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. Presented by Impulse Theater in an open-ended run, Wynkoop Brewing Co., 18th and Wynkoop streets, 303-297-2111 or www.impulsetheater.com. Reviewed June 3.
The Mercy Seat. What kind of person would seize on a disaster of the magnitude of September 11 to further an extramarital affair? With New York in chaos around him, Ben Harcourt has seen an opportunity to leave his wife, who will assume he has died, and start a new life with his lover, Abby. He refers to the attack, without irony, as an opportunity that "fell right into our laps." Playwright Neil LaBute is best known for the film In the Company of Men, which depicts the amoral behavior of young men in the corporate world. He is famed for the savagery with which he explores the squirmier and more equivocal parts of the human psyche. In The Mercy Seat, he has created a couple of contemptible people; his genius is to have made them comprehensible, even intermittently likable. The play brilliantly catches the rhythms of a failing relationship, the words misinterpreted, the moments of compromise shattered by a clumsy observation or flash of malice. The usual jostling for power between lovers is exacerbated here by the fact that Abby is older than Ben, and is his boss. Paragon Theatre director Warren Sherrill has mounted a first-rate production of this refreshingly abrasive play. Presented by Paragon Theatre Company through July 2, Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive, 303-300-2210, www.paragontheatre.com. Reviewed June 9.
My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra. The Denver Center production of My Way features four attractive, energetic performers with strong and differing voices; 53 of the best twentieth-century songs; a set that's beautifully designed both to please the contemporary eye and to evoke the period, with softened Formica colors flowing into each other and elegant forms; witty, attractive costumes; and three excellent musicians. So if you're entertaining a business client or out on a date, this is the show for you. But it's essentially a commercial enterprise rather than an evening of theater. The performers don't just sing the songs, they sell them. They're full of energy. They bounce. They emote. They never allow a moment of reflection or understatement. Sinatra was the guy sitting alone on a barstool in a pool of light, shadows pressing in on him, the rakish angle of his hat belying the world-weariness of his soul. This seems an odd way to pay him homage. Presented in an open-ended run by Denver Center Attractions, Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed June 9.
Newsical. This show is bright, clever and fun, with catchy song rhythms, witty lyrics and very talented performers, but it has absolutely no edge. How much guts and originality does it take to beat up on Michael Jackson and demonize Martha Stewart -- particularly with huge fat targets like John Bolton and Tom DeLay wandering the public arena? But, of course, the producers plan to make money in both red and blue states, and we all know how tetchy everyone is about politics these days. So here's a song about Botox, and another about a family addicted to prescription drugs. Here are three loopy, drooly guys who lose their fear of flying by booking with Hooters Air. Several of the skits and songs are enjoyable. "W. Rides Again" features the drunken Bush girls celebrating their dad's election victory. A trio of old ladies trills about the joys of being felt up at the airport. There's a hilarious imitation of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and another of the new pope wearing stylish lederhosen. Newsical is a taste tantalizer rather than a meal, but it goes down well with a couple of glasses of wine. Presented in an open-ended run by the New Denver Civic Theatre, Black Box Cabaret, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 303-309-3773. Reviewed May 19.
Parallel Lives. Parellel Lives begins promisingly, with two heavenly beings designing the human race. They discuss skin color -- red, tan, yellow -- and worry that those humans with ordinary white skin may feel left out or inferior. They decide that procreation will occur through sex and that women will bear the babies, but they fear the latter privilege may make the male of the species jealous. "Let's just give him as much ego as possible and hope for the best," sighs one. So far, so funny. But then things degenerate. Many of the pieces that make up this program seem absolutely pointless. Some have a point, but it's not worth more than a moment's consideration. A few sketches are funny or interesting, but several keep going long after you've savored whatever comedic nourishment they provide. Presented by the Avenue Theater through June 26, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, www.avenuetheater.com. Reviewed May 26.
