NEW THIS WEEK

FROM THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA --

(Through Jan. 20 at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theatre)

Though it covers the familiar historical territory of the civil rights movement, Endesha Ida Mae Holland's take on the period -- and on life in general -- is as fresh as a brand-new story. Phelia, the character who represents Holland in this episodical, autobiographical play, is sharp and sassy, born to be a star. Both hardheaded and poetic, tough but not cynical, Holland/Phelia is up for anything in the grim life her play describes: Her proud, pragmatic, humorous spirit suffuses the play. All of the characters are played by three women: Jacqueline Williams mixes sorrow and rage as the abused 11-year-old Phelia, and is also very funny playing a variety of male roles. Phelia in her sassiest mode is played with proud, gawky charm by Sybil Walker. Cheryl Lynn Bruce has deep reserves of dignity, comedy and plain cantankerousness as Phelia's mother and the cranky Miss Rosebud Dupree. Jonathan Wilson, who directed the original production in Chicago, balances the play's many tones, switching moods on a dime. -- Lloyd Rose

THE MUSIC OF ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER --

(Through Dec. 31 at the National Theatre)

The loudness and length of applause this revue has been getting leave no doubt it will be a hit. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a skilled theatrical, orchestral and ecclesiastical composer; the evening's songs are carefully selected for continuity and contrast; and a capable roster of singers has been assembled for this touring company. Still, I can imagine getting even more enjoyment out of an evening devoted to the music of Stephen Sondheim or Cole Porter. Almost everything in this show is ripped out of a carefully constructed totality, and the introductions supplied before the songs don't begin to provide everything you need for full enjoyment. Without the context of "Evita," you don't understand that Laurie Stephenson's robotlike gestures in "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" are meant to convey Evita's blend of nervousness and insincerity. The special success of Connie Kunkle and Rufus Bonds Jr. in "Gus: The Theatre Cat" is in part because it is a miniature masterpiece that doesn't need the dramatic context of "Cats." Finally, it is absurd to see an orchestra of more than 30 pieces heavily miked and amplified; as for the singers, hand-held mikes may belong in a rock concert, but not in a show like this. -- Joseph McLellan

MY CIVILIZATION --

(Through Dec. 29 at Studio Theatre)

Paul Zaloom is a performance artist who can really perform. He has a voice he can twist up into falsetto or down into resonant radio-announcerese. He plays against his sardonic, world-weary deadpan with crack comic timing. And he's a goofily inventive puppeteer. In his one-man show "My Civilization," Zaloom aims for political satire; fortunately he shoots too high. Like John Waters and Christopher Durang, Zaloom grew up Catholic in the '50s, a combination that seems to produce zanies. His takes on the usual current topics of American absurdity -- Jesse Helms, nuclear power, food additives -- are often clever, but in his choice of props he goes way beyond clever. At one point God is reesented by a gigantic plastic Christmas candle, Eden by a mound of Easter grass, and Adam and Eve by two blue stuffed bunnies. Zaloom demonstrates a previously undiscovered aesthetic truth: It can be a small step from cute to surreal, provided you have enough wit. -- L.R.