Disney's The Little Mermaid Disney's 1989 animated film The Little Mermaid was made into a Broadway musical, closing in August 2009, and was then reworked for a national tour. Children will be delighted, but this production is infused with intelligence and charm and has enormous appeal to adults. The good King Triton (Steve Blanchard), ruler of an underwater kingdom, has lapses in temperament, and the villainess Ursula (Liz McCartney), his deposed sister, has such a zest for evil that she becomes captivating. Ariel (Jessica Grove) is the youngest daughter of Triton, headstrong and rebellious, and fascinated by the forbidden mystery of the world above the sea. All three are excellent. McCartney dominates her scenes with a powerful authority, appearing with henchmen Flotsam (Scott Leiendecker) and Jetsam (Ben Roseberry), who move wonderfully. Eric Kunze plays Prince Eric with youthful good looks and nails his solo song "Her Voice." Dale Hensley plays Grimsby, court adviser to Eric, and captures his protective fondness for Eric. Alan Mingo Jr. portrays Sebastian, underwater court composer, with a vivid, over-the-top personality that adds enormously to the fun, and is exhilarating in the song "Under the Sea." Matt Allen plays Scuttle, a friend of Ariel, and leads the show-stopping song "Positoovity." Deadlines play an important part in the plot, but rest assured, true love finds a way. The production is enormous fun, and as directed by Glenn Casale has a unity of tone that is enchanting. The costumes by Amy Clark and Mark Moss are colorful and witty. The music is by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glen Staler, and book by Doug Wright. The choreography by John MacInnis is breathtakingly good. This is a production for the ages — all the ages. It is a must-see triumph. Through June 29. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-315-2525 or 713-558-8887. — JJT
Five Women Wearing the Same Dress If you need validation of how far we've come — in society and onstage — I direct your gaze to Alan Ball's Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, now playing on autopilot at Studio 101 courtesy of Mildred's Umbrella. It's not the company's fault that this play is tiresome, for the actors are quite remarkable, fresh and natural. It's the play that's stale and root-bound. Ball is a definite winner in Hollywood, cutting his teeth on two seminal sitcoms featuring tough female characters, Saving Grace and Cybill. He hit the big time with American Beauty (2000), which won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. His former HBO TV show, Six Feet Under, with its funeral home setting, won Ball an Emmy and has become a cult favorite, while his current show, True Blood, his vampire-in-a-small-Southern-town goth series, finishes its final season this year. Ball likes quirky dysfunction, but there's a whiff of Writing 101 that swirls through his snappy one-liners and smart dialogue. Take Women, for example. Five bridesmaids, who don't like the bride, naturally, and aren't her friends, take shelter from the reception in the bedroom of the bride's sister. In order of appearance, the five, all different personalities so they can spark and smolder, naturally, are Francis (Elizabeth Keel), the sanctimonious Christian virgin; Meredith (Margaret Lewis), the bride's snarky, brittle sister; Trisha (Briana Resa), the cynical slut who's caught between wanting a commitment and wanting to bed every good-time Charlie; Georgeanne (Jennifer Decker), the married one who's hot to trot, if anyone would look at her; and Mindy (Nikki Wuertz), the lesbian sister of the groom. Shocking! Later we meet Tripp (H.R. Bradford), the only male in the show, a rather liberated guy who's fallen for Trisha. In the penultimate scene, these two go through the motions of a seduction scene, like an unfinished Noël Coward farce, only without the wit. While the women are expertly drawn by the actors, the plotting's so mundane and artificial, with the confessions and secrets coming at a pace meant for commercial interruptions, that we never truly get under their skin. With five women as protagonists, somebody's got to take a backseat — Francis for one, whose shtick is to say to anyone who offers her a joint or a glass of champagne, "No, thanks, I'm a Christian." We know just where her character arc is headed: a makeup session where the duckling becomes a swan and off she goes to flirt with the bartender. Everyone's a patsy with her own sob story about how she's been done wrong by men. Through June 21. Studio 101, 1824 Spring, 832-463-0409. — DLG
Good People "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?" asks Glinda, a very good witch. "Why, I'm not a witch at all," answers the girl recently arrived by tornado, "I'm Dorothy Gale from Kansas." Dorothy never answers Glinda's question. Of course, there's no doubt that she's very good indeed. But I wonder what Margie from Southie (i.e., south Boston's lower end) would answer. As played by Elizabeth Bunch in the Alley Theatre's thoroughly entertaining production of David Lindsay-Abaire's Tony-nominated Good People (2011), she's a little of both. At times, it seems she's a lot of bad. The good is buried under a hard shell, calcified through circumstances, economic woe, and partially due to her own bad decisions. She is stuck in south Boston and will probably never see Oz, although she comes as close as she can imagine it when she crashes a party in chic Chestnut Hill in Act II. She's desperate for a job, anything will do, having just been fired by manager friend Stevie (Dylan Godwin) from her cashier's position at the Dollar Store. It's not her fault, she pleads. The babysitter was late again. Adult daughter Joyce with her special needs requires 24/7 attention. Margie (pronounced with a hard "g") does the best she can. When this tactic doesn't sway Stevie, Margie turns up the heat, insinuating with neighborhood gossip or wheedling with forced kindness. A master manipulator, she knows just the right moment to lay on a guilt trip. She's one tough cookie. But this time her tactics misfire. She's out of a job. There's comfort of sorts at home, where crusty former high school pal Jean (Melissa Pritchett, blowsy and deliciously low-rent) and