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Brief reviews of current shows

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.

The Ladies of the Camellias. At the end of the nineteenth century, Sarah Bernhardt was the grande dame of French theater and Eleonora Duse her Italian counterpart. Playwright Lillian Groag has created an imaginary meeting of these great stars as they prepare for separate performances of La Dame Aux Camelias in Bernhardt's Théâtre de la Renaissance in Paris. Into this hermetic, self-important, backstage setting blows a chill, bracing wind: Ivan, a Russian anarchist who plans to hold Bernhardt and Duse hostage until his comrades are released from prison. The script is literate, knowledgeable and often funny, but it isn't swift and tight enough to work as out-and-out farce; by the second act, the plot has dissolved into a welter of words as Bernhardt and Duse repeat the same arguments and act out bits of Shakespeare. And when Ivan turns out to be not a revolutionary at all, but only a sulky and frustrated theater director, whatever air is left whooshes out of the play. While Groag demonstrates convincingly that theater does endure over time, she never proves that it matters in the slightest. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 22, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 6.

Man of La Mancha. Creaking and shuddering, a ladder descends, admitting the sixteenth-century author Cervantes and his manservant into what looks like one of the lower circles of hell. There he will remain at the pleasure of the Spanish Inquisition, he's told, for perhaps an hour, perhaps a lifetime. To mollify his fellow prisoners, Cervantes tells them the story of his novel, which concerns Don Quixote, a country gentleman infatuated with the age of chivalry who imagines himself a knight errant, and who sets out on a quest with his servant, Sancho Panza. Quixote sees a small country inn as a castle, a barber's bowl as a helmet, a brutalized prostitute, Aldonza, as his fair lady, Dulcinea. Periodically, however, his fantasies desert him, and he's forced to deal with the wretched world that everyone else around him sees only too clearly. Some of the songs in this musical edge toward sentimentality, but the script does not downplay the horrors of Cervantes's time -- the casual brutality, the miserable lives of the poor, the terror of the Inquisition. This Country Dinner Playhouse production of the musical is full of fine performances and good voices, and though there's hope at the end, it feels as insubstantial as Quixote's dreams -- but perhaps also as enduring. Presented through May 14 at Country Dinner Playhouse, 6875 South Clinton Street, Greenwood Village, 303-799-1410, www.countrydinnerplayhouse.com. Reviewed March 30.

Party of 1. This is a good play to go to with a date, or to attend in hopes of finding one. The show is a sequence of cabaret songs dedicated to the joys and pains of singlehood, slightly reminiscent of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, though without the monologues; fizzier and more light-hearted than Sex and the City, but less weighted with ego and pretension. Four appealing people spin through songs with topics ranging from the insecurities raised by meet-and-mingle functions to the intense ambivalence you feel when someone with whom you're having a great relationship actually takes the next step and moves into your apartment. Party of 1 ran forever in the Bay Area, where writer-composer Morris Bobrow is famed for his clever lyrics and bright, listenable tunes. Good-natured and enjoyable, with just an edge of grown-up irony, the show deserves its popularity. Presented by the Playwright Theatre in an open-ended run, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 303-499-0383, www.playwrighttheatre.com. Reviewed November 17.

Phantom of the Music Hall. You really haven't lived until you've heard Johnette Toye singing Gilbert and Sullivan's "Poor Wandering One." She preens and staggers and makes her mouth into a dark, wide-open square from which emanates a cascade of extraordinary sound. This woman could sing the difficult coloratura parts beautifully if she wanted to -- and every now and then she does emit a tantalizingly perfect trill -- but for the most part, she's too busy barging around like a drunk, demented and utterly delighted-with-itself duck to worry about aesthetics. This isn't Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, although it's based on the same Gaston Leroux story. T.J. Mullin has transposed the events to an early-twentieth-century English music hall, where a strange caped figure coaches a beautiful young ingenue into stardom, then abducts her. The plot is only the plain shortcake base on which the skillful cast piles layers of frothy improvisation, hilarious bits and all kinds of songs, some from the appropriate time period, and others that they just bloody well feel like singing. Presented by Heritage Square Music Hall through May 28, 18301 West Colfax Avenue D-103, Golden, 303-279-7800. www.hsmusichall.com. Reviewed April 6.

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