Capsule Stage Reviews: RENT, Three Murders and It's Only Monday, Who Was That Masked Man?
RENT The rock musical RENT, inspired by La Bohème, recreates Manhattan's East Village, with its poverty, artistic drive and the ever-present specter of AIDS. But in the Stage Door production, the exuberant joy of living bursts through the grime to make this a celebration of life, love and the transforming power even of death. This production succeeds in creating a Dickensian world populated by fully drawn, flesh-and-blood characters. Director Marc Anthony Glover has staged it so brilliantly that the audience is transported totally into the world created by Jonathan Larson, who wrote the music and lyrics — and died on the day of the 1996 off-Broadway premiere. Glover is aided enormously by the superb set he created with Dario Failla; the set seems unobtrusive but comes to exciting life as its multiple levels are put to dramatic use. The cast is huge, and almost all the ensemble acting is breathtakingly good. Leslie Sharp as Mimi singlehandedly covers every inch of the stage in a vocal and dramatic tour-de-force. She is authentic and riveting, as is Alexandra Musgrove as political activist Maureen, who has a lover but hasn't quite grasped the concept of fidelity. Patrick Barton has strength as both a singer and an actor, and brings emotional depth to his role as Angel's lover. Robert Pimentel plays the young Angel with sensitivity and warmth, wearing his stunning drag outfits with poise and style. Almost all the costumes, by Paula Malik and Susie Sutton, are exciting, and the complicated lighting, by Glover and Failla, is highly effective. The production delivers so much pleasure that it may be churlish to find fault — but I will, anyway. As documentary filmmaker Mark, Bryan Burleigh seems out of place in the seething maelstrom of pulsing humanity elsewhere onstage. He has altar-boy good looks, and sports glasses and a blue-and-white scarf so big it wears him instead of the other way around. It all seems oddly preppy for Avenue B, where it's considered suburban to wear matching socks. Jimmy Brady plays songwriter Roger, and he has a powerful stage presence and a wonderful voice; with these gifts, it's not necessary to "sell" the acting, which should be invisible. And I didn't feel the poignancy of his yearning for one great song. None of this detracts from the wonderful staging, including the death and funeral of Angel, both of which could hardly have been presented more effectively. Jonathan Larson would be proud. Through August 14. 284 Pasadena Town Square Mall, 832-582-7606. — JJT
Three Murders and It's Only Monday Prolific playwright Pat Cook, a resident of Houston, knows the mystery genre to a fare-thee-well and spoofs it entertainingly in Three Murders and It's Only Monday. Revered conventions are shattered to smithereens as the fourth wall is not only breached but assaulted with devastating comic force. Detective Harry Monday, well played by Christopher Roney, dominates the proceedings. Roney creates the desired film noir ambience, wearing a worn fedora with a snap brim as though born with it on. The down-on-his-luck detective's pants aren't even close to matching his jacket, perfectly capturing his financial straits. But he is as adept at ferreting out killers as he is at marching downstage to brief the entranced audience on developments. The audience is not only loyal, it verges on devout — a recurring plot event is a generator failure that darkens the stage, and when this occurs the audience bursts into applause as though an especially well played scene has just ended. This is not always the case, as some of the performers are better than the others, and a tone of woodenness occasionally mars the goings-on. The acting, rather than being ensemble, has the tone of "every man for himself"; since this is a satire, it works better than one might expect. The plot, of course, involves a will and beneficiaries being killed. The dialogue is deliberately obtuse — one example will suffice: A scream is heard. "What was that?!" "A scream." Joey Hancock displays admirable enthusiasm as an American Indian, and Glenn Ropiequet has a powerful stage presence as Dr. Morrissey. Crystal Stampes finds her evil twin in a bravura ending involving a knife pointed directly at an audience member. Cheryl Mills wears long white gloves with aplomb but is given little to do. One actor has movie-star looks but not a glimmering of how to project her voice for the stage. The entire cast is adept at ducking for cover or hitting the floor whenever a gun is brandished, which is often. And the yearning to break the fourth wall themselves is realized in a hilarious passage. The proceedings are directed by Larry Ransberger, who finds the humor. It is very entertaining. Sit back and savor — this is a spoof, not Agatha Christie — and even the awkward moments will surprise and possibly delight. Through August 20. Playhouse 1960, 6814 Gant Rd., 281-587-8243. — JJT
Who Was That Masked Man? The term "meller-drammer" says it all — outlandish acting, deliberately exaggerated actions, simple plots, a mustachioed villain and a damsel in distress. Hisses at the villain were encouraged, as were cheers for the hero, and Theatre Suburbia capped it all by providing popcorn to throw at the cast, who sometimes threw it back. An uncomplicated set permitted something like a theater-in-the-round arrangement, and a bar in Slick Willy's Saloon doubled as a teller's cage for the local bank. The widow (tearfully well-played in the expected histrionic mode by Susan O'Connor) was slated to lose her home to the evil bank president whose mustache and black cape are certain emblems of villainy. Glenn Dodson played the morally challenged villain with confidence, but I did miss some of the lip-smacking relish and the savoring of pure evil that's the traditional hallmark of roles such as these. I especially liked Donna Dixon, who played the barmaid in an attractive red gown with eye shadow to match, and who dominated the stage with her powerful self-assurance. Daniel Corrigan was great as the dim-witted, bungling sheriff, and he managed to add nuance — believe it or not — to his role. Amesti Reioux played the widow's daughter — she can flutter a mean eyelid, nailed the ingenue smile and made us want to protect her virtue from the inevitable assault. The young Andrew Miles was effective as the Magnolia Kid, a gunslinger dressed in black but with so much cherry-red jacket fringe that I feared it might slow down his quick draw. The hero was the Masked Man, played by James Plake, and, while I found him unconvincing as the hero, he came to life in a dance routine in a dress — no, not cross-dressing, just a disguise. There was more dancing in the play, including an energetic, engaging can-can by a woman well past the first blush of youth. And there was singing as well, by the cast and the audience — a song-sheet was provided with the program, though the songs are familiar classics. The entire cast worked well together under the able direction of Doris Merten, creating a world of high jinks and low humor that, much to my surprise, I came to believe in. The events were enhanced by Alice Smith's appropriate piano accompaniment. Nineteenth-century histrionics were displayed shamelessly onstage in a fun-filled performance, and unless you're a curmudgeon by nature, you'll enjoy it. See it — you may exit with popcorn in your hair, but there will be a smile on your lips. Through August 27. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Dr., 713-682-3525. — JJT
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