Capsule Stage Reviews: KOOZA, Life Could Be a Dream, The Lion King, Steel Magnolias, The Wrong Side of the Law

KOOZA In KOOZA's loose narrative, a shy, foppish character known as The Innocent discovers a world of magic, acrobatics and illusion. He's not only awed by the fantastic, but also finds a sense of self and purpose. If that story doesn't sound compelling, that's because it's really not. There has only ever been one reason to go to a Cirque du Soleil engagement, and that is to be thrilled by the feats of strength, flexibility and athleticism on display. The primary appeal of the performers at Cirque has never been what the human body can emote, but what it can do. And these bodies can do quite a bit. The Innocent's journey to self-discovery is marked by a series of circus acts, some more jaw-dropping than others. The first real crowd-pleaser of the first act is the trio of contortionists dressed in skintight gold-leaf costumes. They move with a lithe energy that can only be described as feline. The choreography showcases their hyperextended backs as they fold themselves in ways that suggest their spines are really made of Play-Doh rather than bone. Equally stunning is a balancing act that sees a performer hold himself on one hand 23 feet in the air. The rest of the show is just as entertaining, and features a solo trapeze performance, a unicycle routine, charivari, hoops manipulation, a teeterboard act that is not to be missed and a couple of funny, if not obscene, comedy acts. The Wheel of Death in Act II is not for the faint of heart, but is so thrilling, it has to be seen to be believed. KOOZA is at its best when it's not trying to be an emotional journey. When there's this much showmanship and exoticism on display, any attempt at creating a personal trajectory is pointless. Cirque du Soleil is a circus, after all, and KOOZA is another entertaining entry in its long list of spectacles. Through September 2. Sam Houston Race Park, 7575 North Sam Houston Pkwy., 281-807-8700. — AC

Life Could Be a Dream Another jukebox musical — the time is the '60s and the music is doo-wop — delivers nostalgia, charm and warm good feelings, but this time with a plot as well. The setting is a basement rec room where the slacker kids hang out, and, yes, "Get a Job" is amusingly staged, with the unseen mother chiming in on an intercom system. Denny (Adam Gibbs) is leader of the singing group, and he's the one with some show-business polish. Eugene (Mark Ivy) is a stereotypical nerd, and friend Wally (Dylan Godwin) drops in and joins the Denny and the Dreamers group; his trademark signature is enthusiasm. The group expands to include Skip (Cameron Bautsch), a mechanic from the wrong part of town; his trademark is to look hunky, which doesn't go unnoticed by Lois (Rebekah Stevens), whose uptight dad is a snob. The suspense is whether the group can get its act together to win a local contest being held the coming Saturday. Director and choreographer Mitchell Greco keeps the pace clipping along, and the voices are pleasant enough to carry the 20-plus songs, such as "A Sunday Kind of Love" and "Unchained Melody." Godwin has the greatest range, most intelligent rendition and impeccable phrasing. There are a lot of physical comedy and broad reactions, and these are appropriate and work well. The finale has a Chorus Line moment that lets us escape the basement and the irritating mother on the intercom. All this is created by Roger Bean, who wrote the long-running hit The Marvelous Wonderettes. This musical, intended for light summer fare, delivers on its promise, providing humor and nostalgia and letting us again relive the tuneful melodies of the '60s. Through September 2. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JJT

