Capsule Stage Reviews: Failure: A Love Story, Faith Healer, Next to Normal, Rigoletto, We Will Rock You

Failure: A Love Story Playwright Philip Dawkins's work requires inventive staging and offers a challenge to the producing theater. It deals with events in the clock-making Fail family of Chicago, chiefly the deaths of the parents and of three daughters, in separate accidents, in 1928. The deaths are depicted in a lighthearted, sprightly manner; this is a comedic fable. Events are presented in an hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission, with entrances and exits abounding, and with elements of carnival, of a circus and of Cirque du Soleil. The set features a huge clockwork mechanism upstage, and at one point birdcages drop to hold simulated parakeets. One daughter, Jenny June (Brittany Halen), attempts to swim across Lake Michigan, and disappears, apparently drowned in the attempt. The final swim is on fabrics suspended from the ceiling. The first daughter to die is Nelly (Nina L. Garcia) and the third is Gertrude (Courtney D. Jones). A man named Mortimer Mortimer (David Matranga) courts them all, in turn. The parents are Michelle Elaine as Mother and Luis Galindo as Father, and there is an adopted brother, John (Lex Laas), who isn't good with people. There is a plot, but the frenetic pace and rapid-fire line delivery allow no breathing space for personality to emerge, so the characters are like stick figures with balloons drawn from their heads, saying their lines in a loud, flat tone, just short of a shout, and then dashing off. The single exception is Garcia as Nelly, who manages to stay in sync with the general tone of the other actors but also to add a piquant charm that is captivating. A festive atmosphere entertains, and stagecraft is successfully given the reins, in a production that feeds the eyes with color and activity. Through February 16. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — JJT

Faith Healer Brian Friel's Faith Healer has three characters — an itinerant faith healer, Francis Hardy, called Frank; his manager Teddy; and his companion Grace. They recount in four monologues — Frank opens and closes — a tale of an impoverished existence traveling in Wales and Scotland and a final appearance in Ballybay, Ireland. Friel provides what might be a ghost story told around a dying fire, but with the energy of a circus barker, demanding your attention, and the sense of an impending doom. At its core are several love stories: Teddy's affection for the couple, the bond between Frank and Grace, and the relationship of Frank with God, who has given him a gift sporadic in frequency. Recollections vary, but we know that Grace gave birth in Scotland and that one night in Wales, Frank cured ten locals of their afflictions. And that, given a fondness for drink and an exalted view of himself, there was lying ahead for Frank an epiphany repellent in its unspoken details. Philip Lehl provides a haunting portrayal of Frank, capturing his appeal but also the fact that he is in hiding, holding back from humanity. Kim Tobin as Grace is more down-to-earth, bound with hoops of steel to Hardy, with whom she ran away as a young woman, and finding strange comfort in a prison of need. John Tyson as their cockney manager, Teddy, describes vaudeville acts he has managed — each one increasingly comical — and provides cues that Grace is less sweet than described. Tyson's acting and direction are both superb. Playwright, actors and director combine to create a work so filled with intelligence, humor, suspense and love that its breathtaking power will linger long after you have left the theater. Through February 8. Presented by Stark Naked Theatre Company at Studio 101, 1824 Spring, 832-866-6514. — JJT

Next to Normal Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's multiple award-winning musical (Drama Desk, Tony and a Pulitzer) has a first-act curtain like no other. What other show has ever wheeled its leading lady into the operating room to undergo electroshock therapy, then broken for intermission? There's room on the musical stage for almost anything, and Normal takes the subject of manic depression and turns what could be an ultra-downer into as accomplished a piece of musical theater as possible. It's deeply moving yet highly exhilarating. The production from Standing Room Only does it proud. Suburban housewife Diana (Rachel Landon in an immaculate, bravura performance) is a mess. She hates her life, has no feelings for her average husband Dan (Brad Zimmerman) and doesn't relate at all to her teenage daughter (Derrien Kellum), who's on the verge of a breakdown herself, barely clinging to the lifeline thrown to her by stoner classmate Henry (Michael Chiavone). Diana pays inordinate attention, though, to her son Gabe (Tyler Galindo), who appears to her almost as if in a dream, popping up behind her and whispering in her ear. She comes alive in his presence. But the stress of everyday life is crushing her and the fallout scalds her family. When she makes sandwiches for her kids to take to school and finishes buttering the bread on the floor, there's no denying the seriousness of her problem. The medical establishment (Zach Braver) is as stymied as Diana's clueless family. When the family's long-buried secret is revealed (a revelation that smacks us in the gut with utter surprise), suicide is attempted. That's when the terror of electroshock therapy is broached. There's the possibility of a cure, but that might wipe out Diana's memories — the only sweet things that keep her grounded. Blessed with a stunning contemporary score and bitingly effective lyrics, the show keeps surprising as it returns to past melodies and spins them with greater potency. The specter of Sondheim swirls throughout, but then so, too, does Rodgers and Hammerstein. This is Broadway songwriting on an exceptionally high plane. SRO's ensemble is first-rate. Landon is a revelation as battered, uncomprehending Diana. She takes us on a thrilling ride from desperation to acceptance. Zimmerman, who looks like a suburban dad, a bit battered and frayed, is solid as the loyal spouse whose duty is to stay and help, even if he doesn't know what to do. Galindo is all pouty seduction as Gabe, Diana's favorite child. Braver handles the doctors with comic timing and oily charm. Chiavone drips both innocence and bad-boy attitude as slacker Henry, singing like a real contender from a pop idol contest. Hip and sort of goofy, he's immediately likable, cool and retro. Unsteady in pitch during the first act, Kellum found her way during the second. It might have been opening-night jitters, for she hit all the right notes playing neglected Natalie, who lashes out at the world to get the attention she deserves. Her three duets with Chiavone whenever their characters met ("Hey") were little playlets full of gentle sincerity. SRO's staging is minimal, which only augments the music (under the direction of keyboardist William Michael Luyties, Jeff Blankenship on guitar, Ryan Mohrman on bass and Sean Ramos on percussion) and the performances (under the taut direction from Michael Taylor). In Hiram Olvera's platform set, the house is a lighted scrim with the outline of roof and walls. That's all that's needed. Kitt, Yorkey and this very fine cast have filled in the rest. Through February 15. At Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak Boulevard, 713-300-2358. — DLG

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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