Capsule Stage Reviews: Damaged Divas of the Decades, Farragut North, Goodbye Charlie, Kissless the Musical, Once Upon a Mattress, A Triumph of Love

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

Farragut North It's certainly no surprise that politics is ugly, so political junkies won't find much to disagree with, yell at or protest in Beau Willimon's down-and-dirty insider's dissection. Willimon worked on Howard Dean's flamed-out 2004 presidential campaign, so he knows where all the skeletons are buried. Backstage at the Iowa presidential primary is the setting for Willimon's drama, where quasi-hero whiz kid Stephen (Jordan Jaffe) is press secretary for candidate Governor Morris. The play's neat trick is that we never see the candidates, only their handlers. Twenty-five years old, Stephen is the golden boy with Washington at his feet. He has impeccable credentials, the trust of mentor Paul (Seán Patrick Judge), an insider's friendship with the press, represented by a Maureen Dowd type (Danica Dawn Johnston), and a fawning subordinate, Ben (Andy Ingalls). Stephen plays in the big leagues, MVP material for sure, so it's no surprise when other political operatives start aiming for his head. Double crosses, leaks and potential leaks are used as weapons to disable him, and Willimon neatly places red herrings to keep us guessing what will happen next. Will teen campaign volunteer Molly (Alexandria Ward) sell him out? What about that other old campaign pro, Tom (Joel Sandel), who represents the other candidate? Can he be trusted? Can any of them? There's a neat little All About Eve twist at the end to keep our spirits from soaring too high, but there's not much here that's really original. Sandel and Judge, smooth veterans, play their characters with such easy panache that they seem to be in HD. Jaffe doesn't vary his outbursts, so, as Steven gets more desperate, there's no build-up; each crisis is handled like the one before. And there's just no plausible way to explain that offstage snow machine at the beginning of each scene that lightly covers a desktop or actor's head — like the "fog of war," is this supposed to mean that politics is the ultimate "snow job"? Some metaphors are best left unseen, even in Iowa. Farragut North will validate your every Washington nightmare. If not the most insightful, the play's awfully relevant since another presidential campaign has already begun (!). It's always good to be reminded yet again not to take anything — or any candidate — at face value. Through September 24. Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation Blvd., 713-417-3552. — DLG

Goodbye Charlie Before the play opens, womanizer and cad Charlie Sorrel has been caught in the act of having an affair and been killed, but is reincarnated in the body of a younger woman. The comedy develops as Charlie and George, his best (and only) friend, deal with ensuing complications. The brilliant playwright George Axelrod had preceded the 1959 B'way opening with major hits — The Seven Year Itch and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? — but the rocky reception of Goodbye Charlie drove him to Hollywood, where he penned the screenplays for Breakfast at Tiffany's and The Manchurian Candidate. His effort here takes an amusing, if not totally original, idea and stretches it into a full-length evening. The good news is that along the way he provides the opportunity for some telling insights into the world of male chauvinism, and gives some first-rate actors the chance to lure us into this contemporary fable, and seduce us into believing in its reality. We only see Charlie after the reincarnation, but Rebecca Seabrook, a tall, willowy blond with striking good looks, adds enough male body language and mannerisms to provide the required laughs. I would say she carries the show — she is that good — but she is so well-supported by John Mitsakis as best friend George that both carry it. These two are alone on the stage for much of the evening, and their pas de deux of discovery and adaptation is a wonder and a pleasure to watch. Talent will out. The other main character is Charlie's mistress, Rusty, played amusingly by Angela Denny, who is able to move convincingly from comedy into the warmth of love called for in Act Two. Surprisingly, for his experience, Axelrod has written a female drunk scene that might be 20 minutes but — believe me — seems longer, and even here, the inspired Seabrook holds us in thrall almost to the end. The other actors are good but hardly necessary to the goings-on, except to add exposition in the opening memorial-service group scene, before Charlie and Rusty enter — and the acting here is vivid, perhaps a shade too vivid. Director Jay Menchaca keeps the pace brisk without stepping on the nuanced performances. With this cast and this direction, Goodbye Charlie might have lasted longer on B'way. Brilliant and subtle acting, and skilled direction, take a half-century-old warhorse and groom it into an Arabian steed. It's a most entertaining evening and a joy to watch. Through September 24. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — JJT

Kissless the Musical An ambitious new Houston-grown musical about teenage conflicts uses a cast of 27 to create a dynamic world where parents are distant and largely irrelevant, while the opinion of a peer can be crucial. Teenage cliques formed around jocks and nerds are a theatrical tradition, but subcultures expand here with rednecks and goths, adding freshness to the exuberant goings-on. The storyline follows Derek West, leader of the jocks, played by Tyler Galindo, and Summer Stokely, a goth with less than full commitment to the genre, played by Teresa Zimmermann. Compelled by plot needs to look unhappy much of the time, she nonetheless involves us in her vulnerability. Galindo as top-jock might have more snap, sparkle and swagger, and a bit less sincerity, but both have strong, attractive voices — Zimmermann is a belter who fills the ample space — and they work well together. Jordan McLaughlin and Mark Jammal play jocks with enthusiasm and verve, and McLaughlin especially nails some comic timing. Julia Green plays the leader of the goths and is a standout in looks and performance. Identical twins Austin and Ryan Jacobs play a jock and a redneck — both have strong voices and excel at using body language to good effect. Cameron Worthen plays Chet West, father and athletic coach, and is strong and effective. The mother, Betsy West, is played, as intended, by Megan Blackmon as a cartoon character for comic relief. Tyce Green is terrific as the psychiatrist and has a great voice, and Matt Buzonas is a winner as a redneck. The stage erupted in electric life with "Soul Crusher," as video games were enacted with style and wit. I loved Zimmermann's powerful rendition of "I'm Gonna Make Him Cry" and admired the strength and sweep of "Kissless." "My Son" is amusing and rich with comic irony. The songs emerge seamlessly from the plot, thanks to the multitalented Chance McClain, who wrote book, music and lyrics. This work-in-progress is on its way to a competition at the New York Theatre Music Festival, where it will have three weeks of off-B'way performances. Skilled professional performances from a richly talented young cast bring an ambitious project to vibrant, exciting theatrical life — the audience couldn't wait to spring to its feet for a well-deserved standing ovation. Through September 18. Houston Family Arts Center at the Berry Center, 8877 Barker Cypress Rd., Cypress, 281-685-6374. — JJT

