IF THIS HAT COULD TALK: THE UNTOLD STORIES OF DR. DOROTHY HEIGHT -- (At the Lincoln Theatre through Sunday)
Familiar tales run rampant in this generic info-musical about the civil rights movement. The show is basically a primer on a half-century of American history, and oddly, the figure of Dorothy Height is barely in it. Apparently, writer-director George Faison wanted to leave room for everyone else who made a mark during the struggle. The show sweeps through the decades with new characters (icons, in many cases) popping up every five minutes to declare their significance and maybe sing an inspirational song. It's a parade of platitudes that never catches theatrical fire, despite a steady flow of solid gospel melodies from composer Joe Coleman and a cast of big-voiced singers who are easy to listen to. Faison would rather praise than dramatize.
-- Nelson Pressley
SWEENEY TODD -- (By the Wolf Trap Opera Company at the Barns of Wolf Trap through Sunday)
His name may not mean much as you settle into your seat, but make no mistake: Once the lights go down, you'll be deeply grateful for your new acquaintance with Matt Boehler. He is quite simply a marvel as Sweeney, the demon barber of Fleet Street. The young singer delivers a thrillingly expressive performance in Stephen Sondheim's musical about a cruelly mistreated barber who takes his hideous revenge via the carotid arteries of his unsuspecting clientele. The vigor of Joe Banno's production is unassailable, and the 26-piece orchestra conducted by James Lowe makes for a pleasing partner in the proceedings. While this "Sweeney" lacks some of the original's texture, the show manages to breathe freshly.
-- Peter Marks
BEHOLD! -- (By Rorschach Theatre at Casa del Pueblo Methodist Church through Saturday)
Playwright James Hesla offers the carnival hard sell in this sentimental new comedy that weaves a varied band of oddballs into a loose cosmic pattern. Hesla's characters are in crazy pursuit of a ballyhooed box of prophecy, but one of the big problems with his scattershot script is that he doesn't make this goal urgent and goofy enough to make you care. Yet whenever this play relaxes a bit, the show comes closer to realizing its twin goals: a) marveling at fate, coincidences and unexplained phenomena, and b) making the trip an enjoyable lark.
HEADSMAN'S HOLIDAY -- (By Theater Alliance at H Street Playhouse through Sunday)
Capricious politics and bare bottoms collide in Kornel Hamvai's deliciously anarchic Hungarian play. The story is a romp through revolutionary France in the heyday of the guillotine; a mild-mannered executioner named Roch (Brian Osborne) gets transferred to Paris, and in a series of picaresque misadventures the rapacious, self-centered world spills itself before him. The entire production has a kind of cool sass that matches Hamvai's surprising dialogue, which is by turns thoughtful, salty and awfully wry.
JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS -- (By Synetic Theatre at Rosslyn Spectrum through Saturday)
The journey Synetic takes to its mesmerizing climax has, like the mythic expedition of the Argo itself, some rougher stretches, particularly in its long, dry dialogue scenes. But in the interludes that are translated into the resourceful company's mother tongue -- emphatic, sinewy movement -- the story flows in supple rivers. The artistic director, Paata Tsikurishvili, has chosen not to build his version of the legend of the golden fleece around the trials of the Argo. Jason's betrayal of his wife, Medea, is the focus, and it casts the story as one of human foibles rather than of feats of daring.
LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN -- (At the Shakespeare Theatre through July 31)
Style is served up by the champagne-bucketful in Keith Baxter's immensely pleasurable production of Oscar Wilde's vivid account of London swells in the early 1890s. The cast of 26 deftly manages the difficult trick of defining each character's specific perch on the social ladder, and Baxter's production holds its own as a polished and piquant guide to Wilde's world of pettiness, haughtiness and self-delusion. Although the play has a climactic moment of farce that is wonderfully realized here, the secrets unraveled in this "Fan" conform more to the dictates of melodrama than to those of drawing-room comedy. It is the strength and warmth of Dixie Carter's performance that provides the play's steely backbone.
