Cuttin' Up The chrome on the three barber chairs gleams brightly in Janelle Flanagan's "kitchen sink" set for Charles Randolph-Wright's rich, if sketchy, tapestry of black life as witnessed in a contemporary Houston barbershop. Clippers buzz, scissors click and men talk as an entire panorama of everyday and extraordinary characters sit in the chairs and spin their tales. It's history seen through hair. Old man proprietor Howard (the always exceptionally vivid Wayne DeHart) calls his place the "final black frontier...our sanctuary," and it is that and more as every type of character comes in and has a say. Howard's employees are as much of a cross-section as is the multitude of clients. Rootless Andre (the solid Henry Edwards Jr.), shell-shocked from childhood trauma, feels the urge to keep moving on, while young Rudy (the constantly bopping, audience-favorite Joseph Palmore), though a slacker and always out for a good time, learns about life through osmosis from his older, wiser brothers. These three are surrounded, sometimes swallowed up, by the constant stream of clients and drop-ins who appear in memory flashbacks, such as a butch lesbian who knows exactly how she wants her hair cut, to a flamboyant reverend whose car plays Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" when he unlocks the door, to a homeless jive master who displays his stolen CDs in the lining of his shabby trench coat. Even electric-haired boxing promoter Don King and Oprah Winfrey's kindly barber father make an appearance. All of these many, many characters are given lush detailing by Jason Carmichael, Troy Hogan, Broderick Jones, Robert Marshall and Detria Ward. They come and go so quickly, we often lose focus on the main guys, but their appearances work as a quick, loving glimpse of black experience. Lively and full of warm humor, the play stalls once or twice, but the comic situations and gentle characters always draw us in, as do the veritable time-machine costumes by Shirley Marks Whitmore. The lessons learned may not be the freshest ever put on stage, but when depicted with such generosity by all eight superlative actors, the play's heart, humor and hopeful message are universal. And gratefully applauded. Through April 15. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. 713-520-0055. — DLG
Ragtime: the Musical An exuberant, brilliant cast sings and dances its way onto the stage of the Miller Outdoor Theatre in this ambitious musical, which mixes the sweep of American history at the beginning of the 20th century with a story of an upscale family coping with the changes. A tripartite ensemble — whites, blacks and immigrants — circle each other warily, setting the stage for the conflicts to follow. The book, by Terrence McNally, is based on the sprawling, best-selling novel Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow and weaves together the majestic and the minor, with betrayal of innocence an interlocking theme. The music is by Stephen Flaherty, and it has the driving force of America itself, filled with melody and fire, and sparkling with toe-tapping rhythms. The cast is to a large extent made up of teenagers, and their enthusiasm nails the spirit and energy of America, warts and all. They're all talented, but standouts are Emily Clark as Mother, the spine of the work and its moral compass; Austin Arizpe as the immigrant Tateh, rising from street vendor to movie producer; Dominique Watkins as Coalhouse Walker, jazz pianist and revolutionary; and Henry Herbert as Younger Brother, a WASP turned revolutionary. HITS Executive Artistic Director JoAnne Woodard marshaled the gigantic cast through its paces with skill, and elicits performances that are truly professional, with the power to enchant. The Miller Outdoor Theatre is perfect for an extravaganza of this style and scope — the sound system is excellent, and the admission price (free) is hardly to be believed. This breathtakingly ambitious musical is rich entertainment and a must-see theatrical event. Through April 14. 6000 Hermann Park Dr., 281-373-3386. — JJT
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See Rock City & Other Destinations This pleasant pastiche of musical vignettes ambles its way onto the stage of Theatre LaB Houston, with Linda Phenix directing and choreographing the events. She keeps the pace and energy flowing, aided by actor Beth Lazarou, who swoops across the stage like a hummingbird and can make even a line like "I can see my house from here" sound riveting. Her personality adds significance to the slightest of material — and there is some of that in this medley of unrelated episodes taking place at famed locations. The music by Brad Alexander is sweet and serviceable, and the book by Adam Mathias delivers its share of humor but carries little bite. The lyrics, also by Mathias, are not memorable, though I can't seem to forget "You are my bitch." Scott Lupton plays a stranger who gives a waitress (Lazarou) a ride, and also, with Josef Anderson, one of two buddies on a trip to Coney Island – this section is vividly staged, and the writing shows nuance and invention. Anderson also portrays a guy watching for aliens, a running gag with little payoff. Lazarou is joined by Jessica Janes and Shondra Marie as sisters delivering the ashes of their Dad into Alaskan waters — all are good and the humor skillfully etches the three personalities. In other bits, Janes plays a bride at Niagara Falls having second thoughts, and Marie is good as a woman at the Alamo with her grandfather, played by Jimmy Phillips, whose musical recollection of memories is poignant and moving. John Dunn nails the role of a Niagara Falls tour guide with polish and sophisticated aplomb. See Rock City delivers some low-key charm and amiable humor, with the occasional foray into the unexpected. Through April 29. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516. — JJT