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.
Garage Sale Loud: This Is It. Almost every summer, the folks at Heritage Square stage what is essentially a musical revue with a thin sustaining plot line and the word "loud" in the title. The conceit is that T.J. Mullin and Annie Dwyer are siblings, and they're reliving their youth: teenage band rehearsals, high-school reunions. This time, their mom is moving into a retirement home, and they're trying to sell off all the stuff left in the garage. They're joined by Rory Pierce, who says he bought the house over the Internet; Alex Crawford, who has apparently just wandered by; and the family's onetime lawn boy, Charlie Schmidt, wearing the same tiny shorts he must have worn at fifteen. It only takes a stray phrase or turn in the action for everyone to burst into song: "Blowin' in the Wind," "Blue Moon," "Help," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "I Get Around" — a promiscuous mishmash of hits from various decades, apparently picked because the performers happen to like them. Heritage Square has been hit hard by the economic downturn, and it's imperative that it attract new fans. So the troupe is mulling ways to convince Denverites that Golden really isn't so far away and wondering how to attract younger viewers without losing the essence of what they do —which, night after night, is to create community and share laughter. Presented by Heritage Square Music Hall through September 5, 18301 West Colfax Avenue, Golden, 303-279-7800, www.hsmusichall.com. Reviewed June 17.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This show is an hour and a half of speech and rock songs woven together so seamlessly that later, looking back, you're not exactly sure what you heard spoken and what sung. The framework is provided by "The Origin of Love," a song that evokes Plato's vision of how sexual congress began. Once the world was filled with twinned creatures, both parts male, both female and androgynous, but they were severed by Zeus. Now, bloodied and butchered, these half-creatures search the world for their lost partners. Hedwig began as Hansel, born in East Berlin, a lost boy who gave blow jobs to GIs for candy and attention. When a soldier named Luther wanted to marry him and bring him to the United States, Hansel's mother lent the boy her name and passport and arranged for a sex-change operation. But the operation was botched, and Hansel, now Hedwig, was left with an inch-long stub, neither fully male nor fully female. A year later, Luther left her. Now she performs at the Avenue Theater, backed by her band, the Angry Inch, and Yitzak, the ambiguously sexed person she refers to as her husband, whom she met in Serbia while performing under the name Crystal Nacht. A reference to the Berlin Wall is in some ways a fairly straightforward metaphor for Hedwig's plight — she straddles countries and realities as well as gender. But, like the mention of Kristallnacht, it's more than that; it's a reminder of the casual brutality of a world where many children struggle for physical and emotional survival, begging, selling themselves, killing — whatever it takes. The music, by Stephen Trask, is varied and exhilarating, the dialogue dark, smart and funny, and the Avenue production purely terrific. But it's Nick Sugar who makes this performance one you'd be an idiot to miss. The role of Hedwig is one he was born to play, allowing not only irony, satire, sexiness and self-possession, but the kind of emotion for which an actor reaches into the depths of his being. Presented by the Avenue Theater through August 8, 417 East 17th Avenue, www.avenuetheater.com. Reviewed July 1.
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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.
Measure for Measure. Director Scott Williams has tarted up this play with all kinds of extraneous trickery: red umbrellas and vinyl boots; swags of cloth hanging from the ceiling; an in-the-round presentation that has some audience members seated on stage behind the action so that those in front can watch them; storm sound effects; something that looks like confetti raining down and turning red at the end. A few characters are traditionally dressed; the costume pieces of others look like discards from TV shows of the '80s and '90s. None of this would matter if the leads were strong or had genuinely come to grips with the material, but they weren't and they hadn't. The action begins when the Duke of Vienna, fearing his city has become too licentious, cedes power to his rigid, puritanical deputy, Angelo, and leaves to pursue a life of contemplation. Angelo immediately decides to enforce the state's ban on fornication and sentences to death a young man, Claudio, who has impregnated his fiancée. Claudio's sister, Isabella, is about to enter a convent. She comes before Angelo to plead for her brother's life and, seeing in her the saintliness he longs to possess himself, Angelo falls — in every sense of the word. He will spare Claudio's life, Angelo tells Isabella, in return for the use of her body. A prolonged meditation on justice and mercy, shadowed at every turn by tragedy, Measure for Measure is a comedy only in that it ends in marriage rather than murder. This means a director must be entirely clear about the tone he wants to set, when to go for laughs, when to let the language and action speak for themselves. The performances here are flat, Measure for Measure. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 6. University Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed July 29.
Peter Pan. The folks at Boulder's Dinner Theatre approach Peter Pan with such imagination, intelligence, respect and giddy exuberance that you can't help enjoying yourself. Little boys are sure to love Captain Hook and the ferocious crocodile with the clock ticking away inside him. And how could any little girl resist the idea of flying off into the night in search of adventure with a white-nightgowned Wendy, and being so loved and needed by the Lost Boys? Not to mention Nana, the fluffy white dog who serves as the children's caretaker. The only drawback is the depiction of Native Americans, who are shown as pure 1950s Disney figures, wearing long black wigs and fringed costumes, drumming, stomping, chanting and singing a ghastly song called "Ugh-a-Wug." Still, there are loads of good things about the production, and J.M. Barrie's words still cast a spell. And when Peter Pan rises into the air and Wendy, John and Michael follow, it's pure magic. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through September 4, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdunnertheatre.com. Reviewed June 3.
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 wife, Germaine; Gaston, a regular customer with a weak bladder; Sagot, Picasso's agent; Schmendiman, an idiot entrepreneur from the future; 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.