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Brief reviews of current shows

Amadeus. The Denver Center Theatre Company's glittering, sumptuous version of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus focuses more on a clean, elegant delivery of the text than on the passion at the play's core. The central figure, Antonio Salieri, was the best-known composer of eighteenth-century Vienna, an upright man dedicated to serving his God through music. Enter Mozart -- as Shaffer envisions him, the distorted product of his life as a child prodigy. He's a giggling boy, given to lewd behavior and scatological speech, as coarse and vulgar as his music is exquisite and full of emotion. Salieri plots to bring his rival down; pretending to be a supporter, he works behind the scenes to make sure Mozart sinks into penury. He even tries to seduce Mozart's playful little wife, Constanze, and finally works to hasten Mozart's death. Brent Harris holds the stage with authority as Salieri. His speech is crisp and strong; what's lacking in this skilled technical performance is heart. At the start, Douglas Harmsen's jumpy Mozart seems even more of a caricature than the playwright had intended -- but Harmsen succeeds completely by the play's end, as we watch the arrogant, silly youth transmuting his personal weakness into transcendent art while, at the same time, devolving into a terrified little boy, huddling under the table, cut off mid-giggle. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through October 28, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.

The Big Bang. Sometimes it's nice not to have to think too much, to just settle back and watch a couple of frenetically energetic guys working really hard to earn your good will -- and your dollars. Oh, and to make you laugh. The Big Bang posits the following scenario: Composer Jed Feuer, played by Ted Keunz, and writer-lyricist Boyd Graham, played by Chris Bogert, are in an expensive penthouse apartment, pitching a musical called The Big Bang to a group of possible backers -- that is, us. The show will cost $83.5 million, run twelve hours and feature a cast of hundreds. The Big Bang is just as clever as it needs to be -- sometimes very, sometimes not so much -- but never clever enough to make you stretch your brain. It's never tedious, either, as we're whizzed through the history of the world in a set of musical numbers. Among the funniest: The Virgin Mary and Mrs. Gandhi bitch about the travails of motherhood -- because who but a mother cleans up after the miracle of the loaves and fishes? And what an embarrassment to have a grown son still in diapers! Presented by Playwright Theatre through December 16, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 303-499-0383, www.playwrighttheatre.com.

Hedda Gabler. Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, first published in 1890, is a play about the havoc wrought by an out-of-control woman, a woman who's driven by impulses she herself cannot understand. When you set her shenanigans in a 1950s context, as director Warren Sherrill does here, you no longer feel oceanic impulses moving beneath the text; instead, the action seems shaped by the sheer kitschiness of that strangest of decades. This interpretation works on its own terms. It rescues the play from the museum and makes the dialogue (a fluid translation by Doug Hughes) feel relevant and contemporary. Barbra Andrews gives us a skilled and fascinating Hedda, who comes across like one of those bitchy mean girls everyone hates in movies about high school. The soul in this production is supplied by two characters usually considered so boring as to be almost invisible: Josh Hartwell's George Tesman and Kate Avallone's Thea Elvsted. As these two begin their years-long task of piecing together Eilert Lovborg's lost manuscript, there's a sense that they're engaged in a genuine and important act of creation. If you can accept Hedda as black comedy rather than tragedy, you'll find this production loads of fun. Presented by Paragon Theatre through October 28, Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive, 303-300-2210, www.paragontheatre.com.

Living Out. Everything that playwright Lisa Loomer says about the blindness of the middle class -- even the kindest and most liberal-minded among them -- to the problems of the people who work for them is true and desperately needs saying. She explores these issues through the relationship between Ana, a Salvadoran nanny, and her employer, Nancy, a high-powered entertainment lawyer married to a public defender. Nancy knows nothing about the life Ana has fled, and she harbors many of the usual stereotypes about Latinos. But she's a decent enough sort, and the play raises the possibility that a real friendship might develop between these women. The beginning of Living Out can be funny, and Loomer's points are worth making -- but argument isn't drama, and the characters seem to have been created solely as the playwright's mouthpieces. We've met affluent liberals like Nancy and her husband before, and a lot of the dialogue is at a sitcom level. As for Ana, she's purely sad and saintly. Like the dialogue, the direction lacks urgency and the action feels slow. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through October 28, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.

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