Capsule Stage Reviews: Lohengrin, 'night, Mother, The Story of My Life

Lohengrin The magic inherent in Richard Wagner's first international hit, Lohengrin (1850), is apparent at Houston Grand Opera. Under the assured baton of maestro Patrick Summers, the ethereal, earthly and demonic glories that this work revels in are newly revealed. The familiar motifs and signature tunes, like the "Bridal Chorus" or the "Approach of the Swan," sound fresh and revived. This is Summers's first foray into Wagner's rich territory, and he's born for it — we eagerly await his next venture. The cast is impeccable in this medieval, pagan fable about what is good, a tale of a damsel in distress rescued by her dream lover. Although Simon O'Neill doesn't possess the plumiest tenor, his reedy, nasal quality bespeaks Lohengrin's celestial heritage and duty, and he sails through the difficult role without a sweat. With her thick and creamy soprano, Adrianne Pieczonka makes an ideal Elsa, the ultimate damsel in distress who dreams of a champion to rescue her but must not ask his name — guess what she does? The evil duo of Telramund and wife Ortrud could not be better sung than by Richard Paul Fink and Christine Goerke, who stops the show with her demonic credo, wherein she summons the old gods to destroy the saintly Lohengrin and bedevil the innocent Elsa. The flaw in all this aural gold is the eyesore of a co-production with Grand Théâtre de Genève, which sets this most mystical of operas in what looks like Mussolini's state library. (In Wagner's original design, Lohengrin is so pure, he arrives accompanied by a swan. Needless to say, the swan doesn't appear in this production.) The soldiers of Brabant carry Uzis, while the ladies wear '30s dresses with peasant-like headscarves. While battling the forces of pagan idolatry, Italian neo-fascism is awfully passé, don't you think? Fortunately, the beauties of the score will not be marred by the silly look. Thank you, maestro. Through November 15. Wortham Theater, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

'night, Mother Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize winner packs quite a punch at Country Playhouse. Like an old-fashioned Saturday-night prize fight, this two-character drama feints and parries with the best of them. You can almost hear the end-of-round bell when mom Thelma (Carolyn Montgomery) or daughter Jessie (Julie Ann Williams) gets off a good shot that leaves the other one bloody and wobbly for a moment. It's a battle to the finish, and there's going to be only one person left standing at the end. We give nothing away when we tell you that daughter Jessie, battered by life and reeling from pain so deep she can be infuriatingly calm about what she's about to do, informs her mother that in an hour and a half, she will go into her bedroom, lock the door and shoot herself. Before she does, she has a list of chores she wants to finish, like cleaning out the refrigerator, filling the candy dishes and telling Mom who to call after she hears the shot. Naturally, mom has other ideas, like desperately trying to talk her out of it by cajoling, wheedling, anything she can think of. Both women have emotional baggage that confounds the problem and muddies the water — some of the exposition sucker-punches the audience — but Jessie won't be deterred. It's her life, and for once she's taking control. The actors are marvelous. With her sandpaper-gritty voice, Montgomery can do emotional wailing like no other, and as she moves around the house in slippers and odd layers of clothing, you feel her sense of overwhelming desperation at the terror of losing her child and not knowing how to stop it. As Jessie, Williams is downright eerie. She so inhabits the character, you feel she could fade into the wallpaper as easily as she could peel it off with the withering glance of one who knows that she won't be missed. Director Rachel Mattox keeps us in suspense and on the ropes until the final knockout. Through November 21.12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

The Story of My Life Is it possible that composer/lyricist Neil Bartram has never heard a note of music by Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim? Is it possible that he dreamed up this Sondheim homage without realizing it sounds just like Sondheim, but without the tart, tasty lyrics for which he's justly famous? This two-man show, which only played five performances on Broadway, tells the tale of two best friends from first grade and how they grew apart, and the terrible consequences of not...of not...we don't know from what. Alvin, the weird, childlike one (John Dunn), winds up dead on Christmas Eve, like a funhouse-mirror version of It's A Wonderful Life, which is his all-time favorite movie and doesn't have anything at all to do with anything, except that his mother died a long time ago and he carries a torch for her the size of the Statue of Liberty's. His friend Thomas (Stephen Myers) is now a world-famous, stuck-up author who has taken all the stories of their friendship and made a fortune from them but forgotten little Alvin, who still lives back home and never went anywhere. Thomas is about to marry his fiancée, but thoughts of Alvin get in the way. Is it just me, or are these guys two of the biggest closet cases you've ever seen? Alvin's too wimpy to make a move, Thomas much too uptight. Good lord, just kiss each other and be done with it already. Through December 6. Theatre LaB, 1706 Alamo St., 713-868-7516. — 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