Chicago. Sort of Brechtian, sort of Cabaretish, Chicago tells a story of injustice and corruption, and tells it in the most seductive way, with witty, memorable songs, elegantly glistening dance sequences and a smart, cynical and grown-up script. Roxie Hart is an evil, self-serving little hoofer. Having murdered a man who tried to walk away from her, she cons sweet dopey husband Amos into coming up with money and enlists the services of reptilian lawyer Billy Flynn. Under Flynn's tutelage, Roxie realizes she can not only escape the hangman (the show is set in the 1920s), but finally, due to the public's fascination with murderesses, become a big star. Just one problem: Velma Kelly is the current hot murderess, and she has no intention of giving up her spot. Joannie Brosseau-Beyette and Alicia Dunfee starred as Roxie and Velma at Boulder's Dinner Theatre seven years ago, and they star again in this revival. They're completely relaxed into their roles, and they also bring a crisp precision to every note and move; their familiarity with the material and each other allows for a wonderful playfulness and exuberance. And there's also A.K. Klimpke reprising the role of reptilian lawyer Billy Flynn, Wayne Kennedy re-creating his sad sack Amos, and a horde of familiar faces in the chorus. But Reynelda Snell brings a whole new energy and interpretation — not to mention a rich, strong voice — to the key role of prison matron "Mama" Morton. The orchestra is note-perfect, Dunfee's Bob Fosse-influenced choreography thrums with energy, and there's so much sheer exuberance on the stage that you find yourself sorry when the evening ends. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through May 9, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com. Reviewed March 4.
The Clean House. The Clean House begins with a long joke told by Matilde, a maid, entirely in Portuguese. Matilde hates to clean, and her goal in life is to invent the perfect joke. Her mother, she tells us, died laughing at one of her father's jokes, and he shot himself shortly thereafter. So she's a little afraid that succeeding in her mission will kill her. Her employer is a hyper-organized doctor, Lane, who's not at all amused by Matilde's aversion to cleaning. Fortunately, Lane's sister, Virginia, loves housekeeping and offers to take on the work in secret. As she and Matilde sort laundry, they discover sexy panties in among the underwear, and pretty soon we learn that Lane's husband, Charles, also a doctor, is in love with one of his patients: a cancer-stricken 67-year-old named Ana. Things have been pretty surreal so far — rather enchantingly so — but from here on, any slim pretense at plot and character disappears and pure symbolism takes over. The symbolism's not that evocative, either. You can make interesting connections, but if anything profound pops up, it's because you created it: Rather than explore her images or concretize them, playwright Sarah Ruhl just whimsically tosses them in our direction and tells us to make of them what we will. Presented by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company through April 17, Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 888-512-7469, www.boulderensembletheatre.org. Reviewed April 8.
Dearly Departed. As Raynelle reads her husband, Bud, a letter from his rigidly religious sister Marguerite, he drops dead of a stroke, face-down on the table. The rest of the action in this wambling, good-natured shaggy dog of a comedy involves the family's reactions and the memorial service they arrange. Silent daughter Delightful simply stuffs her face with chips and chewing gum. Son Ray Bud Jr. and his wife, Lucille, the sanest members of the clan, take on most of the planning and hand out corndogs. A second son, Junior, travels from who-knows-where with his unruly kids and whiny, over-the-top wife, Suzanne, who can't forgive him for the failure of his parking-lot cleaning business. The plot isn't particularly tight, though it all hangs together, and things move at a leisurely — though never boring — pace, with each comic moment given time to unfurl and hilarious little vignettes popping up here and there. It is pure inspiration to have self-righteous Marguerite played by a man, and Bill Berry fulfills the role to perfection, never camping it up and keeping his voice petulantly even — except when he erupts in rage. Pam Clifton makes for a wonderfully loud and annoying Suzanne, with everything about her threatening to spill out of control at any moment, from her hair to her emotions. Tupper Cullum and Dana Miller provide smooth contrast as Ray Bud Jr. and Lucille (the role of Lucille alternates between Miller and Amie MacKenzie). Judy Phelan-Hill's Raynelle is as funny as she's supposed to be ("Mean and surly," she responds, when asked what Bud's tombstone should read), but also moving in the final scenes. As Royce and Junior, respectively, Michael Katt and Eric Weber serve as sadly humorous portraits of useless Southern manhood. There's beer and wine to be had, and live bluegrass music after the show. All in all, it's hard to imagine a more pleasant way to spend an evening — or depart this life. Presented by Ashton Entertainment through April 17, Aurora Fox Studio Theatre, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-739-1970, www.aurorafox.org. Reviewed March 25.
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 27, Garner Galleria Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed September 18, 2008.
Mama Hated Diesels. Director-author Randal Myler, who teamed up with writer and musical director Dan Wheetman for Mama Hated Diesels, interviewed truckers all over the country. But either these men and women were taciturn types, not given to self-reflection, or there really isn't much of a story in trucking. We meet a woman who left her abusive husband, secretly enrolled in a truck-driving class and took to the road. We learn that the prostitutes who frequent truck stops are called lot lizards; that it's hard on your family when you spend weeks on the road; that a lot of truckers take uppers to stay awake; and that other drivers, apparently unaware of how hard it is to maneuver or stop a truck, do idiotically dangerous things in their cars — like dressing, or, in one woman's case, painting her toenails. Some of the jokes are made funnier than they have any right to be by the actors' skilled delivery of them. But there's no overarching story or on-stage conflict, and the pieces provided aren't resonant enough to weave a compelling tapestry. Still, there are nice portrayals by some of the Denver Center's strongest actors, and great songs delivered by a terrific group of singers and musicians. Perhaps the most eloquent element is provided by photographer Jim Steinberg, whose slides are shown on two large screens behind the action: sunrises and sunsets, the grays and silvers of misty days, rushing great highways and endless stretches of flat. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through May 9, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 8.
Opus. Michael Hollinger knows exactly what he's writing about with Opus, his play about the fictive Lazara Quartet, and his love of music and intimate understanding of musicianship give this piece radiant life. As the play opens, Grace, a young woman fresh out of the conservatory, is auditioning to be the group violist. She is unaware that Lazara has been commissioned to perform at the White House in the very near future, and also that the group is in a dangerous state of flux. Although all decisions are supposedly reached consensually, first violinist Elliot is a dominant and manipulative figure. The violist for whose job Grace is auditioning is Dorian, Elliot's longtime lover, a brilliant musician whom Elliot has recently fired. Alan is the quizzical peacemaker of the group, and cellist Carl is a solid, good-natured family man who is now facing a health crisis. The dialogue feels right and true, the rhythms are perfect and the acting is strong. The only thing that doesn't work is the splutter of over-dramatic plot points that conclude the play and seem at odds with its core exploration of the creative process. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through April 24, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed March 11.
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