Capsule Stage Reviews: It's a Wonderful Life, Kimberly Akimbo, Sanders Family Christmas, Sylvia, Viv!

It's a Wonderful Life Old-time radio drama gets a nostalgic analog tune-up under Texas Repertory Theatre's shrewd adaptation of Frank Capra's Christmas-friendly movie (1946). In Joe Landry's stage version, we're the 1940s audience during a live radio broadcast of NYC station WBFR's "Playhouse of the Air," like something out of Lux Radio Theatre, renowned for its movie adaptations. We watch the actors take on multiple roles as the drama unfolds, see and hear the sound effects in action, and listen to the humorous commercials for hair pomade, tooth powder and toilet soap. There's even an Applause sign that lights up when appropriate to prompt our responses. All that's missing is the live orchestra. Radio drama's magic depended upon resonant, evocative voices, and director Scott Carr has assembled a talented aural quintet to portray all the many characters of Bedford Falls, New York, a microcosm of American small-town life between the wars. Steve Fenley, with his booming bass, is announcer, God, evil Mr. Potter, ineffectual Uncle Billy and smartass Ernie the cab driver. Matching Fenley's delicious ham, Alan Hall plays Clarence, the guardian angel who's sent to earth to teach George Bailey the moral of the story ("No man is a failure who has friends") and earn his wings after 200 years. Dave Maldonado's lively baritone overlays the story's hero, George, with an everyman tone that becomes increasingly more desperate with what he perceives as his useless, unfulfilled life. Lauren Dolk's calm and soothing alto becomes Mary, George's abiding wife, whose bedrock core of decency and strength is George's pillar; and Lendsey Kersey, looking lovely in sequined jacket and Rita Hayworth hair — Macy Perrone's costumes are spot-on — plays town sexpot Violet and Mom Bailey with equal appeal. But why Violet sports a lowdown accent as if she'd just stepped off the D Train from Grand Concourse is a mystery. Fictional Bedford Falls is placed in upstate New York, not the Bronx. Trey Otis's Art Deco-inspired set doesn't resemble any antique radio station's functional auditorium, but it's visually pleasing. The big fault in Landry's adaptation is having the actors create the sound effects. No vocal talent ever performed the footfalls, water sloshing or door slamming, or shook the metal sheet to replicate thunder. All that was carefully controlled by backstage effects pros. Actors at the mikes wouldn't be clopping around the studio anyway, since their own footsteps would've been broadcast across the country. Close your eyes at Texas Rep and relish the sounds. The five sonorous voices create all manner of pictures that dance in your head. Through December 23. Texas Repertory Theatre Co., 14243 Stuebner Airline. 281-583-7573. — DLG

Kimberly Akimbo Award-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has crafted a hybrid play, part comedy and part exploration of a rare medical condition. Mom is a hypochondriac, pregnant and with some real problems. Dad is an alcoholic in a dead-end job. Aunt Debra is an energetic schemer who's missing a few marbles and has a history of chicanery. Thank God for the teenagers. Neighbor Jeff is a bit of a geek, but his heart is in the right place and he cares about others. Daughter Kimberly is coping stoically with a rare, debilitating disease that ages her four and a half times faster than the chronological rate — at 16, her body is 72 years old. Jennifer Decker plays Mom, hugely pregnant, and she is intense and appealing as a woman who simply has learned the wrong coping tools. Luke Fedell plays Dad, a low-grade alcoholic, fortunately nonviolent, whose dreams are of such a low order that it approaches the endearing. Kim Tobin-Lehl plays Aunt Debra with enthusiasm and wide-eyed energy, making the most of a one-note character. Carolyn Houston Boone (an adult) plays Kimberly, the afflicted daughter, and creates a memorable portrait of a teenager trying to bring a sense of order to a dysfunctional family. She is well-matched by the remarkable Ty Doran, a ninth-grader, as Jeff, a teenager who befriends Kimberly and forms an attachment, seeing the youth inside her elderly body. The play has some amusing moments, but the aura of deepening depression works against humor and the script makes no serious effort to explore Kimberly's inner life. Kimberly Akimbo is directed with sensitivity and finesse by Houston theater veteran Ron Jones. The playwright under-delivers on both humor and insights, but the performances of Boone and Doran make this well worth seeing. Through December 15. Mildred's Umbrella, Studio 101, 1824 Spring St. 832-463-0409. — JJT

Sanders Family Christmas Part sacred and part comically profane, Connie Ray and Alan Bailey's musical testament to faith and family warms like hot chocolate and soothes like comfortable woolies. The ensemble cast plays it to perfection as the show veers between goofy comedy and misty-eyed sentiment, with musical numbers (gospel hymns, traditional carols, novelty songs) interspersed with "witnessing" monologues, some tender, some funny. The Mount Pleasant Baptist Church awaits the arrival of the renowned country gospel group the Sanders Family Singers. Pastor Oglethorpe (Kevin Dean) is atwitter at the visit. Burl (Gerry Poland) is the patriarch, a big, savvy country boy. His wife Vera (Shondra Marie) will "blister" anyone's backside if they disrespect her, or the Lord. Twins Dennis (Robert Price) and Denise (Sarah Cooksey) are on the verge of adulthood, with Dennis soon off to war. The play is set on Christmas Eve 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Rejoining the family is Uncle Stanley (Craig Griffin), an ex-con who's had a quick brush with fame by singing in a Hollywood western with Gene Autry. Unassuming, plain June (Katharine Hatcher) is the "nonmusical" Sanders. Although no one in the congregation is deaf, June "signs" the songs. Ms Hatcher gives one of the drollest performances so far this season, using a deadpan expression and exquisite timing that would do Buster Keaton proud. Music makes them whole, but the binding tie is family. Sanders Family Christmas is directed with a mighty sure touch by Joey Watkins, and the joys of Christmas are apparent. No matter what you believe, there's faith in that. Through December 31. A.D. Players, 2710 W. Alabama. 713-526-2721. — DLG

