Mini Reviews Openings

ICARUS -- (By Trumpet Vine Theatre Company at Theatre on the Run through Dec. 22)

Edwin Sanchez's allegorical musing on the dynamic between love and beauty is the story of a handsome boy who falls in love with a disfigured girl. The lyrical language and improbable subplot -- her efforts to convince her disabled brother that he can swim "far enough to reach the sun" -- suggest a surrealistic tone that this production never achieves. Altagracia (Jennifer Berg) and her brother Primitivo (Christopher Galindo) travel with a mysterious figure named Mr. Ellis (Keith Waters), who mutters to himself and carries about a suitcase "full of dreams." In the house across the way lives "the Gloria," a fading starlet still waiting for the phone call that will save her career. The catalyst of change for each of them is Beau, a boy who keeps his face concealed. Sanchez's poetic fancy is ill-served; in a story riddled with gravity-defying changes of heart, the actors seldom create a convincing moment.

-- Dolores Whiskeyman

LES MISERABLES -- (At the National Theatre through Jan. 4)

The tunes still soar and the tale still draws a tear. And if the story, boiled down from Victor Hugo's huge 1862 novel, often seems an episodic jumble, it somehow makes its moral and metaphysical points. These are: to pay more attention to "the wretched of the earth" and to realize, as hero Jean Valjean says, that "to love another person is to see the face of God." Randal Keith plays Jean Valjean and provides a stalwart emotional core, but no star turn. As Javert, the police inspector who dogs Valjean's tracks for decades after the former prisoner breaks parole and becomes a bourgeois success, Stephen Tewksbury is a fine singer, but a bit of a stick. Jayne Paterson is affecting as the poor single mother, Fantine. The ensemble players, playing prisoners, students and street folk, are universally convincing and in sync. One only wishes the whole cast would throw caution to the winds and wear hearts on ragged sleeves just a bit more. But when they all join in the students' anthem, "Do You Hear the People Sing?," you still want to get up and march.

-- Jane Horwitz

NAKED BOYS SINGING -- (By Actors' Theatre of Washington at Source Theatre through Jan. 26)

All right! Let's just be upfront here -- if you'll pardon the expression. Yes, "Naked Boys Singing!" is a bunch of naked guys, singing. Nine naked guys, to be exact. All singing. They sound pretty good, too. But let's not pretend this droll little confection of a musical revue is much more than an excuse for nine muscle-bound men to take off their clothes and prance around for 90 minutes. Conceived by Robert Schrock, the show is a collection of songs and musical sketches by a dozen different writers that pokes gentle fun at gay culture and, occasionally, the wider world. As directed by Jeff Keenan, the numbers range from the satiric to the bawdy, and some actually do involve clothing. All strong vocalists and able dancers, they put the show across like the inside joke that it is.

-- D.W.

Continuing BAT BOY: THE MUSICAL -- (At Studio Theatre Secondstage through Dec. 29)

Not since Audrey II took root many full moons ago has there been a bloodsucking musical-comedy creation as endearingly voracious as Edgar, the boy descended from a bat. Audrey II, you may recall, was the jiving houseplant hooked on red corpuscles in "Little Shop of Horrors," the campy pop musical that made delicious sport of Hollywood splatterfests. Now comes Edgar, Audrey II's theatrical descendant, to send tingles up the spines of the tormented denizens of Hope Falls, W.Va., in "Bat Boy: The Musical," a silly, raucous, shameless spoof sprinkled liberally with sophomoric mayhem -- and yes, even a bit of wit. "Bat Boy," by a trio of young Los Angeles writers -- Laurence O'Keefe supplied the score and Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming collaborated on the book -- is not quite in "Little Shop's" league; the show goes on long after the joke has worn out. But if you're in the right frame of mind -- in other words, if smarty-alecky, college-level antics don't send you rummaging for the Advil -- it might be an amusing night out. The production has one especially useful secret weapon: its young star, Patrick O'Neill. The story, apparently lifted from the pages of a supermarket tabloid detailing the purported discovery of a feral boy living in a cave, gives the writers of "Bat Boy" license to poke fun at all sorts of pop and serious culture, from the joys of junk food to the work of Stephen Sondheim. Some of this is painfully over the top and all of it is unnecessarily elongated. Yet the show does deliver the goods now and then. The 10-member cast has the requisite spirit, and the unfinished space the show inhabits, in a building adjacent to the main Studio Theatre complex, feels like an appropriate home for a piece with such raw energy.

