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Cactus Flower from 1965 Is Still Blooming at Company OnStage

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The setup:

Abe Burrows's 1965 farce about a dentist pretending to be married to escape the shackles of marriage gets a lively presentation at Company OnStage, with some very attractive and talented actors giving the vehicle a push when necessary.

The execution:

The set is less elaborate than the authentic details Company OnStage usually provides - but that is because the farce has 15 scenes, and the set must be converted to a variety of settings. These changes are handled deftly by what seems to be a bevy of choreographed stagehands, who accomplish the changes briskly and heroically, to the accompaniment of upbeat music.

The lead in the comedy is Casey Coale as Julian, a dentist with an attractive young girlfriend, and a roving eye for additional opportunities. His girlfriend, Toni, is played by Melanie Martin, and she has a truly remarkable gift for comic timing. Martin's enthusiasm, her beauty and a series of stunning outfits -- from orange baby-doll peignoir to high white boots -- ensure the evening's delight. Martin lights up the stage whenever she enters. Her energy and charm work against the credibility of her love affair with Julian, as Coale gives the role a professional gloss -- experience will out -- but doesn't provide the zest, nor much indication that Julian is enjoying life; Coale has a bit of a sad-sack approach to the role. While the script calls for a considerable age difference, the Martin-Coale bonding may be pushing the boundary.

A handsome writer, Igor, has the apartment next door to Toni, and they bond as he thwarts a suicide attempt on Toni's part. John Strickland, who plays Igor, looks as good in a towel as clothed - together, Martin and he must be the most attractive couple gracing Houston stages. He also contributes boyish charm and acting skill, and carries off a flirtation with an older woman with aplomb.

This object of his attention is Stephanie, Julian's assistant and receptionist, portrayed by Heather Gabriel. Her role is that of Cinderella, and, as she emerges from wallflower to hot babe, the play takes on added firepower. The long first act and half the second have the traditional elements of farce -- deceit and misunderstandings -- but midway in Act II, playwright Abe Burrows layers in some complexity and some irony, and we suddenly have a sophisticated and eminently satisfying contemporary comedy.

Glenn Dodson, who looks a lot like Will Ferrell, plays Julian's wingman, Harvey, and finds the humor, and some nuances, in his role as a bit of a sponge for free dental work; he is excellent. Jim Walsh plays Senor Sanchez, a dental patient who is smitten with Stephanie even before her blossoming, and he is quite good. Laura Riggs plays Harvey's girlfriend; she looks great and gives a wonderful reading to "Rotten" as she describes the loose living of the other characters. In minor roles, Mary Westbrook is less effective as Mrs. Durant, another patient, choosing intensity over the light touch of comedy, and tyro Andrew Riggs in several small roles has yet to find his stage authority. Marianne Lyon directed, and is to be thanked for helming so successfully this warhorse, and breathing new life into it with such gifted young actors. And she must have drilled those scene-changers like a martinet.

The verdict:

Comic timing and acting skills enliven this farce by one of Broadway's master showmen, and a stand-out performance by Melanie Martin makes this 1965 comedy a contemporary gem.

Cactus Flower continues through April 14 at Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square. For information or ticketing, call 713-726-1219 or contact www.companyonstage.org.

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