Capsule Stage Reviews: First Lady Suite, KOOZA, The Lion King, Top Shelf Shorts, Travelsty

First Lady Suite After its mesmerizing former production of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, the young Bit of a Stretch Theatre Company hits another home run with composer/lyricist Michael John LaChiusa's thoroughly intriguing first major work, the chamber musical First Lady Suite (1993). Here is a distinctive, adult voice that demolishes the lie that the Broadway musical is dead. Although a young work, Suite is clever and funny, poignant and moving. The music throughout is immensely listenable, pegged accurately to the character singing so that each arietta is complete in itself. Nothing is wasted in LaChiusa's vocabulary; the whole musical world is at his command: Gershwin makes many refreshing, jazzy appearances, and there are appreciative nods to brassy Berlin and whole bursts of Sondheim, if without his patented brittle. For all the pastiche, though, there's great invention in his sound — spiky, then languid, cerebral, then warm. Suite's music and lyrics don't wash over you like so much of recent Broadway muzak; they grab you and make you listen. You may not know where the songs are going, but the journey is full of satisfying surprises. Four First Ladies are at Suite's center: Jackie Kennedy (Gina-Marie Vincent), Mamie Eisenhower (Karen Ross in Ethel Merman-belt mode), Bess Truman (Brad Zimmerman in drag, the show's weakest link) and Eleanor Roosevelt (Abby Seible). Other than the Mamie sequence, where she is front and center, the musical's highlight occurs when Roosevelt's closeted lover Lorena Hickok (Julia Kay Laskowski) enters the spotlight. Laskowski takes flight in the role, and she's bitingly ironic, gently romantic and caustically bitchy. The scene lifts the show into the stratosphere. With sympathetic musical direction under Wiley DeWeese, and a most talented ensemble of singing actors all agilely staged by Erin Cressy, First Lady Suite sails through distaff White House history, sniffing under the bed and furtively looking through the medicine cabinet. Amazingly, what's found in the most famous house in the world is exactly what you'd find in your own. This work is tremendously entertaining, doubly so if you like your musicals novel and unknown. Through August 5. Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring, 713-344-3751. — DLG

KOOZA In KOOZA's loose narrative, a shy, foppish character known as The Innocent discovers a world of magic, acrobatics and illusion. He's not only awed by the fantastic, but also finds a sense of self and purpose. If that story doesn't sound compelling, that's because it's really not. There has only ever been one reason to go to a Cirque du Soleil engagement, and that is to be thrilled by the feats of strength, flexibility and athleticism on display. The primary appeal of the performers at Cirque has never been what the human body can emote, but what it can do. And these bodies can do quite a bit. The Innocent's journey to self-discovery is marked by a series of circus acts, some more jaw-dropping than others. The first real crowd-pleaser of the first act is the trio of contortionists dressed in skintight gold-leaf costumes. They move with a lithe energy that can only be described as feline. The choreography showcases their hyperextended backs as they fold themselves in ways that suggest their spines are really made of Play-Doh rather than bone. Equally stunning is a balancing act that sees a performer hold himself on one hand 23 feet in the air. The rest of the show is just as entertaining, and features a solo trapeze performance, a unicycle routine, charivari, hoops manipulation, a teeterboard act that is not to be missed and a couple of funny, if not obscene, comedy acts. The Wheel of Death in Act II is not for the faint of heart, but is so thrilling, it has to be seen to be believed. KOOZA is at its best when it's not trying to be an emotional journey. When there's this much showmanship and exoticism on display, any attempt at creating a personal trajectory is pointless. Cirque du Soleil is a circus, after all, and KOOZA is another entertaining entry in its long list of spectacles. Through September 2. Sam Houston Race Park, 7575 North Sam Houston Pkwy., 281-807-8700. — AC

