Bubs. This is a play accompanied by songs, a concert yoked to a narrative, with the elements held together by the talent and energy of actor-singer Erik Sandvold. Writers Cy Frost and Doug Olson came up with the idea of showcasing a slew of different performers, all played by one actor, each performing in a different style — from blues to bluegrass — so that one minute you're listening to a suave Dean Martin-style crooner, the next to a Memphis rocker fresh out of prison. The songs are good, and as he leaps from persona to persona with almost insane gusto and empathy, Sandvold makes every character a specific individual. But then there's the damn plot of Bubs, which concerns a father who wants to be a good father but drinks too much, and a son, Will, who leaves for Los Angeles, eventually returning for the requisite deathbed vigil. This is a story we've heard a hundred times before, and all the themes — love, success, failure, death — are painted with a broad brush. There's no irony, no subtlety, no surprise. Still, the depth of talent on the stage is astonishing, and like Sandvold, the musicians in the band are tremendous. Trimmed of the maudlin plot line, Bubs might be a fine evening. Presented through September 20, Avenue Theater, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, www.bubsthemusical.com. Reviewed September 11.
Curse of the Starving Class. The moment you walk into the theater, you know you're in Sam Shepard country — a place suffused with memories of the mythic Old West, but where the breadth and purity of that myth serve only to underline the disappointing realities of contemporary life. You see a gorgeous blue sky arching over the furnishings of a dingy family home: a table with chairs, a kitchen counter, an ancient refrigerator that will get slammed open and closed many times during the course of the evening, its perpetual emptiness symbolizing the spiritual vacuum at the heart of this family's life. And what a family it is. There's drunken, violent Weston; his two children, manchild Wesley and adolescent daughter Emma; and their wife and mother, Ella, who appears not to care a whit about any of them. As always with Shepard, there's a continuing, almost metaphysical subtext expressed in strong images that are not only verbal, but made concrete and visual: the refrigerator, the figure of a man — Weston — asleep on a table piled with dirty clothes while his son silently watches; a live lamb in a pen; Wesley pissing on a chart his sister has constructed for her class that shows how to cut up a frying chicken. Director Chip Walton and his cast have made the characters even more cloddish than they appear in the script, and sometimes the interpretation edges into caricature. The script is not Shepard at his best, but even lesser Shepard offers dark, ironic humor and startling dramatic moments. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through October 18, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed September 11.
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Twelve Angry Men. The characters are straight-up '50s stereotypes: the wishy-washy adman; the mindless sports fanatic; the pathetic old guy whose life is lonely and filled with regret; the onetime slum kid; the paranoid racist; the Eastern European immigrant — Jewish, no doubt — who, bearing the heavy weight of his own history on his shoulders, shows a deeper respect for this country's principles and ideals than most Americans do; and, of course, the loudmouth with the hair-trigger temper whose rage is just a cover for the grief and loss roiling in his chest, a man we know will end up repentant and in tears. But even though it's dated, the play is intelligent and well-crafted, with a plot that clicks along nicely. And you can't really fault Reginald Rose, who wrote the original TV script, or Sherman Sergel, who adapted it, for being prisoners of their times; every one of us is. Twelve Angry Men makes some points that are as valid today as they ever were. In a hot room around a long table, a group of jurors meets to decide the fate of a sixteen-year-old on trial for the murder of his father. We're never told the kid's race, but he seems to be black. Eleven of the jurors believe in his guilt; only Juror 8 feels doubt, and he insists on examining the evidence piece by painstaking piece. The men argue, yell and sometimes threaten each other, and the play becomes an examination of character. This is a clean, skillful production by Spotlight Theatre Company, now at home in the John Hand Theater; the cast members work well both individually and as an ensemble. The result is a crime procedural as entertaining as an episode of Law & Order, only smarter, more tightly constructed and better intentioned. Presented by Spotlight Theatre Company through September 27, John Hand Theater, 7653 East First Place, Lowry, 720-880-8727, www.thisspotlight.org. Reviewed September 4.