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Capsule Stage Reviews: First Lady Suite, KOOZA, The Lion King, Top Shelf Shorts, Travelsty

First Lady Suite After its mesmerizing former production of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, the young Bit of a Stretch Theatre Company hits another home run with composer/lyricist Michael John LaChiusa's thoroughly intriguing first major work, the chamber musical First Lady Suite (1993). Here is a distinctive, adult voice that demolishes the lie that the Broadway musical is dead. Although a young work, Suite is clever and funny, poignant and moving. The music throughout is immensely listenable, pegged accurately to the character singing so that each arietta is complete in itself. Nothing is wasted in LaChiusa's vocabulary; the whole musical world is at his command: Gershwin makes many refreshing, jazzy appearances, and there are appreciative nods to brassy Berlin and whole bursts of Sondheim, if without his patented brittle. For all the pastiche, though, there's great invention in his sound — spiky, then languid, cerebral, then warm. Suite's music and lyrics don't wash over you like so much of recent Broadway muzak; they grab you and make you listen. You may not know where the songs are going, but the journey is full of satisfying surprises. Four First Ladies are at Suite's center: Jackie Kennedy (Gina-Marie Vincent), Mamie Eisenhower (Karen Ross in Ethel Merman-belt mode), Bess Truman (Brad Zimmerman in drag, the show's weakest link) and Eleanor Roosevelt (Abby Seible). Other than the Mamie sequence, where she is front and center, the musical's highlight occurs when Roosevelt's closeted lover Lorena Hickok (Julia Kay Laskowski) enters the spotlight. Laskowski takes flight in the role, and she's bitingly ironic, gently romantic and caustically bitchy. The scene lifts the show into the stratosphere. With sympathetic musical direction under Wiley DeWeese, and a most talented ensemble of singing actors all agilely staged by Erin Cressy, First Lady Suite sails through distaff White House history, sniffing under the bed and furtively looking through the medicine cabinet. Amazingly, what's found in the most famous house in the world is exactly what you'd find in your own. This work is tremendously entertaining, doubly so if you like your musicals novel and unknown. Through August 5. Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring, 713-344-3751. — DLG

KOOZA In KOOZA's loose narrative, a shy, foppish character known as The Innocent discovers a world of magic, acrobatics and illusion. He's not only awed by the fantastic, but also finds a sense of self and purpose. If that story doesn't sound compelling, that's because it's really not. There has only ever been one reason to go to a Cirque du Soleil engagement, and that is to be thrilled by the feats of strength, flexibility and athleticism on display. The primary appeal of the performers at Cirque has never been what the human body can emote, but what it can do. And these bodies can do quite a bit. The Innocent's journey to self-discovery is marked by a series of circus acts, some more jaw-dropping than others. The first real crowd-pleaser of the first act is the trio of contortionists dressed in skintight gold-leaf costumes. They move with a lithe energy that can only be described as feline. The choreography showcases their hyperextended backs as they fold themselves in ways that suggest their spines are really made of Play-Doh rather than bone. Equally stunning is a balancing act that sees a performer hold himself on one hand 23 feet in the air. The rest of the show is just as entertaining, and features a solo trapeze performance, a unicycle routine, charivari, hoops manipulation, a teeterboard act that is not to be missed and a couple of funny, if not obscene, comedy acts. The Wheel of Death in Act II is not for the faint of heart, but is so thrilling, it has to be seen to be believed. KOOZA is at its best when it's not trying to be an emotional journey. When there's this much showmanship and exoticism on display, any attempt at creating a personal trajectory is pointless. Cirque du Soleil is a circus, after all, and KOOZA is another entertaining entry in its long list of spectacles. Through September 2. Sam Houston Race Park, 7575 North Sam Houston Pkwy., 281-807-8700. — AC

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

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