25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Precocious little Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere (Monica Passley) — she has two dads, you see — stands at the microphone in the middle school gymnasium where the spelling bee is held. Her word to spell is "strabismus," a squint caused by a defect in the eye muscles. She asks vice principal Panch (Kyle Ezer), who's in charge of reading the definitions, to use the word in a sentence. He replies in perfect deadpan: "In the schoolyard Billy protested that he wasn't cockeyed. 'I suffer from strabismus,' he said, whereupon the bullies beat him harder." This non-PC musical is amazingly refreshing. Its theme is rather inconsequential when you come right down to it; sure, it's about winning and losing, but not about winners and losers. Maybe that's why it's so darned appealing. Six middle school spellers compete "at the bee," augmented by four audience members (who've been chosen earlier in the evening) and "the adults": unflappable moderator Rona Lisa Perretti (Rachel Landon), aforementioned Panch, and Mitchell "Mitch" Mahoney (Tamara Siler), who's doing her community service by helping out. We get to know the other misfit kids as the musical progresses — Boy Scout Chip (Marco Camacho), who gets distracted by a raging erection; flighty Leaf Coneybear (Chris Patton), who doesn't think he's smart, although he can spell without even thinking about it; William Barfee (Richard Solis), the know-it-all nerd who spells with his "magic foot"; Olive Ostrovsky (Erin Stallings), who waits in vain for her dad to arrive and whose mom is off at an ashram; and Marcy Park (Emerald Harmon), who speaks six languages, plays Chopin and rugby, never cries, and is the classic overachiever. They're all looking for something — acceptance for who they are, for a start — and they all grow up a little under the fresh music and lyrics by William Finn (Falsettos, A New Brain) and the wickedly sly book by Rachel Sheinkin, who won a 2005 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. With spirited direction by O'Dell Hutchison and swinging musical direction by Jacob Carr, Country Playhouse makes the most of this minimal little showstopper. Flawlessly performed, this production has a grand heart, a warm soul and a breezy, winning style. I guess you could spell it F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C. Through March 12. 12802 Queensbury. 713-467-4497. — DLG
Billy Elliot For a show set in the rough-and-tumble mining fields of northern England, this inspirational musical, adapted from Stephen Daldry and Lee Hall's international hit movie, is the slickest thing imaginable — and won ten Tony awards to prove it. The entire show dances, from the set to the exceptional lyrics by Lee Hall, the film's original screenwriter. Of course, designer Ian MacNeil's slinky Mylar walls and a lit-up proscenium arch wouldn't mean anything without a heartwarming story, and this is the simple tale of talented Billy (preternaturally gifted Daniel Russell, the night we saw the show) stuck in an inhospitable milieu. Via blowsy Mrs. Wilkinson (past Tony winner Faith Prince), a faded dance teacher in the mining town, young Billy discovers his penchant to move — almost his compulsion. Billy's wanting to be a ballet dancer is extraordinarily courageous, considering that he lives among macho miners — Dad (Rich Hebert) and brother Tony (Jeff Kready) — along with dotty Grandma (Patti Perkins). Everyone's on strike and broke, with testosterone running rampant. Billy keeps at it, through Wilkerson's prickly encouragement and the invaluable friendship of gay-in-training Michael (Griffin Birney, who gets a drag showstopper in "Expressing Yourself"). The musical ricochets between home, studio and picket line, devilishly combining all three in the stunning "Solidarity." Choreographer Peter Darling's dance narrative is freakishly brilliant, as gruff miners, little ballet girls and policemen out for blood collide in rare choreographic bliss that rivals any number by old Broadway masters Jerome Robbins or Gower Champion. Elton John's luminous score embroiders whiffs of English-countryside anthems and emotion-laden ballads (one too many, though, as visiting ghost of Mom refuses to go away). Russell explodes in "Angry Dance," showing the full fury of all Billy's frustrations, and "Electricity," his ode to why he must dance. It's quite a production, real and true. The show soars, as will your heart. Through March 13. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — DLG
A Fertle Farewell A Fertle Farewell chronicles the demise of the hamlet of Dumpster, Texas, population 12, a distant relative of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, but most definitely on the other side of the railroad tracks. But the chance of revival may be in the works when an executive from Brenham Records arrives in town, and the local band turns itself inside out in hopes of garnering a recording contract for its lead singer, Country Wayne Conway. Steve Farrell plays Wayne as well as several other characters, including a loser relative who drinks too much and hangs out under a box, but Wayne is the most endearing as a country swain who single-handedly keeps the town's motel in business. Apparently willing to sleep with a rock if it has a slot in it, he sings the heartfelt tribute "I Like Older Women." Vicki Farrell nails multiple roles and looks especially hot in her blond wig. Rich Mills fills out the cast as the visiting executive, as well as several locals, and reminded me of Jonathan Winters both in shape and talent. His pantomime of asking