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Capsule Stage Reviews: 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, A Life in the Theatre/Tuesdays with Morrie, Always...Patsy Cline, Boeing-Boeing, The Complete History of America (Abridged), Cuckoos

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Celebrating the nerd in all her native glory, Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a happy musical. The Tony Award-winning show tells the story of a sweet group of youngsters (all played by grownups) who have a variety of troubles, which are revealed in song and story as they vie to become champion. The show is a good fit for the Dionysus Theatre, an organization featuring inclusive productions that put disabled and nondisabled actors onstage together. Directed with earnest energy by Deborah E. Nowinski, the smarty-pants characters who line up for this bee include Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Noriann Ruth Doguim), a girl whose hand-wringing gay dads are so pushy they want to sabotage the competition; Leafy Coneybear (Raymond Deeb), who placed third at his school but is competing because the first- and second-place winners couldn't make it; Marcy Parks (Marquia Banks), a confident, wisecracking smart aleck; and Chip Tolentino (Ryan Smith), who's struggling with the onset of puberty in the most humiliatingly public of ways. But the real standouts are William Barfee (Richard C. Solis), a bespectacled big boy with a magical spelling foot, and Olive Ostrovsky (Maredith Zaritsky), a neglected child who turns to the dictionary for solace when her parents, who don't show up for the bee, aren't around. These goofballs make a lovely group of characters, and though the actors aren't all experienced, there are enough strong voices (Zaritsky is especially good) in the cast and enough feeling all around to give this low-budget, sweetly cornball production a full heart and charming soul. Through June 27. The Jewish Community Center, 5601 S. Braeswood, 713-728-0041. — DLG

A Life in the Theatre/Tuesdays with Morrie Two older men — one a theatrical curmudgeon, the other a sweet fatherly type — mentor two younger men about life and how best to live it in these absorbing one-acters at Country Playhouse. You wouldn't necessarily know that Life is by contemporary firebrand David Mamet except for its elliptical dialogue (a lot of "yeses" and "ohs") and a palpable nervousness under the surface, with hints of something mysterious and dangerous. The mystery is when the transfer of power happens between old ham actor Robert (John Kaiser) and young up-and-comer John (Cole Ryden). Through short, impressionistic vignettes set either backstage in the dressing room or onstage where we see them at work, Mamet shows us Robert's inevitable fall. Jealousy tinges his advice until even his mental agility starts to waver, and he must cede the stage to the one he has tried to teach. As in life, the transfer is gradual and inevitable, so Mamet says. The show must go on. Kaiser, a crafty old pro, abrades the layers from his character as if using a cabinetmaker's finest sandpaper; while his Robert is not always likeable, he's all too human. Tuesdays is adapted from Mitch Albom's phenomenal feel-good bestseller and made-for-TV movie that documents the Tuesday meetings the author had with his former professor Morrie Schwartz, who is dying from Lou Gehrig's disease. The clear-eyed realism and optimistic viewpoint of Schwartz (Jack Dunlop) opens up the eyes — and heart — of Mitch (Scott McWhirter), who up to that time has been a selfish, out-for-himself, whiny little prig. The Yoda-like pronouncements from cute little Schwartz are wearing, but I defy you not to have at least one misty eye by play's end. You can't help but like the annoying do-gooder, as Dunlop, another sly old pro, steals his way under your skin like some wily but adorable tick and refuses to budge. As he breathes needed life into Albom's staged Hallmark card, watch how he stays in the moment every second to become Schwartz. You want to pinch his rosy cheeks in appreciation. Through June 26. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

