Failure: A Love Story Playwright Philip Dawkins's work requires inventive staging and offers a challenge to the producing theater. It deals with events in the clock-making Fail family of Chicago, chiefly the deaths of the parents and of three daughters, in separate accidents, in 1928. The deaths are depicted in a lighthearted, sprightly manner; this is a comedic fable. Events are presented in an hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission, with entrances and exits abounding, and with elements of carnival, of a circus and of Cirque du Soleil. The set features a huge clockwork mechanism upstage, and at one point birdcages drop to hold simulated parakeets. One daughter, Jenny June (Brittany Halen), attempts to swim across Lake Michigan, and disappears, apparently drowned in the attempt. The final swim is on fabrics suspended from the ceiling. The first daughter to die is Nelly (Nina L. Garcia) and the third is Gertrude (Courtney D. Jones). A man named Mortimer Mortimer (David Matranga) courts them all, in turn. The parents are Michelle Elaine as Mother and Luis Galindo as Father, and there is an adopted brother, John (Lex Laas), who isn't good with people. There is a plot, but the frenetic pace and rapid-fire line delivery allow no breathing space for personality to emerge, so the characters are like stick figures with balloons drawn from their heads, saying their lines in a loud, flat tone, just short of a shout, and then dashing off. The single exception is Garcia as Nelly, who manages to stay in sync with the general tone of the other actors but also to add a piquant charm that is captivating. A festive atmosphere entertains, and stagecraft is successfully given the reins, in a production that feeds the eyes with color and activity. Through February 16. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — JJT
Faith Healer Brian Friel's Faith Healer has three characters — an itinerant faith healer, Francis Hardy, called Frank; his manager Teddy; and his companion Grace. They recount in four monologues — Frank opens and closes — a tale of an impoverished existence traveling in Wales and Scotland and a final appearance in Ballybay, Ireland. Friel provides what might be a ghost story told around a dying fire, but with the energy of a circus barker, demanding your attention, and the sense of an impending doom. At its core are several love stories: Teddy's affection for the couple, the bond between Frank and Grace, and the relationship of Frank with God, who has given him a gift sporadic in frequency. Recollections vary, but we know that Grace gave birth in Scotland and that one night in Wales, Frank cured ten locals of their afflictions. And that, given a fondness for drink and an exalted view of himself, there was lying ahead for Frank an epiphany repellent in its unspoken details. Philip Lehl provides a haunting portrayal of Frank, capturing his appeal but also the fact that he is in hiding, holding back from humanity. Kim Tobin as Grace is more down-to-earth, bound with hoops of steel to Hardy, with whom she ran away as a young woman, and finding strange comfort in a prison of need. John Tyson as their cockney manager, Teddy, describes vaudeville acts he has managed — each one increasingly comical — and provides cues that Grace is less sweet than described. Tyson's acting and direction are both superb. Playwright, actors and director combine to create a work so filled with intelligence, humor, suspense and love that its breathtaking power will linger long after you have left the theater. Through February 8. Presented by Stark Naked Theatre Company at Studio 101, 1824 Spring, 832-866-6514. — JJT
Next to Normal Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's multiple award-winning musical (Drama Desk, Tony and a Pulitzer) has a first-act curtain like no other. What other show has ever wheeled its leading lady into the operating room to undergo electroshock therapy, then broken for intermission? There's room on the musical stage for almost anything, and Normal takes the subject of manic depression and turns what could be an ultra-downer into as accomplished a piece of musical theater as possible. It's deeply moving yet highly exhilarating. The production from Standing Room Only does it proud. Suburban housewife Diana (Rachel Landon in an immaculate, bravura performance) is a mess. She hates her life, has no feelings for her average husband Dan (Brad Zimmerman) and doesn't relate at all to her teenage daughter (Derrien Kellum), who's on the verge of a breakdown herself, barely clinging to the lifeline thrown