Rigoletto Sly maestro that he was, composer Giuseppe Verdi wrote the role of the libertine, sex-obsessed Duke of Mantua as a tenor, making the character thoroughly detestable yet giving him the most passionate, flying melodies about free love. The Duke is forever seducing the wives of his courtiers, all while cocking one eye toward someone new. His jester Rigoletto makes fun of the hapless cuckolds, but underneath he really hates his work. When the Duke makes a play for Rigoletto's virginal daughter and succeeds, all hell breaks loose. This opera masterpiece from 1851 is blessed by a ripping good yarn, psychologically believable characters and situations. It's also scored to some of Verdi's most luscious tunes. Houston Grand Opera mounts a staggeringly effective production with a cast of fresh, young singers who give this operatic chestnut a wondrous facelift. Conductor Patrick Summers does Verdi fast and furious, which works like gangbusters. Michael Yeargan's clever expanding-box set, Peter J. Hall's sumptuous costumes and, especially, Paul Pyant's dramatic chiaroscuro lighting, straight from a Rembrandt canvas, bring out the work's elemental power. With searing intensity, baritone Scott Hendricks gives the unlucky jester a father's big heart; soprano Albina Shagimuratova, with her crystalline voice, conveys Gilda's dewy freshness and rash choice of lovers with ease; tenor Eric Cutler is the sexiest of Dukes and romps through his signature arias as if walking on clouds; and bass Andrea Silvestrelli booms out his assassin's insinuations and threats like the real thing. This is one of the best Rigolettos in memory, a production that would make Verdi smile in appreciation. Through May 2. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG
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The Seven Year Itch Hurry to Theatre Southwest if you want to see a star being born. Come to think of it, there may be more than one. None are novices, to be sure, but they radiate like supernovas in George Axelrod's adroit, adult, laugh-out-loud comedy of manners. If you've seen the Billy Wilder 1955 funfest with Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell (a Tony winner for his stage performance), you know this classic tale about sad-sack married Richard, left alone during the summer doldrums, who fantasizes about an affair with the bombshell upstairs. The movie prudishly eliminated the actual one-night stand that occurs in Axelrod's original, but the rich laughs and insight only deepen onstage. Under Mimi Holloway's crafty direction, and flawlessly cast, this is one of Theatre Southwest's most proficient productions. Lloyd Clingman is rumpled perfection as Richard, as he debates with himself over attempting a tryst that is bound to fail, or at least to be found out by faithful wife Helen (Malinda L. Beckham). Hey, maybe she's not so faithful after all, since she's sharing a summer with seductive writer Tom (James Reed), who's forever on the prowl whenever Helen's nearby. Psychiatrist and wannabe author Dr. Brubaker (John Kaiser) warns Richard of impending doom while hoping for more clients. But then there's that girl upstairs (Kate Nelson), and what a girl! In Richard's initial fantasy, she's sophisticated and poured into an ice-blue beaded gown — curves for days. When she actually shows up to apologize for dropping an iron-potted tomato plant smack where he had been sitting not moments ago, she's all creamy and peachy, the girl next door who innocently sets hearts aflutter. Later, after dinner with Richard, she appears in a summer halter top, bubbly, ready for fun and not all that innocent after all. Who could resist? Nelson, and the others, light up the stage as if pyromaniacs. Catch this show before the flames go out. Through May 2. 8944-A Clarkcrest. 713-661-9505. — DLG