Capsule Stage Reviews: And Then There Were None, Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, The Miss Firecracker Contest, Smokey Joe's Cafe

And Then There Were None A remote island. One lonely house. Ten guests who've never met their host. And a creepy nursery rhyme called "Ten Little Soldiers," which tells how each little soldier gets bumped off. When the guests start dying, one by one, the plot thickens like clotted cream, because the murderer must be one of them. The Alley Theatre's annual "Summer Chills" production revisits an old audience favorite — make that, chestnut — Dame Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. This ingenious murder mystery, one of her most successful, was first published as a London newspaper serial (1939), then as a novel (1940), then adapted as a play (1943). Her American publishers wisely changed the title from the original, insensitive and absolutely politically incorrect one: Ten Little N-----s. The Alley supplies Miss Christie's devious twists and turns with enough polish and sheen to make this musty diamond sparkle as if it were dipped in Windex. And the actors, just as polished, relish play-acting their stereotypical characters — the wily old veterans practically rub their hands in glee. The lightning flashes and thunder peals, while candlelight ominously lights up the faces of those not yet dead. The ten characters: the callow youth (Adam Van Wagoner), the battle-ax of propriety (Jennifer Harmon), the crusty judge (James Black), the war-beaten general (James Belcher), the sensible young woman (Josie de Guzman), the suspicious servants (David Rainey and Anne Quackenbush), the rash love interest (Todd Waite), the timid doctor (John Tyson) and the lower-class copper (Jeffrey Bean). Everyone overdoes it with just the right amount of stiff-upper-lip Englishness, but they never play down to the material. They pay their respects to the great Dame. As a playwright of disarming, genteel mayhem, Miss Christie knew just what she was doing. This stage mystery is like being tucked under a soft old comforter, safe and warm, while others are stabbed, shot and poisoned at the foot of the bed. The horrors of life get put in their place, neat and in a row, and we wake up feeling satisfied that the wicked get punished and the sort-of good people get their reward. It's not life in any conceivable sense, but it's very fine theater — perfectly spun for summer. Through July 31. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — DLG

Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story Buddy Holly was a rock-and-roll pioneer who died tragically in 1959, at the age of 22, in a plane crash that also killed Richie Valens and J.P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson, on the way to their next gig. Stephan Krosecz as Buddy has the requisite youth, a good voice and is eminently likable. He fills the lead role credibly, though he hasn't found the inner authority of a musical genius nor captured the body language of Buddy as a performer. Brian Chambers plays drummer Jerry Allison, as well as Ritchie Valens, with engaging fun, and Sam Sigman portrays the Bopper with power and a magnetic stage presence. Todd Greenfield as an M.C. has great timing and delivery and also portrays bassist Joe B. Mauldin. Kurtis von Krueger plays guitarist sidekick Tommy Allsup with quiet effectiveness, and Marissa Viso is beautiful and appealing as Buddy's wife Maria Elena. Buddy's stint at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem lets us see Norris T. Thompson II as a singer with an eye for the ladies, in a standout performance that is hilarious and captivating. Matt Zipko plays several roles well, and dances up a storm as a backup dancer. While many of the songs are by Buddy — "That'll Be the Day" and "Peggy Sue," among others — the evening's renditions include of course "La Bamba" for Valens and "Chantilly Lace" for the Bopper. The entire endeavor is extraordinarily ambitious for a small theater troupe, and directors Sean K. Thompson and Arnold Richie are to be commended for tackling it, and pulling it off. UpStage Theatre's production is, all in all, a glorious, flawed celebration. It's not really a play at all, though it sketches key events, but is one of the first jukebox musicals. The skits by Alan Janes that bridge the songs often lack pace and finesse, though the groundbreaking music is so toe-tapping that it hardly matters. Through July 30, UpStage Theatre at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-838-7191. — JJT

