Capsule Stage Reviews: The Ballad of Emmett Till, The Drunken City, La Traviata, Shadowlands

The Ballad of Emmett Till The brutal murder by two white men of 14-year old Emmett Till, an African-American, was a pivotal moment in America's Civil Rights movement, and this family chronicle captures the joy in his brief life and the inconsolable tragedy of his death. The simple set includes a screening area for slide projections which vividly remind us that this is1955 in the South, place us in a car on a dirt road, and allow us to witness, in blood-red silhouette, the murder itself. The five brilliant actors play multiple roles (though Joseph "JoeP" Palmore plays only Emmett himself), creating humor, poignancy, a sense of foreboding and the steely acceptance that led to an open casket. The women are Lee Waddell and Rachel Hemphill Dickson, and the men are Broderick "Brod J" Jones and Kendrick "Kay" Brown, and all are consummate actors. Palmore as Emmett emanates youthful brashness and spontaneity, an openness to adventure and a fierce pride in his carefully brushed white bucks, and we learn to like and admire him in a series of scenes that portray his life in South Chicago and in Mississippi visiting relatives. Emmett innocently steps "out of line" from the viewpoint of Mississippi racists, and events unfold not unlike a Greek tragedy. The emotional power of this work, which has garnered multiple awards, is staggering, and playwright Ifa Bayeza has shown remarkable skill in condensing a powerful story into a tale so intimate and enthralling, directed by Elizabeth Van Dyke with flawless taste and impressive compassion. A powerful human drama captures the rich, loving life of a family as it experiences the tragic loss of its son, in a beautifully crafted play with inspired acting and direction. This is must-see theater, with a compelling, universal story that will engage the hearts of everyone. Through February 26. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-1269. — JJT

The Drunken City Three gals and three guys, late twenties, meet by chance on the streets of New York in the wee hours of the morning after a night of drinking, and seek to negotiate the shoals of relationships. Playwright Adam Bock has taken a risk putting three tipsy ladies on stage. Melissa is bossy and judgmental, and Avery K. Twitchell-Heyne brings her to life. Linda (Faith Shapiro) is more easygoing and enjoys her drinks a little too much. Marnie (Elena White) is celebrating her bachelorette party prior to marrying Gary, about whom she is having second thoughts. Enter Eddie (Aaron Tallman), an enthusiastic, tap-dancing youth who's had more than a few but holds it well; he is joined by buddy Frank (Nicholas Riggall), tall, handsome and carrying a torch for his ex. Frank and Marnie develop an instant rapport, and when they kiss, the City tilts — scenic and projection designer Matthew Schlief makes this delightfully possible. The girls work at the Sunshine Bakery, owned by Bob (Matt Banks), who enters midway in the play. In a prologue, the ladies show off engagement rings, and in a longer epilogue, issues are resolved and hangovers nursed, but the main event is the chance meeting in Manhattan. The comedy has charm, authenticity and humor. A few perceptions rise to the level of insights, and it ends with a prolonged and endearing curtain call. Director Justin Doran has turned a highly contemporary script into an interesting comedic romp, a lighthearted look at the young and their search for satisfying relationships. Combined with some wonderful special effects, solid acting and excellent direction, it makes for an amusing 85 minutes of comedy. Through February 11. Hamman Hall, Rice University, 6100 Main, Rice Blvd., 713-348-7529. — JJT

La Traviata Giuseppe Verdi's operatic masterpiece about life and love in the demimonde of 19th-century Paris, while tastefully sung in HGO's production, never fires up the necessary abandon nor catches the great passion needed to set this work aflame. Borrowed from Lyric Opera of Chicago, the production is no beauty, one of veteran stage designer Desmond Heeley's off works. Faded and musty-colored, it looks covered in dust. We're supposed to be inside Violetta's fevered dream. We know this because during Verdi's ethereal prelude, Violetta, on her deathbed divan, is haunted by her ghostly doppelganger. Whenever Violetta is wracked by coughs or stricken by some fatal premonition, she's plagued by this ghost lady holding out a camellia blossom. This is mighty ineffective. Meanwhile, the chorus is doing the slo-mo boogie in the background like bad Fellini outtakes. Aren't we degenerate, they hiss. See us writhe. Coming up through the ranks of HGO's studio program, soprano Albina Shagimuratova, like mezzo Joyce DiDonato, is a success story and house favorite. A natural coloratura, she can blaze through signature roles and toss off high Fs with flawless technique. There's no denying the beauty of her voice, even though its color hardly varies. But as an actress who's supposed to draw a dramatic character, she's a bit of a dull pencil. Verdi demands a complete person. A prodigious voice wows us, but Violetta must move us. Violetta's lover Alfredo fares better. Tenor Bryan Hymel was thrown into this drab production a little over a week ago when tenor David Lomeli fell ill. Hymel has done a tremendous job; Brad Shelton will take over for the show's final performances. Hymel has a clean, open sound, a real throwback to the voices of the '50s, like Mario Del Monaco. He sings like a real guy. Verdi and librettist Francesco Piave fashioned Alexandre Dumas's tale into a classic triangle. Violetta is the apex, and Alfredo and his father Germont share the base. It's Germont who, as bastion of middle-class morality, sets the plot in motion by convincing Violetta to give up Alfredo. While baritone Giovanni Meoni is always deeply expressive, especially in the lilting barcarole "Di Provenza," he still seems a decade too young to be Hymel's father. Verdi's masterpiece as presented by HGO, while not definitive, is worthy of attention. It's still Verdi, after all, and that's singing a mouthful. Through February 12. Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas, 713-237-1439. — DLG

Shadowlands British writer and intellectual C.S. Lewis, a confirmed bachelor, finds that love can come late in life, as he befriends, falls in love with and marries the American poet Joy Gresham. Male-centric Oxford in 1956 is dominated by Lewis with the strength of his personality, his intellectual vigor and his charm, captured by Steven Fenley in a commanding portrayal that grabs us by the throat and never lets go. Beth Lazarou portrays Gresham, with whom Lewis has corresponded but not met, and her intrusion in person into Lewis's life challenges the smug camaraderie of the group. Playwright William Nicholson is less skilled in drawing her — two separate confrontations, intended to show her intellectual gifts, come across instead as rude and argumentative. While we are convinced of Lewis's love for her, we don't see her love for Lewis — if, indeed, that exists, for it's possible to view this as one-sided, with Joy an opportunist gulling an emotionally starved academic. Lazarou, though polished and attractive, doesn't provide the warmth and charisma to bring Joy to life. Lewis's struggle to reconcile God with the evils of the world is here merely theology-lite, but neither of these flaws interferes with the rich, engaging satisfaction of this production. The handsome set by Trey Otis permits smooth transitions, the costumes by Macy Perrone are authentically shabby, the lighting design by Daniel Polk is subtle and appealing, and Rachel Mattox directs with the eye of a professional. A compelling, nuanced performance by Fenley, a gifted cast and an impressive production overcome minor script flaws to create enthralling theater with emotional power, making this pleasurable and important — a must-see event. Through February 19. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., 281-583-7573. — JJT

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