The Lion King Courtesy of Galexa Energy Broadway, Disney's The Lion King roars into town with its menagerie of spectacle, stagecraft and human emotions grafted onto a pride of lions, showcasing what inventive minds can accomplish with unlimited funds and unlimited imaginations. Animal puppetry is brought to exciting life by human actors. The giraffes and the elephants are remarkably realistic, while others, such as the prancing oryxes and the menacing and seductive cheetah, convince through movement. There are singers and tom-tom drummers in the loges, birds fluttering in the sky, and the animals parade down the aisle and enter to crowd the stage with delight. The plot is old lion/young lion, but the drama comes from the love between the boy lion Simba and Mufasa, his father and ruler. His uncle, Scar, is crippled with envy, and he has the hyenas on his side, a marvel of fascination — evil, adroit, brilliantly imagined and crafted, and all too human. A young lioness, Nala, is a pal to Simba in the first Act, and becomes more in Act II, when the lions have grown to maturity. An amusing hornbill, Zazu, watches over Simba, and Simba is befriended by a meerkat, Timon, and a warthog, Pumbaa; they are eminently likable and amusing. This musical is also a ballet, and the choreography by Garth Fagan is striking and hugely important. The songs are wonderful, especially the exuberant "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," the evil "Chow Down" and the haunting "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" The music and lyrics are by Elton John and Tim Rice, the direction and costume design are by Julie Taymor, and she and Michael Curry designed the entrancing masks and puppets. A brilliant collaboration of theatrical geniuses has created an awesome blockbuster of overwhelming pleasure. Through August 12. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 800-952-6560. — JJT

Steel Magnolias This comedic drama portrays Southern women as wittier than the Algonquin Round Table and more warm-hearted than a petting zoo. The setting is a beauty shop, the former carport of Truvy, converted by her husband so she "could support him." Truvy hires the young Annelle as an assistant, and a controlling mother, M'Lynn, and her strong-willed daughter Shelby arrive for treatments; they are affluent, but the even wealthier Clairee enters, followed by Ouiser, self-described as "richer than God." What a cast it is — faster with a quip than a quick-draw artist, with big hair and personalities to match. The direction, by Stages Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin, is virtually flawless, with a cast to match — ensemble acting of the first order, each character etched vividly yet integrated into the milieu of a small town. Playwright Robert Harling displays inventive brilliance in the sallies and adds drama, based on some medical difficulties of Shelby. Even here, the laughs are plentiful, and the theme of "smiling through the tears" is developed adroitly. Holland Vavra Peters plays Shelby and provides stunning beauty and a nuanced performance. Sally Edmundson plays M'Lynn and captures her nurturing needs and disappointment at her suggestions going unheeded. Susan Koosin is excellent as Ouiser, a straightforward, outspoken diamond in-the-rough personality. Genevieve Allenbury is equally good as Clairee, and Shelley Calene-Black finds Truvy's easy grace and warmth. Rachael Logue guides us through Annelle's transformation from ugly duckling to incipient swan. Superb comic timing allows the wit of Harling to shine in all its brilliance. Even if you've seen this comedic wonder, see it again, as the humor is fresh and timeless, the wit inventive and the characters so memorable that the mind will reel with pleasure.Through August 19, Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JJT

The Wrong Side of the Law Theatre Suburbia presents its annual summer "mellerdrammer," complete with boos and hisses, and yes, you are urged to toss popcorn at the actors. The set is the lobby and bar of a saloon/hotel, the time is 1908 and there are period costumes. A pair of evildoers arrive, garbed in black as though fresh from a vampire convention. There is a plot, but this vehicle is about fun, not suspense. The first act is slow, but the second act opens with warmth as the cast parades and sings two oldie songs. These actors are determined that you have a good time, and will stop at nothing. Donna Dixon acts as mistress of ceremony and also a telegraph operator, and she is excellent, as is Cory Grabenstein as the owner of the establishment. His mother is played by Susan O'Connor, who brings mature charm to the proceedings. The background piano music is ably provided by Alice Smith. There is a cast of 13, some of whom appear to be there to gain experience. Daniel Corrigan as the villain lacks menace and seems too aware that this is a spoof. The co-directors are Doris Merten and Haig Caesar, and they allow too much winking at the audience — it could be funnier if the actors stayed in character. The evening grinds to a halt whenever a character marches downstage to deliver an aside, then marches back to continue the play. What might have been amusing the first time becomes tedious a score of times, and the asides often fall flat. As "mellerdrammer" indicates, this is lighthearted summer fare — bring patience and a sense of humor — the popcorn can be purchased at the theater. Through August 25, 4106 Way Out West Dr., 713-682-3525. — JJT

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