The Big Bang. Sometimes it's nice not to have to think too much, to just settle back and watch a couple of frenetically energetic guys working really hard to earn your good will -- and your entertainment dollars. Oh, and to make you laugh. The Big Bang posits the following scenario: Composer Jed Feuer, played by Ted Keunz, and writer-lyricist Boyd Graham, played by Chris Bogert, are in an expensive penthouse apartment, pitching a musical called The Big Bang to a group of possible backers -- that is, the audience. The show will cost $83.5 million, run twelve hours and feature a cast of hundreds. The Big Bang is just as clever as it needs to be -- sometimes very, sometimes not so much -- but never clever enough to make you stretch your brain. It's never tedious, either, as we're whizzed through the history of the world in a set of musical numbers. Among the funniest: The Virgin Mary and Mrs. Gandhi bitch about the travails of motherhood -- because who but a mother cleans up after the miracle of the loaves and fishes? And what an embarrassment to have a grown son still in diapers! Presented by Playwright Theatre through January 27, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 303-499-0383, www.playwrighttheatre.com. Reviewed October 19.
Crazy for You. George and Ira Gershwin were, without question, two of the most brilliant tune-meisters of American musical comedy, and in the early 1990s, playwright Ken Ludwig got the bright idea of writing a "new" Gershwin musical. He took familiar 1930s plot elements and created a knowing, affectionate book that both satirizes and pays homage to the musical-comedy genre. And then he grabbed fistfuls of those bloodstream-quickening Gershwin songs and scattered them like jewels along the story's path. Artistic director Michael J. Duran danced in the critically praised 1992 Broadway production of Crazy for You, and he re-creates some of Susan Stroman's choreographic magic here, including the long number that ends the first act and features all kinds of inventive movement as well as axes, hammers and human bodies used as musical instruments. Scott Beyette is a lithe, leaping, tapping wonder as Bobby, whose mother wants him to enter the family business but whose own ambition is to dance. Alicia Dunfee is an unexpected ingenue, perhaps a bit too experienced for Polly and less light on her feet than partner Beyette, but she brings her customary warmth and presence to the role. The voices are fine, and the cast and musicians talented and so enthusiastic that they simply sweep you into the fun. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through March 3, 2007, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed November 23.
Paul Robeson. Phillip Hayes Dean's Paul Robeson is a one-man play with all the limitations of its genre: It's a little static; it requires one actor to hold the stage for well over two hours; it's not a warts-and-all biography, but purely hagiographic. Nonetheless, this is a wonderful evening of theater, and the Mercury Cafe is the perfect venue for it. If any American ever deserved to be venerated, it's Paul Robeson -- for his intellect, artistry, athleticism and, most of all, for the passion for justice that burned through his actions. At the play's beginning, 75-year-old Robeson is preparing a tape to send to an event being held at Carnegie Hall in his honor. We learn about Robeson's difficulties with racism while a student at Rutgers; he eventually became a part of the Harlem Renaissance, performing in Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones. The musical Showboat took him to London, where he found a culture more congenial than his own. In America, he was "an exotic," he says, while in England, "I am considered an actor, an athlete and, most important, a scholar." Robeson eventually returned to America and played Othello on Broadway, but he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 and blacklisted. Russell Costen's performance in the central role at Shadow Theatre Company won a Westword Best of Denver Award for 2004, and he'll be back on stage at the Mercury. He finds Robeson's gravitas, his measured vocal cadences, the occasional deep rumble in the bass; invisible characters sometimes inhabit the stage, and Costen makes them real, giving us the voices of a New York secretary, an English aristocrat, a German Jew. His is not only a highly skilled performance, but a generous and open-hearted act of tribute. Presented by the Mercury Cafe through January 21, 2199 California Street, 303-294-9281, www.mercurycafe.com/calendar.html.
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Phantom. I like this Phantom, by Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston, better than Andrew Lloyd Webber's more well-known version. The plot remains pure Victoriana, a mix of Gothic and Grand Guignol, but it seems less empty, placing more focus on the Phantom's inner life, and gives a more plausible explanation of his love for the beautiful singer Christine. Yeston's lyrics are uninspired, but his music -- a seamless mix of opera, music hall and musical-comedy rhythms and melodies -- is fluid and sometimes beautiful, from the pure joy of "As You Would Love Paree" to the tender strains of "You Are Music." Country Dinner Playhouse does an admirable job with this piece. Randy St. Pierre is a strong Phantom; as Christine, Tracy Venner-Warren has a good singing voice and turns in a polished performance. Dee Etta Rowe, playing the vengeful diva La Carlotta, pounces on every scene she enters and carries it off squealing between her teeth. But perhaps the best performance is that of Craig Lundquist, as an outwardly calm Carriere whose tamped-down passion is finally released in a full-throated baritone when he sings "You Are My Own." Presented by Country Dinner Playhouse through January 14, 6875 South Clinton Street, Greenwood Village, 303-799-1410, www.countrydinnerplayhouse.com. Reviewed November 2.