Capsule Stage Reviews: Into the Woods, A Raisin in the Sun, Under a Cowboy Moon

Into the Woods Familiar fairy-tale characters spring to exciting life in the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical as Little Red Ridinghood visits her grandmother, Cinderella meets her prince, Jack grows his beanstalk and Rapunzel lets down her hair, while a new tale is created about a baker and his wife desperate for a child. The action is nonstop, and delightful, as director Andrew Ruthven brilliantly crams wit and joy into the intimate space of Main Street Theater. Thirteen actors play a score of characters, and the ensemble blending pays off with style and pace, but standouts still emerge — talent will out! Christina Stroup plays a powerful Witch disguised as a crone, then sheds her rags (a wonderful costume by Macy Lyne) to reveal her beauty in a black velvet gown. Stroup dominates the stage with a vivid presence and an enchanting voice. The youthful Scott Gibbs shines with pathos as the cow Milky White — Gibbs must have the most expressive face in Houston — and serves handsomely as Rapunzel's lascivious lover. As the baker's wife, Amanda Passanante has no star turn but is consistent and credible in inhabiting her leading role. These three also project their voices beautifully, while some others do so less well, so lyrics can fade under the beat of the music. Act One ends with the possibility of living happily ever after, but Sondheim and Lapine warn us in Act Two that life is harsh, and provide murder, adultery, child abandonment and scapegoating to prove it. Some songs in the Tony Award-winning score seem too brief, so I especially enjoyed "Agony," which lingers longer, as Gibbs and Kregg Dailey as two Princes in Act One lament the problems of pursuing damsels, and in Act Two reprise it to lament married life. Through February 16. 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706. — JJT

A Raisin in the Sun Lorraine Hansberry's acclaimed play opened on Broadway in 1959 and chronicles how an African-American family purchases a house in a white neighborhood while a neighborhood association attempts to persuade them not to occupy it. This is a domestic drama, laced with humor, with cleanly drawn characterizations of a loving family, though bickering sometimes blots out affection. Terri Renee White is excellent as matriarch Lena Younger, conveying her moral fiber and a keen sense of permitting her two children to develop in their own fashion. Her daughter-in-law, Ruth, is portrayed by Tamekia Jackson, who finds her inner strength and endurance. Monique Holmes plays the daughter, Beneatha, struggling to find her identity, and captures her vibrant youth and openness to change. Her grandson Travis is played by Santana Draper, who brings charm and energy to the youthful role. Lena's son, Walter, is played by Jeff Brown, who has the most complex and difficult role, since Walter is a dreamer, but an acquisitive one, and is self-pitying, bitter and less responsible than he might be. Beneatha has two suitors, George Murchinson (Andrew Barrett), from a well-to-do African-American family, and Joseph Asagai (Atseko Factor), from Nigeria. Barrett captures the preppy look of an assimilated youth, while Factor conveys a sense of idealism and makes idealism look like fun — this is an actor to be watched. Devan Callihan plays Bobo, an acquaintance of Walter's, and is persuasive in his brief appearance. The only white character is Karl Lindner (Reid Self), head of a "welcoming" committee from the landowners association, played as a parody rather than a character. The work is directed by Sedric Willis, who has delivered on the inter-family dynamics and finds the heart and appeal in their aspirations.Through February 2. Houston Family Arts Center, 10760 Grant Road, 281-685-6374. — JJT

Under a Cowboy Moon Houston playwright Carl Williams has turned his attention to cowboy poetry, and the result is a comedy set in Spitwhistle, Texas, on the occasion of its annual poetry contest. Ten characters grace the stage, though one is so despicable that "grace" is a misnomer. The Saddle Horn Bar is run by PA Carswell (Megan Nix), for whom Deuce Whatley (David James Barron) carries a torch for their former intimate relationship. Henry Burke (Taylor Wildman), a young neophyte poet, is composing his entry when Rafe Cainfield (Christopher G. Keller) enters, accompanied by his girlfriend, Teri Blair (Helen Hurn). Rafe has the swagger of overconfidence, and Teri has the looks of a screen goddess. Things pick up when a PBS TV crew enters to film the upcoming contest; Rebecca Proctor (Amanda Garcia) is in charge, while Simon Dawes (Bob Galley) handles the camera work. Jill Milligan (Rebeca Stevens) is a former waitress at the Saddle Horn, and there are two other contestants, out-of-towner Michael Tibbets (Jeff Henninger) and three-time contest winner Boon Hawkins (Adrian Collinson).There is a young lion/old lion theme, as Rafe seeks to take down Boon in the competition, as well as some nostalgia for the Old West, and a pastoral acceptance of change. The poetry itself is eminently forgettable, still at the rhyming stage. The set is spare but authentic, and is by Elvin Moriarty, who directed and marshaled his ten actors into performances that varied considerably in professional polish. Best were Barron as the lovelorn but philosophical Deuce; Collinson as old lion Boon; and Garcia as the PBS producer, who was authoritative and amiable. A low-key, gentle comedy explores cowboy poetry without aiming too high, and provides the quiet entertainment it intended. Through February 1. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Drive, 713-682-3525. — JJT

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