Stage Capsule Reviews

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum Stephen Sondheim supplied writers Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove with this show's radiantly sunny score and peerlessly clever lyrics. The story's source is arguably ancient Roman "vulgar" comedian Plautus, with his classic plots involving wily slaves, lovesick Juvenals, egocentric warriors, hen-pecked husbands and termagant wives, but Forum glorifies another golden era: that of the Catskills and the borscht belt -- a time of leggy showgirls, smutty jokes and low-comedy shtick. A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down the pants! Forum's only reason to exist is to entertain, and this show does that in spades, thanks in no small part to Texas Rep's jaw-dropping joie de vivre. In a sumptuous production that dazzles with spirited costuming (Fernando Zamudio) and set design (Jesse Dreikosen), even the lighting entertains (Robert Eubanks). As the clever slave who yearns for the freedom he can only achieve by obtaining the virginal slave girl next door for his young virginal master, Steve Fenley gives originator Zero Mostel a real run for his money -- mugging, prancing and skittering about, always with a plan up his sleeve. Joshua Estrada is properly smitten as the boy next door; Kyle Greer is queenly hysterical as house toady Hysterium; Deb Haas brings girth and voice to the shrewish wife; Mark Laskowski is suitably oily and harmless as pimp Marcus Lycus; and Jim Salners wears his dirty-old-man toga like a trench coat. And then there's Kregg Alan Dailey as pumped-up general Miles Gloriosus, more in love with himself than anyone else. And why wouldn't he be? Dailey's idiosyncratic portrayal has to be seen to be believed. Calling to mind something akin to Jack Palance crossed with Jack Nicholson, he stops the show whenever he appears. Under Craig Miller's sprightly direction, the show's all of one piece -- hilarious. Through May 26. 14243 Stuebner Airline Road, 281-583-7573.

It Could Be Any One of Us English playwright Alan Ayckbourn has to be one of history's most prolific writers for the stage. As of last count, there are 70 attributed works. Ayckbourn loves to play with theatrical structure, usually with simultaneous action that occurs in two places at the same time, accomplished via split-level sets or the mind-bending feat of two plays running concurrently. The farces are sidesplittingly funny, not only because of their jigsaw plots but also because the audience knows what physical stunts are being performed backstage to keep the plays running smoothly. His plays are deftly, dizzyingly constructed. So when Ayckbourn wrote a murder mystery in 1983, it was no surprise it wasn't like anyone else's. He took the classic plot (everyone in a lonely country house has a motive for knocking off a despised brother), added truly quirky characters and then tweaked it so that any one of the actors could be revealed as the murderer at each specific performance if they drew the right card during their Act I card game. That means that all the actors must remember at least five separate versions of their lines. Company OnStage's able-handed mechanics relish Ayckbourn's challenge and run with it. Best among the sextet are Jim Allman (as weird, childlike brother Brinton, a failed painter who has yet to finish a picture) and Ananka Kohnitz (as bottled-up sister Jocelyn, a failed writer who has yet to finish a book). There's a real person behind Kohnitz's breathy delivery and tightly-buttoned sweaters, someone with a life when the character exits offstage. She and Allman supply all the necessary quirks and finely hewn shading to keep us guessing -- and Ayckbourn gently smiling with appreciation. Through June 9. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219.

The Musical of Musicals (The Musical) How many times have you been disappointed when a play was over, wanting it to go on and on? Not many, right? Well, this divinely inspired show at Theater LaB Houston has only one appropriate response: frenzied shouts of "Encore!" The play has a hackneyed plot: Naive, in-love heroine must pay the rent, but she doesn't have it, and if she doesn't pay up, the lecherous landlord will take her in lieu of money. No matter, that's not the divinely-inspired part, which is the telling of this tale in five different ways, as if it were five different Broadway musicals written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Kander and Ebb. Musical spoofs their styles, kicks them in the ass, pokes them in the eye and makes fun of them -- in short, it creates five wicked parodies that are a slice of Broadway heaven. Composer Eric Rockwell and lyricist Joanne Bogart lovingly screw them all to hilarious effect. Even with only a passing knowledge of musical lore, you'll still find plenty of humor in the silliness: What the hell is a cowboy "dream ballet" anyway, and what's it doing in an Oklahoma corn field? Why is everybody in Sondheim so angry and full of angst? Why is Jerry Herman so gay? Is Andrew Lloyd Webber receiving royalty checks from the estate of Puccini? Would there be Kander and Ebb without Bob Fosse's pelvis? These and other pressing issues will be answered in full. On the other hand, if you do know the difference between Irving Berlin and Berlin, Germany, then you'll eat up this delicious confection with a spoon! The musical crazies include director/choreographer Jimmy Phillips (brilliant), Haley Dyes (inspired), Dylan Godwin (pipes of gold), Melodie Smith (brilliant, inspired and golden pipes), and musical director Steven Jones (hands of gold). Through June 9. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.


Houston theater

A Raisin in the Sun The mother of all black dramas, Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 prize-winning play has such an enveloping warmth and goodness to it that at first glance, it seems retrograde and old-fashioned. Only when you realize that Hansberry did it first can the work be seen for the groundbreaking play it truly is. All the stage archetypes are firmly in place: the widowed matriarch (Elayn Taylor) holding her disparate family members in a bosomy embrace of dignity and religion; the wayward son (Davi Jay Broussard) seduced by easy money who dreams of a better life; the hardworking son's wife (Cheray Dawn Josiah), who's so battered down that she inadvertently drives her husband from her arms; and the smart-ass sister (Jordyn Lorenz) who mocks assimilation and lets her hair go natural. The $10,000 life insurance policy that Mama finally receives threatens to sunder the fragile family. Unending poverty, the smiling ghoul face of racism, and movin' on up are intertwined and blended into a color-blind humanism that sets this play apart. Hansberry brought the ghetto right onto Broadway, and her underlying activism and sense of justice and fair play stand out with startling clarity and loving, unstinting insight. In another of its beautifully realized productions this season, Ensemble Theatre breathes fresh air into this seminal drama, lightening it and letting it soar effortlessly into its rightful place in stage history. The ensemble cast is flawless, and Hansberry's didactic passages -- few but necessary for putting her themes into the context of the times -- are handled with proper restraint and esteem. Hansberry died prematurely at the age of 34. While Raisin's adamant, life-affirming vision documents the black experience, it eloquently speaks to us all. Through May 27. 3535 Main St., 713-520-0055.

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