Capsule Stage Reviews: Next to Normal, Travelsty, Twelve Angry Men, What We're Up Against

Next to Normal The regional premiere of the rock musical Next to Normal has opened at Stages Repertory Theatre, giving us a vehicle of pure entertainment that will break your heart as well. Diana is wed to Dan, and they live with their daughter, 16-year-old Natalie. Diana is bipolar, and the disease is progressing. Happy McPartlin plays Diana, and she is understated, endearing and powerful as she grapples with unmapped territory in her mind. Brad Goertz captures her endlessly patient husband Dan with humor, charm and heart. The brilliant director Melissa Rain Anderson and Stages have created a kaleidoscope of a set that works wonderfully. The pace is comedy, but soon the gravity of Diana's condition takes center stage. Natalie is played by Rebekah Stevens, who's required to portray primarily petulance and rebellion. Tyler Berry Lewis plays her brother Gabe, required to be sullen and vaguely menacing, and nailing that. The day is saved by young Henry, steadfastly in love with Natalie, and Mark Ivy brings an attractive sweetness to the role. Kregg Alan Dailey plays two doctors, and his tall authority serves the roles well. The music by Tom Kitt is virtually continuous, with standouts: "I'm Perfect for You," "I Am the One," "Make Up Your Mind" and "Why Stay? A Promise!" Lyricist Brian Yorkey had created a perfect combination — achingly deep involvement with ironic distance — that serves the work admirably, making it vibrate with the pulse of life, poignant and heartbreaking, and likely to be etched in the memory of viewers. Brilliant direction, a galloping pace and powerful acting make an award-winning musical thoroughly enjoyable and deeply moving, in a triumphant production not to be missed. Through June 24. 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JJT

Travelsty Two couples travel around the country, singing about various states or cities, and through the alchemy of talent and showmanship turn this slight material into a totally entertaining two hours of pure pleasure. The setting is cabaret, with the talented four-piece band G Sharp and the MBT 3, and refreshments are available. The concept is minor, but the skits that bridge the songs — all original writing — range from merely pleasant to absolutely hilarious. Three of the skits had punch lines that seemed to come out of the blue, but paid off so well I was blown away. The gifted performers are Rebekah Dahl and Brad Scarborough, married in real life and founders of The Music Box Theater, and Cay Taylor and Luke Wrobel, and after journeying cross-country with them, I'm calling them by their given names. All are attractive, and work well together in harmony and in the choreography supporting the songs. Rebekah is tall and blond, Cay is medium height and dark, Luke looks like an American David Niven, and Brad has movie star looks but excels here as a comedic actor. He plays briefly several singers in a skit about Record #17 of Tony Bennett's Duets — it's fast-paced and huge fun. A recurring thread has them all in a car, Luke driving and Brad in the passenger seat, with the ladies behind. They also travel by rail and, hilariously, by plane. Videos accompany the opening and closing songs and add fun, but the show's triumph is the ensemble acting that creates a sense of friends off on a madcap odyssey. Four strong performers and a witty script weave familiar pop hits into a thoroughly pleasurable evening, a must-see for cabaret aficionados and for music lovers of any stripe. Through August 5. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — JJT

Twelve Angry Men A much loved and admired jury-room drama, Twelve Angry Men is brought to exciting life at UpStage Theatre. Sherman L. Sergel adapted the Emmy-winning Reginald Rose teleplay for the stage in 1955, and its popularity has continued ever since. Opening weekend is the traditional male cast, with all-female jurors in Week Two (Twelve Angry Women) and with six men and six women in Week Three (Twelve Angry Jurors.) The deft touch of director Ann Richie keeps the characters in motion, and she has found the rhythm that builds suspense. The situation is serious — a young man on trial for killing his father — but the script provides ironic twists and humor as well. The initial vote to convict is almost unanimous, 11 to 1, but a holdout is Juror #8, Arnold Richie, who captures the calm demeanor appropriate for a man of reason but also conveys the tenacity and eloquence that make him formidable. The most ardent spokesperson for a guilty verdict is Juror #3, Jack Dunlop, who provides a vivid, gripping characterization. These two have the largest roles, but Reginald Rose gives each juror a moment of prominence, and the actors rise to the occasion. The production is totally professional, and Richie has found the heart in the drama. With 12 very different personalities clashing, they achieve ensemble acting that puts us into the jury room, yearning to join the debate. This production clicks on all cylinders — acting, direction, pace and humor — and provides an exciting evening of suspense and drama as emotions rise, secrets are revealed and tempestuous outbursts draw us into the life-and-death struggle onstage. Through June 2. Twelve Angry Women: May 25 and 26. Twelve Angry Jurors: June 1 and 2. Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-838-7191. — JJT

What We're Up Against You've come a long way, baby (that would be playwright Theresa Rebeck), especially if you want to prove that you, too, can write like David Mamet, scouring the wallpaper off the Alley Theatre's Neuhaus Stage with profanity while exposing gender inequities in the workplace. Rebeck's comedy is all that, but not much more. Adapted from her intense but short two-character one-acter (1992), which was a sharp dissection of bully-boy tactics in the work environment, Rebeck's fleshed-out play has the heady whiff of ancient feminist history. It's set "in the present" but feels like 20 years ago, if not longer, as if the gender politics are entrenched in the era of Betty Friedan. But Rebeck's skill lies in the accuracy of the scalpel as she dissects with sting and gusto the workplace, whether one is female or not. Forget the gender gap, it's how we interact — intimidate, cow, bully, schmooze and brownnose — that's so comically depicted. We laugh at the revealing sad truth in this. Hired as a "protégée" of the firm's CEO, prickly Eliza (Julia Motyka) enters this testosterone-filled den of architects and immediately butts heads with Stu (David Andrew Macdonald), the firm's manager, who's stuck in prehistoric times with his palpable condescension. Eliza's put into a broom closet of an office and not given any projects to work on. She's terribly gifted and terribly obnoxious, knowing full well she's "eight times as talented" as any of the office "boneheads" — pro Ben (David Rainey), clueless Weber (Chris Hutchison) and female token Janice (Nancy Lemenager). The intricacies of office politics get rich comic treatment as loyalties shift within scenes. The cast is well-nigh perfect, doing the best that can be done with these sketchy "types," and director Scott Schwartz keeps everything and everyone moving, which is a good thing since Rebeck stalls too often with her off-balance mix of girl-power, glass ceiling and sitcom office comedy. Through June 10. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. — DLG

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