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 2 Pianos, 4 Hands Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra, both talented Canadian pianists and actors trained for careers as classical musicians, have created a play with music that defies description. It uses humor, musical ability and insightful memories of childhood piano lessons to delineate a world of ambition, frustrations, hard work, and responsibilities shared or shirked, all recollected and described with unflagging energy. Tom Frey plays one of the creators, Ted, and Jeffrey Rockwell plays the other, Richard, and both actors are skilled pianists themselves. They alternate playing tutor, student and parents in a series of vignettes of piano lessons, painful at the time but amusing in recollection. My favorite teacher, played by Frey, is an elderly maestro who teaches while supine on the floor and advises the 17-year-old student that playing an arpeggio with one hand will get him chicks because they find it manly. Frey is not only an excellent actor, he is also a deft mime — his facial expressions and eloquent gestures enhance the humor enormously, and Rockwell matches Frey in musical ability and acting proficiency. This is a comedy, with some poignant moments: We meet a seriously unhip classical musician whose dream is to be a jazz pianist, a child of ten who doesn't want to practice and a musical nerd of 17 who doesn't want to stop. Even if you've personally never endured the rigors of piano lessons, you will still savor the earnest drive of youth, the stardust in the eyes of young performers and the agony of rejection. This musical pastiche, a huge success in Canada, the U.S. and around the world, is receiving its regional premiere here, and it's directed with pace and split-second timing by Frey. Adroit writing, skilled performers and an inventive recollection of childhood and adult musical travails merge into a fresh and invigorating comedy, laced with insights and delivering a rich comedic and emotional experience. Through October 28. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — JJT

Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller's vaunted and much-lauded play remains full of fresh surprises, and the Alley's reverential production is a true theater treasure. Glenn Fleshler, who was understudy for Philip Seymour Hoffman in the recent Broadway revival that closed in June, and who is stepping in after James Black fell ill, portrays a finely shaded Willy Loman that gnaws at the heart. His interpretation reveals all the iconic character's bluster, disappointment, growing madness and unalloyed heartbreak as he fails to live up to his own expectations. Fleshler embodies Willy with enough false heartiness and glad-handing, that, when his dreams shatter, you actually watch his face slump. It's a wondrously detailed portrait. Director Gregory Boyd gives this American classic a classic look, referencing Jo Mielziner's original 1949 production design with a skeletal, minimal setting. The world is closing in on Willy; even the sky is gray and leaden, streaked with fractures. The play, fluid and constantly changing, is set mostly inside Willy's head. Among his other gifts, Miller is a glorious craftsman, and by making Salesman a memory play, he plays with shifting time as Willy relives the past while also living in the present. His life becomes a continual time bend. There's no Salesman without the Loman family dysfunction, and the play has been meticulously cast. As enabling wife Linda, who loves Willy for all his faults but can't stop his trail of self-delusion, Josie de Guzman brings stalwart reserve and wistful dignity. As golden son Biff, Zachary Spicer, in his Alley debut, personifies the former high school football hero gone to seed. As the youngest, least appreciated son always a step behind in Biff's shadow, Jay Sullivan does wonders with Happy. He has become just like his father, doing the least with his life and compromising the most. Neighbor Charlie, Willy's only friend and lifeline, is marvelously limned by Jeffrey Bean, who gives this Borscht Belt Greek chorus a very modest, wise, human face. Miller turns this tale of a small man made smaller into the stuff of big tragedy. Salesman is unceasingly gloomy and is famous for being so, but the deep empathy it engenders for poor pathetic Willy and the family he forever cripples makes for powerful, epic theater. Through October 28. 615 Texas. 713-220-5700. — DLG

Jekyll & Hyde The Jekkies are out in force for Theatre Under the Stars' premiere of the latest pre-Broadway national tour of this undying Frank Wildhorn (music)/Leslie Bricusse (book and lyrics) musical. They have much to cheer about. This quasi-operatic pop chestnut, loosely based upon Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (written in 1886, two years before Jack the Ripper's reign of terror in Victorian London), has undergone showbiz tinkering ever since its first appearance in 1990 as a co-production between TUTS and the Alley Theatre. After extensive overhauls, J&H opened on Broadway (1997) and later underwent more surgery on its international and regional tours. To satisfy all those who can't get enough of those American Idol ballads or the pop star hair of the wicked Mr. Hyde, the producers decided it was time to return once again to Broadway. Hence this newly reconceived production. Through all the transformations, though, the show has retained its good genes. This latest version has been given a steampunk gloss by hot designer Tobin Ost (Newsies) that fits it like a snug Victorian corset. There's a lot more '30s Boris Karloff look to the show than I remember, and Jekyll's injection of his potion through tubes and bubbling columns of ruby liquid is highly theatrical if not terribly convincing. Once upon a time — as in the book — the doctor simply drank the dastardly elixir and had done with it. As the songs ratchet up in key on each successive verse, the singers easily wrap their voices around the higher-flying sprung layers as if born to sing this way. In the demanding dual role of good doctor Jekyll transformed into terribly bad, sadistic Hyde, Constantine Maroulis, a Tony nominee for Rock of Ages, has the rock wail down to a science, and he can flick his thick mane of hair with more gusto than a manic David Lee Roth. His plaintive tenor growls dark and sexy when Hyde appears. As slut Lucy with her requisite heart of gold, Grammy nominee Deborah Cox matches Maroulis's intensity with a dramatic smoky caress of a voice that sails effortlessly through Wildhorn's über-ballads. As Jekyll's haplessly good fiancée Emma, Teal Wicks brings as much cool elegance as possible to this thankless role. Her duet with Jekyll, "Take Me As I Am," and her lovely solo "Once Upon a Dream" are perfectly rendered. Although this is hardly the great show it should be, it looks great and sounds even better. No Jekkie will leave disappointed. Through October 21. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — DLG

