Capsule Stage Reviews: The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead, Death, the Musical Romeo and Juliet, String of Pearls, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom

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The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead This theater curiosity is a hybrid — part point-of-view drama, part acting exercise — recording the aftermath of a husband walking out, with seven characters played by a single actor. Rhonda has been married for almost two decades, apparently a conventional woman to be found in many a suburban development, when to her astonishment her husband walks out. Her reaction is unexpectedly violent and leads to a chain of events, like ripples in a pond, that spread and create chaos in the lives of others. A gifted actor, Susan O. Koozin, plays all the roles and displays an admirable versatility, though some of the acting requirements present insurmountable problems. The main role is that of Rhonda (The Redhead), seen as she digests the news of being abandoned, and again a decade later, in a poignant finale. Koozin captures her, but Rhonda is humorless, apparently deeply naive as to human nature, and a bit boring. Her violent reaction seems inexplicable, even more so when we meet the husband in Act Two, who turns out to be such a loser-lout that Rhonda might better have knelt to give thanks for his departure. Koozin does get down on her hands and knees in one vignette, not to pray, but to portray a four-year old boy — observing a mature woman under a table playing with toys is a sight I hope never to witness again. Koozin's skills come into sharp focus when the writing is crisp, as it is in the vignette with an inquisitive neighbor (The Brunette), and I enjoyed this enormously, as it is filled with humor, irony, denial and even a twist. And I loved Koozin as The Blonde, all shiny and desirable and self-assured. As the husband, Koozin gives it a valiant try, but she is no drag king, though vivid writing makes this passage interesting. As a female doctor, Koozin is credible, though little range is demanded here. And Koozin fails to hit the mark playing a senior female with a walker, appearing far too young. There are six extensive costume changes, seen usually through a transparent curtain and accompanied by music, often lugubrious, and these are tedium itself, stopping the play dead in its tracks. It occurred to me early on, and regretfully, that the play would have had several times the impact, and twice the pace, if each part had been played by a different actor. The audience, apparently more receptive than I to acting exercises, provided a standing ovation. The play is by Robert Hewitt, and Stages artistic director Kenn McLaughlin directed the evening. In this ambitious effort, a gifted actor essays a variety of characters, with mixed success. Through October 30. Stages Repertory, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — JJT

Death, the Musical If, by any chance, the title of this world-premiere revue doesn't give away this show's theme, perhaps the white coffin propped up stage left or pianist/musical director Steven Jones dressed in iconic medieval cowl should give you a hint. Just in time for Halloween, this four-performer musical from Thunderclap Productions takes the hoary old subject of death, kicks it around in 34 scenes and 14 songs without much humor or finesse, and pretty well keeps it where it finds it – hoary. The revue uses blackout sketches and much better songs in its comic examination of all things related: morticians ("Necrophilia"), the electric chair ("Sizzlin' Sally"), serial murderers ("Black Widow Bitch"), taxidermy, suicide. Even the despised Transportation Security Administration gets a deservedly funny skewering, as a passenger's tweezers become the trick ending and another passenger's coup de grace. Most of the skits are in questionable taste, but the worst fault isn't the show's flaunting of its anti-PC correctness, but the sketchiness of the sketches. Most have no perceivable ending – they just stop and the lights go off, or we're not sure what the point of the sketch is supposed to be. Take "Douche," for example. Two employees stand at the coffin of their hated boss. You can tell they despise him because they shout "douche" at the body. But one of the guys has an idea. He'll give his boss from hell the ultimate send-off, he'll pee in the coffin. Only he can't. Lights out. It's not all deathly pallor at Ovations, thanks to the lively quartet who put over this canned material as if it were the best of Neil Simon. H.R. Bradford, Ashley Maack, Erin Roche and especially Kregg Dailey (always a friend to any musical) give their all in a desperate attempt to resuscitate this dead body. At least the music has a heartbeat. Although there are seven composers, the tunes seem of one piece. All of them, even the weakest, have more charm than the skits that surround them. "Lullaby," by composer Aaron Alon, sung by concerned mom Roche to baby Dailey, tells the tyke not to be afraid of the dark, but afraid of the day, because that's when bad things really happen. Equally ironic and deeply chilling, that song has all the power that's mostly missing from the show. Without much sting in the material, the attractive foursome, under sprightly direction from Jimmy Phillips, keeps the show alive with some savvy showbiz CPR, but ultimately, as all things must, the show flatlines. Through October 31. Ovations, 2536-B Times Blvd., 281-954-4399. – DLG

