The Denver Project. Created by Steven Sapp and Mildred Ruiz of New York's UNIVERSES, this is an attempt to bring the realities of life on the streets to us, the well-fed patrons of Curious, to show that the homeless constitute a society and culture of their own, one that abuts our everyday world but that we rarely see. The play tells us that homeless people are as varied as any other group — some kindly, thoughtful and protective, others willing to kill a fellow transient for his meager belongings. The play both succeeds and fails in this mission. The successful elements include the innovative use of song, music and rhythm, beginning with an astonishing intro consisting almost entirely of snuffling, hawking and spitting as several homeless people slowly wake up under a bridge. The characters don't attempt to persuade us; they don't posture, whine or apologize, and they have nothing to say about the kinds of arguments polite society usually raises. They just carry on with their lives. If we're moved to empathy, it's less because we identify with any individual character than because we've become engulfed in their reality, a world where choices are few — and almost all of them bad. Tyee Tilghman's performance is a triumph. He plays a hardened street person attempting to help Skully, a violent, troubled teenager (played with effective straightforwardness and honesty by Akil LuQman), and he does it with toughness and heart. But the moral lesson at the center of the play is a little too pat, and some of the dialogue is stereotypical — the country club guy, for instance, who voices all the usual smug cliches about homelessness, the social worker who harangues us about the unacceptability of poverty. Still, Curious has made a gutsy attempt to confront a problem most of us would prefer not to see. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through June 21, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed May 22.
Dinah Was. The story opens with Dinah Washington, at the height of her fame, arriving at the Sahara in Las Vegas for a show. Though the manager expects her to fill the house, he refuses to give her a room at the hotel, insisting that she stay in the trailer he's prepared for her in the back. Furious, Dinah strips off her fur coat to reveal that she's wearing only a slip underneath, plunks herself down on her suitcases in the middle of the lobby, fishes out a hip flask and proceeds to get drunk, ignoring all arguments, threats and entreaties. Then the action flashes back to show her life, and we watch the star become increasingly drug- and booze-addled, sympathizing with her frustration at being told to stick with rhythm and blues and to tone down her act for television, recoiling from her self-pity and self-destructiveness. There are moving scenes and some wonderful lines — "I can sound whiter than Pat Boone's behind," Dinah says at one point — but the script rambles and repeats, and the characters are stereotypical. And while most of the acting is solid, director Jeffrey Nickelson has allowed a couple of performers to hugely overplay their roles. None of this matters, though, because jazz singer René Marie, who plays Dinah, is a phenomenon, a woman with a strong, humorous presence and a glorious voice. When she sings, you forget you're watching a play and simply lose yourself in the emotion and energy of the moment. Presented by Shadow Theatre Company through May 24, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, 720-857-8002, 866-388-4TIX, www.shadowtheatre.com. Reviewed May 1.
Sight Unseen. Donald Margulies's play opens with a house in the English countryside — but this is no cozy cottage surrounded by green, sheep-dotted fields. This is a gray, damp world inhabited by Patricia, an American expatriate, and her British husband, Nick, whom she married on the rebound and won't allow to touch her. Both are surly and miserable; archaeologists, they also show a remarkable lack of interest in their work. The action begins with the entry of Jonathan, a Jewish artist who's the flavor du jour in New York — famous, lionized, able to command huge sums of money for his works, even before he's painted them. Jonathan happens to be Patricia's first, last and only love, and having come to London for an art-show opening, he's looking her up. Naturally, Nick doesn't like this; Jonathan's presence inspires him to a most un-English display of nastiness. Between Patricia's barely suppressed anger and her husband's rudeness, you can't figure out why Jonathan doesn't just leave. Worse is in store at a London art gallery, where Jonathan is interviewed by a German writer, Grete, who hits him with a couple of "gotcha" questions. Throughout Sight Unseen, there's a fair amount of talk about art and truth, the meaning of success, the relationship between an artist and his work and a portrait Jonathan painted of Patricia at the very beginning of their relationship that he now sees as pivotal to his development. None of the characters is particularly likable, and though the cast is competent, the performances aren't good enough to save this dour play. Presented by Paragon Theatre through May 31, Crossroads Theater, 2590 Washington Street, 303-300-2210, www.paragpn.org. Reviewed May 15.
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.
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