing of just one family — the rich Slopers of New York City's Washington Square — was unusual for James, who limited his usually sprawling canvas. Imbued with parental disapproval and the stifling effect of being plain in a world insistent upon beauty, the deceptively simple story takes on epic flavor. Despised by her father for lacking her dead mother's qualities and lovely outward appearance, shy and socially inept Catherine has become enamored of handsome wastrel Morris Townsend, who has swept her off her feet. Dr. Sloper, with a cruel honesty that borders on the sadistic, warns her that Morris only loves her money — for she has nothing whatever to offer any man. Is Morris sincere in his ardent declarations? Is the plain Catherine doomed to a life devoid of love? Directed with mounting tension by Jeannette Clift George, A.D. Players brings this snappily written play vibrantly to life. Sarah Cooksey is all fidgets and thumbs as ordinary Catherine, who, through love and love denied, is frighteningly transformed into the very thing she most abhors, her father. Marty Blair makes a most charismatic Morris, sparkling and bright as fool's gold. Lee Walker supplies the emotionally distant Dr. Sloper with a terrifying heart of ice. And Christy Watkins bustles and frets most wonderfully as busybody Aunt Lavinia. The handsome set by Mark Lewis and the eye-catching costumes by Patty Tuel Bailey add luster to this production's genuine shine. Through June 1. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

Mr. Marmalade Noah Haidle's Mr. Marmalade, now running at Stages Repertory Theatre, is wonderfully odd and profoundly moving. The story centers on the childish fantasies of four-year-old Lucy, played with breathtaking charm by the grownup Mikelle Johnson. Lucy is a strange, lonely child who's been left to fend for herself for too many hours of the day by her equally lonely mother. When Lucy's alone, waiting for the baby-sitter or for her mother to show up, she dreams up another life, one that includes her well-dressed "friend"Mr. Marmalade (played by Justin Doran, who practically ignites the stage as the dream man). Sporting a dark suit and a clipped manner, Mr. Marmalade sits down for pretend coffee and suggests a pretend trip to Mexico, and Lucy is enthralled as she tries to be ever so grown-up with Mr. Marmalade. But during the course of the night, what starts out as an innocent game of make-believe devolves into a dangerous nightmare. It becomes evident that Mr. Marmalade has been shaped from the imagination of a child who's clearly been left in front of the television for too many hours of the day. Lucy's fantasy friend morphs from funny to sexy to fetishistic and violent as he snakes his way through the child's dark night. As directed by Alex Harvey, this strange tale somehow makes perfect sense. The boundaries between what is real and what is make-believe are in constant flux. Through June 1. 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — LW

Present Laughter "I'm always acting, watching myself go by," emotes protagonist Garry Essendine, played by the incomparable Joel Sandel in this semiautographical play by Noël Coward, to anyone who crosses his path. Today, that would include his dewy morning-after lover, whose name he can't remember (Morgan McCarthy), his blasé maid (Sheryl Croix), his astringent secretary (Terri Branda Carter), his sensible former wife (Kara Greenberg), his harried business associates (David Harlan and David Wald), his worldly butler (Harlan again), the panther-like, seductive Joanna (Sara Gaston) and a mad playwright wannabe who lives to worship him (Nicholas Collins). And that's just during the morning. Staring into a mirror and watching his hair recede, Garry wails dramatically that he's not experiencing life and is weary of being adored. But we wouldn't have him any other way. In satin dressing gown with cocktail cemented firmly in hand, he spouts Coward's archly artificial, yet highly musical, dialogue. Garry doesn't want to be free of fame's trappings — it's mother's milk to him, if poured in a highball. Though not as well-known as Coward classics Design for Living and Private Lives, this immensely droll comedy is equally witty, well crafted and entertaining. This stylish Art Deco piece is caviar for the well-heeled cast at Main Street Theater. From top down — including costumes, lighting, set and crisp direction by Claire Hart-Palumbo — everything is pitch-perfect, led by the outstanding Sandel, who lounges, pouts and poses while he laps up his fawning press and basks gloriously in his own klieg light. Through June 22. 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — DLG

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