The Baseball Show. Evil, malaprop-prone Vincent Vascombe, owner of the Beloit Bulldogs, is determined to hold on to his star player, Bill "The Bomber" Dawson. But Dawson -- aided by his smart, competent fiancée, Helen -- has plans for the majors, and there's a talent scout hanging around. So Vascombe hatches a plot to kidnap Helen, hoping this will throw Dawson off his game. Vascombe can barely speak a word without mangling it -- "Let me induce myself"; "for a stifling fee"; "a talent for stating the oblivious" -- and T.J. Mullin delivers the dialogue with his usual low-key and unflappable aplomb. Most of the other characters find his speech impenetrable; the only person who can translate is the hired muscle, Sid -- as played by Alex Crawford, a wry, peaceful sort of fellow who prefers minding his own business to breaking bones for the boss. Annie Dwyer is irresistible as Vascombe's moll, Rose Louise Romberg; variously bewigged, a crazed amalgam of tough broad and breathy Marilyn Monroe, pouncing and preening, she owns the stage every time she sashays onto it. This show is one of Heritage's best -- for its good humor, flying Nerf balls and the fun, fast musical medley that concludes the evening. Presented by Heritage Square Music Hall through May 18, 18301 West Colfax Avenue, Golden, 303-279-7800, www.hsmusichall.com. Reviewed March 13.
Gee's Bend. There is one intensely effective passage in Elyzabeth Wilder's play about the quilters of Gee's Bend, a remote region of Alabama. Against her husband's wishes, Sadie has gone to Selma to march with Martin Luther King Jr. She returns, bloodied and half blinded by tear gas, to find that her husband has locked her out of the house. He remains seated in the half dark while she beats on the door and begs him to let her in; the scene is accompanied by the mournful strains of a beautifully sung spiritual. But this is the highlight of what is essentially a banal and emotionally manipulative play — one that should have been much, much better, because the story of Gee's Bend and the women who created its famed quilts is a fascinating one. Wilder, who was commissioned to write Gee's Bend by Denver Center artistic director Kent Thompson, based the play on conversations with the quilters, and says she used their words. Still, it's hard to believe these women were always as stereotypically wise, noble, long-suffering or cutely funny as she shows them to be. It doesn't help that director Kent Gash has his actors work in a twinkly-eyed, over-energetic style, or that he seems as keen as the author to make sure we understand that everything we're seeing — absolutely everything — is freighted with profound meaning and symbolism. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 19, Space Theatre, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 3.
The Last Five Years. This intimate two-person musical involves the breakup of a marriage. When Jamie and Cathy met in New York, he was an aspiring writer and she an actress. Success came for him fast, while she continued to inhabit the dreary, ego-pummeling world of auditions and summer stock — with predictable results for their relationship. The songs — solos, with one exception — reveal a triumphant Jamie noticing his effect on other women and fighting the desire to utilize it, with a sulky Cathy refusing to attend his publishing party. He resents her neediness and insecurity, she his arrogance and self-involvement. Playwright Jason Robert Brown has hit on an interesting device to make this relatively commonplace story more poignant and more complex: While Jamie relates events as they happened, Cathy reveals them backwards. At the very beginning, she weeps over Jamie's goodbye letter, and minutes later, he erupts onto the scene singing rapturously about the "shiksa goddess" he's just met. Chris Crouch and Shannan Steele are both terrific performers, brimming with energy, poised and charismatic, possessed of lovely, expressive voices. Crouch makes Jamie real and funny and quirky, and Steele is often touching as Cathy — though I wish both would avoid that awful, dissolving-into-self-pitying-tears style that's come to dominate singing in musicals these days. Still, this is an emotionally exuberant production, staged in a smooth, comfortable style, and enjoyable even though it's far from thought-provoking. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through June 29 at the Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 14.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Lieutenant of Inishmore. The bloody action begins with a dead cat belonging to Padraic, a crazed killer who was kicked out of the IRA and formed a splinter group, the Irish National Liberation Army, in response. Terrified of Padraic's violent temper, his father, Donny, tries to persuade an epicene young neighbor, Davey, to admit he killed the animal. Even as they debate, Padraic is busy torturing a drug dealer; he interrupts his work to take their call on his mobile. Plot complications include the machinations of three other INLA members who have turned against Padraic, and the coming to sexual maturity of Davey's psychotic sister, Mairead, who likes to fondle guns and sing Republican songs, and who has been honing her revolutionary edge by shooting out the eyes of local cows. There's nothing scattershot about the way the script is constructed; it's tight and clean, and the dialogue startles you into open-throated laughter again and again. What makes the play so funny is the contrasts it presents -- between high-minded rants about a free Ireland and the pettiness of the men's violence, between Padraic's sadism and the blubbering sentimentality that has him seated on the ground weeping for his cat while his torture victim dangles beside him. Chip Walton's direction couldn't be better; all of the action is fully realized and meticulously timed, and he's assembled an excellent cast. Gene Gillette is mesmerizing as Padraic, as steely and scary as he is ridiculous. Anthony Powell and Matt Zambrano anchor the action as Donny and Davey, respectively, Powell with cringing resignation, Zambrano making Davey a gnome in a shiny, feminine wig. With her long-legged stride and red hair, Laura Jo Trexler is a striking Mairead, and there are stellar performances from Steven Cole Hughes, Geoffrey Kent and Michael Morgan. Thomas the Cat plays Wee Thomas the cat with a wide-eyed aplomb that brings down the house. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through April 19, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed March 13.
