Capsule Stage Reviews: To Kill a Mockingbird, Opening the Box, Wonderland! The Misadventures of a Girl Named Alice

To Kill a Mockingbird Remarkable stagecraft, consummate acting and skilled direction create a memorable production of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Pasadena Little Theatre. The ambience of a small, sleepy Southern town is effectively conjured in the introductory first act, while the drama of a black man on trial in white man's territory is brought to vivid life in the explosive second act. The story may be familiar to those who read the Pulitzer Prize-winning, bestselling novel from 1960 by Harper Lee, or saw the 1962 film starring Gregory Peck, winner of three Academy Awards, including best screenplay by Horton Foote. The acting here is of the first order — Wes Linnenbank as Atticus Finch creates a nuanced portrait of an intelligent, caring and dedicated man, both as an attorney and as a father. The other three central characters are his young daughter Scout (Elizabeth Tyska), his young son Jem (Anthony Martino) and a visiting child named Dill (Lorenz Nicholas Lopez) — each is excellent and finds an authentic portrayal, which is crucial. The villain of the play is the abusive, alcoholic Bob Ewell, played powerfully and convincingly in an electric performance by Gregory R. Brown. Luci Galloway beautifully captures the challenging role of his teenage daughter, trapped in a web of deceit. In minor roles, Sue Beth Fry has great comic timing as a neighbor with a judgmental streak, Renee Van Nifterik portrays Atticus's housekeeper with style and charm, and Mark Stanley captures the gruff exterior and warmer heart of a Southern sheriff. Others stand out in the cast of 20: Isaiah DeJohnette as the accused, Fulton Fry as Judge Taylor and Mark C. Connelly as a poor farmhand. The direction by Grace Galloway, assisted by Julie Owen, is admirable. They have overcome, to a large extent, the flaws in the script. The play is an adaptation by Christopher Sergel, and its slavish adherence works against the inherent strengths of the stage. Having a mature representation of Atticus's daughter serve as narrator interrupts the flow of drama; the brief shift from the trial to show the children's reactions breaks the courtroom suspense; and the long epilogue blunts the arc of the narrative. Sergel should have been more of an editor, yet he has served us well by bringing the work to the stage. The fine acting and direction, helped by Joel Rodriguez's inspired set, which made the audience part of the jury, overcame all obstacles to generate a triumphant, moving and most satisfying evening, making this production one not to be missed. There's nothing "little" about this theater. Through July 3. 4318 Allen Genoa Rd., Pasadena, 713-941-1758. — JT

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

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 his voice can barely be heard over the music. The choreography is by Cherie Samuel, and much of it is very good indeed. Given a necessarily limited budget, the costumes by Claremarie Verheyen 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 a 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