Capsule Reviews

A Chorus Line With this thrilling remounting by Theatre Under the Stars, it's easy to appreciate anew why A Chorus Line deserves its "classic" status among Broadway musicals. Until Cats clawed its way into the Broadway record books, this 1975 Michael Bennett production held the title for longest-running musical. A Chorus Line is beloved in a way that appeals to both insiders and the blue-hair matinee crowd: It's unlike any other show of its time, and even today, in its own words, the show's a "singular sensation." Ostensibly, this backstage musical tells the stories of 17 "gypsies" who audition for an anonymous place in the chorus line of some blowsy musical. That the glitzy, Las Vegas-style routine they rehearse and finally perform at show's end isn't worthy of their talents, nor of the psychological battering they endure from the hard-as-nails director, says volumes about the seductive power of theater and the performers' desperate need to be up there on stage, if only in the background. A Chorus Line is really about coping with unfulfilled dreams, reversals of fortune, dysfunctional families and the love of one's craft, no matter what profession. You don't have to be a dancer to understand what these performers go through and why they "need this job." A special tip of the hat to Shannon Lewis for her steely, sexy Sheila; Luis Avila for his quietly intense Paul; and Colleen Hawks for her pneumatically enhanced Val. Slickly directed by Baayork Lee (the show's first "Connie"), this loving re-creation of the original production possesses all the verve, laughs and tears due this undeniable theatrical masterpiece. Through November 7 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-TUTS.

Dracula Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company is putting on an utterly fascinating production of Mac Wellman's idiosyncratic adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Wellman's 1987 adaptation of the Victorian novel, about the Carpathian Count from Transylvania who invades a cozy English town, is perhaps his most accessible play. He tries to pursue what lies at the book's core, weaving Stoker's basic plot with the unspoken sexual repression lurking underneath it, creating a complex, hypnotic pattern that combines the staid Victorian atmosphere with erotic situations that are decidedly postmodern, even anachronistic. The camp aspect, mercifully, is tamped down, and the ripe Victorian Gothic poetry allowed to shine. Greg Dean, with long, straight hair, frock coat and extended fingernails on spider-leg hands, makes an imperious Count. "My heart is not attuned to mirth," he intones with middle-Euro weariness. He cuts such an imposing figure of "otherness" that he can stand still and command the stage. And the rest of the amazing ensemble cast throws itself into the creepy goings-on with panache and conviction. There's even more to savor in this production: John Watts's synthesized background score, Greg Dean's atmospheric sound design and the absolute right-on direction by a busy Greg Dean. Above all, though, it's the golden, hallucinogenic words of Mac Wellman that bring Dracula to swooping life. Through October 30 at 1415 Bar and Grill, 1415 California, 832-418-0973.

The Exonerated Shadowy, dark and brutally haunting, the Alley Theatre's mesmerizing production of The Exonerated is everything live theater should be. Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's script comes from interviews and legal papers that have been artfully shaped into a docudrama. The play weaves together the narratives of six true-life victims of the judicial system. Rob Bundy's understated direction puts his quietly raging cast on an empty, dark stage backed only by concertina wire. There they tell their stories of years spent on death row. The powerful cast includes Alley favorites K. Todd Freeman and David Rainey. But the most disturbing stories come from Annalee Jefferies's Sunny Jacobs, who spent 17 years in prison for a double murder she didn't commit. Jefferies takes to the stage in a state of almost angelic calm to tell Jacobs's story of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Also heartbreaking is Philip Lehl as Kerry Max Cook, who spent two decades in a Texas prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence and released. Because it was said that he was homosexual during his trial, he was sodomized and brutalized in prison. The Exonerated has gotten rave reviews across the nation, but in no place are these stories of a broken judicial system more meaningful or devastating than right here at home. Through October 31. 615 Texas Avenue, 713-228-8421.

Madame Butterfly In her fully rounded characterization of Puccini's beloved heroine Cio-Cio-San (a.k.a. Madame Butterfly), soprano Patricia Racette blows away the competition. And it's not just in the big dramatic set pieces where she so blazingly shines; it's in the smallest details. In Houston Grand Opera's production of Madame Butterfly, she brings this naive, terribly honorable girl to life just by the way she delicately closes her square paper parasol, or lightly dances a few geisha movements, or gently covers her mouth in embarrassment, or fiercely embraces her child in their last good-bye. No singer, past or present, will ever truly convince us she's 15 years old, as Butterfly is supposed to be at the beginning of the opera, but Racette, with effortless ease of tone and phrasing, with dramatic surety and star presence, is in a league of her own. If Racette's Butterfly is the gold standard, tenor Paul Charles Clarke, as the cad Pinkerton, is merely bronze. A roving American naval lieutenant with a girl in every port, Pinkerton is one of the least admirable heroes in opera. He literally buys Butterfly from Goro, the marriage broker (sung beautifully by HGO Studio tenor Nicholas Phan), knowing full well he'll desert her when his tour of duty is over. Expanding his huge barrel chest, Clarke huffs and puffs through some of Puccini's most lyrically sublime melodies. It's not easy to sing this music sweetly, and unfortunately the effort shows. As the ineffectual American consul Sharpless, baritone Peter Coleman-Wright supplies suavity of voice and commanding assurance; and in her HGO debut, mezzo Mika Shigematsu, as Butterfly's servant and confidante Suzuki, holds her own against Racette's tour-de-force performance. Francesca Zambello's dramatic production gets plenty of mileage from Michael Yeargan's minimalist sets and Alan Burrett's incredibly rich multicolor lighting. And Patrick Summers conducts Puccini's ripe, ecstatic score with tenderness and passion. Through November 13 at Wortham Theater Center, 550 Prairie, 713-228-6737.

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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