Five Shows on Denver Stages, Including Two Closing This Weekend

On local stages this weekend, you can catch everything from songs of the Harlem Renaissance to the wit of the late Molly Ivins in the final performances of  Red Hot Patriot revival. Here are capsule reviews of five productions this weekend.

Ain't Misbehavin'. “The Reefer Song,” performed by Leonard E. Barrett with languid, stoned elegance, shows off both the actor’s showmanship and his supple jazz singer’s voice, and it's sufficient reason all by itself to attend Ain’t Misbehavin', a tribute to legendary singer-composer Fats Waller of the Harlem Renaissance. But you don’t just get this song. You get four amazing performers in addition to Barrett — Shashauna Nickelson, Cicely O’Kain, Hannah Wheeler and Dwayne Carrington — stomping, emoting, hip-thrusting and singing their way through a feast of music, songs composed in the first three or four decades of the twentieth century that range from raunchy to mournful, sensual to satiric. You hear familiar numbers like the show’s title song and “This Joint Is Jumpin’,” and others that are completely surprising and unknown – for example, a parody called “When the Nylons Bloom Again.” Carrington and O’Kain harmonize on “Honeysuckle Rose”; Nickelson, plaintive, sweet and sexy, exhorts her “daddy” to “Squeeze Me”; Hannah Wheeler confides that she’s “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” And everyone comes together for the profoundly touching “Black and Blue.” The production is deliberately bare-bones and the sound system is a little iffy, but the actors give their all. Meanwhile, at the piano, Eric Weinstein makes sure the joint keeps jumping. The result is an evening of pure entertainment, and you’ll be humming the songs all the way home and well into the smoky night. Presented by Vintage Theatre through April 26, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, 303-856-7830, Read the complete review here.

Big Fish. A wealth of talent and ingenuity went into this production of Big Fish, but unfortunately, the musical— a story about tall tales — just isn’t worth it. Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman from a small Alabama town, tells these tales — featuring a giant, mermaids and a fortune-telling witch, among other magical creatures — to his son, Will. Enchanted as a youngster, Will becomes more skeptical as he matures, noting that his father always keeps himself firmly at the center of all his stories and appears unable to shift focus when his family needs him. The relationship between father and son is at the heart of this narrative, which also explores questions about the nature of Edward’s fantasy life: Is he purely self-aggrandizing, or is he trying to teach his son important lessons about how to push back the boundaries of the possible and the role of magic in our ordinary, everyday lives? At first, all of this is quite enchanting — but the story is thin, the songs derivative and the characters stereotypical. Edward himself should have some complexity; we’re eventually supposed to see the visionary behind the teller of tall tales. But how can we when those tales are flat and unimaginative and sound as if someone had tossed together bits and pieces of fairy stories while leaving out their structure and all metaphorical and psychological implications? Presented by the Aurora Fox through March 22, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-739-1970, Read the complete review here.

In the Red and Brown Water. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size was staged by Curious last year and will return in summer; another in McCraney’s Brother/Sister Plays trilogy, In the Red and Brown Water, is currently showing; and the third will see production next year. The central character in In the Red and Brown Water is Oya; the name belongs to a Yoruba deity connected with tempests, winds and the flow of rivers. She is a teenage runner whose athletic talents may promise an escape from the Louisiana projects where she lives with her mother. Sure enough, she’s offered a scholarship. But by now, Mama Moja is ill and Oya feels unable to leave. This fateful decision traps Oya and shapes the rest of her tormented life as she partners with Ogun, falls for the warrior Shango, and discovers to her unending grief that she is barren. In The Brothers Size, symbolism and realism worked together and the characters felt like real people; the fact that they were named for gods added dimension and richness rather than dictating the action. But here Oya remains a figurehead. You understand her desperation intellectually, but you don’t feel it emotionally. Instead of deepening the action or pulling you in, the way dance does, McCraney’s dramatic devices seem like an overlay — fascinating at times, irrelevant at others. When this story does blaze into life, however, it’s because of McCraney’s astonishing language, and there are some fine, clear performances. As the trickster Elegba, Damion Hoover makes every sizzling word clear. And when Cajardo Rameer Lindsey, playing Ogun, declares his love to Oya, he simply and quietly lays open your heart. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through April 18, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, Read the complete review here.

