All's Well That Ends Well. This play isn't Shakespeare's best: It lacks the usual poetry and insight, and the plot is highly problematic. Helena, one of those smart, resourceful, charming heroines we've seen in other Shakespearean comedies, is in love with Bertram, son of the Countess who raised her, but the man has nothing to recommend him. He's mean-spirited, callous, dishonest and a womanizer — and besides, he doesn't even like Helena. When she cures the King of France of an illness, he gives her Bertram as a reward, telling the sulky youth to choose between Helena and death. This All's Well That Ends Well is worth seeing, however, if only for Sean Tarrant's performance as Paroles and Randy Moore's wry old Lafew. If the entire production were up to their standard, it might be possible to see this infuriatingly difficult play in an entirely new light. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 17, Mainstage Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed August 9.
Around the World in 80 Days. The Victorians became increasingly fascinated with stories of adventure as technological advances in travel made their world smaller and more accessible. It didn't hurt that so much of that world map was colored an imperial red. In his famous novel Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne makes fun of the British, creating in Phileas Fogg the kind of imperturbable Englishman who ventures into foreign lands with no concern for local tradition or custom, taking his tea and kippers wherever he goes. Fogg makes a bet at his gentleman's club that he can circumnavigate the globe in eighty days. He's accompanied on his journey by Passepartout, a Frenchman as acrobatic, voluble and emotional as Fogg is stiff and inexpressive. The two are followed by a Scotland Yard detective who mistakenly believes that Fogg is a thief, and they encounter many adventures, most notably rescuing Aouda, a beautiful Indian woman who's about to be set ablaze on her husband's funeral pyre. Unfortunately, the staged version is static. Over and over again, some character or other (five actors play dozens of roles) explains where the travelers are and what has just happened. The moments that work best are those when something is actually happening on the stage: the ingenious creation of an elephant from a variety of props, for instance, and the dazzling scene when Passepartout rescues the unconscious Aouda. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 18, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado, Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed July 5.
Cendrillon. This Central City Opera production is a visual feast. The costumes combine charming empire lines with the crooked, cunning shapes we associate with fairy tales. The sets are sophisticated. Director Marc Astafan has done his part, too, creating graceful dances and eye-pleasing character groupings. And all of these shapes, tones and colors are beautifully coordinated. But none of it would matter if the music weren't lovely — operatic set pieces, charming melodies, an occasional church chime that echoes the Fairy Godmother's gliding coloratura — and if the voices weren't as gorgeous as the design. Leah Wool makes Cendrillon a far warmer-blooded creature than Disney's blank-faced, artificially feisty Cinderella, and her rich, full singing voice sounds equally beautiful solo, paired with the fine tenor of Vale Rideout, who plays Prince Charming, or blending with Heather Buck's ethereal notes as the Fairy Godmother. There's enough solidity here to prevent the production from flying off into unmoored whimsy, enough humor to offset the pathos, enough style to keep the farcical elements contained. Nothing is overdone, but everything is done fully, and the result is an almost unadulterated delight. Presented by Central City Opera through August 19, 303-292-6700, www.centralcityopera.org. Reviewed August 2.
Julius Caesar. Cynthia Croot's direction amplifies the problems of the script but also provides small moments of revelation. She's set the action in "a fictional Rome several years from now," which means she can do just about anything she wants: costumes of no particular period; an intrusive pile of junk stage left that serves no purpose whatever. The Soothsayer wanders around in a peculiar white costume and futuristic headgear; a dead deer, presumably the animal Caesar's servants slaughtered in order to read the future in its entrails, is hung up on the stage, head lolling. Caesar's corpse is wrapped in a shower curtain. Or perhaps it's a dry-cleaning bag. Croot even has the actors freeze at the moment of the attack on Caesar while one of them announces intermission. Some of the ideas work. Bob Buckley makes Julius Caesar a corporate type: brisk, practical and unimaginative. Richard Thieriot's Marc Antony manifests none of the charisma we associate with the role. When he enters the Capitol to view Caesar's body, he's a sheepish nerd, shifting from foot to foot, flashing appeasing grins at the bloody-handed men surrounding him; he mutes the poetry and passion of the great speeches. And Cassius is played by a woman, which helps us reimagine the play but ultimately throws it off-kilter. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 18, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado, Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed August. 2.
