Capsule Stage Reviws: Candida, Don Carlo, Lucia di Lammermoor, The Year of Magical Thinking

Candida There's no front curtain at Classical Theater's production of George Bernard Shaw's sparkling comedy, so when you enter Talento Bilingüe, you're immediately dazzled by set designer Liz Freese's wondrous Art Nouveau living room, an airy confection that is just about the handsomest thing ever seen. Will the play match this marvel? It takes, oh, I don't know, seven seconds before that other magic — theater's siren song — takes effect and lifts us aloft, keeping us there until the end. Everything grand that is "theater" happens in this production, without question one of Houston's best shows this season. The ensemble acting is superb, without a false note anywhere, Julia Traber's direction is fluid and strong, and Shaw's play is a true beauty — a real charmer full of Shavian wicked wit and sprightly eloquence. It's laugh-out-loud funny, too, a play still as fresh and novel as if it had been written only last week, not 100 years ago. Shaw, a great admirer of Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House (which had scandalized Europe), turned its theme of female emancipation inside out. Instead of leaving her husband and slamming the door, Shaw's enlightened heroine Candida (Shannon Emerick) — hey, wait a minute, you've got to see this for yourself to appreciate what a clever tweak Shaw gives to that dour Scandinavian. There are choices to be made, not that Candida wants to make them, but she's forced to choose between "her boys": her stolid, ministerial husband Morell (Thomas Prior) or her new friend who's head over heels in love with her, the teenage poet Marchbanks (Matt Lents). Shaw asks, what does a woman want? For that matter, what does a husband, or a lover, want? He answers his own questions with entertaining vivacity and a love of pointed conversation not heard again until the modern works of Tom Stoppard. The supporting cast — Rutherford Cravens, Holly Haire and Philip Hays — is a dream, as full of panache as the leading trio. The striking costumes by Clair Hummel and the lighting design etched by John Smetak set off this glowing production like the faceted jewel it is. Through February 13. TBH Center, 333 South Jensen Dr., 713-963-9665. — DLG

Don Carlo Giuseppe Verdi's monumental grand opera (1867) is, once you get right down to it, a modest little work about love gone wrong. Don Carlo, son of Philip II, the king of Spain, remains in love with his new stepmother, Elizabeth, to whom he was once betrothed. She is too much of a lady to have an affair, but that doesn't stop the court gossips, especially Princess Eboli, from spreading false rumors and fanning the old king's jealousy. That the king also has to deal with rebellion in the provinces, whose disloyal subjects are supported by his son, does not sit well either. There's no way on earth that intimate Opera in the Heights can ever approach the munificence of big sis downtown, Houston Grand Opera, so it doesn't even try. Lo and behold, this pocket-size version of Verdi's turbulent spectacle wildly succeeds. This is OH's most polished show yet, simple but elegant, radiantly sung by a thrilling young cast (I saw the Emerald version). Sparsely directed by Brian Byrnes, using a unit set's steps and a few props, and appropriately costumed by Dena Scheh, the opera flows with all Verdi's dramatic power undimmed. Under the stirring leadership of maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo, the orchestra has never sounded so eloquent, nor has the chorus been so tight and focused. The pared-down orchestra allows Verdi's textured music to sound clear and bright, revealing intricacies even during the tumultuous passages. And what a cast and what stunning voices! Emily Newton, a real beauty, is an absolute revelation as Elizabeth, a true Verdian dramatic soprano with effortless power, control and radiant tone. She alone is worth the trip to Heights Boulevard, but fortunately all the roles are gorgeously sung (and acted, too). Handsome Neil Darling, as impetuous Don Carlo, sings magnificently, with clarion high notes — Verdi doesn't stint on them — and rousing ardor. Philip is sung by Alexander Scopino, a stirring bass; Eboli is velvet-voiced Jennifer Kosharsky, whose immense yet supple mezzo raised the roof; Erik Kroncke makes a frightening, monolithic Grand Inquisitor; and Carlo's best friend Rodrigo, who gets two of the best baritone arias in all opera, is sung passionately by Daniel Lickteig. Through February 5. 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-861-5303. — DLG

Lucia di Lammermoor Gaetano Donizetti's operatic masterpiece (1835) is known as one of the most psychologically astute works in the rep. How strange then that Houston Grand Opera's production takes mad Lucia and browbeats her into gentleness. The chorus members, while singing how happy they are for Lucia's wedding, enter as if in a memorial parade, with deliberate pomp and dirge-like attitude. The set's turbulent gray sky panels descend with grave import, only to ascend a moment later to reveal more characters behind, usually choristers holding great quarterstaffs that they brandish for no apparent purpose. There's no frenzy to any of this. The orchestra, under maestro Antonino Fogliani, never whips itself into any state other than dainty inconvenience. This is the most reserved Lucia in memory. The famous "Sextet" (one of opera's most glorious moments, when time stands still) comes — and goes — without much notice at all, except that all six singers are pinned in individual spotlights. Even the blood of her murdered husband, which drenches mad Lucia's bridal negligee, is artfully appliquéd in tasteful, symmetrical stains. The passion's drained, too, out of the opera's magical set piece, Lucia's "Mad Scene," a tour de force of unrivaled showstopping vocal roulades and intensity. Soprano Albina Shagimuratova hits all the notes, no question about it, but there's no character there. She can climb on the table all she wants or wrestle with the tablecloth and laugh inappropriately, but it doesn't mean she's crazy unless we hear it in her vocal characterization. We don't. Donizetti is better served by Dimitri Pittas as Lucia's lover, Oren Gradus as chaplain Raimondo, Scott Hendricks as Lucia's opportunistic, sadistic brother Enrico and Rachel Willis-Sorensen as Lucia's lady-in-waiting. The director, Tony Award-winning John Doyle, has overthought the opera, giving Donizetti's lilting drama this symbolic, slow, very slow, resonance which doesn't push the music so much as trips it up. Going mad in opera used to be fun. Through February 11. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

The Year of Magical Thinking The idea of adapting Joan Didion's bestselling memoir The Year of Magical Thinking to the stage sounds thrilling, and almost plausible. The book, which mostly describes Didion's emotional and mental reactions to the unexpected death of her husband, and also to the mysterious and serious (eventually fatal) sickness that descends on her daughter Quintana just before his death, is essentially a monologue. But what a challenging monologue. In 90-plus minutes, it conveys a novel's worth of information, presented rather elliptically, as if the audience were intimately familiar with the characters and able to fill in the blanks left in Didion's storytelling, which is mostly concerned with her struggles to keep grief at bay through a tightly controlled use of language. It's Didion's struggle with language and control that makes the book so powerful. This material isn't really very dramatic; in fact, since we don't know the dead people she's talking about, it can get a bit tedious. The play would only be able to work if Claire Hart-Palumbo were able to match her performance to Didion's style. But that doesn't quite happen. Hart-Palumbo does convince as a grieving Everywidow, and is at times poignant, but she doesn't conjure Didion herself. I kept looking for the eloquent silences between the lines and behind the words that would tell the real story. But despite Hart-Palumbo's efforts, this monumentally difficult character only partially comes to life. Through February 13. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times, 713-524-6706. — DT


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