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Ruthless! the Musical. Little Tina Denmark was born with talent. No one knows where it came from -- her mother is a perky, cookie-baking, '50s-style housewife, her father always away on unspecified business -- but dancing and singing are clearly in her blood. So when Tina loses the lead in the school musical, Pippi in Tahiti, to Louise Lerman it's clear that the poor poppet is justified in any steps she takes to remedy the situation -- including murder. Soon Louise is swinging from her own skip rope, and Tina is playing Pippi. Ruthless is an extended piece of camp, a funny, silly pastiche of moments from Gypsy, The Bad Seed, All About Eve and every pre-'60s musical with a larger-than-life female star you can remember. Nonesuch Theater has mounted a highly entertaining version of the show, full of madly hamming actors and great voices. Presented through August 13 by Nonesuch Theatre Company, 216 Pine Street, Fort Collins, 1-970-224-0444, www.nonesuchtheater.com. Reviewed June 2.
Shaking the Dew From the Lilies. Five women are trapped in a shopping-mall bathroom. This is a pretty contrived premise, but the script and the actresses have enough charm to carry it off. Naturally, these five are very different; their paths would have been unlikely to cross under any other circumstances. Cynthia is a repressed society girl who says she has never used a public restroom before. Her introduction to slutty Tami occurs when the latter sprays cheap hairspray around the entire mirror area and into her face. There's some bickering about toilet paper, and then Susan and Aja enter. They're a fairly typical girlfriend coupling: Aja is the sexy woman, Susan the heavier, plainer one who basks in her friend's glamorous glow. We will eventually discover the depths of envious rage beneath Susan's pleasant exterior. The group is joined by thoughtful, quiet Nicole, who turns out -- of course -- to be gay. There's something daring and original about the play's funky setting, the women's candor about sex and other bodily functions, the references to smells, the way the dialogue is periodically punctuated by the sounds of urination and toilets flushing. But the early jokes are pretty feeble. Eventually, the women begin to reveal their secrets to one another. When prim Cynthia breaks down, it's genuinely shocking, but this is followed far too soon, before we can fully digest its implications, by Tami's revelations of childhood trauma. Sequential confessions are a staple of drama in our therapy-saturated culture, but they need to go somewhere. Still, somehow the play does prevail, and there's something disarming in the way the women come to understand each other in their cluttered, exhausted and enforced intimacy. Presented through June 18, Playwright Theatre, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 303-499-0383, www.PlaywrightTheatre.com. Reviewed May 19.
Take Me Out. In Richard Greenberg's multi-award-winning play, the language is full of wit and unexpected insight, and the action trembles between funny and tragic. The story explores what happens when an admired baseball player tells the world he's gay. Darren is aloof, dignified, godlike to his fans. The son of a black father and a white mother, handsome and athletically gifted, he has led a life of privilege. He seems blind to the fact that his announcement is likely to cause problems. His best friend is Kippy, who also serves as the narrator. Predictably, everything changes in the locker room once he's made his announcement, and the contradictions are thrown into stark relief when the team brings in a new pitcher, an overgrown infant filled with grief and rage named Shane. At his first encounter with the press, Shane spews out a series of racist and homophobic epithets. Eventually, the story takes a turn toward tragedy. The play lacks a strong sense of overall unity -- structural or thematic -- but the writing is smart, enjoyable and thought-provoking, there are some wonderful scenes, and the characters are memorable. Curious gives the play a strong production, featuring several fine performances. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through July 2, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed May 1.
The Wizard of Oz. The Boulder's Dinner Theatre production of The Wizard of Oz, under artistic director Michael J. Duran, hews very closely to the 1939 movie version, but it's done with such élan that the show never feels old. With bright, inventive sets, clever costumes, lively choreography and hyper-energetic performances, it's like a carnival ride that whisks you away in a swirl of color, movement, sound and simple nostalgia. As Dorothy, Emily Van Fleet faithfully channels Judy Garland, though she lacks the latter's sense of wonder. Her voice is a marvel, however, shading richly through melting variations in tone and color, and her rendition of "Over the Rainbow" had the audience spellbound. Several BDT stalwarts turn in riveting performances in other roles. Add inventive bits of direction, an excellent small orchestra, an adorable small dog and an ensemble full of fine voices and interesting personalities, and you have an extended frolic that both kids and adults can enjoy. Best of all, the production does full justice to Harold Arlen's wonderful songs. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through September 4, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed May 26.