Cookin' at the Cookery. Singer Alberta Hunter had an extraordinary life. She left her Memphis home at the age of twelve for Chicago, where she got her start at a rough club called Dago Frank's. Eventually, she moved to New York City, becoming part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. During the '30s, like many black artists, she found refuge in Europe from the racism of her native country, and she won stardom and acclaim there. Astonishingly, at the age of 59, she quit music to take a nursing course. She worked at a hospital in New York City for twenty years before returning to the stage at the age of 81. All these details are faithfully recorded in Cookin' at the Cookery, but the script seems oddly generic. You never feel that you actually understand anything about this woman that you couldn't have learned from reading a brief bio. Two actresses carry the show. Ernestine Jackson plays Alberta Hunter; Janice Lorraine moves from role to role: she's an impresario, the "ugliest woman God ever put breath in," Louis Armstrong, the show's narrator and the young Hunter herself. Despite some weaknesses in the script, the music and singing might have ultimately rescued the evening if it weren't for the ugly, sound-distorting mikes shadowing the women's faces. In a venue the size of the Denver Civic, the human voice should certainly be able to prevail -- particularly when it's the magnificent voice of Ernestine Jackson singing the music of Alberta Hunter. Presented by Denver Civic Theatre through March 7, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 303-309-3773, www.denvercivic.com. Reviewed February 19.
I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change! Four talented, charming, energetic performers work seamlessly together to create an evening of song and skit that's almost pure celebratory froth, with just the smallest undertone of genuine feeling. One could wish for more bite, but the humor's exuberant and the songs clever -- and everyone needs a helping of peach soufflé now and then. In an open-ended run at the Garner Galleria Theatre at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets, 303-893-4100. Reviewed September 13, 2001.
John Brown's Body. John Brown's Body isn't exactly a play. It's an adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet's famous 1928 epic poem about the Civil War, and, like all epics, it's a kind of episodic tapestry. There's chanting and singing. Actors are sometimes specific characters, and they sometimes serve -- singly or in groups -- as narrators. Some incidents represent self-contained vignettes, while others involve the unfolding of a particular character's story. The famous make their appearances -- John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, General Robert E. Lee -- and they mingle with fictional people. What is explored in some depth is the war itself. John Brown's Body has many themes, first among them the unadulterated evil of slavery. There's also the decisive effect one strong-willed person can have on history, the horror of war, the transcendent power of love, the meaning of nationhood. We understand from this text how subtle, murky and ultimately incomprehensible history is. The cast is stunning, and Larry Delinger's multifaceted music plays a huge role in the evening's success. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 28. The Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 12.
Current theater productions
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Meshuggah Nuns. Meshuggah Nuns is the kind of show that seems to have no real reason for being. It's inoffensive and even amusing in spots, but it also feels like something created for the sole purpose of filling up time on stage -- and in a world full of musicals with witty scripts and beautiful or sophisticated songs, it's unclear why any company would waste time on it. There are songs, puns and a lot of Jewish-Catholic jokes, many of them pretty standard. The Country Dinner Theatre production is tight and clean, and the cast so talented that they almost manage to pull the evening off. Presented by the Country Dinner Playhouse through March 14, 6875 South Clinton Street, Greenwood Village, 303-799-1410, www.countrydinnerplayhouse.com. Reviewed January 29.
No Man's Land. No Man's Land starts with two men in a room, both apparently poets. The host is Hirst. He seems to have met his guest, Spooner, at the local pub. The men's stories shift and change, flowing like water into whatever verbal vessel Harold Pinter has prepared. The playwright makes use of all kinds of tropes. Sometimes his words seem lifted from a summer romance or a detective novel. Sometimes he echoes Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco or even earlier Pinter. There are sections that are extraordinarily funny. Ultimately, we're left with a handful of questions: What does Spooner want from Hirst and Hirst from Spooner? Why does Hirst fall to the floor after telling Spooner of a dream in which someone was drowning? Despite all this, No Man's Land is anything but cloudy. There's something dizzying and exhilarating about its rarefied atmosphere, its off-kilter rhythms, and Ed Baierlein fascinates in the role of Spooner. Presented by the Germinal Stage through March 7, Germinal Stage Denver, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108. Reviewed February 19.
Visiting Mr. Green. In and off itself, Jeff Baron's play is a slight one, but meticulous production values and Ben Hammer's rich and grounded interpretation of the title character make it soar. A young business executive is ordered by a judge to pay weekly visits to the old man he almost hit with his car. He's annoyed at the obligation, and the befuddled, angry old man doesn't want him around anyway. But the judge is adamant. We all have some sense of what will happen next. These unlikely people will come to know each other, acquire mutual respect and understanding and form some kind of bond. But the devil -- and God -- is in the details. Though the dialogue feels flat at first, things soon become genuinely interesting, even mildly surprising. We're treated to insight, humor derived from real, gritty human foibles and a deeply touching ending. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through March 27, The Jones Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 5.