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Little Shop of Horrors. This show began in 1960 as a seventy-minute black-and-white movie, featuring Jack Nicholson in a small role and shot by director Roger Corman in two days. In 1982, the musical Little Shop of Horrors opened off Broadway, where it ran for five years. In 1986 it was made into a second film, with Steve Martin giving a brilliant performance as Orin, the sadistic, black-leather-clad dentist. A big reason for Little Shop's success is Alan Menken's catchy, rhythmic music, much of it a takeoff on the hits of such 1950s girl groups as the Chiffons, Crystals and Ronettes — and in fact, the trio of vocalists who accompany much of the action are named Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette. There's also the brilliantly spoofy central conceit: An alien embodied in a cannibalistic plant is determined to proliferate and consume the human race. To do this, he employs the unwitting services of Seymour, an innocent nerd employed in a skid-row florist shop. Seymour is in love with comely blond shop assistant Audrey, but she's been claimed by Orin and is afraid to leave him. As the tiny plant he discovered in an alley reveals its murderous nature to him, Seymour is confronted with a Faustian dilemma: The plant can help him win wealth, fame and Audrey — but only if he feeds its insatiable appetite for blood. Boulder's Dinner Theatre does a great job of capturing the show's lighthearted, capering energy. The costumes are witty, the set well designed and the orchestra's sound infectiously effervescent. But it's the actors who give a show its soul, and there are several good ones here, foremost among them strong-voiced Brandon Dill as Seymour. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through May 3, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com. Reviewed February 21.
The Merry Wives of Windsor. This is a bawdy comedy, filled with the kinds of jokes that Elizabethans found irresistible but often leave the rest of us scratching our heads — mispronounced words and weird accents, miscues, misidentifications and misunderstandings, the administration of sound thumpings, lots of talk about horns and cuckoldry. Rather than the cunning, cowardly and hilarious knight of the history plays, Sir John Falstaff is nothing but a fat, cash-strapped lecher, who decides to replenish his coffers by wooing two well-to-do — and entirely faithful — wives. The women learn of his intentions and embark on a sustained campaign to humiliate him. Around these people swirl a clique of peculiar characters of various types and regions. Director David Ivers somehow makes this minor play not only funny but elegant, seamlessly marrying the script's punning and dated Elizabethan humor to the bright optimism of the era of flappers and growing female independence — and clarifying both the action and the language in the process. There's joy and reconciliation at the end, including a coupling provided by Ivers rather than Shakespeare that puts a heart-cheering cap on a satisfying evening. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 19, the Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 10.
Oleanna. This play is about language, learning and the mysteries at the heart of education; it's also about the ever-shifting power between teacher and pupil, woman and man. Written about a year after the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill imbroglio, Oleanna is also a furious, misogynistic response to feminism, although its two antagonists are equally loathsome and, by the end, both have revealed the depths of their own depravity. At the start, Carol, the student, is in the office of John, her professor, because she doesn't understand his lectures. John is distracted, exulting in the recommendation he's just received for tenure, negotiating the purchase of a new house on the phone. He and Carol toss staccato, Mamet-style half-sentences past each other. Neither listens, and every time one of them seems about to pay attention, the ringing phone interrupts their dialogue. In the second act, we learn that Carol, with the help of a cult-like entity she calls her "group," has come to the conclusion that she's been sexually harassed by John, and has launched a campaign to destroy him. The more frantic he grows, the more vicious she becomes, and the more overblown her account of what originally happened between them, until finally the young woman who'd at first seemed so thick and inarticulate is pointing her finger and orating like a windbag politician. Although Oleanna doesn't provide much insight into sexual politics, it does provide entertainment — intellectual entertainment, because the writing is so sharp and swift, and the cheaper, more visceral entertainment we get from watching contestants in reality shows try to destroy each other. Presented by Avenue Theater through April 19, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, www.avenuetheater.com. Reviewed April 10.
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.