Romeo and Juliet To open its 12th season, UpStage Theatre makes its first foray into the thicket of Shakespeare with this ambitious production. Anna Yost as Juliet looks beautiful and virginal, and her looks and poses are sufficient to evoke some sympathy for the heroine's plight. But her voice is high, approaching shrill, and her usual expression is one of petulance. We fail to see the luminous spark of young love. Young Romeo is played by 14-year-old Jacob Allen, who is handsome enough, and stalwart enough, to carry off the role, if that were all it required. But he strolls through the role without passion or fire, and delivers his lines flatly, without much reference to their meaning. The result is that there is a hole at the center of the play where there should be a heart. Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers is fortunately blessed with major roles other than those in the title, and director Sean K. Thompson has cast many of these well. In the major supporting role of Nurse, Jackie Lovell is wise, humorous and caring, and provides a powerful anchor to Shakespeare's genius. So does John J. Zipay, who creates a wholly human and interesting Friar Laurence, a key adviser to the lovers, who marries and plots with them. Brian Heaton brings rollicking humor and exuberant, gifted body language to Mercutio, creating a vivid, memorable character. Equally memorable, but for the wrong reasons, is Mack Hays as Lord Capulet, apparently under the impression that the play is about him. His extravagant gestures and overly broad theatricality might better suit a vaudeville turn. Tyrrell Woolbert as Lady Capulet is restrained and elegant, and gives an interesting, nuanced performance. Joseph Moore as Prince Escalus finds the authority in his voice and commanding mien, though he might be less stilted. Joshua A. Costea does very well as an apothecary, making the most of a bit part through gait, manner and timing. Lenvi Tennessee as Tybalt has a strong stage presence, perhaps too strong for ensemble acting. The simple set serves quite well, some costumes are opulent and the direction in general is competent. But the rhythm of Shakespeare comes and goes, and one of the great love stories of all time is portrayed with words but no passion. However, strong performances in important supporting roles provide a taste of the brilliance of the Bard and his mastery of human relationships. Through October 22. UpStage Theatre at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-838-7191. — JJT

String of Pearls The talented playwright Michele Lowe uses pearls to link vignettes that bridge generational gaps with poignant humor and adroit storytelling. As the evening opens, a 74-year-old grandmother (Antoinette Anders) is distraught that her granddaughter's wedding day is approaching and the family heirloom string of pearls can't be found. Anders has an inner poise that rises to the surface, and she handles complicated emotions with aplomb, even when describing how "a string of pearls" — the words alone — can be an aphrodisiac and save a marriage, to hilarious effect. Her granddaughter is played by Laura Schlect, who brings a slim blond beauty and a zest for life to the proceedings. All six female actors play multiple roles, and Kelly White is enthusiastic and effective as a wife who moves with her husband from Dallas to an apartment in New York City but takes with her a Texan sense of reality — and sense of humor. Rachel Manuel plays a much younger lesbian who falls hopelessly in love with Anders's straight 74-year-grandmother, and their pas-de-deux is graceful and heartwarming, a most original love story. Natasha Sebeyran and Cindy Parker each play five parts and handle them deftly. The primitive set of a table and benches serves admirably to showcase the acting and writing talent. Playwright Lowe's scenes are brisk and salient, she conveys powerful emotions without sentimentality, and is a talent to be reckoned with. Abby Esparza directed the series of semi-related vignettes — the various shifts in scenes and characters occur smoothly, and she's found a talented cast and evoked enjoyable performances. Strong storytelling and engaging, effective acting make String of Pearls a gem itself, powerful and seductive in its charm. Through October 22, Pandora Theatre at Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch at Holman, 713-364-8541. — JJT

Vampire Lesbians of Sodom Playwright Charles Busch (The Tale of the Allergist's Wife; Psycho Beach Party; Die, Mommy, Die) didn't invent camp, but his early drag classics most assuredly enriched and, dare I say, ennobled the genre. And here's the best of those gay-tinged extravaganzas, a swirl with Hollywood's lost glamor and a very gay read of sex and the city. A struggling actor and solo performer, Busch wrote this silly romp (1984) in two and a half days after he got a gig at the funky Limbo Lounge, an East Village performance space/bar/punk art gallery. What the Limbo audience wanted, he said later, after the show kept running and running, was "something campy, something sexy, and something not too long, because you're standing up, holding a beer. You don't want to see The Three Sisters." So he gave them this spoof of Hollywood and its grand divas like Crawford, Davis and Shearer. Of course, here the ladies are more B-picture Maria Montez, but they are divas nevertheless. Nobody does diva like Charles Busch, and the success of his early work relies almost exclusively on a good drag queen. Unhinged Productions should be on their knees — in thankful prayer, I mean — for Chris Rivera. He puts the showbiz snap into diva Magda Legerdemain, who starts out as the legendary vampire succubus in Sodom, seducing virgin sacrifices. He's got Harlow's pencil eyebrows, Swanson's turban, the gams of Clara Bow and the gargle of Bankhead. In a needed plot device, the succubus — all done up in silent film DeMille vamp — is bitten by her sacrifice (Courtney Lomelo), who in turn becomes a vampire, too, and Magda's archrival through the ages. They compete for fame, nubile young companions and our hearty laughs. It's all cheesy glee as we're treated to a funhouse parody of all things drag and glorious in Biblical Sodom, '20s Hollywood and then '80s Las Vegas of fat Elvis days. The two goddesses are ably enhanced by the zany supporting cast: Will Gough, Roy Hamlin, Susan Ly and Giddony Sanchez. And a special air kiss to Rivera and Nathan Estrada, who co-designed the sumptuous over-the-top costumes with a panoply of peacock, lamé, boa and bugle bead. Busch would weep for such extravagance. Sprightly spun — or just turned loose, who can tell — by Joe Angel Babb, the entire enterprise whirls away with bitchy attitude. It's almost like a lost era. It's grand to see its ridiculous return. Through October 22. Unhinged Productions at Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation. 832-250-7786. — DLG

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