Capsule Stage Reviews: Broadway at the Box, The First Church of Texaco, God of Carnage, Man of La Mancha

Broadway at the Box The Music Box Theater is a repertory group of three women and two men — they sing, they dance, they act, they reminisce about their childhoods, they do solos and they do ensemble numbers, all this with such a sense of togetherness, of fun, of personal enjoyment that their talent and enthusiasm cascade into the audience and wrap it in a warm embrace. Luke Wrobel handles a large section of the evening as Tevye singing "I Wish I Were a Rich Man" and as Don Quixote singing "The Impossible Dream," and in between logs time in a hilarious impersonation of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and as an amusingly brutal casting director, and shares a duet of "There's Nothing like a Dame" with Brad Scarborough, the other male member. Scarborough sings "Till There Was You" and "Walk Like a Man" and leads an entertaining skit about a theater critic who reviews a performance before it occurs thanks to time travel. Rebekah Dahl shines as lead singer in "The Age of Aquarius," and Kristina Sullivan provides an intelligent, subtle and compelling rendition of "Send in the Clowns." Cay Taylor nails the haunting "I Dreamed a Dream," and received one of the evening's several standing ovations. The band (Donald Payne, Mark McCain, Long Le and Glenn Sharp) is a rich contributor to the overall success of the show. The Music Box is a cabaret theater, so drinks are available. Through April 6. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — JJT

The First Church of Texaco A corporate tycoon returns to his roots in an abandoned gas station in Blessing, Texas, and hires the local librarian to be his secretary, while fighting a hostile takeover of his corporation, and the librarian uses him as surrogate pastor for the community. The tycoon is a bully, browbeating a junior executive. Craig Griffin portrays Stanley Presley, the magnate, and is quite good, though the role is a caricature. Blake Weir plays the junior executive, Brad, capturing the requisite toadying without losing his dignity and conveying an appealing intelligence that's thrown to the winds in Act Two. Things perk up when librarian Alice Mann enters, pretty, with big hair, spunky and nice; Christy Watkins nails this role. Later, a 15-year old runaway girl, Emmi, wanders in to include a miraculous coincidence of contrived spirituality. In Act Two, a gun plays a large part — most of the characters get to brandish it — a $15,000 check is torn up, Stanley undergoes a Damoscene conversion, Brad allows ambition to supplant judgment and romance blossoms. The set is deliberately downscale, admirably suited to movement and far more authentic than the script. The lighting works well, but one event desperately needs the illusion of headlights. The acting throughout is first-rate, with great comic timing, and intern Bethany Eggleston is excellent as the waif, with great, darting movements. The playwright, Andrew William Librizzi, has written a comedy without including motivations. It is deftly directed by Jennifer Dean, who keeps the action moving and allows the comic timing of savvy actors to carry it. Gifted performers bring an inferior play to comic life, and gaping flaws seem not to interfere with huge audience enjoyment. Through March 17. A.D. Players at Grace Theater, 2710 W. Alabama. 713-526-2721. — JJT

