Stage Capsule Reviews: Blue, Dreamgirls, Rumors, Sordid Lives and A Streetcar Named Desire

Blue Playwright Charles Randolph-Wright creates an indomitable character in his black family drama from 2001. Elegant Peggy Clark (Detria Marie Ward), a former supermodel, doesn't belong in the small mill town of Kent, South Carolina, where she moved with her husband many years ago. Successful, upper-middle-class and well-off, they're the first black entrepreneurs in town; husband Sam (Byron Jacquet) runs the family funeral home. But still Peggy is not happy. She has enough disposable income to buy two mink coats to spite the redneck salesgirl; she pretends to cook exotic dinners but orders her Italian or Japanese from the best restaurants; and she steers her family with a strong will and a very short leash. What gives her contentment and calm are the songs of jazz singer Blue Williams (Norman Davis), who appears onstage every time she plays his records. She wants art and the finer things and demands that life be "divine." Her rebellious older son Sam (Kendrick Brown) and musically gifted young Reuben (Jonathan Thibeaux and, later and older, Le Darrin Johnson-Taite) are afterthoughts in Peggy's quest to keep everything "fine." Ghosts and dark secrets abound throughout the Clark home, and Randolph-Wright keeps events on the slow boil until the satisfying conclusion. Peggy's a sacred monster, a "life force" to her placid husband and a constant nettle to her sons and feisty mother-in-law (Shirley Marks Whitmore). She's a marvelous character for any play, and Blue does her proud. Through October 21. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — DLG

Dreamgirls There are two terrific reasons to see TUTS's new production of Dreamgirls: Aurelia Williams as Effie, the tart-tongued girl with the golden voice at the center of the story, and Eugene Fleming as James Thunder Early, the soul singer who drops his pants while performing for the Democratic Convention because it's just so...well...dull. Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen's musical, centered around an all-girl Motown-style singing group, is mostly predictable fluff. But when Williams and Fleming hit the stage, they light up the Hobby Center with their walloping voices and enormous hearts. Their presence is enough to make the otherwise silly show worth the night out. The awe that Williams inspires when she falls to her knees in her devastating version of "You're Gonna Love Me" will haunt you for days. Through October 21. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-2600. — LW

Rumors Neil Simon's sublimely silly farce isn't so much a play as a litany of one-liners and smart-ass putdowns. But if this is the lazy man's guide to writing a farce, one could do worse, for Simon's slender little premise is surprisingly funny. The plot, so to speak, concerns a dinner party where guests spin more and more elaborate deceptions about what happened to the host and hostess. It makes no sense why all the guests, good friends of each other, would succumb to this game and not spill the beans right away about what's going on, but then, of course, there'd be no play. Ace Theatre throws itself into the fray with a bustling, boisterous production that smoothes over Simon's own road bumps with three Broadway-caliber performances from Michael Taylor, Jennifer Wittorp and Lacy Lynn. Taylor, as whiplash victim Lenny, cavorts and bellows in showstopping tradition, even with his head bent at a 45-degree angle; Wittorp, as sarcasm queen Claire, nonchalantly drops verbal zingers like olives into a very dry martini; and Lynn, as scatterbrained cooking-show host Cookie, has a wide-eyed, giggling presence that should be trademarked. Simon's comedy doesn't progress so much as it's propelled, not least of all by our expectations of the nonsense ahead. Whatever it may be, we'll be laughing. Through November 3. 17011 Bamwood. 281-587-1020. — DLG

Sordid Lives If you melded Steel Magnolias with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and added a great big handful of Thelma and Louise, you might wind up with Del Shores's rambunctious comedy/drama, now running in an uneven, yet fun, rendition from Unhinged Productions. It's a bumpy cut-and-paste job with some fascinating characters who come and go during the short scenes; unfortunately, they never stay around quite long enough for us to get to know them beyond their obvious sitcom features. You might remember the cult movie adaptation with Delta Burke, Olivia Newton-John and Leslie Jordan, as transvestite Brother Boy, which wasn't any smoother than the original 1996 play. The family matriarch's funeral is the catalyst around which the Southern gothic/trailer trash gather to bitch, console, carouse, confess or be dehomosexualized — unsuccessfully, as it turns out for Brother Boy (Darryl H. Thompson), who shows up at the funeral in his best Lana Turner drag. The entire neighborhood may be nuts, but there's a sweetness underneath the hard surface that melts in your brain. For all the sordidness and seven deadly sins these characters seem to live by, they'll be just fine after the curtain falls. Ellen Perez, Steven Bullitt and Sedrick Keeler add little touches to their characters that eluded the playwright, and that immeasurably jump-start the proceedings. Through October 20. Silver House Theatre, 1107 Chartres, 713-547-0126. — DLG

A Streetcar Named Desire Tennessee Williams's timeless classic receives an especially dramatic push from Playhouse 1960's stirring rendition. This beautifully wrought drama, with its theatrically thrilling archetypal characters — illusion-obsessed Blanche DuBois (Ananka Kohnitz) and the ultimate illusion-destroyer, Stanley Kowalski (Andrew Adams) — blazes with pitch-perfect emotion and that searing dramatic poetry for which Williams is justly famous. Kohnitz and Adams supply everything Williams imagined in these two conflicting forces. Underneath Blanche's wilting-magnolia facade, Kohnitz provides a desperate, bristling spine and more than a whiff of eroticism. We realize right away why Blanche was such a live wire at the Tarantula Arms and was run out of town. But by escaping her past, she blindly runs right into the path of brutal Stanley, whose unyielding animal instincts overpower her. No actor on earth can overshadow the über-male young Brando in the role, but Adams, mimicking Brando's voice, is highly credible as the vibrant, violent life force he represents. Chuck Houston, playing Mitch, Blanche's last chance for happiness, gives an everyday-guy character a heartbreaking interior, while Elizabeth Thompson, as Stanley's forbearing wife Stella, exudes an earthy sexiness that every so often can overpower even the likes of macho, selfish Stanley. Firmly directed by Lisa Garza, Williams's harrowing, but most sublime, drama comes fully, satisfyingly, to life. Through October 27. 6814 Gant Road, 281-58-STAGE. — DLG

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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