Capsule Stage Reviews: July 17, 2014

Brooklyn the Musical This musical has five lead characters, almost no choreography and a minimalist set. An orphaned 14-year-old girl from France named Brooklyn comes to Brooklyn to find the father she never knew, and her story unfolds, accompanied by songs. The production as intended uses recycled materials, so we have a ball gown made of newspapers, another one of red plastic drinking cups, another made of black trash bags and a gown made from tinfoil. These are witty, for the costumes are designed by Colton Berry, who also directed the musical. Brooklyn's father returned to his home in the United States, and her mother never heard from him again. Brooklyn is on a quest to find him, and has discovered a singing ability that leads her to Carnegie Hall, then to Madison Square Garden for a smack-down sing-off with Paradice, reigning musical diva. Hannah Miller plays Paradice and walks off with the show, with a big personality, self-confidence, a bravura style and the compelling vocal authority of a Tina Turner, all with a sassy, in-your-face attitude. Mallory Bechtel as Brooklyn is pretty and captures the sweetness and gentleness of an orphan, but fails to exude the requisite power that her great vocal gifts should bring. We see the child but not the diva. As Taylor, the father, Jake Frank conveys earnestness, creating an interesting character. As a street singer, Colton Berry is dynamic, sings beautifully and adds professional polish, despite being dressed in rags. The live band is excellent. There's enough theatrical magic here, and a drop-dead performance by Miller, to entice you into Bayou City Theatrics' attractive new space in downtown Houston for a most enjoyable evening. Through July 19. Kaleidoscope, 705 Main,— JJT

Godspell If there's any Broadway musical that's ripe material for A.D. Players, it's Stephen Schwartz's folksy story of Christ and His message, Godspell (1971). The fit is beyond reproach. In a glorious production bolstered by heartfelt performances, this Sunday school lesson masquerading as a musical explodes into one of their most satisfying shows in memory. It's simple and homespun, all hippie and feel-good, and you can almost smell the patchouli. This is a "let's put on a show" show, and we must believe that the actors, who use their actual first names for their characters, have just wandered onstage and started to play-act. That the pros at A.D. carry off such quaint pretense so completely and with such innocence is one of the marvels of this production. They are a happy, colorful tribe in their tennis shoes and counterculture garb. At any moment you expect them to burst into Hair. After some brief exposition, Act I heralds Jesus' arrival and showcases many of his parables. They're acted out either as a game of Pictionary or charades, or as comic sketches with the kids acting like sheep, goats, Pharisees, the good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son. The twee factor is fairly high, but the sincerity is genuine. And Schwartz's best music occurs here — John the Baptist's "Prepare Ye," ushered in by shofar; the uptempo "Learn Your Lessons Well;" the ragtime vaudeville "All For the Best;" and the show's No. 1 hit tune, the lilting "Day by Day." Act II goes much darker, since we know where the story is headed, as the show switches into biography of Christ's last days. "We Beseech Thee" and the haunting "On the Willows" capture the despairing mood, although Schwartz ineptly handles the Crucifixion. The passion is beyond him. The lyrics, "I'm bleeding, I'm dying, I'm dead," sung in high head tone, are terribly prosaic next to the Gospel's "It Is finished." Director Kevin Dean overlays the Bible lessons with an improvisational wash that the actors lap up. Each is his own character, while still being an integral part of the group. Although this show depends for its goodwill on its fine-tuned ensemble, I must mention five: Braden Hunt (who also did the exceptionally fluid, varied and inventive choreography) has unquenchable presence onstage; Stephanie Bradow possesses comic timing and vocal pipes; Jennifer Gilbert smolders like a good girl gone bad in "Turn Back, O Man;" Joey Watkins is a forceful but regular-guy Jesus; and reed-thin Daniel Miller, like Ray Bolger on a caffeine high, bounds all over the set, an old-time Broadway trooper. His is the new face to watch in the future. Robin Gillock's set design, a series of roughly constructed platforms that roll on casters, can be configured in many eye-catching ways, which allows the cast to drape themselves over, around and on top. It's their jungle gym. Donna Southern Schmidt's costumes are wonderfully loopy: a ballerina skirt, a mauve suit, bright leggings, a bit of Woodstock, T-shirt and jeans for Jesus. Together, it all works. Andrew Vance's precise lighting turns on a dime from bright new day to the steamy red temptation by a host of Satans. The Parables' message is simple: Love God, your neighbor, your enemy. There's elegance in that, as well as taking a lifetime of work to perfect. A.D. Players lets Schwartz's funky musical reveal its simplicity naturally. What moves us so powerfully is not so much his music, but His music. The cast sings both exceedingly well. Through August 24. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

I Wish You Love This play is a slice-of-life segment of a single year, 1957, in the life of Nat King Cole, a trip down memory lane with a performer singing his hit songs, interspersed with some backstage material and poignant references to the emerging civil rights movement. The setting is a TV studio where Cole heads a variety show, as he did for more than a year on NBC. This provides the setting for televised performances, and also for backstage badinage among the performers during rehearsals. Cole is portrayed by Dennis W. Spears, who fails to project the star quality of Cole, though he carries the narrative adequately. The other members of the musical trio headed by Cole are Oliver Moore (Jason E. Carmichael) and Jeffrey Prince (Derrick Brent II), who are excellent in their roles. Spears has a mellifluous voice, as did Cole, smooth as honey in caressing the lyrics, and it's a genuine pleasure to hear again the classics that brought Cole to the top of his profession. Ron Jones portrays both a newscaster and Bill Henry, the network's program manager, and disappoints in both roles. The production is curiously lifeless, without excitement, as directed by Lou Bellamy. The civil rights elements are shoehorned in through the use of news items and video clips, and an attack on Cole in a Birmingham concert appearance plays an important part of the second act. What's missing is Cole's charm; his relaxed, low-key geniality; his intelligent grasp of the lyrics; his phrasing; and his ability to heighten the drama of the song, inviting you in to share his soul. The pleasure of hearing these songs is huge, but a lifeless script and a flat production take some of the joy out of it. Through July 27. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — JJT

