The Last 5 Years Directed by Jimmy Phillips with pace and deftness, and presented by Mildred's Umbrella Theater, this is an ambitious two-character musical that combines some original staging with a narrative device that threatens to sink the ship. It is a love story where boy meets girl, and then, as you well know, complications surface. The largest complication is that the boy tells his story chronologically, and the girl tells hers backwards. This obscures, but does not hide, the fact that the narrative is singularly devoid of any real ideas. The music is compelling, played by Nicholas Baker, Faith Jones, Steven Jones and Elizabeth Steves, and this quartet, invisible behind a white tent, creates a torrent of energy, melody and dramatic intensity that is not matched by the protagonists visible onstage. Stephen Myers and Sarah Welch are attractive, and Welch has gorgeous hair, but they are asked by the playwright to climb an Everest of performance by singing the entire tale in separate monologues — they make it only as far as the foothills. This narrative approach requires consummate charm that is not readily available. Myers has a clear, strong voice. The night I attended, after an unfortunate opening in which his persona seemed too perky, his smile too Ipana, he succeeded in creating an interesting character. Welch, however, seemed vaguely unhappy throughout, and she consistently failed to project her voice, though an occasional line-belting showed that she could. The music overshadowed the lyrics, both in quality and in volume. The set by Kevin Holden was simple but ingenious, with projections adding much to the ambience — these were often more romantic and interesting than the characters. The playwright/composer, Jason Robert Brown, is to be lauded for his music and praised for his aspirations, though the chronological two-tracking renders it difficult to empathize with characters who almost never meet. Through February 26. Midtown Arts Center, 3414 LaBranch, 713-231-5015. — JT
Paradise Hotel Catastrophic Theatre takes on playwright Richard Foreman's wayward and terribly unfunny dissection of sex. Foreman, the darling of underground New York theater, is an acquired taste, but this dank, existential sex farce — loosely inspired by the wittier, less obnoxious originals of Georges Feydeau — is a mess. Still, Catastrophic deserves credit for a flawless production. The costumes (by Tiffani Fuller) are clever, and the set (designed by Greg Dean, who co-directed with Troy Schulze, also arts and culture editor at Houston Press) is witty and candy box-ideal for a sex farce. The sound design (Greg Dean again, and Chris Bakos) couldn't be better, and given what the actors have to work with, the performances are exquisitely shaded. Who could act any more insanely in heat than Matt Carter as Frankie Teardrop, who runs his tongue over his pencil-thin moustache and twitches out of control, yet remains steadfastly loveable? So too does George Parker as Martin X, in a most becoming green satin dress throughout, and Kyle Sturdivant as oh-so-gay Professor Percy Kittens, who's impaled with bouquets of roses and implores us to "Look at me, look at me." Then there's voluptuous Jessica Janes as voluptuous Jessica Juggs, on permanent boil for a physical encounter, and master of ceremonies Drake Simpson, as Drake Van Dyke, an oily confection complete with phallus and red fez. The characters, such as they are, are searching for — wait for it — Hotel Fuck. Of course, once they get there, as if in a bus-and-truck No Exit, they can't leave and no one ever has sex. There's also a foreboding, omnipotent voice that controls the action and makes them repeat sections when things go askew. They fall down, bounce back, shoot themselves and then are resurrected. An entire evening with everyone saying "fuck" every other sentence quickly loses all shock value and whatever little humor it started with. There's one shining moment: Janes sits at a table, and all is blissfully quiet. A platter is held behind her head, as if a halo. She wears a tiara. The light seems to emanate from inside her as she slowly spins a tale of ecstatic memory. She's a penny-ante Madonna, and our heart goes out to her. It's the only part of the bawdy vaudeville that touches us, because it finally shows some real emotion. The rest is Benny Hill on a bad day. A very bad day. Through February 26. DiverseWorks ArtSpace, 1117 East Fwy., 713-522-2723. — DLG
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Stairway to Paradise: The Young George Gershwin Before George Gershwin became George Gershwin, what did he sound like? That's the question that gets rhapsodically answered in the latest cabaret from Bayou City Concert Musicals. A prodigy, as a kid he astonished his nonmusical family by sitting down and playing the piano when it was ordered for his older brother Ira to take lessons. He'd been practicing at a friend's house and had taught himself to play. It changed his life and the sound of America. As a brash 15-year-old, he dropped out of high school to become the youngest "song plugger" on Tin Pan Alley, NYC's famed street of music publishers. His jazzy, deft piano playing was his ticket to fame. Soon, his songs were interpolated into Broadway shows, and he was on his way. No one's music sounded like Gershwin's, and even though his apprentice efforts are works in progress, there are plenty of glimmers of what would coalesce only a few years later into his distinctive, bluesy and syncopated melodies. Gershwin is the cornerstone of the American songbook, along with Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, and it's fun to hear his rare early work (1916-1922) in the intimate setting conjured by BCCM and performed by some of Houston's leading musical performers. In the Performance Center of the Ensemble Theatre, tables are spaced around the stage. As in any good nightclub, a bar is set up in the back. The emcee is BCCM's artistic director and Alley Theatre veteran Paul Hope, who leads us through the bio and backstage dish with gleeful charm. Pianist extraordinaire Rob Landes supplies the missing orchestra, and a raft of talented performers supply the vocal stardust. In this edition, the highlights include Susan Shofner's rendition of "I Was So Young," Ross Chitwood with "Nobody But You," Grace Givens in the sultry "Do It Again" and Landes's spiky version of "Walking the Dog" (although that song's from Gershwin's next decade of masterpieces). Through February 21. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-465-6484. — DLG