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.
Dixie's Tupperware Party. Dixie is a booze- and sex-addicted, trash-talking, child-neglecting ex-con from Alabama who holds Tupperware parties in her trailer, and she's invited you to this one. Dixie's Tupperware Party at the Galleria really is a Tupperware party — you get a name tag and raffle number when you come in, and there are pens and catalogues on all the tables. Dixie, your hostess, greets you in high white heels and a crotch-skimming skirt, earrings swinging, red hair piled high. Collapsible bowls, punch and party setups, plastic jugs and ribbed mugs (uh-huh) gleam in shades of lime, blue, orange and purple on a table behind her; by the time she's through, you won't be able to look at a plastic storage container without giggling. Just the words "collapsible bowl" will set you off. Dixie is also Kris Andersson, an actor who realized he could make an actual living selling Tupperware and began hosting parties. As he worked, the character of Dixie developed. Andersson brought his show to New York's Fringe Festival in 2004, and it caught fire from there. This production is seriously dirty, and it's also one terrific evening. Dixie is a great character: She doesn't give an inch, but she's as appealing as she is wicked. And Andersson not only loves Dixie, but he loves Tupperware, too — and he's not being snarky about it. So no matter how much Dixie screws up her spiel or how many lewd jokes she makes about the uses to which you can put "the best plastic crap on the planet," there's a reverential quality to the way she fondles the goods that makes you actually want to buy them. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through January 2, Garner Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed December 9.
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.
A Lie of the Mind. We hear a voice talking in the darkness: Jake, on the phone with his younger brother, Frankie, explaining that he's just beaten his wife Beth to death. At Frankie's urging, Jake retreats to his family home and the questionable comfort of his far-too-attached mother, Lorraine, and severely disenchanted sister, Sally. Meanwhile Beth, who isn't dead but is horribly brain-damaged, is being taken care of by her own luridly dysfunctional family.
A Lie of the Mindis in large part an indictment of maleness — or at least of male conventions — and in general, the women are saner and kinder than the men. Both Beth and her mother, Meg, remain capable of love; Jake's vengeful mother creates the transformative final image of a fire burning in the snow. The language is profoundly evocative, as in all of Sam Shepard's work, and there are resonant themes involving language, myth and identity. But this is not an entirely successful play. Like its characters, it has an unhinged, frantic, broken quality. Still, Paragon has put together a very strong cast, and, as Beth and Meg, respectively, Emily Paton Davies and Patty Mintz Figel provide the evening's heart, their performances illuminating the central theme of humankind's existential loneliness and the understanding most of us share that love, no matter how vicious and corrupt, is the only protection we can carry with us into the void. Presented by Paragon Theatre through August 13, 1387 Santa Fe Drive, 303-300-2210, www.paragontheatre.org. Reviewed July 28.
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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.
A Touch of Spring. A Touch of Spring, Samuel Taylor's rarely performed 1968 comedy, has one foot in the '50s (it's set in 1959) and another in the late '60s, that era of questioning and boundary-pushing. It starts out as a charming romantic comedy, but after a brief, exhilarating fling with genuine iconoclasm, it falls back into conventionality, with a conclusion that's a little wicked — at least for the time — but also deeply disappointing. We first encounter Sandy and Diana Claiborne in an expensive hotel in Rome. He's a business tycoon, she's high society, and they're behaving like the typical ugly Americans abroad. They're in town to collect the corpse of Sandy's father, who died in a car accident, and then hurry back home. But no sooner has impatient Diana huffed back to the States than Alison, a young Englishwoman, appears with an errand similar to Sandy's. Her mother died in the same car accident as his father, and Sandy is the only one who takes more than a second to figure out just what this means. The one truly original character in the play is Baldassare Pantaleone, or Baldo, a fast-talking young Italian operator who can fix balky appliances, blow through the bureaucracy and reveal the sensual joys of Italy to both Sandy and Alison. But Baldo leaves the stage halfway through the action, sticking us with the lovers and dialogue so insipid that it's impossible to care very much how this affair turns out. As Baldo, Michael Bouchard runs off with the evening. Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through August 28, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, www.minersalley.com. Reviewed July 28.
Uncle Vanya. Most audiences these days simply don't know what to make of Chekhov: all those talky Russians airing their deepest desires and despairs, periodically insulting each other, occasionally bursting through with declarations of unrequited love. Nor do we really understand Chekhov's times. Our fondness for nature is tempered by the knowledge that the nearest pizza slice is only a car ride away — a perspective that in no way clues us into the brutal isolation of rural Russia in the late nineteenth century. Like most of Chekhov's dramas, Uncle Vanya has little overt action and no straightforward plot line — just talk, humans bumping up against each other, small psychological revelations. Although Chekhov called his plays comedies, the overall tone in most productions of his plays is of subdued and baffled tragedy. Ed Baierlein has produced the first comic Vanya I've ever seen, and while a few scenes come dangerously close to farcical, overall the tone works. At Vanya's house, the dreary daily tasks are done by Vanya's niece Sonya and the old nurse, Marina. The household rhythms are disrupted by the arrival of Vanya's self-important art-professor brother, Alexandr — Sonya's father — and Alexandr's beautiful and much younger wife, Yelena. Astrov is the perennial outsider, a doctor who has come to believe that all his healing work is useless. Vanya is in love with Yelena, who's tired of her hypochondriacal husband, and so is the good doctor Astro — for whom Sonya has been yearning for many years. Led by some very strong performances, the cast makes these people both sad and silly, saving them from absolute silliness with rueful self-awareness and a kind of bitter humor. This Vanya is a strong reminder of why this thirty-year-old company remains a formidable theatrical force. Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through August 28, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com. Reviewed August 4.