Djembe and the Forest of Christmas Forgotten If there hadn't been a little show on Broadway called The Lion King, this world premiere musical fairy tale from Carlton Leake (book, music, lyrics), scrumptiously realized on stage by director and choreographer Patdro Harris, would probably seem a lot better than it is. Comparisons, however unfair, are unavoidable. Colorful, always lively, and acted by veterans and newcomers to the Ensemble with more conviction than warranted by the material, Djembe still comes across as a decidedly poorer relation. The story dooms the musical. Needlessly convoluted and padded, the plot uses two young girls with magical powers as protagonists, along with their two mothers, who also have magical powers, added to a powerful king who goes into exile when his wife dies in childbirth, a forest watchman who talks to spirits, and, of course, an evil sorceress, the king's sister, who usurps the throne and makes everybody's life miserable. The animals, who peek out of the foliage, are absolutely adorable (the brightly plumed tropical bird has a tail of straw; the giraffe rises high off to the side of the stage; and the elephant, though surprisingly small in stature, has a proboscis with a life of its own). But these wonderful veldt creatures, like their human counterparts, are filler. They appear, make some noise and go back into the jungle. It's a terrible waste of evocative characters. Think what riches The Lion King mined out of a warthog and a hyena. Oh, yes, Christmas gets thrown into this melange in the mythical land of Abahu, which has something to do with a drum not being played — I'm hazy on the details because nothing in this musical carries any weight. Motivations misfire, characters do their own thing regardless of what's expected and nobody seems to care, least of all the writers. That is not to say there isn't charm on view at the Ensemble. Young Lauren Chanel Bogany (Nika) and younger Taylor Nelson (Blinah), the girls with some sort of magical power, are real troupers and showstoppers. Triple threats, they can act, dance and sing. They easily hold their own against some of Ensemble's most nimble players. More mature, Christina Alfred, as Nika's mom, is a strikingly handsome stage presence who can put across a power ballad like "Purpose" with the chops of Lena Horne, or put depth into her character, which is, at best, hazy and indistinct. Chiseled, tall and regal, Timothy Eric draws appreciative whoops and moans of approval from the audience as king of Abahu. Anthony Boggess-Glover, as T-Baum, the kingdom's spirit of Christmas, doesn't need anything like a script to hold the audience spellbound; he can do it all by himself. The same is true of Detria Ward, one of our favorite Houston theater treasures. All she has to do is walk onstage as evil Kalisha and our eyes follow her. With her snap delivery and soigné attitude — that saucy Mae West "Beulah, peel me a grape" attitude — Ward delivers without breaking a sweat. As Blinah's mom, Roenia Thompson brings her warm, embracing talents to a thankless role and lights up the stage. Director/choreographer Harris supplies enough life and physicality for a decade of musicals with dance numbers that are beautifully crafted, exciting and audience-rousing, just what this musical needs. With loving assistance by scenic designer James V. Thomas and costumer Reggie Ray as well as lighting by Eric Marsh, Djembe looks great, like a storybook come to life. But the whole thing just doesn't come together. One resourceful little girl with special powers with one mother who has special powers would be sufficient for any musical. Through December 22. 3535 Main. 713-520-0055. — DLG
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Marie and Bruce It might be cold and blustery outside Catastrophic Theatre, but the weather can't match the frigid, numb-to-the-bone atmosphere inside the bedroom of Marie and Bruce. In Wallace Shawn's icy, day-in-the-life dissection of marriage (1978), wedded bliss is a phantom, as bleak as any shade this side of Dante. Dreams are quashed, expectations never fulfilled, happiness an illusion. We meet Marie (Tamarie Cooper) and Bruce (Charlie Scott) in bed in their comfy New York apartment. Bluesy jazz plays in the background. The bed seems too small for them, already confining the couple. Marie, her arms folded with her hand on her cheek, stares at the lump next to her. It scrunches around, she hits it. Not hard, but with purpose, as if to stop the thing under the covers from getting any closer. She stares out at us. Street noise echoes softly. This isn't the first time she's stayed up awake, we think. The lights go up and the play begins. And what an aria of invective to start the show. Marie's had it, she's really had it with Bruce. In a bald declaration, she lays it all out, a harpy with a vengeance. In the nicest description of her hubby, she calls him a "goddamned, fucking irritating pig." Other distasteful epithets are spewed at the opposite side of the bed. Bruce doesn't hear her, of course, or pretends not to. No doubt he's heard all this before. Even the part where she says she's leaving him. Breakfast is the same ordeal. His pajamas smell of urine; he's not a real man. "You nauseate me," she says to his face. Bruce smiles wanly behind his magazine, calls her darling and offers to make coffee. He kisses her lightly, which takes her by surprise. In another monologue, as she changes out of her rose-patterned housecoat into a vivid print dress for a party later that night, she tells of her day. She pines for a close encounter with a randy dog and then falls into a magical sleep in a nearby garden, filled with bright flowers and insects all abuzz. Marie is more alive in her reverie than in her mundane existence with Bruce. Cooper holds us spellbound as she spins these alien but specific memories, casting a hypnotic spell. The play comes alive, too. Strange as these tales are, their very weirdness holds us close. What will happen next? Well, nothing, actually. We're thrown back into the couple's recurring jousting as we attend the swanky party, which could be right out of a mediocre Woody Allen movie. Fatuous, these people talk but say nothing, oblivious to their empty yakking. That's the point Shawn makes, but it's as obvious as the guests themselves. After the party, the topic of leaving him occurs again while they dine at their favorite restaurant. "I don't even like you...you're so mockable," she taunts with more pity than anger. Bruce handles the abuse with the same sangfroid as always, eating his pasta in great gulps along with soft giggles of laughter at her melodramatics. Slowly, the background restaurant chatter dies away. There is no sound. Marie has the last word as she describes going home after dinner, putting Bruce to bed and sinking deep, deep into sleep. We know where we will find her tomorrow morning: sitting up in bed clutching her knees as she stares at us and then at the lump who shares the bed, and her life, pondering whether to leave him. Reprising their roles, as does director Jason Nodler, from the 1999 production by Infernal Bridegroom — Catastrophic's forerunner — Cooper and Scott discover every crumb of hurt, deception and unrequited love required for Shawn's mordant play to take effect as well as it does. They tread lightly between comedy and out-and-out tragedy as they dissect the everyday little shocks that a relationship, marital or otherwise, is forever heir to. No one really listens, Shawn says; no one pays attention. But can you blame them, when what's hurled at them is so vile, so hurtful, so truthful? Through December 14. 1117 East Freeway (Main at Naylor). 713-522-2723. — DLG