The set-up: Carolann Valentino brings her one-woman extravaganza, Burnt at the Steak, to Houston, courtesy of Gerald LaBita's Theatre LaB Houston, after garnering "best-of-show" awards at a number of Fringe festivals. Valentino uses her experience in managing a Manhattan upscale steakhouse as a framework for delivering anecdotes, impersonations, some songs and some audience participation bits.
Except for a few chairs, the stage is largely bare, but is soon filled to overflowing by Valentino entering in a cowgirl outfit, with a personality so ebullient and energetic that it threatens to spill out of the theater and onto the street. Her persona is larger-than-life size as she greets and presses the flesh of some first-row patrons. She is clearly a performer to be reckoned with.
She soon doffed the cowhide fringed jacket to reveal an attractive black, mini-skirted outfit, as she assumed the steakhouse role. In the course of the 70-minute show, Valentino shares some viewpoints on patrons of the steakhouse, has some telephone conversations with her mother, and succeeds in dragooning some hapless patrons onstage to serve as props in some japery. At one point, three men sat in a row in chairs while Valentino sang Moon River and caressed them, or rather pawed them - though I had apprehensions for a long moment, she stopped short of the genitalia. Subtlety is not in the forefront here.
Valentino is determinedly vibrant, and always "on", so the effect is to witness a performer rather than an actor - an actor inhabits a character, while a performer impersonates one. She is a mistress of the dramatic flourish, whether it is of her long, attractive hair, or the flounce of her skirt as she pirouettes. Everything is underlined, "sold" to a fare-thee-well, and then there is the pause to let the patrons appreciate the flourish, and applaud it.
Valentino is very attractive, and her singing voice pleasant, though sometimes penetrating - she is miked despite the intimate space of the venue. Her face is very expressive, and she can twist her mouth to make it ugly, and extend her tongue enough to make Miley Cyrus envious. The purpose of these grimaces is to entertain us, and I am grateful for the effort.
There is no director credited (the program says that Valentino created the show), so I assume Valentino self-directed, but despite this being a time-tested work, this is definitely an evening crying out for a skilled director's help. Instead of inviting us in to share her experiences, we are compelled to witness a performer with considerable talent and potential go into overdrive to pursue success, dragging us along with her, insisting that we enjoy it. It seems to have worked at the Fringe Festivals, and Valentino has toured in the show for two years, often selling out, but the result will not be to everyone's taste.
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The script is a bit thin, and the audience participation makes it seem even thinner. The excitement that Valentino brings to the stage - and the flourishes - may be to overcome or minimize this handicap. The Latin phrase De gustibus non est disputandum is relevant here; it means that tastes may legitimately vary. If you like your humor heavy-handed, this may be the show for you
An energetic performer brings her talents to Houston in an award-winning one-woman show, making up in high-level intensity for a lack of comedic subtlety.
Burnt at the Steak continues through November 24, from Theater LaB Houston at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak. For information or ticketing, call 713-868-7516 or contact www.theaterlabhouston.com.