Capsule Stage Reviews: Anne of Avonlea, Rent, Tamarie Cooper's Old as Hell, Wicked

Anne of Avonlea Anne of Green Gables, by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, was published in 1901; it has sold more than 50 million copies and been translated into 20 languages. Montgomery wrote six sequels, and the first of these, Anne of Avonlea, has been adapted for the stage by Joseph Robinette. It covers protagonist Anne Shirley from the age of 16 to 18. This work is simplistic, painting a portrait of a charming world in which good things happen, problems are resolved and this is the best of all possible worlds — especially when a girl marries and escapes being an "old maid." The play is reminiscent of a staged reading or readings from a book, acted out, as Anne, played with affability by Joy Spence, frequently comes downstage to tell us what is happening. The events are trivial: A cow gets into a neighbor's oats, a meeting room is painted the wrong color, male children misbehave, Anne gets a job teaching and one student is rebellious. Jason Hatcher plays fellow teacher Gilbert, with whom Anne shares a burgeoning relationship, and he is excellent. His wife, Katharine Hatcher, plays Mrs. Harrison, and adds class and sophistication. Patty Tuel Bailey portrays Marilla, who has taken in the orphaned Anne, and can deliver a line with telling authority. I liked Chip Simmons as Mr. Richardson and Stephanie Bradow as Miss Lavandar Lewis. This is simple fare, so go prepared to be underwhelmed, though it clearly serves an entertainment function — there is considerable low-key humor. Perhaps this is the way the world should be, and we have here nostalgia for a simpler world — one that never existed, of course, except in our imaginations. Sarah Cooksey directs, and keeps the events flowing. Through August 18. A.D. Players, Grace Theater, 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — JJT

Rent Jonathan Larson's popular rock musical Rent, which ran for 12 years on Broadway, returns again, this time presented by the Eklektix Theatre Company, a relatively new troupe in Houston. The set consists of metal platforms and metal tables, and on a large screen upstage are projected street scenes, and sometimes interior scenes, of New York City. The setting is Alphabet City in lower Manhattan, and the time is early the '90s. Mark (Bobby Hewitt) and Roger (Jake Bevill) are roomies in an unheated loft on Avenue B. Mark is a budding videographer, and he videotapes events in the play. Roger composes songs, and longs to write one perfect song that will define him, as he sings "One Song Glory." Mimi is portrayed by Maryann Williams, beautiful and with a physical charisma that would serve a fitness model. She stands out, while Hewett and Bevill do not, seeming two-dimensional rather than full-blooded. The projections may be part of the problem, since they draw attention away from the actors. The characters don't seem to connect with each other and the result is a flat production, with individual passages that are effective but without a unifying flow. The role of Angel is a flamboyant one, and Erik Olmos Tristan carves out a vivid characterization that generates excitement. Conflicts abound — the rent is due ("How we gonna pay"); Roger fights his attraction to Mimi in the haunting "Another Day"; "La Vie Bohème" is rollicking and joyous; and "Tango: Maureen" has a compelling beat, joyous lilt and witty lyrics. A strong though familiar story line and a Tony Award-winning score go a long way toward overcoming some pedestrian performances and distracting staging. Through August 9 and 10 at 8 p.m. Frenetic Theatre, 5102 Navigation Blvd., 713-876-3222. — JJT

