Capsule Reviews

A Class Act A Class Act, now running at Theater LaB, is a wonderfully tender homage to the late Edward Kleban, award-winning lyricist for A Chorus Line. Put together by Linda Kline and Lonnie Price, the musical is built around several of Kleban's previously unproduced songs, telling the songwriter's own story as it follows his often troubled life from the beginning of his career until his death. Nominated for several Tony Awards in 2001, the sweet musical captures the writer's phobic, often difficult personality even as it makes clear that the people who put the show together adored the demanding artist. The story hits the tumultuous ups and downs of Kleban's life, using the songwriter's own tunes to illuminate his interior life. Given that the music and the story were stitched together in such an unlikely way, the show is surprisingly coherent. The songs cover Kleban's sexual escapades ("Mona"), his bouts with lost love ("The Next Best Thing to Love") and the drudgery of making a living when he'd rather be making music ("Gauguin's Shoes"). One of the best tunes in Theater LaB's production is "Paris Through the Window," a whimsically nostalgic song about looking back to sweeter days. A good part of what makes this song and so many others effective is David Wald, who plays the difficult Kleban with a warm, rich voice and a glowing personality. He's supported by a strong ensemble put together by director Jimmy Phillips. Especially good are Holland Vavra and Josh Wright, who play two of Kleban's loyal friends. Running at well over two hours, the show could use some major editing. But since these songs have spent so much time lingering in the dark, perhaps they deserve a few extra moments under the bright lights of the stage. Through June 26. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.

Inherit the Wind Who would've thought that Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's fictionalized play about the infamous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial could be so pertinent today? As you watch Theatre Southwest's stirring production of this fascinating classic drama, the state of Kansas debates whether what is known as "creative design" should be taught in their public schools along with Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Some 17 other states have debated the issue in recent months. What was once thought a dead issue is most frighteningly alive; the current culture war is being waged as heatedly as it was during that oppressively hot July in Dayton, Tennessee, when the godly fundamentalist forces of lawyer William Jennings Bryan (called Matthew Brady in the play) battled the godless libertines arrayed behind defense attorney Clarence Darrow (called Henry Drummond). The trial was a media circus. While Wind smudges history, it stays remarkably true to overall tone. Adroitly directed by Mimi Holloway, the play is a mighty courtroom pageant without one dull moment. As Brady, Gene Griesbach needs only a touch more fire and brimstone to capture his character's oversize persona. David Holloway's Drummond is a wily, compassionate man who has a field day deflating the pompous while he fights for "a man's right to think." Bob Maddox relishes every misanthropic epigram he doles out as cynic-supreme E.K. Hornbeck, based on real-life journalist H.L. Mencken. Chelsea Aldrigh plays Rachel Brown, the repressed schoolteacher in love with Bertram Cates (played by a sympathetic, conflicted Trevor B. Cone), who's on trial for teaching evolution. She portrays her character stumbling into enlightenment with amazing truthfulness. As her father, the fundamentalist Reverend Brown, John Stevens raises the roof with thundering damnations of the world's wickedness. History is alive, relevant and kicking in Theatre Southwest's rousing rendition. Through June 18. 8944A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505.

Late: A Cowboy Song She's just 30, but Sarah Ruhl is already a rising star of the American theater. The playwright has won several major awards, and this year she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. So it was with great anticipation that in-the-know Houstonians awaited Ruhl's most recent work, Late: A Cowboy Song, now running at Stages Repertory Theatre. Ruhl has called Late a "meditation," and indeed there's a contemplative quiet running throughout this play, about a woman named Mary (Christine Auten) who's late to everything. Most of all, she's late to discover that she perhaps doesn't love her husband, Crick (Corby Sullivan), the way she ought to. Mary's frustrated life is filled with banal holidays and birthdays and deep kisses from her goofy husband. But what she wants most is to spend time with a woman named Red (Susan O. Koozin) who calls herself a cowboy and spends her days outside Pittsburgh riding the range. Mary spends her days and nights slipping back and forth between jealous Crick and easygoing Red -- she eats Chinese food with Red, kisses Crick on the couch, dances with Red under the stars and stares in quiet awe at the glowing factories in the distance once she gets outside of town with Red. There's such a vapory mystery to Mary's story, it's hard to know how to feel about it. It's clear throughout that she's unhappy. But as played by the lovely Auten, Mary is mostly a cipher. So it's hard to care very much when, in the end, she finally makes a decision about her life. And while Rob Bundy's direction uses the stage with artful grace, it doesn't help to clarify the emotional conflict at the center of the play. This show will leave audience members wishing they'd gotten to see The Clean House, the play that sent Ruhl's star shooting so high. Through June 19. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

Shut Up and Drive No. 4 out of the 14 plays that make up Radio Music Theatre's enduring, hilarious saga of the Singing Fertle Family from Dumpster, Texas, this is the most physical of the comedies so far -- and every bit as wacky and laugh-out-loud funny as the preceding ones. In this installment, daughter Carol, who lives the high life in San Diego with husband George, feels guilty for not seeing her low-life family, and so invites Mom, Dad and brother Earl for a visit. This coincides with sister Justicena's visit to Dumpster, so in typical Fertle fashion, the entire clan ends up coming along, including Uncle Al and girlfriend Gwenda. Nine family members pretzel themselves into Lou's Buick Riviera and set off for sunny California. That the whole panoply of nutsy folk is played by the three multitalented members of RMT only makes this feat more impressive. Somehow, the overloaded Buick limps into "San-di-damn-ego," as Lou calls it, and Act II is off and running amok as the family collides in utterly unpredictable, funny ways. Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills are wondrous on stage, as are Mark Cain and Pat Southard backstage with their sound effects and music mixing. Through August 27. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.


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