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Brief reviews of current shows

Ain't Misbehavin'. Five terrific performers and a slate of Fats Waller songs. How can you go wrong? Ain't Misbehavin', a jazzy, bluesy Waller showcase that brings the world of 1930s Harlem to life, is often staged in a broadly presentational style, with lots of humor, shtick, dancing and acting out, but the Country Dinner Playhouse version -- directed and choreographed by General McArthur Hambrick -- is so busy, jiggly, shrieky and jumpy that the production actually detracts from the music. Which is a shame, because the music is so full of life and brilliance, from the flirtatiousness of "Honeysuckle Rose" through the infectious rhythms of "The Joint Is Jumpin'" and the aching strains of "Black and Blue." And LaDonna Burns, Jayne Trinette, Kenny Moten, Eric Lee Johnson and Mary Louise Lee are not only wonderful singers, with voices full of poignance and power, but charming and seductive performers. Some of the most appealing songs come in the second act, which contains the earthy humor of "Your Feet's Too Big" and "Fat and Greasy," along with touching ballads such as "Mean to Me." The cast seems to find its feet here, too. Presented by Country Dinner Playhouse through October 30, 6875 South Clinton Street, Greenwood Village, 303-799-1410, www.countrydinnerplayhouse.com. Reviewed September 29.

The Fourth Wall. Playwright A.R. Gurney is a courteous, upper-crust kind of guy, so when he found himself enraged by national politics, he didn't respond with agitprop or searing realism. Instead he imagined a comfortably middle-class housewife, Peggy, who -- by way of protest -- rearranges all the furniture in her living room so that it faces an imaginary theatrical fourth wall. Pretty soon, anyone entering Peggy's living room begins behaving like a character on a stage, and the resultant mix of realism and the actors' frantic bouts of self-aware staginess creates a cascade of evocative moments and clever jokes. There's also a piano that plays Cole Porter all by itself. As interior designer Julia preens and poses, Peggy's husband attempts to understand her and theater professor Floyd urges Peggy to explore new forms of theater, Peggy herself stays true to her vision. She believes that beyond her sheltered world there are people of every race and nationality who can be persuaded to march on Washington and halt the madness of George W. Bush's foreign policy. This production focuses more on surface comedy than on Peggy's rage and sadness, however, which makes it amusing but ultimately inconsequential. Presented by the Avenue Theater through May 22, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, www.avenuetheater.com. Reviewed September 1.

Impulse Theater. Basements and comedy go together like beer and nuts or toddlers and sandboxes. The basement of the Wynkoop Brewing Co., where Impulse Theater performs, is crowded, loud and energetic. Impulse does no prepared skits, nothing but pure improv -- which means that what you see changes every night, and so does the team of actors. These actors set up and follow certain rules and frameworks; they rely on audience suggestions to get these scenes going or to vary the action. Your level of enjoyment depends a lot on whether or not you like the players. Charm is a factor, and so is the ability to take risks. Fortunately, the performers are clever and fast on their feet, willing to throw themselves into the action but never betraying tension or anxiety, perfectly content to shrug off a piece that isn't coming together. The show is funny when the actors hit a groove, but equally funny when they get stymied. So in a way, the improvisers -- and the audience -- can't lose. Presented by Impulse Theater in an open-ended run, Wynkoop Brewing Co., 1634 18th Street, 303-297-2111 or www.impulsetheater.com.

Master Harold and the Boys. Athol Fugard's Master Harold and the Boystakes place in a teahouse in Port Elizabeth, South Africa during the time of apartheid. The Master Harold of the title is a seventeen-year-old boy; during the play his mother is manifest only as a voice on the phone; we learn that his hospitalized father is a raging, drunken cripple. Harold -- or Hally, as everyone calls him -- has been more or less raised by two black servants: the fatherly Sam, a waiter in the teahouse, and Willie, the janitor. As the action progresses, Fugard reveals how the racist apartheid system corrupted not only social and political realities, but even the most personal relationships. Sam is almost preternaturally wise and kind, a champion ballroom dancer who's coaching Willie for an upcoming contest. The relationship between Hally and the two men is warm and teasing, but the easy camaraderie is ruffled by jarring moments. When Hally learns that his loved and hated father is about to return home, he erupts into rage and turns on his spiritual father, Sam. The shattering fight that ensues imperils Hally's soul, stops time, taints the past and threatens to destroy the future. Although this production has flaws, it does bring this beautifully written theater piece to life. Presented by Bas Bleu Theatre Company through October 22. 401 Pine Street, Fort Collins. 970-498-8949. Reviewed October 6.

My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra. The Denver Center production of My Way features four attractive, energetic performers with strong and differing voices; 53 of the best twentieth-century songs; a set that's beautifully designed both to please the contemporary eye and to evoke the period, with softened Formica colors flowing into each other and elegant forms; witty, attractive costumes; and three excellent musicians. So if you're entertaining a business client or out on a date, this is the show for you. But it's essentially a commercial enterprise rather than an evening of theater. The performers don't just sing the songs, they sell them. They're full of energy. They bounce. They emote. They never allow a moment of reflection or understatement. Sinatra was the guy sitting alone on a barstool in a pool of light, shadows pressing in on him, the rakish angle of his hat belying the world-weariness of his soul. This seems an odd way to pay him homage. Presented by Denver Center Attractions in an open-ended run, Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed June 9.

Voice of the Prairie. As this play opens, an Irish hobo wanders turn-of-the-century Kansas with his young son, Davey, reminiscing and spinning tales. After his death, a grieving Davey encounters Frankie, a blind girl, and the two flee her abusive father and commence a life of begging and riding the rails. The plot flashes forward to 1923 to show Leon Schwab, a New York huckster, selling radios in little prairie towns. To tempt the locals and place his radios in hardware stores, he needs content. He finds it in the wistful stories David Quinn, the now-grown-up Davey, tells about his life with Frankie. There are a lot of strengths to this production, which reopens the Denver Victorian Playhouse and is directed in a gently elegiac key by Terry Dodd. The problem is that the first part of Olive's play, with its magical children, their story framed by the wonder and eccentricity of radio's early years, is literally a hard act to follow. The second act has nowhere near the charm of the first, and the happy ending is unconvincing. All of the performances are fine, however, and the quietly committed acting of Alex Hill as Davey and Katie Paxton as Frankie give this production its soul. Presented by the Denver Victorian Playhouse through October 16, 4201 Hooker Street, 303-433-4343, www.denvercivic.com. Reviewed September 29.

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