Crowns. The music in this piece-- gospel songs and spirituals, church music with a touch of rap -- includes such well-known pieces as "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" and "When the Saints Go Marchin' In," as well as several less familiar songs, and it is just as lively, moving, rousing and enjoyable as you'd expect. Director Kent Gash has assembled a group of performers with voices of extraordinary range, power and sweetness. All of them are also stylish and talented actors, capable of both humor and pathos. But there's no there here, no play. Crowns is about a concept. The African-American ritual of dressing up for church is a potent and evocative one. It carries a story about African tradition married to contemporary pride and vanity, about an oppressed people who found solace and spirit in church, about the hat as both an assertion of individuality and a humble tribute to God. But ideas alone can't sustain an evening of theater. They need to be married to plot and dialogue. The action begins when a young girl from Brooklyn, Yolanda, loses her brother to violence. Half mad with grief, she is shipped off to stay with her grandmother, Mother Shaw, in South Carolina. She also meets four women, all of whom have stories to share about life, faith and hats. Yolanda -- whose headgear is a sideways baseball cap -- comes to appreciate the women's strength, their work on behalf of civil rights, the community they form. The play's structure is based on a church service, but such services are very predictable in tone. The characters are symbols rather than people, and the dialogue never rises above the level of a Hallmark card. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through June 18, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed June 1.
Fiction. Michael and Linda, both novelists, are long and happily married. But Linda has just been diagnosed with a brain tumor and told she has three weeks to live. She knows the kind of story almost everyone with a terminal diagnosis hears again and again -- the exciting new treatment for a disease hitherto seen as incurable, or the sudden, medically inexplicable remission -- but unfortunately, she's too damn smart to believe anything this cliched. Accepting the reality of her situation, she asks Michael to read her diaries after her death. And she also wants to read his. This request sets the theme and structure for Steven Dietz's well-designed play. Linda discovers that Michael had an affair with Abby, an enigmatic young woman at a writers' colony; rapturous passages about Abby fill Michael's diaries. But when confronted, Michael says the ongoing affair was pure invention. Dietz wrote Fiction long before the furor over James Frey's pseudo-memoir, A Million Little Pieces, but he anticipated much of the current discussion over the veracity of memoir as a literary form. He suggests that writing itself is a dishonest act: Michael sells out his idealistic younger self to become the kind of best-selling, blockbuster-a-year novelist he once despised; Linda's achievement is unquestionably literary, but she's famous because of the general belief that she herself endured the horrors her central character suffered, which may not be the case. These are not deep characters; they exist at the service of ideas. But they are also charming and fun to watch. The script and the action are fascinating, and director Jamie Horton has assembled a first-rate cast. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through June 24, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed May 25.
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.
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The Music Man. Artistic director Michael J. Duran has pulled out all the stops -- no pun intended -- for this production. In a program note, he explains that he was performing in The Music Man on Broadway in September 2001, and all the theaters closed for two nights after 9/11. When the musical reopened that Thursday, it was to an audience of fifty -- but those people needed what the show had to offer, Duran says. The Music Man follows Harold Hill, a huckster who comes into a small Iowa town and sells the townspeople on the idea of a boys' marching band, complete with music, instruments and uniforms. Before he can pull his usual disappearing act, Hill has fallen in love with Marian, the librarian, and -- despite his inability to read a note of music -- won over the town. In the lead, Brian Norber brings huge jolts of energy to the show, and he's abetted by a large, lively cast, a gaggle of charming children and a cheery seven-piece orchestra. The music is sharp, funny and sometimes meltingly lyrical, and you can feel the performers' electric enjoyment in what they're doing. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through August 19, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed May 11.
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.
Sand Storm. A collection of monologues about the Iraq War based on the experiences of the men who fought there, Sand Storm is raw and upsetting, but it tells an old, old story: Combat destroys bodies, but it also twists and torments souls in very particular ways. Man after man steps forward to describe the events he witnessed: the man who was too claustrophobic to wear the mask intended as protection against chemical or biological weapons; the soldier for whom a severed foot served to bring the reality of the slaughter home more forcefully than all the dead bodies he had seen; the Marine, enraged by the death of his comrades, who came across a desperately injured Iraqi begging to be shot and calmly ate his lunch while watching the man writhe and die on the sand. In one of the most affecting moments, a navy medic tends to a dying Iraqi whose family has been killed by American artillery. The Iraqi thanks the soldier for ridding his country of Saddam Hussein: "You are a gift from Allah." Directed by C.J. Hosier, this production is refreshingly low-key. Only a couple of the performers are experienced actors; some have never stepped on a stage before. Yet there is something about their quiet naturalness, even the evident nervousness of a couple of them, that brings the subject home more forcefully than a slicker, more dramatic production could do. Behind the actors, slides from the war zone provide a powerful and urgent undercurrent. Presented by the Theatre Group and alternating with The Exonerated through June 9, Theatre on Broadway, 13 South Broadway, 303-777-3292, www.theatregroup.org. Reviewed May 18.