Five Course Love. This production consists of five musical scenes set in five different restaurants, each one a broad parody in which author Gregg Coffin spoofs stereotypes while shamelessly using and abusing them. There's a barbecue place featuring country/Western music; an Italian restaurant where a mob wife is cheating — very operatically — on her husband; a cozy German restaurant intended as a place of refuge for the Eleanor Rigbys of the world that ends up hosting a dominatrix and her men; a Mexican cantina where a sweet maiden must decide between the waiter's true love and the lustful excitement offered by an outlaw; and, finally, a standard '50s diner with a doo-wop ambience and a kindly owner called Pop. Three actors whip through all the roles, donning and doffing costumes and assuming jokey accents. It's all really silly — but some of the songs are musically witty (and very well played by musical director Troy Schuh and his musicians) and some downright balls-out daft. Others are really very lovely: the ballad about refuge from the rain sung by the German waiter, for example, and the love song "Blue Flame." Many of the best numbers in Five Course Love occur in the last couple of acts, and it's also only at the end that you learn there's a dramatic reason for a lot of hokeyness. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through June 19, Garner Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-8934100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 28.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Denver theater audiences are famous for the ease with which they award standing ovations — but Hedwig and the Angry Inch, now reprised at the Avenue Theater, deserved the cheer it got last summer. Born Hansel and desperate to escape Communist East Berlin, Hedwig endures a sex-change operation so that she can marry an American G.I. Long ago abandoned by the G.I, yearning for her beloved Tommy Gnosis — a rock star who owes his success to her songs — she now tours various sleazy dives, wearing a ghastly blond wig with huge soup-can curls on top. Accompanied by her ambiguously sexed husband, Yitzak, and her band, the Angry Inch, she ruminates in song and monologue about the nature of love, still trying to figure out just who she is and where she belongs while performing a slew of fantastic numbers: "The Origin of Love," "Wig in a Box," "Wicked Little Town." Not only are the songs great in this raucous, touching, rock-concert-cum-theater piece, but so are the musicians and actors, particularly Amanda Earls as Yitzak and Nick Sugar's balls-out performance as he goes through his personal cathartic transformation every night from Hansel to Hedwig. The production is an amazing amount of fun, despite touching on issues of identity at the most profound level. Presented at the Avenue Theater through May 29, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, www.avenuetheater.com. Reviewed July 1, 2010.
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Superior Donuts. Set in a doughnut shop in a rundown section of Chicago, Superior Donuts centers on the growing friendship between the defeated and deflated owner, Arthur Przybyszewski, an aging hippie who avoided the draft by fleeing to Canada and still feels guilty about it, and Franco Wicks, a black youngster who comes in looking for a job. There are also a couple of cops — one is a woman interested in Arthur, the other her black partner and a Star Trek fan — as well as the colorful Russian emigre Max Tarasov, who wants to buy the shop to expand his electronics store; a bag lady; and a pair of small-time hoods to whom Franco owes money. Plays about two unlikely people finding and coming to understand each other are the bread and butter of dramaturgy, but why would anyone revive this fading trope now? Superior Donuts is populated by characters who seem to have wandered in from television dramas, and it has a pinkly pulsating, sugar-sweet heart. Despite all this, the first act of this production works — in part because the dialogue is reasonably witty and the plot deficiencies aren't entirely evident yet, in part because Mike Hartman, who plays Arthur, is one of those honest, humorous actors who effortlessly grounds any play he's in. Not only does he do shambling old guy better than anyone else in the world, he's also wonderful at listening and responding to others, which makes for some fine moments between him and an appealing newcomer to Denver named Sheldon Best as Franco. Best does everything that can be done with the role, but I had to struggle to see the character as a real person. Here's a youngster in tune enough with the zeitgeist to come up with all kinds of ways to revive the doughnut shop, from poetry readings to yoga classes. His analysis of Arthur's style of dress is sharp: "The Grateful Dead ain't gonna hire a new guitar player," he observes. But he not only thinks he's written the great American novel — and believes Arthur can help him get it published — he's not savvy enough to have done so on a computer. This means the grubby stack of notebooks he hands to Arthur is his only copy. You really don't need a Weatherman to know which way this wind is blowing. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through May 7, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 21.
Traces. The talented acrobats of Traces aren't dressed, Cirque-style, in masks or feathers; they're not working with artsy, enigmatic, mythical stories or cavorting in fairytale landscapes. They're just a group of folks in dull gray, brown and black street clothes. They share a little information about themselves, though not a lot, and if there's a story here, it's fairly undefined. For the most part, these seem to be kids hanging around on a street corner, dancing, jostling each other, fighting a bit; there's a screen behind them that sometimes flickers with black-and-white images and sometimes shows Chinese characters or drawings of skyscrapers, and the music ranges from pulse-pounding to old songs to soft, Erik Satie-like piano phrases, often produced by the multi-talented cast members themselves. But the real story lies in the acrobatics: someone skimming weightlessly up a pole, then stretching his body out in a true horizontal; actors leaping straight up from the ground and over each other's bodies; Florian Zumkehr doing impossible tricks with an ever-growing pile of chairs; the group at times using skateboards as bats, or making like Fred Astaire with his elegant cane. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through May 11, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed March 17.