Capsule Stage Reviews: The Beaux' Stratagem, La Traviata, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

The Beaux' Stratagem This 1807 Restoration comedy by George Farquhar charts the chicanery of two young gentlemen, having spent their fortunes on carousing and high living, who travel outside London to seek wealthy women. One pretends to be the servant of the other in order to create the impression of wealth. Michael Thatcher plays Jack Archer, the pretend-servant, with a courtly charm, a roguish gleam and a commanding presence. His friend is portrayed by David Huynh, who delivers swashbuckling and romantic interest. The intended prey is the household of Lady Bountiful, whose young daughter Dorinda (Ashley Fox) is beautiful and wealthy, and who is close to her sister-in-law Kate (Susie Parr), unhappily married to Jack Sullen (Michael Lee), a heavy drinker who neglects his husbandly duties. Parr is delightful, and she and Thatcher form an attachment that is captivating. Adam Noble directed the comedy, and his gifts for comic invention, breakneck pace and use of body language to enhance humor are brilliant — even the minor characters are vivid and compelling. Camron Ross Alexander plays Scrub, a servant, turning a throwaway role into a richly comic character. Emily Wold as a French chaplain charms and delights. Mateo Mpinduzi-Mott as a highwayman is excellent, as are Tom Conry as a dishonest innkeeper and Shunte' Lofton as his audacious daughter. The ample plot keeps the action flowing and reveals the warm hearts beneath the mendacious exteriors. With a rich cast of characters and hugely effective portrayals, the trifecta is the production team, with sumptuous costumes by Jodie Daniels, set by Frankie Teuber and lighting design by Gregory Starbird. This is a triumphant revival, and its contemporary wit, delightful humor and rewarding characterizations make this must-see theater. Through October 13. From the University of Houston at the Wortham Theatre, 133 Wortham, 713-743-2929. —JJT

La Traviata For Verdian dramatic sopranos, the ultimate role is high-end prostitute Violetta, the "lady of the camellias" from Alexandre Dumas's shocking novel about Paris's demi-monde. It's the most difficult female role Verdi ever composed, for it's been said that the best interpretation would require four singers, one for each scene, since the vocal requirements in each are so different. Coloratura of the highest caliber is needed for Act I, where Violetta tosses off her show-stopping cabaletta, "Sempre libera" ("Always free"). In Act II, in perhaps Verdi's grandest confrontation scene, she's all glorious drama when Alfredo's father Germont convinces her to give up her young lover whose future life she is ruining. Next, at Flora's party, she's embarrassed to find Alfredo there, bitter and jealous over her new affair with the Baron. In the final act, distraught and dying of consumption, Violetta must spin out the most delicate of pianissimo passages — twice! — as she relives her love affair with Alfredo and prays for forgiveness. Violetta is the role of a lifetime, and Opera in the Heights has found a stunning voice and presence in soprano Sara Heaton. What a find! Not only is she extremely pleasant to look at (as any Violetta should be — she's the highest-paid courtesan in Paris not because she has a splendid library), but her voice is a revelation. It has dark undertones which fills it out, yet it's clear and crystal bright. It's also damn beautiful to listen to. A consummate actress to boot, Heaton glows as Violetta. Maestro Enqrique Carreón-Robledo could be seen smiling as she triumphed in her arias. She sails through those roulades, acts up a storm with Germont, sings of her love with radiant ardor and conviction, and dies whispering her paintive farewell, "Addio del passato." She breaks your heart with her splendid voice. Would that Heaton's Alfredo been up to her standard, but tenor Steven Wallace lagged many measures behind. Rough and bit ragged, he pushed his voice, never comfortable with Verdi's dramatic line. He got through it, but it wasn't with plush sound or any semblance of being infatuated with this woman of the world. Baritone Octavio Moreno, an alumnus of Houston Grand Opera's studio program, gave priggish father Germont a real backstory, as his voice rang through the hall. Although too young to be Wallace's old man, he convinced through his singing. His ballad to Alfredo, "Di Provenza" ("In Provence") reminding his beloved son of his childhood home, is lilting and innocent like a lullaby. With his honeyed baritone, Moreno sang this as sweetly as if standing over a cradle. Director Lynda McKnight doesn't do Verdi any justice by updating the setting to contemporary Paris. If anything, this makes a hash out of the story, because Violetta is now a singer at the Paris Opera, not a prostitute. The great irony in this tale of sacrifice is the fact that Alfredo's sister can not get married if her brother is in love with a lady of the evening. The family's name and honor is at stake. An opera singer doesn't quite have the same scandalous freight as whore. Update all you want, but leave Violetta's profession alone. Her career is the story. La Traviata is an unparalleled audience favorite. According to the unimpeachable Operabase, it's listed #1 as the most performed opera in the world. If you've never seen this musically emotional roller-coaster ride, here's a chance to see why it's so beloved. Heaton will convince you. October 6, 10 and 12. 1703 Heights Blvd. (The alternate cast, featuring Julia Ebner as Violetta, Chris Trapani as Alfredo and Robert Aaron Taylor as Germont, performs October 5, 11 and 13.) 713-861-5303. — DLG