to her by stoner classmate Henry (Michael Chiavone). Diana pays inordinate attention, though, to her son Gabe (Tyler Galindo), who appears to her almost as if in a dream, popping up behind her and whispering in her ear. She comes alive in his presence. But the stress of everyday life is crushing her and the fallout scalds her family. When she makes sandwiches for her kids to take to school and finishes buttering the bread on the floor, there's no denying the seriousness of her problem. The medical establishment (Zach Braver) is as stymied as Diana's clueless family. When the family's long-buried secret is revealed (a revelation that smacks us in the gut with utter surprise), suicide is attempted. That's when the terror of electroshock therapy is broached. There's the possibility of a cure, but that might wipe out Diana's memories — the only sweet things that keep her grounded. Blessed with a stunning contemporary score and bitingly effective lyrics, the show keeps surprising as it returns to past melodies and spins them with greater potency. The specter of Sondheim swirls throughout, but then so, too, does Rodgers and Hammerstein. This is Broadway songwriting on an exceptionally high plane. SRO's ensemble is first-rate. Landon is a revelation as battered, uncomprehending Diana. She takes us on a thrilling ride from desperation to acceptance. Zimmerman, who looks like a suburban dad, a bit battered and frayed, is solid as the loyal spouse whose duty is to stay and help, even if he doesn't know what to do. Galindo is all pouty seduction as Gabe, Diana's favorite child. Braver handles the doctors with comic timing and oily charm. Chiavone drips both innocence and bad-boy attitude as slacker Henry, singing like a real contender from a pop idol contest. Hip and sort of goofy, he's immediately likable, cool and retro. Unsteady in pitch during the first act, Kellum found her way during the second. It might have been opening-night jitters, for she hit all the right notes playing neglected Natalie, who lashes out at the world to get the attention she deserves. Her three duets with Chiavone whenever their characters met ("Hey") were little playlets full of gentle sincerity. SRO's staging is minimal, which only augments the music (under the direction of keyboardist William Michael Luyties, Jeff Blankenship on guitar, Ryan Mohrman on bass and Sean Ramos on percussion) and the performances (under the taut direction from Michael Taylor). In Hiram Olvera's platform set, the house is a lighted scrim with the outline of roof and walls. That's all that's needed. Kitt, Yorkey and this very fine cast have filled in the rest. Through February 15. At Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak Boulevard, 713-300-2358. — DLG
Rigoletto The dissolute courtiers in Mantua have lost their mojo. In their handsome Elizabethan finery by costumer Peter J. Hall, they stand listless during debauchery as if posing for a group portrait by Holbein. They regroup slowly so as not to ruffle their ruffles. They're not alone. The entire production suffers from limpness and lack of vitality. Where's the beef in this Rigoletto? Houston Grand Opera's staging has been around since 1994, with direction by Harry Silverstein and a minimal, expanded-box look designed by Tony-winner Michael Yeargan. I remember those previous showings as having lots more fire than this one. Though sung with conviction by the relatively young cast, while maestro Patrick Summers elicited plenty of thunder from Verdi's textured score, this most dramatic of operas, always capable of seducing listeners, just seemed to plod. This is an opera that is never routine. Rising star Ryan McKinny, so memorable last season as Tristan's pal Kurvenal in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, makes his role debut as the conflicted hunchback Rigoletto, jester to the womanizing Duke. His character arc travels through a wide swathe that includes toadying sycophant, superstitious everyman, vengeful wraith, grief-stricken father. It's quite a part. Coveted by baritones as an operatic peak to be conquered, the role requires years to uncover its riches, to convey all that's in it. A Verdi baritone is a different breed from other composers'. The roles are meaty and hefty and usually lie higher on the scale. Moving from plummy bass to Verdi's plummy baritone takes time, but McKinny's first attempt is highly admirable and the promise of what will be is tasty indeed, but he's still finding his way around. That he has found so much so early is high praise. There's no denying his natural stage presence, acting