La Traviata. There's a reason this tale about the doomed love between a consumptive courtesan and an aristocrat is one of the world's most frequently performed. It's gorgeous, filled with luscious songs and expressive arias, full of pulsating emotion. But hearing La Traviata at the Central City Opera House is a particular treat: The place is small and well-constructed, so there's no need for amplification and nothing to impede sound. Jennifer Casey Cabot, who sings Violetta, has range, fluidity and an effortless coloratura. She's also a fine actress. Cabot is well supported by Chad Shelton as Alfredo Germont and Grant Youngblood as Germont's father, Giorgio. Director Justin Way emphasizes story and character, while conductor Martin Andre provides eloquent and fluid pacing. Though the tale is ultimately tragic, its movement provides the kind of sensual joy you feel when a particularly rich piece of chocolate dissolves in your mouth — but there's no cloying aftertaste, just one sweet, pure, clean sensation following another. Presented by Central City Opera through August 16, 124 Eureka Street, Central City, 303-292-6700. www.centralcityopera.org. Reviewed July 19.
A Midsummer Night's Dream. The action in A Midsummer Night's Dream is framed by a wedding ceremony between Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and his warrior queen, Hippolyta. We watch a group of working stiffs rehearse a celebratory play for the couple, urged on by the irrepressible Nick Bottom. Four young people disappear into the forest: Hermia and Lysander, who have been forbidden to marry by Hermia's father; Helena, trundling after Lysander, whom she loves; and Demetrius, Hermia's spurned suitor. The forest is ruled by the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, who happen to be feuding. Within this magical, oneiric place, realities dissolve and the lovers are bamboozled by Oberon and his trickster fairy Puck into losing track of their original alliances and switching partners again and again. Meanwhile, Oberon has arranged for Titania to fall in love with Bottom. Not only that, but he's replaced Bottom's head with that of an ass. The interrelated themes are that love is crazy and lovers blind, that we all live in a world of illusion, and that theater itself mirrors this shifting, upside-down world. Director Gavin Cameron-Webb gets all this. His set, a stage within the Mary Rippon stage, is simple, elegant and workable. The actors own the words they speak, and as a result, you hear the lines clearly. Once that happens, any Shakespeare production is halfway home — particularly this one, with its melting poetry. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 18, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado, Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed July 5.
The Servant of Two Masters. Carlo Goldoni created the scenario behind The Servant of Two Masters in 1745 for a famed commedia dell'arte troupe, and eventually wrote down a script that's primarily pure silliness. This is the story of Truffaldino, servant to Beatrice, who is traveling dressed as her own brother after the latter's death at the hands of her lover, Florindo. She has come to Venice to persuade the father of her brother's betrothed, Clarice, to give her Clarice's dowry, which she will use to reunite with Florindo. When Florindo turns up in Venice, unaware that Beatrice is there or that she's in disguise, Truffaldino offers to become his servant, too, reasoning that two masters will mean double pay for him and twice as much food. Naturally, all kinds of confusion follows, with letters, money and challenges flying, usually delivered to the wrong recipient. There are contemporary references scattered throughout director Scott Schwartz's production, and while the costumes are gaudily eighteenth-century, they're accessorized with things like modern high-tops. All of the acting is broad and farcical, punctuated with many bits and shticks. Some of these seem trite, but others are very funny. In all, this makes for a pleasant-enough diversion. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 18, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado, Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed July 12.
