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Capsule Stage Reviews: Grease, Manon, Mud, On the Town, The Wayside Motor Inn

 Grease Those hormone-dripping greasers at Rydell High, the T-Birds and Pink Ladies, have not set high goals or buckled down and studied, but they have persevered — ever since the 1972 premiere, the show or some form of it has been in constant performance. This national tour presented by Theatre Under the Stars doesn't have much pizzazz, and the current cast members look like they should be the teachers. Little sparkplug Eric Schneider seems too short for Danny and never catches fire. If only he'd change roles with David Ruffin, who plays Kenickie, there might be some electricity onstage. Allie Shultz makes a mighty fine Rizzo, almost throwing the musical out of whack with her feverish intensity. Emily Padgett is bland to a fault, but nobody can truly spice up Sandy. Her tarted-up transformation at the finale is as improbable as her bustline. As usual, the amplification is horrendous, and only if you know the songs — as did most of the karaoke audience — will the lyrics make sense. Oh, yes, American Idol's Taylor Hicks drops in from above in Act II as Teen Angel to give Frenchy a dressing down for failing beauty school, and he manages to garble the lyrics. Does anyone care anymore that the classic Broadway shows — yes, Grease is one — are being tarted up just like Sandy? Through September 20. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — DLG

Manon Kenneth MacMillan's epic ballet about the life and loves of Manon Lescaut is an inspired choice as the opener to Houston Ballet's 40th season. It's great for lovers of modern full-length ballets, not so much an activity for a Sunday matinee with the kids. One imagines dinner conversations along the lines of, "Mommy, why was that old man onstage fondling the little boy in the hat?" However, if you're of consenting age, can sit through more than two and a half hours of theater and adore the sweepingly athletic pas de deux of MacMillan, then this is your ballet. But it's not exactly an upbeat story. Set in France and New Orleans in the 18th century, the ballet is about Manon, who, headed for the convent, runs away with her lover Des Grieux but is then lured away from him by a rich old guy. It's a story about poverty, and about breaking up and making up, and it ends with the two lovers escaping into a Louisiana swamp, where Manon dies of fever in Des Grieux's arms. Peter Farmer provides sparse, large-scale sets of Parisian brothels, a New Orleans port and a creepy Louisiana swamp, along with rich courtesan costumes. One never really invests in the title character, but the story gives the ballerina plenty of chances to emote. In one of four casts, Melody Herrera gave it her all — she was divine in the acting and dancing departments. The usually reliable Ian Casady, as true love Des Grieux, seemed a little timid in some of the duets, but demi-soloist James Gotesky may have his best role yet playing Manon's dastardly brother. He's certainly one to watch. Through September 20. Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas, 713-227-2787. — MG

Mud We are pleased to report there's new blood in town — theatrical blood, that is — coming at us in the form of Doorman Actors Lab. The small group started with a lovely-looking production of Maria Irene Fornes's Mud, a lean, dark story about the hopelessness of poverty. At the center was Mae (Lydia Lara), a young woman struggling to free herself from illiteracy and her relationship with Lloyd (Will Morgan), an ill man she called her "mate." They were like "animals," she said with disgust, when trying to explain their relationship to Henry (Rick Welch), an older man she hoped would teach her some of the finer things in life. As played by the very pretty Lara, Mae was an admirable, angry woman working long hours while trying to learn how to read. But she was silenced by the men who would crush her to stay alive. This is a story as raw and elemental as theater gets, and that's the strength of this devastating, elegant script. Under Liz Lacy's direction, the story moved quickly. Sheleigh Carmichael's set design was one of the best things about this production. Small yet complete, the fragmented room with wide-plank floor boards and a frail ceiling captured the ragged lives these people lived. Lara's Mae was the strongest character here. Tiny yet powerful, with lyrical hands that gestured her rage with grace, Lara was full of untapped potential. New theatrical companies are a good thing for our arts community, especially when they are brave enough to start with scripts as challenging as this one is. So, welcome. — LW

On the Town This classic musical from 1944 — music by Leonard Bernstein, book and lyrics by Adolph Green and Betty Comden, dances by Jerome Robbins — is one of the truly unknown works in the repertoire. Oh, sure, many have seen the Gene Kelly/Frank Sinatra movie adaptation (1949), but it's almost completely devoid of Bernstein's score, not to mention the jazzy sex and bursting Manhattan energy. And since Robbins's fantastic nonstop dance scheme faded into the shadows as soon as the show closed, the driving propulsion evaporated, too. Paul Hope and co-director Philip Lehl's staging of the show last weekend at Heinen Theatre at least brought us as close as we're probably going to get to what all the excitement was about. Choreographer Krissy Richmond gave this seminal work a coherent dance plot that actually kissed the score. That some of her dancers couldn't manage the ballet steps without looking out of their element is fodder for further discussion, but her Broadway style was right-on. As is usual with Bayou City Concert Musicals, the performers and backstage talent gave their all, brilliantly, and it's better to just list them: the three sailors on 24-hour leave (Kregg Alan Dailey, Adam Gibbs, Will Luton), the girls they find and ultimately lose (Susan Draper, Tamara Siler, Melissa Pritchett), and assorted crazies in the Big Apple (Grace Givens, Richard Calvert, Susan O. Koozin), along with the costume designer (Pat Padilla) and conductor (Dominique Røyem). On the Town defines America during WW II. It's a classic, though, because it so effortlessly defines America, no matter which era. — DLG

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