Capsule Reviews

All Female Cast Western Musical First, the good news: Slump's All Female Cast Western Musical lasts one hour. Then, the bad news: It lasts one hour. In the guise of free-for-all theater of the absurd, this amateur hour created by Keith Reynolds is perhaps the ultimate theater reality show. In other words, my dad has a barn; let¹s put on a show. This is not a good thing if you like your musicals structured, coherent and intelligent. In a nutshell, a corrupt frontier town entirely populated by cowgirls confronts a "Loan Stranger" (Elizabeth Stuart), who bristles at the high cost of whiskey imposed on the "stupid, lazy and dumb" denim-clad denizens. That's it for plot. There's also banshee-style shrieking, garbled lines, improv, some original songs and a general lack of acting. The show does have rare moments of fun: April Marchant's "Sleepy" sings her drunken lullaby with startling conviction; the girls raise their voices in lovely, unexpected harmony for "Home on the Range"; and Jennifer Decker finds a character within the motor-mouth manic "Speedy." The true stars of the show, though, are the cardboard-cutout cows, whose antics and animal noises are a genuine hoot. If the spectacle of 13 women in western wear behaving as if they've never before set foot onstage is your idea of a fun time, then this might be your show -- but we suggest having several adult beverages beforehand. Yee-haw! Through August 14. Midtown Arts Center, 1423 Holman, 832-725-9777.

Chess With music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (the two male B's from the Swedish pop sensation ABBA) and lyrics by Tim Rice (Evita, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast), this cold war-inspired musical about a world chess championship match has gone down in Broadway annals as one of the great stinkers, on par with Moose Murders and Vampire Chronicles. Chess was a concept album long before it was a show, and it spawned two hit singles, "One Night in Bangkok" and "I Know Him So Well." In 1986, the "rock opera" opened in London and played for three years. Drastically overhauled for the New York premiere, the show opened in April 1988 and closed three months later after being almost unanimously panned and losing $6 million. It was an epic disaster with a heavy-handed, convoluted plot; eardrum-rupturing amplification; dumb, gargantuan scenic effects; and a running time of over three hours. But in its present incarnation at Masquerade Theatre, Chess is an unqualified success. Stripped of all its empty excess and spectacle, this minimalist production allows the show to shine bright and clear. The cast is superb, the singing splendid and the drama clean and slickly directed by Phillip Duggins. And the score has many beauties, rendered with full pop wailing and dramatic surety by the sterling cast: Rebekah Dahl, Luther Chakurian, Ilich Guardiola, Alex Stutler, Jennifer McCoy-Miller, Stephanie Bradow, Chad Knesek and Russell Freeman. Once considered a dog, this original musical has gotten itself a pedigree. Through August 8. 1537 N. Shepherd, 713-861-7045.

Free Will and Wanton Lust Nicky Silver's Free Will and Wanton Lust is one black comedy. And Unhinged Productions' masterful rendition of the work, which won the 1990 Helen Hayes Award for best new play, does it justice in all its dysfunctional glory. As the show starts, Claire (Cheryl Tanner), the matriarch of the family from hell, has taken into her bed yet another young stud, Tony (Steven Scott), a painter who's as ambitious as Claire is horny. She claims to have found the fountain of youth in promiscuity and adultery. "Your semen is my youth serum," she cries out during sex from behind the couch, in view of her daughter Amy (Elizabeth Bannor). Dressed like a goth prostitute, adolescent Amy proceeds to down the contents of every decanter on the bar. Desperate to get Mom's attention -- or anyone's, really -- she throws tantrums, announces she's pregnant and even confesses she might be a lesbian. Mom isn't listening; in fact, she can't even remember her daughter's name. "My indifference was sincere," Claire confesses later about her child-rearing skills. In Silver's skewed universe, moms are monsters, and fathers are nonexistent. Dad is due to return tomorrow, but that doesn't stop Claire from bingeing on Tony. There's an unexpected arrival in prodigal son Phillip (Joshua Gray), who's been living in England. Then during Act II, the tone changes radically: The black farce gives way to two outstanding monologues from Claire and Phillip. It's here that Silver shines like gold. Like a diva¹s great opera-ending aria, these complete playlets are an actor's dream. Glorious in their poetry, they're the meat of the play. Silver effortlessly opens up the characters' hearts to break ours, and accomplished actors Tanner and Gray give heart-stopping, searing performances, commanding Theater LaB Houston¹s intimate space. Through August 7. 1706 Alamo, 713-547-0440.

Tamalalia 9 We could all use a blue spandex "superpower fear-fighting suit" like the one Tamarie Cooper sports in Tamalalia 9. It's cool! But cool is standard issue from the Tamalalia series, the silly summer confection devoted to the strange inner life of Cooper. No. 9 delivers so many laughs, it¹s hard not to forgive the show's creators for their unusually timid approach to the subject at hand, namely fear and the crazy things it makes us do. Great numbers abound. One of the funniest is "The Vampire's Folk Dance," performed by the company's wildest clown, Kyle Sturdivant. But the real showstopper is "Physical Ed," about Tamarie's horror of gym class. Jeff Miller, Tek Wilson and Sturdivant play PE bullies from Tamarie's past who return for a rematch. The contest is run by Coach Gascamp (a wicked Noel Bowers), who delights in referring to Tamarie as "Mamarie Pooper." But near the top of Act II, the show starts to go south. Things are promising at first: The entire cast sings "Culture of Fear," and everything from the government to the media to mad cow disease comes up. But just as the show seems to be moving into some timely stuff, Tamarie stops it, declaring she doesn't know where to go from here. This familiar shtick -- it's been used in other Tamalalias -- is disappointing. Truthfully, the script writers haven't backed themselves into a hole at all. Indeed, they've suddenly moved into a landscape rich with potential. But Tamarie claims she's afraid of getting too serious and worried about offending her audience -- some of whom might be Republicans! In the end it's fear, the very thing this show sets out to conquer, that gets the best of Tamalalia 9. Through August 28 at the Axiom, 2524 McKinney, 713-522-8443.

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