Capsule Reviews

The Cat's Meow Even if the cinematic names Marion Davies, Elinor Glyn, Thomas Ince and Louella Parsons are unrecognized by contemporary movie audiences, the uninformed will still be fascinated by the Jazz Age sex and Hollywood scandal in Country Playhouse's production of Steven Peros's The Cat's Meow. In 1924, pioneering Hollywood producer Thomas Ince was invited to a weekend party aboard the yacht of the richest, most powerful man in the world: media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Others on board were Hearst's most public mistress, screen star Marion Davies; her rumored lover on the side, Charlie Chaplin; Ince's mistress, ingenue Margaret Livingstone; toadying Hearst columnist Louella Parsons; and racy novelist Elinor Glyn. A week after the party, Ince would be dead; ever since, tongues have been wagging over how, when and why he died. Playwright Peros has taken the case's basic facts and given them a most plausible and delicious spin. As overbearing Hearst, Carl Masterson delivers a fully rounded powerhouse performance with equal amounts bluster, pride and feet of clay. And although vivacious Marion Davies is treated more like a ditsy gold digger than the superior comedienne she was, Carli Mosier gives her a finely shaded heart of goodness. Houston Hayes's egotistical Chaplin and John Mitsakis's everyman Ince offer remarkably lifelike portrayals; Barbara Lasater, dismissive and needy as Glyn, demonstrates the imperious contempt that the outsider always holds for Hollywood's glamour and prestige; and Johanna Bonno's rotund "Lolly" Parsons is a steamroller of guile and guts. Any Hollywood cat will lap up this sweet bowl of cream. Through October 2. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

Footloose It's been 20 years since Kevin Bacon got the girls all gaga in Footloose. But there's good news for anyone with a hankering to get back to the big-haired '80s: The stage version of Footloose is alive and kicking up its shiny high heels at the Great Caruso Dinner Theater, where everything feels like a throwback to an easier time. Footloose is the sweetest sort of '80s confection. In it, Ren, a wild boy from Chicago, meets badass preacher's daughter Ariel, and together they make some trouble before they set a whole town dancing. Woven around this teen-angst fluff are some unforgettable '80s tunes, including "Let's Hear It for the Boy" and "Almost Paradise." If you enjoyed this sort of music two decades ago, the versions coming from director Michael Tapley's young and bouncy cast will get your feet tapping. Among the strongest members is Deanna Julian, who plays Rusty, Ariel's ditsy blond best friend. Julian knows how to squeeze laughs from the lamest jokes, and she makes a terrific partner for Kyle Green, who steals the show every time he ambles out as Willard, Rusty's thick-headed, skinny boyfriend who can't dance. Brooke Wilson is also terrific as Ariel. Though she's not nearly so self-destructive as Lori Singer's Ariel from the film, Wilson is a convincing actress whose beautiful, full-bodied voice turns silly songs like "Almost Paradise" into surprisingly moving pop schmaltz. Taken all together -- the dinner, the wine, the young and happy cast singing unforgettable pop tunes -- Footloose makes for a fun little night, even if Bacon and his tight-fitting jeans are nowhere to be found. Through November 21. 10001 Westheimer, 713-780-4900.

Hair It's virtually impossible not to be moved by the 1968 antiwar musical Hair, which opened, ironically enough, on September 11 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Brought to Houston by Theatre Under the Stars and directed by Philip Wm. McKinley, the rock and roll phantasmagoria does what few politicians are willing to do today: It makes a definitive statement about the atrocities of war. For that reason alone, the production ought to be admired. Still, a good, timeless musical -- even one that, with its 1,700-plus performances, remains one of the longest-running productions ever on Broadway -- needs more than a strong political message and a few cool songs. This show, which revels in getting high, often fails to generate the sort of heady joy that the characters are so desperately trying to find. One of the biggest problems with Hair is that the story is too much a product of its own time to transcend the unkind microscope of time. The ambitious mishmash of scenes in Act I touch on just about every issue brewing in the '60s (with the notable exception of women's rights). Buried deep inside all this youthful fist shaking at the Man is a narrative about Claude (played by Tom Stuart with an astonishingly lovely voice), a longhaired, ordinary American boy whose sole ambition is to be rich and whose number is called up for the draft. The show focuses on his story more in Act II, and this is where it's most successful. After Claude is swallowed up by the army in spite of his buddies' best efforts to save him, the message becomes crystal clear. War, especially one that is fought without good cause, is tragic, cruel and wrong. Through September 26. 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887.

The Rice Lureen Boudreaux (Sara Gaston) eagerly awaits her married lover in room 1760 of the Rice Hotel the week before Christmas, 1957. She is one tough cookie. Besides being a lousy mother, she cusses like a field hand, and she's lost her job at Galveston's swank gambling joint the Turf Club. Yet somehow, Lureen charms with sweet grit and steel-magnolia determination. She's stayed at the Rice several times before with playboy Ike West Jr., heir to an oil fortune. But this time it's going to be different. Ike's leaving his wife, you see, to marry Lureen. She's put her full faith into it -- but something tells us it's not going to happen. This world premiere by Jeff Millar, former Houston Chronicle film critic and now writer of syndicated comic strip Tank McNamara, lovingly evokes the era with details such as a princess phone (in turquoise) and Houston radio station KTRH. It's that damn phone that's the problem. Lureen is constantly center-stage -- and constantly talking on the phone, which only reminds us how much we crave real dialogue. No matter how brilliantly Gaston carries these one-sided conversations (and she's a font of nuance and shifting rhythm), they overburden the play and drag it down. Fortunately, there are some 3-D characters to pep up the narrative: a naively sweet bellboy she befriends (Nick Collins), the officious hotel manager Mr. Peck (Joel Sandel), who's well aware of her prior history of not paying bills, and her old flame Johnny (Jason Douglas), whom she asks up to her room for a last fling before the wedding. But it's Lureen's show from the get-go. Gaston rescues Millar's static play with a performance that has her swigging Pepto from the bottle, lashing out at cowardly, dumb-as-a-post Ike and lounging in a red satin cocktail dress to entice Johnny. She gives an impressive, full-blooded performance. As morally strong Johnny, Douglas does too, in an appealing, understated way. It's the play that needs a transfusion. Through October 10 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706.

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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