a girl out is a comedy classic by itself. Talent is the operative word here, as all three play musical instruments (Steve Farrell, apparently, an endless supply of them!) and are masters at quick changes, enhanced by body language. These are brilliant actors masquerading as rural folk, and playing their roles so convincingly that we heartily believe in their reality. The humor is not sophisticated, but there is plenty of it, and the evening is light-hearted and definitely musical. This is the final production of Radio Music Theatre, which is closing its doors after 26 years of captivating audiences. It's unlikely its kind will pass this way again, so regulars who have come to love Dumpster, Texas, will want to catch its farewell romp, and those who have yet to experience it will want to catch this unique excursion into the striving and conniving, the wiles and smiles, the pathos and the triumphs of the denizens of Dumpster — not your neighbors, exactly, but still recognizable enough that you might want to invite them to your next barbecue. Through April 30. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — JT
An Inspector Calls Don't expect fireworks. But for the patient, a highly satisfactory evening can be passed watching J.B. Priestley's drawing room drama An Inspector Calls, here set in a formal dining room. The plot is a series of revelations revolving around the closely knit, though quarrelsome, Birling family. The plot is thin to the point of being nonexistent, but things pick up, after a slow beginning filled with exposition, when a police inspector arrives to ask questions regarding a young woman who had committed suicide nearby. The good news is that the director, Jeannette Clift George, has created a smoothly functioning ensemble of actors, with a real sense of family, a feeling that these people live with and know each other all too well. I wish Lee Walker were a bit more authoritative as Arthur Birling, patriarch and captain of industry, but he is effective, and I especially admired Sarah Cooksey as the matriarch and Abby Bergstrom as the Birling daughter, whose blunt, dry observations generate appropriate laughs in Act Two. Jason Hatcher rounds out the family as the errant son, in a largely thankless role, since he has little to do in Act One except to drink too much port, look sullen and interrupt. Soon to join the family, by wedding the daughter, and displaying the smugness and hypocrisy of the English moneyed class, is Gerald Croft, played by Chip Simmons. The outsider is Inspector Goole, and Marty Blair makes his taciturn questioning and shift of tone credible. We can see why the Birling family would tell him, well, far too much. The audience anticipates some of the more predictable events, but the ending brings a few twists and surprises that pay off well. There is a curious out-of-character speech Inspector Goole is compelled to deliver before he exits, in which a socially conscious message is awkwardly shoehorned in — no one will ever accuse Priestley of subtlety. Through April 3, A.D. Players Theater, 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — JT
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Shards of Love Shards of Love, eight short plays by Paulette MacDougal, illustrates how a playwright with imagination and heart, a talented cast and a dedicated theater can remind us that humor, love and understanding are not in short supply, at least in mature relationships. Seldom have the benefits of age been better illustrated than in these charming, insightful vignettes, in their Houston premiere at Theatre Suburbia. Each features a couple with a problem, with the program moving in chronological order from characters in their twenties to their nineties. The "20's" shows us a stridently mismatched bride and groom in a private talk just before the vows are to be taken. There are several amusing surprises, though the bride shouting her lines is an irritant. The "30's" involves a vegetarian's conflict with hunting, and the "40's" introduces us to a couple married for 15 years, who have found both the perfect house and a major gap in their ability to communicate. The "50's" features a body-conscious woman and her patient husband, played by John Wright with an engaging, wry wistfulness. The evening gets into high gear in the "60's," with Susan O'Connor as an endearing, spunky blond widow getting ready to enjoy some traveling; she's visited by the ghost of her solicitous husband, played by Michael Steinbach with charm and style. We see here a love that can survive the grave, yet without a trace of sentimentality. The "70's" charts a loving, longtime couple with a shared secret. The "80's" wins our hearts, with Jack Dunlop giving an admirable performance as a persistent swain, despite his age, in pursuit of a new acquaintance, portrayed with sensitivity and grace by Marylynn Coryell. And the "90's" gives us a couple who want to prove to a son that they can take care of themselves outside a nursing home. Kenn Cullinane is the husband, Bobbie Giachini the wife, and their talented performances are authentic and arresting. Their movements were so well-staged that credit must be shared with the director of this portion of the evening, Lee Raymond, who also directed the highly effective "60's" play. Kudos as well to Rebecca Pipas Seabrook, who directed the "50's" and "80's" plays, bringing the playwright's vision to vibrant life. Both are here making their directorial debut, which bodes well for Houston theater. Do yourself a favor and go see Shards of Love — you will love it. Through March 26. 4106 Way Out West Dr., 713-682-3525. — JT