Capsule Stage Reviews: Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party, Festival of Originals, The Hollow, Nunsense, Tamarie Cooper's Old as Hell, Wicked

Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party The Wild Party is a 1928 book-length poem by Joseph Moncure March. In 2000, Andrew Lippa adapted it for an off-Broadway version, writing book, music and lyrics. Blond vaudeville dancer Queenie (Danica Dawn Johnston) and famed clown Burrs (Colton Berry) settle down together, but after a brutal incident, Queenie determines to humiliate Burrs at a party. Kate (Erin Wasmund) arrives with the mysterious Mr. Black (Jake Frank), and crosscurrents of lust almost immediately connect Queenie and Black, while Kate pursues Burrs. Newlyweds arrive, the prizefighter Eddie (Miguel Garcia) and his bride Mae (Derrien Kellum), the lesbian Madelaine True (Miatta Lebile), the gay D'Armano brothers (Scott Lupton and Terran Swonke), as well as a producer, a hooker, a minor and a dancer. Large amounts of alcohol are consumed, drugs are taken and shared, and the bed is visited by a series of occupants. Not glamorous, yet exciting theater, since the nuanced performance of Johnston grabs you and never lets go. The direction by Colton Berry keeps the cast in constant motion, like animals in a zoo pacing anxiously. The effect is riveting, haunting and memorable. Deep currents are at work, carving their way through underground psyches, leading to an explosive denouement. Some of the 25 songs are quiet and searching, like "Poor Child" and "Maybe I Like It this Way." Berry has created a smoothly functioning ensemble with some standouts, such as Wasmund's solo in a bathtub and Lebile singing "An Old-Fashioned Love Story." Brilliant performances by Johnston and Berry create a world you wouldn't want to live in, but one you will enjoy visiting, in a rare production of a challenging and breathtakingly powerful musical. Through July 27. From Bayou City Theatrics, at Barnevelder Arts Complex, 2201 Preston, 832-444-4400. — JJT

Festival of Originals Theater mavens love Theatre Southwest's three-weekend program of new short plays. The works are fresh, as in recently written, and usually run under 20 minutes. The length can be a godsend, because if you can't stand the one you're watching, your irritation or boredom will soon be over. Even with the time limit, some playwrights are flummoxed to create a satisfying short story, which, I'm happy to report, is not the case with this 16th annual festival. Each play, solidly crafted, has a different director and cast, which gives the audience a chance to see some favorite actors, or better, to discover new faces. There's no dearth of talent in Houston's acting pool. None of the plays was an outright stinker. But none was particularly memorable, either, although at least two of them will probably find life outside of TSW. These are middle-of-the-road works, pleasing and pleasurable in their entertainment. I have to admit, two hours passed pretty quickly. That's a big plus. RE: Kill the Messenger, by Bryan Maynard, is a visceral, mano a mano slice of Mamet via Quentin Tarantino. The Recipient (Wade Gonsoulin), a killer employed by an anonymous corporation, anxiously awaits the Messenger (Andrew G. Barrett), who apparently bears bad tidings about his future at the company. Gonsoulin, world-weary around the edges, knows he's out of there and feels guilty about his murderous career. Barrett, sucking on a toothpick, arrives wearing black leather gloves and a creepy top-dog attitude. There's impressive physicality, and two (if not three) fight scenes neatly staged by director John Mitsakis as male dominance gets a sweaty workout when this cat-and-mouse game intensifies. Maynard's overly symbolic passages about quantum physics and a dead cat (?!) flew completely over my head and muddied the elemental theatrics, but the amoral Mr. Barrett stayed stunningly alive, mean as a junkyard dog. He deserved his promotion. Many Miles, by Rose-Mary Harrington, is absolute catnip for ailurophiliacs. This "life and times" adventure of Miles the cat (Taylor Biltoff, a scruffy bon vivant) is an absolute audience-pleaser. If you're partial to dogs, you're on your own. Actors playing animals isn't exactly my bowl of Meow Mix, but this picaresque tale is larded with charm, although that's about all it has going for it. (The costume and hair design deserve a note of praise — those ear top-knots are inspired.) As in most short adventures, salient events are quickly outlined while others are glossed over. A choppy narrative is the order of the day. Harrington, while covering most pertinent cat points, has two really good ideas: Uncle Winston (Scott Holmes) and Racoon (Jose Luis Rivera). Sax-playin' Winston is one cool cat, and Holmes plays him like he's the coolest white dude in the hood. A consummate actor, Holmes always surprises, and he bats this character around as if it were the tastiest little rodent. Later, when Miles arrives in Hollywood, he ventures outside at night, only to be confronted by the gang-bangin' mammal in a mask. Rivera gives him feverish comic attitude. Their culture clash around the garbage cans is delicious fun. The play has no ending; it just runs down, out of steam and ideas, leaving Miles and friends purring on the sofa. Not a bad place to be — for actor or audience. Through August 3. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — DLG


