Capsule Stage Reviews: August 7, 2014

Fallen Angels While not in the pantheon of classic Coward (Private Lives, Cavalcade, Design for Living, Present Laughter, Blithe Spirit and the films In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed and Brief Encounter), Fallen Angels is an utter lark of a sex comedy. Main Street Theater gives this romp the high gloss of Art Deco: stylish and stylized. The play gleams. Under director Claire Hart-Palumbo, who marshals her talented forces with the zing of a bracing martini, this cartoon farce is terrifically funny, constantly on the move and still rather shocking. Best girlfriends Julia (Crystal O'Brien in best comic form and looking period-lovely) and Jane (Lisa Villegas in Jean Harlow mode) are bored with their marriages. After five years, the passion has gone. They love their husbands, but there's got to be more. Can we blame them? Their husbands are fatuous and nonresponsive, and have more fun playing golf together than paying attention to their hot-to-trot wives. Fred (Bobby Haworth, super as a twit) and Willy (Dain Geist, insufferably stuffy) are clueless. Sporting a fine brush of a mustache, Haworth bears an uncanny resemblance to J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan. Years before their marriages, Julia and Jane each had affairs with Frenchman Maurice (Joel Sandel in perfectly smarmy Pepé Le Pew imitation oozes Continental charm like an oil slick). He's back in town and wants to see them. The girls are so giddy at the prospect, they practically swoon. With their husbands off on another golf outing, they make a pact to stay together and await the rendezvous. Julia drapes herself over the sofa, while Jane poses languidly against a column. They're ripe for picking. The waiting occurs in the second act; so does a lot of drinking and very little eating. The girls get blasted and secrets come out, as do the claws. Overseeing this farce is the classic sassy Coward maid who knows more than all of them put together (Elizabeth Marshall Black, who steals every scene with twinkling yet bulldozing aplomb). With a symmetry resembling Buckingham Palace, Coward structures his comedy with extraordinary technique, wit and surefire pace. Situations mirror each other, whether marriage, friendship or betrayal, so if one couple has trouble, so will the other couple soon enough. When Julia and Jane have an argument, rest assured that Fred and Willy will fight, too. Complications ensue like clockwork and always get the required hearty laugh. Coward juggles the nuts and bolts of playwriting with consummate flair, and the cast plays him with heigh-ho infectious glee. The production is tasty, enveloped in Eric L. Marsh's subtle lighting design and Claire A. Jac Jones's Deco-inspired set design. Margaret Crowley's costumes are aptly tweedy for the guys and diaphanous and silky for the gals. Julia's pajama pants are a singular Cowardly touch. But those wigs for the leading ladies?! They're appropriately styled for the period, but where'd they come from, Arne's? Sometimes an intimate theater space is just that, too intimate. Coward's deliciously prickly sex farce seems amazingly fresh even today. Julia and Jane eventually get what they want. If you think they're actually checking out Maurice's curtains as all three head upstairs, you've been watching the wrong marital comedy. Through August 10. 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706. — DLG

Godspell If there's any Broadway musical that's ripe material for A.D. Players, it's Stephen Schwartz's folksy story of Christ and His message, Godspell (1971). The fit is beyond reproach. In a glorious production bolstered by heartfelt performances, this Sunday school lesson masquerading as a musical explodes into one of their most satisfying shows in memory. It's simple and homespun, all hippie and feel-good, and you can almost smell the patchouli. This is a "let's put on a show" show, and we must believe that the actors, who use their actual first names for their characters, have just wandered onstage and started to play-act. That the pros at A.D. carry off such quaint pretense so completely and with such innocence is one of the marvels of this production. They are a happy, colorful tribe in their tennis shoes and counterculture garb. At any moment you expect them to burst into Hair. After some brief exposition, Act I heralds Jesus' arrival and showcases many of his parables. They're acted out either as a game of Pictionary or charades, or as comic sketches with the kids acting like sheep, goats, Pharisees, the good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son. The twee factor is fairly high, but the sincerity is genuine. And Schwartz's best music occurs here — John the Baptist's "Prepare Ye," ushered in by shofar; the uptempo "Learn Your Lessons Well;" the ragtime vaudeville "All For the Best;" and the show's No. 1 hit tune, the lilting "Day by Day." Act II goes much darker, since we know where the story is headed, as the show switches into a biography of Christ's last days. "We Beseech Thee" and the haunting "On the Willows" capture the despairing mood, although Schwartz ineptly handles the Crucifixion. The passion is beyond him. The lyrics, "I'm bleeding, I'm dying, I'm dead," sung in high head tone, are terribly prosaic next to the Gospel's "It Is finished." Director Kevin Dean overlays the Bible lessons with an improvisational wash that the actors lap up. Each is his own character, while still being an integral part of the group. Although this show depends for its goodwill on its fine-tuned ensemble, I must mention five: Braden Hunt (who also did the exceptionally fluid, varied and inventive choreography) has unquenchable presence onstage; Stephanie Bradow possesses comic timing and vocal pipes; Jennifer Gilbert smolders like a good girl gone bad in "Turn Back, O Man;" Joey Watkins is a forceful but regular-guy Jesus; and reed-thin Daniel Miller, like Ray Bolger on a caffeine high, bounds all over the set, an old-time Broadway trooper. His is the new face to watch in the future. Robin Gillock's set design, a series of roughly constructed platforms that roll on casters, can be configured in many eye-catching ways, which allows the cast to drape themselves over, around and on top. It's their jungle gym. Donna Southern Schmidt's costumes are wonderfully loopy: a ballerina skirt, a mauve suit, bright leggings, a bit of Woodstock, T-shirt and jeans for Jesus. Together, it all works. Andrew Vance's precise lighting turns on a dime from bright new day to the steamy red temptation by a host of Satans. The Parables' message is simple: Love God, your neighbor, your enemy. There's elegance in that, as well as taking a lifetime of work to perfect. A.D. Players lets Schwartz's funky musical reveal its simplicity naturally. What moves us so powerfully is not so much his music, but His music. The cast sings both exceedingly well. Through August 24. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — 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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