Capsule Reviews

After the Fall Playwright Arthur Miller has earned gobs of respect, a Pulitzer Prize for Death of a Salesman, and our eternal shock and awe for having married Marilyn Monroe. At 90 years old, Miller is the dean of American theatrical letters. But that doesn't mean he has our love. Miller buffets his audiences with guilt, betrayal and denial and suffocates them under history and time. Yet look past his ponderous philosophizing, whining and lecturing about all those great themes bound in leather, and you always discover solid-gold nuggets about people in crisis. And so it is with After the Fall, Miller's most shamelessly autobiographical drama, written during the playwright's separation from Monroe and premiered two years after her sad death. The main character is Quentin, a superstar lawyer, and we travel right inside his head as he examines the mess of his life. Quentin addresses an unseen presence beyond the footlights -- maybe God, a judge or an analyst -- as sundry impressions and scenes from the past appear and disappear as fleetingly as thoughts. Each scene in Fall contains specific, chilling, resounding moments. They're so rich and creamy, they could be little playlets. There are wonderful moments with Maggie, as the Marilyn character is referred to here (in an indelible performance by Kate Shindle), whose life force is set on overdrive. She's the ultimate control freak in a stupendously talented, ravishing package. As Quentin, James Black delivers a tour-de-force performance. He hits all his high points but seems much too grounded, earthy and "actory" for the cerebral, paralyzed intellectual he's playing. His best moments, too, are during the quiet times, as when he sits on a park bench caught in mercurial Maggie's tantalizing, deadly aura. Through February 6 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

Anything Goes Theatre Under the Stars' visually delightful production of Cole Porter's positively silly musical 1934 confection first ran in 1987 at Lincoln Center. That revival starred Patti LuPone as naughty nightclub chanteuse Reno Sweeney (originally performed by the incomparable Ethel Merman). What the TUTS rendition lacks is any sense of spontaneity. There's not a lot to the story: Reno Sweeney and her friend Billy travel to England on a ship; both are looking for love, and typical musical comedy high jinks ensue. And in this version, except for Jennifer Cody's tiny, tarty gun moll Bonnie La Tour -- catchphrase: "charmed, I'm sure" -- everyone's on autopilot. When their mikes aren't turned on, you expect to see them yakking on their cell phones. Replete with musty vaudeville gags and a refreshing contemporary attitude that tweaks society's nose, this old Broadway chestnut is blessed with -- saved by, really -- some of Porter's most magical songs ("You're the Top," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Anything Goes") and fluffed up with some tunes not written for this show ("Night and Day," "It's De-Lovely"). When aroused, the cast is fine. Dee Hoty, a three-time Tony nominee, is a statuesque Reno, with a clarion voice that rings through the Hobby Center, and she fills out her spangled art deco gowns in just the right places. Matt Cavenaugh, last seen starring in the failed show Urban Cowboy, is certainly an attractive presence on the stage. He's pleasant and moves deftly, but his ingenue's lightness works against him. Hoty, a consummate pro, tamps it down to avoid bulldozing him. Except for the songs and Miss Cody, nothing else makes a lasting impression. During intermission, you've already forgotten what you've seen. Nothing, however, can erase those melodies. They're the top! Through February 13. 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887.

Louisa Miller She's been a long time coming to Houston, but finally Opera in the Heights has produced Verdi's amazing, intimate chamber work. It's well worth the wait, although OH's rendition still leaves much to be desired. Written before his great trio of masterpieces (Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata), poor Louisa Miller got trampled in their stampede. Recently she's getting more respect, but she's not yet an operatic staple. You can actually hear operatic history being made by Verdi in this 1849 drama, which combines grand passions with scaled-down characters. No gods, no Fates, just families in crisis -- wonderful, melodic crisis. Verdi was obsessed by dysfunctional families, and for him there was no greater drama than the parent-child variety. In Miller, he gives us a double whammy: two fathers, two children. The complex interactions between the two pairs inspire Verdi to great heights of musical drama -- and no more so than during the sublime Act III, which stands with head held high among any other of his superb works. Holly Gash is a vocal powerhouse as peasant Luisa, who's in love with Rodolfo (Gabriel Gonzalez), the disguised son of Count Walter (Lionel Brackins). At a recent performance, she pushed her voice a bit in duets, but she had to compensate for the bellowing of tenor Gonzalez, who's lost the ability to sing sweetly. In the small former church that is OH's home, surrounded by a reduced orchestra, there's no need to yell. Even his famous aria "Quando Le Sere al Placido" is squashed under insistent screaming. It's not pretty. The most consistent singing comes out of Brian Carter's Papa Miller. He has a rich baritone, a fine sense of character and lovely phrasing. Verdi's neglected opera could be described with those same words. Through February 5. 1703 Heights Blvd., 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
Lee Williams