Capsule Stage Reviews: Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, A Murder of Crows, Onegin, Pal Joey, Unbeatable: A Bold New Musical

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof Poor hunky Brick (Brian Heaton) is terribly misunderstood in Tennessee Williams's Mississippi hothouse menagerie, on steamy view at Playhouse 1960. Nobody believes he never slept with his best friend Skipper. The irony is that the two people closest to him could care less if he had — his dying father, Big Daddy (John Stevens), and his unfulfilled wife, Maggie (Laura Romero). Brick drinks himself into a stupor to forget what didn't happen, while everyone else attempts to bulldoze their way into Big Daddy's stone-cold heart or, in Maggie's case, into bed with Brick. As a writer, Williams never would come right out of the closet, so his plays are replete with innuendo and knowing references that the cognoscenti would pick up. This gives his plays immense poetic power, but also can be unsatisfying. The play bogs down in Act II, and we never truly believe Maggie's regenerative effect upon Brick, who comes to want to sire a family (not even Liz Taylor could do that to Paul Newman in the ultra-sanitized film version). But Heaton and Stevens nimbly raise the temperature during their intense scene revisiting the past with its moss-enshrouded ghosts, set to Williams's unique music. Through September 13. 6814 Gant, 281-587-8243. — DLG

A Murder of Crows The world is a bleak place in Mac Wellman's hilarious invective A Murder of Crows, now in the hands of Mildred's Umbrella. The apocalyptic tale imagines a landscape ravaged by pollution and the empty desires of man. The ocean is "like a big bowl of wiggly custard," "the air's all mustardy" and the rivers "look like bubble baths." As one character says, "no matter where you are, you're always downwind of something peculiar." In this devastation swirls Wellman's strange, whacked-out poetry about the meaning of life, death and ugly Americans who believe they should be able to get something for nothing. Director Jennifer Decker's cast includes Mom Nella (Karen Schlag), who's lost her husband to an "avalanche of radioactive chicken shit"; her brother Howard (Tom Vaughan) and his Klan-loving wife Georgia (Amy Warren); Nella's son (Bobby Haworth), who's come back from Desert Storm as a "public monument"; her wild child daughter named Susannah (Christie Guidry Stryk), who speaks in poetry and hates everyone; Raymond (Alan Hall), the dad, who comes back from the dead to haunt his daughter; and three black crows (Bobbi-Jo Davis, Karina Pal Montaño-Bowers, Dana Pike) who flock around the house like a new-world Greek chorus, discussing ontology, epistemology and the myriad possibilities of language. This is not easy theater. It takes concentration and attention. This uninterrupted hour of anxiety might be too much for some, but it's quintessential Wellman — who won the 2003 lifetime achievement Obie Award — at his strangest and darkest. Through September 13. Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch, 832-418-0585. — LW

Onegin Houston Ballet season opener Onegin isn't a big, splashy production, or one of those classical tutu ballets that everyone loves (or at least pretends to), but this 1965 John Cranko story ballet based on Pushkin's poem is a masterpiece of 20th-century narrative dance. And dance the company does, reveling in Cranko's fleet footwork, soaring lifts and almost endless pas de deux. There is a cast of 70 in this ballet, with peasant dances and ballroom scenes that dazzle, but it's at its most climactic when there's just one couple onstage. Bookish bumpkin girl Tatiana is smitten with black-clad cad Onegin, who not only rips up her love letter but kills her sister Olga's fiancé Lensky in a duel. After that, goth-boy Onegin wanders in his misery for years, then is reunited with an elegant — and married — Tatiana at the ball. Realizing she is his sole soul salvation, he pours out his love, only to have her shred his love letter and throw it in his face. (Insert applause here.) The mastery of the choreography lies in the exquisite storytelling, which doesn't rely on broad mime, and in the seamless movement, which propels the three-act ballet swiftly to its conclusion. Opening night, principal Melody Herrera's acting chops and delicate dancing made a divine Tatiana to Simon Ball's broody Onegin. Corps de ballet member Lauren Majewski more than held her own as Olga against the more seasoned stars, and Connor Welsh was a charming, if slightly hotheaded, Lensky. Ermanno Florio wielded a sensitive baton, and the Houston Ballet Orchestra soared through the compilation score of Tchaikovsky works. New to the production since its premiere here in 2005 are the late Elizabeth Dalton's muted, pastoral sets. Onegin is superb dancing and proof that, sometimes, girls really do know when to say no. Through September 14. Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. — MG

Pal Joey If you missed Bayou City Concert Musicals' unbeatable rendition last weekend of the classic 1940 show penned by Richard Rodgers (music), Lorenz Hart (lyrics) and John O'Hara (book), you missed a beaut. Better known for the anemic film version with Sinatra and Rita Hayworth, this great Broadway musical is rarely staged, which is a mystery to me, since its cynicism and sophistication could give Sondheim a real run for his money. Opportunistic Joey (slick, suave Spencer Plachy) gets ahead by sleeping around, especially with society matron Vera (soignée Susan Shofner), although he has a yen for sweet Linda (the lovely-voiced Susan Draper) and a jaundiced eye for showgirl Gladys (the electric Haley Dyes). During Joey's rise and fall, and probable rise again, we get to enjoy "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," "You Mustn't Kick It Around," "What Is a Man?" and the classiest of stripteases, "Zip" (performed with gusto by Carolyn Johnson), with its passing references to Toscanini, Rip Van Winkle, Tyrone Power and Allah. This showbiz tell-all hasn't been surpassed in 68 years, and BCCM's concert version, smartly staged by founder Paul Hope, with juicy choreography by Krissy Richmond, the heppest of costumes by Pat Padilla and the liveliest of big band orchestras led by Dominique Royem, will be hard to beat. It certainly will be hard to forget. Thanks, Paul. — DLG

Unbeatable: A Bold New Musical Breast cancer isn't usually something to sing about, but don't tell that to Laurie Frey, the woman who thought up Unbeatable: A Bold New Musical. Frey is also a breast cancer survivor, and her experiences with chemo, radiation and surgery make for surprisingly funny and at times very tender theater. Shaped into a story by Eric Coble and put into song by Kevin Fisher and Todd Schroeder, the musical follows do-it-all, type-A Tracy (Kristy Cates) from her diagnosis to her treatment to her epiphany that it's best to live life for the moment. The overall conceit of the story is a bit odd: Tracy imagines that she is on trial for how she's lived her life since she found out she was sick. There are some good jokes about mothers judging their daughters (Tracy's mom is the judge of her trial), but otherwise, the whole story could be told without this rather clunky metaphor for Tracy's inner life. That said, there are several lovely moments, including "Follow the Light," sung by Janet Carroll, who plays Tracy's mom with sweet care. The show is also filled with humor such as a Miss Chemo pageant and lots of songs about eating right ("Supershake"), drugs ("Pharmacy Song") and the general humiliation of being a patient ("Picked, Poked and Prodded"). The opening-night audience was full of survivors and their families, and many were often moved to tears at Tracy's tribulations. The energetic cast, who traveled here from the Phoenix Theatre in Arizona, was directed by Michael Barnard (who is also credited as a co-creator in the program) with terrific joy. It's clear these actors are loving every minute of their time onstage, living out the show's central message — life should be savored. Through September 28. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — LW

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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
Marene Gustin
Lee Williams