Capsule Stage Reviews: July 3, 2014

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

Xanadu Xanadu was a 1980 film starring Olivia Newton-John that was savaged by critics. A stage version seemed unlikely, but gifted playwright Douglas Carter Beane updated the book and it opened on Broadway to acclaim and a 513-performance run. The plot? Demigods on Mount Olympus are forbidden to fall in love with mortals, but the muse Clio falls for Sonny Malone, an artist who draws chalk murals in Venice, California. Sonny is dissatisfied with his work and decides to commit suicide, but is dissuaded by Clio. Instead, he seeks to open a roller-skating rink as an art haven. Mitchell Greco directed and choreographed, brilliantly, keeping the pace moving vigorously and finding the laughs. Holland Vavra plays Clio with a luminous beauty, acting chops and a compelling way with a song, and could not be better. Cameron Bautsch plays Sonny, providing an endearing portrait of a likable nerd, but the sexual chemistry between the two is largely invisible. Beane added a plot twist, as muse Melpomene (Tamara Siler, great gospel voice) and muse Calliope (Julie Simpson Garcia, in harlequin glasses) plot against Clio. Both are hilarious and their bonding in evildoing delightful. Thomas Prior plays Danny Maguire, and is excellent as a businessman with a backstory of missed opportunities. The entire chorus is wonderful, but special mention must go to Mark Ivy, who is outstanding as the muse Thalia, and as the young Maguire in a flashback. The four-piece band is great and the production first-rate. Music and lyrics are by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. I especially liked "I'm Alive," "Evil Woman," "Don't Walk Away," "Fool" and "Have You Never Been Mellow." This is a triumphant lark of a musical, as light as a cloud and as joyous as a sunbeam, funny and endearing. See it for a rollicking good time. Extended through July 20. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — JJT


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