Tamarie Cooper's Old as Hell It wouldn't be summer without a Tamarie Cooper musical, and this year's tightly written show deals with the problems of old age. For Tamarie, the great fear of aging is not the aches and pains, the forgetfulness and the incontinence, though these are faced ruthlessly, but the dark, forbidding dread of being terminally...unhip. Death holds no sting, but being unhip is the bourn from which no traveler returns. The show is breathtakingly funny, approaching brilliance, and aided by consummate actors who seldom miss a chance to enhance the wit with pantomimic vulgarities. Kyle Sturdivant provides a bravura performance. The classic porn pizza delivery scene is skewered, with Karina Pal Montano-Bowers sexy in a towel. Internet "trolls" each have a laptop and horns, and Tamarie tries to upgrade from flyers to "social media." The plot pretends the show is closed down by policemen (Noel Bowers and Seán Patrick Judge) because Tamarie is too old to play an ingenue, and she is replaced by a younger actress, but fights to regain her fame, her hipness — and her boa. Xzavien Hollins is cool as a rapper, and Mateo Mpinduzi-Mott has great reactions as a hipster; all actors play multiple roles. There is an amusing confrontation between an older Tamarie and a younger version (Jessica Janes) exploring youthful dreams. Tamarie's enormous energy, expressive face and engaging persona light up the stage. She sings, she dances and she can carry a show. She is wonderful, and if you haven't met her yet, there is no time like the present. The exciting book is by Patrick Reynolds and the engaging music by Miriam Daly. Get to this annual jamboree of Tamarie Cooper and friends. Through August 24. Catastrophic Theatre, 1119 East Fwy., 713-522-2723. — JJT

Wicked With all the aerial modes of transportation on display in Stephen Schwartz's (and book writer Winnie Holtzman's) megahit musical Wicked — winged monkeys, broomstick, tornado, fairground balloon and bubble — you'd think this theatrical juggernaut from 2003, the fourth incarnation to visit Houston via Gexa on Broadway, would have learned how to fly. But like an unwieldy zeppelin, the show lumbers along, dragged only intermittently into fresh air by the sorcery of Hayley Podschun as Glinda. Channeling the original necromancy of Kristin Chenoweth, Podschun adds her own brand of bubblelicious charm to Munchkinland's legally blond witch, which lifts this heavy, overproduced musical into the heavens. Whenever she's onstage, the musical floats high and light; when she's off stage, this gigantic, misguided dirigible collapses as if hit by lightning. Based very loosely upon Gregory Maguire's adult "prequel" to L. Frank Baum's classic series of children's books, this Broadway adaptation owes whatever magic it possesses to the long-ago wizards of MGM. Wicked's creators should be on their knees in thanks, because without the cinematic references to character, costume and set design, even dialogue, this show would be nowhere. The musical can't make up its mind what it wants to be. Themes plod in and out, while characters change motivation almost mid-scene. Is this a musical about the power of sisterhood? About being different? About being kind to animals? Or is it just the old Broadway plot of the odd girl finally etting the hunk? There's no cohesive message; it's about everything. The show drifts, using our memories of the movie to give it momentum and heft. And has there been a bigger, more successful musical in the last two decades with a score of less distinction? Schwartz (Pippin, Godspell, lyrics for Disney's Pocahontas and Dreamworks's Prince of Egypt) supplies enough anthems for an entire season of American Idol, but except for Glinda's comic "Popular" and a heartfelt duet for Glinda and Elphaba (Jennifer DiNoia), "For Good," the pop numbers come and go without touching us in the least. There's no charm in the music. Even Elphaba's power ballad "Defying Gravity," which ends the long first act with blasts of stratospheric singing and blinding light cues as Elphaba ascends on her broomstick to become the Wicked Witch of the West, is surprisingly forgettable. It's the slickness of the staging we remember at intermission. The production is rich and eye-popping, no question about it, with Eugene Lee's Tony-winning set designs and Susan Hilferty's award-winning costumes traveling well on the road. However, Wayne Cilento's stiff choreography doesn't travel at all. Has there ever been such a blockbuster with less exhilarating dancing? Or less fun? What a ponderous musical. Judy and her indelible friends on the yellow brick road cast a mighty spell. Looking over their shoulder, Wicked's writers attempt to bring the backstory to life, but trip over themselves and muddy up our nostalgia. They've created a monster, a huge cash cow, but one without much courage, heart or brains. Through August 11. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 800-982-2787. — 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