An O. Henry Christmas. Amid the cascade of Christmas Carol remounts, Hallmark Card family shows and limp holiday parodies, this musical arrangement of two O. Henry short stories — "The Last Leaf" and "The Gift of the Magi," created by Peter Ekstrom — is a refreshing option. "The Gift of the Magi" is the shorter and more cheerful of the two; it has some very funny songs, including a tickle-giggle number reminiscent of "Adele's Laughing Song," from Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus, and a mock-operatic duet that begins with the husband's horrified exclamation "Your hair is gone!" There are also a couple of real clunkers, however, including a mournful ode sung by the husband to his watch. "The Last Leaf" is a more shadowed story. A pair of young women artists room together in a loft in New York's Greenwich Village. One of them, Johnsey, dreams of setting up her easel in Italy; Sue is more down-to-earth. Their neighbor, a comic drunken German by the name of Behrman, is himself a failed artist. When Johnsey develops pneumonia, Sue tends to her devotedly. But Johnsey is convinced she will die when the last leaf on the vine outside of their window drifts to earth. A miracle is needed, and you can probably figure out who provides it. Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through December 21, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, www.minersalley.com. Reviewed November 20.
Anywhere But Rome. Ovid, otherwise known as Publius, has been banished from Rome and is traveling with Tiresias, standing at a crossroads, sticking out his thumb. They are joined by Io, the woman transformed into a cow by Zeus. A car pulls to a halt; seated inside is a contemporary couple: schoolteacher Louis and his wife, Carol. Neither of them seems surprised to find that they're transporting an ancient Roman poet and two mythical characters, but they have problems of their own. For example, Carol is slowly but surely transforming into a chicken. It's no surprise when references to Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka surface: Transformational magic is exactly what Buntport's about, creating theater where objects become people and an ingenue becomes a goldfish. If mythological and realistic figures are to mingle, and writers to meet their own works of fiction, this stage is the place for it. But there's nothing heavy or pretentious about Anywhere But Rome. The play, an original Buntport creation, is lighthearted and good-humored and, like Ovid's original work, deals primarily with love. Five actors — Erik Edborg, Brian Colonna, Erin Rollman, Evan Weissman and Hannah Duggan (SamAnTha Schmitz is the non-performing member of the troupe) — effortlessly hold our attention through the hour and a half of playing time. The dialogue is fast, clever, very human and sometimes wonderfully petty in the face of the great mysteries being evoked. As for the acting, this troupe is at the pinnacle: All of its members are relaxed and full-throated and funny, and their timing is perfect. Erik Edborg is riveting as irritable, slightly out-of-it and sometimes profound Ovid. Brian Colonna, who can tear up the stage with cartoonish, squeaky-voiced antics when he wants to, makes Tiresias the wise, if kvetchy, center of the action. You never see Rollman's face, but her stumbling body as Io attempts to balance on her hooves speaks volumes, as do her low moos and moans. Hannah Duggan is perfect as loud, sad, loving Carol, and the monologue in which Evan Weissman explores Louis's shortcomings as a teacher and his possible role in his wife's transformation is nothing less than inspired. Presented by Buntport Theater through December 20, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com. Reviewed November 20.
Art. Three men have been friends for many years. Serge, a dermatologist, has just bought an all-white painting: diagonal white stripes across a white background. He's showing it proudly to Marc, who is appalled; he considers the painting a pretentious piece of chicanery. He's even more disturbed when he learns that Serge paid 200,000 francs — around $39,000 — for the piece. The third member of the group is Yvan, rumple-haired, bewildered and far less successful than the other two. Yvan wants only to keep peace between his friends and maintain a relationship that serves as a haven in his flustered world. The script for Art is rather like a New Yorker cartoon: very funny, crisp and clever, with a hint of depth. These guys aren't richly drawn; they're not characters we'll remember for a long time once we've left the theater. But there's something fascinating and touching about them. Michael Gunst makes Marc a sneering presence with an annoyingly condescending laugh. As played by Joseph Lekarczyk, Serge at first seems warmer and more rooted than Marc; we're both amused and disappointed when his petty side reveals itself. Curled on the sofa, nursing an injured ear, Sam Elmore makes Yvan a cuddly teddy bear. You leave the theater thinking about what your own friends mean to you, and two of the essential ways in which they mitigate the existential loneliness of life: A friend tells you who you are by holding up a mirror, responding to what you do and say; friends also affirm your identity by being who they are. If our friends refuse to validate our sense of ourselves or fail to be who we thought they were, we find ourselves alone in the dark. Presented by Theatre 13 through December 18. Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 888-512-7469, www.myspace.com/theatre13boulder.
