Capsule Stage Reviews: 2 Pianos, 4 Hands, Girls Only — the Secret Comedy of Women, Happily Ever at the Box, Leading Ladies, Life Could Be a Dream, Next Fall, Superior Donuts

2 Pianos, 4 Hands Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra, both talented Canadian pianists and actors trained for careers as classical musicians, have created a play with music that defies description. It uses humor, musical ability and insightful memories of childhood piano lessons to delineate a world of ambition, frustrations, hard work, and responsibilities shared or shirked, all recollected and described with unflagging energy. Tom Frey plays one of the creators, Ted, and Jeffrey Rockwell plays the other, Richard, and both actors are skilled pianists themselves. They alternate playing tutor, student and parents in a series of vignettes of piano lessons, painful at the time but amusing in recollection. My favorite teacher, played by Frey, is an elderly maestro who teaches while supine on the floor, and advises the 17-year-old student that playing an arpeggio with one hand will get him chicks because they find it manly. Frey is not only an excellent actor, he is also a deft mime — his facial expressions and eloquent gestures enhance the humor enormously, and Rockwell matches Trey in musical ability and acting proficiency. This is a comedy, with some poignant moments: We meet a seriously unhip classical musician whose dream is to be a jazz pianist, a child of ten who doesn't want to practice and a musical nerd of 17 who doesn't want to stop. Even if you've personally never endured the rigors of piano lessons, you will still savor the earnest drive of youth, the stardust in the eyes of young performers and the agony of rejection. This musical pastiche, a huge success in Canada, the U.S. and around the world, is receiving its regional premiere here, and it's directed with pace and split-second timing by the actor playing Ted, Tom Frey. Adroit writing, skilled performers and an inventive recollection of childhood and adult musical travails merge into a fresh and invigorating comedy, laced with insights and delivering a rich comedic and emotional experience. Through October 28. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — JJT

Girls Only — the Secret Comedy of Women Two gifted female improv actors in Denver, Barbara Gehring and Linda Klein, discovered a golden lode of material in their high-school diaries and mined it into scripted vignettes of what it's like to be young and female. The resulting comedy is having its regional premiere after extended runs in major U.S. cities. The set is a pink teenage bedroom, frilly without being fussy. As the audience is seated, on stage are two local female actors, Tracy Ahern and Keri Henson, dressed in bra and panties, who mime conversations and laughter. Both Ahern and Henson are excellent comediennes with great timing. They discuss diaries, valentines, including those returned, the first crush, breast-feeding and other topics. This comedy is intended for a female audience, but this may be too restrictive — these are babes, goodlooking, fit, with outgoing personalities and a great sense of humor. They're good sports, they tell jokes well and they like men. What male wouldn't want to spend 90 minutes in their company? I especially liked the skit about sex education, as the actors play counselors so inept that they never get to the subject. The overall tone never strays far from sweet and amusing, although there is a hint of anger in a video section on restrictions on public breast-feeding. The event ends with a hilarious ballet to music as the ladies struggle to don pantyhose. The comedy is directed by Luanne Nunes de Char; this is her seventh time directing the work and her experience pays off brilliantly, with pace and exuberance. These vignettes will warm your heart while convulsing you with laughter. Through October 14. Main Street Theater, 4617 Montrose, 713-524-6706. — JJT

Happily Ever at the Box Fairy-tale archetypes get a scrumptious musical makeover from our favorite cabaret troupe, The Music Box Theater. In the tradition of their former shows, Music Box interlaces a little plot — here a mélange of fairy-tale types: princess, prince, wicked queen, godmother, narrator — with a wide array of songs to augment the story or delve deeper into the sketch-like characters. It's silly and fun, and when they open their mouths to sing we're blown away, as usual, with the polish and precision that these fabulous pros happily supply to any song. They sail through jazz, pop, and rock and roll with equal finesse and an unfailing theatrical style that is one-of-a-kind. Since this is a group effort, everybody gets to shine. It's a rare, wonderful display of musical and dramatic talent. The best news about MBT's latest show is the arrival of the delectable Kristina Sullivan, who joins the ultra-talented quartet already in place (Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Cay Taylor and Luke Wrobel). A recent émigré from the duly lamented Masquerade Theatre, from where the founding Music Box four have hailed, she brings her radiant soprano, irrepressible comic chops and unalloyed stage presence to round out the mix. She's like the butter added into the béarnaise to give it sheen and body. All five actors are performers of the highest caliber, and it's difficult to beat their infectious camaraderie. Pulling it all together is the jazzy quartet led by music director Glenn Sharp, lead guitarist Mark McCain, bass guitarist Long Le and percussionist Donald Payne. These guys swing, too. From the musical sampler that includes such disparate works by Sara Bareilles ("Fairytale"), Queen ("Somebody to Love"), Dion ("Runaround Sue"), Disney ("Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo"), The Rolling Stones ("You Can't Always Get What You Want") and the Beatles ("Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"), the fab five at Music Box Theater weave a quilt whose quality is unparalleled. Wrap yourself up in it; you won't want to let go. Through October 13. 2623 Colquitt. 713-522-7722. — DLG


