Capsule Stage Reviews: La Bohème, Leading Ladies, Love Loves a Pornographer, Rounding Third, Twelve Angry Men

La Bohème It doesn't really matter that there's no passion or fire between Ana Maria Martinez and Garrett Sorenson in their roles as eternal lovers Mimi and Rodolfo, in this Houston Grand Opera production, because there's plenty in the orchestra to make do. Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème is usually called the world's most popular opera, and rightly so – it's a marvel of construction and orchestration, with a tight, bare libretto and soaring lines of unalloyed romance that heave and climax all over the place. The opera's six bohemian friends are instantly likable in their poverty, camaraderie and on again/off again love affairs. As with any classic, these archetypal characters speak to us on some unconscious level. If you're going to die, from love or anything else, you might as well go out with Puccini. No one, though, is helped by director James Robinson's wet-blanket production, which, during the lovers' most ardent duet, has them singing miles apart from each other on either side of the vast proscenium. The whole thing is glossed by Robinson's death fixation: The guys' walkup apartment is itself plopped inside a grimy industrial box, the toy vendor Parpignol is given a skeleton head, Act III's winter landscape is highlighted by stacks of coffins waiting to be loaded on the train and the original 1890s timeframe is moved to WWI, so we're sure to get the morbid connections. Maestro Patrick Summers goes morbid, too, slowing the tempi like a dirge. Martinez, with her burnished soprano, sings some amazing passages but dramatically phones in her performance. Only baritone Joshua Hopkins, as hot-headed Marcello, sings with conviction and is worth watching. Through May 3 (with alternate casts at the May 1 and May 3 matinee shows). Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

Leading Ladies Even at its 2004 world premiere at the Alley Theatre, Ken Ludwig's cross-dressing farce was ungainly and wobbly, much like the play's two Shakespearean actors, who don high heels and sundresses in hopes of fooling a rich old biddy into leaving her inheritance to her now "discovered" long-lost nieces. Great farce works best when it's believable — just ask Molière — but in Playhouse 1960's superficial production, Leo and Jack (Wade Gonsonlin and Derek Linter) don't even take time to powder their noses. Yet everyone immediately accepts them as Maxine and Stephanie. (This type of broad humor is much like the football player who dresses as the cheerleader for the homecoming roast — it doesn't mean anything, but, momentarily, it is sort of funny to look at.) The plot is fraught with laughs (think of Some Like It Hot) and pathos (think of Twelfth Night), but it's content with the easy laughs. Gonsonlin is a lumbering, comic, big-boned Maxine, and Linter, while decades too old for Stephanie, supplies plenty of vaudeville high jinks in her wispy mini-dress and clunky pumps. It's the regular folks, though, who need the make-over. The supporting cast is wildly uneven, and quoting Shakespeare should be left to the professionals. But even though the pacing was nonexistent, the atmosphere flat and the staging filled with potholes, the audience had a rollicking good time. Through May 10. 6814 Gant, 281-587-8243. — DLG

Love Loves a Pornographer Nova Arts Project presents an immaculate staging of Love Loves a Pornographer, Jeff Goode's wicked parody of a late Victorian comedy of manners. Goode takes Oscar Wilde's basic tenets — superficial characters, witty dialogue, mistaken/misplaced identities, sublimated sex, tony language – and flicks them with his own brand of body English. Love never falters or loses momentum, it just moves faster and more furiously. Lord Cyril Loveworthy (Seán Patrick Judge) supplements his income by writing pornography under a pseudonym. His nemesis, Reverend Miles Monger (Timothy Evers), the influential literary critic of the Times of London and a sanctimonious prig, might be on intimate terms with Lady Lillian, Cyril's wife (Jenni Rebecca Stephenson). Out of jealousy, might Cyril be dallying with Millicent, Monger's lovely but frustrated wife (Melissa Davis)? Daughter Emily (Katrina Ellsworth) has returned from travels in America not with a genuine earl, as was expected, but with Earl (Bobby Haworth), a questionable mountain man who sells unsavory literature in Flagstaff, Arizona. Mrs. Monger may have committed suicide in the garden, but the guests spend time arguing over who has the proper social standing to investigate. Fennimore (Wayne Barnhill) is chastised for swooning when he should leave that to his betters. Of course, in plays like this, no one is ever who they seem, and reversals and surprises are a matter of course. Goode keeps us guessing — and listening. Timed to perfection, the words, barbed and dangerous, or flighty and shallow as the clueless characters spouting them, swirl like clouds. Through April 26. Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex, 2201 Preston, 713-623-4033. — DLG

Rounding Third Stages Repertory Theatre is offering a great way to celebrate the arrival of spring. Richard Dresser's Rounding Third, directed by Kenn McLaughlin, tells the story of two Little League coaches trying to work together to win a championship. Michael (Justin Doran) is a tender novice to coaching, not to mention the game, while Don (Josh Morrison) is a seasoned winner. Don's big advice on day one is that winning is fun. Michael, or Mike, as Don calls him, really just wants the kids to have fun. Their very different coaching styles are the primary source of conflict in this charming comedy, and along the way, we learn a lot about their private lives. There are a few serious moments — every sports story needs that please-God-let-him-catch-the-ball slow-mo — but comedy reigns in this show. Doran makes a perfect clown. He lopes around the stage with his tucked-in shirts and spidery long legs, nervously watching the game. Morrison's Don barks out orders with a crusty veneer, all the while covering up that teddy bear heart. Even folks who don't love the game, or any game for that matter, will enjoy this production, which is really about the way men learn to win at the game of life. Extended through April 27. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — LW

Twelve Angry Men Reginald Rose's souped-up theatrical version of his Emmy Award-winning 1954 TV drama packs quite an emotional punch in this broiling production at Theatre Southwest. Director Mimi Holloway and her acting gang overlay this seminal take on the American jurisprudence system with an abundance of dramatic juice. In many ways it beats the Broadway touring version seen here early last year, because the intimate space heightens the tensions by bringing us smack up against the action. The plot is classically simple. Twelve jurors must decide the fate of a young slum kid on trial for murder; if found guilty, the young man will die. The disparate characters, of all ages and from varying social and economic backgrounds, seem convinced at first of the "open and shut" nature of the case. One witness has placed the man at the crime scene; another actually saw him commit the murder; the motive's clear; the knife was found and identified. All that's needed is the conviction. They take a cursory vote. Juror #8 (Kurt Bauer) is the lone dissenter. He isn't convinced one way or the other of the boy's guilt, but the outcome is far too serious a matter not to discuss it — and for the next one and a half hours, the jurors battle for a fair and impartial trial. Prejudices, old scores, accusations and even parental conflicts get dredged up as the men grapple with the facts and reveal themselves. They put on quite a show, and the ensemble cast is terribly impressive, especially Bob Maddox as blowhard Juror #3, David Holloway as cut-and-dried Juror #4, John Ellsworth Phillips as poor but honorable Juror #5, Ken Vandervoort as sharp-eyed old coot Juror #9 and Robert Lowe as bigoted Juror #10. If you like courtroom dramas, here's the daddy of them all. Through May 3. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — DLG

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