Capsule Stage Reviews: Curtains, Jitney, Masters of Semblance, Urinetown

Curtains When musical veterans John Kander and Fred Ebb come up with such a clunker as Curtains, there's got to be a reason. Death's a pretty good excuse, of course, and since Ebb died during the writing, as did book writer Peter Stone, it's conceivable that the loss of both major talents had a hand in the show's utter lack of luster. Set backstage during the out-of-town previews of a 1950s-style musical, Curtains is a murder mystery. (This allows Kander and Ebb to spoof old-fashioned Broadway show tunes in the show-within-the-show scenes. The attempt is bafflingly flat and uninspired.) The untalented leading lady gets knocked off and everybody in the cast is suspect. The show's not working, and the detective who arrives (Robert Newman from TV's Guiding Light) is a big old show queen who not only puts the show back on track but solves the increasing number of murders and falls for the ingenue. It's sort of like Columbo goes Glee, which might be fun if there'd be any humor lurking in the wings. But it's only a sorry collection of out-of-date backstage clichés. You wait while the lame jokes thud on arrival and the usual array of characters parades by: the battle-ax lady producer, the sexy understudy, the love-starved songwriting duo, the witty, harried director, etc., etc. There's nothing new here. Pity the cast, who do their damnedest to make this B material play like it was penned by Damon Runyon and Frank Loesser. They're veterans and hams of the highest quality (Kim Zimmer, Ed Dixon), lovely singers (Kevin Kern, Amanda Rose) or quality gypsies (Helen Anker, David Elder), and they knock themselves out to polish this wax apple of a show. It gleams, when lit a certain way, and it even sparkles a little, but take a bite — it's just glue and sawdust, created by show people who should've known better. Through April 10. The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. 713-558-8887. — DLG

Jitney The big dramatic confrontation in August Wilson's thrilling Jitney happens at the end of Act I, between father and son. Becker (an incandescent Wayne DeHart) and his son Booster (Timothy Eric in full boil) meet for the first time in 20 years inside the car-service company owned by Becker in the hardscrabble Hill district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where all ten plays of Wilson's great Pittsburgh Cycle take place. Booster's been in prison for murdering his white girlfriend. In 20 years, his father has never visited him, blaming his son for the death of his wife. Accusations fly and cut each man. The deeper they slash, the more they reveal. Each is unwilling to yield and full of needless pride. The fight elicits tears and gasps — from us. In one of Booster's kinder reminiscences, he invokes his father from his childhood: "You were a big man; you'd fill up the whole place." That is perhaps the truest statement about actor DeHart you're ever going to hear. A peerless veteran of the Ensemble Theatre, he is one of Houston's finest actors, a superlative talent. He does indeed fill up the theater; his Becker anchors this production, although the cast is another one in a long list of the Ensemble's priceless ensembles. Under powerhouse directing by Eileen Morris, all shine, but Byron Jacquet as busybody Turnbo and Joseph Palmore as struggling Youngblood are particularly memorable. One of playwright Wilson's strengths is that even his good men exhibit flaws, while the most vile of antagonists has something of worth inside him. It's a wide swath of humanism that guides him, and his plays are grand rivers that run wild for a stretch, open out into calm waters, then hit the rapids again. His works never fail to catch you up and leave you breathless. Every man has a story, Wilson says, and he chronicles this diverse group who work at Becker's taxi service with glory, heartache and uplifting spirit. Set in the '70s, Jitney explores — among so many things — the incipient flexing of power among blacks themselves. The future is theirs to command or make a mess out of. With rich and complex music, Wilson writes symphonies. Through April 24. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — DLG

Masters of Semblance No programs, no caveats and no explanations precede Suchu Dance's Masters of Semblance. Even the set has just one element — the gray table sitting askew on the floor. You're pretty much left alone to decide what exactly is going on. Luckily, the eight dancers who fill the stage, bringing with them chairs and plenty of artistic athleticism, offer more than enough material for your imagination. Decked in mismatched animal prints (a giraffe skin top and brown paisley pants, for one), the dancers wander aimlessly before placing their chairs around the table. You start to see snatches of workaday life onstage, from typing hands to glazed, vacant eyes. But the context changes as the piece flows, and suddenly, you're in a living room. The dancers stare straight ahead vacantly as their thumbs operate imaginary remote controls, clicking faster until they enter into whole body spasm sessions, like they're playing Wii on crack. Amusing and disturbing moments like these are punctuated by equally compelling modern dance, with women partnering men as much as the men hold the women. One section is a modern-day love story, a tiny dancer with hair à la Cindy Lou Who paired with a man twice her size. Neither is able to successfully hold the other, and by the end of the relationship, both look exhausted and unhappy. Masters of Semblance is a powerful production, one that leaves the audience wondering if modernity makes you somewhat of a wreck. Barnevelder Theater, 2201 Preston, 281-685-1059. — MO

Urinetown Gimme an I. Gimme an R. Gimme an O-N-Y! What does it spell? Contemporary Broadway! Where would the musical be without the wash of irony? The heirs of playwright Bertolt Brecht really should sue for copyright infringement, since it seems that every recent work has his alienated, expressionist style, where the theater's fourth wall has been neatly battered down. When used in musicals, the style is the ultimate valentine to past shows whose influences are put squarely center stage for all of us to appreciate. (If you don't know the musicals that are so lovingly parodied, it doesn't really matter; it's the tone that counts.) Urinetown is the last word in this type of show. With music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann and book by Greg Kotis, this 2002 Tony winner (which moved from way-Off Broadway, to Off-Broadway, to Broadway) skewers corporate greed, venal politicians, man's folly in doing good and, most importantly, such musicals as Les Misérables, Sweeney Todd and Chicago. In the not-too-distant future, a drought and water shortage have necessitated the outlawing of private toilets, leaving public facilities — owned by the rapacious UGH (Urine Good Hands), as the only place to pee. Young Bobby Strong (Michael J. Ross in rock-star voice) foments rebellion among the down-and-outs, falls in love with the innocently dopey daughter (Libby Evans) of the evil boss (Mark X. Laskowski) and leads the disaffected into the light of payless amenities — sort of. Co-directed with swirling fluidity by Phillip Duggins and Kristina Sullivan, the bad taste is laugh-out-loud funny, thanks to Masquerade Theatre's total commitment and absolute joy in performing (which is a prerequisite for this to succeed). Among the wondrous fools, look for — you can't miss them — Luther Chakurian, Allison Sumrall, Rodrick Randall, Tyce Green and, peer of peers, Catherine Taylor as Little Sally, the show's conscience. Clutching her battered teddy bear as she learns the hard lessons in writing a musical comedy, Taylor is quite phenomenal. Through April 10. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-868-9696. — 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
Mandy Oaklander
Contact: Mandy Oaklander