The Miss Firecracker Contest Despite not being a raving beauty, and past the first blush of youth, Carnelle (Melanie Martin) has her Southern heart set on entering the contest which her blond cousin had won at the age of 18, and her determination includes dying her hair to match her costume. The show opens with her practicing her "routine," which has the comic gravity of patriotic genius as she coordinates dance steps with imagined sparklers and roman candles. Martin, aided by her dance experience, succeeds in making us care for Carnelle, and has us pulling for her success in the competition. Stephanie Kelso plays a seamstress named Popeye (the reason is very funny) who enters to take measurements for the costume, and gives a strong performance, especially as she falls head-over-heels in love-at-first-sight with Carnelle's cousin Delmount, just released from a stay at a mental institution. Jeffrey Dorman plays Delmount, and enriches the role with such riveting body language that he comes close to making the play about himself instead of Carnelle. In a more minor role, Lidney Molnari plays Mac Sam, a ladykiller with supreme self-confidence despite excessive smoking, drinking and the occasional coughing up of blood. Kristy Morris plays the blond cousin, and has the looks and skill for an effective portrayal, but is a bit too mannered and a bit too involved with her own performance to tune in to the other characters. Since both Dorman and Molnari create triumphant characters with rich body language, credit must be shared with director Anita Samson and assistant director David Samson, who either inspired the characterizations or had the wit to unleash the actors. The goal of playwright Beth Henley was fun, and she has succeeded in spades in finding the excitement, tension and humor in small-town aspirations. Company OnStage has done well in finding talented actors to bring this play to exuberant life. Through July 30, Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square 713-726-1219. — JJT

Smokey Joe's Cafe Smokey Joe's Cafe is a quasi-romantic, nostalgic tour of some of the classics of songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It has no plot or theme, but instead generates the flavor and feel of returning to visit a favorite bar of one's youth — except that the strong and melodic six-piece band here is better than a bar is likely to have, and the nine entertainers kick up more of a storm than the old neighborhood could provide. Much of the credit goes to the distaff side, with Kenyatta Herring commanding the stage with a powerful presence and an outstanding voice. Her simple, quiet rendition of "Fools Fall in Love" is especially powerful. Sofia V. Mendez has a nice turn of phrase, and effectively sells the comic songs "Don Juan" and "Some Cats Know." Blythe Kirkwood is the blond bombshell with a good voice and wonderful stage presence, and is a knockout in "Teach Me How to Shimmy" — especially in a silver tinsel minidress that seems to have a life of its own. Christina Stroup is a brunette beauty with a strong voice, but more gestures could add color to her vocal delivery. The men team up as an ensemble, but also have their own chance to shine. Chioke Coreathers handles his solos well, and shows considerable acting skill in some amusing byplay with Kenyatta. Aaron Phillips projects appealing sincerity, and does well in "Spanish Harlem" with Sofia. Damon Price has the best moves in the group. Mark Jackson works well with the others but seems a bit more casual, with a shade less passion. Cole Ryden seems a bit too fresh-faced for the nightclub atmosphere — I wondered if he should have been carded — but he redeems himself in an exciting "Jailhouse Rock." The second act, with more solos, is considerably stronger than the first. There is a too-brief saxophone solo from Ray Gonzalez in the band — I would have liked to see more showcasing of the talented musicians. Piano was handled by Luke Kirkwood, who also served ably as musical director. The choreography by Lauren Dolk keeps the cast in fluid motion, without being especially inventive. The costumes by Tiffani Fuller are serviceable without any pretense to be more than that — except for the unforgettable tinsel dress. Guest director Dan O'Brien keeps the pace enthusiastically brisk. Previous shows at Texas Rep such as Plaid Tidings had more sparkle and snap in the dancing, but that may build here as performances continue. This is mainstream entertainment, front and center, with little nuance or subtlety. It does what it's meant to do: give us a good time without requiring much effort from us, and in this it succeeds admirably. Through July 24, Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., 281-583-7573. — JJT

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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