La Cage Aux Folles. This is a big, splashy musical with lots of big, splashy song numbers. But unlike many such musicals, La Cage Aux Folles also has heart, humor and a good story to tell. In a time of intense mean-spiritedness and prejudice, it carries a message of tolerance and joy — and does so without preaching. Georges is a middle-aged homosexual who runs a transvestite club in St. Tropez. He lives in cozy, bourgeois domesticity with Albin, the club's temperamental star. Together the two men have raised Jean-Michel, the result of a long-ago one-night stand by Georges. Now a handsome young man, Jean-Michel is preparing to introduce his beloved to his parents. But this beloved is not only a woman, she's also the daughter of Edouardo Dindon, an extreme right-wing politician with designs on the presidency. Jean-Michel begs Georges and Albin not to reveal their homosexuality when the Dindons arrive for dinner. This results in a madly farcical flurry of scenes, and finally, after much yelling, celebration and cross-dressing — all punctuated with songs — a happy ending ensues. La Cage Aux Folles won a slew of awards when it opened on Broadway in 1983, and the 2004 revival won several more. Director Rod A. Lansberry's lavish production features a very strong cast, led by Michael E. Gold as Georges and Stephen Day as Albin, and all in all, it's a hell of a good time. Presented by the Arvada Center through December 23, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 720-898-7200, www.arvadacenter.org. Reviewed November 22.
The Diary of Anne Frank. The Denver Center Theatre Company has mounted Wendy Kesselman's rewritten version of The Diary of Anne Frank, the 1955 play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett that not only sugarcoated the horror that drove Anne into hiding and eventually destroyed her, but — in deference to the prejudices of the time — soft-pedaled the family's Jewishness in order to make the story more universal. Kesselman has restored some passages that reveal how central Anne's Jewishness was to her sense of herself, and she reminds the audience of the Nazi menace, incorporating the sounds of Allied bombing and shouting German voices into the action. But every time period has its own biases, and those of our culture show in Kesselman's revisions. She has made the Franks perhaps a touch more observant than they actually were, and added moments as sentimental as anything the 1950s could come up with. Anne and her mother arrive at a tear-saturated reconciliation. The relationship between Anne and Peter — shorn of all its magic, awkwardness, ambivalence and eccentricity —- climaxes like a scene in a Hollywood movie: Peter summons up the courage to give Anne an awkward peck on the cheek, and she responds by kissing him full on the mouth. And almost every line that isn't a direct quote from Anne's diary sounds tendentious or uninspired. Overall, this feels less like a piece of theater than an instructive after-school special. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through December 15, the Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed November 22.
For Better. Karen has just become engaged to Max. She's met him face-to-face only once, but they've conducted a three-month relationship via cell-phone conversations, texting and instant messaging. Everyone in Karen's small circle —- sister Francine, brother-in-law Michael, old friend Stuart (who's secretly in love with her) and Francine's best friend, Lizzie — communicates (or miscommunicates) in the same way. No one is ever actually in the same room with anyone else. The exception is dear old Dad, who's just as much in thrall to technology as the rest but hasn't gotten past the glued-to-the-television-screen-for-Kojak-reruns phase. The idea that current forms of communication affect our relationships in profound and unpredictable ways isn't new, but playwright Eric Coble has crafted some wonderfully farcical scenes in which his characters perform like sections of a wildly drunken choir or the bobbing objects in a fairground shooting gallery. But when he tries to get serious, he falters. By the play's end, Coble wants us to feel for these people, and things get cloying. Francine and Michael are much more amusing when he's telling her "You are not the most ant-free picnic, you know," than when they're coyly feeding each other bits of cookie. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through December 15, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed November 8.
Pride and Prejudice
The 1940's Radio Christmas Carol. For a while, as radio manager Clifton Feddington pitches us questions, hustles his performers and generally works to keep things on track, you can't help wondering just why you're watching this show. Clearly, it's supposed to be a slice of life, as awkward, desultory and filled with non sequiturs as life itself often seems, but in the theater, even desultoriness needs to be animated by an underlying sense of purpose, or at least incipient purpose. The precursor to this show is The 1940's Radio Hour, which is held aloft by a wonderful sequence of 1940s songs. This play lacks music, relying on mild jokes and the interactions among radio personnel as they present their own version of A Christmas Carol, but we never really learn anything about these people. Still, there are several appealing performances, particularly that of Niccole Carner, who has a compelling presence and the most charming dimples imaginable. And while The 1940's Radio Christmas Carol isn't exactly a smash, it does create a sweetly Christmasy sense of peace and community. Presented by Bas Bleu Theatre Company through December 30, 401 Pine Street, Fort Collins, 1-970-498-8949, www.basbleu.org. Reviewed November 22.
The 1940's Radio Hour. There's not much dialogue in this sweetly nostalgic musical revue, just ballads, novelty songs, swinging little numbers and Christmas favorites interspersed with comic routines and inadvertently comic commercials. The setting is a shabby radio station in 1942, when America was united behind what was almost universally considered a just war, and radio was the country's voice. Soldiers stationed overseas listened to programs like these; folks at home sent their thoughts out to these young men over the airwaves. There are bits of story. You can see that lovely lead singer Ann has something going with drunken, Dean Martin-style crooner Johnny Cantone. Obviously up-and-coming youngster BJ Gibson is fascinated by perky little Connie, and she reciprocates. Biff is off to war after the show, and everyone's wondering if he'll come back. But these aren't story lines you follow, just evocative moments that bob to the surface and sink under again. The 1940's Radio Hour is an excellent showcase for the talents of the Boulder's Dinner Theater troupe. Neal Dunfee's fine orchestra, usually hidden from the audience, is right there on stage, and the players become part of the action. Pursing her improbably heart-shaped lips and chugging soda at every opportunity, Joanie Brosseau-Beyette is full of infectious excitement. Scott Beyette unleashes his inner comic in a couple of very funny routines, complete with mangled words and dropped pants. Wayne Kennedy gives another of his appealing, low-key performances as caretaker Pops; Alicia Dunfee is in her element as slow-thinking, gum-chewing, would-be sexpot Ginger. If you're dreading the sentimentality, forced humor or relentless cheeriness of the usual Christmas offerings, this melodic, quietly charming piece may be just what you need. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through January 26, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed November 15.