Always...Patsy Cline Great country singer Patsy Cline, who died in a plane crash in 1963, seems to have been reincarnated in the charmed vocal stylings of Julia Kay Laskowski, the fiery brunette now singing Cline's songs in Texas Repertory Theatre's production of Ted Swindley's Always...Patsy Cline. The music is all Cline's, but the story focuses on a good old Houston gal named Louise Seger (Lyndsay Sweeney) who knew Cline's music by heart and had the good fortune to meet up with her idol one night in a honky-tonk in the early '60s. Back then, radio stars didn't travel with entourages, and so it makes perfect sense that Cline, who arrives at her gig by taxi and from an empty hotel room, feels lonely enough to sit down with a fan to throw back a can of beer and spend an evening getting chummy between sets. In fact, the two women hit it off so well, Cline rides back to Louise's home for bacon and eggs, then spends the night there instead of at the lonely hotel room her record label has assigned her. The story is mostly told in Louise's monologue about her girl talk-filled night with Patsy, who turns out to be as warm and genuine as her music. This production, directed by Craig A. Miller, is more intimate than many produced in Houston. He has Cline singing songs from the kitchen table with Louise, and Laskowski and Sweeney have a sweet girl-power chemistry that's loads of fun. And the music keeps on coming. You'll hear everything from "Sweet Dreams" to "Three Cigarettes (in an Ashtray)" to "Walkin' After Midnight"— the show is jam-packed with tunes from the era, and Laskowski renders them all beautifully with her extraordinary voice. Sweeney provides the humor, and everything is right in the world for fans of music from a bygone era. Through June 27. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573. — LW

 

Boeing-Boeing Alley Theatre veteran actor Jeffrey Bean is a national treasure, or should be, after a miraculous effort of resuscitation. With his actor's arsenal that is second to none (and a silent movie comedian's rubber face and rich pratfall dexterity), he manages to thoroughly revive Marc Camoletti's 1960 French farce, which had a remarkable Broadway resurrection of its own in 2007 and won the Tony Award for Best Revival. The Alley's remounting is as faithful to the Broadway version as if it were a touring production, keeping the '60s go-go set, the candy-coated color scheme and those seven doors that might as well be revolving ones for all the use they get, this being a sex farce to end all sex farces. Abetted by his morbidly disapproving housekeeper (the priceless Josie de Guzman), Bernard (James Black, who absolutely disappears into the woodwork) juggles three "air hostesses" at the same time, keeping everyone equal but separate. When shy, inexperienced hometown friend Robert (the aforementioned Bean) visits the swinger's pad, the situation, but of course, gets a lot more manic, with gung-ho American Gloria (irrepressible Emily Neves) in one room, passionate Italian Gabriella (Elizabeth Bunch) in the bath and stolid German Gretchen (Melissa Pritchett) on the warpath. "More manic" doesn't always translate into "funnier," however, for there are swathes of exposition and extraneous moments that should have been excised long ago. Everything is played broad, or broader, but there are some genuinely funny times (usually having to do with Bean being pawed by the buxom Gretchen, hit by a rotating desk chair, or skittering across the room as if on a commando mission). You know where all this is going by the third line of the play, but Bean gives this oldest of chestnuts a fresh gloss that is truly the kiss of awakening. He is so sweet and true, he turns this woozy sitcom cartoon into hi-def. Bravo, Bean! Through June 27. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. — DLG

The Complete History of America (Abridged) If you like the idea of a balloon-headed Abraham Lincoln being popped dead in a lame parody that mocks the JFK killing, then this tasteless vaudeville, now dragging its lifeless body around Stages Repertory Theatre, will be absolute catnip. Written by the Ridiculous Shakespeare Company, the trio who so giddily deconstructed the works of Shakespeare in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), this attempt at humor palls so completely that you wonder why they even bothered to take such a feeble slap at us — or is that U.S.? I'm sure there's a way to ridicule our country's foibles, abuses, idealism and hypocrisy, but Holy Father of Our Country, this isn't it! Instead, this is a tired compendium of ninth-grade scatological jokes, crude puns, product placement name tags and stale pop cultural references that are in sore need of refreshing. Must we sit through another musty nod to Gilligan's Island or I Love Lucy (not even the great Kregg Dailey in Lucy drag can save that lame skit)? None of this parody, and I use the term lightly, is anywhere near the level of what the crazies of Monty Python might do with this ripe subject, for there's plenty in our history to be mocked and ridiculed. The creators find themselves in a bind, and even they have to admit there's a lot that's not funny in our history (how did the Lincoln assassination sneak under the radar?). Fleeting attempts at sober thought fall by the wayside as Italians are given shtick accents and the Civil War is portrayed as a living tableau of a soldier getting kicked in the crotch. The talented Dailey, Susan Koozin and David Matranga try their best to romp through this muck with as much gaiety as they can muster, but it's impossible for them to make it any less vulgar. They just wind up covered in muck. Through June 27. 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — DLG

 