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Leading Ladies In Leading Ladies, two down-on-their luck Shakespearean actors seek to impersonate the heirs to an estate, and follow through even when they discover that the heirs were actually heiresses. Texas Rep's artistic director, Steve Fenley, portrays Shakespearean actor Leo, and also Maxine, with verve and style, but there is no pretense of persuasive gender impersonation. Jeffrey S. Lane plays Jack, Leo's stalwart acting sidekick, and also Stephanie, and matches Fenley's rich portrayal. Playwright Ken Ludwig has chosen the route of broad physical humor and simple misunderstandings, and hasn't bothered to spike the goings-on with wit. Fenley carries the show on his talented shoulders, but it's a bit like Atlas holding the world — a heavy burden. He is helped enormously by a strong supporting cast: attractive Lauren Dolk is a sparkling Audrey — her entrance on roller skates is hilarious — and Mischa Hutchins portrays Meg, caregiver for the wealthy, dying Florence, with beauty and warmth. Don Hampton plays the family doctor with humor and distinction, and David Walker captures the avaricious curate Duncan. Kyle Cameron is excellent in minor roles, and Marcy Bannor plays the dying Florence with enough zest and pizzazz to raise the Titanic; she lights up the stage on her entrances. Director Rachel Mattox keeps the pace brisk, and there is a captivating brief dance in Act Two. The set by Trey Otis is handsome and versatile. Playwright Ludwig has won numerous awards, but all the lipstick worn by Leo and Jack can't disguise the fact this vehicle was shopworn before its premiere, and all the theatrical grace of Fenley can't hide its cumbersome construction. Bu this pedestrian farce is enlivened by strong performances by the principals and an excellent supporting cast, who find voluminous laughs in well-worn material. Through September 16. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., 281-583-7573. — JJT

Life Could Be a Dream Another jukebox musical — the time is the '60s and the music is doo-wop — delivers nostalgia, charm and warm good feelings, but this time with a plot as well. The setting is a basement rec room where the slacker kids hang out, and, yes, "Get a Job" is amusingly staged, with the unseen mother chiming in on an intercom system. Denny (Adam Gibbs) is leader of the singing group, and he's the one with some show-business polish. Eugene (Mark Ivy) is a stereotypical nerd, and friend Wally (Dylan Godwin) drops in and joins the Denny and the Dreamers group; his trademark signature is enthusiasm. The group expands to include Skip (Cameron Bautsch), a mechanic from the wrong part of town; his trademark is to look hunky, which doesn't go unnoticed by Lois (Rebekah Stevens), whose uptight dad is a snob. The suspense is whether the group can get its act together to win a local contest being held the coming Saturday. Director and choreographer Mitchell Greco keeps the pace clipping along, and the voices are pleasant enough to carry the 20-plus songs, such as "A Sunday Kind of Love" and "Unchained Melody." Godwin has the greatest range, most intelligent rendition and impeccable phrasing. There are a lot of physical comedy and broad reactions, and these are appropriate and work well. The finale has a Chorus Line moment that lets us escape the basement and the irritating mother on the intercom. All this is created by Roger Bean, who wrote the long-running hit The Marvelous Wonderettes. This musical, intended for light summer fare, delivers on its promise, providing humor and nostalgia and letting us again relive the tuneful melodies of the '60s. Through October 14. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JJT

Next Fall A gay male relationship sails through the reefs of an age gap and polarized religious views in this off-B'way comedy hit, which moved to B'way for a respectable run. Young Luke (Zach Lewis) likes older men and makes an instant play for Adam (Brad Goertz). Luke is closeted to his domineering father, Butch (Bob Boudreaux); meanwhile, Luke's mother, Arlene (Tek Wilson), chatters like a magpie. Adam has a friend, Holly (Daria Allen), and Luke has a close friend, Brandon (Matt Benton). We meet them in a hospital waiting room, with the five-year relationship between Luke and Adam told in flashbacks. The repartee is witty, often in fresh, unexpected ways, and the situations are comic, but varying views of religion, God, an after-life, the Rapture and redemption hover in the air like storm clouds. The acting is uniformly excellent, with Wilson's vivacious charm a standout. Lewis and Goertz generate a sense of play and competitiveness that authenticates their relationship. Benton has admirable controlled power, Allen is interesting and persuasive throughout, and Boudreaux, compelled to be the heavy, does that well. Ron Jones as director has transformed Obsidian Art Space with a handsome, flexible set, by Craig Allen, that works wonderfully. The pace is quick but Jones also knows just how effective a pause can be. The result is a polished production even more sophisticated than the script. Playwright Geoffrey Nauffts delivers priceless witty surprises and comic situations, but the payoff, while effective in both dramatic and emotional terms, may test your suspension of disbelief. Compelling acting and sparkling repartee enliven an unusual gay love story, with dramatic moments and an emotional payoff adding to the splendor of this new, fresh and engaging comedic drama. Through September 15. Celebration Theatre at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak Dr., 832-303-4758. — JJT


Superior Donuts In this play, the taciturn owner of a donut shop in Chicago with few customers hires an African-American male to assist him, and they develop a prickly relationship. Playwright Tracy Letts tackles a multiplicity of themes: racism, the gangster underworld, addiction, the rise of Starbucks and Vietnam-era draft evasion. We meet first the owner of an adjacent shop (Scott Holmes) and two police officers, investigating vandalism. Holmes delivers an interesting and credible characterization, and Osbie Shephard as the male officer is commanding and authentic. The female officer, played by Vicky McCormick, is courting Arthur, the donut shop's owner (John William Stevens), but McCormick seems to be still searching for her character, so the play includes an unconvincing romance. Stevens is a powerful actor, but the script unfortunately calls for him to change his mood and motivation almost capriciously. Sam Flash plays Franco, the young African-American, and is brash as required, but the chemistry between him and Arthur never quite materializes. Flash and Stevens anchor the play and nail some eloquent moments. There is considerable humor in the form of one-liners. A lot happens in Act Two, most of it implausible, and the comedy turns ugly toward the end, but playwright Letts tugs at our heartstrings, so there are rays of light in the midst of cowardice, brutality and penury. The play reeks of nostalgia for a bygone Chicago — that may have been the appeal in writing it. Directed by Trevor B. Cone, the work has a slow pace that creates a sense of naturalism. Through September 29. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — JJT

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