Capsule Stage Reviews: Always...Patsy Cline, Beauty and the Beast, A Fertle Holiday, The Receptionist, Sunshine Boys

Always...Patsy Cline Stages Repertory Theatre's favorite cash cow is back and as much fun as ever. Created by Ted Swindley, the Stages founding artistic director, 20 years ago, Always...Patsy Cline is one of the theater's biggest crowd-pleasers. With the current two-woman cast, which includes the hilarious Susan O. Koozin as Louise Seger, Patsy's biggest fan, it's easy to understand why the show sells out every time Stages brings it back. There's also all that terrific country music, sung with smooth Patsy style, by Melodie Smith, who plays the country-singing queen. The show, told from Louise's point of view, tells how she first fell in love with Patsy's music hearing it on TV one morning, and then one night got to meet the star when she came to Houston to sing at a honky-tonk. The two women kept up their friendship through letters and phone calls until Patsy died in a plane crash in 1963. As directed by Kenn McLaughlin, Koozin is big and brassy as the Texas fan. With a big wig and lots of swagger, Koozin creates a charmingly plain-talking Louise. Smith covers such fabulous tunes as "Back in Baby's Arms," "I Fall to Pieces" and "Crazy," to name just a few, with crooning style. All the great music, plus the fun performances, take the audience on a fun trip through bygone days when stars were just like regular folk and Texans sounded like...well...Texans. Through January 11. 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — LW

Beauty and the Beast Disney's blockbuster stage adaptation of its sensationally successful animated movie (1991) was the company's first foray into live stage shows. They turned the clever musical cartoon, with its feisty, smart heroine Belle, into a literal retelling with loads of special lighting effects and intricate character costumes. It was an immense hit, spawning Disney to examine its vaults and reinvent The Lion King, Tarzan, Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins and the soon-to-open Shrek. For all its overt simplicity, Beauty nonetheless dotes upon fantasy and imagination. Playhouse 1960 forgoes all that extraneous stuff and plows right through the magic with little stagecraft and not much poetry. Surprisingly, the big numbers choreographed by Jenny Cortina — "Be Our Guest," "Human Again" and "Gaston" — connect and only prove that showbiz chutzpah never fails. Unduly muffled behind his wolfman mask, James Murdock, making his stage debut as the Beast, was sedate when he should have been feral, and when his body mike failed, the unfortunate Murdock carried on without much noise at all. Natalie Pawelek made an appealing Belle with her clarion soprano and youthful presence, but the supporting players, as candlesticks, clocks and teapots, stole the show. Marco Camacho, the best of the bunch, exuded naughty charm as Gallic candelabra Lumiere; Joel Cortina sprightly bounced off walls as henchman LeFou; Nora Hahn as Mrs. Potts created a soothing spell with the theme song ballad "Beauty and the Beast" (an Academy Award winner); and Cody Wylie had the voice and moves for muscle-head Gaston. No matter what obstacles are placed in its path, this Disney musical behemoth keeps marching, thanks to its gloriously old-fashioned score, lovingly played under maestro Ana Guirola. Through November 30. 6814 Gant Rd., 281-587-8243, with additional performances December 5,6 and 7 at Berry Center, 8877 Barker Cypress, 281-894-3900. — DLG

A Fertle Holiday It just wouldn't be Christmas in Houston if the loony singing Fertle family and their equally crazy neighbors didn't sit down for their Christmas eve dinner of chicken in a bucket, heaping helpings of daughter-in-law Bridgette's creamed corn — slightly green around the edges — lime Jell-O squares and a big ol' slab of mom Mildred's butter pie, slathered with gobs of nondairy whipped topping. Hungry? You bet! You'll ache from laughing out loud at this most dysfunctional family, which strangely resembles almost any family you know, including your own. Daughter Justicena completes her holiday shopping when she and whipped hubby Pete and spawn-from-hell son Damien stop overnight at Motel 6, where she purloins the towels, hand soap, postcards and Gideon Bible to wrap up as gifts. Mildred and Ned's other daughter, Carol, accompanied by rich husband Roger and nelly son Curtis, flies in from San Diego on a private plane, causing no end of jealousy on the part of her loser brother Lou, who manages to get his big foot stuck in his mouth constantly. Balancing on one foot with his arms extended just so, slow brother Earl, who's recently hit his head again, makes the perfect TV rabbit ears, and nobody's in the mood to decorate Ned's scrawny, pathetic twig of a tree — "All the sequoias were gone," he whines in defense. Then there's Uncle Al, whose wife Orabella has suddenly died, attempting to play Santa for the kids. He just doesn't have it in him to be merry, getting out one lone "ho" before bursting into sobs. The inspired clowns responsible for the merriment, and who play every character, are Steve Farrell (who writes the satiric material), Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills. No matter what mood you're in, you'll be in a better one after seeing this one-and-only comedy troupe. Merry Christmas, indeed. Through January 10. Radio Music Theater, 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

The Receptionist Something quite ominous is happening at the Central Office — the mysterious workplace floating somewhere outside the walls of Theater LaB Houston, where Adam Bock's The Receptionist is getting its regional premiere. The play opens with a startlingly moving segment full of smart, ironic foreshadowing. An unidentified man (Bob Boudreaux) stands with his back to the wall, a spotlight blazing in his eyes, recounting his memories — first of hunting, then of fly-fishing. We won't know who he is, or why this moment is so significant, until much later. After a fast blackout, we arrive in an office, a space remarkable only for its absolute corporate ordinariness. The banality of the set lies at the soul of Bock's story — it's the ordinariness that makes what happens later so terrifying. At the center of this story is the tidy and matronly Beverly Wilkins (Terri Branda Carter), the receptionist of the title, who watches over her desk with mother-hen vigilance and gossips with the scatterbrained Lorraine Taylor (Krysti Wilson). Bock crafts the poetry of this play from this language of the dull and boring. The cast, under Carolyn Houston Boone's rapid-fire direction, finds both the provocative and the bizarre in this funny world full of dark shadows. When Martin Dart (Alan Heckner) from the Central Office arrives asking for a Mr. Raymond, who is very late for work, we know some sort of crack has just occurred along the surface. It's not until Mr. Raymond finally arrives and lets us know what he's been up to that we get an idea of what this business does and why Dart's name is important. But that would be getting to the end, which we can't do here. We'll just say that it's worth it to wait with this receptionist and see what happens once we get past her desk. Through December 13. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516. — LW

Sunshine Boys Neil Simon's tribute to bygone vaudeville and the troupers who gave it life is heartfelt and hilarious — one of his best. The laughs ring true and arise from genuine affection; the jokes aren't appliquéd but woven into the fabric. Lewis and Clark (James Huggins and Carl Masterson), formerly a comedy duo, haven't spoken in years — as a matter of fact, they hate each other — but are thrown together for a TV reunion special worked out by Clark's exasperated agent, who just happens to be his nephew (L. Robert Westeen). Unlike Simon's later work, which can be downright brittle and nasty, this lovely valentine from 1972 exudes warmth. Masterson and Huggins, fabulous pros, revel in the funny stuff as if basking in the sun, while Westeen plays the rumpled, annoyed nephew like a sheepdog left out in the rain. Marlo Blue, as Willie's registered nurse, is straight from Broadway central casting and about as perfect as can be. All in all, this comedy of grouchy manners is one of the most pleasant evenings in Houston theater this fall. Simon says, Go. Through December 13. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG

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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