Capsule Art Reviews: Hairspray, Spring Awakening, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Don Juan in Hell

Hairspray Pick a color, any color, and before too long it'll appear somewhere onstage, in costume or set design, during Country Playhouse's kaleidoscopic, exuberantly exciting production, the first in its 55th season! This vibe — so right, so ersatz, so '60s — extends through the whole show and exudes from the sprightly cast, from principals to chorus, as if everyone sprouts rainbows. The knockoff score by Marc Shaiman, with lyrics co-written by Scott Wittman, and book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, is lovingly, safely adapted from the much more chintzy 1988 John Waters movie that apotheosized Baltimore, Maryland, and mainlined drag queen extraordinaire Divine squarely into America's consciousness. Broadway sanitized the muddy Waters and made it safe for matinee ladies to bop along to the Madison, the Mashed Potato and the Frug, while swallowing the cheery message of integration and acceptance. The musical ran on Broadway for six and a half years and won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It's easy to see why in CP's flawlessly performed show — okay, the wireless mikes aren't flawless, and the lighting needs fine tuning and subtlety — but this thing moves! The kids on the Corny Collins Show (think American Bandstand) just want to dance, and why shouldn't everyone dance together, says innocent, ample-sized Tracy Turnblad (Kalin Coates, a fireplug of energy and voice), who knows a thing or two about being the butt of high school jokes. In this feel-good world, she gets her guy (smooth Aaron Boudreaux, a real-life Broadway musical star in the making); sees agoraphobic mom Edna (Danny Seibert, whose basso voice and wry comic timing fill out that 54 EEE brassiere) blossom into her own Macy's Thanksgiving Day float; and helps goofy friend Penny (Hayley Beiermeister, a wily scene stealer) and beyond-the-tracks Seaweed (Donté Wright, slick and boneless) find color-blind love. The ensemble is pitch perfect, with extra-fine support from Brad Zimmerman, Tamar Siler, Riley Branning, Pamela Moore and those three wailing Supremes-like Dynamites: Miatta Lebile, Lani Boykai and Sarah Kalala. Under Ron Jones's expert, laser-sharp direction, the flavorful choreography by Daria James and Erin Roleto, the crisp sets by Carl Russell, the amazing costumes by Reba Kochersperger and Linda Clark (with those towering, wraparound wigs that have their own particular character), and the foot-tapping, finger-snapping musical direction by Stephen Jones, Country Playhouse's Hairspray is teased and coiffed to perfection. Like the song says, "Big, Blonde & Beautiful." Through July 30. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

Spring Awakening, winner of eight Tony awards, is the ultimate ensemble musical. It has moments when its talented leads step forward to break your heart or fill your soul with excitement, but the real stars are the quicksilver movements of the young straining at their shackles, the mood lighting that seems to strike just the right note, the simple set that serves so well a multiplicity of purposes, the special sound effects, the unobtrusive, talented band and of course the glorious rock music by Duncan Sheik. It all comes together in a triumphant kaleidoscope of talent. The story, based on an 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind, depicts the torturous stirrings of sexuality among the young. Book and lyrics are by Steven Sater, who captures the anguish of confused youth under the boot of authority. The romantic lead is the good-looking intellectual Melchior, played by Corey Hartzog, who looks the part and creates an authentic characterization as he moves from warmth and camaraderie to educator, to swain and finally to rebel. His rendition of "Totally Fucked," aided by dazzling choreography, music and, yes, even the lyrics, is one of the highlights of the show. Tyce Green plays Moritz, an ill-fated student struggling in class, who has possibly — and deliberately — the worst haircut ever seen onstage. His energy and body language surge across the stage like a tornado, and they etch an indelible portrait. The love interest is Wendla, portrayed by Stephanie Styles, who handles convincingly a difficult, complex role. Andy Ingalls brings great comic timing to a moment of self-gratification. Philip Lehl plays several adult men, and imprints his skilled stamp on each, and Kristin Warren does equally well with the adult women. The graveside staging of the poignant "Left Behind" is moving. George Brock's brilliant direction involves us from the opening song, "Mama Who Bore Me," and seals the deal with an electric staging of a Latin lesson. The choreography by Kristin Warren contributes so much that her name should go above the title. It is a joy simply to immerse oneself in the recreated world of tormented youth with a compelling tale to tell. Don't miss the limited run, and bring friends – they will be grateful. Through July 31 in repertory with Art, so verify which is on. Generations Theatre at Hamman Hall, Rice University, 6100 Main St., 832-326-1045. — JJT