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Plaid Tidings. Perhaps there's a kind of thespian hell, in which actors who are clearly capable of so much more are stuck forever in stale shows as punishment for being bad in some way. If so, this production definitely qualifies. The four performers, while very different from one another, are all talented. James E. Bullard is the boy next door, open-faced and lively; Alan Swadener comes across as charmingly awkward and possesses a very pleasant tenor. Scott Ahearn is energetic and highly versatile: He can tap and play the piano, and has a strong on-stage presence as well as a powerful voice. Joseph Torello comes across as shortsighted and bookish, and his bass notes are amazing. The men's voices marry so well, and their sense of rhythm and harmony is so pleasing, I'd have been quite happy to spend an evening listening to them singing Christmas carols and songs, particularly since the accompaniment consists solely of a piano and a bass, so the singers aren't overwhelmed by a large orchestra. But no. Instead, Sparky, Frankie, Jinx and Smudge have been brought back to earth after dying in a car accident, and although they offer up pieces of well-loved songs, these pieces are often welded together into arrangements that are pointless and annoying. Besides, the plot and the gags are so dumb, obtuse and white-bread, the audience participation sections so manipulative and the sentimentality of the show so calculated that it's simply impossible to lose yourself in the music. Presented by the Arvada Center through December 23, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 720-898-7200, www.arvadacenter.org. Reviewed November 22.
Pride and Prejudice. To turn Jane Austen's novel into a play, writer Jon Jory chose an approach somewhat reminiscent of reader's theater. At the Denver Center, the story of the vulgar Mrs. Bennet's attempt to marry off her five daughters, and how witty, spirited Elizabeth and her good-hearted sister Jane find love despite all, is told on an almost bare stage, with two-dimensional-feeling scenery. In the book, depth and context are supplied by the voice of the author-narrator, and one of its great delights is the sense that beneath the elaborate social veneer, passionate human hearts are beating. But Nisi Sturges, who plays Elizabeth, tends to be an external actress, and her Mr. Darcy has very little to do or say; he's confined to standing around watching the others, or listening while Lizzie scolds him. There's no sensuality in either portrayal, and you never feel for a minute that these two are fighting a strong attraction toward each other. The same can be said for Jane and her beloved, Bingley. Adding to the artificiality, some of the roles are double-cast — including the central part of Bingley, and it's distracting to see the same actor pop up later as Bingley's cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through December 15, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed December 6.
Starship Troy: Fame. By 8 p.m. the place is jammed. The audience looks young, some as young as high--schoolers, others in college; there are couples, gay and straight, and a scattering of older folk. Starship Troy is one of Buntport's informal efforts to create cheap, fun, accessible theater. It is a dramatized cartoon, each episode lasting about 45 minutes. The premise: A dump truck orbits space on a mission to clean things up. Its addled crew includes all the usual Buntport suspects: Erik Edborg, who for some reason has dryer-duct tubing sticking out of his front and who cuddles a white stuffed animal; cynical Hannah Duggan; Erin Rollman as an expressionless android (watching Rollman trying to remain expressionless is a comic feast); half-ape Brian Colonna; and Evan Weissman as something, well, something epicene and highly sexualized. An audience member volunteers as Ensign McCoy, who — in a tribute to South Park's Kenny, and perhaps to the Goon Show's Bluebottle before him ("You have deaded me again!") — gets killed in every show. This is throwaway theater in the best sense. If a line thuds to earth, no matter; it's gone as soon as it's said. If a piece of business is pure brilliance — too bad! It'll never be seen again, either. But what the hell, there's always another episode. Presented by Buntport Theater every Tuesday and Wednesday through May, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com. Reviewed November 15.
White Christmas. This production has its origins in Irving Berlin's patriotic music, post-World War II euphoria, and a cultural-artistic worldview that saw all military officers as bluff, benign father figures, and postulated that most of life's problems could be fixed by putting on a show in the barn. The 1954 film, despite Irving Berlin's wonderful songs and the star power of Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera Allen and Rosemary Clooney, is almost unwatchable today. This script is by Paul Blake of the St. Louis Municipal Opera and — surprisingly — David Ives, author of the verbally dexterous, hyper-clever set of one-acts called All in the Timing. Although the script tightens the movie's plot a bit, it remains silly and insubstantial: A couple of cynical song-and-dance guys fall in love with a pair of singing sisters; misunderstandings ensue and get resolved; everyone comes together at the end to help the men's beloved onetime Army commander, who's trying without success to keep a Vermont inn solvent, despite an unseasonal shortage of snow. This production is glitzy and practiced, and it doesn't achieve its desired effect until the end of the first act, when the cast joins forces for "Blue Skies," one of the most exuberant songs in the universe. Act two begins on an equal high with "I Love a Piano" — another breathtaking number, beautifully choreographed by Patti Colombo, in which male and female tappers join forces in a joyful and prolonged celebration of music and dance. If you're willing to put the reasoning part of your brain to sleep for a couple of hours and indulge in pink-tinged Christmas nostalgia, this is the show for you. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company and Denver Center Attractions through December 30, Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed December 6.