Cabaret. Cabaret is grim and distressing, and there's not a hint of redemption anywhere in it. Quite the contrary. But this is a bloody good production, the kind of production that could -- and should -- attract all kinds of people who might never think of setting foot in a conventional dinner theater: shop owners and professionals and scientists and parents and college students out on a date. Anyone, in fact, who responds viscerally to fantastic music, deft staging and vivid, emotionally honest performance. Cabaret is loosely based on English writer Christopher Isherwood's account of his life in Berlin between 1929 and 1933. It centers on Sally Bowles, a singer who lives on charm, manipulation, willful eccentricity and the distribution of sexual favors, and her affair with an American writer. There's a second love story involving a middle-aged landlady and a Jewish grocer who brings her fruit. But the show's heart lies in the decadent Kit-Kat Klub, where a leering, epicene Emcee oversees all the acts. In time, as the shadow of fascism deepens, he seems to oversee the entire city of Berlin as well. Presented by Boulder Dinner Theatre through November 7, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed July 15.
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Impulse Theater. Basements and comedy go together like beer and nuts or toddlers and sandboxes. The basement of the Wynkoop Brewery 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. Impulse Theater, ongoing run, Wynkoop Brewing Co., 18th and Wynkoop streets, 303-297-2111 or www.impulsetheater.com. Reviewed June 3.
It's Hickenlooper's World -- We Just Live in It. Rattlebrain Theater Company is made up of a group of highly talented and appealing actors who have loads of stage presence. Director Dave Shirley, who also writes much of the material, keeps things buzzing along, and utilizes music and video clips to great effect. In It's Hickenlooper's World, the troupe's target is Denver and the city's relatively new mayor. Some of the skits are very clever and others only mildly amusing, but the cast performs with such enthusiasm and panache that almost everything works. The second act begins with a take-off on the Country Dinner Theatre's Barnstormers that's wonderfully disruptive. Then there's a skit about a Highlands Ranch family preparing for the terrifying trek into Denver where they will encounter people of color -- and some who don't even live in covenant neighborhoods. The Rattlebrain regulars are all first-rate. They come across as vital, unpretentious, gently humorous and willing to try just about anything once -- which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like Denver. Presented by Rattlebrain Theater Company in an open-ended run, D&F Tower, 1601 Arapahoe Street, 720-932-7384, www.rattlebraintheatre.com. Reviewed May 20.
Menopause The Musical. Menopause The Musical is as much a phenomenon as a piece of theater. The plot is so fragile that even the cliche "whisper-thin" doesn't describe it. Four women -- no, four types -- meet at a lingerie sale at Bloomingdale's: Power Woman, Soap Star, Earth Mother and Iowa Housewife. They begin by bickering but discover that they have hot flashes, memory lapses and mood swings in common. They then proceed to sing parodies of iconic baby boomer songs. "Chain of Fools" becomes "Change, Change, Change"; the opening line of "Heat Wave" transforms into "I'm having a hot flash"; and, in one of the evening's most successful numbers, the women beg the doctor for Prozac to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Help Me, Rhonda." Most of the lyrics are not particularly clever, though "Good Vibrations" is put to hilarious use. For the most part, the show feels like a series of jingles advertising the possibility of a chipper menopause. The four actress-singers are all talented and give huge, vigorous performances, despite the fact that they are crudely and far too loudly miked. Presented by the New Denver Civic Theatre in an open-ended run, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 303-309-3773, www.denvercivic.com. Reviewed August 12.
Metamorphoses. Mary Zimmerman's play is a sometimes ironic and sometimes respectful take on Ovid's work of the same name. The cast assembles around a granite pool -- a miracle of design and engineering at the Avenue Theater -- that can be anything from a backyard pool to the Greeks' dangerous wine-dark sea, a medium for death, birth, baptism and transformation. Actors act out the myths or narrate them, sometimes addressing the audience, sometimes each other. The gods they portray are pretty much like the rest of us, vain or large-spirited, compassionate or cruel. Zimmerman may deserve all the praise she's earned for Metamorphoses, but the most powerful scenes rely on the words of Ovid and poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Still, Metamorphoses is a seductive combination of lighthearted pleasure and resonant, powerful theme. Presented by the Avenue Theater through November 14, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, www.avenuetheater.com. Reviewed June 17.