Capsule Stage Reviews: Asylum, The Money in Uncle George's Suitcase, Opening the Box, The Great American Trailer Park Musical

Asylum Sweet, nerdy Gary (Chris Patton), who seems permanently stuck somewhere near adolescence, finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into his dream world until he can't tell reality from fantasy. Will his dreams pull him into madness? Keith Aisner's Asylum, mounted in an extremely well-acted and intricately conceived staging from director Ananka Kohnitz at Theatre Southwest, will have you questioning your own dreams and wishing only the best for overwhelmed, sad-sack Gary. His fantasies pop up everywhere. Dream girl Angela (Katrina Ellsworth) emerges right out of his bed and then disappears down between his legs, causing him delicious spasms. Institutionalized Mom (Julie Oliver) swishes out of the wall barefoot and in hospital gown and socks. Muscled leatherman Satan (Lenvi Tennessee) comes by train, arriving at the window accompanied by his Zombie Girl posse (Liz King and Aesha Kohnitz). God (Adan Inteuz), with booming Old Testament voice, calmly walks into Gary's apartment looking like a Goth Oscar Wilde with long stringy hair and top hat, but a rock star's artistically torn jeans and athletic shirt. Neighborhood buddy Davis (Sam Martinez), always eating, usually junk food, pops out of the refrigerator. Brother Frank (Andrew Adams), somewhat sane, uses the front door; bizarro Dr. Capote (John Lazo), with his "Tru" mannerisms, is wheeled in on his office chair to conduct Gary's shrink session; while creepy, disheveled Salesman (Patrick Jennings), selling his fake dreams and deadly nostrums, first appears out of the storage trunk at the foot of the bed. Aisner's play is at least one act too long, with all characters repeating the essence of what had been stated in previous scenes, but Kohnitz keeps the pace lively and our interest varied. The marvelous cast fascinates, letting us know once again (as if we could forget) the depth of talent to be had on the Bayou. Patton, Oliver and Martinez are standouts among standouts, compelling to watch and beguiling to listen to. The psilocybin-inspired pop-art of a set, designed by auteur Kohnitz, is abuzz with reefer madness and dredges up all sorts of '60s-era fun and not-so-fun neuroses, while the video projections and sound design are superbly crafted and executed. Satan's tongues of fire look like infernal dancing waterworks from Vegas's Hotel Bellagio — if that's not Hell, what is? If dreams are the mirror into the soul, come peer into Asylum (a really bad title for this heartfelt yet playful play). The reflection will startle, amuse and thoroughly satisfy. Through June 18. 8944-A Clarkcrest. 713-661-9505. — DLG

The Money in Uncle George's Suitcase An entertaining evening awaits at The Money in Uncle George's Suitcase, with one truly gifted performance by Richard Hahn as Uncle George, but be prepared for some exaggerated performances that detract from the humor. Hahn plays a garrulous senior living in a run-down cabin in the woods, and brings an easygoing charm and well-honed comic timing to the role. Whenever he is onstage, and fortunately this is often, credibility is enhanced — I would love to see him as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Uncle George has invited relatives to the cabin for the weekend, and the reason for this is part of the somewhat thin plot — suffice it to say that the titular suitcase plays a large part in the motivation. The play is a farce and there is ample humor — broad rather than subtle. The set by Lisa Garza (and what must be an army of assistants) is brilliant. It's truly remarkable in demonstrating the comfort that makes George love it and the primitiveness from which the relatives recoil. It shows an artist's eye for detail and would do well, dare I say it, on Broadway — it is that good. Some of the supporting performances blend in well — Joan Fox as a sister is excellent and I kept wishing her role was bigger, and Karen Clayton was good in a minor role. Nora Hahn plays a niece and lets us believe in her, but Mario Garza as her husband gives a highly animated performance, as do Joshua Clark and Jillian Schertle as a pretentious married couple. (The director, Tracy Clayton, shares in the program notes his view that comedic characters should be exaggerated.) I did warm to all three after I got over the initial shock. As the youngest relative, a grand-niece, Ronnie McLaren has a poise beyond her years, and I enjoyed her emerging from spoiled child to endearing friend of Uncle George's. The work is by prolific playwright Pat Cook, a Houston resident, and relies perhaps too strongly on elements that pay off less well, such as mystery-stew dinners and nighttime skulking — more inventiveness from the playwright would have been welcome. This is Clayton's first solo directing effort, and much of his work here is professional. He's succeeded in adding physical humor to the goings-on, which is much appreciated by the audience, but I would suggest that vivid, interesting characters can interact within the framework of ensemble acting. Hold the reins loosely and give the talent its head — but don't let go completely. The ride is enjoyable, the pace usually brisk and good-natured levity carries the day. Through June 19, Houston Family Arts Center, 10760 Grant Rd., 281-675-6374. — JT

