Les Misérables. This huge, sprawling musical is based on Victor Hugo's novel, and the plot centers on the merciless pursuit of a freed prisoner, Jean Valjean, by a bitter police detective, Javert. In the course of the chase, which continues over several decades, we encounter everything from revolutionaries at the ramparts to an orphaned golden-haired tot, daughter of a reluctant and desperately poor prostitute, who will grow into a beautiful, golden-haired woman and marry the handsome and principled young hero, a revolutionary named Marius, all under the loving eye of the virtuous though still endangered Valjean. With this much action, there's not a lot of room for character exploration or complexity. Instead, the actors sing a great deal — there are only three spoken words in the entire musical — and almost always at the highest pitch of passion. But since the music is beautiful and the cast boasts several magnificent voices, that's pretty much all you need for a thrilling evening. Director Rod A. Lansberry has poured energy and resources into his revival, assembling a fine eight-piece orchestra under conductor Martha Yordy, finding a way of creating the many required venues without the famed turntable set (Brian Mallgrave's design is workable and evocative), and bringing together a talented group of actors. Presented by the Arvada Center through October 25, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 720-898-7200, www.arvadacenter.org. Reviewed October 2.
Mediamockracy. Director Mitch Dickman was intrigued by the Democratic National Convention — the saturation coverage, the protests and the Democrats' ties to corporate interests. He and actors Karen Slack, William Hahn and GerRee Hinshaw moved among the convention participants, shooting video and asking questions. These elements, along with film from other sources, are woven into the plot of Mediamockracy, which revolves around two feuding characters: Piper Cummington, a viperous, Fox News-style news anchor, and Richard Guy, who hosts a comedy show in the vein of Stephen Colbert. Slack and Hahn are brilliantly and juicily idiosyncratic in their roles, and their tactics illustrate the deficiencies of the mass media. Those deficiencies are further probed by Hinshaw, during entertaining, sometimes enlightening audience discussions that interrupt the action. Presented by Listen Productions through October 25, Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan Street, 720-290-1104, www.dncmediamockracy.com. Reviewed October 9.
Noises Off. Michael Frayn is brilliant, and his Noises Off is one of the cleverest, funniest farces ever written; half the pleasure of this production is seeing how, despite the madcap pace of the action, every single element eventually clicks neatly and smartly into place. This is a play within a play — actually, a play outside a play that depicts the struggles of a third-rate company touring the English provinces in a corny sex farce called Nothing On. During the first act, the flustered, under-rehearsed company runs a dress rehearsal under the eyes of its director; the humor comes from the actors' attempts to figure out their myriad exits and entrances, when to pick up their props and where to put them down. The second act takes place behind the scenery, in a world of raw wood and trailing wires. Through the doors and windows of the flats, we periodically glimpse the actions we've already seen the cast rehearse; among those supposedly off stage, there's squabbling and jealous rage. The third act takes place some weeks later, when the actors' arguments have gotten entirely out of hand and they're on stage trying to get through the scene, fighting emotions that range from indifference through exasperation to complete mental meltdown. While the actors throw themselves into their roles to the point of exhaustion, there's an awful lot of hamming and shtick to Kent Thompson's production — and what's missing is any sense that these are real people. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through November 1, the Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed October 16.
The Trip to Bountiful. Carrie Watts, played by Kathleen M. Brady, is an elderly woman trapped in a Houston apartment with her son, Ludie, and his empty-headed, bullying shrew of a wife, Jessie Mae. Carrie longs to return to Bountiful, her home town on the Gulf, and she eventually breaks free. At the bus station, she encounters another young wife, Thelma, who is sweet and empathetic. She responds with tears to Carrie's recitation of a psalm; she listens intently as Carrie tells the story of the one real love of her life, a man she was forbidden by her father to marry. Through the long first act, the production is static and uninvolving, but when Randy Moore and John Hutton enter the action as station master and sheriff, everything changes. These two actors are centered and comfortable in their skins, more than a match for Brady's conviction and talent. As Carrie, having finally arrived home, talks about redbirds and mockingbirds, the play's quiet music asserts itself, and she is filled with a deep, quiet joy. She has smelled the earth of her home, and is fortified not only for family strife, but for the ultimate darkness to come. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through October 25, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed October 9. — Juliet Wittman