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.
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.
Side Show. Amid the thunderous chords of the first number, "Come Look at the Freaks," the Phamaly cast assembles, singing and forming a ragged circle at the perimeter of the stage. They're looking at you, calmly assessing: you, sitting comfortably in your plush seat, you whose muscles move smoothly over bone, whose voice emerges from your throat uncracked, and whose body responds unhesitatingly to your barely conscious demands. Perhaps it's you who's the freak, their varied expressions seem to say, because of what you don't know, and the blind, heedless way you barrel through your life, complaining when the bus is late or your coffee's a little bitter. Enter two beautiful young women in flaxen wigs sharing a wheelchair. Side Show tells the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, real-life conjoined twins born in 1908 who gained fame as vaudeville performers, and it really resonates here because all of the Phamaly actors are disabled. The script rescues the sisters from a freak show, and they're set on the road to fame by Terry and Buddy, a couple of impresarios. Daisy, who longs for recognition, falls in love with Terry, and Violet with his friend, but complications arise as the two men contemplate the complexities of a relationship in which moments alone with your beloved are simply not possible. If you take away the fact that the protagonists are conjoined twins, the plot is pretty conventional: Attractive young women find fame, but love remains elusive. Many of the songs are conventional, too, although some of them really pop. Steve Wilson has mounted a first-rate and exhilarating production, but this is far more than a regular evening of theater. It tells us something about how we live together on this earth we share, and just what it means to be human. Presented by Phamaly through June 29, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100; www.phamaly.org. Reviewed June 12.
3 Mo' Divas. This production began with producer Marion J. Caffey's response to the Three Tenors concerts. Knowing how rarely black male singers were cast as opera leads, he created an evening of song called Three Mo' Tenors. For 3 Mo' Divas, which he put together in 2006, he wanted to find singers who were equally at home with opera, Broadway musicals, jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, soul, rock and even disco. In Nova Y. Payton, Laurice Lanier and Jamet Pittman, he hit the jackpot. Payton's phrasing is original, and her voice is a wonder in terms of both sound and versatility; she can come up with the kind of chiming, bell-like head voice we associate with Nell Carter, backing it with chest-deep power, and she can also make her soprano spiral off into branching tendrils, ethereal as daffodil down and sweet as spun sugar. Pittman has a smooth, sure soprano, and Lanier a mezzo soprano so rich and strong that it sometimes feels as if she's channeling emotion from the very bowels of the earth. When she sings "Strange Fruit" — a soul-searing rendition artfully married to Miguel Sandoval's "Lament," with Pittman producing swooping arcs of pure, crystalline sound to circle Lanier's aching chords of lamentation — she speaks to the deepest part of the American soul, the part where good and evil vie for ascendancy, and where we face the darkness, gleaming sorrow and shameful violence of our collective past. There's no plot to this evening of theater, no theme expressed in the choice of songs and no obvious sequence, just three women wearing gorgeous costumes and singing on an elegant art-deco set, accompanied by pianist-director Annastasia Victory and a talented seven-member band. The material includes everything from Puccini to "Defying Gravity," from the syrupy score of Wicked, to "Little Shop of Horrors" and Ragtime's "Your Daddy's Son," as well as "God Bless the Child," "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" and a lovely rendition of "Everything Must Change," for which Pittman accompanies herself on the piano. It seems a bit silly, these amazing ladies singing pop and disco — like Einstein filling teeth or a mountain lion doing stupid pet tricks — but it is fun watching them shake their fingers and warn us, "My Boyfriend's Back." Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through June 29, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed June 5.
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The Will Rogers Follies. This musical, which premiered in 1991, gives us Will Rogers's life in a series of Ziegfeld-style acts, supposedly being performed in the present time: over-the-top musical numbers featuring lots of leggy showgirls, monologues and family scenes, all reshuffled and redirected at will by the intrusive voice of an unseen Florenz Ziegfeld. The format allows the action to go backward and forward in time, and the characters to comment on their actions for the audience even while performing them. In a bit of foreshadowing, aviator Wiley Post sits in the audience, rising periodically from his seat to invite Rogers to take a trip with him. (In 1935, Rogers joined Post for an attempted flight around the world; their plane crashed in Alaska, and both died.) The songs in The Will Rogers Follies aren't really that memorable, but the numbers are toe-tapping, energetic parodies of Ziegfeld's style, and often very funny. A.K. Klimpke gives a low-key, affable performance in the title role, periodically throwing in a crack that carries some penetrating truth or has a little sting in its tail. And we really don't mind when he gets more serious toward the end, singing a gentle song called "Look Around," about preserving the environment, then delivering a radio address on the effects of the Depression and the terrible discrepancies between rich and poor. If you tire of Rogers's musings, there's plenty to keep you interested. Shelly Cox-Robie, for instance, as Rogers's wife, singing sweetly about "My Unknown Someone" and torching through "No Man Left for Me." Director-choreographer Scott Beyette's big numbers, particularly the fast-moving, precision-requiring "Our Favorite Son." Or the glitzy and often comical costumes of Linda Morken — in one number, the women are dressed as sunflowers, with perky little sunflower breasts. And Christianna Sullins as Ziegfeld's Favorite, a minxy little blond who sashays on and off, shamelessly stealing scenes. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through August 31, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com. Reviewed June 12.