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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

Dog Act In the regional premiere of Dog Act, by Liz Duffy Adams, a postapocalyptic world holds a tiny traveling group of vaudevillians. Tamara Siler as Rozetta Stone manages a relic of a cart that is her performance stage, assisted by Philip Hays as Dog, who volunteered for that status. They are joined by two other actors: Celeste Roberts as Vera Similitude and Beth Lazarou as Jo-Jo the Bald-Faced Liar; these seem to have a relationship, though what it is we never learn. David Wald plays Coke and Ross Bautsch plays Bud — these are Scavengers, and they quarrel all the time. The actors are excellent, but the tone of the play is elusive. The Scavengers drop the F-bomb close to every other word, and speak a Shakespearean vernacular with a Cockney accent. Rozetta Stone speaks Ebonics with Dog and the others, but speaks differently when orating onstage. Vera has a British accent, Jo-Jo mostly just looks angry and Dog doesn't speak much. The central parallel is to Peter Quince's acting troupe in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, so the amateurish look of the troupe is explained, as is the winking at the audience. Playwright Adams has created a pastiche of events — a lot does happen in Act Two, not much in Act One — and strung the play with attempted cleverness, like candy apples on a Christmas tree. The director, Andrew Ruthven, hasn't found the combination to make this work, but I don't think anyone could. Adams provides a ray of hope in the final moments, so inappropriate that I would have cringed, had I any cringes left. Gifted actors do their best to elevate a play that doesn't take itself seriously, but fail to achieve lift-off. Through July 29. Main Street Theater — Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — JJT

Life Could Be a Dream Another jukebox musical — the time is the '60s and the music is doo-wop — delivers nostalgia, charm and warm good feelings, but this time with a plot as well. The setting is a basement rec room where the slacker kids hang out, and, yes, "Get a Job" is amusingly staged, with the unseen mother chiming in on an intercom system. Denny (Adam Gibbs) is leader of the singing group, and he's the one with some show-business polish. Eugene (Mark Ivy) is a stereotypical nerd, and friend Wally (Dylan Godwin) drops in and joins the Denny and the Dreamers group; his trademark signature is enthusiasm. The group expands to include Skip (Cameron Bautsch), a mechanic from the wrong part of town; his trademark is to look hunky, which doesn't go unnoticed by Lois (Rebekah Stevens), whose uptight dad is a snob. The suspense is whether the group can get its act together to win a local contest being held the coming Saturday. Director and choreographer Mitchell Greco keeps the pace clipping along, and the voices are pleasant enough to carry the 20-plus songs, such as "A Sunday Kind of Love" and "Unchained Melody." Godwin has the greatest range, most intelligent rendition and impeccable phrasing. There are a lot of physical comedy and broad reactions, and these are appropriate and work well. The finale has a Chorus Line moment that lets us escape the basement and the irritating mother on the intercom. All this is created by Roger Bean, who wrote the long-running hit The Marvelous Wonderettes. This musical, intended for light summer fare, delivers on its promise, providing humor and nostalgia and letting us again relive the tuneful melodies of the '60s. Through September 2. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JJT

The Lion King Courtesy of Galexa Energy Broadway, Disney's The Lion King roars into town with its menagerie of spectacle, stagecraft and human emotions grafted onto a pride of lions, showcasing what inventive minds can accomplish with unlimited funds and unlimited imaginations. Animal puppetry is brought to exciting life by human actors. The giraffes and the elephants are remarkably realistic, while others, such as the prancing oryxes and the menacing and seductive cheetah, convince through movement. There are singers and tom-tom drummers in the loges, birds fluttering in the sky, and the animals parade down the aisle and enter to crowd the stage with delight. The plot is old lion/young lion, but the drama comes from the love between the boy lion Simba and Mufasa, his father and ruler. His uncle, Scar, is crippled with envy, and he has the hyenas on his side, a marvel of fascination — evil, adroit, brilliantly imagined and crafted, and all too human. A young lioness, Nala, is a pal to Simba in the first Act, and becomes more in Act II, when the lions have grown to maturity. An amusing hornbill, Zazu, watches over Simba, and Simba is befriended by a meerkat, Timon, and a warthog, Pumbaa; they are eminently likable and amusing. This musical is also a ballet, and the choreography by Garth Fagan is striking and hugely important. The songs are wonderful, especially the exuberant "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," the evil "Chow Down" and the haunting "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" The music and lyrics are by Elton John and Tim Rice, the direction and costume design are by Julie Taymor, and she and Michael Curry designed the entrancing masks and puppets. A brilliant collaboration of theatrical geniuses has created an awesome blockbuster of overwhelming pleasure. Through August 12. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 800-952-6560. — JJT

Tamarie Cooper's DOOMSDAY REVUE (the greatest musical ever) Tamarie Cooper, co-founder of The Catastrophic Theatre, brings her annual musical comedy revue to DiverseWorks in a colorful, splashy production. The set, designed by Kirk Markley, is a handsome, elegant skyline of skyscrapers, soon overtaken by bedlam as Cooper enters to start the merry antics — she not only holds the stage, she owns it with a vengeance, and doesn't leave it for 90 minutes of uninterrupted frivolity. This revue is ostensibly about the end of the world, but is really about energy and enthusiasm and irreverence for all the graven images of our culture. The witty costumes, by Kelly Switzer, are part of the unrelenting fun, especially The Dancing Cupcake and the multi-limbed giant roaches. Tamarie's plans for a blockbuster musical are interrupted by forecasts of imminent doom, and every doomsday prediction from the Mayan calendar to the Rapture comes in for skewering. There is an inspired sequence involving Barbie dolls, including Prostitute Barbie. A brilliant sequence nails the teenage angst of being the outsider; the wit here is incisive, gentle and sweet. And who knew there was so much humor in the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Musical theater is there to rebuild the world, with zombies from Cabaret, Into the Woods, Phantom of the Opera, Annie, Hair and Fiddler on the Roof. All the very talented actors play multiple roles and sing and dance. Tamarie can do no wrong, and her skill and professionalism shape this motley bag of concepts into a cohesive whole. A large, triumphant cast brings to life a revue of great humor, considerable wit and inspired foolishness, guaranteeing an evening of delightful enjoyment. Through August 25. Catastrophic Theatre at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Fwy., 713-522-2723. — JJT

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