Capsule Reviews

Barrymore Theater LaB should serve up baked apples and brown sugar to complement the mouthwatering ham so gloriously played by Charles Krohn in William Luce's two-man show (the prickly prompter Frank, drolly acted by Josh Wright, remains off stage throughout). The human pork portrayed at this theatrical feast is none other than fabled actor John Barrymore, seen during his last days as he prepares a vanity production of his greatest hit, Shakespeare's Richard III. The effects of a lifetime of alcoholism cloud his every move but spur his fertile, addled memory as this beloved rogue relives, in painfully funny bits and pieces, the highlights from his celebrated career. Krohn, an Alley Theatre veteran, gives the performance of a lifetime, replete with ribald humor, nuance and warm sympathy for this wreck of an actor falling apart before our eyes. Granted, Krohn in no physical way resembles even the shattered remnants of Barrymore, but emotionally he nails it. Wearing a faded fedora, he recites dramatic snippets from Shakespeare, belts out "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" and regales us with bawdy limericks and choice descriptions of his four ex-wives ("bus accidents" is one of the more polite descriptions), all the while inhabiting the still-breathing shell of that once-great tragedian who pissed it all away. Barrymore may be waylaid by regrets and haunted by ghosts, but as portrayed by Krohn, he's amazingly alive, unique and oh so tasty a ham. Through February 18. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.

Color Me Dark Fully embodied by Candace Felix, 14-year-old Nellie Lee Love is irrepressible, formidable, strong, intelligent and unwilling to take guff from anyone. She is, in Jerome Hairston's adaptation of Patricia McKissack's young-person's novel, resilient. This is the story of how her family moves from Tennessee up north in 1919, during the Great Migration. They're aiming to escape the bigotry and violence of the rural South, but their new land of opportunity is just as harsh and unforgiving. The family is a source of great strength, however. There's a wispy perfume of Hallmark sentiment going on here, but the drama is so infused with a love of life and stalwart human emotion that we're immediately caught up in this specific, yet universal, story. Nellie and her beloved sister Erma Jean (Brooke Davis), who has been traumatized into muteness after witnessing Uncle Pace's beating death at the hands of white bigots, persevere and ultimately thrive under harrowing situations that could flatten the best of us. This message of hope and indomitable courage is beautifully rendered through a host of characters ranging from icon W.E.B. Dubois (Rashad Edwards, who also plays the Love patriarch, Freeman); white cracker Tommy Braxton (Cameron Worthen); the liberated woman Rosie (Ann Mouton, who also plays Mom, Olive) with her iron-straight hair and luggage filled with cosmetics; and the slick, urbane huckster Uncle Meese (Nicholas Lewis), who mysteriously always has plenty of money. Color Me Dark has a timeless message for everyone, and Ensemble Theatre's stylish and exemplarily acted drama of survival through adversity is a must-see for any family. Through February 19. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.

Hold Me! There are two good reasons to see this sparkling little jewel of a play: 1. You know the work of newspaper cartoonist Jules Feiffer; and 2. You don't. In either case, this quirky little bauble will thoroughly delight. Feiffer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for The Village Voice and The New Yorker, has been drawing his distinctive pen-and-ink panels for decades. They're a microcosm of modern life's neuroses, paranoia, dysfunction, emotional detachment and eternal quest for love and acceptance -- all flavored with a wry and simple, but achingly true and very funny, absurdist irony that gently reveals us for the sad little sacks we are. Feiffer's play is a live-action, zippy collection of his cartoons. With a terrific cast (Julie Reinagel, Steve Finn, Carl Masterson, Laura Moss Brown and Shea Feeley) adroitly shuffled around the stage by director Maryanne Lyon and played against a cartoony interior of crayon-sketched red walls, Feiffer's idiosyncratic worldview is lovingly depicted. Wafting throughout these short, needle-sharp little skits or monologues is an iconoclastic Greenwich Village interpretive dancer, who moves to whatever cause, emotion or year she happens to remember. The last vignette perfectly captures the sardonic essence of Feiffer: The character Bernard sits on his bed with the blanket over his head. He says he's all alone, behind walls, in a fort, in a tunnel, buried under the sea. Everyone looks for him. The lights go dim. He stays under the blanket, covered in his protective shell, hiding from the world. "If you love me," he says, "you'll find me." Through February 18. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219.

Norma Opera in the Heights has tackled Vincenzo Bellini's 1831 bel canto masterpiece Norma with audacious chutzpah. This opera demands a grand quartet of singers in each voice who can also act up a storm to do justice to the work's beautifully crafted libretto by Felice Romani. Norma is the crown jewel of the bel canto style, and OH's maestro William Weibel has found four singers who are up to snuff for this demanding work. Soprano Rebecca Pyper plays an impassioned druid priestess who runs the gamut of emotions; she's in love, spurned, out for revenge and, finally, forgiving. Her voice has a rich, smoky sheen and a dramatic heft that sails over the treacherous glories of her opening aria -- the famous hymn to the moon, "Casta Diva." As her faithless lover, Roman proconsul Pollione, tenor David Ekstrom amazes with his pure, trumpetlike voice in full, regal command. However, he hardly reacts to his colleagues and sings past them, not to them, diluting the drama. As Norma's best friend and Pollione's new honey, mezzo Agnes Vojtko is a revelation, pouring out Adalgisa's legato remorse or scaling the heights in the celebrated duet "Mira, O Norma." Tall, svelte and graceful, she's a force to be reckoned with, and a return appearance is eagerly awaited. Though muffled under a hideously amateur wig and beard, looking like a bedraggled Moses, bass Benjamin LeClair, as high priest and Norma's father, Oroveso, adds sonorous gravity to these ancient proceedings. The chorus could use more polish, and the rudimentary stage business needs an overhaul, but the reduced orchestra played Bellini's "blood and thunder" score with appropriate loving passion. Through February 4. 1703 Heights Boulevard, 713-861-5303.

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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