Girls Only. The trouble with Girls Only, a two-woman evening of conversation, skits, singing, improvisation and audience participation, is that it's so relentlessly nice. Creator-performers Barbara Gehring and Linda Klein have worked together for many years; at some point, they read their early diaries to each other and were transfixed by the similarities and differences they found in them, as well as the insights they gained into their own psyches and the travails of puberty. This theater piece was developed from that material — but not all of that material. "I purposely don't read every diary entry in the show, because it turns out I was kind of mean, and I don't want to be mean," Klein told an interviewer. But mean is funny, and when you cut it out entirely, what do you have to joke about? Girly pink bedrooms, purses, bras, skinny models in glossy magazines. Every time they tell a story with the tiniest bite to it, Gehring and Klein — both talented and appealing stage performers — move instantly to reassure us that they don't mean it. At one point Klein relates an interesting tale about how she came to possess the badly taxidermied body of an electrocuted squirrel as a child; the minute she's completed this funny, freaky moment in an otherwise highly predictable evening, she gives a pouty, don't-get-me-wrong grin and sweetly caresses the squirrel's head. There's enough good material here for a tight, funny, one-hour-long show, but this one stretches on and on, as if Klein and Gehring had been determined to throw every single joke and piece of shtick that occurred to them in the script. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through June, Garner Galleria Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed September 18.
The Miracle Worker. William Gibson's The Miracle Worker, about the way a young Irishwoman, Annie Sullivan, rescued the blind and deaf Helen Keller from her prison of rage and isolation, shows its age in spots. Still, what Gibson did get right was the intensity of Sullivan's struggle to lead her charge out of darkness and into the light of language. He showed Keller, revered American icon, as an almost feral child, who hurls objects and can attack without provocation, kicking, pinching and biting. The miracle is that the twenty-year-old Sullivan, schooled by her own partial-sightedness and hard upbringing, is the one person on earth who can understand and deal with her. This Denver Center Theatre Company production is skillfully done and very pleasing to look at, and all of the acting is good. Kate Hurster is a strong and appealing Sullivan, and Daria LeGrand a game and gutsy little Helen Keller. But overall, the show is too pretty, too much of a nineteenth-century Southern set piece, lacking a sense of danger and the primal currents that run through the script. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through December 20, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed December 4.
The Producers. How on earth can Boulder's Dinner Theatre, which does not have hundreds of thousands of dollars at its disposal, compete with the big, glitzy Broadway version of The Producers? Not with tech and design, obviously, nor the slickness of the big showstoppers. But this production has something that's missing from the big touring production: sheer exuberance, an exuberance that in many ways is closer to Mel Brooks's original impulse. The Producers tells the story of a Broadway producer who realized he could make more money from a flop than a hit and immediately sought out the worst script he could find: a tribute to Adolf Hitler. The idea first saw life as a 1968 movie, a movie in which Brooks stuck a fat, garlicky, Jewish thumb right into Hitler's eye. With the irrepressible Wayne Kennedy playing producer Max Bialystock and Scott Beyette as his bewildered but eventually ecstatic sidekick, Leo Bloom, the BDT cast puts the raucous, iconoclastic jump right back into the show. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through March 7, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed December 4.
Speech & Debate. Three misfit high-school students get together for the debate society. Solomon longs to be a professional reporter and wants to print the lowdown on the right-wing mayor's pederast activities in the school newspaper; Howie is a transfer student anxious to create a gay-straight alliance, and frustrated by his inability to get a teacher to sponsor it; and Diwata, the would-be diva, can't get a role in the school musical, so she's looking to bring down the drama teacher who failed to cast her. You may think you've seen something like this before — geeky, outsider high-schoolers, tormented by questions of identity, setting up their own eccentric little world, but whiz-kid playwright Stephen Karam has a humorous and original take on the situation. Speech & Debate is peppered with spurts of original humor and pierced by little darts of surprise, and the teens are interesting characters — spiky and self-obsessed as only teenagers can be, as ignorant about life's realities as they are technologically sophisticated and skilled at yanking each other's chains. Curious was smart to get in early on this sparky, original script, though there's an awful lot of over-acting. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through December 20, Acoma Center, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed November 13.
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