Cats. There's not much of a plot to Cats. You meet the Jellicles, with their cheerful faces and bright black eyes, who dance "under the light of the Jellicle moon"; the Ming-vase-smashing cat burglars, Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer; fat, elegant, gentleman's club-haunting Bustopher Jones; and contrary-minded Rum Tum Tugger. The show's emotional core resides with battered street cat Grizabella — once a beauty, now doddering and shunned by the others. When we're told at the beginning by wise Old Deuteronomy that tonight one of all the cats will be chosen to ascend to the Heaviside Layer — whatever that is — there's not a lot of suspense about who it will be. Along the way, you get insight into the naming of cats (turns out every cat needs three names), and also how to address a cat: "Before a Cat will condescend/To treat you as a trusted friend/Some little token of esteem/Is needed like a dish of cream." And the music and lyrics are as delicious as a saucer of cream, of course. This is Boulder's Dinner Theatre's second go at Cats, and though it's very like the 2004 production, it's been strengthened in a lot of small ways that make a very big difference. Perhaps most important, the cast features a few notable new dance talents, and there's something to catch and hold your attention at every moment as you confront a moving frieze of kitties cavorting, hissing, twitching and cleaning their own and each others' faces. The BDT's entire cast and crew approach this production with so much energy and enthusiasm that they've made it new again. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through September 24, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com. Reviewed June 2.
Chasing Manet. Every year, director Terry Dodd finds a play perfectly suited to the historic lobby of the Barth Hotel and stages it as a benefit for Senior Housing Options, an organization that provides humanistic, caring homes for indigent seniors in several facilities around the state — the Barth being one. His past choices have included The Hot L Baltimore, a tender and tart evocation of the life of a group of misfits and dreamers gathered in a hotel lobby, and Steve Martin's hyper-clever and very entertaining Picasso at the Lapin Agile. But though this year's choice, Chasing Manet, is worth seeing for the excellent acting and perceptive direction, it's a pretty dopey play, with dialogue that sounds like pure Oprah. In her eighties and blind, Catherine Sargent has been committed to a nursing home by her son, Royal, and she's pretty pissed about it. Catherine is the cousin of American portraitist John Singer Sargent and herself a famous painter whose work is in the permanent collection of several prestigious galleries; she's also a Boston Brahmin with enough money to pay for first-class passage on the Queen Elizabeth II when she so desires. But playwright Tina Howe's control of tone is so tenuous that it's hard to figure out if Catherine really is all these things or is simply deluded. Into her unhappy life comes a new roommate, the moonily smiling Rennie, who's in the early stages of dementia, talks frequently to her long-dead husband, Hershel, and — naturally, given the conventionality of Howe's plotting — is Jewish to Catherine's high WASP, which allows for a few gentle jokes about their cultural differences. Catherine eventually figures out that, given her still-functioning brain and Rennie's still-functioning eyesight, the two of them can team up for an escape. They'll go to Paris, she decides, and view the work that most inspired her own: Manet's "Le Dejeuner sur L'Herbe." All of the performances are solid, but even this very adept cast can't do much with the material. Presented by Senior Housing Options through August 13, 1514 17th Street, 303-595-4464, www.seniorhousingoptions.org. Reviewed July 14.
The Comedy of Errors. An early play based on a Roman comedy, Plautus's The Menaechmi, The Comedy of Errors utilizes a lot of plot devices that were hoary four centuries ago — though, since this is Shakespeare, they're used deftly. As the play opens, Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse has been captured in Ephesus, a rival city. He faces death unless he can come up with a hefty fine. But the Duke of Ephesus prevails on him to tell his story, and naturally, it's a killer: A son, Antipholus, who happens to be a twin, was lost at sea together with his mother and a servant, Dromio, also a twin; the second twin, named for the one lost, is still living in Syracuse, along with the second servant. We soon learn that the lost Antipholus has actually settled in Ephesus with his wife, Adriana, and his Dromio; soon his Syracusan twin arrives with Syracusan Dromio. Many mix-ups ensue, with the Dromios sent on all kinds of errands and reporting almost invariably to the wrong Antipholus, and Antipholus of Syracuse being mistaken by Adriana for her husband — while he's falling for her sister, Luciana. Of course, everything works out in the end. Unfortunately, this production seems designed to accommodate every piece of shtick thought up by any and every actor during the rehearsal process. If someone says horse, you know a loud neigh will follow; lines funny enough in themselves get acted out phrase by phrase, and there's a plethora of ridiculous walks. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 11, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed July 21.
The Divine Sister. The Divine Sister features some of Denver's most talented actors, reliable creators of deep and memorable characters in artistically ambitious venues — and all of them having the time of their lives here, hamming, capering and slamming home the cheesiest jokes imaginable. The insanely over-the-top script is by Charles Busch, and it's a tribute to nun and convent movies, everything from Agnes of God to Doubt, with a dash of The Da Vinci Code thrown in for good measure. The plot concerns a Mother Superior trying to keep her convent financially afloat while dealing with Agnes, a hysterically religious young postulant; Sister Acacius, the perpetually horny sports coach; a filmmaker who wants to record Agnes's ecstasies; and Sister Walburga, a mysterious nun from Germany. Mother Superior approaches Mrs. Levinson, a rich Jewish widow who happens to be an atheist, in search of a donation and, in the course of her unsuccessful solicitation, begins a chain of discoveries about her own life. The dialogue is full of spot-on gags: Agnes sees a saint's face in a pair of urine-stained BVDs; Mother Superior is writing a book called The Middle Ages: So Bad?; and there's talk of a little-known Catholic sect based on the doctrine of Jesus's neglected sister, the Divine Joyce. All of the performers work well together as an ensemble — kept, if not in check, then at least in a consistent comic universe by Nick Sugar's tight, clean direction. Each line of dialogue gets its due, each gag is skillfully timed and encapsulated. Add the ridiculous costumes of Kevin Copenhaver (Sister Walburga's mighty headdress is a highlight, but there's strong competition from Mrs. Levinson's ghastly pantsuit) and the funky, cozy, edge-of-nasty charm of the Avenue Theater, and you've got yourself a party. Presented by the Avenue Theater through July 30, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, www.avenuetheater.com. Reviewed June 23.
