Stage Capsule Reviews

Jeannette Clift George Onstage If Houston stage veteran Jeannette Clift George decided to read from the Yellow Pages, she could imbue it with drama to spare. She's that good. Her one-woman show ushers in the 41st season of A.D. Players – where she is founder and artistic director – and her wry, warm humor, compassionate humanity and unsurpassed stage presence shine forth with rare radiance. She regales us with her lively biography in Act I, as if we're cozying up to her on a summer porch swing. We get beguiling snippets of Dolly Levi from The Matchmaker, an all-too-brief sketch of Mrs. Malaprop from The Rivals and a longer interlude from her own work, Four Women in Love, as she plays a haughty actress who bestows a visit upon her less-fortunate (so she thinks) old school chums. Mesmerized as a small child by traveling theater companies, George either "wanted to be in that" or to be a trapeze artist in the circus. Blessed by having legendary Maude Adams (Barrie's original Peter Pan) as teacher during her formative years, George followed her heart and has been a "working actor" ever since. Act II showcases George in her other role, that of religious speaker and instructor. While her personal "remembering" of Ruth Graham (Rev. Billy Graham's wife) and Dutch Holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom (whom George portrayed in The Hiding Place) is deeply touching, it just doesn't possess the drama of Act I. Give us Carrie Watts, Amanda Wingfield, Miss Daisy or Lady Bracknell. Through October 14. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

Laughing Stock Even if you could make it through the lugubrious pacing of this wistful comedy about the joys of theater, the laughs wouldn't be there. The many actors – we're at a regional theater that's a New England barn – come in and out of their own characters, in some cases because the actors don't know how to flesh them out, but basically because playwright Charles Morey doesn't flesh them out either, or else gives them contradictory traits that are maddeningly impossible to play. The characters' season rep consists of Dracula, King Lear and Charley's Aunt, and each one has its own problems. Dracula has yet to be written by the theater's director and is to be filled with special effects and scenery much too grand for the meager barn, and the lead is a method actor who can't read one line without stopping for motivation. At the insistence of the barn's major donor, Lear is suddenly replaced by Hamlet, but no one seems frantic to memorize. And Charley's Aunt is directed by an artsy-fartsy type who wants to explore gender identity and forget the farce. The tone veers from woe-is-me to outlandish, and the mingling of the two is an unworkable mix. Act II brings the performances, although we don't see any of Aunt, except for an earlier unfunny rehearsal. Dracula works best because everything that could possibly go wrong does. Since they make such a mess, it's quite unbelievable that Hamlet, seen from backstage – a nice touch – goes without a hitch, except for Yorick's missing skull, which is found in time. Suddenly, we're in a serious drama, and the wind goes out of the play again. Marty Ambrose, as a doddering old veteran actor, and Tess Wells, as the tippling stage manager, stand out in relief, creating necessary dimensions. Morey's play, though, has none. Through September 29. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG


Jeannette Clift George Onstage, Laughing Stock, Lend Me a Tenor, Whistle Down the Wind

Lend Me a Tenor Ken Ludwig's 1989 farce (a Tony winner for Best Actor and Director) is not funny, unless you like fart jokes, comic-opera Italian women grabbing their own ample breasts, and a lot of frenzied screaming and chasing each other around a mighty small hassock. When famed tenor Merelli passes out before his benefit performance, harried impresario Saunders snookers his assistant Max, a struggling singer, to impersonate him. Farce depends upon nutty improbabilities that have to have at least a modicum of truth to garner genuine laughs. Ludwig's premise is promising, but his follow-through is sloppy. If Merelli's so famous that he has photo spreads in Life magazine, how come no one recognizes Max, least of all Saunders's daughter, who's already met him in person? Granted, Max is now wearing Othello blackface and costume – although he looks suspiciously like Rigoletto – but come on, at least put him in a fat suit. The show's broad sitcom humor eluded me; I didn't hear one truly comic line. It's silly and without wit, except when Merelli thinks his wife is leaving him and tries to commit suicide by stabbing himself with a wine bottle. Mark X. Laskowski, as Saunders, huffs and puffs with exasperated bluster; Josh Estrada, as Max, exudes puppy dog naiveté until he appropriates someone else's self-possession; and Alison Luff, as Merelli's sexy wife, exudes right through her dress. The many doors open or slam at the appropriate split second, thanks to director Craig Miller, but ultimately it's just noise. The rest of the cast is up to the task at hand, but that's the problem: Ludwig's task looks too much like work. Through September 30. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573. — DLG

Whistle Down the Wind Andrew Lloyd Webber's Louisiana adaptation of Mary Haley Bell's northern English novel has had a troubled history. On its way to Broadway, the musical premiered in Washington in 1996, but was so trashed that Webber pulled it from its New York run. Since then, it has been reworked again and again, but it still needs work. Although the cast is the most impressive of any recent TUTS production (the singing of leads Eric Kunze and Andrea Ross is truly magnificent), the show doesn't quite know what it is. Too many weighty themes — segregation, religious fundamentalism, distant father/dead mother, snake handlers, teenage angst — are underdeveloped, as are the characters. As the plot goes, an escaped convict, hiding in the family barn, is thought by the kids to be Christ. The mean adults want him captured. When he's betrayed, the children of the town gather round him to save him from the posse, but they don't, really, because he magnanimously sends them away while he lights the barn on fire. After the conflagration, he's nowhere to be found. The kids still believe he's Jesus, and the family comes together — not that they were all that apart to begin with. Webber's music, a lot of rock and roll pastiche (the story's set in the '50s), is cumulatively effective, especially the title song and the stirring anthem "No Matter What." The Southern setting gets in the way of the simple parable, twisting it where it doesn't want to go, but the production, while minimal, moves fluidly, and the slatted barn, racing motorcycle and approaching train are quite an eyeful. Through September 22. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — DLG


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