chops and a rich, rounded voice, and you have to start somewhere. His is an upward career to watch — and enjoy with pleasure. Costello was a handsome Duke, with a knife-edge tenor as clean and defined as his impressive obliques, displayed under his flowing ducal robe. He gets the opera's most famous tune, "La donna è mobile" ("Women are fickle" — or, Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em). The irony, of course, is that this playboy prince is the most inconstant character around, seducing everything in sight. When he turns his libido toward Rigoletto's virginal daughter, all hell breaks loose. His Duke was a beguiling wastrel, never once forgetting how devilishly charming he is. As Gilda, Uliana Alexyuk, who was poignantly charming as doomed Ivette in The Passenger, has a voice like glass: Transparent, crystalline, it cuts through the orchestra and still manages to run up and down the scale with frightening agility and clarity. Her famous coloratura showstopper, "Caro nome" ("Sweet name"), is her apotheosis to first love, a giddy song from her young heart. Unfortunately, she has fallen for that rake of rakes, the horny Duke, and will be crushed by swirling emotions she doesn't know how to deal with. As the murderous brother/sister tag team — hired assassin Sparafucile pimps out his sister Maddelena to lure in his victims — bass Dimitry Belosselskiy, also in his HGO debut, growled and threatened chillingly, while mezzo Carolyn Sproule — incongruously dressed like Carmen — acted appropriately slutty and alluring. She sang like an angel, though. HGO's production of Rigoletto isn't bad by any means, but it's not great and certainly it's not definitive. Routine doesn't do Verdi any favors. January 29, February 1, February7 and February 9 (matinee). Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG
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We Will Rock You This isn't the first jukebox musical, nor will it be the last. All Queen-heads will be in seventh heaven with this superbly sung, thrillingly played and blindingly lighted arena show. Those who want such a thing as an old-fashioned musical are damn out of luck. As dopey as the book is — and it's terrifically stupid — the show is just an excuse to sing 24 of Queen's greatest hits. No one in the audience will be disappointed with the creators' choices: "Radio Ga Ga," "I Want to Break Free," "Somebody to Love," "I Want It All," "Headlong," "Fat Bottomed Girls," "Another One Bites the Dust," "We Are the Champions." Many years in the future, the world is controlled by monolithic Globalsoft (Jacqueline Arnold and P.J. Griffith). Everyone's been brainwashed; there's no individuality, no music. Through the power of rock, a quarreling set of romantic outcasts (Brian Justin Crum and Ruby Lewis) smash the conglomerate and rescue all Bohemians (Ryan Knowles, Erica Peck and Danny Balkwill, among others). Blah, blah, blah. This touring production, on its American conquest, has been tweaked to skewer the most synthetic pop icons: Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, the Jonas Brothers (okay, that boy band's not so relevant right now, but their mention still gets a laugh). No matter how many years into the future we go, all the comic references, cheap laughs all, are strictly today. The concept's so dusty, what else can writer/director Ben Elton do but blind us with techno lighting, video game graphics and robotic choreography? But the show's saving grace, its only grace, is the vibrantly alive performances by powerhouse singers and the propulsive band, led by Rick Hip-Flores. Crum, a muscular little dynamo, has no problem at all channeling the operatic-type vocal demands required by Queen's iconic lead singer/songwriter Freddie Mercury. Lewis, whose voice almost matches Crum's with its unstinting power, makes a lovely romantic foil, softly spiky and naturally warm under her hard, pretend shell. Although Knowles gets only one number, the autumnal "These Are the Days of Our Lives," he slyly steals every scene as ultimate stoner Buddy. He plays the role as if AWOL from a Cheech and Chong flick, his wispy physicality and three-octave speaking voice bringing a welcome bounce into the plodding plot. If you're a Queen queen, this pseudo-concert musical will have you waving your arms in blissful ecstasy. If you're looking for a complete musical meal, the music and the singing will more than satisfy. Sometimes you just have to settle for dessert. Bummer, man. Through February 3. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. 713-558-8887. — DLG