-- Peter Marks

THE CHERRY ORCHARD -- (At Round House Theatre through Sunday)

Anton Chekhov knew you didn't always have to do something to do something, and based on this production, director Nick Olcott clearly understands what that means. The show has such a nuanced feel for the play's period, late-19th-century Russia, that you might find yourself wondering whether Olcott somehow went back in time and spent a couple of evenings with the playwright and his pals. Since its premiere nearly a century ago in Moscow, "The Cherry Orchard" has often mystified audiences with its seemingly static portrait of members of a landed gentry family doing nothing as they watch a cold new world close in on them. Too often productions have oversimplified Lyubov Ranevskaya (Kathryn Kelley) and her brother Leonid (Rick Foucheux) as symbols of some inner blight because of their "inability" to save from the chop their beloved cherry orchard and the gloriously privileged past it represents. In Olcott's extraordinarily sensitive and sensible staging, Lyubov and Leonid willingly go headlong to an unthinkable fate because avoiding it would involve something even more unthinkable: denying who they are. Yes, they're self-absorbed and something inside is missing, but by emphasizing their inaction as a conscious choice, Olcott elicits from them and the play a rare, awesome integrity -- the very kind, in fact, that Chekhov was writing about.

-- William Triplett

THE CHRISTMAS CAROL RAG -- (At Signature Theatre through Dec. 29)

This gender-bending musical adaptation of Charles Dickens's classic transforms cranky, misanthropic Ebenezer Scrooge into cranky, misanthropic Evelyn Scrooge, and is another seasonal lesson about the personal growth that comes with selflessness. In "The Christmas Carol Rag," playwright Norman Allen transfers the action to melting-pot New York in 1911, and inserts an eclectic list of standards, from the traditional "Deck the Halls" to the whimsical "Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go?" The Evelyn of the tale is played by the formidable Donna Migliaccio, guided through the evening by Signature's artistic director, Eric Schaeffer. With such an impressive roster, expectations run high, even if the vehicle is a wintry war horse. Surprisingly, though, this ragtime show is rather thin gruel. Hobbled by some tired shtick -- making the Ghost of Christmas Past a Borscht Belt comic is a particular cause for rolling of the eyes -- the production muddles through with few emotional crescendos.

-- P.M.

A DOLL'S HOUSE -- (Produced by Quotidian Theatre Company at the Writer's Center through Sunday)

This adaptation turns on an interesting conceit: It transports Henrik Ibsen's proto-feminist classic from 1879 Norway to 1918 Galveston, Tex. But it's hardly worth the trip: Whether it's the Gulf of Mexico or the fjords of Scandinavia beyond the parlor doors, the proof is in the playing, and on this point, Quotidian falls painfully short. In his program notes, director-adapter Jack Sbarbori says his "reverent modification" of the play restores some of Ibsen's own cuts and deletes long soliloquies that "present a severe obstacle to an understated interpretation." None of these changes, however, resolves the larger problem of a play that relies so heavily on contrivance to tell its story. Sbarbori's "Doll's House" faithfully tracks Ibsen's three-act structure, down to the clumsy exposition of the first act, when the play's heroine, here named Nola, confesses an indiscretion to a woman she hasn't seen in 15 years. The impetuous Nola is married to a moralistic banker, renamed Wesley, who would take a dim view of her borrowing money, particularly through fraudulent means. But years before, in desperation, Nola did just that. Now the villainous moneylender has returned, threatening to reveal her secret if she fails to seek favors for him from Wesley.

-- D.W.

HOST AND GUEST -- (By Synetic Theater, International Stanivslavsky Theater Studio at Church Street Theater through Dec. 22)

Is that the beating of a drum you hear, or the sound of your own heart pounding? Where this ravishing show is concerned, it could be either -- or both. Paata Tsikurishvili and his choreographer wife, Irina, manage to unspool the threads of an epic yarn, a story of bravery and bloodletting in the Caucasus that has all the austere grace of an ancient cave drawing. "Host and Guest" is about the violation of an all-powerful taboo -- giving comfort to the enemy. In the Caucasus Mountains, Joqola, played by Paata Tsikurishvili, befriends another hunter, Zviadauri (Irakli Kavsadze), while both are pursuing a deer. The men forge a bond in a moment of unusual decency: Each has decided not to kill the other. When Joqola invites the stranger to his home, the village has a nervous breakdown: Doesn't he know Zviadauri is from the tribe with which Joqola's tribe has been locked in a dance to the death? Slaughter inevitably leads to more slaughter, a bloodbath that eventually overwhelms Joqola, his new friend and countless others on both sides.

-- P.M.MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM -- (At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through Dec. 29)

August Wilson's scorching portrait of black musicians in the 1920s and the barriers to self-expression imposed on them by the white establishment, laced with the smoky songs of the period as well as an assortment of roles that equitably apportion the bravura moments, is a heart-rending assault on the senses. The play is a fictionalized account of a day in a recording studio in 1927 with the famous blues singer of that name, here embodied by Tina Fabrique as a paranoid, pinched-face malcontent who sees conspiracies to undermine her everywhere. A megastar with black audiences, she has been coaxed to Chicago by her manager, Irvin (Hugh Nees), to cut a record with a white executive, Sturdyvant (Timmy Ray James), who looks at her with cold eyes: She's a meal ticket and nothing more. If their tug of war gives the play its narrative drive, it is the interplay among the four members of her band that provides the texture. Holed up in a rehearsal room, waiting for Ma to show up for the session, Cutler (Hugh Staples), Toledo (Frederick Strother), Levee (Gavin Lawrence) and Slow Drag (Clinton Derricks-Carroll) tune up and lay out the evening's themes. The distinct experiences they represent can at times give the play an overly schematic feel, but the characters are full-blooded creations nonetheless. By the time of the explosive conclusion, you're fully apprised of the myriad ways that the profound disappointment of the oppressed can be channeled, whether it's in music, or poetry, or blood.

