Camelot Lerner and Loewe's 1960 musical is as unwieldy as they come. Burdened with expectations of whether the creators of the ultimate musical, My Fair Lady, could possibly top their masterpiece, Camelot used as its framework T.H. White's ungainly fantasy novel The Once and Future King, with its heavy-handed magic and antifascist bent. Lerner's book bounces all over the place, never settling down with coherent tone or smooth plotting — irony and hoary old burlesque during the first scenes gradually turn serious and thoughtful as idealistic Arthur (Luke Wrobel) forms the world's first democratic utopia, only to see it blow up in his face when wife Guinevere (Kristina Sullivan) and saintly Lancelot (Matthew Redden), his most trusted member of the Round Table, fall in love. There's also a subplot dropped in from nowhere to give the piece a real villain, Mordred, Arthur's illegitimate son, who arrives late at Camelot to usurp the throne. Lerner's scenes are talky to excess, but what ultimately saves the show is Loewe's overarching romantic music and Lerner's extremely stylish and literate lyrics. Masquerade Theatre's principals glide over the play's bumpy dramatics like Olympic athletes. On Arthur's journey from scared husband-to-be to compassionate ruler, Wrobel is practically Shakespearean, wonderfully sly in his characterization and ultimately affecting as he loses everything but the memory of his mission. Sullivan radiates, superb as faithful wife succumbing to infidelity, and she sings beautifully. Tall and striking, Redden is the picture-book version of egocentric Lancelot, and throughout, John Gremillion, as fussbudget old King Pellinore, craftily steals every scene he's in. Even with a less-than-magical book, Camelot exerts a romantic spell all its own, and Masquerade makes sure all the dreaminess stays front and center. Through February 28. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby,713-315-2525. — DLG
True Love Lies The nuclear family in Canadian playwright Brad Fraser's comedy/drama is so progressive and liberal, it comes as quite a shock when everyone plunges into a tailspin after Dad (Steve Bullitt) reveals a former gay love affair. The news unhinges this postmodern Donna Reed family. Mom Caroline (Mary Hooper) knew all about David (Jonathan McVay) before they married, so why's she so bent out of shape now? To be charitable, daughter Madison (Chelsea McCurdy) is a slut, and her mantra is "gay is so over." So why does she react like a Puritan in a leather bar? And geeky son Royce (Mark Ivy) has seen a whole lot worse on the Internet. They're all shocked, shocked! that Dad and David were once an item. Maybe if this tale were set in the '50s, their swooning at Dad being bi would be more acceptable. Things get so out of control and over the top that Madison, who's working in David's restaurant, throws herself at him and succeeds. David is a 10 on the 1-to-10 gay scale, and no one that exclusively gay is ever going to sleep with the daughter of a former boyfriend. Despite beautifully drawn characters, believability is a problem. It's hard to know what Fraser is trying to say. But that hasn't stopped critics from loving the play since its recent debut. And it becomes a whole lot more believable when troubled Royce throws himself at David and is gently, solicitously rebuffed by the older man. Everything comes right at the end, and all pieces fit neatly into their allotted places — a happy, ironic Love, American Style ending for all. Fraser's known for his frank, lusty talk, and the all-pro cast gives him a four-star rendition. The youngsters are particularly good. McCurdy gives an excellent performance as amoral Madison, and Ivy's even better, with his shy, dangerous and explosive psychoses bubbling just below the surface. Director Jimmy Phillips moves the play briskly like a well-edited movie, with one table doubling as both House and Restaurant. If you need a theater sex fix, this one's for you. Through March 13. TheaterLaB, 1706 Alamo. 713-868-7516. — DLG
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The Women How can you resist a play that credits a "catfight coordinator"? And could that play be any other than Clare Boothe Luce's bitch-fest from 1936? There's none like it in the comedy canon; it's as unique as its formidable playwright, with a huge cast and not a male in sight. These married ladies from Park Avenue hold onto their husbands and/or lovers with both hands. They run the world from their living rooms, fitting rooms, powder rooms and bathtubs. This is upper-crust female power — with sex as constant warfare or irritant — and when nice and proper Mary Haines gets the marital stuffing knocked out of her (she learns of her husband's affair through a blabbermouth manicurist), it takes her until the end of the play to figure out how to fight for her man. Her friends are an assortment of double dealers, backbiters and blasé do-nothings, and when they're all together, it's a marvelous, sharp-tongued conversation you wouldn't want to join without at least two cocktails in hand. The play's amazingly deft and witty, and laugh-out-loud funny. It's rich in scenes, and if the changes at Theatre Southwest aren't as speedy as they could be, the musical interludes never disappoint. It's wonderful to listen to Ella Fitzgerald, Ginger Rogers and Vaughn Monroe (even if he didn't record "There I Said It Again" for another decade). The ladies of the cast are nice and stylized, some looking like they stepped nimbly right out from the covers of Vanity Fair (Malinda Beckham, Pam Green, Emily Colvin, Kathy Drum). Rebecca Seabrook, as sweet but done-wrong Mary, grows into the role as she becomes more feisty; Kelly Walker, as hard-hearted Crystal, luxuriates in her home-wrecking; and Melody Gray, in the juicy role of Sylvia Fowler, brings a nice spider's touch to the mother of all bitches. As for that catfight, it's a beaut. Through March 13. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — DLG