Capsule Stage Reviews: Fear of Ducks, Jewtopia, Leaving Iowa, The Marvelous Wonderettes, Rent

Fear of Ducks Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the theater, along comes the inspired lunacy of Radio Music Theatre. You're never safe around these three (Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell, Rich Mills), for you could die laughing, or at the very least spray your drink out of your nose as you gasp for breath. We wouldn't want it any other way. This scrumptious little tour de farce is one of the group's "unfertle" comedies, which means it doesn't feature those lovable Fertles from Dumpster, Texas. But never fear; author Steve Farrell has populated this juicy fable with new creations that could each have an entire series written about them, too. Revealing too much of the plot would be sacrilege — and nearly impossible — for the show doesn't move as much as it's propelled, by entrances and exits, one-liners, non sequiturs and our continuing laughter. Suffice it to say, there's a whacked-out, curly-headed televangelist, Jimmy Dillard, who's in a hissy fit over the fact that rocker du jour A.C. Adapter is to appear at the Margaret Mueller Mitchell Miller Pavilion at Precious Pines, Houston's most-planned planned community. Dillard's ready to do his "instant damnation" on this horn-headed smut rapper, especially for his hit tunes "Bra Full of Love" and "Set Your Parents' Pants on Fire." Adapter is not suitable for children, being one himself. That he also has two gigantic electrical prongs imbedded in the top of his head should say something about his state of mind, or lack thereof. Everything goes blissfully out of control, and there's even a delightfully affecting, albeit brief, scene between the fried rocker and the oblivious Mrs. Peeples, whose son has won a day with A.C., that's surprisingly lovely. Situated among the verbal mayhem, it's a little gem. Through August 28. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

Jewtopia While it is not a good play, Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson's Jewtopia can claim a lot of commercial success in both Los Angeles and New York, which might be why Houston's Back Porch Players chose the script. The silly show about all things Jewish tells the story of two buddies in search of the right woman. Chris O'Connell (Matt Hune) is a gentile who loves Jewish girls. "You'll never have to make another decision as long as you live," says Chris about the wonders of marrying a "JAP." His Jewish friend Adam Lipschitz (Dan J. Gordon) doesn't really get Chris's admiration. After all, gentile girls "cook and clean and swallow!" Still, since Adam's family is pressuring him to marry within the tribe, he's willing to make a pact with Chris. Adam will teach Chris how to pass as a Jew so a Jewish girl will marry him, if Chris will take him to the wondrous land of "Jewtopia," which turns out to be online dating service J-Date. A couple of hours worth of jokes about Jews and gentiles later, the two men come to some life-changing realizations about family, love and women. The production, directed by Jo Alessandro Marks, feels a bit of a slapdash – props fall, sets move in and out of too-small doors and the characters often stand awkwardly about the stage. But it does have amusing moments. As Hune and Gordon grow into their roles and get more comfortable on stage, their timing gets sharper. And Amanda Lea Mason, who plays several female characters (really more caricatures as written here), is often very funny, especially as Adam's angry 14-year-old sister. Through August 1. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — LW

Leaving Iowa There's family entertainment playing at A.D. Players that's just about the best thing going. Written by Chicago standup comedians Tim Clue and Spike Manton, this warmhearted comedy about family — the American family, to be precise — pulses with nostalgia, radiates soft charm and stays entertaining without running out of gas. Although it focuses on the classic summer road trip, where the kids whine nonstop in the backseat while Dad and Mom try to keep peace from the front, it's really about the undertow influence dads wield over their sons. While driving his father's ashes back to his family home, Don (Chip Simmons) conjures up a family "adventure" one summer long ago. The family dynamics are there in the details and the finely wrought performances. You know almost everything about Dad (Ric Hodgin) just by the way he sits in the driver's seat, satisfied and sure, knowing and protective. With immense patience, Mom (Patty Tuel Bailey) keeps a loving vigil over her brood, finally erupting with justified rage when the kids really get on her nerves. Sis (Katherine Weatherly) is a princess and already knows just how to play her father. Nothing momentous happens on the trip — or on Don's — but as in a miniature version of Thornton Wilder, it's the little things that'll be remembered later with such force. Along the way, the family encounters a host of characters straight out of American Gothic via '30s Hollywood screwball comedy — Civil War re-enactors, an Amish couple who are the ultimate capitalists, the odd, taciturn waiter and the equally garrulous one — all played by the wondrously inventive Lee Walker and Sarah Cooksey. Each manifestation gets funnier as the play goes on, and they get laughs just by appearing. The two give the play a lively framework upon which the family, and the grownup Don, interact. Simmons, an A.D. regular, outdoes himself. No one seems so natural when acting — it's a rare gift. He is transcendent as the wayward son making amends with the father he once undervalued. And all of them, under Jennifer Dean's whispery direction, create that rare time in the theater: You watch transfixed and wonder what's going to happen next. And you aren't disappointed in the slightest. Through August 29. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