In Perfect Harmony. Like all of Heritage Square's summer musicals, this one has almost no plot. The characters are supposed to be singers who formed their own group, the Dysfunctional Family, after aging out of the youth-oriented Up With People. They start out pretty dorky, with Rory Pierce in horn-rimmed spectacles, Johnette Toye sporting an insanely determined smile, and everyone wearing neat, good-kid outfits: navy dresses and shirts, neatly pressed slacks. But they're trying to evolve and get hipper, so they try all kinds of styles and genres: rock, country, great old musicals, newer musicals, pretty ballads, television theme songs (including South Park), and their patented imitation of the Mamas and the Papas, with Annie Dwyer in a fat suit as Mama Cass, and the voices harmonizing beautifully on "Monday, Monday." The oldest number, "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?," movingly sung by T.J. Mullin, seems utterly contemporary these days, as we teeter on the edge of what may be another Depression. I'd take the country song "Atheists Don't Got No Music" as an insult, except that the lyrics do allow us blues and rock and roll. Mullin and Dwyer sing a lovely folkie tune called "When You're Next to Me," from A Mighty Wind, and Alex Crawford's deep baritone does full justice to "Old Man River." But the focus is all on the excellent singing and playing, the precision of the group numbers, and choreography that sometimes approaches real elegance — not on shtick. You get the sense that the troupe is trying to do things a little differently, perhaps appeal to a bigger audience. So while the dialogue is still cornball, you don't get the guys' usual hilarious cross-dressing routine — I missed that glimpse of Pierce's shapely legs — and Dwyer doesn't race into the audience to assault bald men with sticky kisses. There are also fewer moments of jaw-dropping, I-can't-believe-I-saw-that insanity. I missed those, too. Presented by Heritage Square Music Hall through September 4, 18301 West Colfax Avenue, Golden, 303-279-7800, www.hsmusichall.com. Reviewed June 16.
The Little Prince. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival is presenting Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince as a fable for both children and adults, though it might be a little sophisticated for the former. The Aviator's plane goes down in the desert, where, with his supply of water running out and fearing for his survival, he encounters a strange, golden-haired boy and learns about the boy's home, an asteroid that boasts three volcanoes — one extinct — as well as a horde of troublesome baobab trees whose powerful roots threaten to tear the place apart, and a beautiful rose, with which the youngster is in love. The prince also spins satirical stories about the six planets he visited before Earth, each ruled by a foolishly eccentric man; the idea that adults are inherently ridiculous and only children can see clearly is central to the author's worldview. There are many autobiographical elements to the plot, the festival program explains. Saint-Exupéry himself spent several hallucinatory days in the Sahara after a plane crash, where he saw desert roses and encountered small desert foxes. The character of the Little Prince was inspired by his younger brother, Francois, who died of rheumatic fever. Director Philip C. Sneed is to be commended for using an adaptation (by Rick Cummins and John Scoullar) that sticks closely to the original text, and the spare, simple set, costumes and character groupings all refer to Saint-Exupéry's own watercolor illustrations. The Aviator tells us at the beginning how his attempts to draw as a boy were thwarted by the incomprehension of adults — he thought he'd created a boa constrictor that had just swallowed an elephant; they saw only a hat — and the production focuses closely on the act of drawing throughout. The Aviator sketches the scenes the prince describes, and we see the results on a screen; this makes for a dynamic illustration of the ways in which art and imagination shape reality. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 14, University Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed June 30.
Romeo and Juliet. The casting for this Romeo and Juliet is unusually strong, at least with Jamie Ann Romero as a tender and radiant Juliet. As Romeo, Benjamin Bonenfant is an absolute charmer through the first half of the evening, quieter and more feeling than his friends, funny in his romantic hormonal confusion, moving in his interactions with Juliet — but when things go drastically wrong, the performance falters. The more Romeo grieves, the more Bonenfant runs his words together into an undifferentiated stream. Yes, Romeo is sometimes a blubbering child — after all, he is not much older than Juliet — but we'd like to see him man up by the death scene. Geoffrey Kent's Mercutio is juicy, funny and energetic. His rendition of the Queen Mab speech is superb, a textbook example of how to vivify a monologue everyone has heard a thousand times before. Where Juliet's Nurse is often a chattering fool, an irrelevance, Leslie O'Carroll makes her flesh and blood — a feisty peasant, full of warmth and humor, limited in her way but so essentially strong that she easily removes the sting from the shameful scene in which Romeo's friends torment her. If ever there was a woman, peasant or no, who could take on these callow young aristocrats, it's this Nurse. In Mark Rubald's hands, Lord Capulet changes from a reasonably kind authoritarian to a family head so violent that you're forced to understand why the Nurse gives in to him, and Lady Capulet — an intense, etched-in-acid portrayal by Karen Slack — turns on Juliet with a mix of vindictive rage and baffled tenderness. By our standards, Lord Capulet is a batterer. By the standards of his time, he's just doing what's expected. If you want to find the root of the tribalism that dooms young love, look no further than here. Lynne Collins has directed a clean, swift, well-orchestrated production, with loads of adrenaline and testosterone sloshing around, a few stumbles and many nice touches. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 13, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed July 7.
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