Capsule Stage Reviews: Damaged Divas of the Decades, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oliver Twist, There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, Zombie Prom

Damaged Divas of the Decades A particularly high style of cabaret is in performance through November at Music Box Theater. This second production from the newly minted troupe is called Damaged Divas of the Decades, and if that title alone doesn't propel you to Colquitt and Kirby, what kind of theater queen are you? As the only cabaret in the Bayou City, Music Box is like a classy Manhattan nightclub of yore, intimate and boozy, sophisticated and in-the-know. The troupe's five performers, all locally known and highly respected in the musical theater world (Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Cay Taylor, Luke Wrobel and Colton Berry) have musical talent to spare and intriguing personalities to blend together when necessary and to cause sparks when needed. It's a bracing mix and, vocally, is unchallenged anywhere in town. As pros, they know through instinct and training how to put across a song. They also know how to entertain. As a tribute to music's self-suffering icons, from jazz's Etta James and Billie Holiday, to rock's Janis Joplin and Stevie Nicks, to pop's Barbra Steisand and Mama Cass, the entire evening is solidly entertaining. The musical spectrum is rich and varied: a Jim Beam-infused rendering from Dahl of "Me and Bobby McGee," Scarborough's patented falsetto in "Big Girls Don't Cry," Taylor's spot-on Streisand in "Get Happy," Wrobel's heartfelt "La Vie en Rose," and Berry's absolutely wickedly hilarious take on Liza or his simpatico treatment of Cline's "Crazy." Guest host John Gremillion plays a William Shatner emcee and an assortment of crafty personae to lead us through the evening. While the divas may be damaged, the show is without blemish and first-class all the way, with formidable talent on display. As the Kander and Ebb song says, if life is a cabaret, then I love a cabaret, especially this one. Cabaret just doesn't get any better. Through November 13. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

A Midsummer Night's Dream Here William Shakespeare's most popular play is re-set in The Roaring Twenties and is tackled by a teenage cast. The plot is that the young lovers are in love with the wrong person, and the magical adults Oberon and Titania are having a marital spat. The costuming by Copper Paradiso is excellent, especially the flapper sheaths and those for the winged fairies. The set by Lisa Garza of soaring columns and fabrics of rich colors echoes the richness of imagery and vocabulary that the Bard provides. Ryan Jacobs plays Bottom, an amateur actor eager to play all the roles in Pyramus and Thisbe, the-play-within-the-play, and embodies him with rich humor and considerable style. Austin Jacobs plays both Oberon and Theseus, and is admirable as a Rudolph Valentino-type Oberon. Jonathan Lammey plays Demetrius and creates an interesting character. These all speak the words "trippingly on the tongue" as intended. Connor Heaton plays the other wooer, and his actions and body language are entertaining, but mastering the rhythm of Shakespeare lies in his future, as it does for most of the actors. The distaff side, Helena and Hermia, lack dignity as played, but Anna Conover and Annabelle Cousins show pluck and energy. The best moments come near the end (the play has been shortened) when Pyramus and Thisbe is performed for Theseus. The strength of this production lies in physical humor, and director Ilich Guardiola is inventive, enriching the production with levity of movement and lightness of approach. Many of the flapper-age updates are witty. The result is colorful, lighthearted entertainment. While not what one might expect from this comedy, it is an entertaining romp in the pastures of Shakespeare, with flashes of brilliance. Through November 6. Houston Family Arts Center (Teen Actors Guild), Garza Main Stage, 10760 Grant Rd., 281-685-6374. — JJT

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

There Is a Happiness That Morning Is When Troy Schulze's character Bernard ambles onto the tiny stage of Catastrophic Theater's "micro-theater" to open There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, he is planning to give a lecture on William Blake's poem "Infant Joy" from Songs of Innocence and of Experience. He's also going to explain the leaves. Rather, he's going to apologize for the behavior that led him to be covered in same. The night before he and his love, Ellen, a fellow Blake scholar at the same financially strapped small college, had been inflamed by Blake's poetry to the point of ripping off their clothes and making love in front of their students — and school administration. To keep their jobs, Bernard and Ellen are going to have to publicly apologize for their display of — what? Bernard argues that their lovemaking was an act of innocence, and he uses Blake's poem to make his case. Schulze is wonderful in this long opening monologue. He gives a down-home touch to the often high-flying rhetoric of playwright Mickle Maher. It's so high-flying, in fact, that much of it comes in rhyming couplets. Ellen (Amy Bruce) takes the stage, setting up for her afternoon class in which she is going to damn well refuse to apologize for anything. She has contempt for the school administration, particularly Dean James (Kyle Sturdivant). But James upends the expectations of both Bernard and Ellen. He wasn't horrified by their lovemaking — he was turned on by it. He doesn't want to kill their Blake seminars; he's cut funding to the rest of the university so that they can continue. In short, he's in love — with both of them. Despite the strength of the other performers, Sturdivant dominates the stage. A large actor bursting with manic energy (that sparkle in his eyes comes from a deep place), Sturdivant fills the stage with his character's degradation. Under Jason Nodler's direction, the play's energy never comes close to flagging, and the experience of seeing it in the tiny theater ups its already considerable ante. Through November 19. Catastrophic Theatre Micro-Theatre, 1540 Sul Ross, 713-522-2723. — DT

Zombie Prom A rejected teenage swain turns to nuclear suicide but returns as a radioactive toxic avenger to reclaim his true love. Romance blossoms between Jonny (Philip Orazio) and Toffee (Jenna Simmons), and their acting and vocal skills let us savor their love. Toffee's parents disapprove of Jonny, and he hurls himself into the embrace of a nuclear doom. All this is enhanced enormously by the powerful presence of the school principal, Mrs. Delilah Strict, played by Melanie Burke, who provides a commanding stage presence and an authentic martinet spirit. Her rule is threatened when Jonny returns to resume his quest to take Toffee to the senior prom. His skin now a vivid green, he seems to have grown an extra set of cojones, as he now has the style, energy and moves of a rock star. Thus, an epic battle for the soul of Enrico Fermi High begins, and it is interesting indeed. But wait — there's more! Newscaster Eddie Flagrante enters and Andrew Garrett captures wonderfully his persona – smooth, good-looking, self-centered and glib. He and Mrs. Strict have a (gasp!) history, and share a duet that masterfully delivers humor, sensuality and characterization. The three girl pals of Toffee, the three buddies of Jonny and the ensemble create with exuberant energy a nostalgic reminder of the conflict between authority and teenage hormones. The songs are not especially memorable, but enjoyably propel the action. The music has pep and vigor, and the five-piece band is excellent. The fast-paced direction is by Paul Hope, and the entire effort is presented with loving care and a lighthearted touch. Young talent and experienced direction shape an entertaining script into a delightful comedic event, perfectly timed to add sharp pleasure to the Halloween season. Through November 6. University of Houston, Cullen Hall, 4800 Calhoun, 713-743-2929. — JJT


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