Capsule Reviews

Dennis Brown and Deanna Jent suss out local theater

Chicago This bump-and-grind extravaganza pretends to be a 1920s nightclub act, but there's not much in the costuming to point to that time period (there's not much to the costumes, period). No matter -- the historical setting is hardly relevant. Roz Ryan steals the show as Matron "Mama" Morton, but when she's not on stage, Bianca Marroquin as Roxie Hart and Brenda Braxton as rival Velma Kelly create believable tension. Gregory Harrison is endearing as the self-absorbed lawyer Billy Flynn. The climactic courtroom scene is stunningly staged, with glittering confetti raining down as Flynn triumphs. Chicago is all about flash and dazzle, and except for a Mary Sunshine whose utterances can't be made out, this production delivers. Through November 21 at the Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Boulevard; 314-534-1111. (Deanna Jent)

Cloud Nine Reviewed in this issue.

Defending the Caveman A sitcom-mentality stage play "experience" without the pesky problems of character relationships or plot. Creator and original performer Rob Becker romanticizes cave people as a model society: They respected and honored gender differences. Nobody called the cave woman a bitch; nobody called the cave man an asshole (perhaps because language hadn't yet been invented?). Current Caveman Kevin Burke is an adept comedian; it's not his fault the material doesn't really build. Burke is essentially playing Burke -- a guy like lots of guys, talking directly to the audience and pointing out our humorous human failings. If that sounds like your cup of tequila, you'll find an ample serving in this production, as well as ample servings of other alcoholic beverages in the theater bar. Open-ended run at the Playhouse at West Port Plaza, 635 West Port Plaza (second level), Page Avenue and I-270, Maryland Heights. Call 314-469-7529. (DJ)

Eagle and Child: J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis In this compelling Historyonics production, Jason Cannon chronicles the friendship between two prolific writers. Instead of proceeding chronologically, Cannon's script moves back and forth in time, allowing the audience to see connections between Tolkien's and Lewis' work and their life experiences. The acting -- by author Cannon, Christopher Hickey, Terry Meddows, Meghan Maguire and Larry Roberson -- is topnotch, as are the choice of music and the scenic design and lighting. Some may find the philosophical discussions of myth, faith and forgiveness a trifle erudite; perhaps we're not accustomed to being intellectually challenged and dramatically fulfilled at the same time. Through November 21 in the Des Lee Auditorium of the Missouri History Museum, Lindell Boulevard and DeBaliviere Avenue. Call 314-361-5858. (DJ)

The Exonerated Reviewed in this issue.

Funny Girl Though Carrie Wenos as Fanny Brice starts on a dazzling note with "I'm the Greatest Star," that's the high point of the production. Later numbers are sabotaged by overly loud orchestration or lack of comic timing. It's a huge project for the small stage of the Theatre Guild, and for the most part the scene shifts are streamlined and suitably downscaled. Dan Horst does some nifty dancing as Eddie Ryan, and Ed Brekel hits believable emotional notes as Nick Arnstein. Wenos possesses a beautiful voice, but it takes huge vocal power to sell "Don't Rain on My Parade," and she's not quite there yet. Director Will Travis Carson finds some engaging stage pictures, particularly when using the dressing-room mirror as a framing device. Through November 21 at the Theatre Guild of Webster Groves, 517 Theatre Lane, Webster Groves. Call 314-962-0876. (DJ)

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change These twenty sketches about dating (I love you), wedding rituals (you're perfect) and the challenges of marriage (now change) vary from hilarious to forgettable. But the production is so full of insouciant good cheer, it's difficult to imagine anyone not finding something to like. So what if by the end of Act Two you've forgotten much of what you saw in Act One? In times like these, a little forgetting can be a good thing, and escapism even better. Performed by HotCity Theatre through December 12 at the ArtLoft Theatre, 1527 Washington Avenue. Call 314-241-1517. (Dennis Brown)

It's a Wonderful Life -- Live! Chopper Leifheit's dead-on impression of Jimmy Stewart is the best reason to see this tribute to/spoof of the classic Christmas film. Julie Layton is delightful as Mary Bailey, and an energetic ensemble keeps this 70-minute production running at top speed. Donna Northcott's adaptation is funniest when it's truest to the movie; the action and humor both lag when exaggerated character bits are repeated. Even if you don't love the movie, you'll find joy in the manic stage solutions to movie magic: Ian Carlson provides some of the funniest moments as a picket fence and a snowflake thrower. Presented by Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre through November 27 at the Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar Boulevard. Call 314-534-1111. (DJ)

