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Afterlife Follies

The Music Hall will soon be nothing more than crumbled concrete, but its demise hardly means the death of the musical comedy in Houston. Besides the slew of traveling shows soon to hit town, plenty of local productions attempt to satisfy this sweet tooth of the theatergoing world.

Main Street Theatre has brought back Marianne Pendino, author of The Attitude Club, a hugely successful one-woman show. Happily Hereafter -- Pendino's latest endeavor, co-authored by Jane Seger -- is a funny little musical comedy that offers a very PC lesson about spirituality and "the truth." According to Pendino, you can receive enlightenment from a guru or a radio evangelist. Buddha, Christ, Mohammed -- it doesn't matter. So long as you accept the ideas that "Everything is spiritual" and "We are always walking in a sacred space," you're doing okay.

We learn this lesson through the trials of Angela (Ann C. James), a woman who's died and gone to ... well, when she asks, "Is this Heaven or Nirvana?" the answer is a resounding "Yes."

Wherever she is, she meets Grace (Marianne Pendino), God's wing-wearing right-hand woman. Also here to help Angela find her way around is Baba (Jimmy F. Phillips), a guru who's gone through many lives to get to this place that, with its white floors, gauzy curtains and crystal computer, looks like most any storybook idea of Heaven.

Angela goes through "Afterlife" indoctrination, which is a lot like most any first day on the job, complete with filling out forms. The questions include New Age-y, floaty-music thought-provokers such as "What were your gifts and talents? How did you use them to help others? In what ways did you love?" Of course, Angela runs into trouble. She's stumped when the questionnaire asks about her spiritual experiences. She doesn't think she's had any.

Meanwhile, Grace and Baba monitor earthly goings-on by way of a red flashing emergency light and that crystal computer. The living are having more immediate problems, as the living are wont to do. Sister Lois (also played by Ann James) is about to lose her mission, "Hope House," a place where gangbangers, pregnant teenagers and slow fellows like Ray the handyman helper (also played by Jimmy Phillips) can learn how to read, get advice and just plain feel needed.

The outcome of both heavenly and earthly problems is predictable, to say the least, but the acting is strong enough to make the journey worthwhile. Each actor is triple-cast. Ann James plays Angela, Sister Lois and Tumika, the pregnant teenager. She manages to keep every character distinct: Angela, the dead woman, is a wide-eyed innocent, while the sister is ever smiling in that weary, beneficent nun way.

As Baba, Jimmy Phillips is charming. He's so befuddled by the crystal computer that he calls its mouse a "rodent." But Phillips shines even brighter as the Reverend Bill, the radio evangelist whose main mission in life is shutting down Hope House.

The star of this production, however, is playwright Pendino herself. She plays characters ranging from the schoolmarmish angel, Grace, to the Type A, cell-phoning TV reporter, Joan, to the young gangbanger, Jose. As Jose, a boy who's spent much of his life wandering the underground tunnels of a border town and is now struggling to read and write, Pendino is funny, sad and very convincing.

Though the script is sometimes very amusing, most all of the characters are stereotypes, and much of Happily Hereafter is both predictable and sentimental. Jose wants most of all to be a rap star. His songs -- which describe his "world that's upside down" and the people who obstruct his efforts to "turn it around" -- must contain the most tepidly banal rap lyrics on the planet. They certainly don't reflect the experience of a kid who's spent his life scrounging for food and shelter on the Mexico/U.S. border.

Still, this production, directed by Steve Garfinkel, is funny enough and the performances energetic and smart enough, to make it worth an evening at the theater, especially if you're a musicals kind of person.

Tapped Out
On the other hand, The Tap Dance Kid, playing at the Ensemble, is mostly a disappointment. This enormously popular Broadway hit is not an easy show to produce. First, as you can tell by the title, kids are involved. Second, almost every cast member must be able to sing, dance and act. Any casting director knows how hard it is to find such triple-threat performers, and it's not surprising that this production suffers from weak performances.

Making matters worse, someone made the strange decision to change the sex of the central character, the tap dance kid. In the Ensemble's version, she's a girl named Wileshia, and the plot falls apart.

The play centers on the relationship between Wileshia (Mykel Gray) and her father (Richard Reed). The kid's gotta dance; unfortunately, her father is one of those old-fashioned men who worked his way up to being a rich lawyer, complete with a maid and a wife who calls herself a "domestic engineer." He thinks dancing is nothing but playing, and that nobody can make a decent living at it. He wants his daughter to be a lawyer, just like him. On the sidelines stands Emma (Ebony Burton), Wileshia's bookish, thoughtful older sister who wants more than anything to follow in her father's footsteps. But he doesn't even notice her because ... well, supposedly because he's too sexist to think of her as lawyer material. Never mind that he's pressuring Wileshia.

The unfortunate change in the script isn't helped by weak, unimaginative direction (no director is listed in the program). Much of the time the actors stand huddled in clumps, or alone at center stage, staring straight out to sing. And even a lone piano would be better accompaniment for these singers than the elevator-slow canned music that The Ensemble provides.

The one standout is Anthony Boggess-Glover as Dipsey, the tap-dancing uncle who teaches Wileshia everything he knows about performing. Boggess-Glover's voice is powerful and resonant enough to overcome the taped music, and while he's on stage, his ease and grace make up for the rest of the rudderless production.

Weak as the show is, it might be a good diversion for a child. After the lights came up, I heard one tiny girl stand up and declare, "I'm a tap dancer." And she proceeded to stomp her feet, to prove it.

Happily Hereafter plays through June 21 at the Main Street Theatre, 2540 Times Boulevard, 524-6706. The Tap Dance Kid plays through June 14 at the Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 520-0055.


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