Capsule Reviews 

Dennis Brown and Deanna Jent suss out local theater

All the Great Books (abridged) If your idea of a dream date is Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen or George Eliot, this literature-laced show will indulge your fantasies. Cast as remedial high school students, the audience has less than two hours to learn about "all the great books" so they can graduate. The three tutors are the gung-ho coach (Adam Richman) who scores with his chalk-talk version of Little Women and his impassioned recitation of events in War and Peace; Craig Baldwin, the drama teacher who performs Odysseus as William Shatner (beam me up) and Dustin Sullivan, the energetic student teacher who's like totally into current educational trends and political correctness but hasn't actually read the material. Co-authors Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor have created a contemporary vaudeville show that honors the best of that tradition. Produced by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through December 30 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves. Tickets are $13 to $61 (rush seats available for students and seniors, $8 and $10, respectively, 30 minutes before showtime). Call 314-968-4925 or visit (Deanna Jent)

The Merchant of Venice For the first four acts, this attempt by the New Jewish Theatre to transform Shylock, one of Shakespeare's most cunning villains, into a tragic hero is an intriguing experiment. But in Act Five, when Shylock disappears from the story, the production unravels and we find ourselves losing interest in the characters Shakespeare intended us to care about most. There are effective performances by Jerry Vogel as Shylock, by Kevin Beyer in the title role as the good Antonio and by a breezily charming Jim Butz as the wooing Bassanio. It's also lovely to see Shakespeare staged in such an intimate setting, where actors need not declaim their lines. But it would be even lovelier if the story held together for the entire evening rather than just 80 percent of it. Produced by the New Jewish Theatre through December 18 at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus, Creve Coeur. Tickets are $20 to $24. Call 314-442-3283 or visit (Dennis Brown)

The Nutcracker "Daddy, I really liked that!" an eight-year-old girl enthused during intermission of the Saint Louis Ballet's rendition of the holiday perennial. Indeed she should have: The velvet production about Clara's Christmas Eve fantasies in the Kingdom of the Sweets delights from beginning to end. In addition to the magical antics of the spooky Herr Drosselmeyer (Michael Monsey), Tchaikovsky's score plays like a greatest-hits album. If you're able to take your eyes from the stage, check out the young audience of future ballerinas, each reveling under the spell of sugarplum fairies and snow queens. The Saturday and Sunday matinees are a condensed version of the full-length evening performance, though only about twenty minutes of dancing has been excised. Either version is sure to please. Performed by the Saint Louis Ballet through December 18 at Washington University's Edison Theatre, 6445 Forsyth Boulevard (in the Mallinckrodt Student Center), University City. Tickets are $35 (full-length) and $25 (condensed). Call 314-935-6543 or 314-534-1111. (DB)

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