On Golden Pond. As this play opens, Norman and Ethel Thayer are moving back into their summer house in Maine. Every summer for 48 years, he's come here to fish and she to putter around, read, gather strawberries. This, their last visit, represents a slow, gentle fading. There's just a tiny bit of conflict. When daughter Chelsea — who's 42, with a couple of failed relationships behind her — arrives with her new boyfriend, Bill, and his teenage son, Billy, we learn that she harbors a great deal of anger toward her father. It's never clear quite why, though she does remember him calling her fat and ignoring her when she was young. Chelsea's angry with her mother, too, for not standing up for her. The problem with the 1979 script is that although Norman and Ethel are endearing, there's nothing particularly interesting about their lives. Most of the time you're watching cute bickering that feels like the dialogue in an above-average sitcom. Chelsea and Bill leave young Billy with her parents and set out on a trip to Europe. As Billy bonds with Norman, it becomes blindingly clear that Norman's big problem with his daughter is that he wanted a son all along. So when she returns and sees what has happened, does she weep, rage, rationalize? She doesn't do any of this — she can't, because her character isn't fully developed. It's always a treat to attend a play in the antique and elegant lobby of the Barth Hotel, one of fourteen residences maintained for elderly and disabled people by the nonprofit Senior Housing Options, a terrific agency. And in some ways, On Golden Pond is a perfect choice for the venue. But neither this fact, nor some wonderful acting — particularly Lawrence Hecht's magnificent turn as Norman — can ransom a turgid script. Presented at the Barth Hotel through August 30, 1514 17th Street, 303-595-4464, ext. 10, seniorhousingoptions.org. Reviewed August 7.
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Mack & Mabel. Mack & Mabel has a brilliant score and a piss-poor book. The musical purports to tell the story of the confused and conflicted love between Mack Sennett, impresario of the early comic silent movies, and Mabel Normand, the young woman he discovered and made a star. The score is by Jerry Herman, songwriter for Mame, Hello Dolly and La Cage Aux Folles, and is one of his best and most sophisticated – but the show still flopped on Broadway. There are humorous authentic musical touches, and the evening is lofted by one brilliant, exciting number after another – all well-performed by a troupe of accomplished singers and dancers. There's a terrific ditch-the-bum solo, "Wherever He Ain't," sung by the jilted Mabel; the lyrical not-quite-a-love song "I Won't Send Roses," in which Mack confesses his emotional inadequacy; "Look What's Happened to Mabel," an exuberant, toe-tapping celebration; and the bittersweet ballad "Time Heals Everything." But these songs might best be presented in concert on their own. The real Mack and Mabel story was dark. Sennett was a dictatorial swine and Mabel a self-destructive drug addict. Michael Stewart's book tries to have it both ways, including the dark elements, but minimizes them. Mabel is every adorable spunky little ingenue of the period and behaves off-screen exactly like her screen alter-ego. Sennett gets to sing an occasional self-reproachful lyric, but he stays grouchy throughout. The result is you never care much about them or the relationship. The moments in which Sennett arrives at his most famous ideas – the rows of bathing beauties, the Keystone Kops, the pie-in-the-face routine – are skillfully choreographed and well-timed. But though they're interesting, they're not really that funny. The odd, on-the-edge quality of "Hit 'Em On the Head," in which Sennett and his backers sing enthusiastically about the thumps, bumps and falls of 1920s movie comedy, exemplifies the dark-light nature of the material: the melody is bright and fast, the lyrics mildly sadistic. There's no reason a musical can't deliver complexity as well as entertainment, but that requires more psychological exploration than Stewart attempted. Presented by Vintage Theatre through September 14, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, 303-856-7830, vintagetheatre.org. Reviewed August 21.
Rent. The audience for Ignite Theatre's Rent is large, boisterous, young, and deeply involved with the action. This enthusiasm is matched by the enthusiasm on stage, the actors singing their hearts out and giving their all, clearly glad to be together and performing, thrilled with the material. Rent is a tribute to Puccini's La Bohème, transplanted with a strong dash of irony from Paris to New York's funky Lower East Side and set in the late 1980s. The artists here are filmmaker Mark and songwriter Roger, squatters in an abandoned flat. Roger's great love is a tough little exotic dancer, Mimi; Mark has just been dumped by performance artist Maureen for Joanne, a Princeton-educated attorney. Their friend Collins, a professor at NYU, is mugged as he arrives to visit and tended to on the street by cross-dressing street drummer Angel. The drug of choice is heroin, and in this version, early death comes not from tuberculosis, but from AIDS. The AIDS epidemic decimated the New York arts scene in the 1980s, but the plot rambles against that dramatic backdrop. Directors Keith Rabin and Amy Osatinski have gotten good-to-terrific performances from their cast. The absolute stunner is mezzo-soprano Lindsey Falduto, a clear, strong, lovely singer with a fiercely expressive stage presence as promiscuous Maureen. It must have been hard finding a Joanne who could match her for sheer magnetism, but Erica Trisler does it with a gutsy, grounded performance and a voice that plays nicely both with and against Falduto's. Still, there is a major problem with this otherwise vital production: Nearly the entire musical is sung, and while you sense subtlety, humor, pathos and complexity in the music, the sound quality is so poor that it all gets flattened. Every word of the songs has a felty fuzz around it, as if you'd hit the damper pedal on a piano. And the orchestration sometimes threatens to drown the singing. But with more focus on precision, choreography and detail, this fearless and ambitious company should be able carve out an important spot in the theater scene. Presented by Ignite Theatre through August 31 at the Aurora Fox, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 720-362-2697, ignitetheatre.com. Reviewed August 14.