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
Debbie Does Dallas, the Musical Take the classic hardcore porn movie, soften it with music, overlay it with an ironic all-American can-do attitude and this is what you get: a goofy, G-rated XXX. Actress and entrepreneur Susan Schwartz saw gold when she optioned the 1978 porn classic and brought it to the NY International Fringe Festival as a play. She was wise enough not to drop the sex scenes, but moved them decorously behind shower curtains, a cash register or played in slow-mo with clothes on. It was an instant hit, and she realized it could do even better as a musical. This crazy idea of a porn movie with songs would work like gangbusters if there were more of them. Now, the few songs (by Andrew Sherman, Tom Kitt and Jonathan Callicutt) barely get a verse or two, if we're lucky, before being cut off. Talk about coitus interruptus. Debbie isn't Oklahoma, after all, but think what Avenue Q did with XXX material. There are plenty of laughs, though, as the itchy high-schoolers learn about the joys of capitalism, firsthand, as it were, as they form Teen Services. "We're good girls," the cheerleaders repeat to the town's dirty old men, "we'll do anything you want." And they do, too, as long as they're paid for it. The squad pools the income from their sexual adventures so Debbie can travel to Dallas for her Texas Cowgirls audition. Since this kind of service never goes out of style, Debbie ends up with a wad of cash. Along the way she loses her boyfriend, "her virginity, her self-respect and heaven," but achieves her dream. Theater LaB Houston gives Debbie a surprisingly low-gloss production. The slapdash nature points up the overall vulgarity but not the inherent goodhearted mockery. That's left to the able cast members, who relish being innocent little lambs who quickly learn, and like, being big bad wolves. Adrian Coco Anderson, as the bright-eyed heroine, has appropriately glowing skin and a lovely blank stare to make men go weak – not all over, of course, or there'd be no play, or world history. Amber Bennett (conscience-stricken Tammy), Lydia Meadows (no-nonsense Donna), Caroline Menefee (bitch Lisa, who gets her own credo and sings it plaintively) and Molly Pierce (dense Roberta) are the ambitious girlfriends, with Cameron Baustch (who wails his anthem "I Wanna Do Debbie" like a teen angel), Bill Nealon and Chris Pool as horny teens and salacious adults. Who wants characterization in a porn movie? When it morphs into a musical comedy, a bit of singing and not much dancing just doesn't go far enough. If we can't clap after production numbers, what else do we do with our hands? Through October 23. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516. — DLG
Galveston! the Musical! This world-premiere musical, produced by Masquerade Theatre, is a mess. Though the work is based on a true story – the real Maceo brothers were inveterate bootleggers and gamblers who ruled Galveston's underworld for decades and battled Al Capone for control of the island's profitable iniquities – Rose and Sam were hardly the naughty little angels of Damon Runyon land that the authors make them out to be. "Papa would be so proud," the brothers boast as their most opulent nightclub and casino, The Balinese Room, opens to spectacular success. Sure, Papa would be proud, if he wanted his sons to be gangsters. We'd accept this Godfather-as-Robin Hood syndrome – glorifying the American bandit – if the show possessed style, grace, wit or even low-rent charm. It has none of the above. Instead, its plodding scenario by Andreé Newport, Dr. Robert Wilkins and Mark York teeters in some musical comedy Neverland that was out of date in the '20s. Scenes don't flow into each other, and they stop without warning. Characters and events appear without set-up. Years pass for no reason. The Maceo brothers don't change or grow, they just open another club in some new decade. Except for the standout costumes worn by Laura Babbitt as aspiring actress Edna, the clothes are off-the-rack without distinction. The wigs are horrendous, never quite covering the actors' own hair, and the miking is close and overdone, when it's done at all. Where is the famed Masquerade magic? Granted, the company veterans cannot fix a bad script, no matter how hard they try to sell this tired material. Ross and Babbitt acquit themselves admirably, if only because their characters have a bit more flesh than the others. The score by Mark York, breezily conducted by Dominique Royem, has tantalizing hints of Irving Berlin and Jerry Herman, but without their sweetness and vitality. "If Papa Did It," the brothers' early credo, has a beguiling Broadway flavor; Edna's "Doin' My Own Thing" is a lively Charleston any flapper would love; and "2528 Post Office Street," saucily sung by the island's madam (Allison Sumrall), has a showstopping Sophie Tucker quality. The rest of the numbers are oddly unmemorable or, worse, extraneous, although they all have much better lyrics than tunes. If the authors hope, as the program states, to take this show to Broadway, dream on. The real work has yet to begin. Through October 9. Zilkha Hall, Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-861-7045. – DLG
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Guys and Dolls Damon Runyon's sharply etched portrait of clandestine gamblers is brought to vivid stage life in Guys and Dolls, the Tony award-winning, long-running B'way hit of 1950, and the current revival reminds us of the glory that once was Broadway. Gigantic neon letters spell out the title of the show, and part to reveal a set of such color and vitality that one fears for the actors having to compete with it, but such concern is baseless indeed, as the actors themselves are so well-costumed (each one a work of art in itself) and perform so brilliantly that we enter wholeheartedly into a circus-like demiworld of gambling and deceit, bets and machinations, torrid love and desperate yearnings. In short, we are home. We have a plot chock-full of action, not one but two love stories, minor characters fully fleshed out, suspense and, yes, even a happy ending. One could ask for no more. The songs are rousing and memorable — you will know many of them, and the lyrics speak simply and directly to the heart. The love interest is between successful, big-time gambler Sky Masterson (Joseph Mahowald) and Sarah Brown (Susan Powell), manager of a Mission, and their romantic duets are poignant and persuasive. Powell has a lovely, clear voice that stirs the soul, and the duet that closes Act One, "I've Never Been in Love Before," is an emotional powerhouse. The plot revolves around Nathan Detroit (Matt Merchant), a gambler with a bad case of the shorts, who is intent on continuing a 14-year engagement to Miss Adelaide (Jen Cody). Nathan is suave, largely unscrupulous and yet likable, and Merchant pulls off this trifecta with a sure hand. And Cody herself can do no wrong — she is a convincing actor with precise comic timing — she can and does sell a song (luckily, several) and she adds an extra jolt of electricity on every entrance. The classic "Adelaide's Lament" and "Take Back Your Mink" are among her many triumphs. Cameron J. Ross as Nicely-Nicely nails "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" with a strong assist by Lisa Landa, and Ven Daniel plays Nathan's other cohort with verve and style. Kevin Cooney's solo "More I Cannot Wish You" is thoughtful and sweet, and Brian Barry brings appropriate menace to Big Julie. The huge cast works wonderfully as an ensemble and are admirable as individuals when needed, and director Roy Hamlin, who put all this magic together, must be touched by genius. The creators of course are Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, who we hope are looking down with pride. Here one of the all-time legends of Broadway is given masterful acting, soaring singing, rollicking humor and brilliant direction, to create a masterpiece worthy of the original. Through October 9. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — JJT