Capsule Stage Reviews: Madame Butterfly, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up, Shrek the Musical

Madame Butterfly Is there any opera entrance more musically ravishing than the bridal procession of Butterfly? A 15-year-old geisha, she's been "sold" by marriage broker Goro to American naval lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, who's on a tour of duty in Nagasaki. Impatient, he has no intention of fully accepting Butterfly as his wife, and the ceremony's only a formality to get her into bed. Accompanied by her girlfriends as they walk up the hill to the couple's future house overlooking the harbor, Miss Butterfly is besotted with love and joy, singing that she's "the happiest girl in the whole world." Houston Grand Opera maestro Patrick Summers augments the shimmering radiance in Puccini's lush, exotic scene, while soprano Ana Maria Martinez, making her role debut as Cio-Cio-San, sounds fresh and ethereal as her silken voice sails over the orchestra, as if some fragrant breeze has ruffled the cherry blossoms. Although she lacks the full spinto power Butterfly needs for the later tragic scenes — for most of the opera, she stands near the footlights so her voice can adequately project — Martinez strikes a lovely figure in a kimono, and she's a convincing actress as the girl who must grow up much too fast. While not abundant, her voice is immensely pleasing and terrifically sensual. Making his HGO debut as cad Pinkerton, tenor Joseph Calleja never quite comes into his own or shows any real passion. He never falters — he hits all those treacherous high notes — but he never fully excites, either. Levi Hernandez as wise but useless Consul Sharpless, Lucy Schaufer as Butterfly's unfailing maid Suzuki, and Rodell Rosel as the opportunistic Goro come off best. After so much hype, the much vaunted Tony Award-winning team of director Michael Grandage, set and costume designer Christopher Oram and lighting designer Neil Austin — who all won 2010 accolades for John Logan's Red on Broadway — gives us a Butterfly with an empty, ho-hum, minimalist look. There's a sweeping walkway, with some decorative pine tree cutouts for Act I and gray, misty side panels for Act II, as well as a useless turntable and a shoji screen that characters keep sliding open and closed. The staging doesn't do the beloved work justice, a tragedy in itself. Still, if you haven't seen it, go. Through November 7. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. 713-228-6737. — DLG

Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up The Alley Theatre is putting on a thrillingly buoyant production of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. While Peter may not fly through the Alley as imaginatively as he should — the aeronautics from ZFX, Inc. lack magic, and nobody seems troubled to camouflage the wiring — the spirited production still captures Barrie's sublime, dark, sad humor. No one writes like Barrie. What a strange, odd little man he was. Scalded at a young age by the death of his older brother and forever striving to get his mother's love, he remained in a state of arrested development. He adored children, to a fault, and if he were to appear today, his unabashed obsession with young boys — and a few girls, too — would raise countless red flags. This marvelous play contains all of Barrie's fixations: the wild boy who refuses to be tamed, intense motherly love, ineffectual fathers, dark whimsy, flights of fancy, filigreed language, no sex. The Alley's fine production, fetchingly directed by Gregory Boyd, is the 1982 Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation by John Caird and Trevor Nunn. It artfully combines the play's elaborate stage directions with descriptive passages from Peter and Wendy, Barrie's 1911 novelization of the play. This inventive approach creates a Storyteller (John Tyson) made up to look like Barrie, who draws us conspiratorially into the story with his quirky insights and wit. The RSC's biggest change is having Peter played by a man, or a man playing an adolescent boy forever on the cusp of manhood. Jay Sullivan as Peter is such a punk wild child, with spiky hair and feathery garb, that he carries off the masquerade with conviction. He's the very picture of petulant Peter's wanton disregard of feeling and perpetual forgetfulness. With him as leader of the gang, we'd join up instantly. Through October 31. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — DLG

Shrek the Musical Could someone please tell me why this appealingly entertaining musical was a bust on Broadway? It ran a year, but even that was way off DreamWorks' predictions of another prayed-for blockbuster like Disney's The Lion King or Stephen Schwartz's Wicked. The show has a stupendous pedigree: the 2001 mega hit cartoon, itself based upon the kiddie-lit hit by William Steig. The musical's strong book and lyrics are from Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole, Fuddy Meers, Wonder of the World), and the serviceable yet bouncy pop score is by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie; Caroline, or Change). Yes, the whole thing's no classic, but it's so delightfully silly and thoroughly adorable that this has to be the best show for kids since...well, since The Lion King and Wicked. The touring production is surprisingly spectacular, with Tim Hatley's cutout storybook sets and his fanciful Tony Award-winning costumes a colorful crazy quilt. Little Lord Farquaad (David F.M. Vaughn) — and I mean little, all three feet of him — is quite an eyeful, and the green prosthetics for ogre Shrek (Eric Petersen) look just like they do in the movie. The nose of Pinocchio (Blakely Slaybaugh) grows whenever he lies and the dancing rats of the Pied Piper are a sheer joy, but our favorite, Gingy (Aymee Garcia), is underbaked for the stage version. Nobody can match the peerless Eddie Murphy as motor-mouth Donkey, but Alan Mingo Jr. makes a kid-friendly, energetic wise-ass in the musical's watered-down version. Think of this as a "greatest hits": All your favorite toon bits are here, rendered more goofy because they're live. The kids around me had a roaring time with the farting and belching competition song between Shrek and Princess Fiona (Haven Burton). I did, too. So will you. Through October 31. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 800-982-2787. — DLG


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