Capsule Stage Reviews: May 1, 2014

Anna Christie Eugene O'Neill's drama about seafaring men, and their women on shore, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, and a 2011 production in London won the Olivier Award as Best Revival. The play opens at a waterfront bar in New York City, with bartender Larry (Taylor Biltoft) serving drinks to Chris Christopherson (Carl Masterson) and his live-in girlfriend, Marthy Owen (Barbara Dell), as they discuss a planned visit from Christopherson's daughter, Anna (Kelly Walker), whom he has not seen for two decades. Later scenes take place on the barge on which Christopherson lives. The play's ongoing dynamic is confrontations, first between Chris and Marthy, then between Chris and Anna, then between Anna and Mat Burke (Brian Heaton), a shipwrecked sailor Chris rescues from sea, and finally between Chris and Mat. English is a second language for Chris, so his speech lacks eloquence, but this is made up for by Mat, who is Irish, since his flow of words has the lilt of Irish music. The growth of Mat's relationship with Anna is the heart and soul of the play, but Anna has some experiences in her past that may prove to be a deal-breaker. Walker as Anna is magnificent, giving us toughness and vulnerability, and providing the good looks the script demands. Heaton as Mat creates a human being pulsing with vibrant life, fighting for happiness with determination and courage. Masterson successfully captures the self-deception and timidity of Chris. Dell as Marthy appears only in the first scene, but generates excitement in a vivid role, and Biltoft is excellent as Larry, listening as skillfully as he speaks. Lisa Schofield directed with intelligence and pace, and found the rhythm of the sea and the throbbing insecurities and desperate human needs O'Neill's genius has given us. Don't miss this. Through May 3. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — JJT

Carmen If there's one opera in the rep that lends itself to a Broadway makeover, it's Georges Bizet's evergreen and surprisingly modern tale of bad girl Carmen and her wayward love life. In its original 1875 form, the piece had spoken dialogue between the music passages, what the French called an opéra-comique, what we now call a musical. Even when sung through, as is this Houston Grand Opera co-production with San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, Carmen's still like a Broadway show. A very great one. You can't beat the irresistible numbers that keep coming one after another. Carmen's opening song, the slinky "Habanera" that descends the scale as she brazenly sings, "love is like a wanton bird that no one can tame," or, soon to follow, her equally famous "Seguidilla," in which she entices naive soldier Don Jose to her favorite tavern, where she promises she will dance for him, along with other unsaid promises. Has any show had a racier beginning? We're hooked with these characters. Carmen lives by her own terms and makes no excuses. When she tires of a lover, she finds another. Unfortunately for her, she falls for an ordinary guy, and his conventionality ultimately drives him nuts with jealousy and possessiveness. Although in the arms of Escamillo, famous and respectable at last, she sealed her fate when she first fell for Don Jose. The hits never stop. Egocentric matador Escamillo, smitten by fiery Carmen, enters with his famous "Toreador Song," parodied in perpetuity as "Toreador, don't spit on the floor, use the cuspidor, that's what it's for..." (That was awfully funny in fourth grade!) As in any good show, there's plenty of opportunity for dancing. Tony Award-winning director/choreographer Rob Ashford (Thoroughly Modern Millie) has an artist's eye for the pictorial and how to stage an effective crowd scene. The idea of the bull symbol (international "bad boy of ballet" Rasta Thomas), popping up whenever Carmen's "fate" motif is heard, is a bit of unnecessary overkill, but the pyrotechnical toreadors and those mantilla-draped señoritas with their clothesline-length skirts, thanks to costumier Julie Weiss, add immense color to the sun-drenched minimal vistas designed by David Rockwell and lit to perfection by Donald Holder. Houston favorite and soprano Ana Maria Martinez makes a dazzling gypsy gal. Her previously lyric voice has darkened into shimmering velvet and has added even more luminous luster. If there were an ad for this production, it might proclaim, "she sings, she dances, she flashes plenty of leg, she gets slapped twice, she's thrown into a wall, she's dragged across the stage and hauled onto a table, and looks sexy as hell." Martinez is the most physical Carmen since operatic superstar Geraldine Farrar in Cecil B. DeMille's silent classic from 1915. She is fearless. Wily and smart, her Carmen doesn't care about rules and propriety. When she commits, she expects her lover to do the same. If he falters, she's out of there. It's all there in her radiant voice. If Martinez is spectacular as Carmen, tenor Brandon Jovanovich is a revelation as Don Jose with his full-throttle voice, silvery timbre and immaculate technique. Within recent memory and a lifetime of Carmens, he's the only singer I've yet heard who makes the character of Jose fully credible. He makes this arc not only through his powerful acting, but through that plangent voice that can roar, whisper, declaim and coo. Is there anything he can't sing without distinction? He meshes perfectly with Martinez. They send off sparks. Baritone Ryan McKinny, having just smashed through the mists as impetuous god of thunder Donner in HGO's visually sumptuous Das Rheingold, adds another fine interpretation to his increasing opera rep as Carmen's new man in town. Although his resonant baritone doesn't have all the necessary heft to entirely fill the cavernous Wortham, his Escamillo is a picture-book matador. If you've never seen Carmen live onstage, this HGO production is the one to see. Steamy, provocative and thoroughly entertaining, it's the ultimate in gypsy love. If only Bizet had hung on for another 140 years, he'd have loved this show! May 2, 4m, 8, 10. 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

