Capsule Stage Reviews: Hairspray, The Mikado, Spring Awakening
Hairspray Pick a color, any color, and before too long it'll appear somewhere onstage, in costume or set design, during Country Playhouse's kaleidoscopic, exuberantly exciting production, the first in its 55th season! This vibe — so right, so ersatz, so '60s — extends through the whole show and exudes from the sprightly cast, from principals to chorus, as if everyone sprouts rainbows. The knockoff score by Marc Shaiman, with lyrics co-written by Scott Wittman, and book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, is lovingly, safely adapted from the much more chintzy 1988 John Waters movie that apotheosized Baltimore, Maryland, and mainlined drag queen extraordinaire Divine squarely into America's consciousness. Broadway sanitized the muddy Waters and made it safe for matinee ladies to bop along to the Madison, the Mashed Potato and the Frug, while swallowing the cheery message of integration and acceptance. The musical ran on Broadway for six and a half years and won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It's easy to see why in CP's flawlessly performed show — okay, the wireless mikes aren't flawless, and the lighting needs fine tuning and subtlety — but this thing moves! The kids on the Corny Collins Show (think American Bandstand) just want to dance, and why shouldn't everyone dance together, says innocent, ample-sized Tracy Turnblad (Kalin Coates, a fireplug of energy and voice), who knows a thing or two about being the butt of high school jokes. In this feel-good world, she gets her guy (smooth Aaron Boudreaux, a real-life Broadway musical star in the making); sees agoraphobic mom Edna (Danny Seibert, whose basso voice and wry comic timing fill out that 54 EEE brassiere) blossom into her own Macy's Thanksgiving Day float; and helps goofy friend Penny (Hayley Beiermeister, a wily scene stealer) and beyond-the-tracks Seaweed (Donté Wright, slick and boneless) find color-blind love. The ensemble is pitch perfect, with extra-fine support from Brad Zimmerman, Tamar Siler, Riley Branning, Pamela Moore and those three wailing Supremes-like Dynamites: Miatta Lebile, Lani Boykai and Sarah Kalala. Under Ron Jones's expert, laser-sharp direction, the flavorful choreography by Daria James and Erin Roleto, the crisp sets by Carl Russell, the amazing costumes by Reba Kochersperger and Linda Clark (with those towering, wraparound wigs that have their own particular character), and the foot-tapping, finger-snapping musical direction by Stephen Jones, Country Playhouse's Hairspray is teased and coiffed to perfection. Like the song says, "Big, Blonde & Beautiful." Through July 30. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. 713-467-4497. — DLG
The Mikado Considering the number of pratfalls director Alistair Donkin permits himself to take in the role of KoKo, the Lord High Executioner, in Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular musical comedy, performed by our own internationally celebrated Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Houston, you'd think his contract specifies that he must cover x amount of stage space. The Benny Hill tumbles are certainly in tune with English music hall tradition and seasonal pantomime, but I'm not sure the eminent Victorian Mr. Gilbert, a seasoned and innovative director of his own work, would approve such blatant "playing to the gallery." Director Donkin should concentrate instead on the company's wobbly enunciation that makes a lot of Gilbert's sublime words pass by in a blur. Part of the fun of any G&S work is the thrill of rediscovering Gilbert's absolute genius as a wordsmith. With fanciful plots all "topsy-turvy" (as partner Sullivan once described them), no one in musical theater is more adroit, irreverent and wicked with words than W.S. Gilbert. The scrolling side-titles help, but they're always a sentence or two behind the singers, so a lot is lost in the moment and the humor dissipated, but the dialogue scenes manage to restore the freshness. This goofy tale, G&S's tenth collaboration, tells of KoKo (Alistair Donkin), Lord High Executioner of Titipu, Japan, vying with Nanki-Poo (smooth tenor Joshua LaForce), disguised son of the emperor, for the love of Yum-Yum (dewy and appealing soprano Abigail Dueppen), fresh out of school and not as innocent as an ingénue should be. Surrounding the trio is a host of loonies who skewer English pretension: self-aggrandizing, comic Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else (appropriately smug Dennis Arrowsmith); Katisha (Sarah L. Lee), a gorgon on the make for young Nanki-Poo; and the Mikado himself (Ralph L. Katz), who's terribly sorry to have missed the latest execution. Tom Boyd's paper-screen and painted wood beams have a look of fine vase painting, and Bonnie Holt Ambrose's costumes are suitably silked and sumptuous. And let's not forget the other half of the famous musical duo, composer Arthur S. Sullivan, a "serious" musician who always looked down on writing such popular fluff, yet never surpassed himself except when working with his exasperating partner. His music is radiant, impeccably orchestrated, clear, and direct to the heart. Now, how do we jump-start maestro Dr. Brian Runnels, who seems to have fallen asleep at the podium? Let's kick it up a notch, shall we? Except for the society's annual summer performance, G&S's work is rarely seen in Houston. This isn't the definitive Mikado, but it's bloody good — thank you choristers — and it's the only one we've got. So go, already. Through July 24. Cullen Theater at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. 713-627-3570. — DLG
Spring Awakening, winner of eight Tony awards, is the ultimate ensemble musical. It has moments when its talented leads step forward to break your heart or fill your soul with excitement, but the real stars are the quicksilver movements of the young straining at their shackles, the mood lighting that seems to strike just the right note, the simple set that serves so well a multiplicity of purposes, the special sound effects, the unobtrusive, talented band and of course the glorious rock music by Duncan Sheik. It all comes together in a triumphant kaleidoscope of talent. The story, based on an 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind, depicts the torturous stirrings of sexuality among the young. Book and lyrics are by Steven Sater, who captures the anguish of confused youth under the boot of authority. The romantic lead is the good-looking intellectual Melchior, played by Corey Hartzog, who looks the part and creates an authentic characterization as he moves from warmth and camaraderie to educator, to swain and finally to rebel. His rendition of "Totally Fucked," aided by dazzling choreography, music and, yes, even the lyrics, is one of the highlights of the show. Tyce Green plays Moritz, an ill-fated student struggling in class, who has possibly — and deliberately — the worst haircut ever seen onstage. His energy and body language surge across the stage like a tornado, and they etch an indelible portrait. The love interest is Wendla, portrayed by Stephanie Styles, who handles convincingly a difficult, complex role. Andy Ingalls brings great comic timing to a moment of self-gratification. Philip Lehl plays several adult men, and imprints his skilled stamp on each, and Kristin Warren does equally well with the adult women. The graveside staging of the poignant "Left Behind" is moving. George Brock's brilliant direction involves us from the opening song, "Mama Who Bore Me," and seals the deal with an electric staging of a Latin lesson. The choreography by Kristin Warren contributes so much that her name should go above the title. It is a joy simply to immerse oneself in the recreated world of tormented youth with a compelling tale to tell. Don't miss the limited run, and bring friends – they will be grateful. Through July 31 in repertory with Art, so verify which is on. Generations Theatre at Hamman Hall, Rice University, 6100 Main St.,832-326-1045. — JJT
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