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Capsule Stage Reviews: Damaged Divas of the Decades, Oliver Twist, Once on this Island, Skin Deep, Speed-the-Plow, There Is a Happiness That Morning Is

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

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

Once on This Island Young children and early teenagers retell a Caribbean story of class warfare, with enticing results. Applause Theatre is a theatrical gem, small and comfortable with tiered seating and a proscenium stage, which is at the moment a Caribbean beach blending into a sparkling blue sea, topped by low-lying clouds on the horizon and filled with children and young teenagers acting with the assurance many an adult actor might envy. The story is of love found and lost, of class warfare between the haves and the have-nots. A young woman of the peasant class brings a well-to-do young man back to life and comes to love him, but loses him to one of his "own kind." The costuming by Leslie Rhodes is colorful and includes two brilliant over-the-top hats. Natalie Holley plays Ti Moune, the heroine, and conveys tenderness and spirit as an iconoclast, daring to think outside the box. Caleb Sepulveda plays young Daniel with easy grace and a ready smile. Brooke Birner plays Andrea, the lass whom Daniel weds, and sings with a clear, compelling voice. Emmanuel Coraza plays Tonton, the adoptive father of Ti Moune, with a strong stage presence. The choreography by Joel Cortina captures the spirit of the island, and the children move with grace and precision. The music has a strong Caribbean beat and drives the action appropriately, while shifting to underscore more plaintive moments, though the bongos drown out some dialogue. Directors Ryan Cochran and Leslie Rhodes have found the charm in this tale – and given it life on stage. A lighthearted fable on a serious theme is well-acted by a young cast, and is certain to delight children and appeal to the inner child of most adults as well. Through November 13. – JJT

Skin Deep An attractive but overweight woman with a self-image problem is persuaded to undertake a blind date, and awkwardness ensues. The play features four actors, who add credibility, interest and charm to the show - this is fortunate, since playwright Jon Lonoff hasn't written much of a play. Little happens in Act One, except that two strangers meet for a blind date and, after an awkward beginning, get to like each other. Missy Lane plays Maureen Mulligan, attractive, witty and prone to use snacking for solace. Her sister, Sheila (Micahla Vaccaro), is slender but has her own self-image problems, turning to plastic surgery. Her husband, Squire (Bill Krause), pays for the surgery to keep peace in the family, but tunes out Sheila with selective listening. Enter blind-date Joe Spinelli (Barry Chambers), shy, bumbling and helpful, who sees the beauty in Maureen. Lane has great comic timing and some very good lines, and she carries the play. Equally good is Chambers, who manages to make awkwardness interesting, and Act One accordingly has some warmth and humor. Even less happens in Act Two, though there is a contrived misunderstanding. The ending is predictable, so don't get your hopes up. The set is realistic and detailed, though the apartment must be the only one in Queens, New York, with a peephole but no dead-bolt lock on the front door. Rather than explore his themes seriously, the playwright has been content to go only skin deep, and the script has less content and humor than many a sitcom. It was directed by Rob de los Reyes, who deserves credit for evoking gifted performances from talented actors, and the skilled actors go a long way toward making palatable a wafer-thin play. Through November 20. College of the Mainland Community Theatre, 1200 Amburn Road, Texas City, 1-888-258-8859, ext. 8345. -JJT

Speed-the-Plow David Mamet's 1988 withering, perverse dissection of Hollywood insiders achieves a caustic, take-no-prisoners production at Country Playhouse. New head of production Bobby Gould (Trevor B. Cone) green-lights an inane blockbuster that's brought to him by longtime partner and underling Charlie Fox (Jacob Millwee). It's an easy sell with a bankable star, a deal sure to make both men's fame and, much more importantly, fortune. Money and power are what's made in Hollywood, not movies; they're just byproduct. Bobby wants to "do right" by his work, but he's clouded by a lack of fortitude and self-esteem. Temp secretary Karen (Mischa Hutchings) throws a dangerous curve into both men's easy path. In Mamet's world, the ones at the top possess the least awareness. Workplace loyalty, male bonding and Eve in the garden are standard Mamet fare, and while this isn't the best of him (that would be Glengarry Glen Ross), ironic Plow has enough nifty twists and turns all its own – and nifty turns of phrase, a Mamet specialty – to warrant a look. As conflicted Bobby and go-getter Charlie, both Cone and Millwee careen through Mamet's patented elliptic dialogue at breakneck speed, savoring the guys' insightful banter and boys-are-us demeanor. Their partnership is palpable. As hyper Fox, Millwee barges through the play with flailing arms and voice pitched to auction his own grandmother if this deal doesn't work out. He brings out the dread in the comedy. Hutchings brings out the serpent. As new-agey hipster Karen, she breaches the male lair with defiant innocence. If you're unfamiliar with Mamet, Plow's a primer into his archetypical male world that's full of bluster, taunts, threats, conceit and unbridled buddy sex. Hermetically sealed, it's not for the faint of heart. Under Joey Milillo's cohesive direction, Country Playhouse serves him up with a spoon. In Hollywood, it's difficult to tell if it's gold plate or 24-carat, but always bet on the plate. Through November 17. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. – 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


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