Capsule Stage Reviews: A Fertle Farewell, I Do! I Do!, The Miracle Worker, The Pearl Fishers

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

I Do! I Do! Once your first musical, The Fantasticks, runs for 42 straight years — that would be an astounding 17,162 performances — making it the universe's longest-running musical, you are forever cursed. Rich, but cursed. You can never top it. Harvey Schmidt (music) and Tom Jones (book and lyrics) followed their immensely popular smash with a modest hit, 110 Degrees in the Shade, and then went even smaller in this two-character study about marriage, adapted from Jan de Hartog's The Fourposter. They had the savvy to cast Broadway supernovas Robert Preston and Mary Martin, and the strength of the stars kept the production going for a respectable year-and-a-half run. The show itself is fairly feeble, with undistinguished music, pat situations and a big fat slap in the audience's face right in the middle of Act I, when husband Michael suddenly announces he's having an affair. The affair's not the problem — it's just so dramatically sloppy and unmotivated. Once announced, we lose all sympathy for Michael for the rest of the show, which still has a long way to go. It seems all wrong, and even Steven Fenley, one of Houston's most natural and sympathetic performers, can't get us back into the character's good graces again. Wife Agnes (Shondra Marie), after a dreadful hoochie-koochie number, "Flaming Agnes," forgives him after a fashion, but we don't believe it. The show keeps lurching from one low point to another: through childbirth, hubby's inattention, wife's list of irritating habits, their son's staying out late (oh, my!) and other quite boring routines of married life. There's nothing unique about the material, nor is it uniquely dramatized by its music and lyrics. Under Rachel Mattox's lively direction, which cleverly camouflages the show's lack of quality, Fenley and Marie work overtime to charm us, but, sorry to say, it's a losing battle. Through April 10. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573. — DLG

The Miracle Worker By the time deaf, dumb and blind Helen Keller (Sydney Dunlap) has her hand forced under the water pump by her fierce teacher Annie Sullivan (Renata Santoro Smith) and finally connects the spelling of "water" to what is flowing over her hand, thereby connecting her to everything in the world, you might find yourself blubbering like a baby at the tale's mighty emotional pull, especially as performed in the intimate space of the Black Box at Country Playhouse. William Gibson's 1959 Tony winner, adapted from his own earlier TV play, and later turned into an Academy Award-winning movie, is one hell of a ride, as it details in painful confrontations how much "work" both Sullivan and Keller had to endure to break through little Helen's immense wall of darkness. Raised by her well-intentioned parents as if a favored pet, allowed to run roughshod, pitied, and fed candy at the least provocation to keep her quiet, Helen nevertheless had immense reserves of humanity and brilliance that she would later evoke under Sullivan's tremendously challenging tutelage. It's a story of man's immeasurable ability and the limitless flight of the human spirit. Of course, before the breakthrough, there are bloody fights, smashed dishes, thrown forks, slapped faces, knocked-out teeth, needle pricks and pulled hair. I do wish a few of the punches weren't so obviously pulled up short — a good crack across the face does wonders for the drama. But both actors shine gloriously, as does the ensemble. As Sullivan, Smith shows grave reserve and Irish temper. Taking "no" for an answer is not in her vocabulary. As Keller, young Dunlap matches her in animal ferocity and go-for-broke intensity. It's quite a show, even if a few of the "artistic touches" (the voice-overs, the projections) fall flat. But there's always that immediate, in-your-face drama that's so real and, ohh, so effective. Have a Kleenex? Through April 9. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

The Pearl Fishers Virgin priestess Leïla (soprano Abigail Dueppen, in her Opera in the Heights debut), veiled and mysterious, has been brought to the shores of ancient Ceylon by the pearl divers of the village. She is to pray for their safe and profitable expedition. This being a French opera from the 2nd Empire, need it be added that Leïla's been sneaking around and the title "virgin" might be a bit premature? Best friends Nadir (tenor Timothy Birt) and Zurga (baritone Brian Shircliffe) have both fallen in love with her, but their bromance is supreme, at least for a while. Georges Bizet's first major opera — composed a decade before his masterpiece Carmen — weaves a most exotic musical spell that would make anyone, even a virgin priestess, break her vows and rush headlong into the thralls of passion. The High Priest (bass Daymon Passmore) places Leïla upon a rock overlooking the rugged coast. "Sing," the villagers implore. "Sing, again." Dueppen does, with magnificent control and impeccable diction, soaring through Bizet's coloratura. Her luscious soprano, lithe frame and piquant stage presence bespeak a major talent. Birt and Shircliffe are passionate, too, and their famous showstopper duet "Au fond du temple saint," their ode to friendship, is finely phrased and downright chilling. The opera, not a big success during Bizet's lifetime, doesn't have a dull moment. While librettists Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré's story is fairly lame and full of coincidence, the opera flies by with constantly inventive melodies and great choral outbursts that are almost religiously ardent. It is a stunner, and maestro Linus Lerner and chorus master C. Vincent Fuller deserve much credit for making the most of minimal resources. OH overlays this French love letter with a Bollywood treatment: gaudy chiffon swags in hot contrasting colors, temple ruins that look no more like ancient India than the original 1863 Parisian ­production, and two dance numbers choreographed by Dominic Walsh. The "ruby" cast (Dueppen, Birt, Shircliffe) performs March 31 and April 2. The "emerald" cast (Ani Maldjian, Fabian Robles and Yoonsang Lee) sings April 1 and 3. 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-861-5303. — DLG


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