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Capsule Stage Reviews: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Extremities, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Romeo and Juliet

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas A revival of the 1978 rollicking Broadway musical about the famed Texas "Chicken Ranch" rides into town with flags unfurled and spirits high. Broad humor and one-dimensional characters strut their stuff, appealing to a nostalgic view of rural Texas, where a crusading Houston TV newscaster, Melvin P. Thorpe, modeled on Houston's late Marvin Zindler and played by Michael Tapley in a bravura performance, threatens to close the long-standing rural brothel. The leading character is the owner, Miss Mona, portrayed by Michelle DeJean, and she is excellent, holding center stage with consummate poise and easy command and creating a warm, interesting individual. Kevin Cooney plays Sheriff Dodd, and he makes the conflict between law and common sense seem realistic. Tamara Siler plays the ranch's housekeeper, Jewel, and her powerful voice soars in "Twenty-Four Hours of Loving," easily the wittiest and best number of the evening. Miss Mona's solo "Bus from Amarillo" is touching, coming as close to poignant as this comedic jaunt cares to get. "Hard Candy Christmas" in Act II lets a number of the female "employees" of the ranch show their vocal ability. The choreography, by Angie Wheeler, has a wonderful dance in Act I as six cheerleaders create the illusion of 18. There is a male chorus of Aggie football players who visit the ranch-in-crisis. Roger Allan Raby directed, and he captures the driving energy of Texas. The book is by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, and the music and lyrics are by Carol Hall. The six-piece band is wonderful. Talented performers, engaging music and a brisk comedic script take us back to a simpler time in Texas as a musical returns home with verve and charm, guaranteeing an enjoyable evening. Through June 17. The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-558-2600. — JJT

Extremities Theatre Southwest's production has put the tingle into William Mastrosimone's creepy little Off-Broadway hit. Psychotic stalker Raul (Kevin Daugherty) has set his sadistic sights on the lonely farmhouse shared by Marjorie (Elizabeth Marshall Black) and her two roommates, Patricia (Kelly Walker) and Terry (Melanie Martin). He's done his homework with flair, knowing when Marjorie would be alone and stealing mail to get a psychological edge. It's no spoiler to report that Marjorie turns the tables on her attacker. To his utter dismay, Raul finds himself tied up in the fireplace, having been blinded with bug spray, doused with boiling water and ammonia, smashed with a hammer and constantly poked with the fireplace equipment whenever he becomes snarky. All his tortures are greeted with whoops of appreciation from the audience, who applaud Marjorie's spunky ingenuity at extracting revenge for the "animal's" beastly behavior. But then the roommates return and their various reactions to Marjorie becoming like her attacker set the play spinning. Marjorie has a simple solution for Raul: bury him alive. No one will miss him. Meanwhile, Raul works his wiles on the women, playing them against each other, trying to get their sympathy. Every time someone steps a foot closer to the fireplace, we catch our breath as we wait for Raul to spring forth and wreak more vengeance. Black is an avenging angel on a mission. Righteous and indignant, she takes command with force. There's no messing with her. She can't believe that her roommates would doubt her version. "Me or him, choose!" she screams. Matching her every step is Daugherty, who makes psycho Raul a chilling portrait in sexual sadism. The attack is harrowing, and the table-turning is exciting physical theater. For this, praises go to director Malinda Beckham and her valiant actors, who don't flinch from the seedy and sordid. They go for it! Through June 16. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — DLG

Kiss of the Spider Woman This is not the Kander & Ebb musical version of Manuel Puig's best-selling novel. There are no shirtless chorus boys gyrating around Chita Rivera in a birdcage. This is the earlier stage adaptation, dramatized by Puig and translated into English by Allan Baker. Unhinged Productions, Houston theater's prime interpreter of all things GLBT, in a provocative co-production with Talento Bilingüe de Houston, gives us a Kiss that sings anyway. It's one of UP's finest productions. We do not miss the chorus boys. Directed with both sensitivity and flair by Unhinged Artistic Director Joe Angel Babb and wondrously acted by Abraham Zeus Zapata and Anthony Hernandez, Kiss weaves a most affecting spell. By the end, we're thoroughly ensnared. What begins as a claustrophobic two-person prison drama between two of the most disparate types of men evolves into the most unlikely love story. The irony in Puig's mesmerizing tale is that apolitical gay window dresser Molina (Zapata) has lived his entire life in a dreamland, while macho Valentin (Hernandez) lives only to serve the revolution, making no room at all for imagination. The stories that Molina tells to keep both men's spirits up transform them both. By the end, soft Molina has been hardened and stoic Valentin softened. Babb shoves the prison cell (pungently detailed in set designer Dana Harrell's moist, peeling walls and the painterly lighting by Zack Vierla) way over to stage left, leaving stage right nearly empty except for the hint of a hallway, but he fills the small acting space with cinematic dexterity. At times the Baker translation sounds like a literal transcription of Puig's poetic Spanish instead of normal speech, but the two actors inhabit their characters with such fervor that we forgive them some bumpy passages that would trip up the most veteran of performers. Zapata's emotional Molina is swishy without apology, while Hernandez's Valentin is compact fire, not knowing exactly how to respond to this alien Scheherazade in drag. Both actors depict their characters' completion with quiet, affecting force that brings Puig's unlikely love story to thrilling theatrical life. Through June 17. Talento Bilingüe, 333 S. Jensen Dr. 713-222-1213. — DLG

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