Capsule Stage Reviews: Broadway at the Box, Camelot, Don Giovanni, Fishing, The Lion in Winter, The Mountaintop, Showboat

Broadway at the Box The Music Box Theater is a repertory group of three women and two men — they sing, they dance, they act, they reminisce about their childhoods, they do solos and they do ensemble numbers, all this with such a sense of togetherness, of fun, of personal enjoyment that their talent and enthusiasm cascade into the audience and wrap it in a warm embrace. Luke Wrobel handles a large section of the evening as Tevye singing "I Wish I Were a Rich Man" and as Don Quixote singing "The Impossible Dream," and in between logs time in a hilarious impersonation of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and as an amusingly brutal casting director, and shares a duet of "There's Nothing like a Dame" with Brad Scarborough, the other male member. Scarborough sings "Till There Was You" and "Walk Like a Man" and leads an entertaining skit about a theater critic who reviews a performance before it occurs thanks to time travel. Rebekah Dahl shines as lead singer in "The Age of Aquarius," and Kristina Sullivan provides an intelligent, subtle and compelling rendition of "Send in the Clowns." Cay Taylor nails the haunting "I Dreamed a Dream," and received one of the evening's several standing ovations. The band (Donald Payne, Mark McCain, Long Le and Glenn Sharp) is a rich contributor to the overall success of the show. The Music Box is a cabaret theater, so drinks are available. Through April 6. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — JJT

Camelot Is there a wittier, more sophisticated and clever Broadway musical lyricist than Alan Jay Lerner? He's what the old-timers would call a "wordsmith" — forging together themes, a show's tone and its period flavor; appropriating character into the song; and then making everything rhyme. Wedded to his marvelous lyrics for Camelot (1960) are those scrumptious melodies by Frederick Loewe. Not since their last phenomenon, My Fair Lady (1956), had a musical's songs had such quality, wit and rightness about them. But a show must have a book, and Lerner supplied this glorious-to-hear musical with a gigantic ho-hum. Cobbled together from T.H. White's The Once and Future King, it's an unwieldy tapestry with too many competing panels. The show was in trouble since the out-of-town previews, where it ran a boggling four and a half hours. Cutting down the fat invariably led to cutting some of the muscle, and the show has never recovered from such drastic weight loss. This new production presented by Theatre Under The Stars is a sprightly medieval pageant with the fastest tempi around. Chunks of dialogue have been removed, which speeds things up, but sometimes what remains are nebulous connections between the beautiful songs; we have to fill in the blanks, or else the time's filled in by innocuous, unmemorable choreography provided by director Richard Stafford. Designer John Iachovelli's physical production looks great, with the requisite romanesque arches and pennants to ease the eye, and Marcy Froelich's costumes are all shimmering velvets and sparkly armor. The ubiquitous amplification sounds tinny and cramped, but the show moves impressively with the finely crafted leading roles. Robert Petkoff channels his inner Richard Burton, speak-singing his songs, and his Arthur matures nicely from antic schoolboy to melancholy ruler. Margaret Robinson adds a lovely, giddy quality to young Guenevere, hopping about with glee in "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood," and ages gracefully into the part of almost-adulterer. (In Lerner's version, the illicit lovers share a kiss, and that's all. Doesn't seem like enough evidence to burn her at the stake, but that's Broadway's view of merrie olde English justice.) Sean MacLaughlin is tall and solid as Lancelot, strikes a romantic figure, plays conceit well and falls into Guenevere's arms with conviction, if not much passion. Compact and muscular, Adam Shonkwiler is an energetic ball of evil as Mordred, bringing needed spirit into Camelot's peaceful kingdom. He spits out his "Seven Deadly Sins" as if shooting poison. The show retains the power to move us, thanks largely to Loewe's atmospheric music and Lerner's sublime way with words. It glows with rousing chorus numbers, love songs and ditties. TUTS adds enough wool to keep this tapestry looking like new. Through February 3. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — DLG

