Capsule Stage Reviews: Damaged Divas of the Decades, Farragut North, Goodbye Charlie, Kissless the Musical, Once Upon a Mattress, A Triumph of Love

 Damaged Divas of the Decades A particularly high style of cabaret is in performance through November at Music Box Theater. This second production from the newly minted troupe is called Damaged Divas of the Decades, and if that title alone doesn't propel you to Colquitt and Kirby, what kind of theater queen are you? As the only cabaret in the Bayou City, Music Box is like a classy Manhattan nightclub of yore, intimate and boozy, sophisticated and in-the-know. The troupe's five performers, all locally known and highly respected in the musical theater world (Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Cay Taylor, Luke Wrobel and Colton Berry) have musical talent to spare and intriguing personalities to blend together when necessary and to cause sparks when needed. It's a bracing mix and, vocally, is unchallenged anywhere in town. As pros, they know through instinct and training how to put across a song. They also know how to entertain. As a tribute to music's self-suffering icons, from jazz's Etta James and Billie Holiday, to rock's Janis Joplin and Stevie Nicks, to pop's Barbra Steisand and Mama Cass, the entire evening is solidly entertaining. The musical spectrum is rich and varied: a Jim Beam-infused rendering from Dahl of "Me and Bobby McGee," Scarborough's patented falsetto in "Big Girls Don't Cry," Taylor's spot-on Streisand in "Get Happy," Wrobel's heartfelt "La Vie en Rose," and Berry's absolutely wickedly hilarious take on Liza or his simpatico treatment of Cline's "Crazy." Guest host John Gremillion plays a William Shatner emcee and an assortment of crafty personae to lead us through the evening. While the divas may be damaged, the show is without blemish and first-class all the way, with formidable talent on display. As the Kander and Ebb song says, if life is a cabaret, then I love a cabaret, especially this one. Cabaret just doesn't get any better. Through November 13. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

Farragut North It's certainly no surprise that politics is ugly, so political junkies won't find much to disagree with, yell at or protest in Beau Willimon's down-and-dirty insider's dissection. Willimon worked on Howard Dean's flamed-out 2004 presidential campaign, so he knows where all the skeletons are buried. Backstage at the Iowa presidential primary is the setting for Willimon's drama, where quasi-hero whiz kid Stephen (Jordan Jaffe) is press secretary for candidate Governor Morris. The play's neat trick is that we never see the candidates, only their handlers. Twenty-five years old, Stephen is the golden boy with Washington at his feet. He has impeccable credentials, the trust of mentor Paul (Seán Patrick Judge), an insider's friendship with the press, represented by a Maureen Dowd type (Danica Dawn Johnston), and a fawning subordinate, Ben (Andy Ingalls). Stephen plays in the big leagues, MVP material for sure, so it's no surprise when other political operatives start aiming for his head. Double crosses, leaks and potential leaks are used as weapons to disable him, and Willimon neatly places red herrings to keep us guessing what will happen next. Will teen campaign volunteer Molly (Alexandria Ward) sell him out? What about that other old campaign pro, Tom (Joel Sandel), who represents the other candidate? Can he be trusted? Can any of them? There's a neat little All About Eve twist at the end to keep our spirits from soaring too high, but there's not much here that's really original. Sandel and Judge, smooth veterans, play their characters with such easy panache that they seem to be in HD. Jaffe doesn't vary his outbursts, so, as Steven gets more desperate, there's no build-up; each crisis is handled like the one before. And there's just no plausible way to explain that offstage snow machine at the beginning of each scene that lightly covers a desktop or actor's head — like the "fog of war," is this supposed to mean that politics is the ultimate "snow job"? Some metaphors are best left unseen, even in Iowa. Farragut North will validate your every Washington nightmare. If not the most insightful, the play's awfully relevant since another presidential campaign has already begun (!). It's always good to be reminded yet again not to take anything — or any candidate — at face value. Through September 24. Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation Blvd., 713-417-3552. — DLG

Goodbye Charlie Before the play opens, womanizer and cad Charlie Sorrel has been caught in the act of having an affair and been killed, but is reincarnated in the body of a younger woman. The comedy develops as Charlie and George, his best (and only) friend, deal with ensuing complications. The brilliant playwright George Axelrod had preceded the 1959 B'way opening with major hits — The Seven Year Itch and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? — but the rocky reception of Goodbye Charlie drove him to Hollywood, where he penned the screenplays for Breakfast at Tiffany's and The Manchurian Candidate. His effort here takes an amusing, if not totally original, idea and stretches it into a full-length evening. The good news is that along the way he provides the opportunity for some telling insights into the world of male chauvinism, and gives some first-rate actors the chance to lure us into this contemporary fable, and seduce us into believing in its reality. We only see Charlie after the reincarnation, but Rebecca Seabrook, a tall, willowy blond with striking good looks, adds enough male body language and mannerisms to provide the required laughs. I would say she carries the show — she is that good — but she is so well-supported by John Mitsakis as best friend George that both carry it. These two are alone on the stage for much of the evening, and their pas de deux of discovery and adaptation is a wonder and a pleasure to watch. Talent will out. The other main character is Charlie's mistress, Rusty, played amusingly by Angela Denny, who is able to move convincingly from comedy into the warmth of love called for in Act Two. Surprisingly, for his experience, Axelrod has written a female drunk scene that might be 20 minutes but — believe me — seems longer, and even here, the inspired Seabrook holds us in thrall almost to the end. The other actors are good but hardly necessary to the goings-on, except to add exposition in the opening memorial-service group scene, before Charlie and Rusty enter — and the acting here is vivid, perhaps a shade too vivid. Director Jay Menchaca keeps the pace brisk without stepping on the nuanced performances. With this cast and this direction, Goodbye Charlie might have lasted longer on B'way. Brilliant and subtle acting, and skilled direction, take a half-century-old warhorse and groom it into an Arabian steed. It's a most entertaining evening and a joy to watch. Through September 24. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — JJT

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