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.
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.
Mariela in the Desert. Mariela in the Desert is a beautiful play, a serious piece about art, the way it works in the lives of the human beings who create it, the possibilities of transcendence it offers. The action unfolds slowly and quietly to the occasional sound of guitar strings. Mariela and her husband, Jose, are both artists. Once members of the dazzling, artistically and politically revolutionary circle that revolved around Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, they moved to the desert or northern Mexico — at Jose's insistence — with the idea of finding inspiration and building a creative community. But though one of his works, "The Blue Barn," won acclaim, Jose never achieved the success he dreamed of. And while Mariela raised their children, lively Blanca and Carlos, who suffered from a neurological disorder, she stopped setting brush to canvas almost completely. As the play opens, Jose is dying of advanced diabetes. Blanca, estranged and away at university, has been ignoring her mother's pleas that she come home, so Mariela lures her with a telegram saying Jose is already dead. We learn that Carlos died many years ago; his ghost haunts Mariela's imagination. The desert itself is an important character, alternately a place of truth and inspiration and a thirsty, desiccated wasteland. The play isn't perfect. A couple of the characters aren't fully fleshed out, and the dialogue is sometimes repetitive. But it throbs with quiet feeling, and the complex, thoughtful things it has to say about family, art, vocation, isolation and community will stay with you for a long time. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through May 15, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 15.
Othello. Iago is the most interesting character in this production of Othello. John Hutton makes him an ordinary old soldier, bluff and apparently honest. Watching him gull his victims and offer hypocritical comfort to a desperate Desdemona is a lesson in the power of acting — particularly charged and fascinating because Hutton's acting a man who's acting compassion, and he does it full throttle, without any winks or smirks for the audience. Kathleen McCall's Emilia is very strong, too, rich and evocative. There's something wrong, however, when the murder of Desdemona leaves you dry-eyed but you tear up at Emilia's death. When you're more interested in Emilia and Iago, and even in ancillary characters like Lodovico (Geoffrey Kent), Desdemona's uncle, Gratiano (John Arp), the vivid courtesan Bianca (Allison Pistorius) and the poor mug Roderigo (a delightfully sullen performance by David Ivers) than you are in the grand love-tragedy of Othello and Desdemona. The problem is there's no feeling in Robert Jason Jackson's performance in the title role, just a lot of speechifying. When he looks at Desdemona, you don't believe he loves her, or even that he sees her. Meghan Wolf's fragile, pretty Desdemona is the embodiment of pure Victorian maidenhood, a performance that might work well on film but is too small and muted here. Goodness doesn't have to be bloodless; it can be a compelling moral force. But when it's not much manifest, Iago is bound to have the final word. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through May 1, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 15.
The Rainmaker. The Rainmaker is a gentle, dated comedy, but it still has flickers of life. Written in the 1950s, the play is set in the drought-stricken West of the '30s, where a family of bachelors — kindly, laid-back paterfamilias H.C. and his two sons, Noah and Jim — apparently spend more time fretting about daughter Lizzie's spinsterhood than about the slow death of their ranch: Poor Lizzie's slow desiccation serves as a metaphor for the family's parched land and dying calves. Into this closed environment bursts Starbuck, a fast-talking, charismatic con man who assures the family that for a hundred dollars he'll summon rain. Does he find a way into Lizzie's disappointment-encrusted heart? Of course he does. Does he do it by persuading her to let down her long hair and telling her, "Why, Lizzie, you're beautiful"? Close. It's corny, but while we might mock the idea that getting a man is the sole mark of a woman's worth, there are elements of truth to the script. This production also boasts some good performances, particularly that of Tupper C. Cullum as the father, who shows us the patience and backbone behind H.C.'s gentleness and evinces a kind of steady grace, both physical and mental. Presented by the Aurora Fox through May 9, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-739-1970, www.aurorafox.org. Reviewed April 22.
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