Opening the Box Five veteran performers from Masquerade Theatre, Houston's repository of Broadway musicals, have left that company to form their own: Music Box Theater. The five artists — Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Luke Wrobel, Cay Taylor and Colton Berry — use the cabaret format to showcase their formidable talents, and they plan to produce four original shows each year. The music's an assortment of Broadway, the great American songbook, Hollywood, and contemporary pop and rock. As musical performers, these artists are unimpeachable. With diverse talents, they fit so comfortably together when all of them harmonize that they're an ideal boy/girl group. Since they no longer have fictional characters to play, the five play themselves, or some persona they want us to believe them to be. Inevitably, they overplay. Even solo cabaret acts can get bogged down in personal patter, but since this is the troupe's first original show, and details must be worked out, they are forgiven — this time. More singing, less talk. Dahl, a Houston treasure and ultimate Broadway baby, has given us indelible performances in Sweeney Todd, Guys and Dolls and Gypsy. She's completely comfortable onstage, and she happily satisfies our craving when, Valkyrie-like, she rides joyously through Wicked's powerhouse anthem "Defying Gravity." Easygoing with charm to spare, Scarborough proves it with his crooner's smooth rendition of the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby." He's a comic foil for dramatically dark Wrobel, who oozes intensity. His idiosyncratic, affecting take on "Over the Rainbow" is reason enough to see this show. Taylor belies her stature with a ringing, rich soprano and piquant humor. Singing a cappella, she floats above McCartney's "Blackbird," accompanied by the other four. Berry has a lively, hipster's presence with a knockout wail of a voice, used to superb effect on Aerosmith's "Dream On." Using richly colorful arrangements, the musical direction under Glenn Sharp (keyboard), with Mark McCain (lead guitar), Long Le (bass guitar) and Donald Pain (percussion), is a cool, jazzy earful. As a first romp without the spine of a book musical to buoy them, Music Box Theater delivers the vocal goods with inspiring results. Keep the intros short, the songbook as varied, and the future, as Momma Rose belts in Gypsy, will be comin' up roses. Through August 7. Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt. 713-522-7722. — DLG

The Great American Trailer Park Musical There's nothing wrong with fried food, except when it stains your pants and you can't get the smell off your fingers. Stages uses the best oil — the production boasts a dream cast with smooth direction and movement by Leslie Swackhamer and Krissy Richmond, while Kevin Holden's production design is all corrugated wall panels and stuffed fish trophies, simply irresistible — but deep-fried is still deep-fried. The musical is a cartoon, and there's nothing else to do with this material except play it broad like the worst TV variety show imaginable. But two hours of Hee Haw is impossible. The Nashville-lite music by David Nehls is instantly forgettable, as are his crude and unfunny lyrics. Betsy Kelso's lame book is one stereotype stumbling over the next, except for the wittiest line, "He reeks of permanent marker," which is positively Shavian next to the riot of F-bombs she sprinkles throughout, as if those are cues for laughs. Bright rays of stagecraft manage to shine through in the unhappily married couple sensitively played by Holland Vavra Peters and Brad Goertz, who bring needed heart and fine voices into this dull affair. They actually invent characters out of their caricatures. The trio of low-life trailer trash is enlivened by comic overplaying from Susan O. Koozin, Jessica Janes and Melodie Smith, but somewhere during Act I these three are turned into a background chorus and they never recover. It's indicative of the show, where bra headlights are the summit of visual puns. Unassailable and unconquerable, Trailer Park rolls on and on. If you don't want to become road kill, it's best to just get out of the way. Through July 24. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. – DLG


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