Capsule Stage Reviews: June 5, 2014

BAT BOY: the Musical A made-up tabloid article about a boy who grew up living in a cave inspired this musical, about a mutant half-boy/half-bat. It has an embeddded element of high camp, and has gained a cult following, winning the Lucille Lortel award in 2001 as Best Off-Broadway musical. Colton Berry's performance as Bat Boy is serious, nuanced and highly intelligent, but elsewhere onstage, the ensemble cast is busily engaged in cross-dressing, and wearing hillbilly costumes and bad wigs. The result is Hamlet meets Hee Haw. The play is set in Hope Falls, West Virginia, population 26 hotheaded rednecks. Bat Boy is intended to be repellent but likable. Berry, in a body stocking, shaved head, fangs and Mr. Spock ears, with eye makeup to suggest the undead, manages repellent, but seems more alien, a Puck from some dystopian world, than half-human — endearing escapes him. There are several surprises after Bat Boy is discovered in a cave and is raised by veterinarian Dr. Thomas Parker (Kyle Ezer), his wife Meredith (Crystyl Swanson) and his daughter, Shelley (Tori Shoemaker). Bat Boy is treated kindly by Meredith and Shelley, although Dr. Parker is hostile. Melodrama sweeps in at the end, though knives are wielded, guns drawn and hypodermic needles brandished throughout. Swanson and Shoemaker are convincing as mother Meredith and daughter Shelley — both are attractive and amiable. Ezer is a bit wooden as Dr. Parker. The pop-rock music and lyrics are by Laurence O'Keefe. The music is involving, and the lyrics are literate and witty and deepen characterizations and narrative. Though flawed, this ambitious undertaking delivers dramatic highlights, adroit humor, and a score and lyrics to be cherished. Through June 7. Presented by Bayou City Theatrics at its new venue, The Kaleidoscope, 705 Main (enter around the corner under the Capitol marquee), — JJT

The Beaux' Stratagem Award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig has completed an adaptation, begun by Thornton Wilder in 1939, of The Beaux' Stratagem, a 1707 Restoration comedy by George Farquhar. Two young bucks have spent their available funds on riotous living, and leave London to improve their fortunes by courting wealthy women. One is disguised as a lord, the other as his footman, to suggest affluence — they switch roles in each township. The main settings are a country inn and the lavish estate of Lady Bountiful, housing two attractive women. There is some good news. The costumes designed by Amber Stepanik are elaborate and beautiful. There's an extended dueling scene that's amusingly choreographed by Johnny Ringo. Patrick Barton plays a drunken upper-class wastrel with captivating joy. Sarah McQueen provides an interesting, spunky take on his unhappy wife, and Cora Hemphill adds youthful allure to wealthy heiress Dorinda. Justin Finch plays Jack Archer, the rake serving as footman, coming within shouting distance of a gifted performance. His companion in amorous swindling is Tom Aimwell (Josh Clark), who speaks in an arch, affected manner, whines with petulance, and as a pompous prig seems an unlikely candidate to enchant a lady. The work is directed by Lisa Garza, who has permitted actors to wander far off the reservation. Matt Hudson plays Gloss, a highwayman and also a chaplain, but wears too much eye makeup and marches downstage to orate. Adrian Collinson plays Boniface, a scoundrel innkeeper, but we see no conniving duplicity, and Collinson's slow delivery in the opening scenes launches the comedy with a fizzle, though the pace gets better in Act Two. HFAC provides a lavish, well-costumed production and finds many of the laughs, but misses the boat with some less than ideal acting choices. Through June 15. Houston Family Arts Center, 10760 Grant Road, 281-685-6374. — JJT

Middletown There's the miracle of birth, there's the mystery of death and then there's everything else in between. No contemporary playwright writes with more passion, theatricality and comedy about the "in between" than Will Eno (Thom Pain (based on nothing), The Flu Season, The Realistic Joneses). In a thoroughly illuminating production from Catastrophic Theatre, Eno's distinctively original off-Broadway prize-winner from 2010 is deliciously shaded with humor and pathos, sadness and awe, and the sublime ordinariness of everyday life. Trying to make sense out of it is the hard part for his cast of average Joes. "Everything is as everything seems," relates the gruff Cop (Rutherford Cravens), talking directly to us, who seconds later blurts out, "My life is a mystery to me." Nothing is remotely like what it seems. In Eno's little corner of the world called Middletown, no one is truly ordinary or predictable. No one's truly happy, either. In an exceedingly postmodern riff on Thornton Wilder's classic Our Town, Eno's world is bleakly comic. Behold the loopy Mechanic (the plush Kyle Sturdivant, who also directs the play with a ripe, sure hand). Somewhat the play's conscience, he's a peeping Tom and a town drunk who rifles through bags of medical waste in hopes of finding something to dull his pain. He's never been able to live up to expectations. As he confesses with a knowledge misted in alcohol, "I'm nothing" Some townspeople are so lonely and lost, the only way out is a slash to the wrist. That would be John (Kevin Lusignolo), the town's handyman. Lanky and odd, he seems the most alone of them all. He forges a tentative alliance with married Mary (Patricia Duran, who adeptly juggles radiant and morose), who has recently moved into town with her husband, who's away on business and never there when she needs him. As sunny, obtuse Librarian (Lyndsay Sweeney) observes with peppy frankness when asked by Mary for a library card, "Good for you, dear. I think a lot of people figure, 'Why bother; I'm just going to die anyway.'" Even disconnects can be painfully funny. The scene with the most wonder doesn't even occur in Middletown but in outer space. It's a lovely bit of theater fairy dust. The town's most famous resident, the Astronaut (Greg Dean), is orbiting in his space capsule. Lit as if from the glow of the instrument panel, he muses to Houston command central about what he sees. Simple and affecting, he describes the earth and the mystery withal. "It doesn't look lonely up here," he says wistfully. "How'd we get so lucky?" Eno's strange, skewed beauties are made visible by mighty superlative dreamwork from scenic designer Ryan McGettigan, painterly lighting from Dustin Tannahill and mysterious sound design from Chris Bakos. There's a touch of genius in the cheery '50s TV theme music used to bridge the scenes. It sounds innocuous, comforting and then rather terrifying. It's a complete picture over at Catastrophic — a priceless Eno, delivered with an invigorating blast of powerhouse theater. Through June 14. 1119 East Freeway, 713-522-2723. — DLG


