Capsule Stage Reviews: Legally Blonde the Musical, The Man Who Saved New Orleans, The Odd Couple, Puttin' on the Ritz

Legally Blonde the Musical Elle Woods, the bubbly blond who discovers that a girl can be both fashionable and smart, rides again. This time, she's pretty in pink in a Broadway musical that is as frenetically energetic as a group of cheerleaders at halftime. In Houston thanks to Theater Under the Stars, Legally Blonde the Musical featured Lauren Ashley Zakrin (a finalist on the MTV reality talent show The Search for Elle Woods) opening night as the can-do girl who falls in love as she saves the day. The story follows Elle after she's been dumped by her college sweetheart. He's off to Harvard Law School, so he needs a more serious girl (read: dark-haired snob). Ever the problem-solver, Elle decides she'll get into Harvard Law too. That way she can prove to Warner (Jeff McLean) that she can be just as smart as a mousy brunette. Once there, she comes into her own and outshines everyone, even the girls with brown hair. The story is fitting for a musical comedy. Directed by Jerry Mitchell, Heather Hach's book and Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin's light and breezy music and lyrics spin over the stage at the Hobby Center like a shiny top. Lively performances come from Natalie Joy Johnson as Paulette, Elle's hairdresser friend; Ken Land as the snarky Professor Callahan; and D.B. Bonds as Emmett Forrest, Elle's true love. As for Zakrin, she whips up a stage full of froth as she kicks up her heels and sings with sweet and chipper spunk. The movie probably tells the story with a bit more grace, but only a musical can bring a theater full of folks to their feet applauding a rich, blond sorority girl who gets everything she wants. Through February 22. The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — LW

The Man Who Saved New Orleans Don't tell the Prejean family that old chestnut, "You can't go home again," because all of them want nothing else but to go back to New Orleans. Rescued from the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, the Prejeans have been given shelter in Houston, but the psychological ravages of the storm follow them no matter where they go. Thomas Meloncon's world premiere drama at Ensemble Theatre wants to go home, too, back to the historic theatrical roots of Chekhov, but it keeps veering into TV Land. There's so much here that is good that when the uninspired sticks out, it brings unintended laughs from the audience. With great strokes of raw drama complemented by finely shaded monologues, Meloncon implies that without home and family, there's no peace, no fulfillment. It's not the newest theme ever played out onstage, but the playwright adds contemporary insights torn fresh from the headlines. And with that extra-fine cast, he can't really lose. Mom Willie Jean (Rachel Hemphill Dickson) enters bent and crooked, as if the storm has battered her down, but her essential goodness will triumph and her strength supports them all. Paw Paw (Wayne DeHart), blind and diabetic, sees more than anyone else and is the living link to the past. Son Johnny Boy (Joseph Palmore) was the most internally scarred and crippled by Katrina, and Palmore's electric performance grounds this production. He and DeHart play off each other like skilled musicians. Fortunately, Meloncon supplies more than enough music to get them through. Through February 22. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — DLG

The Odd Couple It's as old as the hills, but that didn't stop the Texas Repertory Theatre Company from mounting Neil Simon's circa-1960s comedy The Odd Couple. Featuring Steve Fenley as Oscar Madison, the biggest slob in New York City, and Craig A. Miller as the fastidious Felix Unger, this production, directed by Joshua Estrada, is amusing in an old-fashioned, jokey way, though it certainly doesn't offer anything fresh or new to say about Simon's script. It's 1968, and it's very hot in New York, where two grown men who've been dumped by their wives decide to bunk up together in an eight-room Manhattan apartment to save on the rent. Once Felix moves into Oscar's pad, he starts the obsessive cleaning that ended his marriage in the first place. Add in the copious and whiny tears about his ex-wife, and it take just a few weeks before Oscar's being driven out of his mind by his neurotic roommate. Felix is a real buzz-kill, both at the weekly poker party and during a double date with the two English hotties Oscar meets in the building they live in. The jokes about wives, alimony and the stupidity of men in the kitchen are all pretty tired. Most humor can't sit on the shelf for 40 years without getting a bit stale, and Simon's comedy feels very much a product of its era — a time when working girls were secretaries, most men never set foot in a kitchen and middle-class folks could actually afford to live in Manhattan. The Odd Couple runs through February 22. 14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573. — LW

Puttin' on the Ritz Enchantment in musical theater can sometimes be attained by the simplest of means: a performer in front of a mike, without costume or staging, accompanied by nothing but solo piano. If your singers are pros, your music spun by a master tunesmith, your accompanist and arranger top-notch and your host charming and personable, then magic ensues — which is what happens in Bayou City Concert Musicals' cabaret revue. Hearing the '20s songbook of Irving Berlin ("Say It With Music," "All Alone," "Pack Up Your Sins," "Always," "Blue Skies," Shakin' The Blues Away," et al.) is like attending a swanky supper club, albeit without the supper. But you won't miss the meal, because the show is so utterly tasty. The score of musical talent encompasses a sparkling who's who of Houston showbiz: to name but a few, Natalie Arneson, Janet Berzins, Richard Calvert, Kregg Allen Dailey, Craig Foster, Adam Gibbs, Grace Givens, Danica Dawn Johnston, Spencer Plachy, Susan Shofner and David Wald. Music director Rob Landes plays the piano as if he had four hands, and BCCM artistic director Paul Hope, as narrator and part-time performer, makes the journey down memory lane as memorable as the music. Come to the cabaret. Through February 23. The Performance Center at Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-465-6484. — 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
Lee Williams