Stage Capsule Reviews

Don Giovanni With a sparkling production of Mozart's sublime masterpiece, Opera in the Heights has its most consistent hit in many a season. The lovely ensemble cast has a grand time with this tale of lecherous Don Juan, his seductions and his ultimate hellish fate, and their joy in performing this work is infectious. The classical set and lavish period costumes add immense flavor to maestro William Weibel's propulsive, dramatic conducting and director Leslie Swackhamer's inventive staging. There are two casts to be savored (the Ruby and the Emerald), and if the Emerald is as impressive as the Ruby I saw, then OH has a double whammy on its hands. As the licentious Don, Kreshnik Zhabjaku has sexiness to spare, and it's easy to see -- and hear -- why so many ladies swoon over him. He leaps over Mozart's beautiful vocal hurtles with lithe agility and palpable masculinity. The three ladies of Spain who either torment or beguile him have Dianne Barton's commanding lung power (aristocratic Donna Anna), Dana Zenobi's dramatic coloratura (Giovanni's abandoned wife Donna Elvira) and Olga Perez's coquettish charm (peasant girl Zerlina). And the male characters are just as impressively sung. Jorge Ocasio (toadying servant Leporello) has rich vaudevillian comic timing with voice to match, and Yoon-Sang Lee (Zerlina's jealous boyfriend) possesses a resonant velvet baritone. The chilling bass of Scott Tomlinson (the stone statue of the Commendatore who drags Don Giovanni down to hell) could easily rattle bones -- or raise the dead. As it is, though, this production is heavenly. Through March 31. 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-861-5303.

Drift Battalion Suchu Dance's Drift Battalion, currently running at Barnevelder Theater's pristine space, celebrates the frank athletic joy of moving. Clocking in at just over an hour, the performance is a nonstop flurry of running, lifting, rolling and even grunting, as six young dancers speed through a series of deceptively simple moves. Conceived and choreographed by Jennifer Wood, each set is whimsical and, at times, even funny. Danced to a series of spoken words, miked sounds and sampled songs, the show explores both the real work and the real fun of moving. Silliness runs rampant, as when we are introduced to each dancer and learn that one has seen most of the others in the nude. One of the funniest sets involves a performer who runs around "shooting" audience members with her explosive hands as we listen to a voice making childlike pow-pow sounds into a mike. Both the venue and the costumes support the informality of the show. All four walls of the large, airy performance room are lined with plastic chairs set together in pairs, so the dancers can move between them on and off the stage. This configuration lends a charming intimacy to the experience. The audience can feel the wind swoosh as the dancers rush past. That easy intimacy is underscored by the simple costumes -- jogging suits and colorful T-shirts. Fun and sweet, this is modern dance at its most accessible. Through April 1. 2201 Preston, 713-529-1819.

A Flea in Her Ear Georges Feydeau's sparkling bauble of a comedy -- the mother of all French farces -- loses much of its glitter in Playhouse 1960's flat-footed production. Maybe it's the leaden translation, which saps the original wit out of this classic; perhaps it's the production's overheated tone that causes this airy souffl to fall; or it might be the uneven cast, who seem dazed and confused when it should be their characters who are at wit's end. For certain, though, what works is Mack Hays's pitch-perfect portrayal of harried husband Monsieur Chandel and Brian Heaton's lisping Camille. Seeing the pizzazz flee her bedroom, and assuming it's because her husband is having an affair, Mrs. Chandel sends him an anonymous love letter asking for a rendezvous in order to catch him in the act. Since this is a classic setup for a sex farce, everything that could possibly go wrong with her plan does. Doors slam, walls with attached beds revolve, mistaken identities abound, sexual consummations go unconsummated and, for an extra measure of hilarity, Monsieur Chandel has an identical twin who works at the bordello where the assignation is to take place. Old as it may be, this classic contraption should work on autopilot, flying along at breakneck speed, the faster the better so as not to allow the audience to think too much. As if the stage were spread with glue, this production, once mired, never gets off the ground. Through March 31. 6814 Gant, 281-587-8243.

Joe Turner's Come and Gone "Everybody has to find his own song...when a man forgets his song, he goes off in search of it, till he find out he's got it with him all the time." So states old lame shaman Bynum Walker (a phenomenal Wayne DeHart) to whoever will listen at the 1911 Pittsburgh boardinghouse where August Wilson's compelling drama occurs. To practical homeowner Seth (Byron Jacquet), this is all so much "heebie-jeebies" stuff, while Seth's wife Bertha (BeBe Wilson) sees no harm in Bynum's pigeon sacrifices and loopy dances at dawn. Naive country boy Jeremy (Broderick Jones), fresh to the big Northern city, wants the good life and the loose women who go along with it and pays no mind to Bynum's warnings. New tenant Mattie (Autumn Knight) wants Bynum to "fix it" and find her man, who walked out on her. Meanwhile, Bynum's charms and spells frighten sexy, headstrong Molly (Rachel Hemphill Dickson), who doesn't want to be tied down to any man. And then there's Loomis (Timothy Eric Dickson), foreboding and grim with voice to match, who's on a quest to find the wife who abandoned him when he was illegally sent to a chain gang for seven years. Wilson supplies haunting poetry, gorgeous melody and magic realism to his characters, who have been displaced from their Southern roots. They're all searching for something, and it's the individual's quest effortlessly morphed into the universal that gives this play its magnificent resonance. In Ensemble Theatre's masterful hands, this powerful, mesmerizing drama sings out loud and proud and beautiful. It's a Houston theatrical event not to be missed. Through April 8. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.

Valhalla "I believe that the world should be beautiful." No, that's not Blanche DuBois sighing so plaintively -- it's mad, gay King Ludwig of Bavaria (Godfrey Plata) pleading for not only beauty but lots more gold lam, in Paul Rudnick's politically incorrect phantasmagoria, presently on delightful view thanks to Joe Watts's Theatre New West. In Rudnick's madcap whirl, Ludwig isn't really mad, but my, oh my, is he gay. The terribly misunderstood king goes from dreaming of castles in the air to actually building them. "You're no good at reality; go mad," he's advised by hunchbacked princess Sophie (Beth DeLozier), who then offhandedly adds, "I wish I could shrug." Parallel to Ludwig's witty, wicked story is that of James (the ultra-smooth Houston Hayes), a gay boy from small-town Texas who dreams of "out there," a place to find happiness. While his sexual adventures include true love Henry Lee (John Dunn) and a pre-wedding fling with Henry's fiance, James reaches an apotheosis on army patrol at Neuschwanstein, Ludwig's rococo wet-dream of a castle. Underscored by the radiant operatic strains of Wagner (although smoother sound mixing would immensely enhance the mood), the two men's tales coalesce in a grand fantasy where a modern yenta tour guide (Holly Wilkison) yammers hilariously about Ludwig's plush, erotic subterranean surroundings as "Bed, Bath and Beyond." The young, talented cast of six (including Michael Shukis) plays with effortless guile. Realize your dreams, says Rudnick. No matter how nuts they may seem to others, they're the only road to happiness. It's a premise that holds true for anyone, not just mad kings and sexy bad boys from Texas. Through March 31. Midtown Arts Center, 3414 LaBranch, 713-522-2204.

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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
Lee Williams