Capsule Reviews

The Marriage of Figaro Mozart's sublime operatic comedy of manners from 1786 is a masterpiece. It has everything: radiant melody, sparkling libretto, emotional depth, laugh-out-loud situations, truthful characters and a profound sense of life lived to the fullest. Mozart's work is complete unto itself, incandescent and infused with sunshine. The 30-year-old musical genius added dazzling new textures to librettist Lorenzo da Ponte's loving adaptation of Beaumarchais's scandalously sexy play, elevating it to the highest realms of art. At the time, the idea that servants (soon-to-be-married Figaro and Susanna) get the better of their betters (the randy Count Almaviva) was not looked upon with much favor in the privileged courts of Europe. The play was banned and censored, and for the opera to be performed, Mozart and da Ponte had to promise not to offend Austria's Joseph II. At its premiere, Figaro was too spicy a dish for Vienna's tastes, and it wasn't until it caused a sensation in Prague seven months later that the opera turned into a classic. Although Houston Grand Opera's production, last seen in the '97 season, is played a bit too coarsely for da Ponte's rapier wit, it has the advantage of a superlative young cast that makes the most out of Mozart. Oren Gradus (Figaro), Isabel Bayrakdarian (Susanna), Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Count Almaviva) and Ana Maria Martinez (Countess Almaviva) infuse their characters with a natural believability while singing up a storm; they play off one another like a fine-tuned world-class quartet. Maestro Patrick Summers adds the HGO orchestra's lush singing voice to those on stage and plays the fortepiano in the recitatives with refined expressiveness. This production is just about as good as it gets. Through November 12. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-OPERA.

Night Must Fall What you hear creaking during Emlyn Williams's 1935 psychological thriller (a hit in London and on Broadway that was successfully filmed in 1937 and unsuccessfully filmed in 1964) is not the storm-tossed trees surrounding old Mrs. Bramson's cottage, nor her well-worn wheelchair, nor the cranky bones of the lady herself. No, that unmistakable groaning is built right into the play. The work starts off as a taut case study of sweet-talking psychopath "Baby Face" Dan (Adan Gonzalez), who wheedles his way into Bramson's (Salle Ellis) good graces in spite of his suspicious behavior and a spooky hat box that may contain a severed head. But soon enough the play starts tripping over itself with transparent red herrings and a lurching tone that doesn't seem to know what it wants to be: a drawing-room comedy of bad manners or a modern portrait (well, by 1935 standards) of female frigidity thawed by a sexual outlaw. Olivia (Holly Weiss), Bramson's uptight niece, is a buttoned-to-the-collar type who vacillates between her forbidden desires for Dan's smarmy advances and her desire to run out of the house like a Victorian maiden in a silent-movie melodrama. A faster, tighter pace would help bridge the play's glaring holes and its characters' inconsistencies. Fortunately, the supporting roles bring needed verisimilitude: Melrose Fougere (as cantankerous cook Mrs. Terrence), Steve Carpentier (as stuffy and ineffectual Hubert, fiancé of Olivia) and Mack Hays (as smarter-than-he-seems Inspector Belsize) help keep this old chestnut warm and toasty. Through November 19. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505.

Whatshisname? The citizens of Dumpster, Texas, are at it again. Created by a trio of actors at Radio Music Theatre, the wacky Fertle family and all their friends and silly neighbors are now starring in Whatshisname?, a featherweight comedy about a stranger with an eye patch who comes visiting one fine day. Created by Steve and Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills (who also play all of the characters), along with two backstage guys named Mark Cain and Pat Southard, the play tells what happens when a man knocks on the Fertles' door one day, suitcase in hand, for an overnight visit. Only trouble is, nobody can remember who the fellow is. Being the polite people that they are, the Fertles figure that they're at fault. They must know this guy, since he seems to be so chummy with them. So the family makes nice and pretends that this stranger is as familiar as a "little baby owl" (as the Fertles like to say), all the while doing their darnedest to figure out who the heck he is. They serve him fruitcake, they ask him how he's doing, and they even let him put his suitcase in the "other room." Meanwhile, an all-points bulletin goes out to the Fertles' friends and family. They get so desperate, they even put up a $10 reward to anyone who can identify this strange man. As one character says, the situation is a "double order of weird with extra odd sauce." When the mystery is solved at last, the whole thing is perfectly logical, in a kooky, small-town kind of way. And though they might not be the brightest bulbs in the pack, nobody could ever say the Fertles don't practice Southern hospitality. Through November 19. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

Wicked Musicals aren't supposed to make us think; they're just supposed to make us happy. But Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman's powerful Wicked, now playing at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, breaks all the rules. The jaw-droppingly marvelous story (based on Gregory Maguire's best-selling novel) explores what made Oz's Wicked Witch of the West so bad. And as the show spins cultural commentary into delightful entertainment, it will make you laugh hard and think harder. This is a story about all the shades of gray in a seemingly black-and-white world. No one is completely wicked, and no one is altogether good. Thankfully, director Joe Mantello, who has created a supremely timed show filled with nuance and extraordinary details, has found a cast who's more than up to the many delights hiding in this story. Stephanie J. Block's Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) is a tower of serious strength. She begins the story as a pigtailed schoolgirl, and we get to watch as she slowly develops the quirky Wicked Witch mannerisms that anyone who's seen The Wizard of Oz will recognize. Even more stunning is Kendra Kassebaum's Glinda. The good witch is an idiosyncratic bundle of hysterical twitches that include everything from showing off her ruffled panties every time she gets excited to stomping on the floor like an unruly colt whenever she wants attention. The supporting roles are also filled by fine performers. And the show is a visual delight. Susan Hilferty's costumes and Eugene Lee's set imagine an oddly shaped world full of unexpected stripes and curls and bustled bottoms. All this comes together in a story so complex and relevant to our current world order, it makes Wicked the most unforgettably moving musical comedy of this season. Through November 13. 800 Bagby, 713-629-3700.

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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