Cuckoos Oedipus Rex — about a man who unknowingly kills his dad and marries his mom, then stabs out his eyes once he realizes what he's done — just might be the oldest ­dysfunctional-family story there is. Lots of writers have come up with their own versions of the bloody tragedy, but Giuseppe Manfridi's Cuckoos, getting its U.S. premiere with Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company at Talento Bilingüe, is one of the oddest and possibly funniest retellings. The stage lights come up on a couple who are down on their knees. They've been having anal intercourse and have somehow gotten stuck. Beatrice (Karen Schlag) is an older woman who meets young Tony (Bobby Haworth) at the gym. She's inexplicably drawn to him, and the two end up back at Tony's place, having fun before the, um, accident. They wrap themselves in a parachute for modesty's sake and decide to call Tony's father Tobia (Ryan Kelly) for help. He's a doctor and should know about such things. When the good doctor arrives, he's not as much help as the two would like. And as they wait for things to, um, go down, there's lots of conversation about the past, which turns out to be much different from what all three people had thought, much like in Sophocles's version. The ending is dramatic, though there's no eye-gouging. Directed by Trish Rigdon, the production clips along at a nice pace despite Colin Teevan's sometimes awkward translation of Manfridi's Italian. This is not the sort of show you'd want to share with family, but in Manfridi's world, family is to be avoided anyway. Through June 26. 333 S. Jenson, 832-418-0973. — LW

Fear of Ducks Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the theater, along comes the inspired lunacy of Radio Music Theatre. You're never safe around these three (Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell, Rich Mills), for you could die laughing, or at the very least spray your drink out of your nose as you gasp for breath. We wouldn't want it any other way. This scrumptious little tour de farce is one of the group's "unfertle" comedies, which means it doesn't feature those lovable Fertles from Dumptser, Texas. But never fear; author Steve Farrell has populated this juicy fable with new creations that could each have an entire series written about them, too. Revealing too much of the plot would be sacrilege — and nearly impossible — for the show doesn't move as much as it's propelled, by entrances and exits, one-liners, non sequiturs and our continuing laughter. Suffice it to say, there's a whacked-out, curly-headed televangelist, Jimmy Dillard, who's in a hissy fit over the fact that rocker du jour A.C. Adapter is to appear at the Margaret Mueller Mitchell Miller Pavilion at Precious Pines, Houston's most-planned planned community. Dillard's ready to do his "instant damnation" on this horn-headed smut rapper, especially for his hit tunes "Bra Full of Love" and "Set Your Parents' Pants on Fire." Adapter is not suitable for children, being one himself. That he also has two gigantic electrical prongs imbedded in the top of his head should say something about his state of mind, or lack thereof. Everything goes blissfully out of control, and there's even a delightfully affecting, albeit brief, scene between the fried rocker and the oblivious Mrs. Peeples, whose son has won a day with A.C., that's surprisingly lovely. Situated among the verbal mayhem, it's a little gem. Through August 28. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

Tomfoolery Once upon a peace march, back in the '60s, Tom Lehrer was the hippest dude in town. His wiseass protest songs — full of barbed wit that tweaked the nose of the establishment — made him the voice of his generation. This quaint nostalgia is now on view at Main Street Theater's Chelsea Market as Tomfoolery, a jukebox revue made from Lehrer's old works. But if his satires of yesterday are out of touch ("In Old Mexico" and "I Wanna Go Back to Dixie" especially are replete with easy putdowns and stereotypes), his music-making is joyously fresh and sounds somewhat Broadway. That's the surprise here: Lehrer's a much better tunesmith than anyone thought at the time when his parodies were all the rage. There's even a bit of the Golden Age inside "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" and "She's My Girl." But Lehrer's melodies certainly need a more clever pastiche than this show, which is cobbled together without a connecting thread or even simple theme. As it now stands, we get a protest song against nuclear proliferation, then a college anthem, then a tongue-twister listing the elements in the Periodic Table, à la Gilbert and Sullivan. This is a catalog musical without any catalog. Thankfully, the talented cast of five (and a jazzy musical quartet) is on hand to lead us through with minimum pain. Susan Draper, Jonathan McVay, Shondra Marie, Daniel C. O'Brien and, particularly, Joshua Estrada (whose bounce, verve and animated eyebrows make him a quintessential song-and-dance man) keep the pace humming and lively. If you ever carried a picket sign or wore flowers in your hair, then this trip back to the past will be a contact high. Through June 27. Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose, 713-524-6706. — DLG


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