Capsule Stage Reviews: Big Range Dance Festival, Death of a Salesman, It's Only Life, The Taming of the Shrew,

Big Range Dance Festival In its second of three weekends, the Big Range Dance Festival delivers just that — a big range of fresh, new contemporary dance. With nine choreographers (eight of them Houstonians) showing work, this weekend put a finger on the pulse of a very current beat. Beneath a low ceiling of hanging light fixtures, Michelle Garza and Mallory Horn performed Rubbing Amber; an intimate opening solo between Horn and a single glowing lightbulb set the tone for a series of intricately devised vignettes in which light became another character onstage. With true dance theater sensibilities, para ti is the collaborative brainchild of Paola A. Georgudis and jhon r. stronks. Taking its time to build, then commanding the audience's attention, this dance would not let go. Full of expectations, unrequited desires and surprises, para ti possesses an economy of movement, with each moment well spent and savored. The cranes and flyin is another stellar example of Sophia L. Torres's hyper attention to crafting every detail of a dance, including set design, color and makeup. Be it a card table, origami crane sculptures or paper plate costumes, she is the reigning master of choreographing with objects. This evening of dance was a welcome reminder that Houston houses plenty of dance-makers willing to take risks and use their range to say something new. The festival continues with Program C June 17 and 18. Barnevelder Movement Complex, 2201 Preston St., 281-685-1059. — RT

Death of a Salesman The power of Arthur Miller's masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, comes through even in a bare-bones production, and the presentation from the Houston Theatre Company is the barest and the boniest that one could possibly imagine. Stripped-down theater permits the writing and the acting to take center stage, which can be admirable. Much of the acting here, but not all, survives even poor lighting that often leaves the players in shadow while the audience is illuminated. The two sons of salesman Willy Loman are well-played. Alex Ozburn is convincing as the young, athletic Biff, and captures the emotional pain of the mature Biff struggling between a craving for honesty and a lifetime of taking the easy way out. Hamilton Boyd as Happy creates a credible bond with Biff — we believe they are brothers — and later shows Happy's libertine side as an adult. Alane Johnson plays Linda Loman, and captures the sweetness of her love and respect for Willy, as well as the steel spine necessary to protect him from ridicule. John J. Zipay is excellent in several roles, especially that of Harold, Willy's boss, and Edmund Pantuliano is very effective as Charlie, Willy's steadfast friend. Louis Provenzano plays Willy Loman, and might be very good in a different play, but here he fails to find the soul of Willy. He plays him as a sad sack throughout, whereas Willy's pretensions must be sufficiently plausible to merit Biff's hero worship, before the revelatory scene in the Boston hotel. We see no decline, no hint of a man of potential seduced by a misguided dream, just one of life's losers with the truth not in him. Neophyte director Al Caraballo must shoulder some of the responsibility here. This is a "memory" play, resonating with flashbacks, and it is a subtle play, despite some explicit signposts from Miller. It's better served when the stagecraft assets of set and lighting can enhance its magic. Death of a Salesman has been known to make strong men weep — that will not happen here — but the new production company deserves credit for recognizing its rich merits and bringing them to us, even in a venue that is a lecture hall more than a theater. Through June 18. Houston Theatre Company at Jones Hall, University of St. Thomas, 3910 Yoakum D., 832-628-6241. — JT

It's Only Life You won't hear simple rhymes like "moon, June, spoon" in this compilation revue by composer/lyricist John Bucchino (A Catered Affair). His interior monologues are gem-size musical short stories, each with its own distinct tone and emotional pitch, geared for the frantic urbanite searching for love. His work, like that of other contemporary Broadway composers, is highly influenced by Stephen Sondheim, with its patented edgy lyrics and spiky harmonies. What sets Bucchino apart and gives his sound its own special niche are his lyrical melodies, which soar with fervor ("Grateful"), twang with earthy regret ("Sweet Dreams") and lift troubled spirits ("If I Ever Say I'm Over You"). Heartfelt and always passionate in style, these 23 songs are clever and twisty, but funny isn't in Bucchino's repertory. As the lady seated at the adjoining cocktail table leaned over and asked me at intermission — the show plays at Ovations, a nightclub venue that suits this adult material like a dry martini — "Do you think he ever laughs?" (Character-driven and emotionally raw, the music for Catered Affair is without humor, too, and hence rather dreary.) "Contact High" is the only humorous piece, but it's so short it's over before you really get it. The remaining songs are angst-filled and regretful for failed affairs and love gone sour, and while they are all finely crafted and amazingly performed, the sameness casts a pall. Unobtrusively directed by Andrew Ruthven with minimal showiness for maximum impact, Life is blessed with a quintet of ultra-talented performers who simply stand at the front mikes to deliver the goods and then sit and watch appreciatively in the background as another takes a turn. You couldn't ask for better singers, who perform their numbers with simple honesty and sincerity. In the intimate setting, Susan Draper, Jamie Geiger, Cole Ryden, Christina Stroup and David Wald sing just to us and share Bucchino's musical gift with abundant generosity. If the show accomplishes nothing else, it makes us want to hear more Bucchino. There's got to be some comedy in that impressive catalog somewhere. Through June 19. Main Street Theater at Ovations, 2536 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — DLG

The Taming of the Shrew The Houston Ballet closes its season with The Taming of the Shrew, a work by John Cranko based on Shakespeare's masterpiece of the same name (for those who got to skip this in middle-school English, it's the ballet version of 10 Things I Hate About You). Katherina, danced last night by Melody Mennite, is the unruly daughter who rejects every man she meets. Her lovely sister Bianca, played by Sara Webb, has many suitors, but their father won't let Bianca marry until Katherina does. You know the rest – a handsome local drunk Petruchio, danced by Connor Walsh, is paid to woo Katherina, and they fall madly in love. The scenery is sumptuous, the costumes lavish, and every man absolutely foppish. It's a highly entertaining show with lots of Mazurka-style dancing and challenging, interesting choreography. It's also more than a bit over the top. You're going to have to suspend your feminist disbelief for this one. Katherina is a lot of fun and pure evil at the beginning, kicking men and stomping on their toes. Then, she inexplicably falls madly in love with Petruchio, a total bastard. There's no Heath Ledger-esque buying of a guitar to make up for the fact he was bribed to take her to prom/marry her. Katherina just embraces domesticity and obedience, and they live happily ever after. And as far as the dancing goes, the show too is all Petruchio's. Walsh nails his à la seconde turns again and again, usually while having to pretend he's drunk. Mennite's interpretation of Katherina is so good that you wish her wickedness lasted the whole show, happy ending be damned. You can throw anything at the dancers of the Houston Ballet and they'll shine. And Shrew once again proves they're more than just pretty bodies – they're also first-class actors. Through June 19. Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave., 713-227-2787. – MO

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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
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