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Annie When it comes to the blockbuster Tony-winning Annie (1977) presented by Theatre Under the Stars with an optimistic grin a mile wide, the old showbiz canard "never work with children or animals" doesn't apply — not with these kids and that ahh-inducing pup Sandy. I won't be alone in praising Miss Sadie Sink, a fourth-grader from Brenham, who transforms Annie into the most adorable tyke imaginable. She's a natural Broadway baby in the making. Like a showbiz veteran, she belts out the show's signature tune, "Tomorrow," but puts over the even richer "Maybe" with simple sincerity that feels completely heartfelt. She's a joy to watch. Her young compatriots at Miss Hannigan's orphanage, all students at TUTS's Humphreys School of Musical Theatre, are also thoroughly professional and professional scene-stealers. You can't beat a number like "It's the Hard Knock Life" for showing off the talents of your students as they scrub in the floor in unison, kick up their little heels in a synchronized routine, and steal our hearts. Mara-Catherine Wissinger, as the littlest orphan Molly, is definitely the audience favorite, deservedly so. Even though Thomas Meehan's wan little book won a Tony, it's a comic version of a show with cartoon people and cartoon acting. Dave Schoonover, as Hannigan's con-man brother Rooster, is the real thing, as if Ray Bolger came back to life. With silky style, Schoonover is a jive Rooster, in orange zoot suit and those wild shoes, who glides over the stage as if oiled. Boneless, he struts and preens in "Easy Street," bringing up the whole tone of the show. He exudes theater pizzazz. The music by Charles Strouse (Bye Bye Birdie, Applause) is the real lift, a loving pastiche of '30s-like tunes and showbiz uppers. The score is immensely likeable and full of personality. Directed by Mark Waldrop, the show moves with smooth inevitability, as if we're turning pages. With its sunny optimism, Annie never dates. When beautifully polished by bright-eyed kids who have their own stars in their eyes, every age needs this show's sunshiny message of hope. Through April 1. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — DLG

Below the Belt Existential comedy gets an effective workout at the intimate Black Box theater inside Country Playhouse. That the audience comes out a bit stronger afterward is testament to the ensemble cast that gives these Everyman ciphers real flesh and blood. Playwright Richard Dresser depicts the inhuman grind of the corporation, a nameless behemoth in some forsaken land spoiling the ecology and chewing up its workers. Crusty veteran Hanrahan (John Stevens) and new guy Dobbitt (Todd Thigpen) are "checkers," a rung above the drudges on the line. Is this a factory or a prison? Hell, perhaps. Manic supervisor Merkin (Kurt Bauer) wields a "void" rubber stamp like a guillotine, bringing it down on his stack of papers with an ominous, reverberating thud. Hanrahan and Dobbitt type up daily reports and feel lucky they have such jobs, mindless as they might be. They play at word games, as much to pass the time as to keep us in the dark as to what's happening and where we are. For a long time we feel stuck in an endless loop from Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine, but then the magic of theater sweeps us along — with the actors' sterling ability to make the abnormal quite normal — and we actually settle in, even anticipating the verbal sparring and Dresser's artsy round-robin dialogue. Stevens, always a marvel, overlays Hanrahan's crust with layers of hidden hurt. When he thinks his wife has written him, he glows from the inside and does a little leap and lovely cackle of pure joy. As innocent Dobbitt, Thigpen reacts like someone thrown to the lions without knowing why. He's corrupted slowly, and looks the part. Bauer takes inept Merkin very nearly over the top. Totally unmoored from reality, he's frighteningly true. Director Cone keeps everything moving like a fever dream. I haven't a clue what the title means, but Dresser isn't big on hope. Through April 7. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

Cactus Flower Abe Burrows's 1965 farce about a dentist pretending to be married to escape the shackles of marriage gets a lively presentation at Company OnStage, with some attractive and talented actors giving the vehicle a push when necessary. The lead is Casey Coale as Julian, a mature dentist with an attractive young girlfriend and a roving eye. His girlfriend, Toni, is played by Melanie Martin, and she has a truly remarkable gift for comic timing. Martin's enthusiasm, her beauty and a series of stunning outfits ensure the evening's delight. Her energy and charm work against the credibility of her love affair with Julian, as Coale gives the role a professional gloss but doesn't provide zest, nor much indication that Julian is enjoying life. A handsome writer, Igor, has the apartment next door to Toni, and they bond as he thwarts a suicide attempt on Toni's part. He contributes boyish charm, and carries off a flirtation with an older woman with aplomb. The object of this attention is Stephanie, Julian's assistant and receptionist, portrayed by Heather Gabriel; as she emerges from wallflower to hot babe, the play takes on added firepower. Midway through Act II, playwright Burrows layers in some complexity and irony, and we suddenly have a sophisticated and eminently satisfying contemporary comedy. Glenn Dodson plays Julian's wingman, Harvey, and Jim Walsh plays Senor Sanchez, a dental patient smitten with Stephanie, and both are good. Marianne Lyon directed, and is to be thanked for helming this warhorse so successfully and breathing new life into it. Comic timing and acting skills enliven this farce by one of Broadway's master showmen, and a stand-out performance by Martin makes this 1965 comedy a gem. Through April 14. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — JJT

Our House Playwright Theresa Rebeck knows the TV industry inside-out, having written for such mega-hit series as L.A. Law, NYPD Blue and the current Smash. Her plays include Mauritius, Blind Dates and Seminar, currently playing on Broadway. She knows what she's talking about, and her searing, cautionary tale has the sad ring of truth. The entire TV industry gets shafted. In Rebeck's double-vision dissection, we see the top tier where programs are created and the news made, and then watch the effects of their decisions on the boobs — roommates who share a house in St. Louis — who watch the programs. The whole satire, which draws blood, is comically tragic. At the top is the network's sleazy head honcho Wes (Chris Patton); his harried toadying news department chief Stu (Xzavien Hollins); and superstar/superego reporter and news anchor Jennifer (Kelley Peters), who sleeps her way onto the A-list. At the house live high-strung slacker Merv (Mike Yager), who's hooked like a junkie on reality TV shows; granola-munching Alice (Danica Dawn Johnston), who rails against Merv and his TV-induced coma/do-nothing attitude; young doctor-in-training Grigsby (Claire Anderson), who only wants a fair shake in life; and level-headed Vince (Jordan Jaffe), who doesn't want to make waves and sides with Merv when Alice overreacts and tries to kick Merv out of the house. Among a perfect cast, Yager is a standout. Wearing a Beavis and Butt-head T-shirt (thank you, costumer Macy Perrone), he's both psychotic and all too real as he dreams of meeting his love/hate idol Jennifer. Passive-aggressive gets a whole new meaning in Yager's bone-chilling depiction. He's the roommate from hell, and we've all had one. Under David Rainey's whiz-bang and perceptive direction, there's no static anywhere. The play moves to its inevitable conclusion, keeping us riveted throughout. You won't have time to reach for the clicker. This is must-see TV. Through March 31. Frenetic Theater, 5012 Navigation Blvd. 713-515-4028. — DLG

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