Capsule Stage Reviews: 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, A Life in the Theatre/Tuesdays with Morrie, Always...Patsy Cline, Boeing-Boeing, The Complete History of America (Abridged), Cuckoos

Fear of Ducks, Tomfoolery

 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Celebrating the nerd in all her native glory, Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a happy musical. The Tony Award-winning show tells the story of a sweet group of youngsters (all played by grownups) who have a variety of troubles, which are revealed in song and story as they vie to become champion. The show is a good fit for the Dionysus Theatre, an organization featuring inclusive productions that put disabled and nondisabled actors onstage together. Directed with earnest energy by Deborah E. Nowinski, the smarty-pants characters who line up for this bee include Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Noriann Ruth Doguim), a girl whose hand-wringing gay dads are so pushy they want to sabotage the competition; Leafy Coneybear (Raymond Deeb), who placed third at his school but is competing because the first- and second-place winners couldn't make it; Marcy Parks (Marquia Banks), a confident, wisecracking smart aleck; and Chip Tolentino (Ryan Smith), who's struggling with the onset of puberty in the most humiliatingly public of ways. But the real standouts are William Barfee (Richard C. Solis), a bespectacled big boy with a magical spelling foot, and Olive Ostrovsky (Maredith Zaritsky), a neglected child who turns to the dictionary for solace when her parents, who don't show up for the bee, aren't around. These goofballs make a lovely group of characters, and though the actors aren't all experienced, there are enough strong voices (Zaritsky is especially good) in the cast and enough feeling all around to give this low-budget, sweetly cornball production a full heart and charming soul. Through June 27. The Jewish Community Center, 5601 S. Braeswood, 713-728-0041. — DLG

A Life in the Theatre/Tuesdays with Morrie Two older men — one a theatrical curmudgeon, the other a sweet fatherly type — mentor two younger men about life and how best to live it in these absorbing one-acters at Country Playhouse. You wouldn't necessarily know that Life is by contemporary firebrand David Mamet except for its elliptical dialogue (a lot of "yeses" and "ohs") and a palpable nervousness under the surface, with hints of something mysterious and dangerous. The mystery is when the transfer of power happens between old ham actor Robert (John Kaiser) and young up-and-comer John (Cole Ryden). Through short, impressionistic vignettes set either backstage in the dressing room or onstage where we see them at work, Mamet shows us Robert's inevitable fall. Jealousy tinges his advice until even his mental agility starts to waver, and he must cede the stage to the one he has tried to teach. As in life, the transfer is gradual and inevitable, so Mamet says. The show must go on. Kaiser, a crafty old pro, abrades the layers from his character as if using a cabinetmaker's finest sandpaper; while his Robert is not always likeable, he's all too human. Tuesdays is adapted from Mitch Albom's phenomenal feel-good bestseller and made-for-TV movie that documents the Tuesday meetings the author had with his former professor Morrie Schwartz, who is dying from Lou Gehrig's disease. The clear-eyed realism and optimistic viewpoint of Schwartz (Jack Dunlop) opens up the eyes — and heart — of Mitch (Scott McWhirter), who up to that time has been a selfish, out-for-himself, whiny little prig. The Yoda-like pronouncements from cute little Schwartz are wearing, but I defy you not to have at least one misty eye by play's end. You can't help but like the annoying do-gooder, as Dunlop, another sly old pro, steals his way under your skin like some wily but adorable tick and refuses to budge. As he breathes needed life into Albom's staged Hallmark card, watch how he stays in the moment every second to become Schwartz. You want to pinch his rosy cheeks in appreciation. Through June 26. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

Always...Patsy Cline Great country singer Patsy Cline, who died in a plane crash in 1963, seems to have been reincarnated in the charmed vocal stylings of Julia Kay Laskowski, the fiery brunette now singing Cline's songs in Texas Repertory Theatre's production of Ted Swindley's Always...Patsy Cline. The music is all Cline's, but the story focuses on a good old Houston gal named Louise Seger (Lyndsay Sweeney) who knew Cline's music by heart and had the good fortune to meet up with her idol one night in a honky-tonk in the early '60s. Back then, radio stars didn't travel with entourages, and so it makes perfect sense that Cline, who arrives at her gig by taxi and from an empty hotel room, feels lonely enough to sit down with a fan to throw back a can of beer and spend an evening getting chummy between sets. In fact, the two women hit it off so well, Cline rides back to Louise's home for bacon and eggs, then spends the night there instead of at the lonely hotel room her record label has assigned her. The story is mostly told in Louise's monologue about her girl talk-filled night with Patsy, who turns out to be as warm and genuine as her music. This production, directed by Craig A. Miller, is more intimate than many produced in Houston. He has Cline singing songs from the kitchen table with Louise, and Laskowski and Sweeney have a sweet girl-power chemistry that's loads of fun. And the music keeps on coming. You'll hear everything from "Sweet Dreams" to "Three Cigarettes (in an Ashtray)" to "Walkin' After Midnight"— the show is jam-packed with tunes from the era, and Laskowski renders them all beautifully with her extraordinary voice. Sweeney provides the humor, and everything is right in the world for fans of music from a bygone era. Through June 27. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573. — LW

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