Avenue Q Take Sesame Street and give it a college coming-of-age story and an R rating and you've got the Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q, now being presented by Music Box Musicals. The musical, which stars puppets, monster puppets and humans, is being mounted by Music Box in its intimate theater space, and is quite a different experience from seeing it in a large venue. The stage is small, not giving the large cast of actors and puppets much room to move around. To make up for the lack of space, director Michael J. Ross has placed much of the action to the left side of the stage, taking away some vantage points for those patrons seated on the opposite angle. Marco Camacho and Allison Sumrall aptly play the main puppets, Princeton and Kate Monster, respectively. Both actors portray additional puppets as well, and the jumping between the two characters, even when they are both required in one scene, is done skillfully and without missing a beat. The other puppets and actors keep the comedy moving along and more or less have the vocal chords to match. The nature of seeing this type of production in a small theater may be jarring to some who find being right in the action too close for comfort, especially for those who find it awkward watching puppets have sex. If that's the case, then just find yourself a spot in the back of the theater and enjoy a good show. Through November 23. Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt. For information, call 713-522-7722 or visit themusicboxtheater.com. — AK
Carnival 'Round the Central Figure A man lies comatose in a hospital, kept company by his wife, as visitors come and go. A variety of methods of dealing with death are explored; this is not a drama but a dark comedy. Paul (Rod Todd), a middle-aged accountant, lies abed, dying, his face whitened, Kabuki-style. Paul's wife, Sheila, is portrayed by Karen Schlag, who chatters incessantly, her way of denying the reality of Paul's looming death. She is visited by Kate and her husband Richard, quarreling, as Richard wants to leave almost immediately while Kate wants to stay. Matt Benton plays Richard and captures his domineering, hysterical tyranny, and Arianna Bermudez is excellent as Kate, exuding much-needed warmth and caring. The stage lights up with John Dunn as a cynical televangelist preacher dragging Becky (Elizabeth Marshall Black) to the camera to deliver her terrified testimony, which she does with stark authenticity. Dunn's performance is hilarious and compelling. Maryanne, the hospital psychologist, portrayed by Courtney Lomelo with style and wonderfully self-confident poise, lectures on survival. A four-person chorus enters from time to time, sometimes in masks, to sing or move about the stage as though dancing. The running time was 68 minutes, with no intermission, and is directed by Jennifer Decker, who has delivered the playwright's intentions and has evoked interesting, authentic performances from the actors while keeping the pace appropriately brisk. And the staging of the televangelist's performance, with a live televised feed creating the impression that the audience is in the studio and also at home viewing, is a triumph. An experimental play deals with reactions to death in satiric terms, though the humor is sparse. See it for its strong production values, vivid characters and fine acting. Through November 23. From Mildred's Umbrella, at Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring, 832-463-0409. — JJT
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Don Pasquale Beguiling is the right word to describe Gaetano Donizetti's sixty-ninth opera, the sparkling buffa comedy Don Pasquale (1843), a smash hit ever since its Paris premiere. You could also use that same word to describe the sprightly production from Opera in the Heights. Others come to mind: delightful, spry, funny and beautifully sung. Using the time-tested story of an old, curmudgeonly bachelor looking for a much younger wife, Donizetti, heralded throughout Europe as heir to Rossini after such successes as L'elisir d'amore and Lucia di Lammermoor, knocked everyone's socks off with this breezy, broad comedy and turned out a masterpiece. He claimed to have written the work in 11 days, but the opera displays not one note of haste. From the marvelously bouncy overture to the showstopping moral, sung in a tour de force cabaletta from Norina, the object of Pasquale's misguided lust, the opera continually smiles. Even when the silly comedy goes dark — when Norina slaps the old fool after their sham marriage — it's only for a moment. In a quick reversal, Donizetti pulls us back into the comedy with a lilting waltz, one of the best tunes he ever wrote, as Norina skips out of the house for a rendezvous, calling Pasquale "little grandpa." We might be in commedia dell'arte land with stock situations and characters, but Donizetti supplies a musical truth that is universal, extremely energetic and amazingly hummable. Pasquale is an intimate work, all but a marvelous quartet: blustery bass Pasquale (Stefano de Peppo), sassy soprano Norina (Julia Engel), ardent tenor Ernesto (Eric Bowden) and wily baritone Dr. Malatesta (Wesley Landry). The opera flows from aria to duet, to trio, to ensemble numbers, mixing and matching as it goes in perfect harmony with the story. Under Keturah Stickann's inventive direction, the young cast romps wondrously. Even the set changes are handled with wit and charm. De Peppo is a somewhat too trim Pasquale, but he growls and blusters magnificently with impeccable diction, especially in Donizetti's tongue-twisting patter songs. Pasquale is a deluded old fool, but de Peppo gives him heart. Bowden is appropriately moon-faced as moony Ernesto, pining away for Norina in his self-pitying farewell, "Povero Ernesto!" ("Poor Ernesto"). [You may have wondered where Nino Rota got his idea for that plaintive trumpet in his Godfather score; Donizetti got there first.] Ernesto's arias lie high up in the scale, suitable for youthful ardor, and Bowden's clear and clean tenor sails up and away with fluid plangency. Landry is more down-to-earth as mischievous Malatesta, who sets the plot in motion by tricking Pasquale into the fake marriage. He, too, is young, but youth works in his favor with his ringing baritone and easy stage manner. These three are all very good artists, but the revelation is Engel as a gloriously pert Norina, a gal who knows what she wants and how to get it. Not only a stunner visually — she wows in Dena Scheh's wispy green empire dress — she's a radiant coloratura, bounding acrobatically across Donizetti's jungle gym vocal line with purity of tone and velvet-rich accents. Acting the charmer, she's as complete a package as Norina as we're likely to see and hear any time soon. Maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo is so in sympathy with Donizetti that he bounces along with the score, eliciting some of the clearest, most robust playing from the OH orchestra in many a season. Satisfying comedies in opera are rare birds, but Don Pasquale flies as high as they come. Under the sure hands at Opera in the Heights, Donizetti's masterpiece soars. November 21, 22, 23 and 24 (matinee). 1703 Heights. The ruby cast, which features Katie Dixon (Norina) and Octavio Moreno (Malatesta), sings November 22 and 24 (matinee). 713-861-5303. — DLG