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Capsule Stage Reviews: May 15, 2014

Evita There are always reasons to revisit Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's operatic treatment of the life of Eva Perón, now brightly burning under Theatre Under the Stars' presentation of this Broadway revival from 2012. You might want to hear "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" again, or see the iconic image of Ms. Perón, arrayed in sparkly Dior, standing with arms outstretched on the presidential balcony as she delivers the musical's signature number. Maybe you want to see what the dancers can do during the hot "Buenos Aires" samba. Perhaps you want to revisit the haunting ballad "Another Suitcase in Another Town," where you might find the next Broadway star-to-be singing the ingenue role, bumped out of Perón's bed by the rising, opportunistic Evita. Maybe you want to see if the spectacle of "A New Argentina" with its chorus of the "descamisados," the shirtless ones, Argentina's lower classes, can match the banner-waving torch parade so memorable from the Harold Prince original. Some of you may be in a bitchy enough mood to want to test this latest incarnation of "Argentina's First Lady" and dare her to top Patti LuPone, Broadway's original Evita in 1979. These are all good and true reasons to revisit Evita whenever she makes a comeback (and this is one Andrew Lloyd Webber show that will always be around for another look), but there is one overwhelming reason to see this version — the performance of Josh Young as Che. This compact powerhouse, a Tony nominee in 2012 for his Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, is the real deal, a genuine Broadway star. He's responsible for taking this top-notch production even higher. His rich and resonant voice can wail like a rock star or croon like Crosby. His diction is impeccable. Not even the blinding-white heat of Evita can draw your eyes away from him. When he's not onstage, the place is darker. He makes the ironic "everyman" Che, the show's snarky narrator, its heart and soul. This doesn't turn the musical upside down so much as right it, keeping Evita just out of our reach, a woman of shady mystery upon whom we can drape all sorts of motives. The creators keep her at arm's length, too, which is one of the show's problems, as Evita is fairly unlikable, more whore than Madonna, sleeping her way to the top, the ultimate hypocrite, playing to the poor and raking in the cash. It's an unenviable role, except it's so iconic in Broadway history. It's also difficult to pull off, since the vocal range goes all over the map, from purr to shriek. Caroline Bowman looks great, a bit like Joan Crawford in the early scenes when she's a brunette, and she can tango like a pro and sing at the same time without looking winded, no small feat. Compared to the clarity of Young and Sean MacLaughlin's Perón (a second-banana role if ever there was one — poor Perón has nothing much to do except bump off his opponents and then moon around in the background as Evita takes center stage), however, her diction is nonexistent. I couldn't understand half of Tim Rice's amazingly felicitous lyrics. That is not a good thing. This 2012 revival streamlines the bloat from the original Hal Prince production, adds a bit more choreography by Rob Ashford, and looks and moves impressively under Michael Grandage's slick direction, Christopher Oram's Beaux-Arts arched setting and apt costumes, and Neil Austin's pinspot lighting. But without Young's certifiable star turn as Che, this Evita is more grounded than "High Flying, Adored," as the song goes. Through May 18. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — DLG

Heartbreak House George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House, set in 1913, is a wonderful comedy of delightful cynicism. The setting is the large estate of Captain Shotover, excellently played by Charles Krohn. Shotover savors his rum, and is forgetful, but is often wise, except for wanting to blow up the world. Shotover's older daughter, Hesione Hushabye, is portrayed by Celeste Roberts, in a truly magnificent performance, commanding the stage with charm. She's married to the dashingly handsome Hector Hushabye, played by Joe Kirkendall, who makes the most of the role. Ellie Dunn (Joanna Hubbard) has been invited to the estate in order for Hesione to dissuade her from marrying Boss Mangan (Jim Salners), an older man who's apparently very wealthy. Salners is outstanding, handling a complex role with dexterity. Ellie is marrying for security, but is really in love with a man who turns out to be...Hector. Shotover's younger daughter left decades ago, but returns as Lady Ariadne Utterword. Portrayed by Elizabeth Marshall Black, she is beautiful, and is drawn to Hector, and he to her. Ellie is accompanied by Mazzini Dunn, assumed to be her father, though in fact he's her uncle. Ariadne arrived with her husband's younger brother, Randall Utterword (Joel Sandel), a tearful wreck of a human being. A rather clumsy third act, rather than wrapping things up, dynamites us into a different play resembling Theatre of the Absurd. But nothing can spoil the rich joy of the first two acts as a witty, mischievous playwright makes serious points about human nature and the idiocy of the upper classes. Director Rebecca Greene Udden has found the comedy's rich humor and sardonic wit. Through June 1. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706. — JJT

 

