Capsule Stage Reviews: Awesome America!, Miss Julie, Getting Sara Married, Life Could Be a Dream, Otello, Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure

Awesome America! In its inaugural production, the Ohana Theatre Company presents four short unrelated plays set in different American locales. Whatever Happened to Big Nose George, by Pamela Jamruszka Mencher, is set in Wyoming – a train-robber embarrasses a male victim in front of his fiancée and later pays a price. Played for broad humor, it takes three scenes and is not particularly funny. Gene Kato, one of the principals of Ohana Theatre, directed, and also helmed the second entry, Two-Point-Five, by Scott Gibson, occurring where four U.S. states touch. Here Susan Bray steals the show in a compelling and heart-rending portrayal of a woman committed to truth in a world which no longer seems to feel it matters much. Her performance is riveting, and her late entrance into the action transforms a slight comedy into a cry from the heart. The second half of the evening is beautifully directed by John Lazo, the other principal in Ohana Theatre, and begins with an unusual long-distance love story, The Promise of the Moon, by Diana Howie. Edward has emigrated to America and writes to his bride-to-be, Agnes, back in Riga, though Agnes barely knows him and sends letters of refusal. Bryan Maynard as Edward gives a tight, controlled and fascinating performance, and Edward's folly becomes ennobled by its purity and strength. Gene Kato contributes the fourth play, Perspectives on the John, inspired by the Toilet Seat Museum in San Antonio; this extended skit is hilarious - Kato elevates the goings-on quickly into sophisticated humor. Ohana's originality and innovative choices make it a most welcome addition to Houston theater. Varied comic material and moments of pure drama make for an entertaining evening, enhanced by some outstanding performances and deft direction. Through October 6. Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex, 2201 Preston, 832-892-6342. — JJT

Miss Julie August Strindberg's ground-breaking psychological drama, originally set in Sweden in 1874, is transferred to New Orleans in the '20s, as the valet engaged to the cook beds the lady of the house, leading to complications most dire. The setting is the large kitchen to a mansion, and the cook Christine is played by the excellent Michelle Ogletree, who creates a credible characterization of a devout churchgoer with common sense. David Matranga plays Jean, the valet, and provides the requisite good looks and a tall, imposing presence. Miss Julie herself is portrayed by Jennifer Dean, who enters in a flapper dress and dazzles us with an exciting, vibrant characterization, floated with enthusiasm, coquettish charm and a teasing sense of command — she is wonderful, but she's soon torpedoed by the script, which requires her to become morose and hysterical. Julia Traber directed, and obtained vivid characterizations from talented actors. The change to New Orleans in the '20s doesn't work, as the plot requires a closed society, which New Orleans in the Jazz Age is not. What's missing is the sexual chemistry between Jean and Julie. They quarrel, they bicker, they discuss, they change their minds and quarrel again; this might be palatable if we sensed they were caught in the powerful web of sexual attraction. Without it we have a depressing drama, a quasi-tragedy, with too much exposition, and too many themes. Strindberg sensed the dark vortex of the human soul, but The Classical Theatre Company hasn't found a way to present the heart as well as the text of Miss Julie. Excellent acting goes a long way to make interesting a dated drama with an exciting opening, but one which buries itself in a dead end. Through October 14. Studio 101, 1824 Spring St., 713-963-9665. — JJT

