Corpus Christi Unhinged Productions presents a play that, in 1998, inspired both American Catholic condemnation and a London-based Islamic fatwa -- it was pronounced blasphemous before either group read or saw it. But Terrence McNally's gay-based life-of-Christ tale is far from being either controversial or sacrilegious. It's no more threatening to one's salvation than Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar, and not nearly as entertaining or inherently heartfelt. This is the hoariest of gay "coming out" stories. Set in Texas, it's given a superficial Biblical gloss for distinction and, perhaps, publicity value -- publicity the play received in spades when it opened off-Broadway, along with screaming protesters, metal detectors at the theater's doors and cover stories in the New York press. Unfortunately, the hype had more heft than McNally's little dramedy, which is deflated and flabby. It's also tasteless, which isn't a McNally trait (he wrote Master Class; Love! Valour! Compassion!; Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune; and Lisbon Traviata), queasily weaving sentimental pageant-play religiosity with bits of profane contemporary gay life and the lowest vaudeville shtick. During the Crucifixion, one of the Roman executioners hits his thumb with the hammer as he drives the nails into Christ. It's a jaw-droppingly awful moment, and the audience reacted in appropriately stunned silence, with one lone nervous twitter. Except for Nicholas Lewis as a suave, sexy Judas, the cast is adrift trying to match the correct tone to the mismatched skits -- if, in fact, there is any right way to play this jumble of Holy Writ and Castro Street. McNally's universal plea for gay tolerance and brotherly love, old hat for sure, is nonetheless sincere, but glibly using Jesus and his disciples as poster boys demeans His message for everyone. Through April 21. Silver House Theatre, 1107 Chartres, 713-547-0126.
Corteo The latest incarnation of acrobatics and clowns coming from Cirque du Soleil may be its most lyrical ever. Corteo features a landscape rich with gorgeous strangeness and the earthy, faded hues of old-world beauty. In the center of this extraordinary world is a simple clown (Jeff Raz) who starts the whole thing off saying, "I dreamt of my funeral." The show that follows captures that dream, whose fragmented nature is mirrored by what happens on stage. Death has never looked so appealing. Each act adds another layer to the fantastic collage. From the acrobats who roll across the stage in human-sized hoops, to the tightrope walker who crosses above the audience's heads upside down, this world is full of the sort of bizarre imagery usually reserved for sleep time. There are flying angels dressed in gossamer gowns, little people in love, muscle-bound tumblers, jugglers, giants, huge twirling chandeliers dripping with glass beads and beautiful women wearing nothing but stockings and creamy-colored under-things. But for all the amazing flights of fancy here, there is a tenderness in Corteo that makes it somehow more moving, more real and less of a spectacle than some of Cirque du Soleil's more extravagant productions. The fragmented images that appear at unexpected moments -- a woman in a horse costume, floating angels, a tiny, well-dressed man walking near a giant -- add to the feelings of nostalgia and memory rippling throughout this lovely production. At the end, the effect is more than beautiful. Through April 29. Grand Chapiteau at Sam Houston Race Park, 7575 N. Sam Houston Parkway West, 800-678-5440.
Guys and Dolls Had actress Bridget Paliwoda, who delivers a downright flawless Technicolor portrayal of "well-known fianc#&142;e" Adelaide in Frank Loesser's classic musical Guys and Dolls (1951), been alive during Broadway's Golden Age, composers Loesser, Rodgers, Porter and Berlin would've been elbowing each other out of the way to write hit shows just for her. A pre-med student at the University of St. Thomas, whose drama department should be showered with Tonys for this damn good production (forgive me, Sisters), Paliwoda is unquestionably a star. Singer, actor, dancer -- my, oh my, what a set of pipes, what comedy instinct, what gams, what a doll! She doesn't make one false move as the perplexed, abnormally patient nightclub singer who's head-over-stocking-heels in love with low-down bookie Nathan Detroit (Julio Morales), who's kept her in perpetual engagement for 14 years. In the fabulously entertaining show, they are one of two mismatched couples who eventually match up, the other being Salvation Army sergeant Sarah Brown (Whitney Baggett) and gambler/ladies' man Sky Masterson (Matt Giampietro). The story comes to tender, fairy-tale life, ablaze with toe-tapping songs ("Fugue for Tin Horns," "Guys and Dolls," Luck Be a Lady," "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat," "Take Back Your Mink," "Adelaide's Lament" and many more); wonderfully quirky characters; a literate, cracklingly hilarious script; and a sweet, full heart. The other star in all this (although the entire ensemble is quite stellar) is director, choreographer and designer Gino Chelakis, whose miracles of staging fuse wit, showbiz pizzazz and a love for the performers and material. This show is unique and an absolute charmer. Who could ask for anything more? Through April 28. Jones Theatre, 3910 Yoakum Blvd., 713-525-3520.
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That Championship Season Bottles of liquor stand ready at the bar, hunting rifles adorn the wall, a polished state-championship trophy is prominently positioned and the smell of testosterone hangs heavy in the air. But there are other smells more pervasive and troubling in Jason Miller's 1973 Pulitzer Prize winner, so persuasively showcased at Country Playhouse -- the pungency of American-male desperation, failed dreams, mediocrity, bigotry and winning at any cost. Gathered for their annual drunken reunion party, the four former teammates and their coach relive faded glories, confess betrayals, lay bare their barren souls and flay each other alive, if only to prove their diminishing potency. The boy champions have morphed into adult losers, but as a collective, especially when under the vicious spell of their former coach, they're dangerously capable of pulling off another victory, even if they hit below the belt to do so. It's the American dream turned nightmare: the normal twisted into something grotesque. Playing off each other like a highly drilled pro team, under the biting direction of Joe Viser, the quintet is superbly cast: Andrew Adams as defeated nonentity James; John Mitsakis as drunken, caustic Tom; Larry Hermes as pompous, glad-handing George; Allen Dorris as amoral sexual predator Phil; and John Stevens as delusional go-getter Coach. These stunted guys are damaged goods, equal parts predator and prey. Miller piles on the hopelessness as if driving a backhoe, but, while embarrassed at their self-destruction, we're too fascinated to look away. Through April 28. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.