Capsule Reviews

Bell, Book and Candle Casting directors take note: There's a new face in town (new to us, anyway), and it belongs to one of the most strikingly original actors we've seen in a long time -- Morgan McCarthy, now setting the stage afire at Country Playhouse as the enchantingly sexy witch Gillian in John Van Druten's 1950 romantic comedy. Young McCarthy, fresh out of the University of St. Thomas, needs no potions nor spells to bewitch, bother and bewilder; she performs her theatrical magic without tricks and so totally inhabits her character, it's difficult to tell where her prodigious powers might lead. Now, if director Joey Milillo would just leave her be, instead of zooming her across the stage at every opportunity, we could concentrate on what she's doing. She's up, down, practically flying through the air, and so is everybody else in this frenetic staging -- when they're not standing behind the sofa that blocks our view. There's a telling gay subtext in Van Druten's alchemy, with its emphasis on being "one of them," "ashamed of what you are" and having "regular hangouts in bars," but you could also read into this references to the Communist witch-hunts of Joe McCarthy. That's just the minor fun in this elegant, sly play, anyway. John Dunn, as the hapless mortal who falls hard under Gillian's spell and even harder when the spell's reversed, plays the arch dialogue with easy charm; Thomas Blanton, as Gillian's playboy brother who uses his magic as a parlor trick to get girls, is all wicked bad-boy; and Carolyn Montgomery, as the dotty aunt all atwitter at her underworld powers, has daffy charm. Chris Tennison, as anthropologist Redlitch, who stumbles into the coven, bellows and roars as if in deepest Africa searching for Livingston. He has no charm. I think he's in the wrong play. But exotic McCarthy is definitely in the right spot, and you should be, too, to witness her thorough enchantment. Through January 28. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

Dragnet In darkness, at Theatre Suburbia, the four-note fanfare of Jack Webb's spectacularly popular police TV drama -- dum da dum dum, probably as well-known as the start of Beethoven's Fifth -- ushers us into the comfy world of '50s pop culture and the no-nonsense, hard-boiled L.A. homicide department headed by Sgt. Joe Friday and his stolid right-hand man, Officer Frank Smith. For the original half-hour drama, which won Emmy awards in all categories, producer/director/writer/lead actor Webb (Sgt. Friday) brought documentary realism to a genre that already had great success on radio. Case files were used as the scripts, "only names were changed to protect the innocent," and the audience learned how much drudge work was required to solve a case -- even if it only took a half-hour. James Reach adapted an episode from the '54 season entitled "The Big Bible," and this is the basis for his homage to a time and place that seem as long ago and far away as ancient Egypt -- where freezers are an expensive, exotic luxury; people asked to dinner "come to the house for a feed"; and coffee costs 15 cents. Murder is still murder, however, that doesn't change; and suspects lie and cheat to beat the rap. Unnecessarily padded to fill out a three-acter, the story, about an apparent suicide who happens to have shot himself twice and then locked himself inside a small room, has enough suspects to keep the flimsy plot spinning and the audience guessing. The game cast accurately gets the overwrought emotional tone of this mother of all TV crime shows, and Gene Griesbach, as Friday, deadpans his way through all the mayhem without winking and giving it all away. Through February 3. 1419 W. 43rd, 713-682-3525.