Getting Sara Married It's no surprise Sara has TV written all over it — playwright Sam Bobrick is a former master craftsman of the family comedy. He's had his hand in The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, Get Smart and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, among many other classic shows, so he knows all about the technique for writing comedy. The basic hook is whimsy itself. Workaholic Sara (Sarah Jean Bircher), a lawyer in Manhattan, insists she doesn't have time for romance, doesn't want romance, doesn't "need" romance. Her yenta Aunt Martha (Jan Searson McSwain) has other ideas, and, before you can say "old maid," has taken matters into her own hands and dropped off a potential suitor — literally. Knocked unconscious, Brandon (Ozzy Tirmizi) is wheeled in on a freight dolly by teamster Noogie (Ainsley Furgason) and dropped at Sara's feet. Emerging from his amnesiac haze, Brandon comically reveals he has a fiancée (Sabrina Rosales). Cut to his moony eyes and then Sara's surprised face. Go to commercial. We're in sitcom land with a vengeance, where this type of genre demands finesse and a deftness of playing that belies the gravity-less situations. Although she's an attractive performer, Bircher's tone is off. She gives Sara a lot more brittle edges than the character needs. If you let these paper-thin people start to think and have real feelings, you'll collapse their house of cards. Tirmizi fares better, with a sweet, lighthearted approach to Brandon, probably due to those multiple knocks on the head from Noogie. He's young and reedy, barely filling out the three-piece suit, but he's light without being lightweight. When he warms to Sara, there's that glint in his eye. Wacky sitcom sidekicks were invented to give comic relief, and Bobrick invents two good ones in Aunt Martha and Noogie. When McSwain and Furgason are onstage, the play feels right. Martha's an airhead with a heart of gold who kidnaps Brandon for the purest of reasons. McSwain lands her punch lines with a pro's swagger, delivering the gems by the bagful. Furgason barrels in like a Bronx Yosemite Sam, one of those countless delivery men or telephone repairmen made famous by Neil Simon. You know, the guys who have the timing down to the second and the quip even faster. After a while, you start thinking: What if Aunt Martha and Noogie got together? What a play that would be! Through October 13. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Dr., 713-682-3525. — DLG


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Life Could Be a Dream Another jukebox musical — the time is the '60s and the music is doo-wop — delivers nostalgia, charm and warm good feelings, but this time with a plot as well. The setting is a basement rec room where the slacker kids hang out, and, yes, "Get a Job" is amusingly staged, with the unseen mother chiming in on an intercom system. Denny (Adam Gibbs) is leader of the singing group, and he's the one with some show-business polish. Eugene (Mark Ivy) is a stereotypical nerd, and friend Wally (Dylan Godwin) drops in and joins the Denny and the Dreamers group; his trademark signature is enthusiasm. The group expands to include Skip (Cameron Bautsch), a mechanic from the wrong part of town; his trademark is to look hunky, which doesn't go unnoticed by Lois (Rebekah Stevens), whose uptight dad is a snob. The suspense is whether the group can get its act together to win a local contest being held the coming Saturday. Director and choreographer Mitchell Greco keeps the pace clipping along, and the voices are pleasant enough to carry the 20-plus songs, such as "A Sunday Kind of Love" and "Unchained Melody." Godwin has the greatest range, most intelligent rendition and impeccable phrasing. There are a lot of physical comedy and broad reactions, and these are appropriate and work well. The finale has a Chorus Line moment that lets us escape the basement and the irritating mother on the intercom. All this is created by Roger Bean, who wrote the long-running hit The Marvelous Wonderettes. This musical, intended for light summer fare, delivers on its promise, providing humor and nostalgia and letting us again relive the tuneful melodies of the '60s. Through October 14. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JJT

