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Capsule Stage Reviews: August 21, 2014

Susan Koozin as Keely Stevens and David Wald as Pete Bartel.
Bruce Bennett

Full Gallop Let's talk D.V. That would be Diana Vreeland, or Dee-ahh-na, for those of you not in the loop. For decades she was the reigning monarch of fashion, first as columnist and stylish greyhound at Harper's Bazaar, then as editor-in-chief of Vogue, later as curator of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute in New York City. She set trends, brought style to the masses, and generally dictated who or what would become household names on that rarefied street known as Fashion Avenue. With her signature idiosyncratic personality, she was her own one-woman show, so it's appropriate that she's entirely center stage in Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson's Full Gallop (1995). But like any page from Vogue, the play is extremely stylish, immensely colorful and just as thin. Miss Vreeland (Sally Edmundson in delicious diva mode) — she would blanch to be called Ms. — has been unceremoniously sacked from her throne at Vogue. She is no longer in fashion, she's been told; the world has moved on. Undeterred, she arranges a dinner party in hopes of getting funds for some unspecified project: book, new magazine, anything to pay the many unpaid bills. She wrestles the latest invoice into a beautiful little coffer on her desk. She has to push down to make room for it. As if we're in the room with her, she addresses the audience directly. Flowers are everywhere. "Is it too much," she asks, peering around the room as if copy-editing it, "or not enough?" Immediately she's off on a riff about taste and vulgarity. "I'm a great believer in vulgarity. No taste is what I'm against!" In a running gag, which only gets funnier as it goes along, she interacts with her nonchalant French maid (Maria Edmundson) via intercom, ordering dinner, sending her out for cigarettes and running interference as her friends telephone to offer condolences for the New York Post's hatchet job about her firing at Vogue. In a series of reminiscences, stream-of-consciousness and gossip, Vreeland entertains while pontificating on her likes and dislikes, a bit of her autobiography, and evidence of her life force and ability to reinvent herself when times get tough. When in doubt, fake it, is her mantra. She's one resilient broad, dropping bold-faced names, Wilde-esque epigrams and amusing anecdotes like next season's hemlines. It's terribly classy, if somewhat soignée, but you can't beat the story of the eccentric English businessman who dressed his three pet gorillas in overcoats and bowler hats and took a spin around London. If you're of a certain age, you'll catch all the dishy references to Elsa Maxwell, Josephine Baker, Leon Bakst, Anna Pavlova, the Duke of Windsor. If you're someone who wears a T-shirt and jeans to the theater, you might find yourself baffled at the superficiality of it all. But you won't be put off by Miss Edmundson, who plays this fashion doyenne to perfection. More handsome than Vreeland ever was, Edmundson catches her spirit with tremendous élan. Reed-thin, she looks smashing in her all-black ensemble. Great swathes of rouge run up her cheeks like a model's runway, an ivory bauble the size of a mastodon's molar dangles around her neck, and her jet black hair is coiffed à la geisha. She's her own Kabuki theater. A consummate artist, Edmundson says most even when she says very little. This is one of her signature roles and should not be missed. Jodi Bobrovsky's delicious set shouldn't be missed, either. In photo-realism, the master designer has re-created Vreeland's eye-catching NY apartment with its Chinese-red paisley wallpaper, zebra rugs, animal print cushions, low lamps and expensive knickknacks galore. It's elegant, over-the-top and cozy all at the same time. Even the program cover is Chinese red. Wonderful. How can you not admire Vreeland (or at least wonder in amazement), who ironed her dollar bills and ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich washed down with a glass of scotch. With Edmundson firmly at the reins, Full Gallop has panache for days. Through September 14. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — DLG