Don Giovanni Houston Grand Opera shoots off fireworks in a return of the classically elegant Gören Järvefelt production of Mozart and da Ponte's masterpiece Don Giovanni (1787). With a cast of young, energetic and beautifully voiced singers who know their way around the stage as well as they do through this difficult but masterful score, Mozart sparkles and elevates as intended. Mozart called Giovanni an opera buffa, and da Ponte labeled it "comic drama," and there's certainly lots of ironic fun in it, among the wailings and revenge so gloriously sung by the women seduced by this unrepentant profligate. Not least, of course, is the Don himself. Unlike Donna Elvira, who's conflicted in her love/hate toward her defiler, we, seduced by Mozart's music and da Ponte's wicked wit, are utterly charmed by this cad. He's one of opera's thoroughly bad boys, and we can't help ourselves in admiring his audacity, depravity and chutzpah. Austrian baritone Adrian Eröd, lithe and agile, sings a superb Giovanni, rich with tone and utterly believable in unmatched debauchery. He makes an effortless seducer, playful and terribly dangerous. Bass baritone Kyle Ketelsen, as buffo servant Leporello, matches him, a spot-on second banana. He whizzes through the tongue-twisting presto passages with alarming ease. American soprano Rachel Willis-Sörensen, a former HGO studio artist, as the perpetual griever Donna Anna, amazes with a powerhouse voice that rings with both velvet smoothness and steely strength. Russian soprano Veronika Dzhioeva, turns the pathetic Donna Elvira into a nearly sympathetic role by the virtue of her dark and dreamy voice. Abandoned by the Don, she trails after him, first seeking revenge, then flipping into acceptance. She wants this cad back. Her voice says it all. Tenor Joel Prieto, as puppy dog Don Ottavio, glides through his two demanding arias with amazing breath control and sweet, sweet tone. His plangent singing conveys innocence and a young man's ardor. Zesty peasants Zerlina and Masetto, foils for the Don, are portrayed with earthy fire by Swedish soprano Malin Christensson and American bass baritone Michael Sumuel. American bass Morris Robinson, appearing concurrently as stoic Joe in Showboat, is terrifyingly commanding as the living statue of the Commendatore. He booms out his pronouncements of doom with thunderous clarity and chilling finality. HGO supplies the vocal fireworks in a surfeit of riches, supplemented by the exemplary conducting of legendary Trevor Pinnock, one of music's leading authorities on early music. He keeps this work flowing with grace and power, letting it breathe where necessary or pant with abandon when appropriate. Mozart's musical last days of sexual outlaw Don Giovanni is a pinnacle of operatic art. Come to think about it, it's the pinnacle of any art. HGO does it proud. Through February 10. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

Fishing In the world premiere of Leighza Walker's first full-length play, a marriage is in the doldrums, but the husband finds solace in a platonic relationship with an attractive blond. Wife Dana is aware that husband Grant has Meg as his best friend. Meg sends up flares that she wants to move beyond being soul mates. Grant seems satisfied with the status quo but would rather not talk about it. This tinderbox is set afire by Dana's decision to intervene. Since Meg's behavior is also highly manipulative, Grant becomes a pawn between two chess queens. The acting is first-rate and the characters vividly drawn, but motivations tend to be murky. Mischa Hutchings plays Meg, attractive and described as having an engaging vitality, so Meg should be a dude-magnet, but she seems drawn to married men. Dana is played by Margaret Lewis, who conveys the dedication of a loving wife but one devoid of a sense of play. Her intervention seems ill-fated from the start. Grant enjoys the attention of two women and wants to leave things as they are, and Michael Weems captures the passivity and comfort. In a smaller role, Gina Williamson is excellent as Amy, Meg's down-to-earth cousin, and Eddie Rodriguez is equally good in a cameo role as Mac, another husband. Playwright Walker directed, and the pace is quick, providing a gripping drama of three protagonists struggling, each aware that someone is going to be hurt. There is not much humor, as each of the central characters has a thermometer embedded firmly in his or her heart to chart the emotional temperature — perhaps that is their real problem. See it to learn who wins. Through February 2. From Cone Man Running Productions, at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak, 832-889-7837 or 281-773-3642. — JJT

The Lion in Winter King Henry II of England is celebrating Christmas and is joined by his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, by the visiting King of France and by Henry's three sons, each scheming to succeed him on the throne. The play begins simply with 50-year-old Henry and his mistress, Alais, 23, but as Eleanor enters, we are swept into a vortex of deceit, lies, double-dealing, knives drawn and sheathed, and vanquished protagonists seizing new stratagems to reverse defeat. Heady indeed, and a delight for the ear and for the eye, for the actors come alive with excitement. The intellectual duel between Henry and Eleanor is the heart of the play, and Steven Fenley as Henry reveals a forceful personality, a blustering authority, and a love for Alais and for his youngest son, John. Pamela Vogel plays Eleanor with vivacious energy, a quicksilver mind and great emotional depth. Matt Hune plays John in a compelling portrait, adding shadings of charm and appeal. Matt Lents plays young King Philip and is superb in his climactic scene with Henry. Seán Patrick Judge plays Richard, the tested and brave warrior, and brings a stalwart presence and commanding voice. Joshua Estrada plays Geoffrey, the middle son, coping well with an underwritten role. As Alais, Caroline Menefee has the youthful beauty required and a gradually stiffening spine. The striking set is by Trey Otis, the magnificent costumes are by Adam Alonso and the admirable lighting design is by Eric Marsh. Director Julia Traber has created a powerful ensemble of complex and fascinating individuals. Clicking on all cylinders and with a driving force and sharp wit, this is a dynamite production — see it to savor how good theater can be. Through February 17. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., 281-583-7573. — JJT