The Lion King Courtesy of Galexa Energy Broadway, Disney's The Lion King roars into town with its menagerie of spectacle, stagecraft and human emotions grafted onto a pride of lions, showcasing what inventive minds can accomplish with unlimited funds and unlimited imaginations. Animal puppetry is brought to exciting life by human actors. The giraffes and the elephants are remarkably realistic, while others, such as the prancing oryxes and the menacing and seductive cheetah, convince through movement. There are singers and tom-tom drummers in the loges, birds fluttering in the sky, and the animals parade down the aisle and enter to crowd the stage with delight. The plot is old lion/young lion, but the drama comes from the love between the boy lion Simba and Mufasa, his father and ruler. His uncle, Scar, is crippled with envy, and he has the hyenas on his side, a marvel of fascination — evil, adroit, brilliantly imagined and crafted, and all too human. A young lioness, Nala, is a pal to Simba in the first Act, and becomes more in Act II, when the lions have grown to maturity. An amusing hornbill, Zazu, watches over Simba, and Simba is befriended by a meerkat, Timon, and a warthog, Pumbaa; they are eminently likable and amusing. This musical is also a ballet, and the choreography by Garth Fagan is striking and hugely important. The songs are wonderful, especially the exuberant "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," the evil "Chow Down" and the haunting "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" The music and lyrics are by Elton John and Tim Rice, the direction and costume design are by Julie Taymor, and she and Michael Curry designed the entrancing masks and puppets. A brilliant collaboration of theatrical geniuses has created an awesome blockbuster of overwhelming pleasure. Through August 12. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 800-952-6560. — JJT

Top Shelf Shorts Houston's new NightCap Theatre presents ten brief plays that showcase the writing talents of its two founders. Peter Wittenberg scores with $20 Bowl of Soup — a young man wakens a buddy to report rejection by his dream girl. It's brought to rich comic life by director Justin Doran and actors Kyle Cameron and Dayne Lathrop. Standing Up to a Bully is a comedy with nuanced performances by Brian Heaton and Michael Chiavone. Accused features a monologue delivered with compelling passion by Brian Heaton as an unmarried father seeking custody of his daughter. In Guayaba Tree, Wittenberg captures the poignant gap between a warm mother (Dolly Fisher) and a son too interested in being a provider. In The Cabin, an affectionate father and son meet, but there is a surprise in store as well. The other writer and NightCap co-founder, Eric James, centers on relationships. In the Morning introduces an academic and his younger lover, when passion has cooled, illustrating the chilling effects of a dream receding. In Untitled (Self-Portrait), an older man and woman admire a Van Gogh, and the encounter captures the loneliness of those whose partners have died; actor Robert Lowe is wonderfully moving. In Dinner First, a rent boy wants to get to business while the john prefers conversation first; the differing priorities are humorous. James's Toil & Trouble has the witches from the Scottish play squabbling like it's a bad day on The View — it had some amusing moments. Blood, in which a gay man can't donate blood, may be too polemical. NightCap Theatre keeps momentum going with these ten plays, almost all powerful and amusing, rich in talent and a delight to savor. Through August 4. Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak, 281-788-2319. — JJT

Travelsty Two couples travel around the country, singing about various states or cities, and through the alchemy of talent and showmanship turn this slight material into a totally entertaining two hours of pure pleasure. The setting is cabaret, with the talented four-piece band G Sharp and the MBT 3, and refreshments are available. The concept is minor, but the skits that bridge the songs — all original writing — range from merely pleasant to absolutely hilarious. Three of the skits had punch lines that seemed to come out of the blue but paid off so well I was blown away. The gifted performers are Rebekah Dahl and Brad Scarborough, married in real life and founders of The Music Box Theater, and Cay Taylor and Luke Wrobel, and after journeying cross-country with them, I'm calling them by their given names. All are attractive and work well together in harmony and in the choreography supporting the songs. Rebekah is tall and blond, Cay is medium height and dark, Luke looks like an American David Niven, and Brad has movie star looks but excels here as a comedic actor. He plays briefly several singers in a skit about Record #17 of Tony Bennett's Duets — it's fast-paced and huge fun. A recurring thread has them all in a car, Luke driving and Brad in the passenger seat, with the ladies behind. They also travel by rail and, hilariously, by plane. Videos accompany the opening and closing songs and add fun, but the show's triumph is the ensemble acting that creates a sense of friends off on a madcap odyssey. Four strong performers and a witty script weave familiar pop hits into a thoroughly pleasurable evening, a must-see for cabaret aficionados and for music lovers of any stripe. Through August 5. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — JJT


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