Murder in Small Town X

Dublin, Missouri, may be small (population 4,780), but apparently it's also swinging. The community theater is putting on St. Joan by George Bernard Shaw, the local cheese maker is concocting a world-class designer provolone, and one very bad rich boy is about to be voted into the state legislature. There's even a murderer on the loose. These bizarrely unrelated stories are woven together in Lanford Wilson's gangly 1998 Book of Days, now brought to us with great histrionics by Actors Theatre of Houston.

At the center of this weird, wooly tale is Ruth Hoch (Kristi Reinertsen-Forehand), a straight-shooting Midwestern gal who's got a great talent for the stage. In fact, she's so good that when she wanders into the St. Joan auditions thinking the Pulitzer Prize-winning play is a musical, she winds up with the lead part.

Ruth's husband, Len (Gavin Starr Kendall), runs the local cheese plant. For years he's been making packaged stuff for Kraft, but that's about to change. He has convinced Walt (Nelson Heggen), the owner, to invest a few thousand dollars in some upscale ingredients, and soon they'll be selling cheese as fancy as anything that comes out of Italy. Everything would be hunky-dory if James (Foster Davis), Walt's bad-seed son, weren't around to muck things up. James and his low-rent buddy Earl (Drake Simpson) are working on a plan of their own to undo all Len's ambitions.

Meanwhile, Ruth's really getting into her role as Joan, and when Walt suddenly turns up dead, she finds her life's mission. Ruth is going to get to the bottom of this dirty deed, even if that means alienating her friends and neighbors, who need to believe that Walt's death was the result of an unfortunate hunting accident.

The hodgepodge of stories comes at the audience through monologues, scenes and some Greek choruslike moments when the whole cast recites facts about the town. An empty stage is meant to give a theatrical seriousness to the material, but more often than not Book of Days comes off as a puzzling melodrama. After all, what kind of bonehead would murder for cheese?

Under George Brock's direction, the scenes are filled with spitty shouting matches, flailing arms and clenched fists. This is a town where mere acquaintances are apparently free to grab and shake each other whenever they get mad enough, which seems to happen all the time. All this rage is pitched at a continual screech, killing what small amount of danger was written into Wilson's script.

That said, there are some promising performances: Simpson gives the only truly powerful monologue of the production when he describes Walt's death at the duck blind. Josh Morrison is wonderfully oily as the local reverend, Bobby Groves. Kendall's likeable Len is a warm-hearted port in this angry maelstrom. And Davis makes a creepy bad guy.

But none of these performances can turn the cheese maker's murder into the stuff of serious drama. The story is just too, well, cheesy.

Producer Spero Criezis has achieved the nearly impossible with Doo Wop, a musical revue of familiar '50s songs at The Great Caruso Dinner Theater: He's managed to put a new spin on some very old tunes. Built around the rise and fall of Alan "Moondog" Freed's rock-and-roll radio (and then television) show, the review catalogs the music that changed youth culture forever. It was Freed who first brought the smoky badass sounds of rhythm and blues to middle-class America; it was Freed who named rock and roll.

Even "Tutti Frutti" is rendered new in this production. Both Little Richard (Omari Tau Williams) and Pat Boone (Chris Zelko) show up to sing their versions of the familiar song. After the very funny contest is over (Zelko's Boone is hysterically stiff), it is pointed out that Pat Boone's version made it to No. 1 on the charts back in the '50s, while Little Richard's, the only version most modern audiences know, didn't even climb into the Top 10.

But the best numbers tend to be the lesser-known tunes. Samantha Cochran's version of the Ikettes' "I'm Blue" is gorgeously sultry. Dressed in tight black leather, Cochran struts around the diners and sings with the creamiest voice in the show. Aisha Ussery has Ivory Lartigue on his knees while she rolls her hips to the Etta James tune "Roll with Me Henry." And "Sincerely" sounds like two completely different songs when we hear the sizzling version by the Moonglows (Williams) as opposed to the scrubbed-clean song popularized by the McGuire Sisters (Joanne Bonasso). In all, 33 songs are included in the revue, which could use some trimming.

Musical director Hal Lanier has put together a formidable group of singers and uses their talents well -- although not everyone in the cast seems comfortable with the musical format. Lanier has done an admirable job, too, of hiding the weaknesses of these less experienced performers.

Freed's career came to an abrupt end with he was fired for allowing a black man to dance with a white woman on national television. But nothing could stop the wave of music that he'd introduced to the world. Much of it sounds as good today as it did five decades ago.

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Lee Williams