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.

Crowns Even an atheist -- one with at least an ounce of fashion sense -- will be rockin' and clappin' hands at the end of Ensemble Theatre's thoroughly joyous musical production of Crowns, adapted by Regina Taylor from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. Set as a stylized black Pentecostal church service in Darlington, South Carolina, the show centers around church ladies in hats and why they wear them. After the murder of her brother, punk gangsta wannabe Yolanda (played and danced by talented young actresses Jasmine Taylor and DomiNique Coleman) is sent away from Brooklyn to live with her grandmother in Darlington. As she meets the various members in her grandmother's congregation and hears their stories, this hardened young woman mellows and eventually discovers her personal worth. All the stories that these resilient, humorous women tell are connected to their fantastic hats: confections of orange organza, sleek black-and-white pleated crepes, yellow banded turbans, domed pink cloches, sunny peach straw picture hats, gigantic disks of ruby and ebony feathers, all courtesy of milliner deluxe Michael Pollard. Gospels and spirituals -- "Ain't That Good News," "I'm On the Battlefield" and "Marching to Zion," among others -- are central to the production. Two men complement the cast (a fine Christopher Wright sings the preacher), but it's the seven women who carry the show. Spark plug-sized Shanica McKinney has enough energy to power Houston for a year, and her "Hat Queen rules" is a comic highlight: "Don't touch the hat. Don't knock the hat. Don't hug too close (or you might knock the hat)." Loretta Gurnell stops the show with a blistering rendition of "His Eye Is On the Sparrow," and powerful LaTreva Herndon as Mother Shaw, the "National Prayer Warrior," leads the cast in the rousing dance number "That's All Right." Under Bebe Wilson's sparkling direction, the entire ensemble is first-rate. The conviction they bring to this bright, colorful celebration is infectious, if not downright heavenly. Through May 2. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.

Dirty Story No side of the horrific Palestinian/Israeli conflict is served by the cartoon treatment John Patrick Shanley's black farce gives both in Dirty Story, now on view in a handsome production at Stages Repertory Theatre. Jewish writer Wanda (Christine Auten) seeks help on her novel from tormented and condescending firebrand Brutus (Alex Kilgore) and then moves in and appropriates his apartment. A disastrous S&M love-hate relationship ensues. Through broad hints and references to territory, identity, Wanda's dream ("Someday I'm going to have my own place") and Brutus's impermanence and lack of roots, it doesn't take long before we realize that these two characters are stand-ins for larger issues. Wanda's dramatic revelation -- "Call me Israel" -- as she aims a gun at sadistic Brutus, from whose tortures she has escaped thanks to the timely arrival of cowboy boyfriend Frank (John Richard Johnston, read: USA), puts a grand end to Act I, but it also puts an end to the play's intriguing mystery. Act II is coarse, overblown, obvious and quite a letdown after Act I and its dangerous, compelling battle of the sexes. Still, Kilgore makes a sexy grunge Palestinian as he hurls impassioned polemics and coils up seductively against a helpless Wanda before he goes after her with a buzz saw. As an actor, he keeps us on edge throughout; we never know exactly what he's going to do. It's a provocative, hip performance. Auten smoothly goes from naive idealist to victim to beret-wearing, Uzi-toting aggressor, and she manages to be whiny, air-headed, ultra feminine and tough as nails, sometimes all in the same scene. Johnston plays the gruff "I just want to be loved" cowboy industrialist with buffoon conviction. And David Born is excellent as Frank's boot-licking sidekick Watson (read: England), down on his luck and galled to grovel at America's feet. Even so, there's got to be a better way of enlightening us than this play's smug conceit. Through April 11. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

Lucia di Lammermoor The wooden sign outside Opera in the Heights's Lambert Hall, the former Heights Christian Church, reads "Hallelujah." After the amazing debut performance of young Jacqueline Thompson in Lucia di Lammermoor's demanding coloratura leading role, they should enlarge that sign and illuminate it with klieg lights. A master's degree student at Indiana University, Thompson has it all: looks, musicality, brains, acting skills and, best of all, a voice from heaven coupled with a pro's stage presence. It's a rare and thrilling moment in theater when someone of her caliber bursts on the scene. Like a sleek and powerful galleon under full canvas, she sails through Donizetti's classic opera about two lovers torn apart by warring families. During the showstopping "Mad Scene," one of the many musical gems from this grand old opera, there wasn't a sound to be heard from the audience -- not a cough or a chair shuffle. Thompson soared (note-perfect) through this most treacherous and famous aria, creating a searing portrait of grief and insanity and a luscious tone. Only towering bass Branch Fields, in the small but pivotal role of cleric Raimondo, could keep up with her in vocal technique and stage aplomb. But in their supporting roles, both George Williams and Nancy Markeloff brought needed animation to the mad goings-on at Lammermoor Castle. And throughout, the chorus was superb. The rest of the cast did well enough -- no one was bad or embarrassing. But good luck to anyone who has to contend with Thompson's force of nature. Through April 3. 1703 Heights Boulevard, 713-861-5303.

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