Next to Normal. The musical Next to Normal garnered a Pulitzer for composer Tom Kitt and writer Brian Yorkey and high praise from critics, in part because it dealt with the ugly realities of mental illness — an unusual and courageous focus for a generally upbeat and unrealistic medium. At the center of the plot is Diana — smart, self-possessed and cynical, but, as we soon discover, fighting bipolar demons. Her disease can be off-putting: She’s querulous and angry, so absorbed by the rickety workings of her own mind that she can barely spare a moment’s attention for anyone else — but somehow you still empathize with her suffering and appreciate her brave and incisive attempts at humor. Diana never recovered from the loss of her first child, a son who died at eight months old and would have been eighteen at the time the action begins. Because of her obsession with him, she neglects her husband, Dan, who long ago set aside his own needs to take care of hers, and her daughter, Natalie, a perfectionist high-schooler who struggles to be seen and acknowledged by her parents and senses within herself the dangerous shards of her mother’s illness. Seventeen-year-old stoner Henry introduces her to pot and jazz; Natalie moves beyond his tutelage to embrace musical chaos and the dozens of pills and potions in her mother’s medicine cabinet. This is the most revelatory production of Next to Normal to hit town so far. Under Nick Sugar’s empathetic direction, all the singers perform with subtlety and finesse. Their fine voices aren’t overmiked; you can savor the musical dynamics and understand the lyrics. Donna Kolpan Debreceni’s musical direction always carries a kind of joyous skip, and she and her musicians provide a vital antidote to the score’s occasional portentousness. Margie Lamb played Diana well in a fine previous production. Now she’s even better. She owns every aspect of the role, giving us all the character’s complexities in one prickly, scintillating package. Jacquie Jo Billings is an appealing Natalie, so glowy and young at the beginning, so lost later. And Daniel Langhoff gives his all in a moving performance as weary, loving Dan. In all, there’s a lot to celebrate in this fully realized and emotionally rich production. Presented by Town Hall Arts Center through March 15, 2450 West Main Street, Littleton, 303-794-2787, Read the complete review here.

Red Hot Patriot. Molly Ivins was a familiar figure in Colorado. For a while, she was the Rocky Mountain bureau chief for the New York Times. The staid gray lady had hired her away from the Texas Observer to spice up its pages, but the editors decided fairly rapidly that they didn’t want quite that much spice. Ivins was also a regular at the University of Colorado’s Conference on World Affairs, where she could be found year after year, laughing and holding forth between sessions to a group of acolytes, and where her panels and speeches were always thronged. Ivins died of breast cancer in 2007, at the age of 62, and arguably a certain style of journalism — and a certain mystique — died with her. Among other things, Ivins helped break the gender barrier, and she did it as a dame, a broad, a liberal in a deep red state, a fiery populist. She loved skewering members of the Texas legislature, and they — as she freely admitted — gave her an awful lot to work with. It was Ivins who dubbed George W. Bush “Shrub.” Red Hot Patriot begins with Ivins at her desk, attempting to write a column about her father — a man as stubborn and tough as herself, but with politics diametrically opposed to her own. This leads her to reminisce about her life and work. The play quotes freely from her writing, and we get nuggets of her wit throughout. We hear parodistic descriptions of various politicians and power figures, and listen to her describe, with a mix of mockery and real feeling, the dog she named Shit and kept with her for fourteen years. There’s also her realization that alcohol has become a problem, and her response, both somber and funny, to her cancer diagnosis. You couldn’t find a better actor to portray Ivins than Rhonda Brown, who brings great vitality to the role and creates a figure both vulnerable and imposing. Revived through March 15 at the Aurora Fox Arts Center, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, 303-739-1070, See our original 2012 review here.
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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman