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 attract all kinds of people who might never think of setting foot in a conventional dinner theater. Anyone 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.
84, Charing Cross Road. A fascination with the life of old books provides a lot of the charm of this play, which is based on the correspondence between New York writer Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, a London bookseller. An anglophile and lover of literature, Hanff longed to see England. Marks and Co., one of the row of book stores on Charing Cross Road, became her link to that country. In the early letters, she simply inquired about out-of-print books and kvetched about the difficulty of translating bills written in pounds, shillings and pence to dollars. Doel, ever affable and self-effacing, responded. Over twenty years, the two shared their understanding of books as treasures. Hanff planned a visit to London but, perpetually broke, kept putting it off. By the time she finally arrived in the city, Frank had died. Unavoidably, since it's based on letters, the play sometimes feels static or repetitive, but it builds to a touching and unsentimental ending, and Germinal has mounted an engaging production. Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through October 10, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com. Reviewed September 16.
Three Ways Home. At the beginning of this play, Sharon, a white career woman, has volunteered at a social-services agency. She's assigned to visit Dawn, an African-American welfare recipient suspected of abusing her four children. Sharon's opening monologues are wittily incisive as she introduces us to her privileged world and wonders just what she's gotten herself into. Then we witness Dawn's first angry monologue and wonder the same thing. The tension builds as the women's first meeting approaches. Meanwhile, Dawn's sixteen-year-old son, Frankie, is clearly in trouble, retreating more and more into a lost, angry world in which he fantasizes about the X-Men and hustles his body for money. Playwright Casey Kurtti gets some things right, but she also gets crucial elements wrong. Dawn and Sharon's friendship isn't entirely believable, and the character of Frankie is so oddly written that you wonder if Kurtti has ever known a real sixteen-year-old boy. Finally, the climax is melodramatic and unconvincing. Presented by Shadow Theatre Company through September 25, Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, 1420 Ogden Street, 303-837-9355, www.shadowtheatre.com. Reviewed September 2.
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Trumbo: Red, White & Blacklisted. Dalton Trumbo was a member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers whose careers were ruined during the McCarthy era because they stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee. After his bluntly hilarious non-cooperative session with the committee -- re-enacted here -- Trumbo could no longer get work in Hollywood. He spent ten months in prison, and upon his release -- amid rumors of confiscated passports and concentration camps being planned for Communist sympathizers -- he went into exile in Mexico. There he eked out a living selling screenplays to be produced under other writers' names. Clearly, this production is in part a response to current threats to civil liberties. Jamie Horton is simply magnificent in the title role -- American in that eccentric, outspoken, wise and wily way that no citizen of another country could imitate. (In the coming weeks, other actors will play the role of Trumbo.) The political elements are the play's primary strength, but there are other gems: a lecture aimed at a tradesman Trumbo feels has overcharged him; a hilarious description of the proper way to criticize a novel (which should ensure that the novelist will never write again). Best of all is a missive about masturbation that Trumbo sent to his son at college. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through October 23, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed September 9.
The Wall of Water. Playwright Sherry Kramer is a comic talent to watch. This play is farcical, swift and funny, but it touches on all kinds of major themes: madness and healing, naming and identity, anger and affection. It questions the existence of suffering and answers our yearning for religion by providing an onstage god -- a doctor transformed into a deity because he ate a dish prepared by a madwoman. The whole thing is a festering, bubbling, candy-colored stew of passion, confusion and wildly clashing desires. The plot: Four women live in a large, rent-controlled New York apartment. Meg wants to kill Wendi, who's mad; Judy is an allergist who believes we're all allergic to each other. Denice is probably the smartest of the four, but she's decided to live as a party girl and to sleep only with men whose photographs turn up in the New York Times. In the second act, the men appear, and the shenanigans get wilder. The pacing of the production feels a little off, but the acting is exuberant. Presented by Hunger Artists Ensemble Theatre at the LIDA Project, 2180 Stout Street, 303-893-5438, www.hungerartists.org. Reviewed September 16.