Capsule Stage Reviews: Broadway at the Box, Knock Me a Kiss, The Lion in Winter, The Young Man from Atlanta

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

Knock Me a Kiss The social apex of the Harlem Renaissance was the marriage in 1928 of the poet Countee Cullen to Yolande Du Bois, daughter of famed educator W.E.B. Du Bois, and it forms the basis for this family drama. The Du Bois family is beautifully etched by playwright Charles Smith — the patriarch is played by Wayne DeHart in a subtle personification that captures quiet authority and a courtly demeanor that treasures civility. Yolande is played by Michelle Elaine, and her grace, beauty, poise and emotional range are captivating. Nina, the wife of Dr. Du Bois and the mother of Yolande, is played by Detria Ward, so gifted an actress that every gesture becomes interesting. They inhabit a charmed world, financially secure yet curiously formal. In contrast, bandleader Jimmy Lunceford is brash, irreverent and sensual, with a swagger in his walk and a song on his lips — no wonder Yolande is drawn to him, as is Yolande's friend Lenora. Jason E. Carmichael plays Jimmy brilliantly, creating a complex character with rough charm and an appealing energy. As Lenora, An'tick Von Morphxing brings comic timing and a gutsy, full-blown personality to a role demanding it. Playwright Smith is masterful but somehow fails with Countee Cullen — we never see Cullen's power as a poet, just a deceiver and a weakling. Mirron Willis plays Cullen; Willis is an experienced Shakespearean actor, but doesn't find the inner authority. The play is rich in humor and filled with grace, beauty and poetry everywhere — except for the poet. The comedic drama is wonderfully directed by Chuck Smith; the pace and timing are exemplary. The superb acting, gripping story, wonderful comic moments and the vigor of authenticity make this must-see theater. Through February 24 at The Ensemble Theatre,3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — 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 Young Man from Atlanta The "young man" in the title of Horton Foote's 1995 drama is never seen. He's talked about by everybody, usually with suspicion, but sometimes with sympathy. He calls Mr. Kidder at work daily, although Kidder won't talk to him; he's been given thousands of dollars by Mrs. Kidder, unbeknownst to her husband, to pay for medical bills and other emergency family expenses; the young man even waits patiently in the car in the Kidder driveway in hopes of persuading Mr. Kidder to look upon him as fondly as Kidder's dead son supposedly once looked upon him. This young man is Foote's unseen deus ex machina — unknown, but known; mysterious, but always present; sinister, yet somehow comforting. More mysterious than the "young man" kept forever in the background is how this pale work ever won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Company OnStage doesn't ground this lightweight production with any sort of gravity. It floats out of their reach. After a most distinguished career that includes Academy Award-winners To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, as well as Broadway hits The Trip to Bountiful, Dividing the Estate and his epic nine-play The Orphans' Home Cycle, Foote's late play is irritatingly amorphous. Granted, it's set in the early '50s, when certain pointed questions — like, Who is this young man from Atlanta and what exactly is his relationship to the Kidders' unmarried son? — weren't talked about ever, but all this priggish circumspection reminds us of rehashed closeted Inge. We long for the young man to make a star turn and give this play a kick start. The world of old salesman Will Kidder is moving fast and out of his control, but the play's so overly calculated that nothing seems real. Big chunks of exposition are clumsily shoehorned into monologues; characters enter, leave, then re-enter to complete scenes in a stilted, bygone theatrical style; coincidences mount in an almost comic progression, prompting unforced laughter from the audience. This isn't the Foote we love, who can move us to tears with his simple honesty and homespun smartness; this is faux Foote. Company OnStage doesn't know what to do with this problematic play. Everything is off: the set, the music, the cast. The actors seem uncomfortable, either miscast, woefully underrehearsed or misdirected. Only Robert Lowe, as a knockoff Willy Loman-type salesman whose life quickly careens downward, strikes the right tone. While he doesn't dig deep enough, he digs deeper than the others and has enough confident bluster in the early scenes, later turning into feisty stubbornness until he reaches a deflating acceptance in the final scene. He doesn't move us as he should since he's basically acting alone. Through February 16. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — 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