The Mountaintop It is April 3, 1968, the night before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated, and Dr. King is staying at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. An attractive black maid, Camae, enters — she is feisty, quick-witted, attractive and "built," so the situation is suggestive and the body language of the characters becomes a pas de deux. Cigarettes are smoked, and shared; drinks are consumed, and shared; and a connection develops. This long beginning is very funny indeed. Dr. King is portrayed as more of an everyman than a heroic, epic figure, and Camae has all the best lines. The play suddenly shifts gears and moves us into magic realism. The segue is handled smoothly, aided by sound effects and some striking lighting — what happens is best not revealed, but the play becomes a drama of desperation. There is an epilogue involving video montages, skirting the shoals of moralizing, and the play might be stronger without it. Camae is played by Joaquina Kalukango and she is brilliant, with a commanding stage presence, an easy poise and great timing in delivering lines, and she even makes slouching in a chair mesmerizing. Bowman Wright portrays Dr. King and is excellent. The play is directed by Robert O'Hara, and he is skillful in generating action within the confines of a motel room and just two characters. Playwright Katori Hall here reveals a rare comic gift for dialogue and shows the courage of a lioness in breaking theatrical traditions and succeeding. Two skilled actors keep interest alive and treat the audience first to humorous banter and then to highly charged drama as the situation turns serious, resulting in a strange hybrid of a play, but one which succeeds in both of its endeavors. Through February 3. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — JJT

Showboat As soon as the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II musical adaptation of Edna Ferber's best-seller premiered on Broadway in 1927, American musical theater grew up. Overnight, song and dance turned into art. Ferber's epic tale spans 50 years of American showbiz and covers such adult subjects as race, miscegenation and single motherhood. Turning these mature subjects into a musical was courageous as well as inspired. The impact was colossal. Every musical ever since owes its existence to Showboat. This seminal work made it acceptable for a musical to be serious and still have a kick line. Houston Grand Opera's production is colossally disappointing. No matter how filled the stage becomes, this grand musical is swallowed in the cavernous Wortham. The whole enterprise lacks substance, with the sets by Peter Davison looking sketchy if not meager. The iconic Cotton Blossom is a flimsy, minimalist gazebo that wouldn't look out of place in a small town's center square, suitable for a band concert. Paul Tazewell's period costumes, bright and pretty, look as if they've arrived fresh and new from the wardrobe department and have never seen a dab of Mississippi mud. There's lots of movement in director Francesca Zambello's staging, but little life. There's no chemistry between leads Magnolia (Sasha Cooke) and love-at-first-sight Gaylord (Joseph Kaiser), the ne'er-do-well river gambler. Kaiser seems uncomfortable throughout, never catching Gaylord's romantic spark of devilry. Cooke has the best voice, full of burnished tone and operatic heft, but it's too mature for teenager Magnolia in the early scenes and isn't agile enough to sound convincing in the Charleston number when Magnolia's become a certifiable Broadway star and hoofs with her chorus boys. Julie, the biracial, hard-drinking star of the showboat, is the show's meatiest role. Melody Moore, with an appealing and rich, smoky soprano, sings her two standards, "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and the classic "Bill," with real heart. Marietta Simpson makes a lively Queenie, snipping at no-account husband Joe (Morris Robinson) for always shirking work, but comforting the showfolk when times get tough. Her "Queenie's Ballyhoo," in which she wrangles up the blacks to fill the showboat, is a highpoint, although it's not nearly as zippy as it should be. (Maestro Patrick Summers's tempi throughout are rather stately.) Robinson gets the best song in the show, perhaps the best number in any show — "Ol' Man River." This iconic song never loses its power, but Robinson's fathoms-deep voice never mines much feeling out of it. The plodding nature is enlivened by Lauren Snouffer and Tye Blue, who play secondary characters Ellie May and Frank, the showboat's feisty comedy duo. Both black and white choruses resound with powerful harmonies, but often the lyrics turn to mush. If it weren't for the fact that the songs are so universally known, we'd ask for surtitles. Even with its large cast, the HGO production is slight and pinched. They've succeeded in making this monument in American theater inconsequential. Through February 9. 501 Texas. 713-228-6737. — DLG

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