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Capsule Stage Reviews: Avenue Q, Black Coffee, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Dog Act, Life Could Be a Dream, The Lion King, Tamarie Cooper's DOOMSDAY REVUE (the greatest musical ever)

 Avenue Q This 2004 Tony Award winner for Best Musical works well in the intimacy of the Country Playhouse because the show isn't about the pomp and circumstance of most Broadway shows. It's about real life and the full-bodied characters that make up that reality. And it's about laughing. Hard. In a nutshell, the off-color musical is a riff on the nurturing encouragement of Sesame Street, where every child is special and destined for greatness. The denizens of Avenue Q, however, are adults who must face the unthinkable: They're not special, and, more important, life's a bitch. Tyler Galindo makes a fine Princeton, the musical's straight-out-of-college protagonist. Galindo is fresh-faced and sings with a hopeful earnestness that underscores the character's main dilemma: What exactly does a bright kid with no work experience do with a BA in English? Princeton is one of the characters who are personified by a puppet, as is Kate Monster, performed with spot-on sprightliness by Laura Botkin. She's a monster on a mission but is hampered by the fact that, like everyone else on her block, she's working a job she hates just to pay the bills. Avenue Q deals with heavy subject matter but in the form of hilarious numbers like "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "Fantasies Come True" (the longings of a closeted Republican) and "Schadenfreude" (the act of taking pleasure from someone else's pain). There's even a song sequence that features hot and heavy puppet sex. However, there were a few chinks in the production's otherwise solid chain. Technical difficulties marred the comedic timing of "The Internet Is for Porn," and a slideshow slip-up gave away part of the ending resolution. Not all of the lyrics in "Special" and "The More Your Ruv Someone" were audible, but for the most part the players hit their marks. Avenue Q is really about the colorful cast of characters; by the end of the show, we wish we could spend a little more time with them. Through July 28. 12802 Queensbury Ln., 713-467-4497. — AC

Black Coffee Agatha Christie's first play, Black Coffee, from 1930, introduced the Belgian crime-solver Hercule Poirot, and the Alley brings it to life for the annual Summer Chills tradition of mystery plays. Sir Claude has invented a weapon of mass destruction, but the formula has been pilfered, and he has asked M. Poirot to solve the theft. Poirot arrives too late, as Sir Claude has drunk the coffee served him and gone to his heavenly reward. James Black plays M. Poirot and is excellent, creating a memorable characterization filled with dry humor and conveying a keen sense of a brilliant mind seething with energy. Sir Claude's daughter-in-law, Lucia, is played by Laura E. Campbell, who is blond and beautiful and wears clothes like a supermodel; she is warm and appealing. Todd Waite as Arthur Hastings, Poirot's assistant, turns what might have been a caricature into a warm, interesting human being. The director, Alley Artistic Director Gregory Boyd, certainly steers these actors toward compelling performances. Alley stalwart Jeffrey Bean portrays Dr. Carelli but has little to do except look slightly sinister. Jay Sullivan plays Sir Claude's son, who must look anxious and be a bit of a hothead, and he does that well. Sir Claude's sister is played by Jennifer Harmon, who adds a poised stage presence and some delightful tipsy humor, while Josie de Guzman, as Sir Claude's niece, generates sex appeal and adds humor and interest. Alley veteran James Belcher creates a vivid Inspector Japp, as well as playing Sir Claude. Scenic design by Linda Buchanan and costume design by Tricia Barsamian are effective and attractive. A mystery play hoary with age is given fresh, triumphant life in a vibrant production as gifted actors carry it on their talented shoulders. Through August 5. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — JJT

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson The Houston premiere of this award-winning rock musical is a rousing take-no-prisoners production that captures the raw vitality of our seventh president, portrayed by Kregg Dailey in a performance so riveting it made me believe Elvis was in the building. He dominates the stage, creating a portrait of an ambitious, earthy populist, a superb salesman who deeply believes in his wares — himself — a tyrant who rides roughshod over opponents, and a human being capable of love and vulnerable to the core. Luis Quintero is excellent as Cherokee chief Black Fox, and Grant Brown plays a sexually ambiguous Martin Van Buren most amusingly, joined by three other "aristocrats": Tyce Green as John C. Calhoun, Billy Cohen as James Monroe and Graham Baker as Henry Clay; all are admirable. The production team makes the events come alive with dramatic lighting, special sound effects, a warm, detailed set, striking costumes and a superb band. Director George Brock marshaled all this into seamless excitement. The book, by Alex Timbers, takes irreverence to a new level and revels in truth-telling about just how avaricious, conniving and self-serving humankind is, all with enormous good humor, replete with delightful stagecraft and a writing hand so deft that, even as the stage is strewn with dead bodies, those deaths leave us in stitches. The music and lyrics by Michael Friedman are compelling, from the early "Populism, Yea, Yea!" to the incisive and poignant "Ten Little Indians" to the cynical "Crisis Averted," perfectly capturing the spirit of political chicanery. Brilliant creativity from all participants creates a musical masterwork, refreshingly original and brimming with humor and truth. Through July 29. Generations Theatre at Hamman Hall, Rice University, entrance 21 off Rice Blvd., 832-326-1045. — JJT

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