Capsule Reviews

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 September 3. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

Hotter than Houston St. Peter doesn't know what to do with Stan Wetzel. Stan's not bad enough for hell, but he's certainly not worthy of heaven. There aren't enough stars for good deeds tallied on St. Pete's celestial tote board. Not yet, anyway. "Can't I go to that middle place?" Stan pleads. To earn his wings, he's transported to -- where else? -- the center of Montrose in 1977, with $50 and a Greensheet. Pete gives him his orders: Be a force for positive change, or the pearly gates will be forever closed. So begins Radio Music Theatre's zany summer production, one of its "in-Fertle" musical comedies, in which the patented goofball family from Dumpster, Texas, does not appear. Instead, the company's inspired acting trio (Steve Farrell, who's also the playwright, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills) introduce us to a whole new galaxy of loonies, hucksters, shysters and clueless folks, as Stan's quest leads him through Houston's recent history of boom, bust and reboom. Barbara Bush and former mayor Kathy Whitmire make appearances, as does con man deluxe Aldine Bender. There's also Jake and Lunabelle, who live deep inside one of our streets' numerous potholes; a forever hopeful -- and scary -- duo in yellow rain hats who wait for the appearance of the bus; and Uncle Dan, the crappy-furniture salesman who advertises the "scoot and shoot," the ultimate recliner fitted with firearms. Steve Farrell's songs keep the laughs coming; among the best are the bus-stop anthem "The Bus Is Gonna Come," the correspondence-school-doctors' ditty "Can We Trust Him If He Survives?" and the toe-tapping "Who Took the Boom Out of Boomtown?" If we have to relive the hell of Houston's past, this is the way to do it. Through September 2. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

Smoke on the Mountain The highly entertaining and sweetly sentimental Smoke on the Mountain may be A.D. Players' best show of the season. Connie Ray and Alan Bailey's charming musical takes the audience back to the '30s, when bluegrass gospel was in its heyday. The show opens on Reverend Oglethorpe (Kevin Dean), the young pastor of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina. It's Saturday night, and he has asked the Sanders Family Singers to grace his flock with a night of joyful music praising the Lord. Only trouble is, the singing group is late. Nervously eyeballing the door, Oglethorpe kills time by preaching a bit, telling us all that God "scratches where the world itches." Turns out a little preaching is all that's needed, for soon enough the entertainment shows up. And after recovering from a little bus accident, they fill up the stage with some of the best bluegrass you're likely to hear anywhere in town this summer. Guitars, a stand-up base, a washboard, a mandolin, a cow bell -- you name it, the Sanders family knows how to play it. It's even fun to hear the testifying each family member does between songs. The cast features some lovely singers, including Gerry Poland as the saved sinner Uncle Stanley Sanders, and Karen Hodgin as Vera Sanders, the mother hen who tells a hysterical story featuring a june bug tied to a string. There's some conflict over whether the Sanderses should be dancing on stage -- folks don't dance in the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. But mostly everybody stays in high spirits, and a wonderful time is had by all. Through August 27 at the Grace Theater, 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721.

Speeding Motorcycle He's back! Jason Nodler, the founding artistic director of Infernal Bridegroom Productions, has returned to Houston and the Axiom to direct Speeding Motorcycle, a surprisingly sweet rock opera, which Nodler adapted from songs by Daniel Johnston with grant monies from the Rockefeller Foundation. For the uninitiated, Johnston is a cult musician-artist who lives in Waller, where he continues to write and draw despite the fact that he suffers from severe bipolar disorder. As one might expect, Johnston's musical world is inflected by mental illness and extreme loneliness. He writes often of unrequited love, deep despair and death. So it's a strange and altogether wonderful surprise that the story Nodler has constructed out of Johnston's powerful music is nothing if not uplifting. The weirdly moving story focuses on a man who falls in love with an undertaker. When she marries another undertaker, our hero -- who goes by the unlikely name of Joe the Boxer and is played by three different actors (Kyle Sturdivant, Cary Winscott and Joe Folladori) -- realizes the best way to attract his lover's attention might be to die. After all, she is an undertaker. As maudlin as this might sound (and Johnston's songs are often so woeful they can move one to tears), the utterly unpredictable story turns in some fascinating directions. Angels appear. So do preachers. We watch an undertaker care for a dead body. And somehow all this gets happier and happier. One might read this musical as mimicking the emotional manic-depressive roller coaster that bipolars ride. But it is sweeter to think of this show as the least ironic and perhaps most joyful production that Nodler has ever created. Through September 2. 2524 McKinney, 713-522-8443.

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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