Stage Capsule Reviews

The Best Man Main Street Theater's season opener is a political drama filled with the sort of emotional wreckage that hard campaigning creates. Never mind that the show first opened on Broadway in 1960 — the prescient script feels like it was written yesterday. It's the primary convention for an unnamed party, and the stakes are high. Two major candidates have a chance at the nomination. Bill Russell (Jim Salners) is an ex-Ivy Leaguer who quotes Shakespeare, peppers his speech with irony and uses lots of very big words, much to the consternation of his campaign manager Dick Jensen (Rutherford Cravens). But Russell has good intentions and believes in being honest with the people and with reporters. Also in the political ring is Senator Joseph Cantwell (Justin Doran), a dirty, rotten bastard of the first order who's ragingly ambitious. And now that he's got the chance to become president, he'll do anything for the nomination. When his people uncover a medical document recounting ex-Secretary of State Russell discussing a breakdown he had years ago, Cantwell's ready to sling some mud. Putting the fight in perspective is the current president, Arthur Hockstader (David Parker), an old "hick," as he calls himself, who's as wise as he is cynical. The strength of Main Street's production is in the charismatic cast director Mark Adams has put together. But as strong as the cast is, the most remarkable aspect of this production is Gore Vidal's biting insight into American politics – that, and the fact that after nearly 50 years, it appears that very little has changed. Through September 16. 4617 Montrose, 713-524-6706. — LW

Late Nite Catechism You don't have to be Catholic to love Late Nite Catechism, the "one-sister" show running at Stages Repertory Theatre, though it probably wouldn't hurt. No matter your denomination, there are plenty of laughs, even if you're one of those unfortunate "publics" whose parents obviously didn't care about them and sent them for a substandard education at a nonreligious school. Well, that's what Sister (Amanda Hebert) tells us, and what she says during her evening class is Holy Writ. Discard her wisdom at your peril. Under her 20 pounds of black gabardine, Sister commands her after-school catechism class with smooth, sly humor and a martinet's tough-love discipline, teaching us, her unruly pupils, the finer arts of Catholic theology. Never fear, heathens, this is one sharp Sister. We learn about which saints should be eliminated from the 75,000 on the Vatican's official list, and the exact meaning of the Stigmata, and who in fact populated the earth after Adam and Eve. It's a free-form sort of show, with classroom participation leading Sister to deliver delightful asides while gently mocking her charges. As a piece of education, it works, but it falls short as theater, being much too long, meandering and, in Act II, repetitive. But Hebert, a former stand-up comedienne who's been performing Sister since 1999, still has us right in the palm of her ruler-clad hand. Through September 30. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — DLG

The Merry Widow What with all that waltzing, the gorgeous gowns, the tiaras and a corps of handsome suitors — including her true love who jilted her ten years ago — you'd be merry, too. Houston Ballet's updated version of Ronald Hynd's frothy ballet based on the 1905 Franz Lehár operetta opened the 2007-2008 season with panache. The merry widow, a wealthy woman named Hanna from a fictitious, albeit bankrupt, country, is wooed by a former flame charged with keeping her money in the country, while as a side plot the pretty young thing is dallying with a handsome French attaché. A favorite ballet in reps around the world since its premiere at The Australian Ballet in 1975, it's been in Houston's rep since 1995, along with the original designs by Desmond Heeley. But this Widow has new designs by Roberta Guidi di Bagno that add a whole new sparkle. Di Bagno re-creates the gilded ballrooms and stunning cafes of the era, but it's her costumes that create a world of richness and elegance. Even the mythical folk fashions have extra bling; no mere peasant costumes these. They dazzle in shades of pink and purple that pop against her dusky garden set in Act II. Mireille Hassenboehler's Hanna rules as both the rich and elegant widow and — in a flashback — the frivolous peasant girl tinged with the blush of first love. (Amy Fote and Barbara Bears alternate the role.) Her love pas de deux with Nicholas Leschke as Count Danilo (who is a charming drunk) are divine. The Houston Ballet Orchestra dazzles with Lehár's waltzes, and the company is delightfully comedic in the cafe scene, with a demanding dowager, can-can girls and laden waiters all whirling across the stage. Oo-la-la. Through September 16. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. — MG


The Best Man, Late Nite Catechism, The Merry Widow, Night and Her Stars

Night and Her Stars In the '50s, what few knew about game shows of the era was that they were rigged. Contestants were given the answers and coached to act surprised, and the powers-that-be couldn't care less about the sleazy dishonesty they promoted. They wanted to sell the sponsors' products. As TV quiz-show producer extraordinaire Dan Enright (Chris Tennison) states in Richard Greenberg's poetic epic on the Twenty-One game show scandal, Night and Her Stars, "In the first place, we have done nothing wrong. In the second place, we have done it in the utmost secrecy." In the richly evocative tale, on view at the new Town Center Theatre, Enright sells the souls of his hapless contestants with a slap on the back, using unctuous humility to betray their better natures. The plan works brilliantly, except for schlub contestant Herb Stempel (Joey Milillo), a sad sack with an astonishing photographic memory. He wants money, and the respect, he so wrongly thinks, that fame brings. Loquacious, maddening and annoying, Herb wants his lonely, depressed wife (Laura Kaldis) to love him. But even his engineered persona doesn't play with the audience — they hate him. Into this web falls the perfect anti-Herb: Charles Van Doren (Aaron Stryk), an elite, erudite, photogenic Columbia University English professor, scion of an esteemed and prized literary family. That, of course, eats up loser Herb, whose dreams have crashed and burned. In a vengeful rage, he exposes Enright's lies, but nobody believes him. How all these devilish reversals play out, we leave in Greenberg's most dramatic hands. Under Ilich Guardiola's sparklingly fluid direction, the ensemble acting is peerless, as is the entire production. Everything meshes. Through September 15 (no performances September 7-9). Bock Auditorium, 3800 S. Panther Creek Dr., The Woodlands, 832-592-9697. — DLG

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