Capsule Stage Reviews: Oklahoma!, Smoke on the Mountain: Homecoming, Snoopy, Yeomen of the Guard

Oklahoma! Ever since its premiere in 1943, the first Broadway collaboration between veteran composer Richard Rodgers and veteran librettist Oscar Hammerstein II has been one of the most beloved musicals. Simple and heartfelt, celebrating America's homey, rock-ribbed virtues, the love story, which takes place in the Indian territory about to become Oklahoma, satisfies completely. Even in Country Playhouse's not-so-stellar rendition, the musical's glories might be dimmed, but never completely extinguished. No one onstage is helped by the tone-deaf orchestra, whose overbearingly loud string section seems to be sawing something by Schoenberg. The singers struggle to be heard over the caterwauling. Bobby Linhart isn't the most ardent or passionate Curly, but he hits all the notes square on, and his long, lean silhouette suits the horizon-stretching prairie. As his love Laurey, Amanda Baird tries to fight the orchestra with her clear and bright soprano, but loses. Only Marlen Nehhas, as nice but naughty Ado Annie, and John Carmona, as happy-to-oblige traveling salesman Ali Hakim, really get a handle on their characters and feel free enough to open them up. The show's influential and famous "dream ballet" is surprisingly well done, with enough of a reverential nod to original choreographer Agnes de Mille through her loping cowboys and chair-straddling bar girls. There are no wide-open spaces at Country Playhouse, no corn fields either, only a sheet hung in the background that we are to imagine as far-off territory. It looks like an old, cheap wrinkled sheet to me — something even R&H never imagined. Through July 26. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

Smoke on the Mountain: Homecoming If you like your gospel music tinged with Sunday school, this sequel to the successful Smoke on the Mountain and Sanders Family Christmas franchise will entertain, enlighten and set your boots a-tappin'. The singing Sanders Family — somewhat akin to the von Trapps, only without those annoying children — have scheduled a reunion at the North Carolina home base of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. One of their own is leaving to go to Texas with her preacher husband, and the family wants to sing together one last time. There's Mom and Dad, Vera and Burl (Karen Hodgin and Gerry Poland); the twins, Denise and Dennis (Abby Bergstrom and Jason Hatcher); and daughter June (Katharine Weatherly), who's married to Pastor Oglethorpe (Stephen Hurst). The black sheep of the family, Uncle Stanley (Craig Griffin), has suddenly arrived after being spotted at the Blue Nose Bar. Because he's the last one to "witness," you know he has a secret that's soon to be revealed. Everything works out swell at the end, because that's the type of musical this is — faith-based and good — which is a refreshing change of pace for sure. The harmonies the cast members spin are luscious, and they're all fine performers and musicians — they play mandolin, harmonica, bass fiddle, piano, ukulele, guitar, washboard, spoons, you name it — and June signs for the deaf, too. The knotty pine church interior is perfect, as are the '40s day dresses and seamed silk stockings. If you've recently been naughty, go get smacked upside the head with a Sanders rendition of "I'll Never Die" or "Children Talk to Angels"; it'll do you a world of good. Through August 31. A.D. Players, 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

Snoopy Snoopy, Charles M. Schulz's musical version of his cartoon strip, isn't great theater by any means. But as directed by Janet Hansen at Company OnStage, it provides a reasonable summer distraction for families. With songs about what bothers Snoopy the dog (L. Robert Westeen) and his kid cohorts, the show, while not officially children's theater, mostly will appeal well to youngsters. The night I saw the show, when Snoopy sang "The Big Bow-Wow," the kids in the audience giggled out loud. And they cracked up every time Snoopy said something snide to Charlie Brown (James Wetuski). But the show has something for adults, too. "Edgar Allan Poe," about the drudgery of schoolwork and the fear of being called upon by the teacher, is charming enough for everyone. And for the most part, the cast sings well. The lone piano accompaniment, by Gary Gillispie, gives the whole thing a decidedly underdeveloped feeling, and the taped-together flats with cartoon scenery painted on them look like they might fall over at any minute. But the rug-rats in the audience didn't seem to mind, and all the parents looked relieved to have found something to do with the kids on a summer Saturday night. Through August 2. Company Onstage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — LW

Yeomen of the Guard The sublime and peerless exuberant artistry that is Gilbert and Sullivan is nowhere more apparent than in this most Shakespearean of their musicals. Yeomen (1888), the darkest of their glittering Savoy creations, was their last big success. The team set this one during the 16th century at the capital's most infamous landmark — the Tower of London — and Gilbert's dazzling libretto is replete with archaic wordplay that the Bard himself would've loved. (Sondheim, too, for Gilbert is unrivaled as musical theater's foremost wordsmith.) Matching Gilbert tone for tone is Sullivan's exquisite music, a score so complete and infectious — and so fantastically orchestrated — that no note is superfluous. The Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Houston supplies most of this fabled musical's spirit and bitters, but they skimp mightily on enunciation. Without the titles scrolling frantically on both sides of the proscenium — in very small type — we'd be hard-pressed to tell what anyone, with a few exceptions, is saying or singing. Gilbert needs absolute clarity, or all is lost. G&S veteran and Houston favorite Alistair Donkin plays spry Jack Point, the strolling jester who loses his laughter when partner Elsie falls in love with another. Abigail Coy, as Phoebe, who loves the hero Fairfax from afar, wraps her luscious mezzo around Sullivan's humorous "Were I Thy Bride" and the ironic quartet "When a Wooer Goes A-Wooing." And Ralph Katz, as Wilfred, the Tower's "assistant tormentor" in love with unwilling Phoebe, is bluster personified. Through July 27. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-238-2325. — 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