Family Circus

Meet Alice Sycamore, a perfectly normal young Wall Street secretary who's just found the man of her dreams. Marriage is in the offing (this is the 1930s, after all), but first Alice must introduce her handsome fiancé and his wealthy parents to her own rather eccentric family. You'd never know it from her carefully coiffed blond hair or her smart new dress, but Alice comes from a clan of lovable weirdos, and she's rightfully afraid of the impression they might make on her future in-laws. Such is the farcical setup of George Kaufman and Moss Hart's beloved comedy You Can't Take It with You, now running at the Alley Theatre.

Alice's mother, Penny (Annalee Jefferies), writes plays. The happy woman doesn't have much talent, but when a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to the Sycamores' New York residence eight years ago, she abandoned her portrait painting and took up the new art with gusto. Down in the basement, Alice's father, Paul (James Black), is busy concocting fabulous fireworks. At his side is Mr. De Pinna (James Belcher), who came to deliver ice some years back and ended up staying. Leaping across the living room is sister Essie (Robin Terry). She studies ballet, which she practices with wild abandon between candy-making sessions in the kitchen. Essie's husband, Ed (Jeffrey Bean), delivers boxes of sweet confection throughout the neighborhood, always including a leaflet or two from his printing press. Ed likes to quote Trotsky, because the old communist said things that are easy to print, like "God is the state and the state is God." Heading up the clan is Martin Vanderhof (Charles Krohn), the wizened old grandfather who quit his job on Wall Street 35 years ago because he realized he wasn't having fun anymore. Now he spends his days attending commencements, walking through the zoo, collecting snakes and avoiding the tax man.

Much to the poor girl's horror, Alice's Tony and his uptight parents accidentally show up for dinner on the wrong night. Fireworks ensue, but before the story comes to a close, everyone arrives at Kaufman and Hart's lovingly plain point: You can't take it with you, so why spend your life doing something you hate just for the sake of money?

The road to such homespun wisdom is made deliriously entertaining by the magic of Kaufman and Hart's writing and the Alley's near-perfect cast. Jefferies's absentminded matriarch is a big-hearted, middle-aged nerd who snorts when she laughs and twinkles with girlish naughtiness every time she looks at the new lovebirds. And Krohn's silver-haired grandpa is a model of patience and infinite good cheer, relaxing into center stage to dispense loving advice.

Some of the best performances come from the endless stream of oddball visitors who traipse through the Sycamore house. John Tyson's Boris Kolenkhov, Essie's ex-patriot Russian dance instructor, is reason enough to see this production. Everything that makes Tyson one of the most compelling actors in Houston shines through this larger-than-life character. The audience howls with laughter each time he stomps through the front door -- all wild black hair and bushy eyebrows -- declaring that everything "stinks," including dear Essie's dancing. Also terrific is David Rainey as Donald, who turns the simple act of walking across the stage into hilarity. And Elizabeth Heflin (who's having a terrific season all around) is a riot as Gay Wellington, an over-the-hill drunken actress whom Penny met on the bus.

With the exception of Victoria Adams's Alice, who comes off as strangely wooden, the entire cast is a delight. Sanford Robbins's direction is so deft that it all but disappears behind the charming characters. And Linda Buchanan's Victorian-style town house provides a perfectly jumbled backdrop for all the comings and goings.

It's increasingly rare to find entertainment, live or otherwise, that is both intelligent and tender enough for the entire family. Happily, You Can't Take It with You has survived the decades to delight all ages once again.

Like the great original huckster P.T. Barnum, the folks behind Cirque du Soleil know how to rake in the dough. They pitch their wide white tent in the center of town; set up glittering booths that feature all sorts of pricey, sequined gewgaws; and tempt you with big buckets of warm buttery popcorn and icy longnecks of Shiner Bock. And that's all before the real show even begins.

The stunning acts of Cirque du Soleil's Alegría elicit the sort of hushed oohs and aahs that only come with, well, the greatest show on earth. From the opening clown, who delights both children and grown-ups by flinging popcorn at the audience from a box that's a big as a man, to the aerial high bar act, featuring muscled madmen who fling themselves through the air to a swinging silver trapeze, the show is a wonderland of amazements.

But Cirque du Soleil goes beyond the amazing. Its high-flying performers land in a dreamscape that few circuses dare to visit. The emotional aspect of the show is attributable in large part to its gorgeous New Age tunes. (The soundtrack is hawked baseball-style by ushers at intermission, of course.) Sung by Eve Monpetit and Nathalie Noël, the music underscores Alegría's ethereal quality. The title song, nominated for a Grammy in 1996, creates a dreamy sadness that infuses the stunning circus action with an immediacy and a humanity that are impossible to resist.

Among the most wondrous scenes is "Fast Track," where a troupe of tumblers flip across an enormous X-shaped trampoline that emerges from the stage floor. Bouncing dangerously close to each other, the performers are exhilarating in both their speed and their grace. Also impressive is Maria Silaeva in the "Manipulation" routine. The impossibly slender Silaeva acts as both contortionist and juggler, spinning silver hoops and silk ribbons in an act that takes rhythmic gymnastics to the extreme. And the muscular Ebon Grayman is stunning as he grabs the two long crimson swaths that allow his gazellelike leaps to rise farther and farther from the ground.

As always, Cirque du Soleil fills its audience with wide-eyed wonder -- as any good circus should.

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Lee Williams