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert This new jukebox musical, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, is as gay as they come. Normally this would be a good thing, except this psychedelic valentine, all bells, whistles and razzle-dazzle, has the musty smell of a world gone by. This sweaty and muscular musical, based on the 1994 cult Australian movie, smothers you under tons of sequins, Mylar and bitchy bons mots that I thought went out in the '80s. This is the gay world for blue hairs: slightly naughty but oh-so-sweet, uplifting and terribly non-threatening. We're just like you, the musical proclaims in nonstop numbers that quickly resemble each succeeding one, only we like to wear towering platform shoes and fantastic wigs in the shape of ribbon candy or pom poms or cupcakes. For a musical that hit Broadway in 2011, it's so old-fashioned and eager to please that you expect Noël Coward to materialize and sing a ditty. Jerry Herman's La Cages aux Folles is subversive by comparison. Stereotypes abound. To be fair, they're equally scattered, so everybody gets skewered: fat, horny women; German tourists; Outback rednecks; Asian mail-order brides. Unfortunately, so do the leading gay characters. Tick (Wade McCollum), a.k.a. Mitzi, his drag name, sets the glitzy disco ball spinning because his wife (Christy Faber), who lives in the wilds of Alice Springs with their son (Shane Davis; Will B. in other performances), asks him to come home and perform his drag act in her casino, which has lost its musical act. Tick hasn't seen his son in years, having moved to the big city to find himself. Tick gathers two of his friends to accompany him: outlandish Adam, a.k.a. Felicia (Bryan West), and post-op transsexual Bernadette (Scott Willis). Felicia is out there, a buff fireplug of swish whose patron saint is Madonna. Bernadette is from the "old" school of lip-syncing drag, all about attitude and glamour, bewigged and dressed like Lauren Bacall. Their waspish put-downs of each other are half the show. Willis is reason enough to see this pre-Stonewall-like dinosaur; his Bernadette is the only real person onstage, wise and motherly, but with a mouth like Mae West. Willis pulls this musical together in wondrous, sly ways. He doesn't need outrageous platform shoes, lifting up the show on his/her very sensible high heels. We root for this showbiz drag-show veteran who's still got plenty of snap. Creators Stephen Elliott (writer of the movie screenplay) and Allan Scott must have recognized the been-there-done-that nature of the material, for they, along with director Simon Phillips and choreographer Ross Coleman, overflow the Hobby Center with dazzling eye candy: the strapping chorus boys; that electronic bus; production numbers in homage to Busby Berkeley and The Sonny and Cher Show; the three divas (Emily Afton, Bre Jackson and Brit West), who drop in from on high to amplify and supplement the musical numbers; and those outrageous, award-winning costumes by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, which are an entire show by themselves. Like its music, Priscilla seems from decades past. Supposedly out and proud, these three guys haven't left the closet very far behind. Shocking pink, that charismatic bus of theirs has gone a lot farther. Through October 12. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — DLG

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