Enter Laughing You'd be hard-pressed to find a play as sweet and family-friendly as this one. It's as warm and cozy as your favorite old sweater, if a little threadbare. Based on a partly autobiographical novel by legendary comedy writer Carl Reiner (Your Show of Shows, Dick Van Dyke Show), Joseph Stein's 1963 adaptation for Broadway is loving and nonthreatening, entertaining and genial. If plays were rated like movies, Theatre Southwest's production would be a definite G, suitable for all audiences, which is fine, because every now and then, it's nice to go to the theater and not have to think -- just sit back, relax and grin. Nebbish David (an easygoing, charming Aaron Thompson) "wants to be somebody" but right now works as a delivery boy for a small-time women's hatmaker in NYC's garment center. His parents, strictly out of the Jewish school of theatrical parents, who know all about guilt and worry, want David to be a pharmacist, but David dreams of being an actor. When he spies an ad in the paper for prospective students for Harrison Marlowe's school of dramatic arts, his heart leaps. Marlowe (Scott Holmes), a rich-voiced, second-rate ham, bilks his students for tuition, but he sorely needs a leading man, and Marlowe's sexpot daughter takes a liking to the eager puppy. Complications ensue, of course, as David stays out too late rehearsing, his parents fret and his girlfriend gets jealous. The sprightly cast makes the most of this fluff, with Thompson, Holmes and Mack Hays, as the fatherly hatter, delivering standout performances that make us believe in a story where the conflicts are small, gentleness is all and dreams are fulfilled. Through January 27. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505.

Lou Tells a Big One The inspired clowns at Radio Music Theatre have another hit on their hands -- a funny, jam-packed, crazy-quilt comedy starring those ultra-loony denizens of Dumpster, Texas. That would be the singing Fertle Family and the boobies they know. Where to begin? Singer Country Wayne Conaway, the sleazy one-hit wonder, rehearses with his band for the reopening of Uncle Al's tacky juke joint and continues to put the make on dim Lou's dimmer wife Bridgette, whose baby Angina might be his flesh and blood; cigar-smoking Gwenda, living in sin with cigar-smoking Uncle Al, stalks him at all hours wanting to get married; low-rent mobster Tony Mandini threatens Lou with a beating from Gwenda's rowdy son Braxton if he doesn't pay back the money Tony loaned him so he could buy Bridgette that pink sofa. Lou can't pay, since he lost his job a year ago and hasn't told anyone. Sheriff Benton, Dumpster's fey upholder of law and order, reprimands soft-brained Earl for ringing the fire truck bell and interrupting his afternoon nap and reruns of Jeopardy; meanwhile, Earl may hold a million-dollar winning lottery ticket; preacher Ned Fertle sneaks circus peanuts and a stick of butter to augment the low-fat, no-salt, no-taste food his wife Mildred prepares for him since his rash of medical emergencies; then there's busty Chessie, Mandini's squeeze, who's aching for a grope even if she has to put someone's hands on her to start the process; and, of course, the gibberish-speaking Doc Moore, conducting blood tests to find out Angina's true papa, makes a cameo appearance to really confuse matters. Needless to say, the entire panoply of crazies is played by the talented trio of Vicki Farrell, Rich Mills and Steve Farrell, who also writes their incredibly hilarious scripts. A trip to Dumpster will do wonders for any ills that ail you. Through May 12. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

Urinetown, the Musical On the surface, Urinetown, the Musical, Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis's Tony Award-winning comedic tour-de-force, does everything wrong: There's the utterly tasteless title, the bizarre premise that imagines a futuristic city where the citizens have to pay to pee and, of course, the fact that the show takes several well-directed jabs at the whole genre of Broadway musicals. Every show from Big River to Les Misrables gets a poke in this show. But somehow, all these elements add up to a wildly original parody that is a delight to behold, especially when the production is as good as the one now running at Main Street Theater. Director Ilich Guardiola proves his theatrical chops in just about every aspect of this production. His cast is perfect. Especially terrific is Kregg Alan Dailey as Officer Lockstock, the show's narrator. Dailey finds a perfect balance between biting irony and humor. As with all musicals, there's a romance between two young lovers, here played by Michael J. Ross and Alison Luff, a lovely pair of hysterically funny ingnues who sparkle with chemical fire. But since Urinetown is a parody, their big love follows an unpredictable, laugh-out-loud plot. The story, music, director and cast add up to one of the best musicals produced on any stage in Houston this year. Through January 27 at Main Street Theater, 4617 Montrose Blvd., 713-524-6706.

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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