The fall theater season is in full swing, with very contemporary productions of such classics as Oklahoma!, as well as other productions that take on controversial issues both past and present. And then there's Mamma Mia!.... Keep reading for capsule reviews of five shows now on local stages.
The Cake. When she’s approached by the daughter of a dear friend and asked to bake a wedding cake, confectioner Della is delighted. Her friend died some five years earlier, and she loves this girl, Jen, whom she hasn't seen in some time. But then Della learns that Jen’s intended is a woman, Macy, and her delight freezes into panic. Deeply religious, she simply cannot grant Jen’s request. Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake, currently receiving its regional premiere at Curious Theatre Company, is irresistibly reminiscent of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of Lakewood baker Jack Phillips, who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay male couple. But Brunstetter, who writes for the hit television series This Is Us, is not interested in the legalities. She approaches Della’s dilemma from a far more subtle and more humanistic perspective. Della isn’t narrow or judgmental. A warm-hearted and deeply loving woman, she’s a true believer, and steeped in the culture of small-town North Carolina — but she's also utterly distressed by her own decision and horrified at the thought of losing Jen’s affection. To complicate things, while Macy is a tough, terrifyingly smart, urban black woman, Jen is a gushing Southerner at heart, as torn as Della between her upbringing and the new world she’s discovering in Macy’s arms. While the play's first scenes are a touch shallow, the perspective soon deepens. All of Brunstetter’s characters are richly drawn, and the cast does each full justice: Michael Morgan as baffled, tied-in-knots Tim, Della’s husband; Alaina Beth Reel as a warm and charming Jen; Jada Suzanne Dixon, who gives Macy dignified reserve — and resolve. And, of course, Emma Messenger, whose passion and generosity as an actor mirror the love and passion in Della’s delicious cakes.
Presented by Curious Theatre Company through October 13, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org. Read the full review of The Cake.
Lungs. A young couple, named only W and M, are arguing in an Ikea store at the beginning of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs. He’s just brought up the idea of having a baby; she’s flummoxed, furious, amazed, intrigued, confused — and trying to sort her feelings in a welter of partial sentences, exclamations, flights of thought: She’s always wanted a baby. She’s not sure that she wants one just yet. What will a baby do to their life together? What about the terrible environmental costs of human beings’ constant breeding, when each new baby causes the release of the equivalent of 10,000 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere? In a sense, the play is a prolonged conversation. In fact, the words “talk” and “conversation” repeat continually. M and W like to debate the difference — they seem to see talk as honest and direct, conversation as virtuous but diffuse. Other repetitions are “good people,” as the couple tries to decide if they deserve the appellation, and “plant forests.” This isn’t a cute, narrowly focused relationship-and-baby story. The playwright is dead serious in his concern for the planet, and the play’s context is broad enough to eventually take in the life and death of individuals as well as planetary death. Despite the seriousness, Lungs is full of humor. Macmillan’s dialogue sizzles. It’s inordinately clever, full of surprising twists, turns and reversals, stylized but entirely convincing. M and W are fascinating people, twin masses of contradiction and half-digested insights, and Adrian Egolf and Luke Sorge, the extraordinary actors and off-stage married couple who play them, make the production unmissable. Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through October 14, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, minersalley.com. Read the full review of Lungs.
Mamma Mia! The plot for Mamma Mia! is silly and sitcom-thin. Pretty Sophie lives in a Greek taverna run by her mother, Donna. Sophie is about to get married and is determined to find out who her father is, since Donna slept around. There are three possibilities, each referred to in Donna’s diaries, which Sophie has read surreptitiously. So she invites all three men to the wedding, and eventually to walk her down the aisle — without telling Donna her plans — to the giggly glee of two good friends who were once backup singers in her band. Naturally, Donna is surprised and pissed, but it turns out she still has feelings for one of the men. Who knows why? None of the three has specific characteristics or even an interesting song, though one is an English financier, one an architect and one a travel writer. Then again, none of the men in this production has a voice that can carry the musical numbers based on ABBA songs that are the real reason the musical exists. Mariah MacFarlane (Sophie) has a lovely voice, though, and as Donna, Shannan Steele alone is reason to see this production. Presented by the Arvada Center through September 30, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org. Read the full review of Mamma Mia!
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Oklahoma! This Oklahoma! had me from the moment Antoine L. Smith’s Curly stepped onto the stage singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” No overture — just the figure of a cowboy; the weathered wood of the sparsely furnished set; and clouds scudding across the clear blue of an Oklahoma sky, along with the sheer joyousness of that open-hearted song and the pleasure of Smith’s warm, rich voice and presence. New DCPA Theatre Company artistic director Chris Coleman has decided to go with an all-black cast, and the result is intriguing. It gives those who instinctively populate Oklahoma! mentally with traditional movie cowboys like John Wayne and Gary Cooper a way of seeing the action through a new lens. It restores black people to their rightful role in history. And though most of Oklahoma’s black towns were lost to economic struggle by the 1940s, the show sounds a note of triumph and celebration: It’s about the dawn of a “beautiful morning,” the communal joy of a people claiming their place in the new world. Oklahoma!, which debuted in 1943, was one of the first musicals with a real plot, one that includes some serious darkness. Curly loves farm girl Laurey. Laurey won’t admit she loves Curly. They spar. Will Parker wants to marry Ado Annie, but her father is withholding permission. Besides, Ado Annie sleeps around. The darkness emanates from farm hand Jud Fry, a twisted, murderous loner who wants Laurey for himself. The casting is terrific, as is the staging. If you’ve seen the movie, you remember the women in swirling skirts and puffy sleeves. But when we first encounter Ta’Nika Gibson’s very appealing Laurey, she’s quietly down to earth and dressed in overalls. Her lovely voice melds beautifully with Smith’s on “People Will Say We’re in Love.” Coleman has taken a contemporary approach to a classic musical, and it’s a smashing success. Presented by the DCPA Theatre Company through October 14, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org. Read the full review of Oklahoma!
Vietgone. Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone is a clever, innovative, swift and lively piece of theater that tells the story of the playwright’s parents, Vietnamese refugees who met at Fort Chaffee, a refugee camp in Arkansas. To do so, it uses 1970s cultural references and satire; bright, broad imagery; and music, including hip-hop and rap, along with a killer fight with dark-clad ninjas that outdoes any kung fu movie — a fight that earned a sustained round of applause from the opening-night audience for both the actors’ athleticism and the astonishing choreography. A regional premiere directed by Seema Sueko, Vietgone opens the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company’s season and is the first production mounted under the leadership of new artistic director Chris Coleman. Beneath all the inspired craziness, there’s a touch of depth. “This is not a story about a foreign war," says the play's study guide. "It’s a story about falling in love in the land of Harleys, hot dogs and ‘howdy.’” But Vietgone can’t help being a story about war as well as love. Presented by the DCPA Theatre Company through September 30 in the Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org. Read the full review of Vietgone.