Olive and the Bitter Herbs Playwright Charles Busch's fame rests chiefly on his Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, a five-year off-Broadway hit, and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, on Broadway in 2000 with critical acclaim and commercial success. This portrayed a midlife marital crisis, and Busch returned to this theme in 2011 with Olive and the Bitter Herbs, though Olive Fisher is long past middle age. Olive is a curmudgeon, a kvetcher at war with her neighbors in a Kips Bay co-op, but Lee Raymond brings a sense of humor to the role, as well as considerable warmth and charm, and makes Olive likable. The plot hinges on a ghost seen in a mirror in Olive's apartment. Olive's friend, Wendy, tries to nurture her, and Nora Hahn captures this friendship in a low-key but endearing portrait. Sylvan (Robert Lowe) is a contemporary of Olive in age, and Lowe brings quiet, upbeat charm to the role, and his sweetness at least temporarily thaws Olive's feisty spirit. The remaining two characters are a gay couple living in the co-op, Robert (Terry Jones) and Trey (Jay Menchaca), self-described as a "nasty, alcoholic queen." While Menchaca gives an over-the-top rendition of bitchiness. Jones is excellent as the more responsible of the duo, though his character becomes unappetizing with later revelations. Olive is an actor whose fame is based on a long-gone sausage commercial, and a gig in a television episode permits a tedious TV-watching scene. Olive hosts a Passover Seder, which seems suspiciously like "padding." There are some laughs, and director Suzanne King has gone a long way toward making the scripting semi-plausible. Gifted playwright Busch has come a cropper here, but good acting and direction keep the raft afloat, aided strongly by a totally engaging performance by Lee Raymond. Through May 10. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Drive, 281-253-3488. — JJT

Really Really This is a college-age drama about the ambitious young, written when playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo was himself in college. The play's intent is to illustrate what self-serving, untrustworthy, deceptive, lying sneaks this generation is. The split set is excellent, showing on one side the small house that Grace (Rachel Rubin) shares with Leigh (Teresa Zimmermann), and on the other the apartment that Cooper (Blake Weir) shares with Davis (Scott Gibbs). The other characters are Johnson (Dominique Champion), an African American classmate and friend of Davis; Jimmy (James Monaghan), the boyfriend of Leigh; and Leigh's sister, Haley (Chelsea Sarratt), who comes to visit Leigh. Davis is admired by his friends for being a nice guy, but a vicious, out-of-control side is revealed in an event late in the play. He slept with Leigh, Jimmy's girlfriend, at a drunken party, but has had a blackout, and doesn't recall what happened. Leigh remembers, but is her version the truth? Cooper has a deal in which he can live on campus without going to any classes, but must "choose sides" to keep this deal. Johnson likes video games, but is just there as an example of self-serving ambition. Jimmy has a manipulative side, and seems too easily manipulated by Leigh for someone who seemingly has it all together. Chelsea Sarratt as Haley provides a high-energy, boisterous personality, the life of the party. Rachel Rubin as Grace has the hapless task of delivering lecture-monologues in seminars about "getting ahead." Leigh is the enigma, but we never really see her Machiavellian mind at work. Colaizzo has Noel Coward's talent to amuse, but hasn't added tight plotting or plausible motivations. But his writing has inspired the gifted Black Lab Theatre to give him a superior production, well-cast, with a brilliant set. Through May 3. Frenetic Theatre, 5102 Navigation, 713-515-4028. — JJT


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