Beauty and the Beast. Though it's backed by expert musicians and technicians, the real miracle is the Phamaly company itself. The leads are as good as — and often better than — anyone you'll see anywhere. Jenna Bainbridge is the sweetest Belle imaginable, with a clear, strong soprano and, paradoxically, given her fragile prettiness, a commanding on-stage presence. Leonard Barrett's Beast carries a sorrowful dignity, and the actor's subtle, powerful singing makes "If I Can't Love Her" a heart-stopper. When he actually transforms and we see his face — after a longish smoke-and-music-filled interlude — it's magic, pure and simple. And these are only two of many terrific performances. Artistic director Steve Wilson not only accommodates his actors' disabilities, but uses them to add fascinating bits of business and layers of complexity. As for the big numbers, they're done with a spirit, precision and intelligence that transforms hackneyed songs into straightforward pleasure. Presented by Phamaly through August 15, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-575-0005, www.phamaly.org.
Garage Sale Loud: This Is It. Almost every summer, the folks at Heritage Square stage what is essentially a musical review with a thin sustaining plot line and the word "loud" in the title. The conceit is that T.J. Mullin and Annie Dwyer are siblings, and they're reliving their youth: teenage band rehearsals, high-school reunions. This time, their mom is moving into a retirement home, and they're trying to sell off all the stuff left in the garage. They're joined by Rory Pierce, who says he bought the house over the Internet; Alex Crawford, who has apparently just wandered by; and the family's onetime lawn boy, Charlie Schmidt, wearing the same tiny shorts he must have worn at fifteen. It only takes a stray phrase or turn in the action for everyone to burst into song: "Blowin' in the Wind," "Blue Moon," "Help," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "I Get Around" — a promiscuous mishmash of hits from various decades, apparently picked because the performers happen to like them. Mullin does a hilarious impression of Mick Jagger singing "Jumping Jack Flash"; Crawford rocks on James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)"; and Pierce's tongue gets a heavy workout as he impersonates Kiss. The most mind-blowing number is Beyoncé's "Single Ladies," with Pierce, Mullin and Schmidt as a leotard-clad chorus. Heritage Square has been hit hard by the economic downturn, and it's imperative that it attract new fans. So the troupe is mulling ways to convince Denverites that Golden really isn't so far away and wondering how to attract younger viewers without losing the essence of what they do —which, night after night, is to create community and share laughter. Presented by Heritage Square Music Hall through September 5, 18301 West Colfax Avenue, Golden, 303-279-7800, www.hsmusichall.com. Reviewed June 17.
Peter Pan. The folks at Boulder's Dinner Theatre approach Peter Pan with such imagination, intelligence, respect and — above all — giddy exuberance that you can't help enjoying yourself. Little boys are sure to love Captain Hook and the ferocious crocodile with the clock ticking away inside him. And how could any little girl resist the idea of flying off into the night in search of adventure with a white-nightgowned Wendy, and being so loved and needed by the Lost Boys? Not to mention Nana, the fluffy white dog who serves as the children's caretaker. The only drawback is the depiction of Native Americans, who are shown as pure 1950s Disney figures, wearing long black wigs and fringed costumes, drumming, stomping, chanting and singing a ghastly song called "Ugh-a-Wug." Still, there are loads of good things about the production, and J.M. Barrie's words still cast a spell. Director Scott Beyette and his actors even respect the story's darker overtones: Captain Hook may be a pussycat and the battles staged to be comic, but the story's psychological ambiguities seep through. As played by Joanie Brosseau-Beyette, Peter Pan is a tough little customer who can wreak havoc if he wants, and who has very little loyalty or conscience. This is offset by Brosseau-Beyette's cheekiness and charm, as well as her terrific singing voice. Best of all is the flying. It doesn't matter that you know it's coming; it doesn't matter that you can see the lines attached to the actors' backs. When Peter Pan rises into the air and Wendy, John and Michael follow — startled, kicking and laughing — it's pure magic. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through September 4, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdunnertheatre.com. Reviewed June 3.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile. The premise of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, an entirely ahistorical play by Steve Martin, is that Picasso and Einstein met at an artists' hangout in Montmartre in 1904; the result is a meditation on the nature of creativity and the role of science and art in the twentieth century, complete with silly jokes, clever jokes, flashes of erudition and periodic, almost-profound insights. The lobby of the Barth Hotel, built in 1881 and renovated in 1930, is the perfect setting, adding a fascinating patina that speaks both of time passing and of timelessness. The Einstein we meet is a very young man who has inklings of his own genius, but no assurance of it; the Special Theory of Relativity will not be published for another year. Picasso is already somewhat recognized, though hardly world-famous, full of ego and appetite. The other characters include Freddy, the owner of the Lapin Agile, and his attractive wife, Germaine; Gaston, a regular customer with a weak bladder; Sagot, Picasso's agent; Schmendiman, an idiot entrepreneur from the future, irresistibly reminiscent of the kind of mind that gave us inspirational seminars and Crocs; and a second visitor from the future, who turns out to be one of the play's most interesting surprises. The production is well-paced, well-acted and thoughtfully directed. A lovely surprise is ZZ Moore, making her Denver debut as a Suzanne so poised, graceful and intelligent that you can't take your eyes off her. Picasso at the Lapin Agile is being mounted as a fundraiser for Senior Housing Options, so buying a ticket is a good deed — but it's also your entree to a delightful time. Presented through August 14 at the Barth Hotel, 1410 17th Street, 303-595-4464, www/seniorhousingoptions.org. Reviewed July 15.
The Real Thing. The first scene in this play is between a husband and the wife he suspects of adultery. She has just returned from a purported business trip to Switzerland, which he believes she never took. The dialogue is swift and urbane, with wry ruminations on digital watches, the Japanese and whales. He airs his suspicions; she leaves. The woman enters a second living room. And, lo, there's her husband. A different husband. This is the home that Charlotte shares with her playwright husband, Henry, and the first scene turns out to be from one of his plays, House of Cards. There's more dialogue, still very witty, but not quite as self-consciously so. The man from the first scene enters with his wife. He's Max, she's Annie; both are actors. Of course, there are adulterous undercurrents. Annie and Henry are in love. When it comes to light, Charlotte takes Henry and Annie's affair in stride, but Max's response is nothing like that of the urbane character he played in House of Cards. He falls messily, miserably apart. By the second act, Henry is forced to face the questions suggested by the title: What is love? How do you settle into a long-term commitment when your partner is faithless, feral Annie — whom, nonetheless, he desperately loves. Henry would like to write a play about love more grounded than House of Cards, but in the face of the real thing, words fail him. The genius of Tom Stoppard's play is in the coruscating dialogue, and the cast is certainly up to it. Unfortunately, the playing space dissipates sound, and if you can't hear every word, you're not getting The Real Thing. Presented by Paragon Theatre through August 14, 1387 South Santa Fe Drive, 303-300-2210, www.paragontheatre.com. Reviewed August 5.