Made in Houston

A 19th-century Spanish farce hardly seems the stuff of powerhouse theater. But there must have been some hoodoo in the water over at the University of Houston's Stuart Ostrow workshop for theater. That's where the musical version of Pedro Antonio de Alarcón's novel The Three-Cornered Hat was developed by writer Young Smith and composer/lyricist Bob Beare. Whatever the inspiration, this fledgling team has managed to translate Alarcón's rather predictable love story into a theatrical charmer that casts a surprising spell. Of course, it doesn't hurt that director Rebecca Greene Udden has found a terrific cast that seems to float through this old-fashioned world of tender lovebirds and mustachioed bad guys.

Evil is afoot from the start. The infamously wealthy Don Eugenio (Juan Pareja) knows money can buy anything. He married for money. He owns the mayor (Kregg Alan Dailey), who is also the town drunk. And he's got three lackeys -- Antonio (Spencer Plachy), Pedro (Andrew Ruthven) and Weazel (Emilio Laredo II) -- who'll do most any dastardly deed he demands. The only thing he can't buy is the beautiful, raven-haired Frasquita (Naya Rodriguez-Castinado). And that's where the real trouble starts.

Lovely as she is, Frasquita is married to the hunchback miller Lucas (Thomas Prior); and to make matters more difficult for Don Eugenio, she is very much in love. In fact, though the miller and his wife are as poor as church mice, they live in a honeymoon bliss that causes them to burst into song. In "The Way You Look," they ironically declare that their love is based on nothing but good looks (remember, the miller is hunchbacked). It's an odd tune for the time and place. What's a song that's somewhere between jazz and swing doing in the middle of 19th-century Spain? Even stranger, the hunchback and the beauty are dancing to it through their garden. As unlikely as it sounds, the scene has the audience nodding their heads to the swingy rhythm and grinning ear to ear at the chemistry between Rodriguez-Castinado and Prior.

Back in town, Don Eugenio is stroking his black mustache and making plans to capture the object of his desire. And his lackey henchmen are there to urge him on, no matter how foolish the plot, for they have their own motives. Ringleader Antonio wants some power for himself. Plachy plays the character with the same enormous charisma he brought to Main Street Theater earlier this summer in the rather thankless role of Li'l Abner. Plachy enjoys every mischievous minute he's on stage. His wily reasoning gets his buddies wrapped up in some deliciously wicked deeds. They convince Don Eugenio to misbehave with the funniest song of the night, "What on Earth Are You Waiting For?" (No girl could resist him, they claim, even if he does have "the biggest ass in Spain.") And in "Lucas' Nightmare," in which Frasquita appears as a lady of the night in flouncy purple ruffles, Plachy snakes around the stage singing about the evil that lies in the hearts of all women. Across his handsome face twists a convincingly wicked grin.

Before the evening is over, two donkeys pass in the night, true love is tested, evil slips in through the cracks, and sorrow seems imminent -- all the usual stuff of love stories. But most are not nearly so captivating as this one.

Rob Nash, the hysterically Sybil-like solo artist who's apparently inhabited by an entire cast of misfits from Holy Cross High School, is back in town for another installment of his angsty adolescent series. This time, the lovably gooney group at Holy Cross (an imaginary world inspired by Nash's experiences at Houston's Strake Jesuit) is putting on a play. And nowhere has a play within a play been more strange or impressive than in Nash's Romeo & Juliet: Sex & Love at Holy Cross High.

Nash can wow anyone by morphing from mall-loving valley girl Jennifer to supergeek Norman Normal (who knows every way possible to kill a man, including forcing his nose up into his brain) to hunky rebel-without-a-cause Johnny. But now Nash has his hormone-hindered group doing Shakespeare, so we get to watch the performance and all the backstage backstabbing. He's upped the wow factor exponentially.

Johnny, who plays Romeo, is in love with Maria, who plays Juliet. But Johnny and Maria have broken up, which only makes the moonlit balcony scene sweeter. Certainly Nash's facility with Shakespeare is impressive. But even more remarkable is his ability to layer the Bard's language with modern-day teenage aesthetics, including MTV-inflected accents and eyes that roll at any irritation. When Johnny tries to tell Maria how much he still loves her through Shakespeare's words, the effect is both tender and funny.

But by far, the most successful blending of Nash's and Shakespeare's characters is when the hair-flipping, outspoken, "omigod!" Jennifer takes the stage as Juliet's nurse. Each time the nurse discusses Juliet's handsome though careless love choice, the teenage girl inside comes bubbling to the surface. She ends every Shakespearean line with the rising lilt of a suburban mall rat. Nash's Jennifer is laugh-out-loud hysterical. Anyone who hasn't yet seen Nash and his Holy Cross kids should take the opportunity to watch this master of the one-man show. And anyone who's already acquainted with the group won't want to miss the chance to catch up on the latest high school happenings.

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Lee Williams