Capsule Reviews

Assassins For Broadway hep cats, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's 1990 cult musical about presidential assassins may be catnip, but it's a difficult work to cozy up to. This is a musical in which the mentally unhinged principal characters (John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, Lee Harvey Oswald, "Squeaky" Fromme, et al.) point guns at our heads and sing out their neuroses. It's unsettling and caustic, yet also facile and smug. The musical turns presidential assassination into a Coney Island sideshow of freaks and losers. Neither condemnatory nor sympathetic, the show asks us to feel their pain in a politically correct way, but there's not enough depth in this showbiz kaleidoscope to warrant deep thoughts. This is also the first Sondheim show with large chunks of dialogue where music should be; it's Weidman's show, not Sondheim's. Of course, what music there is is choice: a pastiche of styles ranging from Sousa marches and twangy bluegrass to a brassy Ziegfeld-like anthem ("Everybody's Got the Right") that could be accompanied by leggy showgirls trailing marabou. What's also deliciously choice in this sixth edition by Bayou City Concert Musicals, which benefits the Center for AIDS, is the exceptional, knockout cast under Paul Hope's incomparably fluid direction: Joel Sandel's divinely loopy Guiteau, Meghan Hakes's vapidly evil Fromme, Philip Lehl's chilling Oswald, Hope's imperious and wily Booth, Susan O. Koozin's comically inept Sara Jane Moore, Larry Dachslager's exasperated schlub Samuel Byck, Brandon Peters's naive Czolgosz, Kyle Greer's psychotic John Hinckley, Pablo Bracho's impassioned Giuseppe Zangara. If not a musical for the ages, this is certainly a production that will be remembered fondly for seasons.

Doo Wop II the Sequel According to Big Mama in the Great Caruso's latest musical revue, doo wop was an incantatory musical potion created from "gospel, jazz and four-part harmony." Of course, as Big Mama (a smooth Samantha Coombs) adds, the biggest influence was the blues. Happily, all those head-bopping musical styles come together to make a surprisingly potent revue, Doo Wop II the Sequel. The first Doo Wop revue ran successfully for several months in 2002. The second is every bit as snappy. The show manages to stretch far and wide across the musical eras of the Œ50s and Œ60s and includes tunes as diverse as Debbie Reynolds's "Tammy," the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" (sung with fabulous attitude by Cynthia Williams) and Ray Charles's "Georgia." Little Richard makes a fiery and funny appearance (featuring Eric Mota all done up in a towering wig), as does Elvis (Charles Swan). Coombs oversees the whole affair, acting as a sort of narrator who explains some of the history behind the music. For example, there's a whole collage of tunes the program calls "Doo Wop Dances," including "Harlem Shuffle" and "Peppermint Twist." John Cornelius II's arrangements are often both informative and entertaining. We get to hear the original slowed-down and sexy "Hound Dog" before we listen to the well-known Elvis version. Directed by Michael Tapley, the show is an entertaining diversion, a jump back to a time when music only wanted to move our hearts -- and make us move our hips. Through November 25. Great Caruso Dinner Theater, 10001 Westheimer, 713-780-4900.

Onegin Houston Ballet's production of John Cranko's classic 1965 ballet based on Pushkin's heartbreaking poem is an ode to every geeky girl who ever fell for the bad boy in high school. And guess what? Mom was right: You do get over him, and sometimes you get to be a princess, too. The story of the young Tatiana, who falls for a dashing cad, is set in the Russian countryside and the elegant confines of old St. Petersburg. Jürgen Rose's sets and costume designs evoke that bygone era, and Steen Bjarke's lighting makes the outdoor scenes pastoral and the interior of the prince's palace luxurious. Barbara Bears makes an excellent Tatiana, evoking a country girl's coltishness in the first two acts and then turning into the beautiful swan, er, princess, in Act III for her revenge as an elegant, graceful wife who has the strength to reject her first crush. Opening night, Simon Ball (the only principal to have danced the ballet previously) was wonderful as Eugene Onegin, the dark-suited cad who disdains a young girl's crush only to long for her affection in later life. But the real star is Cranko's choreography, which is both dramatic and fluid. From his ballroom scenes to the aerial pas de deux, his steps move the plot forward while tantalizing the eyes. This is a wonderful addition to the company's repertoire.

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.

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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
Marene Gustin
Lee Williams