God of Carnage What could be better in the theater than adults behaving badly? How about four of them? And what if the two married couples, seeming normal and under control, swiftly descend into the most uncivil behavior that is also screamingly funny? Scratch these yuppies and you'll discover underneath a jungle heart of darkness. In Stark Naked Theatre's sterling production of Yasmina Reza's Tony Award winner, the laughs and the barbarity don't just come in waves, they spew. This is the fastest one and a half hours on stage, a nonstop, in-your-face comedy that doesn't blink and keeps getting more outrageous by the minute. Six Flags' cyclone is tame by comparison. The fun begins as Veronica and Michael (Kim Tobin and Drake Simpson) invite Annette and Alan (Kay Allmand and John Gremillion) over to their smartly adorned Brooklyn apartment — Jodi Bobrovsky's sleek set design abounds with animal prints, African jugs and primitive art, to seal the idea of the jungle subtext — to "talk over" their sons' playground altercation. Benjamin, Annette and Alan's son, has knocked out two of Henry's teeth, and Veronica and Michael dictate the terms of the agreement to be signed, so they hope, by the contrite visiting parents. Before the frozen smiles have a chance to fade, the play zooms off and gallops at full speed. In a series of overlapping downward spirals, like an M.C. Escher drawing, the four quickly plunge into outrageous, swinish behavior that the kids from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf would blush at. As both marriages veer out of control, insults are hurled like poisoned-tipped spears, cell phones get dunked, copious amounts of rum are drunk, a lovely display of tulips is decapitated, Veronica tackles Michael when loyalties shift tectonically, and Annette hurls all over Veronica's limited, and beloved, edition of Kokoschka prints. Middle-class values corkscrew downhill. This adult-rated Punch and Judy show wouldn't have half the punch without a four-star cast ready and willing to go for broke. Under Justin Doran's meticulously fluid direction, the ensemble quartet is pitch-perfect. High-minded and socially conscious, Tobin's Veronica can't believe that the others don't take life as seriously as she does. She's the first to crack. Simpson plays rumpled dinosaur Michael with furious sputtering, which only makes him that much more absurd. Allmand, dressed to the nines in chic red and black as Annette, has shallow down pat. Gremillion, always so memorable on the musical stage, gives master of the universe Alan, boasting and smug, a spine of sponge. Not that these defeats stop any of them from continuing the battle. As in war, alliances merge, change sides or stand stubbornly apart. If you ever thought that civility and good manners might save our world, Yasmina Reza's comedy will slap that thought right out of your head. Through March 9. Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring St., 832-866-6514. — DLG

Man of La Mancha The eponymous hero of this musical classic, which played on Broadway for almost six years (winning Tony awards for Best Musical, Composer and Lyricist, Actor, Director, and Set Design), is not the misguided knight errant Don Quixote, battler of windmills and lost causes, but his creator, Miguel de Cervantes. Author Dale Wasserman, who had previously adapted the Spaniard's thick masterpiece for a TV play, puts Cervantes in prison awaiting the judgment of the Inquisition. As a tax collector, among other professions — writer, soldier, poet, dreamer — he has incurred the royal wrath by foreclosing on a church. A gigantic staircase/drawbridge is lowered into the dark common area of the ghastly prison, and Cervantes walks down, down into the shadowy holding cell where murderers, thieves and the decrepit wait without hope to be called to face the terrors of the Inquisition. The refuse of the prison hold their own mock trial. In defense and to protect his unfinished manuscript from being burned, Cervantes "acts out" the adventures of Don Quixote, using the other prisoners as characters in the musical within the musical. This device is immensely effective as it draws us right into the tale. In musical theater history, Man of La Mancha is known as a "one of." Never again were any of its creators to be so creative. All their subsequent musicals were bombs, but the stars aligned for this one. Theatre Under The Stars' production is faithful to the original without turning the show into a waxworks. Mitch Leigh's music is as fresh as ever with its flamenco-inspired rhythms and bolero accents: It's pop goes to Spain. But everything's of a piece, with superlative lyrics by Joe Darion to match Leigh's evocative tunes. Any show that boasts the soaring "The Quest (The Impossible Dream)," the lilting "To Each His Dulcinea," the pomp of "The Golden Helmet of Mambrino," the vaudeville "I Really Like Him" and the gritty "Aldonza" has a lively musical vocabulary. As Cervantes/Quixote, Paul Schoeffler gives the dreamer a crisp, staccato delivery that takes a bit to get used to, but his baritone has a gleaming tint that cuts right into the heart of his showstopping power ballad. He makes us see the batty old knight of the woeful countenance without resorting to that character's patented goatee and great swathe of a mustache. Trusty sidekick Sancho Panza, perhaps the most famous sidekick in literature, is a worthy Borscht-belter under Josh Lamon's wily interpretation, turning him into Nathan Lane-lite, but that's about the only way to play this endearing second banana. As the whore Aldonza, whom Quixote fantasizes as chaste and pure, Michelle DeJean is appropriately slutty and hard-shelled until she cracks under Quixote's persistently chivalrous gaze. This is the fourth time TUTS has presented this classic, and its message of hope among the hopeless exudes freshness along with inspiration. Just to hear that oversung old chestnut, "The Quest," in its rightful place in the show where it originated, is chilling all over again. Through March 10. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. 713-558-8887. — DLG


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