foul-mouthed landlady Dottie (Jennifer Harmon, as juicy and pungent as her memorable Violet in the Alley's August: Osage County) are a type of extended family. None of the three censor their thoughts, saying whatever's on their mind at the moment. It's in the ratty kitchen where Jean plants the idea for Margie's next move. She has run into Mike (Chris Hutchison), a former Southie who has made it big as a doctor. He once had a brief fling with Margie in high school. Ask him for a job, Jean states with brittle assurance. "He's good people." Good, bad, nice, mean, class, no class — they're all mixed up in Lindsay-Abaire's social dissection. Mike might be decent and successful, but has he really forgotten his roots, his old neighborhood buddies? "'I'm comfortable," he responds uneasily to Margie's prying when she goes to his office to ask for a job. "I'm uncomfortable," she parries, getting under his skin. She gropes even deeper when she tells him he's "lace-curtain Irish," apparently the worst slur one can hurl at a Southie. She picks up a family picture and slyly comments that his beautiful wife is younger than her daughter Joyce. Something happened that summer, although nothing is explicitly said. In an intriguing battle of wills, her passive-aggressive assault wears Mike down, and Hutchison, using that velvet rasp of a voice and shrewd physical movement, shows us his eventual acquiescence. Margie gets invited to the Saturday birthday party. Plenty of rich people there. One of them has got to have a job for her. She needs the rent money. The rich have problems, too. Although she mistakes Margie for the caterer, Mike's African-American wife, Kate (Krystel Lucas, making a lovely Alley debut), seethes underneath a calm, radiant exterior. Their marriage is in trouble. The party had been canceled, but Margie didn't believe Mike when he told her, thinking he was blowing her off. So it's only the three of them and a immense cheese tray. Squirming and uncomfortable, Mike wants Margie out of there, but Kate wants Margie to tell stories of Mike's days in Southie. Memories of slumming go awry, naturally, and their long-ago summer affair rips open old wounds. Privilege, luck, hard work — these trump choices. But Margie's emotional blackmail trumps everything. Through June 29. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — DLG
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Hands on a Hardbody "American dream, Japanese car," snips J.D. Drew (Kevin Cooney, feisty and lovable), the oldest of the ten contestants vying for a chance at happiness on the merciless macadam of the Floyd King Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas. In Hands on a Hardbody, an offbeat but surprisingly affecting musical from Doug Wright (book), Amanda Green (lyrics and music) and Phish front man Trey Anastasio (music), if J.D. can keep one hand planted on this shiny new cherry-red pickup longer than the others, the car is his. Recently fired from the oil rig where he fell and broke his leg, can he stand for hours at a time? (The hopefuls get a 15-minute break every six hours.) Wife Virginia (Theresa Nelson, more actress than singer) coddles and belittles his chances. He could die out here. And for what? And why don't you look at me like you used to? Indifferent to her concerns, J.D. chases her away. He's on his own. Can the old man do it alone? He's got tough competition. The other nine are younger, rougher and really, really want this truck. The bully of the bunch is Benny (burly Drew Starlin, with rock-star voice), who previously won this contest a few years back. He knows all the tricks, like how to play the participants against each other or against themselves. He intimidates and humiliates, and is a pain in the ass. Ronald (Anthony Boggess-Glover, who can rock his huge body like a pole dancer) has loaded up on Snickers to give him energy. His dream is a landscaping business, and that truck will get him there. Jesus (John Ryan Delbosque, who stops the show with his mariachi-infused "Born in Loredo") wants the truck so he can sell it and pay his college tuition; Norma (Donnie Hammond, another show-stopper with her rousing gospel number "Joy of the Lord") needs the truck to ferry her kids to school and church, and has an immense prayer circle urging her on; Janis (Houston theater vet Susan Koozin) is broke but has support from her loving hubby, Don (Brad Zimmerman). Chris (Tyce Green, who belts a stirring "Stronger"), a former marine, has muscle and military determination on his side; innocent Kelli (Betty Marie Muessig), a night-shift drudge at UPS, wants out of town, as does young Greg (Cole Ryden). They have a sweet up-tempo duet, "I'm Gone," dreaming of their mutual escape to California. Sexy Heather (Julia Krohn) is not above cheating, falling for the fast line from car dealer Mike (a spiky, sleazy Michael Tapley), who gives her amphetamines to see her through the ordeal. Business assistant Cindy (Brooke Wilson) tries to keep the contest honest, even as she knows the dealership is going down the tubes because of Mike's mismanagement. Everyone's got problems. Life hasn't been fair or good to any of them. Success would be getting off the night shift at Walmart. Hardbody is blue-collar A Chorus Line, with multiple characters competing for a new chance to change their life. One by one, they're winnowed down. Here it's a red Nissan that's the ticket out of town, the American Dream. We sympathize with all these people and cheer for them to keep their hands on the car as long as possible. As each falls by the wayside, for a whole variety of reasons, the surprises catch the audience off balance. For a musical that has a static, unmusical premise, Hardbody never stands still. The truck's on a turntable, so every character gets to center stage for his or her big number when necessary; or they leapfrog over each other, always keeping one hand on the chassis as they maneuver around the truck. The show doesn't condescend and never mocks, nor does it unduly elevate or sanitize. It takes an unflinching look at the economy today and how it affects ordinary people. This is the little musical that could. Through June 22. TUTS Underground, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — DLG