Capsule Reviews

Baal The folks at Infernal Bridegroom Productions warn you at the very beginning: Bertolt Brecht's Baal is three hours long. What they fail to mention, however, is just how hard those 180 minutes will be as you hunch down through the troupe's valiant attempt to bring to life this difficult play. Brecht is always hard. The playwright is known for his badly behaving, impossible-to-like antiheroes, and Baal is populated by some of the writer's most despicable losers. But as horrifying as the story is, Brecht's gutter-wipe of a tale is just the beginning of what's so difficult about IBP's production. The show, directed by Tamarie Cooper and Anthony Barilla, is damaged by excessive reverence of the playwright, which comes across in the countless silences that siphon the life out of this production. Each line is delivered with thoughtful deliberation, and the characters pause for long, quiet stretches before responding to one another. The effect of these laborious silences is theatrical inertia. The energy drains out of each scene as we keep waiting and waiting. This production is also marred by some odd casting. As the title character, Kyle Sturdivant doesn't bring enough flexibility or charismatic fire to the stage. Baal is an early 20th-century rock star who goes through women daily, but as played by Sturdivant, it's impossible to believe that women would be throwing themselves at the dirty lout stumbling across the stage. Any company that dares to dance with Brecht has got to be admired. He's long, he's ugly, and he's important. And this production won't let you forget it. Baal's run at the Axiom, 2524 McKinney, 713-522-8443, is open-ended.

I Remember Mama Theater icon and composer Richard Rodgers's last musical, I Remember Mama (1979), is just as tuneful and graceful in melody as any show he ever wrote. Based on John Van Druten's 1944 play, this gentle, sweet work chronicles a year in the life of a poor Norwegian immigrant family living in San Francisco circa 1910. It's very much a Sound of Music clone -- without those evil Nazis and, unfortunately, without his fabled collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein II. Here, the lyrics and book are by Martin Charnin and Thomas Meehan, the team responsible for the 1978 Broadway blockbuster Annie. The lyrics are capable but never soaring, and they tend to repeat. Episodic and family-oriented, the original closed quickly (this was at the same time as Stephen Sondheim's dark and gothic Sweeney Todd and Andrew Lloyd Webber's idiosyncratic Evita), and Rodgers died three months after the final curtain. The show didn't deserve such a fate. Fortunately, Masquerade Theatre has mounted a splendid revival that revels in this musical and shows it off in all its simple glories, thanks to the clever direction and choreography of Phillip Duggins. As loving matriarch Mama, Stephanie Bradow is well-nigh ideal. Mama is good, kind, resourceful and very much the embodiment of the American dream, and Bradow, with her crystal-clear singing voice and braided hair, is picture-perfect. As maturing eldest daughter Katrin, who narrates the plot, Monica Passley matches Bradow note for note. The pair makes a lovely duo, and when augmented by the family's other four adorable children, the beauties in the score shine like Christmas ornaments. The musical's low comedy is suitably handled by Mama's three sisters (Laura Gray, Rebekah Dahl and Kristina Sullivan) and irascible Uncle Chris (Russell Freeman). Papa (Ilich Guardiola) disappears for much of Act II, but his return gives him the opportunity to reprise the lyrical "You Could Not Please Me More." This could be said for Masquerade's entire show. Through December 12. 1537 North Shepherd, 713-861-7045. There will be an additional performance on December 19 at the Hobby Center's Zilkha Hall, 800 Bagby, 713-225-6729.

Sadomasochistic Xmas If you're thinking about getting a dog for Christmas, there's a sick little pup at dos chicas theater commune you might consider. This nasty thing already comes wrapped in shiny black leather. You won't have to feed it much, either, because all it does is snarl and snap, when it's not licking your face. But it's cute as a button, as long as that button controls electric shock therapy. In Sadomasochistic Xmas, resident dos chicas playwright Bob Morgan takes what is considered abnormal and perverted in polite society and twists it neatly topsy-turvy, so that the play's greasy premise becomes matter-of-fact. It's a primer on S&M conduct, an apotheosis of nipple clamps, torture, flagellation, revenge incest, paternal cross-dressing and more. Happily married Steve and Susan (Bob Morgan and Anne Zimmerman) have a liberal sex life that the Marquis de Sade would weep over. But they're unsatisfied. They want others to share the bliss -- along with the pain -- of their natural, debauched intimacy. So each Christmas, they pick an unsuspecting "normal" couple whose sex life is off-track and do a little marriage counseling on them. Beth and Bill (Jennifer Decker and Paul Drake) go through a crash course of Steve and Susan's aversion therapy, which includes everything you always wanted to know about the dark side but were afraid to ask. Fear not, all your questions will be answered, whether you want that or not. The comedy is X-rated with a vengeance, but it's told by the happy couple with such wide-eyed enthusiasm that they make the story sound as homey as apple pie (okay, apple pie with the worms baked in). Don't take your mother, unless, of course, you know for certain where and how she spends her afternoons. Through December 18 at Helios, 411 Westheimer, 832-283-0858.

Singin' in the Rain What's the point of turning an already world-famous musical, whose cast cannot be improved upon whatsoever, into another musical that slavishly re-creates the original, down to costumes, iconographic choreography and line readings? Why bother? This secondhand movie knock-off from 1985, which traveled to Houston a decade ago, is serviceable and sometimes even enjoyable, but it definitely doesn't improve upon the original in any way. The story concerns a famous silent-movie couple, Don Lockwood (Michael Gruber) and Lina Lamont (Rachel DeBenedet), whose careers are threatened with the advent of the "talkie." They decide to film one, but Lina can't sing, so producers dub in the voice of Kathy (Danette Holden). A love triangle ensues: Lina falls for Don for real, but he falls for Kathy. If anything, this pale duplication lessens the grand film. It's been flatlined. The "Singin' in the Rain" song garners applause not because of its athletic, yet stylish, dancing, but because the number features actual rain falling on the stage. The dancing takes second place. As movie star Don Lockwood, Gruber is so busy channeling Gene Kelly, there's no room left for his own style. He taps like a trouper, though, and sings with a lovely virility. As Kathy, Holden seems a trifle too mature for an ingenue, and there's no evidence of a spark between her and Gruber's Don -- it's romance on autopilot. But DeBenedet has a field day shrieking like a banshee as the spoiled, untalented star Lina Lamont. Her "What's Wrong with Me" striptease is among the show's distinctive moments. Triple-threat Randy Rogel (veteran performer, Emmy-winning writer and West Point graduate) makes an exceptional second banana in the role of Lockwood's best buddy, Cosmo. He starts out in full gallop for the vaudeville-like "Fit as a Fiddle," soars during his low-comedy solo "Make 'Em Laugh" and anchors the trio for the furniture-climbing "Good Mornin'"; Rogel just gets better as the musical proceeds. Too bad the show doesn't. Through December 19 at the Hobby Center for Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887.

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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