The Hollow The Alley has had 21 prior productions of Agatha Christie's plays, with The Hollow its 22nd. The set, designed by Linda Buchanan, is magnificent, the garden room of an imposing estate. The owner, Sir Henry Angkatell (James Black), is respectable but without warmth or charm. His wife, Lucy (Josie de Guzman), is absentminded, a bit dotty, bringing a delightful joie de vivre to the party. An actress, Veronica Craye (Laura E. Campbell), is played with fervor and an exaggerated style. Edward (Jay Sullivan) is a wealthy twit who proposes in the course of the play to two women and attempts suicide. Henrietta (Elizabeth Bunch) is an abstract sculptor, serious and glum. Midge Harvey (Emily Neves) is a poor-relation cousin too proud to accept financial aid from her very wealthy relatives, preferring to grumble about her uninteresting job. The butler, Gudgeon (Todd Waite), is angry throughout and speaks loudly. Diandra Langenbach as Doris, the maid, is persuasive. Guests are Dr. John Cristow (Mark Shanahan) and his wife, Gerda (Melissa Pritchett); the plot revolves around them. Cristow appeals to the opposite sex, but he is brusque and stolid, and we don't see why. Gerda is clumsy, with no poise — Pritchett found the character and is irritating. Inspector Colquhoun (Lee Sellars) is a role with no relish, and David Matranga overplays the comic role of his assistant. The acting style is old-fashioned British: "Hit the mark and say your lines," and I kept searching — in vain, except for de Guzman — for signs that the actors believed for a minute what they were saying. This is a so-so script, without flair, intrigue or suspense, and a so-so production, except for a magnificent set and an exciting performance by de Guzman. Through August 4. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — JJT

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Nunsense Dan Goggin's religiously incorrect Nunsense, thoroughly entertaining all at Texas Repertory Theatre, is silly, absolutely mindless and pretty much totally forgettable once it's over — oftentimes while you're watching it — but there's some sort of genius behind it. How can you fault a show that has played ten solid years off-Broadway since its 1985 premiere, has never stopped being performed all over the world and has spawned — count them — six different versions, including a Jewish edition (Meshuggah-Nuns), a Las Vegas-type revue (Nunsensations) and a drag extravaganza (Nunsense A-Men!). This is theater magic at its best. There's room for all of them, especially during the summer doldrums when regional theaters have to pay the rent. There is nothing wrong with a show whose only reason to exist is to entertain. Really, how can you go wrong with a sweet little musical about nuns? That's reason enough to see it, as is being in the presence of five superlative singing actors who put across this material as if it's vintage Sondheim, or, more likely, Jerry Herman, which this show resembles. The plot is meager as it is: Five Little Sisters of Hoboken put on a charity show to raise money to bury the remaining members of the order, who now reside in the convent's freezer after being unintentionally poisoned by chef Sister Julia. Each nun is personable, cute and cuddly, as only comedy nuns can be, and each wants to be the star of the show, as only cute, cuddly musical comedy nuns can be. The wonderful plus of this show is Goggin's music, which runs the gamut from rousing gospel, Sophie Tucker blues, Andrew Sisters '40s swing and Broadway pop to Rodgers and Hammerstein sentiment. Goggin's score is a whole lot better than his lyrics, which rhyme incessantly along the lines of the "June, moon, spoon" variety. But in the company of such accommodating performers who knock themselves out to wow us, who cares? Patti Rabaza, as warm but firm Mother Superior, belts with velvety mezzo ("Turn Up the Spotlight"); Lori Callaway, as Sister Hubert, raises the roof with the Act II finale's gospel number ("Holier Than Thou"); Robin Van Zandt, as streetwise Sister Robert Anne, channels early Streisand for her turn in the spotlight ("I Just Want to Be a Star"); Connor Lyon, as Sister Mary Leo, struts her inner ballerina in choreographer Lauren Dolk's inventive routines ("Benedicite"); and Lendsey Kersey, as innocent Sister Mary Amnesia, who can't remember how or why she got to the convent, showcases her amazing vocal talents that run from operatic coloratura ("So You Want To Be a Nun") to country/western lowdown ("I Could've Gone to Nashville"). The five put on quite a show — which gets better and more pulled together after Act I's slow intros and exposition. The hoary jokes don't get funnier or better, but nuns going wacky and sort-of-sexy is pretty nigh foolproof. The singing is the star in this ecumenical revue, and all five performers — neatly abetted by musical director Debbie Wiley and her orchestral sextet, and put through their nimble paces by director Dan O'Brien — sail through the varied genres like the showbiz veterans they are. Thank goodness those sacred virtues of patience, humility and meekness are completely unknown qualities upon the wicked stage. Through July 28. 14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573. — DLG


