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Capsule Stage Reviews: Il Trovatore, Crimes of the Heart, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)

 Il Trovatore Giuseppe Verdi's monumental and monumentally exciting opera (1853) roars into Opera in the Heights and flattens everything else around. It leaves one breathless. In the first scene of Act II, the gypsy camp is swarming with excitement (the famous "Anvil Chorus"), but earth mother Azucena (mezzo Jenni Bank) sits apart from the swaggering merriment. She is deep in thought and stares intensely into the void. The lights go all spooky, lighting her from below, and she's off into one of opera's most famous arias, "Stride la vampa" ("The flames are crackling!") as she remembers her mother burned at the stake. Full of horror yet profoundly moving, her aria plumbs the agility and lungs of any mezzo, as Azucena's frightening vision turns to implacable vengeance, imploring her son Manrico, the "troubadour" of the title (tenor Lázaro Calderón), to avenge the tortured death of her mother years earlier. Bank soars through the exciting powerhouse aria, which calls for a Verdian technique of the highest caliber since he asks for drama with a capital D and the agility to cover the scale with strength and, yes, subtlety. She is not alone on stage as a superlative Verdi interpreter, surrounded as she is by Calderón, soprano Lara Tillotson as Manrico's love Leonora, and baritone Adam Meza as evil Count di Luna, who's also in love with Leonora. (The Emerald cast, Dominick Rodriguez, Michelle Johnson, Andrew Cummings, and Sarah Heltzel performs March 22 and 24.) In Verdi's masterpiece -- one of so many -- "Stride" is but one of countless other showstopping arias, duets, trios, and chorus numbers in this unquenchable opera. Many of them you already know, its tunes having entered our consciousness a century ago. Director Brian Byrnes wisely keeps the staging unfussy and lets the singers do what they do best. Maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo whips up the reduced OH orchestra into appropriate frenzy, keeping Verdi taut and trim and moving ever forward. You can hear his love of Verdi in the crisp phrasing and silky textures he elicits from his players. As a crash course in opera and the theatrical wonders Verdi's music can conjure, there's no better start than the volcanic Il Trovatore. It hasn't been bettered. Musically, neither has this production from Opera in the Heights. Through March 25. 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-861-5303. – DLG

Crimes of the Heart Sisterhood blooms at Texas Repertory Theatre, strong and resilient, in this Pulitzer Prize-winner by Beth Henley. The three MaGrath sisters bond and bitch in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, as only sisters can do. Realized by TRT with the company's usual precision and accuracy, and sufficient warmth to bake a pecan pie, Crimes aims straight and strikes right into our hearts. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better ensemble cast than this one assembled by director Steven Fenley, who knows exactly how to balance Henley's gothic against the comic. Caretaker for Granddad, who's raised the trio since their mother's suicide, frumpy Lenny (Lyndsay Sweeney) celebrates her 30th birthday alone, wishing on a stale cookie with a candle stuck into it. Married sister Babe (Lauren Dolk), who has just shot her politician husband because she "didn't like his looks," moves in with Lenny while out on bail. Wild child Meg (Eva Laporte), supposedly living the high life in L.A., returns home when she hears of Babe's arrest. The three MaGrath sisters collide and coalesce on this particular day, prodded by Doc (David Walker), Meg's former flame now married; Barnett (Zachary Lewis), Babe's young lawyer who's taken a professionally inappropriate shine to his client; and snooty cousin Chick "the Stick" (Julie Fontenot), who's all about propriety and what the neighbors will think of her relatives' trashy scandals. Family secrets and sisterly dreams cascade through the comedy, interspersed with heartfelt emotion as each of them reveals her aches, unfulfilled desires and waylaid ambitions. Each is damaged, but when they sit at the kitchen table and lay bare their souls, the play soars. They take heart from each other. The sweet optimism that runs through the comedy warms us like the best of summer's breezes. From the first view of designer Trey Otis's faded kitchen-sink set with its rusty hot water heater and banging screen door, we know we're going to be in fine hands. Once the three leading ladies appear, there's no doubt. Under TRT's careful handling, Henley's Southern Gothic valentine to the ultimate strength and resiliency of women is sent sailing. It feels like being embraced by six powerful arms. Through April 7. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573. – DLG

In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) A period play with modern overtones combines science, sexual humor and unlikely events to create a pastiche that somehow earned a Tony nomination as Best New Play in 2010. The central character in a sense is The Machine, prominent, upstage on a raised platform, and wheeled out to provide vaginal stimulation to women as a cure for hysteria. This is in the 1880s, and the costumes by Claire Verheyen are exceptional, as is the set by Claire A. Jac Jones and Jodi Bobrovsky. The medical entrepreneur is played by David Matranga, an actor with enormous vitality and charm, who here plays a stuffed-shirt and bore. His wife is portrayed by Tracie Thomason, beautiful and likable, but compelled by the script to have strange mood swings. Kristin Warren plays a patient cured by The Machine, which seems to have a Prozac-like after-effect. Her husband is played by Steve Irish, whom I admired greatly, until the narrative propelled him into folly. Garrett Storms plays a painter, and his treatment from The Machine is played for farce. He creates a vivid portrait of an impulsive artist, but ultimately joins the others in becoming a cartoon. Pamela Vogel plays a nurse, and yes, her behavior joins the list of oddities. Only Courtney D. Jones as a servant manages to survive with her dignity intact. Ruhl provides us with a series of scenes in which characters behave without motivation. Ruhl seems to have no respect for her characters or for the audience. Stages Repertory Theatre has mounted an impressive re-creation of a period, but director Leslie Swackhamer hasn't solved the problems inherent in the script. A handsome production of a flawed play teeters between farce and drama, satisfying the demands of neither. Through April 8. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. -JJT

 
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