Stage Capsule Reviews: Arsenic and Old Lace, Black Pearl Sings, The Daughter of the Regiment, Fools and Rumors

Arsenic and Old Lace It may be old, but it's certainly not weary — Joseph Kesselring's murderous comedy premiered on Broadway in 1941, and you'd think the story about two old-maid killers would feel a little bit tired at this point. But director Gregory Boyd proves that old dogs can still bite with this hilarious and surprisingly youthful production. The tale focuses on the Brewster sisters, Abby (Dixie Carter) and Martha (Mia Dillion), two kindly old maids who lure "lonely" men to their Brooklyn brownstone with an ad for a room to let. Once the men arrive, the very kindly ladies serve up a glass of sweet, poisoned wine that sends the men straight to the grave dug for them in the Brewster basement, courtesy of the old ladies' kooky nephew Teddy (James Belcher), a man who believes he's actually Teddy Roosevelt. But the sisters aren't as evil as their actions make them seem. They just hate to see lonely men running around the city. The old girls are trying to help strangers get off to a better, happier place, and they even conduct private funerals. Things are going fine until one day when their other nephew, the perfectly sane Mortimer Brewster (Todd Waite), finds one of the ladies' dead "gentlemen" hidden in the window seat, waiting for his funeral. Kesselring's writing remains a joy. It's full of goofy fun, and the writer keeps us guessing up to the very end. Making this production especially strong is the Alley's fabulous cast. While it's true that there's nothing new here, it's reassuring that some old warhorses can hold their own in a fight now and again. Through November 4. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. — LW

Black Pearl Sings Alice Gatling is on fire. We're only a couple of months into the new season, and she's already turned in two sizzling performances. The first was in the Alley's production of Doubt, and the second is in the world premiere of Frank Higgins's Black Pearl Sings at Stages Repertory Theatre. The two-character play, directed with moody grace by Brad Dalton, takes place in the 1930s and tells the story of Alberta Pearl Johnson (Gatling), a black woman from Hilton Head, South Carolina, who ends up in a Texas chain gang, and Susannah Mullaly (played by a powerful Susan O. Koozin), a white folklorist traveling the South in search of old slave songs that she can record for the Library of Congress. The story follows the two women from their first meeting in the Texas prison, where Susanna's looking for more songs, to their strange triumph in New York City. Along the way, it burrows down into the dangerous heart of this country's racist history. White Susanna needs Black Pearl if she's going to become the great scholar she longs to be. And Pearl needs Susannah's help if she's going to find her lost daughter. The two women forge an uneasy alliance, learning a lot about themselves along the way – some of what they discover is deeply disturbing. Moving, funny and intellectually compelling, this production is one of the best anywhere so far this season. (Also, the story is said to be inspired by musician Leadbelly's relationship with musicologist John Lomax, great-grandpa of the Press editor.) Through November 4. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0220. — LW

The Daughter of the Regiment Been a while since you laughed out loud at the opera? Then Houston Grand Opera's The Daughter of the Regiment is just the ticket. The two-act (short) comic opera has been updated by director Emilio Sagi, reset at the end of WWII. The U.S. 21st Regiment has a peculiar member – an adopted daughter. When the regiment liberates a small French village, adopted daughter in tow, the town's reigning socialite — the Marquise of Berkenfield, sung hilariously by Polish contralto Ewa Podles — realizes the girl is her long-lost illegitimate child and whisks her away to the chateau, much to the heartbreak of the American soldiers who have reared her and young Frenchman Tonio (an extremely height-challenged Barry Banks in his HGO debut), who has joined the regiment to be near his true love. But in Act II, the Marquise finds she cannot force the girl, Marie, to marry a young noble and blesses her union to Tonio. Frankly, it's not much of a plot, and there are no real hummable arias by Donizetti, but this production is still a hoot. Of course, it helps that world-famous coloratura soprano Laura Claycomb plays the flame-haired lead, but it's less her stellar voice than her comic timing that really soars here. Her salute-snap-and-smile is right out of Legally Blonde. Tenor Banks hams it up as well, making the most of his short stature but big voice. The well-fed bass-baritone Bruno Praticò delivers as the sergeant of the regiment, and the entire cast is in fine voice and having loads of fun. Don't miss Act II's non-singing manservant, who swills drinks and prances about during Marie's singing lesson, then rips the furs off arriving guests and tosses them off stage. The show features little nods to Houston, such as the names of some characters (the Ladies of Montrose) and the Marquise erroneously launching into an aria from A Masked Ball, the HGO opener that Podles also appeared in. This opera is so much fun, even conductor Riccardo Frizza is entertaining to watch. Oh, and the orchestra sounds wonderful, too. Through November 9. Wortham Center, 550 Prairie, 713-228-6737. — MG


Arsenic and Old Lace

Fools Community theater gets a bad rap, but Theatre Southwest proves it can be wonderfully charming with its latest production of Fools by Neil Simon. The "comic fable" takes place in a cursed Ukrainian village. The whole town has been made up of fools since long ago, when a count got angry and made everyone stupid. One girl can't remember her name; another woman sells flowers and calls them fish; the prettiest girl in town, Sophia Zubritsky (Candyce Prince), is having trouble learning how to sit down. Into this terrible state of affairs comes Leon Tolchinsky (Sean Ferratt), a teacher who has just one day to make Sophia smarter. If he achieves his goal, the curse will be lifted. Of course, he takes one look at the lovely Sophia and falls madly in love. The trouble is, the only other way for the curse to be lifted is for Sophia to marry a relation of the count who cursed the village. The new Count Gregor Youskevitch (Brian Heaton) shows up every day asking the pretty girl to marry him. Silly as all this sounds, the script is full of Simon's famous wit, and the cast does a fabulous job with the jokes, especially Mack Hays and Carolyn Montgomery, who play Sophia's daffy parents. And directors J. Eric Dunlap and Amanda Ferratt make the most of their cast's talents. At $15 a ticket, this show is worth every penny and more. Through November 17. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — LW

Rumors Neil Simon's sublimely silly farce isn't so much a play as a litany of one-liners and smart-ass putdowns. But if this is the lazy man's guide to writing a farce, one could do worse, for Simon's slender little premise is surprisingly funny. The plot, so to speak, concerns a dinner party where guests spin more and more elaborate deceptions about what happened to the host and hostess. It makes no sense why all the guests, good friends of each other, would succumb to this game and not spill the beans right away about what's going on, but then, of course, there'd be no play. Ace Theatre throws itself into the fray with a bustling, boisterous production that smoothes over Simon's own road bumps with three Broadway-caliber performances from Michael Taylor, Jennifer Wittorp and Lacy Lynn. Taylor, as whiplash victim Lenny, cavorts and bellows in showstopping tradition, even with his head bent at a 45-degree angle; Wittorp, as sarcasm queen Claire, nonchalantly drops verbal zingers like olives into a very dry martini; and Lynn, as scatterbrained cooking-show host Cookie, has a wide-eyed, giggling presence that should be trademarked. Simon's comedy doesn't progress so much as it's propelled, not least of all by our expectations of the nonsense ahead. Whatever it may be, we'll be laughing. Through November 3. 17011 Bamwood. 281-587-1020. — DLG


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