Capsule Stage Reviews: Chinglish, MBTV, Ravenscroft, Six Degrees of Separation, There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, Tribute

 Chinglish A businessman from Cleveland travels to China seeking a contract to create signage, using as an interpreter an alleged consultant, an expatriate Caucasian fluent in Mandarin. The Chinese officials rely on incompetent interpreters, so misunderstandings abound. The gaps between what the American says and what the translator reports are richly comic in Chinglish, but it's like a SNL skit that goes on too long. The comedy also attempts to be a romantic drama and to critique contrasting cultures. The acting is excellent — John Dunn as the consultant creates a fascinating portrait of a linguist who loves his adopted China — but does he really? Vivian Chiu portrays Vice Minister Xi Yan, and is persuasive indeed in a multifaceted role, leaving us to wonder what she is really thinking. Xin Jian as Minister Cai Guoliang is superb at conveying his emotions and intelligence. The Ohio businessman, Victor Cavanaugh, is portrayed by Mike Yager, and he delivers an enthusiastic performance, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, conveying a vivid portrait of a minnow swimming with sharks. But as the plot becomes more complex, he does not. The play is presented in the stunning auditorium of the Asia Society, and designer Jodi Bobrovsky has provided sleek sets, but the production is awkward, requiring numerous scene changes, frittering away momentum, and a needless intermission. The play runs full tilt in three different directions: comedy, romance and cultural investigation, failing in all three. The director, Troy Scheid, has not provided the genius to solve perhaps intractable problems. This is an amusing curiosity, best viewed as a minor effort from playwright David Henry Hwang, but it is replete with humor and enhanced by some stunning performances. It's well worth seeing, but will be enjoyed most if expectations are lowered. Through May 26. Black Lab Theatre and Asia Society Texas Center, 1370 Southmore Blvd., 713-496-9901. — JJT

MBTV Under full disclosure, I must declare that there is no more talented musical theater quintet than this collective (Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Cay Taylor, Kristina Sullivan and Luke Wrobel — veterans of the late, great Masquerade Theatre), and I would be happy as a clam just to sit and listen to them sing whatever they want to. Which is exactly what they do in this revue, without much thought to the theme, which is The Music Box Does Television. To be fair, they state this objective right at the beginning — that the songs are a bunch of their favorites and this seems the right time to perform them — but why do a show about television if the songs have nothing whatsoever to do with the subject? Exquisitely sung, as always, the show is rushed and slapdash, not up to MBT's usual standards. The skits, as they are, are fairly lame and flatline badly, but are saved in every way by the guest appearance of John Gremillion (another quality alumnus from Masquerade), who performs in knockout impersonations of Mr. Rogers, creepy and soft; Regis Philbin, peppy and overmedicated; and Johnny Carson, full of tics with perfect timing. Gremillion raises the level of the nonmusical segments with graceful ease. Of course, none of this truly matters when the five of them open their mouths and sing, instantly transporting us to a higher plane. Each gets to shine. Taylor, who does a brilliant but brief appearance as whiney Fran Drescher, turns on a dime and dazzles as a glamorous "Material Girl," squealing in little chirps as she paws the diamonds. Scarborough, with his trumpet-bright tenor, sails through "Hooked on Feelings," with the ensemble backing him up with those patented "ooh-ga-cha-kas." Dahl, pregnant and about to give birth if she wails another high C, channels her inner Grace Slick with a smoking "Somebody to Love." Wrobel, all honeyed baritone swirling like haze, mesmerizes with the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer classic "One for My Baby." Sullivan, all crystal-clear soprano, plunges deep into the Heart power ballad "Alone," and later gloriously traipses through Sting's elegiac "Fields of Gold," although she's overshadowed by a "best of" tribute to TV personalities playing behind her. The five join forces, unsuccessfully, I must confess, in an a cappella version of the rhapsodic Brian Wilson/Tony Asher "God Only Knows." But the best is saved for last, a rip-roaring Joe Cocker take on "With a Little Help from My Friends," fabulously rendered by Wrobel with all those neurotic Cocker mannerisms in place. No need to grab that remote when any of these five are singing center stage. Through July 3. Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

Ravenscroft In a British country manor, a police inspector interrogates five women — the solitary male employee has just perished, by accident or murder. The first act is a conventional mystery drama, and the second act close to a French sex farce. The acting is superb, and director Rob Kimbro has succeeded in creating an authentic ensemble. The bad news is that in Act I nothing much happens, except that the ladies tell lies. Sean Patrick Judge plays the inspector, and creates brilliantly a stuffy, straight-arrow officer in Act One, but in Act Two fails to find the truth in the character as playwright Don Nigro compels him to get drunk and become an homme fatal. At the top of the hierarchy is Mrs. Ravenscroft, and Michelle Edwards creates an interesting character with considerable range and authority in Act One, but must portray a simpering coquette in Act Two. Her 17-year-old daughter, Gillian (Zoquera Millburn), is excellent in both acts, since Gillian, though a compelling beauty, is a bit daft, like the play. Claire Anderson brings a wonderful stage presence to the role of the Austrian governess, Marcy, though she has little to do except deliver boring lines. The servants are delicious. Karen Schlag plays Mrs. French, the housekeeper, glum to a fault, and in Act One hovering like a condor at the edge of the stage. In Act Two, it's a relief to find she is silly and flawed. Last but by no means least is Dolly, the much-abused maid, and the wonderful Kara Ray captures her panic and hysteria with vivid certainty. The successive explanations for Patrick's death all seem much the same, and the final one is no more plausible than the others. Through May 18. From Mildred's Umbrella at Studio 101, 1824 Spring St., 832-463-0409. — JJT

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