Capsule Stage Reviews: Little Women, The Seven Year Itch, Wizard of Oz, Working

Little Women If only the stagehands at Country Playhouse would cease moving scenery after every scene, we could really appreciate the exceptional performance of Erin Stallings as feisty tomboy Jo in this ill-fated 2005 musical. As it is, every time Stallings builds up a fine head of steam, or even moves from one room to another, everything stops for another damn couch to be positioned or a wobbly wall containing a window to be placed against the background, or a vase of flowers to be repositioned — and the musical has to be wound up and restarted all over again. This clunky adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's beloved 1868 classic by Jason Howland (music), Allan Knee (book) and Mindi Dickstein (lyrics) needs all the smoothness it can get, for it's written as a "favorite scenes" grab bag where events rush by as if checked off a list. We barely say hello to a character before she's married, sick or dead. If the scenes flowed into one another, we wouldn't have time to think about the threadbare dramatics or lack of cohesion, but we spend so much time in the dark, that's all we do think about. Well, that, and why smaller theater companies feel compelled to accessorize. Imagination is a good thing; we'll believe that ratty couch is gilded in gold if you say so. Just keep the damn play moving. The singing is impressively solid, and every character gets a power ballad in which to shine (it's the only characterization they get). Especially noteworthy are the above-mentioned Stallings, who lights up the stage; Louis Crespo's irrepressible Laurie; Brad Goertz's romantic Mr. Brooke; John Dunn's befuddled Professor Bhaer; and Johanna Payton's stalwart Marmee — her "Days of Plenty" is a stunner. Through April 16. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

The Seven Year Itch Hurry to Theatre Southwest if you want to see a star being born. Come to think of it, there may be more than one. None are novices, to be sure, but they radiate like supernovas in George Axelrod's adroit, adult, laugh-out-loud comedy of manners. If you've seen the Billy Wilder 1955 funfest with Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell (a Tony winner for his stage performance), you know this classic tale about sad-sack married Richard, left alone during the summer doldrums, who fantasizes about an affair with the bombshell upstairs. The movie prudishly eliminated the actual one-night stand that occurs in Axelrod's original, but the rich laughs and insight only deepen onstage. Under Mimi Holloway's crafty direction, and flawlessly cast, this is one of Theatre Southwest's most proficient productions. Lloyd Clingman is rumpled perfection as Richard, as he debates with himself over attempting a tryst that is bound to fail, or at least to be found out by faithful wife Helen (Malinda L. Beckham). Hey, maybe she's not so faithful after all, since she's sharing a summer with seductive writer Tom (James Reed), who's forever on the prowl whenever Helen's nearby. Psychiatrist and wannabe author Dr. Brubaker (John Kaiser) warns Richard of impending doom while hoping for more clients. But then there's that girl upstairs (Kate Nelson), and what a girl! In Richard's initial fantasy, she's sophisticated and poured into an ice-blue beaded gown — curves for days. When she actually shows up to apologize for dropping an iron-potted tomato plant smack where he had been sitting not moments ago, she's all creamy and peachy, the girl next door who innocently sets hearts aflutter. Later, after dinner with Richard, she appears in a summer halter top, bubbly, ready for fun and not all that innocent after all. Who could resist? Nelson, and the others, light up the stage as if pyromaniacs. Catch this show before the flames go out. Through May 2. 8944-A Clarkcrest. 713-661-9505. — DLG

Wizard of Oz For such a slavish stage adaptation of the iconic movie — it even uses bits and pieces of Herbert Stothart's original musical score — it's obscene that the writers of the 1939 screenplay aren't credited anywhere in the program. Where are Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf? Do the producers (Broadway Across America and NETworks Presentations) think that British adapter John Kane thought up Dorothy, Toto and the gang all by himself for the 1987 Royal Shakespeare Company's version that's now been jazzed up with projected special effects and thundering sounds? And just how slavish can this adaptation be if there's no yellow brick road to follow, no smoke tooting from the Tin Man's funnel of a hat, no creamy Art Deco long-shot vistas of Oz, no wind onstage during the tornado? How come the Kansas backdrop looks like Utah's Monument Valley? What's with those too literal, psychologically revealing lines that Kane gives Dorothy before she's whisked away to Oz, such as "I hate you all!" Why are most of the Munchkins tall? What happened to the Cowardly Lion's perm? This contemporary tinkering isn't homage, it's downright sloppy and irreverent! Fortunately, the movie's grand bare bones remain to be savored — the sublime score and fantastic lyrics haven't been touched, and most of the screenplay stays the same — while the actors have been hired to do the best vocal and physical impersonations of the classic cast. So the evening's not a total loss, I suppose, as long as a new generation of kids — and there are lots of them in attendance, which is good — gets to experience the wonders of Oz. Even those of the plastic baloney kind. Through April 19. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. 713-629-3700. — DLG

Working In 1978, the first version of this musical adaptation by Stephen Schwartz (and other composers) of Studs Terkel's classic oral history ("Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do") bombed on Broadway. Stuffed and mammoth, the show resembled a Red Square pageant for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and closed after 24 performances. Revised for TV in 1982 and further updated in 1999, the show has finally been given a fresh face-lift. There's still a strong whiff of agitprop as the saintliness of everyday workers is lauded if not etched in stone, but it's not nearly as overpowering or bombastic as the original. Thanks to director Wayne Landon and the simple but effective choreography by Belinda Barnes, the sprightly staging at Ace Theatre is a real pleasure, as are the affecting performances by Andrew Adams, Lee Bentley, Heather Dahlberg, Vance Johnson, Allison Phillips, B. Renda, J.D. Rose, Elaine Steinbach and Crystyl Swanson. Not all of them are singers, but somehow the imprecision adds to the verisimilitude of everyday lives. However, what is a total mess is the clumsy lighting design that projects explanatory slides — factory interiors or rows of office cubicles, say — in a great swath across set and actors alike. The light balance is so out of whack that we get actors in the dark or, when they take a few steps either way, overexposed with projections running down their faces like really bad Picasso. The show's been running for a week; hasn't anyone noticed? Through April 28. 17011 Bamwood. 281-587-1020. — 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