Capsule Reviews

Contemporary Baroque Take two trendy, up-and-coming arts groups and stick them together for an evening. What do you get? A program that doesn't live up to its hype. Contemporary Baroque -- the long-awaited collaboration between dance darling Dominic Walsh Dance Theater and the super-cool historical music group Mercury Baroque -- showed us once again that Houston can have a contemporary pickup company that's as good as anything in New York, and that Antoine Plante's idea of a professional baroque ensemble will also fly. But, sadly, the hype about the combination (come on, dancing to Vivaldi, Bach and Handel isn't a new thing; Savion Glover currently has a hit show where he tap-dances to Bach and Vivaldi, and that isn't even original) and the unevenness of the choreography in the four premieres was disappointing. Listening to Vivaldi's Four Seasons played live on historically accurate instruments was worth the price of admission, but Lauri Stallings's choreography for the accompanying Bacchus's Cup, though a fun gamble featuring women and men in peach petticoats, was eminently forgettable. Mario Zambrano's Quartett Letters featured more complex, well-staged choreography, which was also more vexing for the audience -- it unfortunately relied upon spoken text that was mostly inaudible. But Jonathan Godfrey's Bach violin solo, performed onstage to accompany Quartett, almost made up for the dance's problems. Ayman Aaron Harper's First Try Second Chance, set to Vivaldi, was more original, if a little light. But the high point was Walsh's own premiere set to five Handel arias, Bello, featuring the angelic voice of young countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf in a moving ensemble piece.

Doo Wop II the Sequel According to Big Mama in the Great Caruso¹s 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 '50s and '60s 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'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. Doo Wop II has an open-ended run at the Great Caruso Dinner Theater, 10001 Westheimer, 713-780-4900.

Promises, Promises Burt Bacharach will forever be associated with the '60s. Tunes like "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," made famous by the velvet-voiced Dionne Warwick, defined urbane cool. So it might come as a surprise to learn that the master of easy-listening pop also ventured into a genre no one would ever call, umm, cool. In 1968, Bacharach, Hal David and Neil Simon opened Promises, Promises on Broadway, where it ran for 1,281 performances. But Promises, Promises is not a musical that travels easily across the years. The story treats women like objects; married men are almost always horny philanderers who openly harass their secretaries; and heavy drinking is de rigueur at office parties. More important, much of Bacharach's Broadway music, aside from a few fabulously familiar hits, is surprisingly silly. So it's nothing short of a wonder that Main Street Theater has conjured such a likable production from this dated script and music. Rob Babbitt's lively direction manages to make us believe once again in the highball charm of the office world of the '60s, despite the rampant sexual harassment. Most of the credit for this production goes to Joel Sandel, a Main Street favorite who plays the central character, C.C. Baxter, with an endearingly crumpled half-smile that ought to make any audience fall head over heels. It's Sandel who turns this otherwise tired story into a surprisingly winning night of theater. He's helped along by four stoogelike executives, played by David R. Wald, Mike Lovell, Robert Leeds and Terry Jones. Besides making Baxter's working life miserable, they also make a pack of ridiculously funny foils for Sandel. Like Bacharach's name, this is a musical inextricably tied to the smooth hope of the American '60s, when corporate America seemed like a cool place to be. Most of us now know it's a snake pit at best, but Sandel's performance gives us reason to dream. Through January 22. 4617 Montrose, 713-524-6706.

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Marene Gustin
Lee Williams