Capsule Stage Reviews: Billy Elliot, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The War of the Worlds

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

The Merry Wives of Windsor Theatre Southwest makes its first foray into the thicket of Shakespeare, and emerges bloodied but, we hope, unbowed. The company's courage is to be commended for tackling a comedy, more difficult than historical drama.  Merry Wives is a charming but lightweight effort about Falstaff's attempt to breach the citadels of two married ladies, and the ladies' more successful efforts to thwart him. Very few of the cast of 19 — this is indeed an ambitious undertaking — come within shouting distance of Shakespearean cadence, but this flaw is a common occurrence on American stages. Kathy Drum sparkles with energy as the avaricious Mistress Quickly, John Kaiser delights with Gallic charm as Dr. Caius and Jackie Lovell as Mistress Ford captures the appeal and slyness of a married woman past the first blush of youth. John J. Zipay, Scott Holmes, Sam Martinez and Robert Lowe deliver the vigor needed for the Bard's work, but Stephen Foulard in the key role of Master Ford does not, and his portrayal weakens the many scenes. Cheryl Tanner is a shade too mannered as Mistress Page, and the gifted John Williams Stevens is sadly miscast as Falstaff, lacking the girth, though unconvincing padding attempts to hide this. He seems to be more cerebral than visceral, and too aware that Falstaff is a figure of fun. Todd Thigpen as Slender gets his laughs, but his acting style seems borrowed from a more contemporary play. David Bradley serves well in the minor role of Rugby. Young lovers Anne Page (Paige Seber) and Fenton (Dan Cato) are attractive but lack fire. The work is directed by Trevor B. Cone, and the entrances and exits are brisk. If the dialogue sags, the body language of many of the actors adds to the humor, one of the hallmarks of good direction. The costumes are excellent, except for a fake beard worn by Master Ford, which looks as though he is swallowing a beaver. The set is simple, as it would have been in the 16th century, and the music, composed by Mitchell Westmoreland, is effective. We hope Theatre Southwest will be encouraged by its success, though limited, in climbing the Everest that is Shakespeare, and attempt another assault in the near future. Through March 12. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — JT

The War of the Worlds The Martians have landed — on the FrenetiCore stage! This is an ambitious, at times sparse, true re-imagining of the 1978 concept album Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. FrenetiCore's production is nothing short of zany. Best described as a dance-centric rock-opera extravaganza, The War of the Worlds features very little onstage dialogue and singing, but rather heavily relies on voice-over narration, dance choreography and silent acting to move the production along. With minimal set design, panoramic video projections set the tone for each scene. In the first act, we are introduced to the narrator, his love interest, the Martian and the three-legged fighting machines. The Martian, who resembles more of a swamp thing than a little green man, undoubtedly steals the first half of the show with his almost-sexy wiggle dance and orange death ray. Act two opens with the dance of The Red Weed — a noxious Martian plant taking hold on earth. In skintight metallic-red body suits, three dancers excellently interpret this role with the quintessential acro-dance stylings of Rebecca French. With two sizable musical numbers in the second act, we hear strong vocal performances by both Ekanem Ebinne and Robert Thoth. The mix of science fiction and musical theater, with a dash of Victorian nostalgia and interpretive dance, adds up to a kooky yet enjoyable romp to the Red Planet. Through March 6. 5102 Navigation Blvd, 832-426-4624. — RT

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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
Rosie Trump
Contact: Rosie Trump