Sista's and Storytellers. This is not a play, and it's not exactly a cabaret act, either. It's sort of a cross between a slumber party and a church service, as a group of women who sang together as children in a choir called the Heavenly Voices come together for a reunion. They drink a little, nibble a little, discuss their romances and discover that friendship is a great healer. And also that any support friends can't provide will be supplied by Jesus Christ. The dialogue is vague and general, the tech minimal and the acting broad, but the evening is filled with music and song, and the voices of the six performers — though distorted and overmiked — provide every reason you'll ever need for a trek to the theater. Presented by the Black Box in the New Denver Civic Theatre, Thursdays through August 30, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 303-309-3773, www.sistasandstorytellers.com. Reviewed June 14.
The Sound of Music. Even in this excellent production, The Sound of Music remains pure treacle, with one-dimensional characters, an unconvincing plot and an oddly sugary view of the rise of Nazism. Some of the songs are very pretty — the title song, for instance, as well as "Climb Every Mountain," "I Must Have Done Something Good" and the nuns' beautiful chants. But it doesn't help that they're so over-familiar, and that other numbers , "My Favorite Things," "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," "So Long, Farewell" — are just plain icky. Scott Beyette, who directs, has cast the show well, though, and there are many sweet and appealing voices. As for the necessary plethora of adorable children, each comes across as individual and interesting, and not one is cloying, self-conscious or too cute. If any production could make me like The Sound of Music, this is it. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through August 31, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com. Reviewed June 28.
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The Taffetas: A Musical Journey Through the Fabulous Fifties. With the figure of Senator Joseph McCarthy looming over the American landscape, the 1950s were anything but fabulous, as the full title of The Taffetas asserts. This is a pre-packaged, lightweight, no-calories, go-down-easy sort of production, a cheap-to-produce moneymaker with no artistic or intellectual ambitions. But putting all this aside is surprisingly easy to do. The costumes are perfect, the choreography appealing. The songs range from silly to interesting to really pretty, and — most important — the four women in the cast are charming and talented. According to what evanescent plot line there is, these women are sisters from Muncie, Indiana, who are performing on a television program in New York and hoping to snare a slot on The Ed Sullivan Show. The singing is punctuated by genuine television commercials of the era, including the rhythmically percolating coffeepot that sold America on Maxwell House. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through September 16, Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed June 21.
Too Old to Be Loud. Heritage Square is unlike any other dinner theater in the state — and possibly the nation. The facility itself debuted in the 1950s as Magic Mountain, a Disneyesque theme park with whimsical buildings based on Colorado architectural styles. In 1970, it was bought by the Woodmoor Corporation and reincarnated as Heritage Square; soon after, G. William Oakley opened the Heritage Square Opera House, which featured wickedly silly — yet oddly clever — melodramas. Current director T.J. Mullin took over in 1986 and shifted both the name and the focus, alternating hopped-up versions of classic stories with shows that are pretty much a medley of songs. Too Old to Be Loud is the sixth in a series based on an annual reunion in the Boylan High School gym, a thin plot line that serves as the excuse for this talented ensemble to offer some great rock and roll, hilarious sendups of pop stars and a rendition of the Beatles' "Yesterday," during which Mullin gets to reveal his surprisingly melodious tenor. Presented by Heritage Square Music Hall through October 14, 18301 West Colfax Avenue, Golden, 303-279-7800. www.hsmusichall.com. Reviewed July 12.
Urinetown, the Musical. Urinetown, a musical in which a money-grubbing corporation controls a population's right to relieve itself by charging exorbitant fees for the use of toilets, may not be as odd and daring as it once seemed, but it remains highly entertaining — cleverly written and filled with witty, hummable songs in several styles. The script is a send-up of Brecht and of the musical form itself, using self-referential techniques to keep the audience at an emotional distance and placing the character of Officer Lockstock, who's both villain and narrator, front and center. This PHAMALY production skillfully balances satire against genuine emotion, and there are many superb performances. Choreographers Debbie Stark and Cindy Bray have a miraculous way of turning the cast's physical problems, which range from spina bifida to Parkinson's disease, into eye-pleasing and expressive movement. And, of course, the PHAMALY gang humanizes the action just by virtue of who they are — people who understand physical problems and the difficulties of getting along in the world far more deeply than most of us. Presented by the Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League through August 19, the Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100. www.phamaly.org. Reviewed August 9.