The holidays may bring out the best in human beings, but most theaters don't fare so well. Scrambling to snag some of that Christmas/Hannukah dough being thrown around, they try to appeal to all those desperate holiday troopers with a house full of in-laws, and the result is December shows that are as bland as a plate of sugar cookies. Case in point: Stages Repertory Theatre's production of Five Course Love, a sketch comedy set to music by Gregg Coffin.
In the silly show, five couples (plus a sidekick), all played by the same actors, look for love in all the wrong places. Set in five different restaurants (surprisingly little is done to indicate the different settings), the show introduces us to an entire smorgasbord of silly characters. There's Barbie, who will only be happy with a man named Ken. Sofia is a mobster's wife who dabbles in extracurricular activities with the slicked-up, no-good Gino. Heimlich and Klaus are two Germans who wear leather and are into bondage. Rosalinda is a Mexican rose who goes weak in the knees for the bad boys. And then there's blond-haired Kitty, who finds love at a diner.
There's nothing particularly inventive or fresh in these stereotypes. Their problems are utterly predictable, and they don't do anything surprising to make things better for themselves. As a result, it's hard to stay engaged in this material all the way through two acts. To make matters worse, each scene goes on for at least 20 minutes, longer than any sketch should, and the songs don't add much to the scenes.
Some of the music is downright goofy. Tunes such as "I Loved You When I Thought Your Name Was Ken" and "Risk Love," which is sung in part by a man dressed in leather lederhosen, take up an awful lot of time considering their tissue-paper weight. Act Two opens with "The Ballad of Guillermo," about a naughty Mexican badass loved by women everywhere. There's some funny business between Guillermo and Ernesto (the nice-guy sidekick), who won't sing Guillermo's song correctly. Finally, Guillermo ends up singing "The Ballad of Me." All this is amusing, especially since the scene features Thomas Prior as the subversive sidekick, but then there are two more songs featuring Guillermo, who never becomes more than a cartoon despite the fact that his story goes on and on.
Making mountains out of molehills of material happens in just about every scene. And Melissa Rain Anderson's direction adds little in the way of purpose to the show. She does keep the actors busy. They spend a good deal of time running around the stage and filling up the theater with tons of eager energy. But a lot of it feels frenetic to the point of being desperate. It's as if they all know they are dealing with some pretty lame material, so they move fast and furiously across the stage for two hours, sweating and panting (there's a lot of both) and hoping the audience won't notice how little is going on in this production.
One of the most frustrating points of the play happens late in Act Two, when we finally discover where all these caricatures are coming from. It's a sort of "surprise" that won't be revealed here. But truthfully, the "surprise" feels more like a trick than an a-ha moment. And the entire play would make more sense if this "surprise" were moved to the opening scene. Then, at least, all these silly stereotypes would be properly contextualized.
There are some good things about this production. The three performers sing their hearts out trying to make this evening worth the price of a ticket. Haley Dyes (a newcomer who deserves a much better debut at Stages), Thomas Prior and John M. Whalin all sing beautifully. Dyes is especially appealing in the final scene, dressed in her peddle-pushers and loafers. Prior is strong, clear and charismatic, as always. And while Whalin might be miscast, he has a powerful voice and lots of charm.
Taken all together, these five courses won't do much to fill anyone up. But the singers are good and the opening-night audience laughed out loud at many of the jokes, some of which were surprisingly raunchy. But not to worry -- it's nothing your visiting in-laws haven't seen on prime-time TV.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Houston.