-- P.M.MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING -- (At the Shakespeare Theatre through Jan. 5)

This breezy "Much Ado" plays out very much like the placid drawing-room comedies of the period in which director Mark Lamos has set his production: 1920s England. The play's darker elements are obscured. The plot, too, to discredit a noble family and ruin the reputation of Beatrice's cousin, a blameless young bride-to-be, is treated here more as mischief than machinations with potentially lethal consequences. Perhaps this is a way to go. Aside from the story's central romantic clash of wills between Beatrice (Karen Ziemba) and Benedick (Dan Snook), the confirmed bachelor with whom she wages her war of words, the play is not particularly compelling. The heavy burden on the two leads is to advance the cause of love with each "skirmish of wit," and that requires the audience to believe fully that these larger-than-life combatants are quite simply made for each other. The illusion is not sustained all that vibrantly in this production. "Much Ado" is an urgent piece of theater only if Shakespeare's brainy, sharp-elbowed lovers reign supreme, like a pair of nonpareil headliners. The less towering Beatrice and Benedick conjured here may make a good pair, but not the kind that sends you out of the theater laughing into the night.

-- P.M.

THE SECRET GARDEN -- (At Olney Theatre Center through Dec. 29)

Yes, indeed, "The Secret Garden" is a musical, and one with a fairly impressive pedigree: The story, first staged on Broadway a decade ago, is based on a 1911 novel worshiped by 12-year-olds; the book and lyrics are by Pulitzer Prize winner Marsha Norman, and the music was composed by Lucy Simon, sister of Carly. But this production, directed by John Going, is grim and plodding. It seems clear that Norman and Simon were trying, in adapting a children's story about death, to find a musical language for grief, and to identify the enchantment that summons the grieving back to life. And though it is blessed with several lush ballads, many suggesting traditional English folk songs, the musical never casts off its heavy emotional baggage; it never quite rises to the level of bewitching spectacle. It's difficult to single out any performance in a musical in which the characters are little more than mannequins with proper accents. The truth is, unfortunately, no one in "The Secret Garden" emerges smelling like a rose.

-- P.M.THE SHAPE OF THINGS -- (At Studio Theatre through Dec. 22)

Young love is expressed in all sorts of eccentric forms in fiction, but rarely has it been manipulated as bizarrely as in "The Shape of Things," a provocative updating of Shaw's "Pygmalion" by the hot film director and playwright Neil LaBute. It would be unfair to reveal exactly what transpires, especially since the play receives such stylish, astute handling by director Will Pomerantz and his sparkling cast. As its title hints, it is about the idealization of appearance, about our obsession with physical perfection. A young man and woman named Adam and Evelyn meet in an art gallery, where he is a part-time guard. She, a hipper-than-thou art student, is about to deface the sculpture of a naked man. Some puritanical curators, it seems, have draped a leaf over its genitals, and absolutist that she is, Evelyn wants to draw in the private parts over the coverlet, "because I don't like art that isn't true." The statue is not the only male figure she wants to remake. Adam is a geeky, greasy-haired marshmallow, played to outstanding effect by Scott Barrow, who easily falls under the spell of the assertive Evelyn (in a cocky, charismatic performance by Holly Twyford). Over a period of weeks, Adam, enthralled by Evelyn, sheds his nerdy shell, slowly metamorphosing into a campus Adonis. The life of the play is the cycle of Adam's emotional rise and fall, the story of a soft and malleable young man in search of a tougher constitution to match his new, firmer physique.

-- P.M.

SHEAR MADNESS -- (At the Kennedy Center Theater Lab indefinitely)

This interactive murder mystery, set in a Georgetown beauty parlor, is not so much a whodunit as a howtheydunit. How has a mechanical comedy featuring a gallery of obvious stereotypes and a bottomless barrel of bad jokes found success in the nation's capital for 15 interminable years? Congressional careers tumble, administrations founder, even empires fall. With the passing in January of New York's 42-year-old "The Fantasticks," the Kennedy Center's "Shear Madness" is now the third-longest-running play in the country, surpassed only by its sister production in Boston, 22 years old and going strong and the soon-to-close "Les Miserables" on Broadway. I was stunned, not by the sheer badness of it, but by the blandness. It's all low-rent Agatha Christie. Why would one of the world's premier showcases for theater tie up one of its stages for a decade and a half with any play, let alone one so inconsequential?

-- P.M.