Annie. Boulder's Dinner Theatre is at the top of its form; it has to be. How else could the company make Annie — its mandatory summer family show — anything but a smirking sentimental bore? As everyone knows by now, the story of Annie concerns a little red-haired girl's rough life at an orphanage run by the vicious Miss Hannigan. Annie gets away; adopts stray-dog Sandy; is invited into the mansion of Daddy Warbucks, a war profiteer with a heart of gold; helps FDR conceive of the New Deal (by singing to him about "Tomorrow"); rescues her fellow orphans; and is happily adopted by Warbucks, who — no doubt thanks in part to Annie's heart-melting qualities — has begun to realize his feelings for his comely secretary, Grace. The acting at BDT is uniformly appealing, and as the proceedings rollick along, you start to notice how satisfying all the production values are, from Neal Dunfee's sweet, slick orchestra to Alicia Dunfee's choreography; from Linda Morken's meticulous costumes to Amy Campion's clever, three-turnstile set, on which we first see the city skyline, and then, as the turnstiles revolve, a group of homeless people sharing food in a Hooverville, Miss Hannigan's study, a street scene, and Daddy Warbucks's opulent mansion with its platoon of happily singing servants. The adult acting is uniformly fine, and the production also features a big, wambling beauty of a labradoodle and lots of kids — very cute kids, but not cute in that annoyingly self-conscious Hollywood way. Kids so full of wiggling, bumptious energy that you have to wonder just how director Scott Beyette managed to focus it into the joyous yet highly disciplined performances they all put out. The pleasures of this production take you to that silly, giggling, helium-filled and multi-colored place that we all need to visit more often. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through September 5, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com. Reviewed June 25.
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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 August, Garner Galleria Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed September 18.
Hamlet. Hamlet really is a narcissistic ass. I'm not talking about his famous, almost-play-long dithering about whether or not he should kill the uncle who murdered his father and married his mother. I'm talking about the fact that he destroys Ophelia; kills her father and then makes ugly jokes about the body; sends two university chums to their deaths on very ambiguous evidence that they've betrayed him; interrupts Ophelia's burial to rant about how much more he loved her than did her brother, Laertes; and expresses utter bewilderment at Laertes's subsequent anger. In most productions, this essential nastiness is obscured by Hamlet's wit, energy and brilliance. It is prominent in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Hamlet because Stephen Weitz gives the prince a stronger and more forceful persona than usual. His Hamlet is less melancholy and poetic and far more a man of action, and as a result, you tend to think of him as also more responsible for the havoc he creates. Weitz is a striking figure, really good with the funny, ironic dialogue and able to deliver most of the famous monologues and speeches with a power and clarity that make them live. But there are also a number of miscastings and missteps, and the production gets progressively less interesting as it rises toward its climax. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 9, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed July 9.
Much Ado About Nothing
A Hint of Winter. In terms of sensibility and mission, theater director Terry Dodd and the Barth Hotel are made for each other. The Barth, a beautiful nineteenth-century building, is owned by Senior Housing Options, a charitable organization originally created to provide shelter for the poor displaced during the 1970s oil boom in Denver; Dodd is one of the more soulful directors around, an artist deeply attuned to place. A Hint of Winter, by local playwright Terri Draeger, is a two-hander that fits the setting at the Barth perfectly. It takes place in the lobby of a London hotel, where an elderly Englishman and a young woman from California begin a conversation. The young woman is at a crossroads, facing a morally complex decision; her companion reveals a shadowed life of his own, and some soul-deep regrets. We learn of errant fathers, guilt, equivocation and possible redemption. The opening moments of this eighty-minute piece are vibrant and charming because the two people on stage are interacting and finding out things about each other in present time as opposed to musing on their families and past moments in alternating monologues, as they do later, when things get static and talky. The characters' narratives are supposed to echo or mirror or amplify each other, but they feel completely separate. Overall, however, there's a gentleness and generosity to the evening that makes it worthwhile, and Draeger will doubtless give us increasingly interesting and accomplished plays as time goes by. Presented by Senior Housing Options through August 1, Barth Hotel, 1514 17th Street, 303-595-4464, www.seniorhousingoptions.org. Reviewed July 16.
Much Ado About Nothing. This is the story of a feuding couple, and that's where most of its charm lies. Beatrice is one of those wonderful Shakespearean women, tough-minded, principled, smart and funny. She and Benedick are older and more cynical than the usual romantic pair; they are famed in their circle for trading barbs and for their mutual marriage phobia, but everyone agrees that they're perfect for each other - if they'd only realize it. Their love is mirrored by that of a second pair: pure, sweet Hero and idealistic Claudio, whose love is born of wistful gazes and solitary sighs, and thus very easy for the villainous Don John to derail. When Claudio rejects and shames Hero on what is supposed to be their wedding day, the play tumbles from sunny romance into near tragedy. The first half of this production is better than the second, in part because this is when some of the strongest members of the cast have the most to do, particularly Geoffrey Kent, who makes Benedick a complete goof, but also one capable of a genuinely moving dignity. Karen Slack's strength and humor as Beatrice are admirable, but she blows the pivotal scene — in which she and Benedick finally confess their love for each other and she persuades him to challenge Claudio — by ranting almost incoherently. And then the funnymen enter, Constable Dogberry and his crew, who, despite their incompetence and director Lynne Collins's odd choices, actually do manage to set right the play's wrongs. Still, there's too little focus on poetry in this production and too much emphasis on silly bits. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 7. Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed July 23.