The Marvelous Wonderettes Okay, kids, let's write a second-rate musical that has no chance of ever seeing the lights of Broadway. Judging from Roger Bean's creation from 1999, it's not too difficult. First we need music — not original music, that's too iffy. How about great tunes from the '50s? Every­body likes "Mr. Sandman," "Lipstick on Your Collar" and "Secret Love". Then we need to put these oldies-but-goodies in context with a story, but not much of one. A prom, we'll set it at a prom, where a girl group can sing the songs. And these four? One's a slut, one's a butch, one's a nerd, one's a dope. The butch and the slut have the same boyfriend and hate each other. The nerd's in love with her music teacher, and the dopey blond loves a greaser. That's enough plot, except there's Act II. All right, we can do it. Remember, no thinking. Got it! Act II takes place ten years later at the high school reunion. How brilliant is that? (Well, it's expedient, anyway.) Keep it simple. The slut and the butch still hate each other, the nerd's about to marry her teacher and the dumb blond is pregnant with marital problems. Nothing else has changed. Quickly wrap up any loose ends in a song, with everybody best friends at the end. And there you have it: an instantly forgettable new musical fit for Sunday matinees. Stage all this with utmost professionalism in lighting, dance moves and over-the-top prom dresses (although, the'60s mod minis in Act II are extremely unflattering on all concerned). Finally, cast four likable singing actresses who can put this tripe over with ease (Rachael Logue, Chelsea McCurdy, Christina Stroup and Holland Vavra Peters). Voilà! It's a musical that will run through summer, delight the nostalgia buffs and break all box-office records. Aren't you proud? Through October 17. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0220. — DLG

Rent This is one of Masquerade's finest renditions in memory, and that's saying something, for this exceptional company has been on a real roll this season. Jonathan Larson's rock adaptation of Puccini's La bohème, set in NYC's grunge East Village, is probably the best musical in the last two decades. The ultimate irony is that Larson died on the eve of its premiere and never knew what a powerhouse work he'd created — it's a cultural icon for many and object of veneration for the rest. Posthumously, he won a Tony, a Drama Desk, an Obie and a Pulitzer Prize for this remarkable creation. It deserves them all. Masquerade brings out Rent's liveliness (the actors climb all over Amanda McBee's steel tinker-toy set), its deep humanity, its kinky humor and, best of all, its musical glories, with an apocalyptic fervor. Director Phillip Duggins, with his exemplary cast, fills the stage with telling little details that color in the spaces with that thrilling vie de bohème they live so ardently. And thrilling is the word to describe the vocals: Luther Chakurian with a deep growl as Roger, who is infected with AIDS; Michael J. Ross with an edgy belt as Mark, the filmmaker who keeps everyone at bay with his constant camera; Libby Evans with rockstar wail as smack-addled Mimi; Michael Dickens with a soft, sexy rasp as gay Tom Collins; Rebekah Dahl and Beth Lazarou, whose voices blend dramatically as warring couple Maureen and Joanne; and Dylan Godwin, who is just amazingly effective as tranny Angel, the real heart of the show. He prances, he preens, he suffers, he loves, he teaches the other friends to live "Today 4 U." We must also mention smooth Kendrick Mitchell as sellout Benjamin, as well as soloist Stephanie Jones, who imbues "Seasons of Love" with enough hefty jubilation to raise the roof. Larson's musical is a hymn to life and love in all its forms. It's a glorious work, full of youth and youthful smartass attitude, full of promise and dreams. Masquerade takes all this and weaves its own glorious dream. A dream not to be missed. Through August 1. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-861-7045. — DLG


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