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Capsule Stage Reviews: Damaged Divas of the Decades, Oliver Twist, Once on this Island, Skin Deep, Speed-the-Plow, There Is a Happiness That Morning Is

 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

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

Once on This Island Young children and early teenagers retell a Caribbean story of class warfare, with enticing results. Applause Theatre is a theatrical gem, small and comfortable with tiered seating and a proscenium stage, which is at the moment a Caribbean beach blending into a sparkling blue sea, topped by low-lying clouds on the horizon and filled with children and young teenagers acting with the assurance many an adult actor might envy. The story is of love found and lost, of class warfare between the haves and the have-nots. A young woman of the peasant class brings a well-to-do young man back to life and comes to love him, but loses him to one of his "own kind." The costuming by Leslie Rhodes is colorful and includes two brilliant over-the-top hats. Natalie Holley plays Ti Moune, the heroine, and conveys tenderness and spirit as an iconoclast, daring to think outside the box. Caleb Sepulveda plays young Daniel with easy grace and a ready smile. Brooke Birner plays Andrea, the lass whom Daniel weds, and sings with a clear, compelling voice. Emmanuel Coraza plays Tonton, the adoptive father of Ti Moune, with a strong stage presence. The choreography by Joel Cortina captures the spirit of the island, and the children move with grace and precision. The music has a strong Caribbean beat and drives the action appropriately, while shifting to underscore more plaintive moments, though the bongos drown out some dialogue. Directors Ryan Cochran and Leslie Rhodes have found the charm in this tale – and given it life on stage. A lighthearted fable on a serious theme is well-acted by a young cast, and is certain to delight children and appeal to the inner child of most adults as well. Through November 13. – JJT

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