Beauty and the Beast. Though it's backed by expert musicians and technicians, the real miracle is the Phamaly company itself. The leads are as good as — and often better than — anyone you'll see anywhere. Jenna Bainbridge is the sweetest Belle imaginable, with a clear, strong soprano and, paradoxically, given her fragile prettiness, a commanding on-stage presence. Leonard Barrett's Beast carries a sorrowful dignity, and the actor's subtle, powerful singing makes "If I Can't Love Her" a heart-stopper. When he actually transforms and we see his face — after a longish smoke-and-music-filled interlude — it's magic, pure and simple. And these are only two of many terrific performances. Artistic director Steve Wilson not only accommodates his actors' disabilities, but uses them to add fascinating bits of business and layers of complexity. As for the big numbers, they're done with a spirit, precision and intelligence that transforms hackneyed songs into straightforward pleasure. Presented by Phamaly through August 15, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-575-0005, www.phamaly.org.
The Fantasticks. As written, The Fantasticks is sweet, pretty, clever, and tender, but oddly deep in spots, approaching its revelations so gently you hardly realize they're there. The songs, by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, are appealing and sometimes lovely. That's why the show ran for decades in a tiny off-off-Broadway house and was attended by droves of young lovers, strivers and dreamers. The story concerns young lovers, of course, neighbors sixteen-year-old Luisa and the slightly older Matt. The two have absorbed every romantic notion they've ever encountered in song or story and believe themselves deeply in love. Their parents, intending to help the affair along by pretending to object to it, have raised a wall between the two houses. They even employ a mysterious actor, El Gallo — the rooster — to pretend to abduct Luisa so that Matt can save her. The first act ends in sugary bliss. But the second act darkens and mocks the first as the couple quarrel and part. Eventually, both realize that love involves more than fantasy. There are lots of self-referential theatrical devices in the script; in fact, the whole thing is a humorous theatrical sendup. But this production is played pretty superficially. You just don't believe for a moment that Luisa and Matt feel a thing for each other. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 8, University Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org.
King Lear. Director Lynne Collins chose to set her King Lear in the late-nineteenth-century American West. This doesn't add much to the theme or story, but it does fit the persona and acting style of John Hutton, who makes a fine, easy-talking, loose-limbed but imperious cattle king. And there's so much to the script — so much poetry, wisdom, humanity — that every new production yields unanticipated insights. One of the things Hutton brings to the party is humor: His Lear is often funny, possessed of the kind of wry, humorous wisdom we definitely associate with the frontier. The unexpectedness of Hutton's readings sparks many of Lear's scenes to vivid life. But Hutton does not bring the tragic heft to the role that it requires, particularly in the later scenes; the pacing of much of the production is off, too. There are treasures in this Lear, but they don't quite outweigh the missteps. Produced by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 8, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed July 15.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile. The premise of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, an entirely ahistorical play by Steve Martin, is that Picasso and Einstein met at an artists' hangout in Montmartre in 1904; the result is a meditation on the nature of creativity and the role of science and art in the twentieth century, complete with silly jokes, clever jokes, flashes of erudition and periodic, almost-profound insights. The lobby of the Barth Hotel, built in 1881 and renovated in 1930, is the perfect setting, adding a fascinating patina that speaks both of time passing and of timelessness. The Einstein we meet is a very young man who has inklings of his own genius, but no assurance of it; the Special Theory of Relativity will not be published for another year. Picasso is already somewhat recognized, though hardly world-famous, full of ego and appetite. The other characters include Freddy, the owner of the Lapin Agile, and his attractive wife, Germaine; Gaston, a regular customer with a weak bladder; Sagot, Picasso's agent; Schmendiman, an idiot entrepreneur from the future, irresistibly reminiscent of the kind of mind that gave us inspirational seminars and Crocs; and a second visitor from the future, who turns out to be one of the play's most interesting surprises. The production is well-paced, well-acted and thoughtfully directed. A lovely surprise is ZZ Moore, making her Denver debut as a Suzanne so poised, graceful and intelligent that you can't take your eyes off her. Picasso at the Lapin Agile is being mounted as a fundraiser for Senior Housing Options, so buying a ticket is a good deed — but it's also your entree to a delightful time. Presented through August 14 at the Barth Hotel, 1410 17th Street, 303-595-4464, www/seniorhousingoptions.org. Reviewed July 15.