Capsule Stage Reviews: 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Billy Elliot, A Fertle Farewell, An Inspector Calls, Shards of Love

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Precocious little Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere (Monica Passley) — she has two dads, you see — stands at the microphone in the middle school gymnasium where the spelling bee is held. Her word to spell is "strabismus," a squint caused by a defect in the eye muscles. She asks vice principal Panch (Kyle Ezer), who's in charge of reading the definitions, to use the word in a sentence. He replies in perfect deadpan: "In the schoolyard Billy protested that he wasn't cockeyed. 'I suffer from strabismus,' he said, whereupon the bullies beat him harder." This non-PC musical is amazingly refreshing. Its theme is rather inconsequential when you come right down to it; sure, it's about winning and losing, but not about winners and losers. Maybe that's why it's so darned appealing. Six middle school spellers compete "at the bee," augmented by four audience members (who've been chosen earlier in the evening) and "the adults": unflappable moderator Rona Lisa Perretti (Rachel Landon), aforementioned Panch, and Mitchell "Mitch" Mahoney (Tamara Siler), who's doing her community service by helping out.  We get to know the other misfit kids as the musical progresses — Boy Scout Chip (Marco Camacho), who gets distracted by a raging erection; flighty Leaf Coneybear (Chris Patton), who doesn't think he's smart, although he can spell without even thinking about it; William Barfee (Richard Solis), the know-it-all nerd who spells with his "magic foot"; Olive Ostrovsky (Erin Stallings), who waits in vain for her dad to arrive and whose mom is off at an ashram; and Marcy Park (Emerald Harmon), who speaks six languages, plays Chopin and rugby, never cries, and is the classic overachiever. They're all looking for something — acceptance for who they are, for a start — and they all grow up a little under the fresh music and lyrics by William Finn (Falsettos, A New Brain) and the wickedly sly book by Rachel Sheinkin, who won a 2005 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. With spirited direction by O'Dell Hutchison and swinging musical direction by Jacob Carr, Country Playhouse makes the most of this minimal little showstopper. Flawlessly performed, this production has a grand heart, a warm soul and a breezy, winning style. I guess you could spell it F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C. Through March 12. 12802 Queensbury. 713-467-4497. — DLG

Billy Elliot For a show set in the rough-and-tumble mining fields of northern England, this inspirational musical, adapted from Stephen Daldry and Lee Hall's international hit movie, is the slickest thing imaginable — and won ten Tony awards to prove it. The entire show dances, from the set to the exceptional lyrics by Lee Hall, the film's original screenwriter. Of course, designer Ian MacNeil's slinky Mylar walls and a lit-up proscenium arch wouldn't mean anything without a heartwarming story, and this is the simple tale of talented Billy (preternaturally gifted Daniel Russell, the night we saw the show) stuck in an inhospitable milieu. Via blowsy Mrs. Wilkinson (past Tony winner Faith Prince), a faded dance teacher in the mining town, young Billy discovers his penchant to move — almost his compulsion. Billy's wanting to be a ballet dancer is extraordinarily courageous, considering that he lives among macho miners — Dad (Rich Hebert) and brother Tony (Jeff Kready) — along with dotty Grandma (Patti Perkins). Everyone's on strike and broke, with testosterone running rampant. Billy keeps at it, through Wilkerson's prickly encouragement and the invaluable friendship of gay-in-training Michael (Griffin Birney, who gets a drag showstopper in "Expressing Yourself"). The musical ricochets between home, studio and picket line, devilishly combining all three in the stunning "Solidarity." Choreographer Peter Darling's dance narrative is freakishly brilliant, as gruff miners, little ballet girls and policemen out for blood collide in rare choreographic bliss that rivals any number by old Broadway masters Jerome Robbins or Gower Champion. Elton John's luminous score embroiders whiffs of English-countryside anthems and emotion-laden ballads (one too many, though, as visiting ghost of Mom refuses to go away). Russell explodes in "Angry Dance," showing the full fury of all Billy's frustrations, and "Electricity," his ode to why he must dance. It's quite a production, real and true. The show soars, as will your heart. Through March 13. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — DLG

A Fertle Farewell A Fertle Farewell chronicles the demise of the hamlet of Dumpster, Texas, population 12, a distant relative of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, but most definitely on the other side of the railroad tracks. But the chance of revival may be in the works when an executive from Brenham Records arrives in town, and the local band turns itself inside out in hopes of garnering a recording contract for its lead singer, Country Wayne Conway. Steve Farrell plays Wayne as well as several other characters, including a loser relative who drinks too much and hangs out under a box, but Wayne is the most endearing as a country swain who single-handedly keeps the town's motel in business. Apparently willing to sleep with a rock if it has a slot in it, he sings the heartfelt tribute "I Like Older Women." Vicki Farrell nails multiple roles and looks especially hot in her blond wig. Rich Mills fills out the cast as the visiting executive, as well as several locals, and reminded me of Jonathan Winters both in shape and talent. His pantomime of asking a girl out is a comedy classic by itself. Talent is the operative word here, as all three play musical instruments (Steve Farrell, apparently, an endless supply of them!) and are masters at quick changes, enhanced by body language. These are brilliant actors masquerading as rural folk, and playing their roles so convincingly that we heartily believe in their reality. The humor is not sophisticated, but there is plenty of it, and the evening is light-hearted and definitely musical. This is the final production of Radio Music Theatre, which is closing its doors after 26 years of captivating audiences. It's unlikely its kind will pass this way again, so regulars who have come to love Dumpster, Texas, will want to catch its farewell romp, and those who have yet to experience it will want to catch this unique excursion into the striving and conniving, the wiles and smiles, the pathos and the triumphs of the denizens of Dumpster — not your neighbors, exactly, but still recognizable enough that you might want to invite them to your next barbecue. Through April 30. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — JT

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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
Jim Tommaney