Capsule Reviews

Beauty and the Beast Only the smallest of tykes will be enchanted by this homegrown version of the Disney spectacle still playing on Broadway. The rest will be lulled into a stupor, like many a little one on opening night. Theatre Under the Stars has replaced the glitz and blinding sheen of the original show with a bus-and-truck version that looks more like a cartoon than the Academy Award-winning animated movie. While the pieces of the minimal set fly in and out and rearrange themselves into castle hallways and grand galleries with adroit economy, the overall look is chintzy and 2-D. Except for those of the major characters, the mismatched costumes seem ordered from a school recital catalog. And it's hard to avoid cringing in dread when a character finds himself alone on stage, which is a cue for yet another pop-rock ballad of personal conviction, goodness and perseverance. (This unnecessary padding is unfortunately built into the show.) The choreography is dreary and uninspired, the production doesn't go together, and its seams show. But the little ones and their chaperones will be amused by the antics of randy candlestick Lumiere (Rob Lorey), prissy mantle clock Cogsworth (Justin Robertson), the wise teapot Mrs. Potts (Chesley Santoro), sexy feather duster Babette (Amy Bodnar) and operatic chifforobe Madame de la Grand Bouche (Susan Shofner). Although barbell-brained Gaston (Brian Noonan) and his toady-sidekick Lefou (Aaron Krohn) make good cartoon villains, it's the inanimate objects that add spice to the tepid romance of Belle (Kim Huber) and her Beast (Joseph Mahowald). With all the sexy animal magnetism removed, their love story becomes a snooze of a fairy tale. Through March 26. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-315-2525.

Danse Macabre The dead finally have their say. Danse Macabre, a collaboration between Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre and Two Star Symphony, covers the elusive mythology of death and dying in a loose narrative that includes music, dance, animation and Joel Orr's marvelously creepy puppets. The show begins with the death of Bobbindoctrin's leader, Orr (playing himself), during a hilarious speech in which he literally chokes to death talking about the dangers of merging disparate art forms. Orr's wishes are honored in the show that follows, which, refreshingly, gives each of the various artistic elements its own space. The expanded Two Star, in full zombie garb, plays several original works, sounding fabulous and adding to the weirdness. As for the story, Orr's spare play follows the troubled, worthless life of Walt Zipprian (not to be confused with the real Walt, an Infernal Bridegroom Productions actor), who, owing to circumstances beyond his control, is buried alive. Atton Paul's PixelVision videography and animation fills in many of the gory details of Walt's unfortunate death, including a graphic scene of the dirt landing on his coffin. Accompanied by matter-of-fact voice-over narration, Paul's video also describes the last things random people saw as they were dying, as well as the disturbing details of how they died. These are some of the most poignant moments of the show; we get to hear the inside story directly from the grave. Freneticore adds the "dance" to the Danse Macabre, mastering the death march, the near-death waltz and the end-of-life trudge with suitable lifeless flair. Quibbles: Orr's spooky puppets make too few appearances, and the Talento Bilingue stage isn't intimate enough to contain this poetic but thoroughly macabre work. Through March 25. 333 South Jensen, 713-526-7434.

The Human Voice and Send (who are you? I love you) Forty-three minutes of a woman whining on the phone to her departing lover, even when they're scored by the incomparable Francis Poulenc, is about 40 minutes too much. But that hasn't stopped Houston Grand Opera from presenting the one-woman vehicle The Human Voice (La Voix Humaine), a 1959 "lyric tragedy" with libretto by Jean Cocteau, translated almost word for word from the original. The Human Voice isn't Poulenc's best work; the Frenchman is at a loss to breathe life into this masochistic, B-grade melodrama. After a five-year affair, "She" is losing her lover to another. Having already downed a fistful of pills, she keeps popping them during her interminable phone call to "He." At first she's sweet and noble, then she's shrill and accusing; always, she blames herself for the failure of the relationship. It's hard to take in French, but in English it's unbearable. What happened to the female self-respect so prominently on display two decades earlier in those hardscrabble '30s films? Where's Joan Blondell when you need her? Caressed by the creamy, dramatic voice of Audra McDonald, we're lulled into thinking momentarily that this is better than it is. That's the power of an authentic Broadway diva. Send (who are you? I love you), Broadway composer John LaChiusa's curtain-raiser, is a contemporary reworking of the Poulenc a prequel, as it were. Still creamy, McDonald can't make LaChiusa's innocuous, disposable music sound any better. The "Woman" waits by her laptop, hoping for an instant message from someone she has yet to meet in person. She smokes dope, drinks wine and fantasizes about their life together. After much psychobabble, she finally gets that all-important call for which she has put her entire day on hold. Some power-woman. She seems nuts to me, although she does have a smashing pop-art-style apartment. Through March 26 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737.

Media Darlings "Run-down" isn't the word for the trash-filled apartment where low-life sisters Madeleine (Anne Zimmerman) and Gina (Elizabeth Seabolt) live out their existence in dos chicas theater commune's production of Joey Berner's black comedy. Hopeless and amoral, without a future, they crave fame and fortune with the same zeal Maddie has for lunchmeat. Since crime is down in Chicago, they figure, why not pull off a few heists to get their names in the newspaper or, better, on TV. If they happen to kill somebody during their spree, well, the poor "retard" probably deserved it. Arguing over a plan, the appropriate hairdo and the motto "Share the Violence," the duo is somewhat successful at first, once Maddie learns how to wield a gun and curbs her enthusiasm for shopping while robbing. We're in David Mamet/Sam Shepherd Land with its battling siblings, class warfare and glorification of violence, but without those playwrights' fluid language, character development and sexy roughhouse. Zimmerman and Seabolt do the best with what Berner gives them, but the sisters, equally stupid and without heart, are just small-town greasers with parochial longings. Neither they nor the expletive-filled two-character satire seems big enough. Through April 1. Free Range Studios, 1719 Live Oak, 832-283-0858.

Waitin' 2 End Hell William Parker's in-your-face comedy/drama about buppies (black urban professionals) at the Ensemble Theatre elicits a big audience reaction. The play's multiple themes are laid out in sermonlike pronouncements. 1. Who's the head of the house? 2. If the wife is more successful than her husband, is she ripe for an affair? 3. Can a man ever really trust a woman? 4. Why is divorce so prevalent in contemporary black society? There's plenty of melodrama in the predictable way married couple Dante and Diane (Henry Edwards and Rachel Hemphill-Dickson) fall to pieces with recriminations, adultery and deadly threats. The fine cast brings these and the rest of the play's characters to life way beyond the dry page, making us sympathize with them and their issues in visceral ways; it feels like we're rooting for our favorite reality-show contestants. But there's too much going on too many schematic discussions, too many weighty themes and everyone stakes out a position and pretty much sticks to it throughout. Still, for all their dissertations, these seven friends are a likable group, and we want all of them to find contentment. That they battle among themselves trying to attain what may be unattainable makes them all the more appealing. Wife Diane, though, is the villain of the piece, and she gets her comeuppance at the end, much to the audible glee of the audience. Parker's play doesn't answer any of the questions it asks, but if that lessens the drama's heft, it certainly makes it more personable. Worth noting are Tracey Wheat as wisecracking, man-loving Shay and Alex Gardner as the always-hungry Alvin, who has solved his "sister problem" by marrying a docile Japanese-American. Through April 2. 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
Nancy Galeota-Wozny
Lee Williams