Capsule Reviews

Carmen If you were going to be remembered for only one opera in your prolific career, you'd do no worse than Carmen. Composer Georges Bizet died during its premiere run in 1875, thinking his Gypsy girl had shocked his native Parisians, who weren't accustomed to such brazen hussies on the stage of the Opera-Comique. Boy, was he wrong. After a bumpy start, which was scandalous only because the Paris audiences pretended they were above such things, the opera shot off around the world as if from a cannon, and it hasn't stopped since. The familiar tale of the fiery, liberated woman who'd rather die than be hemmed in by jealous lovers is as evergreen and fresh as ever, thanks to the revival at Houston Grand Opera. In her patented interpretation, Beatrice Uria Monzon -- the reigning Carmen of the day -- is all sexy smoke and fire, with a lush vocal beauty that could melt ice caps. As she waits for her lover at the tavern, she arrays herself across a table, hikes up her voluminous skirts, shows off those shapely gams and still manages to sing up a storm. Hapless Don Jose (Marcus Haddock) doesn't stand a chance; he throws everything away to be in her arms, and his robust tenor fills the house with ardor, passion and dramatic surety. Raymond Aceto's baritone is a trifle too grainy for him to be utterly convincing as Carmen's current honey, but the five smuggler pals rip through their "pizzicato quintet" with precise abandon and excellent technique. Studio alumna Jessica Jones can't make milksop Micaela any less insufferable, but she sings all her prayers with radiant conviction. The production is sultry and minimal, and the orchestra sparkles and glows under the heated conducting of Sebastian Lang-Lessing. Viva Carmen! Through May 2. Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas, 713-228-6737.

The Chalk Garden Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden is an old-fashioned English yarn about a governess with a dark secret who's hired by an eccentric grandmother (Jeannette Clift George) to care for a smart-mouthed, teenage granddaughter (Kacy Smith). After many scenes that involve a wacky houseman (Chip Simmons) and lots of metaphorical chitchat about how to care for the dying garden outside, it becomes clear that the governess (Cyndi Scarr Crittenden) is just what the strange family needs. Not only does she know a thing or two about flowers, she clearly knows how to tame a wild girl. The garden starts to grow, the adolescent becomes more civil, and the grandmother finds a friend. In fact, everything is going splendidly until one fateful afternoon when an old judge (David Parker) comes for lunch and tells the story of a young woman he once condemned to death for murder. All hell breaks loose! Secrets come to light! Emotions run high! It's easy enough to tell where the story is headed, but the fun is in the journey. Unfortunately, A.D. Players' production is marred by the performance of its star player, George. On opening night, the elderly actress, who is a charming performer and a still frankly beautiful woman, did fine through the first act. But by the middle of Act II, she was clearly getting tired. And by Act III, a stagehand was feeding her her lines. The show would have gone more smoothly had she simply carried a script. Because George shines with such natural charisma, it is difficult to watch and even more difficult to report her troubled performance. But when a theater charges $30 a ticket, the actors should know their lines. Through June 4. Grace Theater, 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721.

The Long Christmas Ride Home As much admiration as both Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre and Unhinged Productions inspire through their exemplary work in staging the unusual (BPT) and the gay (UP), Paula Vogel's newest work, which she calls an "adult puppet play," is an uneasy collaboration. This is not the fault of the two fine theater companies. The blame rests squarely with Vogel. Lauded for her black comedy about pedophilia, How I Learned to Drive, Vogel has returned to portray another screamingly dysfunctional family. There's adultery (from Dad, Alan Hall), frigid emotionless distance (from Mom, Sara Gaston) and three messed-up, whiny kids in the backseat of the rusty family car on their way to Grandma's house for a Christmas from hell. Carsick Stephen (Kyle Green) fantasizes about boys; Rebecca (Patricia Duran) fantasizes about hot Catholic boys; little Claire (Melissa Winter) is the golden girl who wants to know "what do we believe." The work moves back and forth in poetic time shifts and ultrapoetic stage language as secrets are revealed and the family spirals out of control. Now, the problem is, why are the kids but not the parents enacted as Bunraku-type puppets? It mucks up much more than it clarifies. Stephen grows up gay and then dies from AIDS before we get to really know him. Rebecca grows up pregnant and with boyfriend problems, and little golden Claire grows up lesbian, stalking her girlfriend's latest tryst. We don't get to know them, either. Stephen's ghost comes back into his sisters' lives to save them from themselves. With an onstage sitar player and Japanese shoji screens influencing the set design, it's very Eastern mystic. The acting is thoroughly lovely, as are Justin Dunford's puppet designs, but a little less philosophy and more dramaturgy might work wonders. Through May 14. Stages Repertory Theater, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

Moon over Buffalo Theatre Southwest has been on a roll for its 46th season. First came the sprightly Molire farce Imaginary Invalid, then the chilling if expository Night Must Fall, then the lovely, atmospheric Bus Stop. Now, TS gives us Ken Ludwig's backstage riot Moon over Buffalo. It's their best production to date, full of charm, wit, pratfalls and hammy actors (they're supposed to be). Ludwig's laugh-out-loud comedy (his best ever) is really a big, squishy bear hug to all those "crazy" actors who lovingly labor in the theater. It's the old-pro Kaufman-and-Hart school of adorable eccentricity that supplies Ludwig's textbook, and he sets up his spinning plot twists and reversals like a whirligig. It's a wonderful contraption, designed purely for laughs. Under the always-in-control direction of Sheryl Stanley, the octet of felicitous actors knows exactly how to play this farce for everything it has. There's not a false move anywhere, from any member of this well-oiled ensemble. As George and Charlotte Hay, the old married pros still making the rounds in the hinterlands and hoping for that one big fat chance at Hollywood, Carl Masterson and Jeanette Sebesta are like warm, cozy sweaters. You want to wrap them around you, and their finely detailed relationship -- expansive, theatrical, snippy, bellowing -- carries the play. They're incomparably matched with Malinda Dunlap, Salle Ellis, Adan Gonzalez, Aaron Thompson, Laura Romero and Jay Menchaca as all the nutty relatives, friends and fiances who swirl through the backstage lounge of the Erlanger Theatre in Buffalo, New York, circa 1953. The play has a delightfully sunny glow, and that's just how you'll feel when it's over. Through May 6. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505.

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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