Capsule Stage Reviews: Cabaret, The Farnsworth Invention, Grey Gardens, Thom Pain (based on nothing)

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Cabaret The Kit Kat Klub comes to deliciously naughty life once again with a newly imagined production of Cabaret from Theatre Under the Stars. And the story about Sally Bowles (Leslie Kritzer), a saucy British singer, and Cliff Bradshaw (Tyler Hanes), a thoughtful American writer, both caught up in the wicked glitz of Weimar Germany just as the Nazis come stomping into power, is as riveting today as it was back in the 1960s. That's when Joe Masteroff, Fred Edd and John Kander first shocked and awed Broadway with their Tony Award-winning show. This production, directed by Bill Berry with all the fearless muscularity a story like this needs, adds a new layer to the uniquely scary appeal of the show. In this rendition, the Kit Kat Klub is more glitzy — all the girls are prancing around in their sparkly red panties, and the stage glitters with lights and fun. But from the start, it's clear the Emcee (played with ferocious energy by Leo Ash Evens) is leading us into a very nasty place. When the Nazis show up at the end of Act I, it is a profoundly disturbing moment. The cast of this moving production is terrific. Kritzer and Hanes are the perfect foils for one another — one sweetly wicked, the other earnest and thoughtful. Also fine are Suzy Hunt and Allen Fitzpatrick, who play the landlord and the Jewish tenant who fall in love at the boarding house where Sally and Cliff live — they add a deeply felt identity to the struggle happening in Germany as the Nazis rise to power. And the end, with the Nazis squatting at the tables in their uniforms, making horrifying demands for tunes that play to their ­inhuman message ("If You Could See Her"), has never felt so terrifying. Through June 28. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — LW

The Farnsworth Invention The Alley Theatre is running Aaron Sorkin's breathlessly entertaining television history pageant The Farnsworth Invention. If you don't know — and Sorkin expertly lays it all out with the precision and speed of an electron beam scanning a cathode ray — Philo T. Farnsworth, one of television's founding fathers, was a 14-year-old Idaho farm boy who, in 1921, after plowing his family's farm, had an epiphany that images could be sent wirelessly using electricity, i.e., television. The play's second protagonist, David Sarnoff, the ruthless but visionary head of Radio Corporation of America, foresaw the momentous changes that television could bring to the world. He wanted Farnsworth's invention because he realized it was the key to the future — and the key to future limitless profits. He wanted RCA to bring TV to the world, not some nobody like Farnsworth. Eventually, after a complicated, backbiting battle of wills and endless patent wars, RCA emerged triumphant, leaving Farnsworth in the forgotten dustbin of history. Sorkin is extremely deft in the telling, especially in the fast-paced first act, but that's no surprise, considering he's responsible for the hit TV series The West Wing and Sports Night, and the hugely successful movie A Few Good Men. Under David Cromer's cinematic direction, the entire ensemble cast is electrified (each actor plays multiple parts). Displaying optimism and drive, Brandon Hearnsberger (Farnsworth) has that head-in-the-clouds, visionary look of the born inventor/pioneer, while Jeffrey Bean (Sarnoff) creates fiery sparks with his captain-of-industry's rock-solid ego that takes no prisoners. Invention is good, solid drama and mesmerizing theater. It beats anything on TV. Through June 28. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. — DLG

Grey Gardens Scott Frankel, Michael Korie and Doug Wright's extraordinarily vivid Tony Award-winning musical is simply magical throughout. Currently mesmerizing all at Stages Repertory Theatre, Grey Gardens is about two eccentric and destitute relatives of Jackie Kennedy, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, who survived for decades amid squalor and failed dreams in their flea-infested seaside mansion in ritzy East Hampton, New York. In 1976, Albert and David Maysles released their documentary Grey Gardens about the pair to universal acclaim; playwright Doug Wright (Quills, I Am My Own Wife) based his book on the documentary, but realized that the bitchy ebb and flow between mother and daughter would only make sense if prefaced by scenes from their former life of privilege. From such a high, he says in Act I, how did it go so horribly wrong? In a prescient, impressionistic first act, it's 1941, and Edith (Nancy Johnston) is preparing an engagement party for her daughter Little Edie (Rachael Logue in a most impressive Stages debut). But Big Edie interferes, destroying Edie's chance for marriage and escape. In Act II, set in 1973, the reclusive Little Edie (Johnston, with her own personal coup de theatre for the double role) and Big Edie (a superb Susan O. Koozin) feed upon each other, yet obsessively cling to each other for security and need. The musical is gritty, poetic, able to shock and quick to evoke laughter and tears. The stylized production is imaginatively realized by scenic designer Kevin Holden. Director Kenn McLaughlin and musical director Steven Jones keep the pace relentless, as it should be. Through June 28. 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — DLG



Thom Pain (based on nothing) Seán Patrick Judge delivers a must-see, soul-searing performance in Will Eno's haunting monologue, put on by Nova Arts Project. Crackling and brittle, this angst-filled rave is about one man's very specific, private demons and angels, but it quickly turns into our own voyage, regardless of the particulars. "I strike people as the person who just left," says Pain, wearing a nondescript black suit and clunky square glasses. He stands in a black void, nicely conjured through Sarah White's limbo lighting and Brian White's extremely minimal setting. He could be an accountant, a nerd, an undertaker. Full of dreams, fears and unexpected comedy, his free-range rant encompasses boyhood, love, the need to connect and the "dead horse of a life we live." Like us, he wants magic, wants to be startled by life, wants to know he matters. But who really matters? That's the question the man asks in passages of such pricking insight, they might be poetry. Still, despite the pain, life goes on. Guarded optimism isn't a message we hear often enough these days, so this prophet is a refreshing voice in the wilderness. Surreptitiously directed by Matt Huff, Eno's everyman makes us sit up and listen. Judge makes us care. Through July 4. DiverseWorks, 1117 East Fwy., 1-800-595-4849. — DLG

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