The Whipping Man The final moments of Matthew Lopez's thrillingly theatrical The Whipping Man, now smoldering inside Stages Repertory Theatre, now bursting into scalding flame, are silent. Two young men, one laid out on a ratty divan, one dressed to leave the war-ravaged house, share a bottle of whiskey. After all that has come before, we don't know what will happen next. It's just as likely for the whiskey to go flying, smashing into someone's head. John, a young black man (Joseph Palmore), reels back into the house. He wants to leave; he has threatened to leave and has big plans to go up north, but he can't quite make that first step. He's free at last, but what's he to do? Caleb (Ross Bautsch), the young white man recuperating on the couch, pulls him back. As he has done so many times before, John pulls out that whiskey bottle and takes a drink, sitting across from Caleb. After a pause, wherein we can fill in all sorts of meaning, he moves closer and hands the bottle to Caleb. The gesture, replete with resignation and acceptance and forgiveness, is everything. The drama ends on this quiet note, an enigmatic gesture that sums up the great themes Lopez has intertwined — freedom, liberation, personal choice, religious belief and, most important, scars from the past, both psychic and graphically physical. The healing has just begun for these two "peas in a pod," as they're described by stalwart house steward Simon (Shawn Hamilton) before he, too, rushes off into that rainy night in search of his missing wife and daughter. The "well-made" The Whipping Man, quickly making playwright Matthew Lopez's reputation as it burns through the stages of America, scorches anew at Stages. After the play's finish, you're likely to look up to see if the roof is still there. Dramatic reversals and revelations come swift and powerful, like Grant's bombardment of Richmond, which has left that city in ruins and all but deserted. These three men now tentatively share what's left of the house and what John can "liberate" from their neighbors' property. Newly freed, Simon and John are still slaves of their past, while Caleb, dependent upon them after a brutal amputation, has had his independence horribly curtailed. Perhaps the most surprising twist of all is that the family and their former slaves are Jewish. Faith drives Simon, whose celebration of Passover ironically occurs when victory is declared at Appomattox, but is tempered by the news that Lincoln has been assassinated. He is the play's bedrock, and Hamilton is downright magnificent: wise, stoic and seething underneath with a prophet's righteous anger. He is matched by Bautsch's pain-wracked Caleb and Palmore's scallywag of John. This three-man cast, dredging up the past that forever haunts the present, keeps Lopez's finely etched period drama aboil and exceptionally fragrant. Under Seth Gordon's tightly paced direction, the drama takes time for comedy (the horse-meat-eating scene is a little gem), but the big moments are fraught with edge-of-your-seat excitement. The amputation scene is shockingly conveyed not by the actual event but by Simon's autopsy-like description of exactly what's going to happen when he saws through bone, muscle and skin. You can almost smell the smoke and mold of the once-fine house laid bare in Jodi Bobrovsky's nuanced set design. Claremarie Verheyen's costumes are masterworks of the threadbare, of blood and soil. Renee Brode's lighting is exceptionally exquisite, echoing dim candlelight. Throughout this gripping drama, the dialogue crackles and spits. Freedom, so much desired and killed for, can become another set of chains if one doesn't know which path to take. Lopez thrillingly lays open the road, the festering wounds, the giddy rush of liberation toward that beacon now within reach. Stages gives us a tantalizing glimpse into this young playwright, whose other works we long to see. He has a fresh and startling voice. Stages sings his impassioned siren song in triumph. Through May 25. 3102 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — DLG

The Winter's Tale Under its sure, loving guidance, Stark Naked Theatre not only unleashes Shakespeare's complex fairy tale, but sets it soaring. Though it has been branded for centuries as one of his "problem" plays, when you experience it as imagined by Stark Naked, there's no problem to it at all. One of Shakespeare's richest works, Tale abounds with dark sexual overtones and jealousy run amok during the wintry court scenes in Sicilia, then completely sails into pastoral romance for Acts III and IV, set 16 years later in sunny Bohemia, where Shakespeare beguiles with some of his most inspired love lyrics. All is set right in Act V when the Bohemians and Sicilians intermingle and usher in springtime's redemption, during which lost loves are reunited. There are still clouds, however, this being Shakespeare, for while time might heal wounds, scars remain. Leontes, king of Sicilia (Philip Lehl), and Polixenes, king of Bohemia (Luis Galindo), are boyhood friends. "Twinn'ed lambs...that did frisk in the sun and bleat...to be boy eternal." His stay over, Polixenes yearns to return to Bohemia. Leontes can't convince him to remain, but when Leontes's wife, Hermione (Tawny Stephens), very much pregnant, entreats him with kisses and tender embraces, he relents. Before you can say "Othello and Iago," Leontes suspects the worst between them. "Too hot, too hot," he cries. He spins out of control, hardening with jealousy, and accuses faultless Hermione of infidelity. Rampaging Leontes imprisons his wife, conspires to have Polixenes killed and then later, when Hermione has given birth to a daughter, orders the baby taken far away to be left to die. Even the Oracle at Delphos, who proclaims Hermione's innocence, will not assuage Leontes's terribly misguided judgment. But when young son Mamillius (Shunté Lofton) dies of grief and Hermione's death is reported, Leontes is stunned into realizing the horrible consequences of his actions. He will mourn forever, crying daily at their graves. Stalwart lady-in-waiting Paulina (Courtney Lomelo), perhaps knowing more than she lets on, is given rein to scorn and mock him. Meanwhile, baby Perdita has been rescued by a kindly Shepherd (Philip Lehl) and his dim but generous son Clown (Matt Lents). Now begins Tale's sunny part, with its sheep-shearing festival, bounteous word images of flowers, and the two young lovers in rhapsodic transport. In cyclical fashion, Polixenes's son, Prince Florizel (Matt Lents), disguising his royal lineage, has fallen hard for shepherdess Perdita (Shunté Lofton), the abandoned daughter of Leontes. The nimble cast of eight portray many characters in Stark Naked's "bare-bones" rendition. One of Houston's most admired interpreters of Shakespeare, Lehl directs his first Shakespearean production with flare and an inspiring touch. Through May 16. 1824 Spring, 832-866-6514 — DLG


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