Capsule Stage Reviews: Death of a Salesman, La Bohème, Much Ado About Nothing, When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder

Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller's vaunted and much-lauded play remains full of fresh surprises, and the Alley's reverential production is a true theater treasure. Glenn Fleshler, who was understudy for Philip Seymour Hoffman in the recent Broadway revival that closed in June, and who is stepping in after James Black fell ill, portrays a finely shaded Willy Loman that gnaws at the heart. His interpretation reveals all the iconic character's bluster, disappointment, growing madness and unalloyed heartbreak as he fails to live up to his own expectations. Fleshler embodies Willy with enough false heartiness and glad-handing, that, when his dreams shatter, you actually watch his face slump. It's a wondrously detailed portrait. Director Gregory Boyd gives this American classic a classic look, referencing Jo Mielziner's original 1949 production design with a skeletal, minimal setting. The world is closing in on Willy; even the sky is gray and leaden, streaked with fractures. The play, fluid and constantly changing, is set mostly inside Willy's head. Among his other gifts, Miller is a glorious craftsman, and by making Salesman a memory play, he plays with shifting time as Willy relives the past while also living in the present. His life becomes a continual time bend. There's no Salesman without the Loman family dysfunction, and the play has been meticulously cast. As enabling wife Linda, who loves Willy for all his faults but can't stop his trail of self-delusion, Josie de Guzman brings stalwart reserve and wistful dignity. As golden son Biff, Zachary Spicer, in his Alley debut, personifies the former high school football hero gone to seed. As the youngest, least appreciated son always a step behind in Biff's shadow, Jay Sullivan does wonders with Happy. He has become just like his father, doing the least with his life and compromising the most. Neighbor Charlie, Willy's only friend and lifeline, is marvelously limned by Jeffrey Bean, who gives this Borscht Belt Greek chorus a very modest, wise, human face. Miller turns this tale of a small man made smaller into the stuff of big tragedy. Salesman is unceasingly gloomy and is famous for being so, but the deep empathy it engenders for poor pathetic Willy and the family he forever cripples makes for powerful, epic theater. Through October 28. 615 Texas. 713-220-5700. — DLG

La Bohème Giacomo Puccini's eternally fresh opera (1896) never shows its age. Among the world's most beloved and performed works, this radiantly romantic tearjerker set among a community of struggling artists in Belle Époque Paris never fails to make an impression. Houston Grand Opera's new production from Tony winner John Caird keeps this musical warhorse on a slow, steady track, but only finds romantic fire — and heartache — within the supporting roles. Soprano Katie Van Kooten (Mimi), tall and imposing, cuts an imperious figure onstage. As she so brilliantly demonstrated last season as haughty Elizabeth I in Donizetti's Mary Stuart, she can command the stage while spinning vocal filigree with the best of them. Her voice is large and supple. What she can't do is fade into the wallpaper. While she coughs convincingly and acts like the sickly young thing Mimi is supposed to be, Van Kooten can't hide that powerhouse voice. You can hear her all over Paris. This young woman is as far away from death as one can be. As her besotted boyfriend Rodolfo, tenor Dimitri Pittas has a more difficult time negotiating through Puccini's ardent vocal lines. He never quite manages to get there smoothly; we hear the effort, not the passion. Fortunately, the production is warmed with the heat from baritone Joshua Hopkins and soprano Heidi Stober, as jealous lovers Marcello and Musetta. They supply the real juice in this production, and the opera breathes easy with them around. All their scenes together are infused with that on-again/off-again, can't-live-with-'em/can't-live-without-'em attitude. Young maestro Evan Rogister keeps Puccini's lush score on medium flame instead of the usual roiling boil that this work cries for, so the impetuous fire in Puccini's magnificent score is somewhat banked and tamped down. Yet there's enough Puccini in evidence to let us newly appreciate the opera's glories that keep it so fresh and loved. Youthful dreams and wistful yearning infuse the music. The artfully told story, adapted from Henri Murger's more gritty newspaper serial and later novelization, Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, still grips us with the neo-romantic picture it paints of these friends' everyday struggles in life and love. In another one hundred years, La Bohème will still sing to us. Through November 10. Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

Much Ado About Nothing For its second foray into Shakespeare, UpStage Theatre presents the much-loved comedy Much Ado About Nothing, in which romantic misunderstandings lead to delightful conflicts. The plot centers on Hero, daughter of Leonato, governor of Messina — she is betrothed to Claudio, but deception causes Claudio to lose faith in her virtue. Claudio is an easy dupe and a bit of a cad, and Joe Wendt doesn't find the charisma that could make him worthy of Hero. Hero has little to do except be victimized, but Samantha Walker's radiant beauty, poise and luminous charm make the most of the role. The subplot is witty: Benedick is a confirmed bachelor determined to avoid the bonds of matrimony, and Brian Heaton creates a vivid portrait, confident yet vulnerable to Cupid's arrow. His attitude toward marriage is shared by Beatrice, played by Tyrrell Woolbert, who matches Heaton in the brilliance of her portrayal, which is intelligent and charming with a captivating inner power. Their chemistry is strong, seductive, sensual and hilarious — well-met indeed. UpStage Theater's Artistic Director, Sean K. Thompson, directed, and he has a gift for physical comedy — Heaton and Woolbert are hilarious as they eavesdrop on conversations. Shawn Havranek as the constable, Dogberry, creates a vivid portrait, as does his companion, Verges, played by Meaghan Golden Avocato, thanks to amusingly stylized body language. The set, shared with Opera in the Heights, is imposing, with a balcony, tall columns and double doors at each side, and the costumes by Heather Gabriel and Helena Zodrow are excellent. The pace slows needlessly in Act Two, but Thompson has found the joy and humor in Benedick and Beatrice — these stunning performances and some vivid minor characters make this must-see theater. Through October 27. Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-838-7191. — JJT

When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder In Mark Medoff's award-winning play, a sleepy roadside diner in southern New Mexico awakens with a bang when invaded by a sadistic psychopath. The action begins with deceptive quiet as Angel (Lyndsay Sweeney) arrives late for her shift, replacing the night-shift operator, Red (Keenan Hurley). The manager, Clark (Alan Hall), stops in briefly, as does Lyle (Ted Doolittle), who runs the nearby gas station. The rhythm is natural, unhurried, aided strongly by a brilliant, fully detailed set by Trey Otis. A couple, Clarisse (Lendsey Kersey) and Richard (Tom Long), enter to eat as their Cadillac is gassed. The pace picks up with the entrance of Teddy (Travis Ammons) and Cheryl (Katrina Ellsworth), garbed as though fresh from the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Teddy is gregarious, talkative, an extrovert — he intrudes on Clarisse and Richard, challenges Red, playfully but with an increasingly sinister tone, and in a few moments links all together in distaste for him. He segues from charm to bullying, first by force of personality and then by other means of persuasion. The success of this suspense drama hinges on Teddy, and Ammons nails the part with an animated energy that is riveting. Director Steven Fenley has found an excellent cast and shaped it into a smoothly functioning ensemble. The evening may not be everyone's cup of tea, but cruelty can be engrossing. Playwright Medoff creates suspense and includes indications of how these events have altered lives. His depiction of Teddy is frighteningly plausible — he may be the next youth with a gun in the shopping mall. The thriller gains increasing speed and power as Ammons creates the psychopath, in a compelling performance, and brings this suspenseful drama to vibrant life. Through November 4. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., 281-583-7573. — JJT


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