Capsule Reviews

Birthday from Hell What has six arms, six legs and three heads -- and is one of the greatest comedy shows on earth? If you correctly guessed Radio Music Theatre and its three loony creators (Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills), then you're probably still laughing about the latest misadventures of the Fertle family from Dumpster, Texas. If laughter is, indeed, the best medicine, then miracle cures occur at each performance. We recommend you visit -- and revisit -- this most dysfunctional town, which is filled to the rafters with goofy inhabitants, all portrayed to perfection by the three superb caricaturists. There's no social redemption, no political correctness and no great issues crowding the supper-club intimacy of RMT's stage at Richmond and Colquitt -- which is right across the street, we're reminded during the intro, from the "lovely and peaceful" Settegast-Kopf Funeral Home. There are only laughs. In Birthday from Hell, the 14th play in this wacky series, let's just say that a memorial service for the town's beloved minister also becomes the site of a surprise birthday party. How this happens is insanely logical -- insane because we're in a place where public monuments turn out to be blowup dolls, the town doctor speaks in gibberish, and the High Order of the Owls meets in secret in a toolshed. Don't ask, just go. Through May 15. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

Cabaret Cabaret takes place in the low-down, dirty bowels of Berlin, just before the big war, when life was a screaming party. But Joe Masteroff, Fred Ebb and John Kander's unforgettable musical is more than just entertaining. There's a terrifying darkness to every frenzied note of this powerful show about a sexy nightclub singer named Sally Bowles (Melanie Donihoo) who tries to sing away her cares even as the Nazis rise up around her. And the darkness of this stunning show is palpable in the version now running at the Great Caruso Dinner Theater. A good part of the unnerving punch of this production has to do with the size of the venue. The dinner club is small and intimate, making the Kit Kat where Sally works seem to rise up around the audience. The wild-eyed Michael Tapley, who plays the emcee of the show like a crazy clown on speed, seems hell-bent on keeping the ragged party going. But standing on the other side of the room, just above the audience's head, is a Nazi, who sings the beautiful "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" in the creepiest tenor voice. The horrifying ironies hidden in the music of this brilliant musical fill up the little theater. While this is not exactly dinner music, the production is a feast for the head and heart. Through April 25. 10001 Westheimer, 713-780-4900.

Eleemosynary Claude Debussy's impressionistic music is just the right accompaniment to Eleemosynary, Lee Blessing's dreamlike, amorphous three-character study on view at the Company OnStage. And so are the evocative swaths of blue and fuchsia that wash across the set's netting-draped flats, designed by director John Wind. Also spot-on is Patricia Shiro's costuming of the play's characters, three Westbrook women. Eccentric grandmother Dorothea is layered in chic peasant garb and has an aging-hippie pigtail braid; her emotionally stifled daughter Artemis is all buttoned up in a confining pantsuit; and Artemis's brainy and emotionally mature teenage daughter Echo is dressed like a goth vamp, wearing black lace and purple fingernails. In this gentle play full of remembrances and subtle recriminations, the layers that constitute that universal mother-daughter conflict are deftly peeled away. Each woman wants something from her mother that Mom can't give. "We try to be what the next one needs," Dorothea explains. "We never come close." To set herself free from her own mother's suffocating blandness, Dorothea has chosen to become the town's dotty old lady. Artemis is haunted by a previous teenage abortion, and she abandons her own daughter Echo, as well as stifling Dorothea. As for Echo, she just wants her mother back -- and to be the national spelling bee champion. That not much is revealed underneath all this intergenerational drama is certainly not the fault of the cast, which handles Blessing's quirky take on humanity with insight. The actresses manage to make us believe these three actors are actually related. Karen Schlag is chock-full of life and sparkle as intelligent Echo; Pam Lindsay brings quiet comedy and dignity to kooky Grandma; and Marianne Lyon, in the difficult role of brittle Artemis, is all pent-up breathlessness and steely resolve. Eleemosynary showcases beautiful ensemble work from all three. Through May 8. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219.

Mornings at Seven Paul Osborn's small-town comedy-drama Mornings at Seven, which is playing at Theatre Southwest, starts off like a Hallmark card, only to leave you with paper cuts by curtain's fall. The play is redolent of screen doors, aprons, flowery house dresses and marcelled hair (all splendidly realized thanks to Salle Ellis's costume design and Walter Urban's cushy lighting). There's a lot of small talk and gossip among the work's four sisters, who live close together: three next door to each other, with Esther just down the street. But the play's Americana nostalgia, evoked so strongly at curtain rise, subtly starts to sour once we get to know these people, turning quite poignant at fade-out. Loneliness and aging permeate the play, adding a very real human layer to the odd characters. Like Uncle Carl (in a multitextured performance by Gene Griesbach), with his frequent "spells" of inadequacy and feelings of failure, everyone begins to realize that "there are a lot of different ways to be alone." When the sisters unite to confront snobby David, who thinks his wife's relatives are "morons," they comically show how family members can unite against darkness, whatever their differences. The ensemble cast -- made up of Zona Meyer's heartfelt spinster Aaronetta, Salle Ellis's dry-as-a-cornstalk Cora, Beverly Hutchison's emancipated-and-relishing-it Esther, and Barbara S. Hartman's dim but loving Idais -- works well together, as do the play's middle-aged lovers, mama's boy Homer (a delightfully befuddled Cecil Trent) and his always optimistic fiancée of 12 years, Myrtle (a wide-eyed Victoria Beard). Set in 1922 but written in 1939, Osburn's dark comedy competed at its premiere with such now-standard classics as The Philadelphia Story, The Man Who Came to Dinner and The Little Foxes. It lasted only 44 performances. We guess backyard drama with a kick didn't connect with pre-World War II Broadway audiences. But it connects now. Through May 1. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505.

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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