Otello After hearing Opera in the Heights' stirring production of Gioacchino Rossini's 1816 "lyric tragedy," based very loosely on Shakespeare's mighty drama, you will wonder, as did I, why this opera lies forgotten, a rarity among his many magnificent works (Barber of Seville, Italian Girl in Algiers, Semiramide, William Tell). OH revives this opera as if it were Lazarus. This is an extremely difficult piece to pull off since Rossini casts it with — count them — three treacherous coloratura tenors: Otello (Eric Barry), Rodrigo (Luke Grooms) and Iago (Brent Reilly Turner). Then there's Desdemona (Sarah Beckham), another filigree role; an agile bass part for Elmiro, Desdemona's father (Joseph Rawley); and a lovely if too brief mezzo role for Desdemona's maid, Emilia (Ann Sauder). There are countless vocal roulades and fireworks, runs up and down the scale, many high Cs, and, if I'm not mistaken, at least one incredible E above C for Rodrigo. That OH gave this work a distinctively spellbinding reading is just short of miraculous. (There's an alternative Emerald cast with Fabian Robles as Otello, Jessica Jones as Desdemona and Eric Bowden as Rodrigo that plays October 5 and 7.) Once you get over the shock that Shakespeare's minor character Rodrigo is now given more stage time than leading man Otello, you can relax into Rossini's masterful orchestration and sure dramatic stagecraft. OH updates the action to Venice in 1985, overlaying the basic misplaced love plot with a mafia backstory. There are enough open shirts and gold chains to prop a new season of The Sopranos. Eric Barry, as Otello, has Pavarotti heft but much better stage command as well as an equally impressive lyric tenor. Luke Grooms, as Rodrigo, gets the most difficult role, as each of his strenuous arias is loaded with high-flying treacherous fioritura. With the breath control of Houdini, he has to leap from one high note to the next like the most adept ibex. Hats off to Grooms. Sarah Beckham, as Desdemona, brings crystalline clarity to the downtrodden wife; Turner supplies silky sheen to Iago; and Sauder, with her deep-dish velvety mezzo, gives Emilia more character than does librettist Berio. Maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo whips up this rare score with passion and finesse, as if he's been conducting this all his life, drawing volcanic roulades from the strings or the mellowest of whispers from the horns and reeds. The OH Chorus, which has some new faces this season, sounds very fine indeed. Rossini's old gem gets electric new polish. Through October 7. 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-861-5303. — DLG


Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure Steven Dietz's 2006 "adaptation" of William Gillette and Arthur Conan Doyle's 1899 play is rather false advertising, as it's technically a rewrite of two Holmes adventure stories, A Scandal in Bohemia and The Final Problem, with some of the old play's dialogue used as spackle to join the two stories together, which doesn't do much justice to the original. There's a tantalizing hint of steampunk gothic in the setting by Mark A. Lewis with brickwork at the back and up the sides, wooden scaffolding and metal Erector-set pylons , but that doesn't last long, for the atmosphere is quickly dispelled by rudimentary lighting that washes over Holmes's bleak London-like fluorescence. Lit up, even the subterranean gasworks are as bright and cheery as a diner. This doesn't help the antique sheen, although Donna Southern Schmidt supplies sumptuous period costumes. In a whirligig plot afoot with whiz-bang action and Holmesean dialogue, Holmes (Chip Simmons) and his "one fixed point," his dearest friend Dr. Watson (Blake Weir), are off on near-death adventures that include multiple disguises, a damsel in distress (Katherine Hatcher), a scoundrel (Marty Blair), blackmail, ransom, abduction, possible asphyxiation, a Cockney safecracker (Brad Zimmerman), the future King of Bohemia (Craig Griffin), sleuthing of the highest kind and shady parlor maids (Leslie Reese), all ending in a final, thunderous confrontation with evil Professor Moriarty (Jeff McMorrough) atop Switzerland's treacherous Reichenbach Falls. Fortunately, the ensemble cast plays the hell out of it, staying one step away from the precipice. They keep a knife-edge distance between parody and reverence, never actually winking at us, although we know they dearly want to. Simmons plays Holmes like an effete cat with a catnip dash of Noël Coward as he springs about with deft tread or suddenly turns to pounce on a point well made. He's odd, like some alien dropped into polite society, which in fact he is, as he unleashes his unworldly powers of observation and deduction. He's perfectly matched with Weir as a handsome, debonair Dr. Watson, who's always one step behind. Although the new play creaks, the crack ensemble cast keeps it well oiled. Through October 14. A.D. Players, 2710 W. Alabama. 713-526-2721. — DLG

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