Capsule Reviews

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 "infertle" 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.

KBBJ: All Access All the Time If you're of a certain age, you remember the semi-classic CBS sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. If you do, you might remember co-star Loni Anderson's pneumatic wardrobe or perhaps Gary Sandy's skintight jeans. The comedy was set in a radio station where the zany on-air talent and equally zany backstage management coexisted with heartwarming symbiosis. Houston playwright Tony Esparza has got to be a fan of this oldie, since his current new work, set in a public-access radio station, has the same arc. But since we're in the new millennium, a few changes are in order. Instead of Anderson's pinup breasts, Esparza gives us a co-worker's vagina (there's a sex toy based on her anatomy). Instead of smarmy innuendo, he gives us in-your-face sex farce, which also includes strap-ons, an extraneous porn-scene fantasy, pussy-whipped husbands and adulterous affairs. There's still time for group-hug sentiment among the workers, but where the comedy starts out is pretty much where it ends up, which doesn't make for a scintillating journey. There are funny bits throughout, but they're separated by deadly-dull on-air segments that would have this station bumped off the airwaves for mind-numbing tedium. The pace is bumpy and greatly needs quicker timing and a smoother ensemble. Suzanne King, as station manager Suzie, is a fun psycho combo of Nurse Ratched and Mommie Dearest, while Julie Boneau captures the new-age navet of DJ Dharla with her marvelous voice, which sounds like torn silk. But for a station that plays such an eclectic music mix, there's a lot of static. Through July 8. Fan Factory at Midtown Arts Center, 1423 Holman, 832-651-5287.

The Race If the new Houston theatrical troupe GEMKNEM (pronounced "jim-nim") and its inaugural production is a herald for the quality to come, then unfurl the banners and blow those trumpets, because their first play is a doozy. Written and directed by George Oliver, Angela Watson and Dejamion McDowell, The Race is a provocative compilation of 13 playlets that confronts black reality head on. This production is superbly acted (and sung) by the writers themselves, along with Anthony Darden, Josette Harrison and Aurelia Holland. What supplies powerful new life to another play about such recurrent issues as drug use, absentee fathers, self-worth, prejudice, crime, gangsta culture and empty churches, among others, is that the authors focus their blistering lasers within the community. They laud personal responsibility, faith and family. Victimhood, seductive as it may be, is a relic of the past, as demonstrated in "Jim Crow and the Negro Display," an MTV-vaudeville number, and in the searing "Jones," in which Darden plays a pimp from hell who becomes a chilling force for evil, as he sells his vile elixir for "happiness," called Passion. The universal human spirit gets a phenomenal uplift in "Love Is a Scat and a Moan," a wordless operetta sung scat-style by McDowell and Harrison that details the truth of a relationship through courtship, pregnancy, breakup, reconciliation and childbirth. "And You Know How They Can Be" is a screamingly funny satire about reverse discrimination, as the black community is frightened to death by a lone white woman jogging through the 'hood. At the beginning of the show, the ensemble promises to make us think. They succeed gloriously, while also making us laugh, weep and recognize ourselves, whatever color. Through July 16 at SHAPE Community Center, 3815 Live Oak, 832-242-0156.

Sparkle For a musical that preaches against the evils of drug use and graphically shows the deleterious effects upon abuser and loved ones alike, Sparkle needs a jolt of speed. Now playing in a drugged-out, somnambulistic production at Ensemble Theatre, this stage adaptation of the 1976 Irene Cara film dilutes whatever strengths this story has, while it slowly, very slowly, unfolds. Surprisingly, the musical's adapters -- renowned playwright Ntozake Shange and Walter Dallas, artistic director of Philadelphia's Freedom Theatre -- abandon their acute critical faculties and allow the story to wobble and stagger with extraneous detours, one-note characters and an anemic main role. Up in Harlem in 1959, single mom Effie (Beverly Williams) runs a tight ship. Morally upright, patient to a fault, Mama works hard as a maid for a white family downtown. She holds her family together, seeing that her three daughters do their homework and instilling in them noble values. The three sisters -- Sparkle (Constance Washington), Dolores (Ane Mouton) and Sister (Teacake Ferguson) -- form a doo-wop group. But when Sister falls in with street thug Satin Struthers (Broderick Jones), drugs and humiliating abuse follow. "I can't fly on one wing," Sister pleads in her pathetic attempt to justify her zonked-out appearance and bruised face when the sister act is on the verge of major success. As might be obvious, this is Sister's story and will remain so. Sparkle is relegated to the background, even though the musical is named for her. This obvious lack of focus parallels the show's overall structural failure. There are fine points and high moments throughout, but the sluggish pace and numerous unnecessary scenes trip up the flow, so that it feels like we're taking two steps back for every one forward. Through July 9. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.

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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