Jane Eyre This lush musical adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel about the plain governess who must learn to be brave enough to love took an agonizingly long time (and many incarnations) to finally reach Broadway four years ago. Although its run was disappointingly brief, the show has its fierce advocates, and it's easy to hear why. Many of the songs soar -- even when played on a single piano, as they are here. So here's a thought: Forget that Jane Eyre already had an elaborate Broadway production. Instead of thinking of this rendition as pared-down, try to imagine it as a sort of elaborate backers' audition, where your own imagination can enhance the evening. Doubtless you'll conclude that what works best here is what has always been the most intriguing part of Brontë's tale -- the relationship between Jane (Tina Poynter) and the moody Mr. Rochester (Doug Erwin). Performed by Curtain Call Repertory Theatre through November 21 at the Carousel House in Faust Park, 15185 Olive Boulevard, Chesterfield. Call 636-346-7707. (DB)

Late Night Catechism Gum lovers beware: Sister will tolerate no chewing in her class. Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan's long-running play is back at the Grandel, this time starring veteran Chicago improv performer Mary Beth Burns. A combination of religious instruction, audience interaction and game-show antics, Catechism is a wildly witty and slightly scary encounter with the myths and realities of Catholicism. The delight of the show is Burns' constant interplay with the audience. Whisperers are called to order. Latecomers are fined. Everyone must address Sister in full sentences and prizes are awarded for correct answers. With so much of each performance depending on audience responses for fuel, Catechism is clearly a different show each night, and Burns seems to revel in that. Her twinkling eyes search the audience for new material even as she works details from earlier stories into running gags. Class is in session for an open-ended run upstairs at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square. Call 314-534-1111. (DJ)

Proof Reviewed in this issue.

Romance in D Charlotte Dougherty and Tim Schall play quirky neighbors who develop a romance in this shake-and-bake script by James Sherman. Their respective portrayals bring out unexpected moments of humor: Dougherty squirting Hershey's chocolate syrup directly into her mouth, Schall's loving creation of the perfect lox-and-bagel combination. Great design elements help buoy the story, which takes a long time revving up and then seems to end too early. A parallel romance between the neighbors' parents, played by Sally Eaton and Bill Bannister, is a fun idea but poorly written. There's a lot of potential here, but it doesn't bear consistent fruit. A little fine-tuning may resolve the dissonant chords and create a more consistent harmony among the elements. Presented by Spotlight Theatre through November 21 at the Soulard Theatre, 1921 South Ninth Street. Call 314-918-8424. (DJ)

Rumors Neil Simon's only full-length farce starts frantic. Then about halfway through Act One -- after most of the delightfully idiosyncratic characters have been introduced -- it turns funny. And it gets funnier and funnier as the evening proceeds. The plot (four ditzy upscale couples strive to assist an unseen friend who appears to have attempted suicide) is essentially an empty vessel that allows the script to become a veritable compendium of comedy. Directed with flair and respect by Gary Wayne Barker, the student cast has a pretty good time of it. Sometimes they carry the script; sometimes the script carries them. But by the final curtain, cast and play have arrived at the same place at the same time, a draw that allows the audience to leave the theater sporting broad smiles. Performed by Saint Louis University Theatre through November 20 in Xavier Hall, 3733 West Pine Mall (on the SLU campus). Call 314-977-3327. (DB)

Schoolhouse Rock Live! What were you doing on Saturday mornings between 1973 and 1985? If you were home watching Schoolhouse Rock on TV, this musical is for you. Or if not you, how about your kids? The premise here, as it was on television, is very simple: Learning should be fun. Fun is very much in abundance as this children's show works through a 45-minute set of the show's greatest hits. English, math, science and social studies are explained with delightful clarity. Even if you think you already know your nouns, adjectives and conjunctions, you're sure to be charmed by such infectious harmony, especially if you experience it through the eyes of a child. Performed by the DramaRama Theatre Company November 20 and 21 at the West County YMCA, 16464 Burkhardt Place, Chesterfield. Call 314-605-7788 for info. (DB)

Triple Espresso Move over, Nunsense and Forever Plaid. Here comes another crowd-pleasing phenom that's shamelessly determined to make you laugh. As this reunion of a 1970s musical trio plays out at the Triple Espresso nightclub, the evening is not so much a play as a series of set pieces. Some are more amusing than others, but if you ever wondered how the Three Stooges would attack Chariots of Fire, this is the show for you. In their determination to amuse, the three performers (Patrick Albanese, John Bush and J.C. Cutler) effect a take-no-prisoners approach to the material. A viewer's best response is simply to surrender early and laugh along with the crowd. Through November 21 at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square. Call 314-534-1111. (DB)

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