Tamarie Cooper's Old as Hell It wouldn't be summer without a Tamarie Cooper musical, and this year's tightly written show deals with the problems of old age. For Tamarie, the great fear of aging is not the aches and pains, the forgetfulness and the incontinence, though these are faced ruthlessly, but the dark, forbidding dread of being terminally...unhip. Death holds no sting, but being unhip is the bourn from which no traveler returns. The show is breathtakingly funny, approaching brilliance, and aided by consummate actors who seldom miss a chance to enhance the wit with pantomimic vulgarities. Kyle Sturdivant provides a bravura performance. The classic porn pizza delivery scene is skewered, with Karina Pal Montano-Bowers sexy in a towel. Internet "trolls" each have a laptop and horns, and Tamarie tries to upgrade from flyers to "social media." The plot pretends the show is closed down by policemen (Noel Bowers and Seán Patrick Judge) because Tamarie is too old to play an ingenue, and she is replaced by a younger actress, but fights to regain her fame, her hipness — and her boa. Xzavien Hollins is cool as a rapper, and Mateo Mpinduzi-Mott has great reactions as a hipster; all actors play multiple roles. There is an amusing confrontation between an older Tamarie and a younger version (Jessica Janes) exploring youthful dreams. Tamarie's enormous energy, expressive face and engaging persona light up the stage. She sings, she dances and she can carry a show. She is wonderful, and if you haven't met her yet, there is no time like the present. The exciting book is by Patrick Reynolds and the engaging music by Miriam Daly. Get to this annual jamboree of Tamarie Cooper and friends. Through August 24. Catastrophic Theatre, 1119 East Fwy., 713-522-2723. — JJT

Wicked With all the aerial modes of transportation on display in Stephen Schwartz's (and book writer Winnie Holtzman's) megahit musical Wicked — winged monkeys, broomstick, tornado, fairground balloon and bubble — you'd think this theatrical juggernaut from 2003, the fourth incarnation to visit Houston via Gexa on Broadway, would have learned how to fly. But like an unwieldy zeppelin, the show lumbers along, dragged only intermittently into fresh air by the sorcery of Hayley Podschun as Glinda. Channeling the original necromancy of Kristin Chenoweth, Podschun adds her own brand of bubblelicious charm to Munchkinland's legally blond witch, which lifts this heavy, overproduced musical into the heavens. Whenever she's onstage, the musical floats high and light; when she's offstage, this gigantic, misguided dirigible collapses as if hit by lightning. Based very loosely upon Gregory Maguire's adult "prequel" to L. Frank Baum's classic series of children's books, this Broadway adaptation owes whatever magic it possesses to the long-ago wizards of MGM. Wicked's creators should be on their knees in thanks, because without the cinematic references to character, costume and set design, even dialogue, this show would be nowhere. The musical can't make up its mind what it wants to be. Themes plod in and out, while characters change motivation almost mid-scene. Is this a musical about the power of sisterhood? About being different? About being kind to animals? Or is it just the old Broadway plot of the odd girl finally getting the hunk? There's no cohesive message; it's about everything. The show drifts, using our memories of the movie to give it momentum and heft. And has there been a bigger, more successful musical in the last two decades with a score of less distinction? Schwartz (Pippin, Godspell, lyrics for Disney's Pocahontas and Dreamworks's Prince of Egypt) supplies enough anthems for an entire season of American Idol, but except for Glinda's comic "Popular" and a heartfelt duet for Glinda and Elphaba (Jennifer DiNoia), "For Good," the pop numbers come and go without touching us in the least. There's no charm in the music. Even Elphaba's power ballad "Defying Gravity," which ends the long first act with blasts of stratospheric singing and blinding light cues as Elphaba ascends on her broomstick to become the Wicked Witch of the West, is surprisingly forgettable. It's the slickness of the staging that we remember at intermission. The production is rich and eye-popping, no question about it, with Eugene Lee's Tony-winning set designs and Susan Hilferty's award-winning costumes traveling well on the road. However, Wayne Cilento's stiff choreography doesn't travel at all. Has there ever been such a blockbuster with less exhilarating dancing? Or less fun? What a ponderous musical. Judy Garland and her indelible friends on the yellow brick road cast a mighty spell. Looking over their shoulder, Wicked's writers attempt to bring the backstory to life but trip over themselves and muddy up our nostalgia. They've created a monster, a huge cash cow, but one without much courage, heart or brains. Through August 11. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 800-982-2787. — DLG

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