Capsule Reviews

The Barber of Seville Houston Grand Opera's current production of The Barber of Seville is one of the funniest operas, short of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, that you will ever see. And Australian director Lindy Hume makes Gioacchino Rossini's 1816 comic opera rip-roarin' fun with an Elvis-impersonating Figaro, a blond, ponytailed, poodle-skirted Rosina and a dashing Count Almaviva, who arrives on stage driving a candy-apple red 1964 Buick Electra 225. The opera may look different, but it tells the familiar story of the count's scheming to court Rosina -- with a little help from Figaro. Designer Dan Potra has vintage rock and roll costumes down pat, and his revolving set, brilliant in its simplicity, is charming in a Barbie doll way. American tenor Richard Croft looks every bit the handsome count in dark sunglasses, and he also gets to play the juicy roles of drunken soldier and bizarre substitute music teacher. Both his acting and his voice are up to the challenges of these comic scenes. As Rosina, American mezzo-soprano and former HGO studio artist Joyce DiDonato proves to be quite the comedienne while belting out her beautiful arias. Rossini's hummable score is played well here by HGO music director Patrick Summers and the HGO Orchestra, but it wouldn't be Barber without a good hairdresser, and American baritone Earle Patriarco gives it all he's got. He arrives decked out in a silver sharkskin jacket riding a Vespa, adding a Vegas styling to the famous "Largo al factotum." From his strong-throated patter in Act I to his comedic antics in Act II, he's the epitome of the meddling, money-hungry, gossiping hairdresser-to-the-stars we've all come to know and love. The key to putting on a memorable Barber is to have fun with it -- and the HGO cast and crew clearly are having a ball. Through May 15 at Wortham Theater Center's Brown Theater, 500 Texas, 713-228-OPERA.

Last of the Red Hot Lovers Pity poor schlub Barney Cashman (Bob Maddox), the protagonist of Country Playhouse's latest production, Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Owner of a fish restaurant, he spends his days opening so many clams that he has to douse his fingers in breath spray to freshen them up. Barney's 47, has been married for 23 years and always wears a blue suit. Life, it seems, goes out of its way to ignore him, and all he wants is one day of pleasure -- just once to give in, indulge himself, do something that he can remember the rest of his life. So he decides to have an afternoon affair, and since the play's written by funnyman Neil Simon, it's an affair to remember, all right. As a matter of fact, there are three affairs -- three different acts and three different women, each of whom brings his desire to a screeching halt. The first one to deflate Barney is the purring, predatory Elaine (Lisa Schofield), in her flashy jewelry and leopard-print dress and pumps. She couldn't give a damn about getting to know Barney; she just wants to get laid or have a cigarette, and it doesn't really matter in what order. Next up is blissful Bobbi (Sonia Montoya), a whacked-out hippie chick he meets in the park. She's lived more lives than Shirley MacLaine, and if it weren't for the pot she incessantly smokes, she'd probably remember a few more. Then Barney invites over his best friend's wife, Jeanette (Martha Schlott), who recently threw herself at him at a drunken dinner party. Prim and nervous, she arrives clutching her purse in gloved hands and never lets go. She's so depressed over the state of the world that she can't taste food, and according to her psychiatrist, she has a "percentage of happiness" quotient of 8.2. Her gloom and doom bring forth the goodness in Barney, and by play's end, it's his wife he wants to join him for an afternoon delight. Directed by Barbara Lasater, this smooth production brings out all the many laughs and the humanity in Simon's slick sitcom script. The four actors are picture-perfect and make these quirky people seem like friends we haven't yet met. Although only two actors appear on stage at the same time, this is ensemble work at the highest level. Through May 29. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

Turandot Turandot, Giacomo Puccini's last opera, is also his greatest. Left unfinished at the time of his death from throat cancer in 1924 (with portions of Act III completed by composer Franco Alfano, under the supervision of legendary maestro Arturo Toscanini), this marvelously dark and grotesque fairy tale embodies every reason why Puccini's operas are so beloved. Turandot has it all: the sumptuous melody and lyrical beauty of La Bohème, the stark drama of Tosca, the sweetness of Suor Angelica, the exoticism of Madame Butterfly. Ice princess Turandot of ancient Beijing holds a mighty grudge against men because of the rape of one of her ancestors. As she haughtily declaims, she will not be possessed. All of her suitors must answer three riddles or face beheading, and so far, none has been successful. The children of Beijing decorate sticks with the suitors' princely skulls. Upon seeing Turandot, Prince Calaf instantly falls in love. He answers her riddles but offers her an out by asking one of his own. This complicates matters, and this grandest of operas spins into the musical stratosphere. Though the production is sparse and not nearly magical enough, it's blessed by a magnificent cast and chorus under the propulsive direction of conductor Patrick Summers. Young dramatic soprano Jennifer Wilson sings this difficult role as if born to it. Her silvery voice caresses Puccini's high melodic line with a veteran's command and vigor -- her impressive performance should not be missed. And Vladimir Galouzine's rich Russian tenor, thick as chilled vodka, adds a deep masculine tone to Calaf. His famous Act III aria, "Nessun Dorma (No One Shall Sleep)," sung on a staircase amid roiling fog and a dawn-green backdrop, is plaintive, powerful and sexy -- not qualities this aria normally evokes. Through May 16. Wortham Theatre Center, 500 Texas, 713-228-OPERA.

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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
Marene Gustin