Sylvia "You never say the things to me you say to her, like...'You're beautiful'...or 'I love you.'" The "you" is harried husband Greg (Wayne White), going through midlife crises. The accusing "me" is neglected wife Kate (Ruth S. McCleskey), who knows a rival to her affections when she sees one. The other woman, the "her," is a real bitch, Greg's new dog Sylvia (Renata Smith). She's come into the household and upset everything, including making a mess on the living-room floor. Greg has found his new spark in life. A.R. Gurney's bouncy little bauble of a comedy is an authentic shaggy dog story. If you have a pet, this play will be your chew toy. (I'd say catnip, but Sylvia might bite.) If you're going through marital troubles, however, watch out; Gurney will rub your face in it. He writes about people of a certain social status who find themselves in the throes of comic crisis better than any other living playwright (Mrs. Farnsworth, The Cocktail Hour). Warm and cuddly as a favorite blankie, what sets this far above the ordinary is that Gurney writes Sylvia as a young, attractive girl, which gives the dog a lively temperament as both temptress and perky puppy. It's terribly clever and a lot of fun. No wonder Kate feels threatened by this nubile female plopped down in her house who so easily reroutes her husband's affection. Ms. Smith deserves a heaping bowl of Kibbles for her lovely performance. We first meet her fresh from rescue as a grunge teenager, with torn jeans and wayward sweatshirt, two ponytails draped on each side of her head like beagle ears. She scratches and sniffs, jumps on and off the couch, and circles around before she plops down, happy as can be. By the end of the play, she's outfitted in glamour mode with little black dress, black patent pumps and her hair up. As Greg would say, she's gorgeous. The other kooky aspect in the comedy is the triple role of Tom, Phyllis and Leslie, all played by the same actor (Jim Allman). Tom is Greg's dog-run buddy, all macho bluster, who knows the answers, except when he doesn't. Phyllis is Kate's waspy school chum who can't find the charm in a dog who jumps up and humps her leg. Sylvia triggers all sorts of hilarious confessions from Phyllis about her husband's obsession with his pet — a goldfish. Perfectly costumed and bewigged, Allman stops the show with obtuse Phyllis. In the last act, Leslie is Greg and Kate's marriage counselor whose gender identity problems have a couch life of their own. Throw everyone a bone. Four paws for Company OnStage. Through December 15. 536 Westbury Square. 713-726-1219. — DLG

Viv! In this world premiere from Edge Theatre written and directed by Jim Tommaney (a Houston Press theater critic), there is little evidence of any of Academy and Tony Award-winning actress Vivien Leigh's legendary vivacity or charm. Tyrell Woolbert, slim and sleek in a wonderful black pleated dress, has neglected to bring onstage Leigh's scintillating presence. With a rich, creamy voice much too alto for Leigh's lighter, more scintillating sizzle, she never captures the feline essence of this fascinating yet troubled star, and seems content to play grande dame instead of getting under Leigh's twitchy skin. Portraying a screen and stage supernova so highly etched in our consciousness is a dubious task at best, but the fire's out in this one. Woolbert isn't helped by the leaden script, which suffers its own form of manic depression. The rudimentary bio facts float through, treading quickly through Gone with the Wind, her love of husband Larry Olivier, some dish on movie director George Cukor, teasing anecdotes about Scotty's Gas Station (that infamous gay brothel on Hollywood Boulevard where she would "slum"), but the revelations stay firmly on the surface. Leigh never speaks in her own voice, always quoting snatches from Olivier's autobiography or an assessment from Coward or influential British critic Kenneth Tynan. Then it's on to a cursory passage from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" or a few lines from Macbeth or Antony and Cleopatra. It's all third-hand info, a play of hearsay through the eyes of others. We seldom hear from Leigh herself. In a hoary device, Leigh has been conjured by devoted fan Robert Strong (James R. Monaghan), who has plastered the walls of his Greenwich Village apartment with her photos and famous confreres. Why Robert appears at all is a mystery, as he has nothing to do but stare adoringly at her and pour glasses of port to lubricate her stories. She doesn't need him to tell her tale, as the play is mostly monologue anyway. Her vanity is fueled by us, not him. Knowing Leigh's well-documented sexual appetites, she would hardly have waited until the end of the play to give Robert a chaste little peck on the cheek goodbye; she would've pounced as soon as she saw him. If you know little or nothing about Vivien Leigh, then Tommany's Viv! will open a small window onto this incandescent but storm-tossed star of stage and screen. If her miraculous Scarlett or brittle Blanche is fresh in your mind — and these performances are as revelatory today as ever — you sadly realize this new stage view keeps her in the shadows, unenlightened. Through December 16. Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch. 832-894-1843. — DLG


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