Next to Normal Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's multiple-award-winning musical (Drama Desk, multiple Tonys and a Pulitzer) has a first-act curtain like no other. What other show ever has wheeled its leading lady into the operating room to undergo electric-shock therapy, then broken for intermission? There's room on the musical stage for almost anything, and Normal (Broadway debut in 2009, after wowing off-Broadway) takes the subject of manic depression and turns what could be an ultra-downer into as accomplished a piece of musical theater as possible. It is deeply moving yet highly exhilarating. The co-production from MJR Theatrics and Music Box Musicals does it proud. Suburban housewife Diana (Kristina Sullivan in an immaculate, bravura performance) is a mess. She hates her life, has no feelings for her average husband, Dan (Eric Domuret), and doesn't relate at all to her teenage daughter (Dani Pike), who's on the verge of a breakdown herself, barely clinging to the life line thrown to her by stoner classmate Henry (Marco Camacho). Diana pays inordinate attention, though, to her son, Gabe (Corey Hartzog), who appears to her almost as if in a dream, popping up behind her, whispering in her ear. She comes alive in his presence. He is her favorite, no doubt about it. But the stress of everyday life crushes her, and the fallout scalds the family. When she makes sandwiches for her kids to take to school and finishes buttering the bread on the floor, there's no denying the seriousness of her problem. The medical establishment (Brad Scarborough) is as stymied as Diana's clueless family. When the family's long-buried secret is revealed (a revelation that gobsmacks us with utter surprise), the terror of electroshock therapy is broached. There's the possibility of a cure, but that might wipe out Diana's memories — the only sweet things that keep her grounded. Blessed with a stunning contemporary rock score and bitingly effective lyrics, the show keeps surprising as it returns to past melodies and spins them with greater potency. The specter of Sondheim swirls throughout, but then so, too, does Rodgers and Hammerstein. This is Broadway songwriting on an exceptionally high plane. The ensemble is impeccable. Sullivan is a revelation as battered, uncomprehending Diana. She takes us on a thrilling ride from desperation to acceptance. Domuret, battered and frayed, is solid as the loyal spouse whose duty is to stay and help, even if he doesn't know what to do. Hartzog is all feral seduction as Gabe, Diana's favorite child. Pike, as neglected Natalie, lashes out at the world to get the attention she deserves. Camacho drips innocence and puppy-dog attitude as slacker Henry. Their three duets whenever their characters meet ("Hey") are little playlets full of gentle sincerity. Scarborough handles the doctors with comic timing and a crooner's pipes. The staging is minimal, which only augments the music (under the direction of keyboardist Jesse Lozano, Alisa Pederson on violin/keyboard, Donald Paine on percussion, Mark McCain on guitar and Long Le on bass) and the performances (under the taut direction from Luke Wrobel). That's all that's needed. Kitt, Yorkey and this uncommonly excellent cast have filled in the rest. Through August 30. Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt. 6713-522-7722. — DLG

 

Pete 'n' Keely Surely you haven't forgotten Pete Bartel (David Wald) and Keely Stevens (Susan Koozin)? You must remember "America's Swinging Sweethearts," Pete 'n' Keely? Thirteen gold albums, played Carnegie Hall, made the circuit from Berle to Jack Paar. They opened for Joey Bishop in Vegas, don't you remember? They were everywhere, even on Broadway, briefly, very briefly, in the musical Tony 'n' Cleo. You've got to remember that. Maybe you still listen to their Christmas album, On Thin Ice, and laugh along with "Too Fat to Fit," their comedy hit about Santa being so overweight he can't get down the chimney? But what did you think about their nasty divorce? Keely's boozing? Pete's womanizing? Their unsuccessful solo careers after the messy breakup? Keely's latest recording attempt to get hip, "Keely a Go-Go"? Or Pete doing dinner theater in Ohio? Well, these two are back. And NBC has booked them for a one-hour live special — in living color! Oh, they're still divorced, but don't let that worry you. Don't believe those tabloids; they can be so vicious. Pete and Keely are getting along just fine. See for yourself at Stages in Pete 'n' Keely, the off-Broadway musical by James Hindman (When Pigs Fly) that uses standards like "Lover Come Back to Me," "Fever," "Secret Love" and an unbelievable kitschy rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to showcase the story of their lives. Interspersed with the bio material are new numbers by Patrick Brady and Mark Waldrop, like the "Swell Shampoo Song" (NBC's sponsor — Swell Puts the OO in Shampoo) or the brilliantly silly Tony 'n' Cleo pastiche, a mishmash of Rogers & Hammerstein, Jerry Herman and Steven Sondheim. The best of the new bunch are the slow numbers, "Still" and "Wasn't It Fine," both heartfelt and amazingly effective. Koozin and Wald sit casually on the round platform that serves as the TV show's setting — and merely sing. The solos turn into duets, and the show's power shines through with classic simplicity. What's better than two pros singing their hearts out? And sing they do — wonderfully. We believe that Koozin and Wald were fabulous cabaret talents, because they really are. Their voices blend, each offsetting the other. Koozin is the belter, Wald the crooner. Their give and take is lovely to hear, and to behold, since each is such an exceptional actor. You can actually see them listen to each other when they bicker or when a fleeting moment of happiness passes across their faces. Although the lush orchestrations that were a hallmark of variety shows are missing, we willingly suspend our disbelief when the sextet, under the baton of Steven Jones, swings with such brassiness. Every now and then we glimpse the musicians when the upstage panels are pushed aside, and there they are with cigarettes dangling from their lips — a nice period touch. Director Kenn McLaughlin overlays the studio background atmosphere with appropriate mood; choreographer Krissy Richmond enhances the duet's routines with phrases that could have come from June Taylor's playbook; and Kevan Loney's projection designs sparkle, twirl and kaleidoscope us back to the '60s. The real mood enhancer is the costumes by Katherine Snider. Channeling Bob Mackie with tasteful tackiness, Keely is awash in opulent paisley swirls, marabou-trimmed bell bottoms, or black sequins and opera gloves for her "Black Coffee" torch song, while Pete's sharkskin suit or red baize dinner jacket with ascot is prime-time. No need to bat that clunky Philco to get rid of the static, for Stages has finely adjusted the horizontal and vertical. Gather the family, sit back and enjoy these two stars having the time of their life — in swingin' color! Through August 31. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — DLG


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