Capsule Stage Reviews: Evil Dead: the Musical, Oliver Twist, The Retreat from Moscow, There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, Wait Until Dark

 Evil Dead: the Musical Sam Raimi's 1981 cult film The Evil Dead has been reincarnated as a stage musical, with all its gore and rich, take-no-prisoners humor. Audience members are greeted by zombies as they enter the theater, including a plant recognized as "undead" only when it springs to startling life. There is a down-front "splatter zone" as gallons of fake blood are hurtled at the audience (ponchos are available). The story line is classic: Two young couples and the sister of one adventurer arrive at a cabin in the woods for a night of revelry, and inadvertently unlock the portal that keeps the undead at bay. If a favorite character is brutally slaughtered, don't worry, it doesn't mean we've seen the last of him. The pace is fast and furious, the set is remarkable in its detail and comes to life itself, and the acting does its job of keeping the momentum going on an increasingly bloody trajectory. A stand-out was Colton Wright as Ash, who moves from hedonist to savior of the human race in a triumphant performance, in which he is onstage almost the entire time and has to deal with the loss of a hand (don't worry about that hand; it too has a life of its own). Stephanie Kirkpatrick is terrific as Annie, whose father owned the cabin and dabbled in the black arts. This wholehearted comedy is of course a deadpan spoof, and I can't recall when I laughed so long — or so continuously. The limited choreography is well-done, and the songs are entertaining, if not memorable. This carnival is directed by Marc Anthony Glover, and all concerned merit our gratitude. This is a night of comic inventiveness brought to vivid, interactive life — don't miss it. Through October 29. Stage Door, Inc., 284 Pasadena Town Square Mall, 832-582-7606. — JJT

Oliver Twist Charles Dickens's classic tale of orphan Oliver and his most adventurous "progress" in the underworld of Victorian London gets a faithful retelling in Neil Bartlett's ultra-theatrical adaptation at Theatre Southwest. Bartlett decides to go all "theatrical" in his retelling, as if plain old dramatizing weren't enough for this 1837 masterpiece. Here, he overlays scenes with tableaux vivants, a device from the Victorian stage where the action freezes in a well-composed picture. This hoary convention might still work, but not when it happens in the middle of a scene. It stops the action deader than a door nail. Dickens's mighty work is rich with incident and overflowing with iconic portraits that have become firmly etched in the world's consciousness. Who doesn't know Oliver's plea for another bowl of gruel, "Please, sir, I want some more"? Who isn't familiar with the perverse machinations of Fagin, master of his ragamuffin army of hooligans and petty street criminals, led by the Artful Dodger, prince of pickpockets? And what about slut Nancy with her psychotic attraction to Bill Sikes, one of literature's most sadistic villains? With his face "like an angel," little Caleb Ortega is the very picture of Oliver and is most sympathetic. He must constantly react to all manner of situations, none too pleasant, and he acquits himself like a trooper. John Stevens eats up Fagin, crouching over like a crooked spider to work his evil ways. In his worn greatcoat, he insinuates himself with false modesty and gentlemanly pretense. Liz King, as Nancy, is handsome enough for a Cockney beauty gone to seed, and her misguided love for Bill is plain to all. What a fantastic horror Adan Inteuz makes as Sikes, amoral and threatening, solid and moving like a shark. Avery Stinson, as the Artful Dodger, moves like he could pick a pocket or two and gives this street kid a very cool reading. The subsidiary characters are handled with authentic finesse by Carolyn Montgomery, Monica Passley, Michel Stevens, Casey Coale and Bruce Blifford. All of them would've been granted a nod of approval by Dickens. The tribe of lost boys, however, needs tightening up to be a more effective gang. These kids aren't playing at the arcade after school; it's life or death on the mean streets of London in 1837. Make it real. The tale is timeless, and Theatre Southwest's telling, under David Holloway's direction, is eminently watchable. Through November 30. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — DLG

The Retreat from Moscow After 30 years, a middle-class English marriage comes apart at the seams in William Nicholson's perceptive and elegiac chamber drama, beautifully detailed and acted in Country Playhouse's production. Alice and Edward (Karen Ross and Jim Salners) have kept at their marriage for three decades, but neither is happy. He's emotionally distant, which drives her batty. She's nitpicky and has been "getting at him" for years now. "Look at me, talk to me," she implores. "Talk about you." He retreats into his beloved crossword puzzles or historical diaries about Napoleon's disastrous 1812 Russian campaign, when the invincible French army was torn to tatters by incompetence and the fierce winter weather. Edward's inevitable retreat is into the arms of another woman. Alice is betrayed and feels as if she's been murdered. The entire marriage has been a sham. Into the vortex, their unmarried son Jamie (Scott McWhirter) is forced to be referee. Asked to deliver messages from both camps, he attempts to be as comforting to each as best he can, although he's not strong enough to be either rock or shelter. What's to become of them is the quiet mystery the play sets out to resolve. Under Rachel Mattox's elegant and softly pointed direction, the trio does exceptional work. Salners, at first all tweedy and worn about the elbows, shows banked fire when pushed to the wall. His Act I closing monologue, in which he remembers meeting Alice on a train and how that day irrevocably changed his life, is immensely moving. Ross is simply superb as the smart wife whose life seems all but over when her marriage collapses. At least widows have a definite ending to their marriages, she spits out in envy. Her flashes of wicked wit help illuminate even the darkest of her hours. McWhirter finds the haunted adult interior to Jamie's little-boy-lost and turns that quiet life of desperation into a finely etched portrait. Scenic designer Steve Carpentier's gauzy backdrop, behind which can be seen silhouettes of trees stripped of their leaves, is the perfect visual accompaniment to Nicholson's taut, wintry personal drama. This is high drama of a very special kind. Through October 27. 12802 Queensbury Lane, 713-467-4497. — DLG

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