Capsule Stage Reviews: Opening the Box, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, Murder at the Howard Johnson's, Wonderland! The Misadventures of a Girl Named Alice

Opening the Box Five veteran performers from Masquerade Theatre, Houston's repository of Broadway musicals, have left that company to form their own: Music Box Theater. The five artists — Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Luke Wrobel, Cay Taylor and Colton Berry — use the cabaret format to showcase their formidable talents, and they plan to produce four original shows each year. The music's an assortment of Broadway, the great American songbook, Hollywood, and contemporary pop and rock. As musical performers, these artists are unimpeachable. With diverse talents, they fit so comfortably together when all of them harmonize that they're an ideal boy/girl group. Since they no longer have fictional characters to play, the five play themselves, or some persona they want us to believe them to be. Inevitably, they overplay. Even solo cabaret acts can get bogged down in personal patter, but since this is the troupe's first original show, and details must be worked out, they are forgiven — this time. More singing, less talk. Dahl, a Houston treasure and ultimate Broadway baby, has given us indelible performances in Sweeney Todd, Guys and Dolls and Gypsy. She's completely comfortable onstage, and she happily satisfies our craving when, Valkyrie-like, she rides joyously through Wicked's powerhouse anthem "Defying Gravity." Easygoing with charm to spare, Scarborough proves it with his crooner's smooth rendition of the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby." He's a comic foil for dramatically dark Wrobel, who oozes intensity. His idiosyncratic, affecting take on "Over the Rainbow" is reason enough to see this show. Taylor belies her stature with a ringing, rich soprano and piquant humor. Singing a cappella, she floats above McCartney's "Blackbird," accompanied by the other four. Berry has a lively, hipster's presence with a knockout wail of a voice, used to superb effect on Aerosmith's "Dream On." Using richly colorful arrangements, the musical direction under Glenn Sharp (keyboard), with Mark McCain (lead guitar), Long Le (bass guitar) and Donald Pain (percussion), is a cool, jazzy earful. As a first romp without the spine of a book musical to buoy them, Music Box Theater delivers the vocal goods with inspiring results. Keep the intros short, the songbook as varied, and the future, as Momma Rose belts in Gypsy, will be comin' up roses. Through August 7. Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt. 713-522-7722. — DLG

The Great American Trailer Park Musical There's nothing wrong with fried food, except when it stains your pants and you can't get the smell off your fingers. Stages uses the best oil — the production boasts a dream cast with smooth direction and movement by Leslie Swackhamer and Krissy Richmond, while Kevin Holden's production design is all corrugated wall panels and stuffed fish trophies, simply irresistible — but deep-fried is still deep-fried. The musical is a cartoon, and there's nothing else to do with this material except play it broad like the worst TV variety show imaginable. But two hours of Hee Haw is impossible. The Nashville-lite music by David Nehls is instantly forgettable, as are his crude and unfunny lyrics. Betsy Kelso's lame book is one stereotype stumbling over the next, except for the wittiest line, "He reeks of permanent marker," which is positively Shavian next to the riot of F-bombs she sprinkles throughout, as if those are cues for laughs. Bright rays of stagecraft manage to shine through in the unhappily married couple sensitively played by Holland Vavra Peters and Brad Goertz, who bring needed heart and fine voices into this dull affair. They actually invent characters out of their caricatures. The trio of low-life trailer trash is enlivened by comic overplaying from Susan O. Koozin, Jessica Janes and Melodie Smith, but somewhere during Act I these three are turned into a background chorus and they never recover. It's indicative of the show, where bra headlights are the summit of visual puns. Unassailable and unconquerable, Trailer Park rolls on and on. If you don't want to become road kill, it's best to just get out of the way. Through July 24. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. – DLG

Murder at the Howard Johnson's The title says a lot — this play has no pretense to glamour, like Murder on the Orient Express, but instead suggests a middle-brow, ho-hum, minor effort. And that's what Theatre Suburbia delivers. Farces are not meant to be taken seriously, and this apparently gave authors Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick the idea that nothing need be plausible — they followed this misdirection off the cliff of comedy. Murder is treated as a lighthearted lark, as a potential victim offers to be tied up, and another cheerfully mounts a chair to be hanged. As you might expect, antics interrupt actual mayhem, so the title might better be Poorly Imagined Musings about Murder at the Howard Johnson's. I'd hate to live in this unnamed town, where the first thought about any problem is the gun or the noose. Two of the three actors managed to give interesting performances, and made the most of their material. Bob Galley plays a dentist having an affair with a married woman, and I believed in his infatuation and liked his way with delivering a comic line — though I did wish there were more of them. Mike McDermott played the cuckolded husband; he brought a strong stage presence and some acting chops, creating a human being with dignity caught up in a situation beyond his control. Only Suzanne King, miscast as a femme fatale and the object of adoration, failed to convince. She carried the narrative but not the heart. She may have sensed that she was traveling on a freighter and not an ocean liner, and that a genuine effort wasn't worth the trouble. Whatever the reason, the part calls for a zany enthusiasm à la Goldie Hawn, and instead we get a fairly ponderous approach, without much charm. The direction by Paul Hager, assisted by Judith Mallernee, served the production well, though the tendency of actors to walk downstage to face the audience at crucial moments — to make sure we see the acting? — might be curtailed. As usual with Theatre Suburbia, the set is handsome and works well, and the lighting is unobtrusive and effective. The company's last two productions created strong interest and some theatrical magic, so this production looks like a temporary departure from a high standard. Through July 2. 4106 Way Out West Dr., 713-682-3525. — JT

Wonderland! The Misadventures of a Girl Named Alice Don't tell anyone that I had a good time at a musical for children, but the truth is I did — and so will you. The book for Wonderland! is by James DeVita and the music by Bill Francoeur, and it is very definitely for adults as well as children. The courageous Dionysus Theatre's production of Wonderland! The Misadventures of a Girl Named Alice ranges from tacky to professional, with a lot of stops in between. The professional part is due largely to Erika Brunson, who plays the Red Queen and Tweedle-Dum with great comic timing and expressive grace. Less experienced but wonderfully talented Scott Florence is hopeless as the Red King (too young and enthusiastic for a regal air), but he captivates as a train conductor who also sells and takes tickets, and has a nice voice in the musical number "Choo Choo." And he floored me as a defeated Red Knight — yes, I was the patron who couldn't stop laughing — sorry! Renee Miura nails Tweedle-Dee, and she and Brunson are great as a song-and dance team. Ben Grafton, the talented musical director, does double duty as Humpty-Dumpty, morphing into a rock star and coming close to stealing the show. Noriann Doguim plays Alice, and she has the requisite looks and youth, but I would have liked a bit more spunk and authority. Una Lau is weak as the White Queen, but comes to life in her downstage song. Joshua Sims dances well and has a good voice — and a deft hand with a magic glove — but he can barely be heard over the music. Cherie Samuel handles the choreography, and much of it is very good indeed. Given a necessarily limited budget, Claremarie Verheyen's costumes are inventive, but range from merely tacky to "you've got to be kidding." I did admire the Dixie Chicken costumes, but wish I hadn't seen the Lion and the Unicorn. This extravaganza has an amateur feel to it in most of the large ensemble numbers, but when the individual artists are given their chance to shine, they deliver compellingly. The direction is by Raymond A. Deeb, who must have had his hands full with such a large cast, but his perseverance has created flawed but nonetheless admirable entertainment, with nuggets of gold. Through June 30. Jewish Community Center, 5601 S. Braeswood, 713-728-0041. — JT

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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
Jim Tommaney