Capsule Stage Reviews: The Laramie Project, Jewtopia, The Marvelous Wonderettes

The Laramie Project The chilling discovery of Matthew Shepard, still and tied to a fence, ends Act I of Moisés Kaufman's docudrama The Laramie Project, and a more devastating, poignant lead-in to intermission would be difficult to find in theater. It's doubly harrowing, perhaps, since it's all true. If you've been living under a bridge for the last ten years, you may not know of Matthew Shepard, but his senseless death has become the rallying cry for hate-crime legislation and motivation in the fight for tolerance and gay rights. Maybe you're too young to remember 1998 — even more reason to go to the Holocaust Museum and see Theatre New West's powerful, if slightly uneven, production. Best known as artistic director of Tectonic Theater Project, responsible for the fascinating docudrama Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, Kaufman and his acting troop traveled to Laramie, Wyoming, only one month after Shepard's death. They interviewed more than 200 residents and kept returning long enough to be present at the media circus that surrounded the trials of murderers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Whittled down from weeks of tapes into a coherent piece of drama, the play is a masterful piece of engineering, with undeniable power and an inexorable rhythm that tightens as it progresses. Sadly, we know the ending, but it's the telling that grabs us. Eight actors portray all the diverse characters, and give each their due. Though the acting space in the auditorium at the Holocaust Museum is limited to a narrow front strip in front of the house, director Joe Watts has imaginatively staged the action in "cinemascope," with his actors on bar stools and low benches. Although "Matt's Flame," a poetic tribute written by Watts that opens Act II, is unnecessary, it is short. The bigger dramatic gaffe is having an actor appear as Shepard in a mute role. He either sits on a stool, aping the famous Shepard pose from photographs, or appears unbidden at spots during the play to beam beatifically and then wander off. It's just wrong. We make our own Matthew; he's there in every line. The ache is larger, and more unbearable, when he doesn't show up. Through July 24. 5401 Caroline, 713-522-2204. — DLG

Jewtopia While it is not a good play, Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson's Jewtopia can claim a lot of commercial success in both Los Angeles and New York, which might be why Houston's Back Porch Players chose the script. The silly show about all things Jewish tells the story of two buddies in search of the right woman. Chris O'Connell (Matt Hune) is a gentile who loves Jewish girls. "You'll never have to make another decision as long as you live," says Chris, about the wonders of marrying a "JAP." His Jewish friend Adam Lipschitz (Dan J. Gordon) doesn't really get Chris's admiration. After all, gentile girls "cook and clean and swallow!" Still, since Adam's family is pressuring him to marry within the tribe, he's willing to make a pact with Chris. Adam will teach Chris how to pass as a Jew so a Jewish girl will marry him, if Chris will take him to the wondrous land of "Jewtopia," which turns out to be online dating service J-Date. A couple of hours worth of jokes about Jews and gentiles later, the two men come to some life-changing realizations about family, love and women. The production, directed by Jo Alessandro Marks, feels a bit of a slapdash – props fall, sets move in and out of too-small doors and the characters often stand awkwardly about the stage. But it does have amusing moments. As Hune and Gordon grow into their roles and get more comfortable on stage, their timing gets sharper. And Amanda Lea Mason, who plays several female characters (really more caricatures as written here), is often very funny, especially as Adam's angry 14-year-old sister. Through August 1. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. – LW

The Marvelous Wonderettes Okay, kids, let's write a second-rate musical that has no chance of ever seeing the lights of Broadway. Judging from Roger Bean's creation from 1999, it's not too difficult. First we need music — not original music, that's too iffy. How about great tunes from the '50s? Everybody likes "Mr. Sandman," "Lipstick on Your Collar" and "Secret Love." Then we need to put these oldies-but-goodies in context with a story, but not much of one. A prom, we'll set it at a prom, where a girl group can sing the songs. And these four? One's a slut, one's a butch, one's a nerd, one's a dope. The butch and the slut have the same boyfriend and hate each other. The nerd's in love with her music teacher, and the dopey blonde loves a greaser. That's enough plot, except there's Act II. All right, we can do it. Remember, no thinking. Got it! Act II takes place ten years later at the high school reunion. How brilliant is that? (Well, it's expedient, anyway.) Keep it simple. The slut and the butch still hate each other, the nerd's about to marry her teacher, and the dumb blonde is pregnant with marital problems. Nothing else has changed. Quickly wrap up any loose ends in a song, with everybody best friends at the end. And there you have it: an instantly forgettable new musical fit for Sunday matinees. Stage all this with utmost professionalism in lighting, dance moves and over-the-top prom dresses (although, the'60s mod minis in Act II are extremely unflattering on all concerned). Finally, cast four likeable singing actresses who can put this tripe over with ease (Rachael Logue, Chelsea McCurdy, Christina Stroup and Holland Vavra Peters). Voilà! It's a musical that will run through summer, delight the nostalgia buffs, and break all box office records. Aren't you proud? Through October 17. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0220. —DLG


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