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Kissless the Musical An ambitious new Houston-grown musical about teenage conflicts uses a cast of 27 to create a dynamic world where parents are distant and largely irrelevant, while the opinion of a peer can be crucial. Teenage cliques formed around jocks and nerds are a theatrical tradition, but subcultures expand here with rednecks and goths, adding freshness to the exuberant goings-on. The storyline follows Derek West, leader of the jocks, played by Tyler Galindo, and Summer Stokely, a goth with less than full commitment to the genre, played by Teresa Zimmermann. Compelled by plot needs to look unhappy much of the time, she nonetheless involves us in her vulnerability. Galindo as top-jock might have more snap, sparkle and swagger, and a bit less sincerity, but both have strong, attractive voices — Zimmermann is a belter who fills the ample space — and they work well together. Jordan McLaughlin and Mark Jammal play jocks with enthusiasm and verve, and McLaughlin especially nails some comic timing. Julia Green plays the leader of the goths and is a standout in looks and performance. Identical twins Austin and Ryan Jacobs play a jock and a redneck — both have strong voices and excel at using body language to good effect. Cameron Worthen plays Chet West, father and athletic coach, and is strong and effective. The mother, Betsy West, is played, as intended, by Megan Blackmon as a cartoon character for comic relief. Tyce Green is terrific as the psychiatrist and has a great voice, and Matt Buzonas is a winner as a redneck. The stage erupted in electric life with "Soul Crusher," as video games were enacted with style and wit. I loved Zimmermann's powerful rendition of "I'm Gonna Make Him Cry" and admired the strength and sweep of "Kissless." "My Son" is amusing and rich with comic irony. The songs emerge seamlessly from the plot, thanks to the multitalented Chance McClain, who wrote book, music and lyrics. This work-in-progress is on its way to a competition at the New York Theatre Music Festival, where it will have three weeks of off-B'way performances. Skilled professional performances from a richly talented young cast bring an ambitious project to vibrant, exciting theatrical life — the audience couldn't wait to spring to its feet for a well-deserved standing ovation. Through September 18. Houston Family Arts Center at the Berry Center, 8877 Barker Cypress Rd., Cypress, 281-685-6374. — JJT

Once Upon a Mattress Once Upon a Mattress is the 1959 musical that introduced Carol Burnett to Broadway. Its initial production moved from off-B'way to B'way and ran, in a variety of theaters, for 460 performances. It's a farce, and a spoof of a fairy tale, and is set in a royal court as Prince Dauntless — no Prince Charming — seeks a royal mate. There's much to cheer about in this production, with a bravura performance from Katie Reed as Queen Aggravain, whose character trait is never to stop talking; Reed even makes verbosity fascinating. She has a commanding stage presence and is a skilled professional, carving her way to comic success, despite a one-dimensional script that may take a George Abbot, its legendary original director, to make really work. It's directed here by Geoffrey Geiger, who also plays Prince Dauntless, but Geiger unfortunately permits a slow pace that allows us far too much time to ponder the flimsiness of the goings-on. Prince Dauntless is written as a mama's boy, but Geiger might have let us see more clearly a man chafing under the Queen's dominance. The Burnett role of Princess Winifred ("call me Fred") is well handled by Meeka Opong, who has a clear, lovely voice, good comic timing, considerable charm and an endearing way that makes us root for her. Her late entrance — after swimming the moat — is a welcome breeze on a hot summer's day. The jester (Grace Galloway) and the musician (Janet Sharpley) are excellent, and Bruce Blifford adds some gravitas and a resonant voice to the wizard. The young lovers Sir Harry (Colton Wright) and Lady Larkin (Luci Galloway) look a bit like Prince William and Kate Middleton, and Wright has a British accent to boot. But they lack fire, and Lady Larkin seems tentative and without authority, not aided by weak vocal projection. The sumptuous costumes are colorful and ornate and were — astonishingly — provided by the cast themselves. J.R. Marshall as King Sextimus the Silent has no lines until the denouement but communicates through acting-out charades; when he explains the birds and the bees to his son through pantomime, it seems to take forever. Phyllis Harris provides the musical accompaniment with her usual flair. Outstanding performances overcome a weak script to generate a pleasant evening's entertainment of what has become a classic for community theaters. Through September 18, Pasadena Little Theatre, 4318 Allen Genoa Rd., Pasadena, 713-941-1758. — JJT

A Triumph of Love This French farce from 1732 by Pierre de Marivaux springs into exuberant life with cross-dressing, thinly disguised identities and a scanty plot serving as a framework for wit, paradoxes, style and excellent acting. The graceful set by Matthew Schlief is a variety of topiary, some giant and some merely monumental, that delight the eye and serve admirably as hiding places for eavesdropping or ways to escape unwanted physical approaches. The costumes are colorful, ornate and expensive — Versace might have made them, but Claremarie Verheyen is credited — and were so good I lusted after one. This elegance is echoed in the acting, where in a suitable paradox the lowly are exalted — Xzavien Hollins plays a valet with bravura energy, great comic timing and nuanced subtlety. He is well matched by S.A. Rogers as a gardener — the pair team up as connivers and deceivers with always a hand out for a tip, and their chicanery is a pleasure to observe. Among the gentry, Pamela Vogel enchants as a stern woman of a certain age becoming intrigued by the prospect of a younger lover — her performance is subtle and heartwarming. Her sterner brother, played by Thomas Prior, is quite effective, as he too is pursued by a younger lover, but better diction would be welcome in a comedy of high style. Matt Hune plays a misogynist youth who swiftly learns the error of his ways. He is given little to do, but he does that very well indeed, and looks a bit like the young Olivier — not a bad look to have. Bree Welch plays a lady-in-waiting and co-conspirator with energy and spirit, and her flirtation with the valet is charming. The lead role is played by Ivy Castle — that of a female ruler seeking to right a wrong, who is compelled to masquerade as a man to accomplish her quest. Castle is beautiful with a dazzling smile, moves well and carries the narrative. But she has only a nodding acquaintance with the rich comic possibilities of the role. Her intonation is about the same regardless of content, and I yearned for a different voice and manner when she moved from young woman to pretend young man. The direction by Julia Traber is graceful and eloquent — even the exits are works of comic art. But Traber might have cajoled, coaxed, flattered or threatened — anything — to get a more varied comic performance from Castle. And a stronger voice, with a hint of authority (she is after all ruler of a kingdom), would also have helped. Like aged wine, this classic comedy makes younger competitors pale by comparison. It is rare, priceless, full-bodied and not to be missed — one of the theatrical events of the season. Through September 25. Classical Theatre Company, TBH Center, 333 South Jensen Dr., 713-963-9665. — JJT

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