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 and 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
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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. Theatre LaB, 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516. — JJT
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
My Fair Lady By George, Masquerade Theatre's done it! It's taken one of Broadway's crown jewels and polished it like Tiffany's. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's legendary musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's magical and most popular play, Pygmalion, sparkles. The evening is an unbridled success, full of definitive performances, rousing dance numbers, a stunning Ascot scene and Masquerade's patented brand of performing that lets us the audience share the actors' delight in putting on a show. As Eliza, Kristina Sullivan, so sublime whenever she appears, goes one better in this. The vocals lie in her sweet spot, and she deftly tosses off the Cockney lilt of "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," the Fury's tempest of "Show Me" and "Without You," and the dawning romance of "I Could Have Danced All Night." That she's an Edwardian eyeful in her Cecil Beatonesque Ascot gown, all furbelowed in black and white with gargantuan hat, only aids in the believable transformation from guttersnipe to woman. Company stalwart Luther Chakurian gives priggish snob Henry Higgins a no-nonsense attitude, seemingly unconcerned with anyone but himself. Once confronted by Eliza, who pierces his armor, he roars into life realizing what he has unleashed — he likes it. Dominic Abney overlays gruff yet clear-eyed chimney sweep Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza's father, with raspy gravel and devilish life force beneath the soot, with his "Get Me to the Church on Time," a rousing hymn to his reluctance to enter the middle class and share its morality. Cole Ryden is a sweet-voiced, ardently silly suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill; Allison Sumrall, as Mrs. Higgins, another of Shaw's very practical mothers, gives this imposing character a deeply felt center; while Adam Delka's Colonel Pickering seems the very model of a modern major general, or at least a Shavian one. The entire ensemble catches fire, especially the Cockney quartet of Eric Ferguson, Matt Kriger, Brad Zimmerman and David Smith, who serenade Eliza and Doolittle through their spirited numbers. The choreography by Laura Babbitt and Michelle Macicek is lively and well-paced; the setting by Amanda McBee, especially Higgins's Edwardian linguistic laboratory, is well-stocked with period geegaws; and the aforementioned eye-popping costumes by Libby Evans and those dreadnought hats by Diana Perez are wonders to behold. The lighting could be improved, though, and we miss those creamy rich Broadway orchestrations now played only by six. The production, directed by Phillip Duggins with even more than his customary flair, flows from Cockney square to Walpole Street townhouse to bring life to this show in an abso-blumin'-lutely loverly way. Through November 27. Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-868-9696. — DLG
Oliver Twist Charles Dickens's classic tale of orphan Oliver and his most adventurous "progress" in the underworld of Victorian London gets a faithful retelling in Neil Bartlett's ultra-theatrical adaptation at Theatre Southwest. Bartlett decides to go all "theatrical" in his retelling, as if plain old dramatizing weren't enough for this 1837 masterpiece. Here, he overlays scenes with tableaux vivants, a device from the Victorian stage where the action freezes in a well-composed picture. This hoary convention might still work, but not when it happens in the middle of a scene. It stops the action deader than a door nail. Dickens's mighty work is rich with incident and overflowing with iconic portraits that have become firmly etched in the world's consciousness. Who doesn't know Oliver's plea for another bowl of gruel, "Please, sir, I want some more"? Who isn't familiar with the perverse machinations of Fagin, master of his ragamuffin army of hooligans and petty street criminals, led by the Artful Dodger, prince of pickpockets? And what about slut Nancy with her psychotic attraction to Bill Sikes, one of literature's most sadistic villains? With his face "like an angel," little Caleb Ortega is the very picture of Oliver and is most sympathetic. He must constantly react to all manner of situations, none too pleasant, and he acquits himself like a trooper. John Stevens eats up Fagin, crouching over like a crooked spider to work his evil ways. In his worn greatcoat, he insinuates himself with false modesty and gentlemanly pretense. Liz King, as Nancy, is handsome enough for a Cockney beauty gone to seed, and her misguided love for Bill is plain to all. What a fantastic horror Adan Inteuz makes as Sikes, amoral and threatening, solid and moving like a shark. Avery Stinson, as the Artful Dodger, moves like he could pick a pocket or two and gives this street kid a very cool reading. The subsidiary characters are handled with authentic finesse by Carolyn Montgomery, Monica Passley, Michel Stevens, Casey Coale and Bruce Blifford. All of them would've been granted a nod of approval by Dickens. The tribe of lost boys, however, needs tightening up to be a more effective gang. These kids aren't playing at the arcade after school; it's life or death on the mean streets of London in 1837. Make it real. The tale is timeless, and Theatre Southwest's telling, under David Holloway's direction, is eminently watchable. Through November 30. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — DLG