Thoroughly Modern Millie Bob your hair, roll your stockings below the knee, pile into a Roadster and Charleston over to Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for a thoroughly delightful time. It's the bee's knees! Adapted from the Academy Award-winning Ross Hunter musical (1967) that starred Julie Andrews, Carol Channing and Mary Tyler Moore, this tuneful '20s tribute, a multiple-Tony winner, including the award for Best Musical (2002), is the happiest of shows. Fresh from her one-horse Kansas town, "modern" Millie (Laura Gray, as fresh and winning as they come) arrives in cold-hearted New York determined to find a rich husband, love be damned. During her gold-digging adventures, she meets poor but refined orphan Miss Dorothy (Libby Evans), smart-alecky Jimmy (Michael J. Ross), suitable husband-to-be Mr. Graydon (Adam W. Delka), society entertainer Muzzy Van Hossmere (Kristina Sullivan) and hotel proprietress Mrs. Meers (Allison Sumrall), who, on the side, runs a white slavery ring with her uncooperative servants, Ching Ho (Troy D. Menn) and Bun Foo (Eric Edward Schell). It's madcap and silly, joyous and fun, thanks to the ever-lively music, lyrics and book from Jeanine Tesori, Dick Scanlan and Richard Morris, who poke fun at '20s stereotypes and pay their respects, too. The cast outdoes itself, dancing up a storm in Michelle Macicek and Laura Gray's exceptionally vibrant tap numbers, or just belting their songs like the troupers they are. Gray is perfectly cast as Millie, innocent in love, yet striving to be hard, with a shining Broadway voice that raises the rafters. Ross is what one might call a real Broadway baby, smooth and polished to perfection, a trifecta of singing, acting and dancing; and Sumrall nails Mrs. Meers with her pro's timing, sure-fire comic reactions and drop-dead voice. Everyone radiates. From speakeasy to skyscraper ledge, the simple but effective sets by Amanda McBee keep the show moving, and the beaded costumes by Libby Evans are sparkly and shimmering. Maestro Dominique Royem leads a very feisty orchestra with plenty of saxophone. As one of Masquerade's finest productions – and that's saying something! – Millie accomplishes what any old-fashioned musical wants to do: completely entertain. You can't stop grinning. In Broadway terms, that's real gold diggin'. Through July 31. 800 Bagby, 713-861-7045. – DLG

Don Juan in Hell Inside literary lion G.B. Shaw's philosophical comedy Man and Superman (1903) stands a dream scene like no other. Known as Don Juan in Hell (officially Act III, sc. II), it lasts about an hour and a half and is a complicated intellectual debate between Don Juan (James Walter), the Devil (John Kaiser), Juan's former paramour Dona Ana (Lisa Schofield) and her father the Commander (H. Brandon del Castillo), slain by Juan while defending his daughter's honor. The lengthy scene can stand alone and is usually cut from the full-length production or presented as a concert reading, as is given by Houston's newest theater company, Edge Theatre. (Edge's artistic director and director of its Houston premiere is Jim Tommaney, who also writes about theater for the Press.) Much enthralled by German philosopher Nietzsche's theories of the Superman, Shaw inverted the German's lofty moralizing into a condemnation of English hypocrisy, using his patented linguistic flair and biting wit to make his thrusts. Shaw loved causing a stir. So: immortal lover Don Juan is a prig; Hell is full of art and love, not death and torture; and Heaven, dour and sterile, is filled with thinkers, not doers. All points of view get equal weight. This is a play to really listen to – to enjoy, in part, for the very sound of it. Sitting at music stands with scripts, the cast handles Shaw's curlicue logic, tempered prose and stylish cleverness with moderate success. Kaiser and Schofield, old pros that they are, juggle Shaw with a jaunty air, creating characters where not many hints exist. Kaiser is clearly enjoying himself, employing an attitude of immense devil-may-care; Schofield sculpts Ana, whose piety on earth shouldn't place her in Hell, into a late-blooming Life Force, where biology trumps intellect. Dark and handsome, Walter is picture-perfect as libertine Juan; while at times Shaw's convoluted prose gets away from him, he sails nimbly through his aria about the denizens of Hell (i.e., Britain) not being what they seem. The Commander is a statue come to life, and Castillo, sitting ramrod straight, blusters through the role without much finesse. A rarity among Shaw's performed works, this Don Juan in Hell, though not the most heavenly, is filled with enough Shaw deviltry to make it a must-see. No Shaw at all would be Hell, indeed. Through August 6. Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch, 832-894-1843. – DLG

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover