Capsule Stage Reviews: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Foxfinder, Little Shop of Horrors, Tarzan the Musical

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Big Daddy, a wealthy plantation owner, is dying of cancer, though the diagnosis has been withheld from him. His elder son, Gooper, seeks to gain the inheritance, but Big Daddy prefers his younger son, Brick, who is floating in an alcoholic haze to the despair of his wife, Maggie, with whom he has not slept for some time. Gretchen Odum plays Maggie, and unfortunately rattles off her lines with little variation in inflection or meaning. Christopher Keller plays former athlete Brick as sullen and depressed, while Brick should not be depressed but absorbed in his own world of addiction, with self-awareness and a sense of mockery. Brick had a close best-buddy relationship with football teammate Skipper, a recent suicide, and the nature of that bonding leads to much speculation and to fascinating revelations from both Maggie and Brick. The group scenes in Act Three are wonderfully written and played, and Marc Anthony Glover's skill as director emerges. Tad Howington plays Big Daddy in a masterful, intriguing performance. Lisa Tolman plays Big Momma, and couldn't be better. Vanessa Pearson plays Mae, Gooper's wife, with great timing and reactions. Glover's sets are invariably outstanding, and he provides here a richly detailed period bedroom, with a broad porch, and a huge harvest moon hanging in the sky, a marvel of three-dimensional depth. Odum and Keller find their footing in the later acts and come to vibrant life, fortunately, since some of the other participants, who enter late, appear to lack stage experience. A theatrical masterpiece comes to exciting life after a slow first act, reminding us again of the genius of Tennessee Williams and of his gift for seeing into the human heart. Through September 1. Stage Door Inc., 284 Pasadena Town Square Mall, 832-582-7606. — JJT

Foxfinder Foxfinder explores the impact of a long-running governmental witch hunt seeking citizens who may be conspiring to protect a fox that's contaminating farms. There is a minimal set, by Greg Dean, with a large table serving as a kitchen table for the opening scene between Judith Covey (Patricia Duran) and her husband, Samuel Covey (Bobby Haworth). They are farmers living a hardscrabble existence, with crops failing. But the couple has a more urgent concern — they are awaiting a government investigator (Kevin Lusignolo) who is coming to evaluate whether their farm has been contaminated by the fox. If so, it's off to an assembly-line factory for them. Duran plays Judith with an unvarying grim expression and a shrill voice, making me wonder whether a factory might not be a welcome change. Haworth, however, is a remarkable actor, and his portrayal of Samuel creates interest, plausibility and excitement as he is caught up in an obsession to kill the fox. Lusignolo plays a protocol-dependent bureaucrat, and the fact that he is celibate, instead of adding subterranean tension, simply permits four separate cringe-inducing sexual moments onstage. Matt Huff directed, but failed to solve the play's many problems. Playwright Dawn King has a heavy hand with her satiric impulses, and she hurls her javelins in all directions, though there are amusing lines. She tackles red tape, sexual repression, hypocrisy, betrayal, venality, prostitution, obsession, extortion, faith-based beliefs, paranoia and hysteria — much like a circular firing squad. Only Haworth finds the humanity to make his character interesting and authentic. A play that is more murky than mysterious falters, but he shows that a rose can bloom in a desert. Through August 31. From Mildred's Umbrella at Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring, 832-463-0409. — JJT

Little Shop of Horrors Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's funky little musical spoof has been around so long (since 1982) — it's played off-Broadway, on Broadway and in regional theaters too numerous to count — that it's taken on the cult status of Oklahoma or South Pacific. In a co-production with Music Box Musicals, MJR Theatricals dusts off this cheesy, cheery sensation and supplies just the right amount of delightful tongue-in-cheek. Nebbish Seymour (Michael J. Ross), down on his luck and everything else at Mushnik's Skid Row florist shop, sells his soul to a man-eating alien plant (William Martin and Thomas Schanding) to get fame, fortune and the girl of his dreams (Kristina Sullivan). Lovingly knocked off from Roger Corman's bargain-basement 1960 B-movie comedy, this low-rent show with high-rent irony soars thanks to Ashman's ultra-clever book and lyrics and Menken's soft '60s rock-infused score that keeps us tapping our feet. Co-directed by Ross and Adam Delka, who doubles as zippy choreographer, MJR zooms through this smart little show as if roller-blading. The ride is infectious. The cast throws itself into this cartoon world with abandon and pitch-perfect characterization, starting off with the zany backup trio of doo-wop girls (Arianna Bermudez, Beth Lazarou and Teresa Zimmermann), who show up throughout as a knowing Greek chorus, commenting on Seymour's deadly predicament. When they rise from below the window of Mushnik's shop, preceded by their glittering, sky-high blue beehives, they're the coolest chicks in town. A perfect Seymour, Ross is sublimely nerdy, goofy and lovable. He's also a superb singer and performer, wiggling like Tevye in Fiddler with harassed Mushnik (Houston musical pro Jimmy Phillips doing his Catskills best) or serenading the bloodthirsty plant Audrey II in "Grow for Me" with a lover's heartbreaking ardor. As Seymour's dream girl, Sullivan radiates Kewpie-doll charm and sweet sexiness, and gets to wear a kaleidoscope of animal-print outfits, each more tacky and skintight than the last. It's an ongoing visual gag that she carries off without batting a false eyelash. There's no way to play Audrey's sadistic boyfriend, Orin the dentist, without going over the edge, so Luke Wrobel blows past the cliff like Wile E. Coyote. He enters in full Elvis mode, silly as anything but deliciously right. He's scary psychotic in his bad wig, frightening the adults, as he sucks on his nitrous oxide bottle and giggles serenely. Wheedling his way into Seymour's conscience, Audrey II is one nasty piece of vegetation. As the malevolent plant grows, it gets funnier looking, with fangs and gigantic furry red mouth. Mr. Martin (voice) threatens in basso profundo, singing lowdown Motown as Shanding (puppeteer) apes his sound. Full of wit and heaps of swingin' showbiz attitude, MJR/Music Box's Little Shop is the ultimate little show that could. Through August 31. Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

Tarzan the Musical Tarzan the Musical got panned on Broadway, but some European productions have been huge successes. A tribe of gorillas adopts the orphaned Tarzan, the female Kala eagerly and the male Kerchak reluctantly. Young Tarzan is befriended by a gorilla pal, Terk, and the scenes before the mature Tarzan enters have an elegiac, pastoral quality and a charming sweetness. Daniel Ewetuya plays Kerchak, and is amazingly good in a commanding, standout performance. Von Deylen as Kala finds the maternal love, an independent spirit and quiet charm. Young Tarzan is played by Andrew Sackett with the eagerness of youth and substantial gymnastic skill on jungle vines. The mature Tarzan is played by Kiefer Slaton; his chief acting assignment is to look good in a loincloth. Slaton does this with a warm, welcoming smile and sculptured abs. Civilization intrudes on this edenic setting with the arrival of an expedition — Jane Porter is accompanied by her father and Clayton, who is attracted to her. Director Nathan C. Hand, who was quite good in maneuvering the gorillas through their paces, stumbles badly here, possibly because he plays Clayton and so can't see the shambles occurring onstage as he and Haley Landers as Jane fail to project their voices. The scenic design by Ed and Robyn LeGris captures the feeling of a jungle glade. The fine musical direction is by Heather Tipsword, who doubles at keyboard, but the amplified sound too often drowns out the singing voices. A highlight is the exciting, humorous "Trashin' the Camp," where the gorilla ensemble goes to town on the suitcases of the expedition. An ambitious project is largely successful, though some amateurish acting in Act Two is unfortunate. Through September 8. From the Pearland Theatre Guild at Pearl Theatre, 14803 Park Almeda Dr., 713-340-2540. — JJT

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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