Capsule Reviews

A Bad Night's Sleep This crazy-quilt revue from the loons at Radio Music Theatre is really a show about nothing, but RMT out-Seinfelds Seinfeld -- and is much funnier to boot. Although one of the 14 Fertle Family shows, Sleep keeps our favorite family gang off stage until Act II. It works because the lunatic trio (Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills) features enough new characters up their hilarious sleeves to populate Sugar Land. The first act is a variation on RMT's "infertle" comedies, such as Life Beyond the Loop and The Story of Burford, Category 5, wherein writer Steve Farrell aims his barbs at the idiosyncrasies of Houston. In one sequence, we're treated to Mills, in a nightmare, trying to pass a virtual driver's test. The instructor's electronic voice, amplified like Stephen Hawking's, speeds up, skips syllables and generally screws up like any government bureaucracy, while Mills, in brilliant pantomime, sits on a stool in his arcade helmet and rubber gloves and zooms madly through Houston's streets. He drives over barrels and rubber cones, loses points by even thinking of driving on U.S. 59, stops for days on Memorial because of the trail riders, and maneuvers over dead bodies. It's a screamingly funny sequence that shows, in essence, what makes RMT so unique: simplicity of execution, flawless timing, exquisite performance and wicked satire. Before the Fertles appear, we're treated to a parody of regional theater in a divinely bungled production of Macbeth, a TV commercial by insane furniture maven Uncle Dan, a delicious MTV knockoff, a Swedish movie from PBS and Little Teddy Witherspoon singing his one un-hit "Tall in the Saddle" in Gregorian chant. Great big laughs inside this little theater. Through November 18. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

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 December 31. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change! Joe DePietro and Jimmy Roberts's enormously successful off-Broadway musical is a fun bit of fluff that's supposed to be a great date show. Maybe that's because the world of love and marriage, as depicted here, looks about as deep and dark as the waters of a backyard pool. Now running at the Great Caruso Dinner Theater, the musical is put together like a revue -- it has no central narrative other than the story of the middle-class American Every-Relationship. Told in short vignettes, most of which are punctuated by song, it features a tiny cast of four (all charming and intelligent singers on the night I went) who inhabit a predictable handful of characters looking for love. Soft humor stitches together the show's tunes. In "I Will Be Loved Tonight," a woman (Holland Vavra) thrills at the notion of the first night of sex with a new lover, and in "Always a Bridesmaid" a woman (Onyie Nwachukwu) recalls all the hideous dresses she's worn in others' weddings. There are less successful moments that deal with too-familiar stereotypes, including old folks and geeks, but even with the weaker moments, there's enough humor to move the show quickly along. The performers are so strong that they manage to infuse even the lamest jokes with energy, and Jimmy Phillips's direction makes good use of the performance space at the dinner theater. Add up all these good qualities and you've got a perfectly pleasant, if utterly safe, night of theater. It's no wonder this show is touted as great for dates. If love is as hard to find as the musical implies, it might be a good idea to keep the boat in shallow waters at the beginning of any potential relationship. Through November 19. 10001 Westheimer, 713-780-4900.

Much Ado About Nothing Director Scott Schwartz has delivered a gorgeous production of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Now running at the Alley Theatre, this must-see confection is filled with charm, grace and sumptuous joy. The originality starts at the top of the show, when Claudio and Benedick, the two men destined to fall in love with Hero and Beatrice, enter the stage via an enormous hot air balloon. Designer Walt Spangler has covered the Alley stage with a simple landscape of cartoon cutout green hills, giant daisies and puffy blue skies. Fabio Toblini's costumes are a wonder of comedic beauty. The music, put together by Jill BC Du Boff, ranges from rock to Latino, and the dance scene that comes toward the middle of the show is a thrill of exciting sound as well as gorgeous images (on more balloons, covered with drawings that hearken to Commedia dell'Arte and old-fashioned puppet shows). The only thing missing from this love story is real sexual chemistry between the lovers. But this hardly matters. The true love story happening in this production is not between men and women, but between a deeply talented director and the magical capabilities of theater itself. Through November 5. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

Simon Boccanegra Simon Boccanegra, Houston Grand Opera's season opener, isn't very well known, even among opera fans. HGO hasn't even performed the work in 20 years, so it seems an odd choice to start the season with. Except for one thing: Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The 44-year-old bari-hunk, the silver-maned heartthrob Elle magazine dubbed the "Elvis of Opera," wanted to do the role and he wanted to debut it in Houston. 'Nuff said. Boccanegra is one of the great baritone roles; the music, like the dark plot of love and loyalty lost and found, is complex and layered. As for the plot, Boccanegra has an out-of-wedlock child with his lover. Disaster strikes, and he and the girl are separated, but they're later reunited. War and peace, kidnapping, love affairs and disguises all play a role here, but in this opera, language prevails over swordplay -- if you can call an opera a talky one, this is it. You won't leave the theater humming, but you will leave with an immense appreciation of Hvorostovsky's extraordinary talent. He may not be the best baritone in the world, but he's right up there; and Houston audiences haven't seen him since his debut here in 2001. And speaking of debuts, it was also Patrick Summers's first time to conduct Simon Boccanegra, which he did brilliantly, inspiring the orchestra and 74-member chorus to wondrous heights. Through Saturday, November 4, at the Wortham Theater Center's Brown Theater, 510 Preston, 713-228-OPERA.

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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