Capsule Reviews

Barefoot in the Park Neil Simon's idea of bohemian is ordering a princess phone for a new fifth-floor walkup apartment -- remember, this is 1963 -- and dialing the weather report. Stylish and elegant, newlywed Corie Bratter (Lauren Bigelow) is a far cry from Haight-Ashbury, but she's game enough to eat in an Albanian restaurant and set up a blind date for her conventional mother (Jo Ann Levine) with rou Victor (John Kaiser), who uses their bedroom window to climb into his apartment on the roof. After six days of marriage between Corie and Paul (Matt Tramel), a conventional "stuffed shirt" who never does anything impulsive, their perfect honeymoon at the Plaza is a distant memory. She wants the honeymoon to continue, but he has to prepare for his first day in court, there's a hole in the ceiling and the building, he says, is filled with weirdoes. Simon's way with a gag line, after years of writing for the early giants of TV comedy, is genuine and laugh-out-loud funny. When Corie's mother realizes that she's going on a date and not meeting Paul's parents for dinner, she fusses over her appearance. Told she looks fine, she retorts, "For Paul's parents, I just wanted to look clean." Levine's dazed performance subtly defines her character, as does Tramel's, whose dignified demeanor unravels under the onslaught of everyday life. Kaiser captures the irrepressible life force of Victor, and Bigelow turns Corie into something more than a spoiled '60s whiner. Through February 17. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219.

La Cenerentola The lightning of inspiration that struck Gioacchino Rossini for his greatest works (Barber of Seville, Italian Girl in Algiers, Tancredi, William Tell, Stabat Mater) missed the prolific composer when he dashed off his version of the fairy tale "Cinderella" in 1817. This "dramatic comedy," replete with his patented opera buffa patter songs (those florid, gymnastic feats of vocal coloratura for all principals) and a bright, easy manner of execution, just doesn't have his complete heart in it. Houston Grand Opera, though, has resupplied all the magic and fun with its phenomenally inventive staging and exemplary cast. The staging, from Comediants, the Spanish avant-garde theater group, has a colorful comic-book style, with Mondrian-like bold, geometric patterns of color and light, and an effervescent sense of delight in the wonders of stagecraft. The audience-friendly sextet of mice who double as stagehands and sympathetic pals to the downtrodden Cinderella character, Angelina, stop the show with their sublime antics. The cast sing like gods, especially mezzo Joyce DiDonato, the former HGO studio artist who has triumphed throughout the international opera circuit in this most demanding role. Luscious of voice, with a pyrotechnic technique for days, she sings the hell out of it. Joyce DiDonato, the world is your oyster. A complete musical artist is so rare that it takes only one hand to count them all -- here's the opportunity to experience the real thing. Through February 11. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-OPERA.

Fat Pig Love does not conquer all, not in playwright Neil LaBute's nasty little world (In the Company of Men, Bash, The Shape of Things), where personal corruption is mother's milk and characters say just what's on their minds, no matter how vile or hurtful. Here, in LaBute's coruscating landscape from 2004, physical attractiveness is worshipped as the epitome of success and happiness; anyone not up to par is cruelly mocked, dismissed and, ultimately, destroyed. Successful, handsome, essentially boyish Tom (Jeff Featherston) has fallen in love with Helen (Andrea Hyde), the "fat pig" of the title, whose easy laugh and self-deprecating humor shield her, so she thinks, from the taunts and disapproving looks of others. Tom assures her of his devotion but is only truly comfortable with her when they're alone. He has never introduced her to his friends from the office. Who would? These sadistic harpies flay everyone alive with their acid, black-comedy tongues. The office scamp, bratty, judgmental Carter (Robert de los Reyes), and svelte, seething-with-jealousy ex-girlfriend Jeannie (Allison Gabbard) attack Tom with a vengeance, slowly eroding his moral stance -- shaky to begin with -- that he doesn't care what people think of Helen's size. He does, of course, more deeply than he knows, and the final scene is a soul-baring, wrenching moment of truth. The talented quartet, under Ed Muth's cushy direction, delivers the script with all its mean-spirited put-downs and bittersweet sentiment intact and on target, making this production a heartfelt Valentine's Day bouquet -- from the Addams Family. Through February 18. Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical This frothy bubble of silliness now running at Stages Repertory Theatre requires absolutely zero brain power to get through. Cobbled together out of stereotypes and a sitcom-like plot, the featherweight bit of camp by David Nehls and Betsy Kelso celebrates white-trash ladies and the men they love in a funky little tale about a phobic housewife and her lonely-heart man. Setting the stage and guiding us through the story is a chorus of three women: Betty (Susan O. Koozin), a sturdy mother hen with a heart of gold who runs the whole shebang; Pickles (Mikah Horn), a young dumb-as-dirt, sweet-as-sugar blond who shows all the signs of suffering from a hysterical pregnancy; and Lin (Carolyn Johnson), strutting around with her cleavage out to there and worrying all the while about her man on death row. This cartoon strip of a story focuses on Norbert and Jeannie Garstecki, a long-married couple who love each other despite the fact that Jeannie (Melodie Smith) suffers from agoraphobia and hasn't set foot outside her little trailer home in years. Nothing in the story is surprising, but the music is entertaining, and Stages has put together a cast of solid singers who capture their characters in bold, broad and colorful strokes. Through February 25. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

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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
Lee Williams