Capsule Stage Reviews: September 25, 2014

Peace in Our Time In the late '30s, Noel Coward became the most patriotic English playwright since Shakespeare. His playwriting heyday in the '20s and '30s saw him in pajamas, silk dressing gown, holding a martini, as he dissected the social and sexual mores in his idiosyncratic, and utterly unconventional, comedies such as Hay Fever, Private Lives and Design for Living. But the rise of fascism in the early '30s brought out his love for all things England, the "stiff upper lip" of English resolve, fortitude and indomitable courage. His effete Wilde-esque persona morphed into a national treasure after such patriotic films as Cavalcade (which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1934), This Happy Breed (a pastoral about the ordinary English who keep plugging on) and In Which We Serve (his tribute to the British navy). After the war, when he went to Paris to supervise a French production of Blithe Spirit, Coward was astonished to find an "atmosphere of subtle disintegration, lassitude and above all suspicion" because of the former Nazi occupation. The collaborators, part time appeasers, and outright sympathizers affected him deeply. He imagined what would have happened to England if it had lost the war, so he wrote Peace in Our Time (1947), a striking melodrama of what might have been, an intimate epic of the British heart. It has drama, comedy and shock in equal measure. There are patriotic speeches that mimic Henry V, only brought down to pub level, and plenty of reversals and surprises that occur just a bit before you think they might. This is old-fashioned playwriting skill at the highest level, the kind of play they don't write anymore. Peace in Our Time is set in the Shattocks' family bar, The Shy Gazelle near Knightsbridge and Sloane Square (a very tony neighborhood nowadays), where the entire panoply of English society shows up to drink and debate the fate of conquered England. Churchill's been shot as a traitor, the King and Queen are imprisoned at Windsor, there's a concentration camp on the Isle of Wight and there's a whiff of resistance in the air. The stalwart duo, Fred and wife Nora (Rutherford Cravens and Celeste Roberts), run the neighborhood pub, a family club of sorts. Feisty daughter Doris (Hannah Kreig) fills in when needed; soldier son Stevie (Billy Reed) hasn't been heard from and is presumed dead. The bar regulars include: cabaret actress Lyia and businessman husband George (Elizabeth Marshall Black and Joe Kirkendall); novelist Janet Braid, of questionable sex but impeachable moral fiber (Pamela Vogel), and her "best friend" Alma (Amy Garner Buchanan); Chorley Bannister, an influential magazine editor whose sympathies lie with the German conquerors, or anyone else in power at the time (Joel Sandel); the middle-class Bannisters, whose son is imprisoned in that Isle of Wight concentration camp (Carl Masterson and Lisa A. Williams); sympathetic neighborhood physician Dr. Venning (Joel F. Grothe); bickering but loving lower-class couple Alfie and Lily Blake (Jonathan Gonzalez and Michelle Britton); and — boo, hiss — the German "manager" of this section of London, Albrecht Richter (Fritz Dickmann). Other patrons come and go: streetwalker Gladys (Skyler Sinclair) with her German john; an Austrian set designer whom Chorley has his eyes on; and assorted Nazis and English good fellows. It's an impressive cast list, a who's who of English society straining under occupation. The good guys shine, the bad guys glower, the quislings are detestable. I am loathe to single out any of the fine cast, but Dickmann — dare I say "Herr" Dickmann — is wickedly suave and repugnant. His Albrecht Richter can proudly stand with any of those indelible '40s Hollywood Nazi portraits of the "man you love to hate," whether by Otto Preminger, Conrad Veidt or Walter Slezak. Sophisticated, seething and righteous in his dubious Reich theories, this villain sets Coward's play aflame. Every time Dickmann enters, you don't know what to expect. He might bash someone, arrest someone or offer them a drink. We pray for his comeuppance. You'll have to see the play to find out if he gets it. Will the underground resistance succeed? Will England survive? Will Fred finally get the Gordon's gin of his dreams? If you think you know your Noel Coward, Peace in Our Time will surprise in so many ways. At the end, you'll be waving the Union Jack and singing "God Save the Queen." Jolly good show, what? Through October 19. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706, www.mainstreettheater.com/home.html. — DLG

Victor/Victoria The French have a word for it — lousy. When the best part of a Broadway musical is the proscenium curtain — a stunning piece of faux French art deco with golden geometric fountains by way of master theater designer Robin Wagner — you know there's trouble on the Great White Way. What happens after this handsome curtain rises is entirely faux. Perhaps the most dispiriting musical in memory, Blake Edwards's own adaptation of his 1982 hit movie comedy that had a score by Henry Mancini and starred his wife, the glorious Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria (1995) seems to have been made by people who've never seen a musical. Clunky, uninspired and surprisingly shoddy in its music and lyrics (especially those "June, moon, spoon" lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, or should I quote from the show, "can, man, plan"), the show has no wings. This ton of old theater bricks never gets off the ground. The only plausible excuse for why this musical dodo lasted on Broadway as long as it did (734 performances, a solid year and a half) could only have been the mega-wattage from supernova Andrews, who hadn't been on Broadway in a full-scale musical since Camelot in the wayback golden age of 1960. The show plods like some relic of Broadway past, even though its plot is au courant with gay celebration. Most movie adaptations suffer on their way to the stage, but this one wheezes. Anastasia Barzee is no Julie Andrews. She bears a passing resemblance with her cropped auburn hair, vocal inflection and certain line readings, but there's no spark or sparkle to her interpretation. She has a lovely singing voice and belts out the ballads "Crazy World" and Frank Wildhorn's "Living in the Shadows" with professional polish, but there's nobody there. To be charitable, she cannot dance – not a step that doesn't look calculated or meant to conceal her lack of ease. It's pretty much a rote performance, but she's not alone. Everybody in the cast, even showbiz veteran Tony Shelton (a Tony nominee for another iconic gay role in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) as Toddy, the washed-up old queen who discovers Victoria and turns her into drag queen Victor and then into the toast of Paris, is on autopilot. Angel Reda tries to breathe some life into dumb blond Norma, but she's such a cartoon of all the sexed-up dumb blonds from centuries ago, there's nowhere new to go. Joey Sorge as alpha-male King Marchan, who instantly falls for Victor and questions his own sexuality, at least brings some quizzical relief and suave crooning to a thankless role. He seems to be the only one who really wants to be onstage. The rest pretend and go through the motions, but they'd rather be someplace else. That includes director/choreographer Richard Stafford, who directs the stage traffic as if by phone. The entire show's a retread, nothing fresh in it whatsoever. Here's a fan dance from Chicago, a big hunk from La Cage aux Folles, gangsters from Guys and Dolls, an homage to Chorus Line. But it's the music that sinks this. Never has Henry Mancini sounded so wan, pale, derivative. This from the composer who wrote standards "Moon River" and "The Days of Wine and Roses," the jazz-noir score for Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, the delightful Pink Panther theme? Mancini died before the show opened, so Frank Wildhorn (Jeykll and Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, the Alley's Alice in Wonderland) and lyricist Bricusse plumped up the score to no one's advantage. Even the 20-piece orchestra doesn't get into the swing of it. Of all the Mancini songs, the show's closer, "Victor/Victoria," is a jaunty tuneful, letting us go out with a smile. For that we're thankful. Through September 28. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-TUTS (8887). — DLG

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Adam Castaneda
Contact: Adam Castaneda
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