Pete 'n' Keely Surely you haven't forgotten Pete Bartel (David Wald) and Keely Stevens (Susan Koozin)? You must remember "America's Swinging Sweethearts," Pete 'n' Keely? Thirteen gold albums, played Carnegie Hall, made the circuit from Berle to Jack Paar. They opened for Joey Bishop in Vegas, don't you remember? They were everywhere, even on Broadway, briefly, very briefly, in the musical Tony 'n' Cleo. You've got to remember that. Maybe you still listen to their Christmas album, On Thin Ice, and laugh along with "Too Fat to Fit," their comedy hit about Santa being so overweight he can't get down the chimney? But what did you think about their nasty divorce? Keely's boozing? Pete's womanizing? Their unsuccessful solo careers after the messy breakup? Keely's latest recording attempt to get hip, "Keely a Go-Go"? Or Pete doing dinner theater in Ohio? Well, these two are back. And NBC has booked them for a one-hour live special — in living color! Oh, they're still divorced, but don't let that worry you. Don't believe those tabloids; they can be so vicious. Pete and Keely are getting along just fine. See for yourself at Stages in Pete 'n' Keely, the off-Broadway musical by James Hindman (When Pigs Fly) that uses standards like "Lover Come Back to Me," "Fever," "Secret Love" and an unbelievable kitschy rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to showcase the story of their lives. Interspersed with the bio material are new numbers by Patrick Brady and Mark Waldrop, like the "Swell Shampoo Song" (NBC's sponsor — Swell Puts the OO in Shampoo) or the brilliantly silly Tony 'n' Cleo pastiche, a mishmash of Rogers & Hammerstein, Jerry Herman and Steven Sondheim. The best of the new bunch are the slow numbers, "Still" and "Wasn't It Fine," both heartfelt and amazingly effective. Koozin and Wald sit casually on the round platform that serves as the TV show's setting — and merely sing. The solos turn into duets, and the show's power shines through with classic simplicity. What's better than two pros singing their hearts out? And sing they do — wonderfully. We believe that Koozin and Wald were fabulous cabaret talents, because they really are. Their voices blend, each offsetting the other. Koozin is the belter, Wald the crooner. Their give and take is lovely to hear, and to behold, since each is such an exceptional actor. You can actually see them listen to each other when they bicker or when a fleeting moment of happiness passes across their faces. Although the lush orchestrations that were a hallmark of variety shows are missing, we willingly suspend our disbelief when the sextet, under the baton of Steven Jones, swings with such brassiness. Every now and then we glimpse the musicians when the upstage panels are pushed aside, and there they are with cigarettes dangling from their lips — a nice period touch. Director Kenn McLaughlin overlays the studio background atmosphere with appropriate mood; choreographer Krissy Richmond enhances the duet's routines with phrases that could have come from June Taylor's playbook; and Kevan Loney's projection designs sparkle, twirl and kaleidoscope us back to the '60s. The real mood enhancer is the costumes by Katherine Snider. Channeling Bob Mackie with tasteful tackiness, Keely is awash in opulent paisley swirls, marabou-trimmed bell bottoms, or black sequins and opera gloves for her "Black Coffee" torch song, while Pete's sharkskin suit or red baize dinner jacket with ascot is prime-time. No need to bat that clunky Philco to get rid of the static, for Stages has finely adjusted the horizontal and vertical. Gather the family, sit back and enjoy these two stars having the time of their life — in swingin' color! Through August 31. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — DLG

Spaghetti Code In playwright and frequent Houston Press contributor Abby Koenig's dark comedy Spaghetti Code, Milly and Tim, an infertile married couple, have exhausted every effort to somehow have a baby of their own. When a friend mentions natural surrogacy, Milly starts brewing an idea. What if her husband, Tim, and her best friend, Stacy, had a baby together the old-fashioned way? Stacy doesn't want kids of her own, Milly and Tim do, it's the perfect plan — only it's a little weird, right? Koenig handily illustrates a scenario that entertains as it draws you into the reality of the situation. Many couples go through the pain of infertility — how far would you be willing to go to make a family? From the get-go, the play feels natural and overall believable. The writing has a flowing progression, and yet as entertaining and hysterical as the script is, you're not forced into suspension of disbelief. Never before have I found an abortion joke so believable and endearing. The cast creates characters as dynamic as they are amusing. Ivy Castle shines as a slightly neurotic Milly. Drake Simpson and Andrew Love are appropriately loud and boisterous as computer geek Tim and his friend Phil (the two share giggle-worthy hoo-ha jokes). And Mischa Hutchings channels a promiscuous New Age Blanche Devereaux as Stacy. Through July 28. PJ's Sports Bar, 614 West Gray, 646-942-6837, visit $20. — BW


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