The Ballad of Baby Doe. Central City Opera is celebrating the fiftieth birthday of Douglas Moore's famed piece with a lively, glowing production full of beautifully proportioned sets that look like Victorian Christmas cards, a talented, energetic ensemble and a cluster of glorious voices. The opera conjures up all the expected Old West icons: flouncing prostitutes, bearded miners, historical figures such as William Jennings Bryan and President Chester A. Arthur, and, of course, big, booming, workingman-turned-mining-magnate Horace Tabor, who left his uptight, New England-bred wife, Augusta, for the beautiful Elizabeth "Baby" Doe. But Moore's music -- which makes use of such American idioms as folk ballads, dance-hall numbers and even a touch of jazz -- and John Latouche's libretto probe a little more deeply to explore some of the grimmer elements of nineteenth-century frontier life. Tabor, who established opera houses in both Leadville and Denver, lived a showy, extravagant life with Baby Doe until the bottom fell out of the silver market and all of his money was lost. Baby Doe remained faithful to him through years of penury and, after his death, attempted to revive his Matchless Mine. She lived alone there in an abandoned miner's shack, becoming paranoid and delusional over the years, and finally froze to death in 1935. There may be operas of greater musical brilliance than The Ballad of Baby Doe, but none that brings an American era so vividly to life. Presented by the Central City Opera in rotation with Don Giovanni and The Coronation of Poppea through August 6, 303-292-6700, www.centralcityopera.org. Reviewed July 6.
Beyond Therapy. It's hard to find love. And if you find anything remotely resembling it, you should hang on for dear life -- or at least take a long, steady look. This is the theme underlying Christopher Durang's brilliantly crazed Beyond Therapy, which begins when Bruce and Prudence meet on a blind date at a restaurant where the waiters never seem to appear. He's living with his lover, Bob, but wants Prudence to have his babies. She pops her foot up on the table to prove that her toenail polish matches her fingernails. The date is a disaster, and Prudence and Bruce repair to their respective therapists to figure out what went wrong. The climax occurs around the table where the couple first met, with Bob and both therapists entering the action, shots going off, and water flying through the air as the protagonists vent their frustration. Kevin Hart resists the urge to ham things up as Bruce, remaining earnest and solid even as the nuttiest words imaginable come out of his mouth. Amie Mackenzie plays Prudence as low-key but quietly vibrating with tension. This production is well-acted and very funny. Presented by the Avenue Theatre through August 5, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, www.avenuetheater.com. Reviewed July 6.
Don Giovanni. The music keeps coming, scene after blissful scene, with no sign of fatigue or let-up on the composer's part -- solos, duets, trios, quartets, a sextet; voices flowing together, combining and separating, weaving patterns and marking contrasts; a meltingly beautiful wave of sound that leaves you breathless. But there's nothing sugary or fulsome about this music. Mozart has too much wit and humor, and his lines are too pure and transcendent to cloy. Some people say that Don Giovanni is the greatest opera -- perhaps the greatest piece of music -- ever written, and they'll get no argument from me. Under the sure baton of John Baril, Central City Opera has assembled voices that do the score justice. Ironically, the loveliest sound often accompanies absurd or dishonest action. Giovanni sings a sweetly lilting love song in a callous attempt to add Elvira's maid to his list of conquests, for example. And I was surprised to learn that Zerlina's pretty song of reassurance to her betrothed actually means "Beat me, beat me, lovely Masetto." Don Giovanni is less lighthearted than The Marriage of Figaro, but it's still funny; there are scenes -- the statue's stony nod, Leporello's gulling of Elvira -- that can be seen as either serious or amusing, and sometimes both. Jeff Mattsey brings psychological richness and a fine voice to his portrait of the Don; Philip Cokorinos, who conveys all the anger, humor and humiliation of Leporello's servile station, also has a powerful bass baritone, and the two voices sound thrilling, both solo and together. The production is blessed by the presence of three wonderfully talented women: Emily Pulley, Deborah Selig and Sally Wolf. In rotation with The Ballad of Baby Doe and The Coronation of Poppea through August 6, Central City Opera House, 303-292-6700, www.centralcityopera.org. Reviewed July 20.
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.
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.
The Wiz. Although there are theater companies in the United States organized around specific disabilities (the National Theatre of the Deaf, for example), PHAMALy is the only group working with published scripts that uses actors with all kinds of disabilities -- and uses only disabled actors. The company was started by Kathleen Traylor, Teri Westerman and two of their classmates at Denver's now-defunct Boettcher School, where a teacher exposed them to musical theater -- but after graduating, they realized there were no acting opportunities for people with disabilities. Steve Wilson is directing this production, the group's seventeenth, and says that his cast's disabilities inspire innovative touches. "There are a million moments when we come up against a challenge that's different from a challenge you might normally have," he explains. Juliet Villa, his Dorothy, is visually impaired; Toto is played by her guide dog, Deidra. Wilson has thought long and hard about the dramatic significance of a visually impaired Dorothy. Blindness can help explain her isolation at the beginning of the tale, and if -- as one interpretation has it -- Oz exists only in Dorothy's imagination, it makes sense that she would people it with others who are handicapped. In The Wiz, Oz shows Dorothy new ways of viewing herself and the world, and her last spoken line is "Don't you all see?" After this stunning production, you may indeed look at theater in a new way. Presented by PHAMALy through July 30, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.phamaly.org. Previewed July 13.
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