Chess. The Cold War serves as a frame for Chess, the musical account of a match between a Russian champion, Anatoly, and his petulant American counterpart, Freddie. The action takes place in 1989, in the weeks before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Florence is Freddie's second, coaching him and attempting to moderate his oafish behavior, but pretty soon she's falling for the kinder and more dignified Anatoly. The principal characters -- Florence, Anatoly, Freddie and Anatoly's saintly Russian wife, Svetlana -- lack definition and depth, but Soviet repression, American insularity and the murky Cold War world of spies, betrayal and deception are all inherent parts of the plot. Still, a central question is whether the musical uses political events with integrity or only to add a semblance of depth to a lightweight, commonplace love story. Some of the music is touching, but Andrew Lloyd Webber's influence on lyricist Tim Rice is all too apparent in the big numbers, which are vapidly emotional and far, far too loud. This is a vivid and gutsy production, with an excellent cast and a talented live orchestra. But overall, the experience feels like a huge, ineffectual storm: impressive while it's happening, but leaving the landscape unchanged after it's passed. Presented by Next Stage through May 13, Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive. 720-209-4105, www.nextstagedenver.com.
Impulse Theater. Basements and comedy go together like beer and nuts or toddlers and sandboxes. The basement of the Wynkoop Brewing Co., 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., 1634 18th Street, 303-297-2111 or www.impulsetheater.com.
Insignificance. Terry Johnson's play is set in 1953, and Marilyn Monroe is in New York filming the scene from The Seven Year Itch in which she stands over a subway grating with the skirt of her white halter-top dress flying around her. Nearby, Albert Einstein, in town for a conference on world peace, putters around his hotel room. The play imagines a meeting between the two icons. The other characters in this strange little tale are Joe DiMaggio -- who doesn't recognize Einstein, but is incensed to discover his wife in another man's hotel room -- and Senator Joe McCarthy, come to remind Einstein of his obligation to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The text is intelligent and hugely entertaining, but despite all the talk about history, politics, science, war and peace, and the shape of the universe, you won't find a coherent message here. Once you've accepted that, though, you can simply sit back and enjoy John Ashton's well-cast production. Presented by the Mizel Theatre Company through May 20, Pluss Theatre, Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, 350 South Dahlia Street, 303-316-6360, www.mizelcenter.org. Reviewed April 27.
Man of La Mancha. Creaking and shuddering, a ladder descends, admitting the sixteenth-century author Cervantes and his manservant into what looks like one of the lower circles of hell. There he will remain at the pleasure of the Spanish Inquisition, he's told, for perhaps an hour, perhaps a lifetime. To mollify his fellow prisoners, Cervantes tells them the story of his novel, which concerns Don Quixote, a country gentleman infatuated with the age of chivalry who imagines himself a knight errant, and who sets out on a quest with his servant, Sancho Panza. Quixote sees a small country inn as a castle, a barber's bowl as a helmet, a brutalized prostitute, Aldonza, as his fair lady, Dulcinea. Periodically, however, his fantasies desert him, and he's forced to deal with the wretched world that everyone else around him sees only too clearly. Some of the songs in this musical edge toward sentimentality, but the script does not downplay the horrors of Cervantes's time -- the casual brutality, the miserable lives of the poor, the terror of the Inquisition. This Country Dinner Playhouse production of the musical is full of fine performances and good voices, and though there's hope at the end, it feels as insubstantial as Quixote's dreams -- but perhaps also as enduring. Presented through May 14 at Country Dinner Playhouse, 6875 South Clinton Street, Greenwood Village, 303-799-1410, www.countrydinnerplayhouse.com. Reviewed March 30.
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Party of 1. This is a good play to go to with a date, or to attend in hopes of finding one. The show is a sequence of cabaret songs dedicated to the joys and pains of singlehood, slightly reminiscent of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, though without the monologues; fizzier and more light-hearted than Sex and the City, but less weighted with ego and pretension. Four appealing people spin through songs with topics ranging from the insecurities raised by meet-and-mingle functions to the intense ambivalence you feel when someone with whom you're having a great relationship actually takes the next step and moves into your apartment. Party of 1 ran forever in the Bay Area, where writer-composer Morris Bobrow is famed for his clever lyrics and bright, listenable tunes. Good-natured and enjoyable, with just an edge of grown-up irony, the show deserves its popularity. Presented by the Playwright Theatre in an open-ended run, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 303-499-0383, www.playwrighttheatre.com. Reviewed November 17.
Phantom of the Music Hall. You really haven't lived until you've heard Johnette Toye singing Gilbert and Sullivan's "Poor Wandering One." She preens and staggers and makes her mouth into a dark, wide-open square from which emanates a cascade of extraordinary sound. This woman could sing the difficult coloratura parts beautifully if she wanted to -- and every now and then she does emit a tantalizingly perfect trill -- but for the most part, she's too busy barging around like a drunk, demented and utterly delighted-with-itself duck to worry about aesthetics. This isn't Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, although it's based on the same Gaston Leroux story. T.J. Mullin has transposed the events to an early-twentieth-century English music hall, where a strange caped figure coaches a beautiful young ingenue into stardom, then abducts her. The plot is only the plain shortcake base on which the skillful cast piles layers of frothy improvisation, hilarious bits and all kinds of songs, some from the appropriate time period, and others that they just bloody well feel like singing. Presented by Heritage Square Music Hall through May 28, 18301 West Colfax Avenue D-103, Golden, 303-279-7800. www.hsmusichall.com. Reviewed April 6.
Red Scare. This is a hit-and-miss proposition, with mildly amusing moments alternating with laugh-yourself-silly skits and a few out-and-out clunkers. There's nothing particularly sophisticated, surprising or cutting-edge about the renowned Second City's Red Scare, but there is some funny stuff. In one scene, a teacher in a rough school comes into her classroom after hours to find a student planning to rifle her purse -- but in the end, he tells her in song, he couldn't steal from her because "I Saw Your Paycheck." In another, a suicidal Shakespearean heroine is talked out of her despair by a sassy gay friend. There's a good sketch about the exaggerated way white people talk to their black co-workers; a sad-funny bit involving a coach and his cancer-stricken wife; a monologue in which the talented Amber Ruffin gives grandmotherly advice about marriage and childbirth. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through May 21, Garner Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 16.