Over the River and Through the Woods River is Neil Simon without the burlesque, Eugene O'Neill without the terrifying angst, Thornton Wilder with a sense of humor. It's all about family, an Italian extended family, an immigrant Italian extended family. And the wonderful news is that you don't have to be Italian to enjoy it. Any family will do nicely, thank you. River is a memory play, with all characters at some time reminiscing directly to us about what we're seeing. Nick, appealingly played with equal amounts of exasperation and forgiveness by Marty Blair, is the main guy. Twentysomething, unmarried, career-oriented and orphaned, he visits his grandparents in Hoboken every Sunday for dinner. All four of them — Frank and Aida (Marion Atthur Kirby and Patty Tuel Bailey), and Nunzio and Emma (Ted Doolittle and Marcy Bannor), who drop in constantly. There are no surprises, really, just all the drama that's the stuff of everyday life: Frank shouldn't drive anymore, who wants more to eat, what's a VCR?, Nunzio has cancer, the five play a hilarious game of Trivial Pursuit. But the continual buildup of the average troubles and delights that make living both heartbreaking and elevating adds up to so much more. When Nick surprises the old folks with news that he's been promoted and is moving to Seattle, the temperature inside the house, kept on constant boil by Aida, drops precipitously. But we're your family, they shout over one another. "Tengo famiglia," warns Frank, whose motto is, I have a family, I have reason for being alive. Your family's here, they cry out loud, why leave? When Nick lets slip that he doesn't need them anymore, he might as well have said that Aida's veal Parmesan is tasteless. The quartet goes into overdrive to get him to stay. Emma knows an unmarried niece of her canasta buddies and sets a trap. Joe DiPietro gins up the suspense with the appearance of the attractive Caitlin as Nick's blind date at dinner. Katherine Hatcher is appropriately lovely and street-smart, later chiding Nick for his gruff treatment of these wonderful people who love him so much. Emma might be right, Nick might stay here for her, who wouldn't? One by one, the old ones fall by the wayside, but Nick has made up his mind by then. Another family, new but tied to the past, has begun. The suspense of whether Nick will leave or stay isn't the issue, really, but how much of the family goes with you when you do leave. Under the cozy direction of Christy Watkins, the ensemble cast is impeccable and actually seems to be part of the same family. How wonderful to see Marion Arthur Kirby back on his home turf again, where he was an A.D. Players member for 25 years. A.D. Players' Over the River and Through the Woods is delicious theater comfort food, as warm and invigorating as a bowl of Aida's minestrone. Through June 29. 2710 West Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG


Shakespeare in Hollywood Having to say "Ken Ludwig" and "William Shakespeare" in the same sentence initiates my gag reflex, but it's unavoidable for Shakespeare in Hollywood, now rampaging through Theatre Southwest. Ludwig's knockabout farce is set in 1935 at Warner Bros. Studios, where legendary theater director Max Reinhardt is making a film adaptation of his international hit production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, staged the year before at the Hollywood Bowl. This actually happened, and the film, while no moneymaker, set a visual standard for filming the Bard that's hard to beat. The luminous black and white cinematography by Hal Mohr won a deserved Oscar, while the performances, aided in large part by co-director William Dieterle, are classic: James Cagney as Bottom, Mickey Rooney as Puck, Olivia de Havilland in her screen debut as Hermia, Joe E. Brown as Flute and Victor Jory as Oberon. The production of the movie would make a nifty comedy, a tale about the collision of highbrow and low. Under Ludwig's ham-fisted tutelage, it's nothing but low. The participants at Theatre Southwest, always game and refreshingly frolicsome, have a difficult time rising above the questionable material. The audience enjoyed the shenanigans, though, leaving me the lone holdout. I admit it, I don't get his appeal. I did laugh out loud at the truly inspired scene where ditzy Lydia (Shandi Gomez, bursting appropriately out of her Elizabethan bustier and playing dumb blond with real gusto) can't understand her lines. The dialogue makes as much sense forward as backward, she whines. And she proceeds to show us, reading Shakespeare's rich poetry back to front. And she's right. It's sublimely silly. Ludwig never again captures that bright tone. King of the fairies Oberon (Aaron Echegaray, with rich, plangent baritone) and henchman Puck (Helen Rios, devilishly channeling Rooney's interpretation) find themselves on the set of Dream, directed by Max Reinhardt (Manny Longoria). Needing a replacement for Rooney, who has broken his leg skiing — which did happen, by the way — these immortals are quickly hired. Oberon can speak Oberon so trippingly, he's a natural. Havoc and "comedy" ensue as they gerrymander romance with their magic herbs. As in the original, Puck makes a mess out of whose eyes get the flower juice, so the stage is soon awash in every sort of mismatched pair. Overly broad and none too subtle, the play trips over itself: farce run amok. The cast has enough stage magic to nearly convince me that Ludwig is a decent playwright. I'm the one who must be dreaming. Through June 21. 8944-A Clarkcrest. 713-661-9505. — DLG

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. Through June 29. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — JJT

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