Life Is a Dream Pedro Calderón's 1635 classic Life Is a Dream is the ultimate nature vs. nurture play. With a fresh translation from playwright Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics) and a sprightly production, there's plenty of life in this antique chestnut from Spain's Golden Age. The multiple plots are bold and vivid, but it's Calderón's solidly visual language that sets him next to Shakespeare for sheer poetry in motion. Cruz keeps him down to earth somewhat, modernizing a lot of the high-soaring passages and condensing some of its heavy weight, but he always allows those crystalline Calderón images to float front and center. Imprisoned since birth to forestall the dire prophecy his horoscope predicted, Prince Segismundo (David Wald) is brought back to the palace by his guilt-ridden father (Steve Garfinkel). If he proves wise and good, the prince will reign; if he behaves like the monster his father believes him to be, he will return to his nightmarish prison. In crisp, short scenes, Calderón laces this psychologically cogent thriller with the bracing idea of free will. Can man overcome his fate? Must the beast inside always win against our better angels? Then he ladles on the intriguing notion that if life is but a dream, what is real? And how can one tell the difference? Into the heady mix, Calderón throws in a vengeance subplot and a Borscht Belt comic in wise-ass servant Clarin (Philip Hays). Wald makes a terrifically sympathetic prince, whether howling at his fate or opening up to the beauties of Estrella (Crystal O'Brien). "What must the sun do after you rise from your bed," he raves Romeo-like upon seeing her. Beth Lazarou, usually seen singing dramatically on other stages around town, creates a fierce, proud princess in Rosaura — she looks at ease carrying her sword as would Joan of Arc. Garkinkel shows the paternal warmth beneath the king's Lear exterior, and Justin O'Brien gives imperious Astolfo a sharp edge of ego. There are a few moments when rage and braying get the upper hand and threaten to swamp the good ship Calderón, but director Pablo Bracho steadies the boat immediately. If life is a dream, as Calderón so ably implies, then Main Street Theater's exceedingly minimal production — sweatshirts and everyday wear overlaid with period trappings — has a dream logic all its own. It's impossible to make Calderón up-to-date; his ornate language won't allow it. But his particular message to live life fully and do your best in the living of it is a fit lesson for any age. Through October 21. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — DLG

Missionary Position Theater LaB brings playwright/actor Steven Fales to Houston with his one-man show, Missionary Position, the second in his trilogy of autobiographical plays, after the sold-out success of Confessions of a Mormon Boy earlier this year. Theater LaB is perfect for the intimacy of this production — it's like being in a living room while being regaled with anecdotes by a guest who is attractive, fit, charming, vivacious, can deliver a punch line, sings well and moves like a dancer. Fales enters with a large trunk in tow, from which props emerge as needed. Some are photographs, some memorabilia, centering on Fales's two years as a missionary in Portugal for the Mormon Church. The first play covered dramatic events, including sexual awakenings, marriage and its failure, attempts at reparative therapy, excommunication, becoming a high-priced call-boy, and addiction to and recovery from crystal meth. This work is simpler but remains a compelling narrative, including the humorous discovery of masturbation. The cement binding the two together is Fales's struggle with homosexuality while he's active in a religious organization which condemns it as anathema. This holds our interest for a swiftly paced, intermission-less hundred minutes, as we hear the struggle to find and identify oneself, to reconcile conflicting claims on identity. While the telling is amusing and sprightly, the situation so blithely related contains the seeds of a heartbreaking dilemma. Fales was forced to ask himself: "Are you going to believe these towering figures of authority, or your lying gonads?" It took him a while to find the answer. Bitterness and confusion have been softened, and replaced by the objectivity and amusement of maturity. Fales is now 42, and these events took place over two decades ago, but the silver peal of truth still rings true. Through October 21. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516. — JJT

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