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Beauty and the Beast. Though it's backed by expert musicians and technicians, the real miracle is the Phamaly company itself. The leads are as good as — and often better than — anyone you'll see anywhere. Jenna Bainbridge is the sweetest Belle imaginable, with a clear, strong soprano and, paradoxically, given her fragile prettiness, a commanding on-stage presence. Leonard Barrett's Beast carries a sorrowful dignity, and the actor's subtle, powerful singing makes "If I Can't Love Her" a heart-stopper. When he actually transforms and we see his face — after a longish smoke-and-music-filled interlude — it's magic, pure and simple. And these are only two of many terrific performances. Artistic director Steve Wilson not only accommodates his actors' disabilities, but uses them to add fascinating bits of business and layers of complexity. As for the big numbers, they're done with a spirit, precision and intelligence that transforms hackneyed songs into straightforward pleasure. Presented by Phamaly through August 15, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-575-0005,

The Fantasticks. As written, The Fantasticks is sweet, pretty, clever, and tender, but oddly deep in spots, approaching its revelations so gently you hardly realize they're there. The songs, by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, are appealing and sometimes lovely. That's why the show ran for decades in a tiny off-off-Broadway house and was attended by droves of young lovers, strivers and dreamers. The story concerns young lovers, of course, neighbors sixteen-year-old Luisa and the slightly older Matt. The two have absorbed every romantic notion they've ever encountered in song or story and believe themselves deeply in love. Their parents, intending to help the affair along by pretending to object to it, have raised a wall between the two houses. They even employ a mysterious actor, El Gallo — the rooster — to pretend to abduct Luisa so that Matt can save her. The first act ends in sugary bliss. But the second act darkens and mocks the first as the couple quarrel and part. Eventually, both realize that love involves more than fantasy. There are lots of self-referential theatrical devices in the script; in fact, the whole thing is a humorous theatrical sendup. But this production is played pretty superficially. You just don't believe for a moment that Luisa and Matt feel a thing for each other. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 8, University Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554,

Garage Sale Loud: This Is It. Almost every summer, the folks at Heritage Square stage what is essentially a musical revue with a thin sustaining plot line and the word "loud" in the title. The conceit is that T.J. Mullin and Annie Dwyer are siblings, and they're reliving their youth: teenage band rehearsals, high-school reunions. This time, their mom is moving into a retirement home, and they're trying to sell off all the stuff left in the garage. They're joined by Rory Pierce, who says he bought the house over the Internet; Alex Crawford, who has apparently just wandered by; and the family's onetime lawn boy, Charlie Schmidt, wearing the same tiny shorts he must have worn at fifteen. It only takes a stray phrase or turn in the action for everyone to burst into song: "Blowin' in the Wind," "Blue Moon," "Help," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "I Get Around" — a promiscuous mishmash of hits from various decades, apparently picked because the performers happen to like them. Heritage Square has been hit hard by the economic downturn, and it's imperative that it attract new fans. So the troupe is mulling ways to convince Denverites that Golden really isn't so far away and wondering how to attract younger viewers without losing the essence of what they do —which, night after night, is to create community and share laughter. Presented by Heritage Square Music Hall through September 5, 18301 West Colfax Avenue, Golden, 303-279-7800, Reviewed June 17.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This show is an hour and a half of speech and rock songs woven together so seamlessly that later, looking back, you're not exactly sure what you heard spoken and what sung. The framework is provided by "The Origin of Love," a song that evokes Plato's vision of how sexual congress began. Once the world was filled with twinned creatures, both parts male, both female and androgynous, but they were severed by Zeus. Now, bloodied and butchered, these half-creatures search the world for their lost partners. Hedwig began as Hansel, born in East Berlin, a lost boy who gave blow jobs to GIs for candy and attention. When a soldier named Luther wanted to marry him and bring him to the United States, Hansel's mother lent the boy her name and passport and arranged for a sex-change operation. But the operation was botched, and Hansel, now Hedwig, was left with an inch-long stub, neither fully male nor fully female. A year later, Luther left her. Now she performs at the Avenue Theater, backed by her band, the Angry Inch, and Yitzak, the ambiguously sexed person she refers to as her husband, whom she met in Serbia while performing under the name Crystal Nacht. A reference to the Berlin Wall is in some ways a fairly straightforward metaphor for Hedwig's plight — she straddles countries and realities as well as gender. But, like the mention of Kristallnacht, it's more than that; it's a reminder of the casual brutality of a world where many children struggle for physical and emotional survival, begging, selling themselves, killing — whatever it takes. The music, by Stephen Trask, is varied and exhilarating, the dialogue dark, smart and funny, and the Avenue production purely terrific. But it's Nick Sugar who makes this performance one you'd be an idiot to miss. The role of Hedwig is one he was born to play, allowing not only irony, satire, sexiness and self-possession, but the kind of emotion for which an actor reaches into the depths of his being. Presented by the Avenue Theater through August 8, 417 East 17th Avenue, Reviewed July 1.

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