Cinderella The Ensemble Theatre's take on Cinderella gives the fairy tale a lively, rollicking treatment. There are moments of poignant beauty in this production, but broad humor and even broader acting take center stage. Cinderella is portrayed by Teacake, reprising the role she played a year ago, and she brings a dazzling smile and a solid stage presence to the part. The stepsisters (Tamara Harper and Roenia Thompson) are suitably evil and cruel, and the stepmother (Rachel Hemphill Dickson) is equally cruel but also vivacious and wonderful. Alex Kennedy plays Prince Charming, but lacks the expected fire, as the script requires him to be sullen and hostile. Act I ends with a wallop as the chariot and six white "mice" arrive. Act II has some imaginative staging, and the excellent ensemble adds humor with entertaining choreography. The ball has a handsome set and interesting costumes that make the fairy tale come to vibrant life. Of enormous help are Ron Johnson in a skillful performance as the Duke, Kendrick Brown as a Page and Vincent James as a Lord, and the latter two dance up a storm. Rennette Brown is excellent as an exuberant Fairy Godmother. There is a driving force to the song "Chores, Chores, Chores," and there is a powerful song near the end, "I'm Going On," in which Cinderella tells off her cruel stepsisters. This interpretation was developed by San Francisco's African-American Shakespeare Company, the music and lyrics and musical direction are by Carlton Leake, and it is directed and choreographed by Patdro Harris. This non-Disney interpretation has vitality, strength and a vivid, contemporary flavor. Strong performances and broad humor coalesce to achieve an evening of fun-filled entertainment, in a contemporary musical retelling of the familiar fairy tale. Through December 30. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — JJT
A Contemporary American's Guide to a Successful Marriage @ 1959 A satire of marital advice from a clueless "expert" chronicles two very different 1959 Iowa marriages. Molly Pierce plays Abby, a Doris Day type, and she links up with quarterback Mason, also naive, played by Cameron Bautsch, who has the lanky good looks of a young Elvis. They follow the unseen narrator's advice to save "it" for the wedding night, with disastrous and hilarious results. Pierce and Bautsch are excellent, and when the marriage hits a snag, Abby fortunately turns to her mother, played by Mary Hooper, who brilliantly captures the prejudices of the time: anti-gay, anti-black and with an inability to distinguish between a liberal and a communist. Abby's sister Sheryl (Claire Anderson) is good, but Dorothy has the lines. In a parallel courtship and marriage, the academically precocious Daniel (Bobby Haworth) is seduced, nay, overpowered, by Ruth (Adrian Coco Anderson), seven years older. The couples breed, and daughters are born. Ruth is scripted as a bitch on wheels, with hair like a harpoon. The unseen Narrator (Greg Dean) continues to give feckless advice rooted in a complete lack of knowledge of human nature, but with the plummy assurance of the clueless, and this is often quite amusing. Divorces ensue, and when Ruth and Daniel's marriage fails, it is no laughing matter. Lightness re-emerges, and Andy Ingalls plays a gay hospital orderly and Shondra Marie an inhibited nurse; both are delightful. Director Jimmy Phillips keeps the pace brisk and the portrayals authentic, and lets the humorous incongruities work their charms. Young playwright Robert Bastron has a deft comedic touch, and the full evening passes far too quickly, leaving one wanting more — and that doesn't happen every day. Through December 11. Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516. — JJT
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Dear Santa Christmas comes early to Theatre Suburbia with a comedy set in Santa's North Pole workshop, where elves cope amusingly with production problems. But if you're looking for Ibsen, you're barking up the wrong chimney. This line might be from Bozidar, Santa's mechanic, who delightfully garbles common expressions — a device which works beautifully. Bozidar is played by Tony D'Armata with perky energy and great style. Equally fetching is Kelly Browning as Octavia, Santa's housekeeper, combining body language and a high voice to create an interesting and likable character. Santa himself oversees all the hijinks, and Michael J. Steinbach shows us the human Santa, a dedicated, benevolent manager with authentic charm. Bob Galley plays a glib, aggressive salesman intent on selling Santa a rocket sleigh, and makes the character compelling, persuasive and funny. Keitha Mae Hanks plays Kit Bishop, a young stowaway with an agenda, and finds life in the character in Act Two. There are subplots: A missed shipment of glue threatens disaster, Octavia's unrequited love, Kit Bishop's hardworking mother — but much of the fun is in the running gags, the amusingly detailed set and the colorful costumes — I loved the elf shoes with the curled toes, and Octavia's vest with Christmas scenes. David James Barron plays Algernon, Santa's chief-of-staff, but fails to find the fun in the role. Elvin Moriarty, artistic director of Theatre Suburbia, directed this comedy and found its gentle humor, though the pace might be picked up. The work is by Norm Foster, Canada's most produced playwright, and this is its Houston premiere. This slight comedy, perfect for the holiday season, delights with gentle charm, and is strengthened by skilled acting which adds humanity and wit to the pleasant goings-on. Through December 3. 4106 Way Out West Dr., 713-682-3525. — JJT