Once Upon a Mattress Once Upon a Mattress is the 1959 musical that introduced Carol Burnett to Broadway. Its initial production moved from off-B'way to B'way and ran, in a variety of theaters, for 460 performances. It's a farce, and a spoof of a fairy tale, and is set in a royal court as Prince Dauntless — no Prince Charming — seeks a royal mate. There's much to cheer about in this production, with a bravura performance from Katie Reed as Queen Aggravain, whose character trait is never to stop talking; Reed even makes verbosity fascinating. She has a commanding stage presence and is a skilled professional, carving her way to comic success, despite a one-dimensional script that may take a George Abbot, its legendary original director, to make really work. It's directed here by Geoffrey Geiger, who also plays Prince Dauntless, but Geiger unfortunately permits a slow pace that allows us far too much time to ponder the flimsiness of the goings-on. Prince Dauntless is written as a mama's boy, but Geiger might have let us see more clearly a man chafing under the Queen's dominance. The Burnett role of Princess Winifred ("call me Fred") is well handled by Meeka Opong, who has a clear, lovely voice, good comic timing, considerable charm and an endearing way that makes us root for her. Her late entrance — after swimming the moat — is a welcome breeze on a hot summer's day. The jester (Grace Galloway) and the musician (Janet Sharpley) are excellent, and Bruce Blifford adds some gravitas and a resonant voice to the wizard. The young lovers Sir Harry (Colton Wright) and Lady Larkin (Luci Galloway) look a bit like Prince William and Kate Middleton, and Wright has a British accent to boot. But they lack fire, and Lady Larkin seems tentative and without authority, not aided by weak vocal projection. The sumptuous costumes are colorful and ornate and were — astonishingly — provided by the cast themselves. J.R. Marshall as King Sextimus the Silent has no lines until the denouement but communicates through acting-out charades; when he explains the birds and the bees to his son through pantomime, it seems to take forever. Phyllis Harris provides the musical accompaniment with her usual flair. Outstanding performances overcome a weak script to generate a pleasant evening's entertainment of what has become a classic for community theaters. Through September 18, Pasadena Little Theatre, 4318 Allen Genoa Rd., Pasadena, 713-941-1758. — JJT

A Triumph of Love This French farce from 1732 by Pierre de Marivaux springs into exuberant life with cross-dressing, thinly disguised identities and a scanty plot serving as a framework for wit, paradoxes, style and excellent acting. The graceful set by Matthew Schlief is a variety of topiary, some giant and some merely monumental, that delight the eye and serve admirably as hiding places for eavesdropping or ways to escape unwanted physical approaches. The costumes are colorful, ornate and expensive — Versace might have made them, but Claremarie Verheyen is credited — and were so good I lusted after one. This elegance is echoed in the acting, where in a suitable paradox the lowly are exalted — Xzavien Hollins plays a valet with bravura energy, great comic timing and nuanced subtlety. He is well matched by S.A. Rogers as a gardener — the pair team up as connivers and deceivers with always a hand out for a tip, and their chicanery is a pleasure to observe. Among the gentry, Pamela Vogel enchants as a stern woman of a certain age becoming intrigued by the prospect of a younger lover — her performance is subtle and heartwarming. Her sterner brother, played by Thomas Prior, is quite effective, as he too is pursued by a younger lover, but better diction would be welcome in a comedy of high style. Matt Hune plays a misogynist youth who swiftly learns the error of his ways. He is given little to do, but he does that very well indeed, and looks a bit like the young Olivier — not a bad look to have. Bree Welch plays a lady-in-waiting and co-conspirator with energy and spirit, and her flirtation with the valet is charming. The lead role is played by Ivy Castle — that of a female ruler seeking to right a wrong, who is compelled to masquerade as a man to accomplish her quest. Castle is beautiful with a dazzling smile, moves well and carries the narrative. But she has only a nodding acquaintance with the rich comic possibilities of the role. Her intonation is about the same regardless of content, and I yearned for a different voice and manner when she moved from young woman to pretend young man. The direction by Julia Traber is graceful and eloquent — even the exits are works of comic art. But Traber might have cajoled, coaxed, flattered or threatened — anything — to get a more varied comic performance from Castle. And a stronger voice, with a hint of authority (she is after all ruler of a kingdom), would also have helped. Like aged wine, this classic comedy makes younger competitors pale by comparison. It is rare, priceless, full-bodied and not to be missed — one of the theatrical events of the season. Through September 25. Classical Theatre Company, TBH Center, 333 South Jensen Dr., 713-963-9665. — JJT


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