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The Meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X met just once, briefly, but playwright Jeff Stetson has imagined a longer meeting at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. Stetson permits each protagonist to voice with equanimity and occasional passion his views, but his inner muse, aided by casting, betrayed him into creating a more vivid character in Malcolm X, graced by Stetson with a sarcastic sense of humor. Malcom X is portrayed by Mirron Willis, tall, with an imposing stage presence, a rich, sardonic laugh, and a keen sense of theatricality. It is a masterful performance. Jason E. Carmichael portrays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and captures his dedication, and at times his voice echoes the cadence of Dr. King. Carmichael is strong and articulate, but the script makes him seem defensive, perhaps because King's nonviolent path to integration is less colorful than the revolutionary credo of the Muslim Malcolm X: "By any means necessary." The set, designed by Jason Lont, is handsome and tiered, with an outdoor balcony — it works well. The direction by Shirley Whitmore is spirited and appropriate. Stetson has made the debate between the two icons conversational, and the dialogue rings true — we are carried along by the torrent of words. This is no dry-as-dust academic debate but a struggle between two men who have labored in the trenches. The script falters at its conclusion — too many endings — and a rapprochement based on both men having daughters seems pat — it trivializes what is otherwise a powerful, articulate presentation of the strongly held views of two significant leaders who have devoted their lives to a cause. The Meeting is a fascinating study of what might have been, filled with intelligence, wit and strong performances by gifted actors. Through February 15. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — JJT

Into the Woods Familiar fairy-tale characters spring to exciting life in the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical as Little Red Ridinghood visits her grandmother, Cinderella meets her prince, Jack grows his beanstalk and Rapunzel lets down her hair, while a new tale is created about a baker and his wife desperate for a child. The action is nonstop, and delightful, as director Andrew Ruthven brilliantly crams wit and joy into the intimate space of Main Street Theater. Thirteen actors play a score of characters, and the ensemble blending pays off with style and pace, but standouts still emerge — talent will out! Christina Stroup plays a powerful Witch disguised as a crone, then sheds her rags (a wonderful costume by Macy Lyne) to reveal her beauty in a black velvet gown. Stroup dominates the stage with a vivid presence and an enchanting voice. The youthful Scott Gibbs shines with pathos as the cow Milky White — Gibbs must have the most expressive face in Houston — and serves handsomely as Rapunzel's lascivious lover. As the baker's wife, Amanda Passanante has no star turn but is consistent and credible in inhabiting her leading role. These three also project their voices beautifully, while some others do so less well, so lyrics can fade under the beat of the music. Act One ends with the possibility of living happily ever after, but Sondheim and Lapine warn us in Act Two that life is harsh, and provide murder, adultery, child abandonment and scapegoating to prove it. Some songs in the Tony Award-winning score seem too brief, so I especially enjoyed "Agony," which lingers longer, as Gibbs and Kregg Dailey as two Princes in Act One lament the problems of pursuing damsels, and in Act Two reprise it to lament married life. Through February 16. 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706. — JJT

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