THE LION KING -- (At the Hippodrome Theatre, Baltimore, through Sept. 4)
Discerning adults may notice that the story in this wildly popular Disney show is thinly stretched over a production that runs nearly three hours and that the ballads Elton John and Tim Rice added for the stage are yawners. But these things hardly matter. What the musical has accomplished is the inspired tailoring of an animated film to the imaginative measurements of the stage. When it comes to kids' spectacles, few productions do it better. This touring production is a virtual photocopy of the Broadway original, and that largely is a good thing.
MAMMA MIA! -- (At the National Theatre through July 2)
Funny thing about these jukebox musicals that package pop hits as Broadway-style shows: You can't just plug them in and expect them to work. Yes, this Abba-driven show still has silly energy to spare and irresistible pop hooks around every corner, plus hordes of offstage singers faithfully replicating each familiar chorus and a pit band that seems to be having a blast pumping out that glossy Abba sound. In shorter supply, though, are leading performers who are really good at doing the karaoke thing with the Abba catalogue.
MEDEA -- (By Washington Shakespeare Company at the Clark Street Playhouse through July 3)
Pure and simple is often the most secure way to go with a playwright such as Euripides, and it's the path that the Washington Shakespeare Company thankfully adopts, for the most part, in this sleek and intense new staging of the play. Under the lucid direction of Jose Carrasquillo and Paul MacWhorter, the actors prove reliable guides through the tragedy's rapids of raw emotion. Delia Taylor, in particular, makes for a convincingly disturbed Medea; the more she allows herself to think, the more wedded she becomes to a self-abnegating scheme, butchering her two young sons as revenge on her betrayer of a husband. This production is indeed the diary of a mad housewife. The setting is timeless and right for the occasion.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND -- (At Round House Theatre through July 3)
If you love someone, set them free -- that's the subtext of the most affecting scene in this solid production directed by Scot Reese. In the sequence, two elderly Caribbean peasants, Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian (Beverly A. Cosham and David Emerson Toney), who have adopted Ti Moune (Montego Glover), the show's free-spirited heroine, sadly sanction her planned journey away from home. It's a touchingly human moment in a show that traffics in archetypes and Big Themes -- the resilience of love and of nature, the inevitability of death, class struggle, the power of storytelling -- all leavened by piquant Caribbean-flavored music. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty adapted the work from Rosa Guy's novel "My Love, My Love," a riff on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" set in the French Antilles.
-- Celia Wren
PACIFIC OVERTURES -- (At Signature Theatre through July 10)
Director Eric Schaeffer, a Stephen Sondheim partisan, has a knack for rethinking big musicals in smaller packaging. Here, Signature has done Stephen Sondheim and book writer John Weidman a service, effectively putting its own distinctive spin on one of the most challenging works in the Sondheim canon. This musical stakes out cerebral terrain for musical comedy: It's an attempt by American writers to tell the Darwinian story of an Eastern society overrun by the West, a culture that loses its way, then learns to adapt and thrive. Writ small, "Pacific Overtures" is still a voyage with big ideas.
TAKE ME OUT -- (At Studio Theatre through July 17)
A lyrical valentine to the national pastime encased in the turbulent story of a gay superstar, this play has been staged to virtual perfection by a team that can be described only as, well, fabulous. Richard Greenberg's locker room comedy-drama is an impassioned portrait of the game, but it also tackles such issues as race-baiting, gender politics and friendship. Director Kirk Jackson's production features four smashing performances -- by Tug Coker, M.D. Walton, Jake Suffian and Rick Foucheux -- anchoring this exploration of the trials and terrors of male bonding. Much of the story revolves around the tale's hero, Darren Lemming (Walton), who is handsome and regal. He is also gay, which he announces to the media, throwing the team into turmoil. Greenberg is pushing a lot of hot buttons, but what flames hottest is something that words ultimately fail: an irrational, unrequited love for a game.
THERSITES -- (By Scena Theatre at Warehouse Theater Second Stage through July 10)
Carter Jahncke plays the harmonica, imitates Elvis and swears a lot. He dodges missiles and talks about bestiality. And near the monologue's end, he starts spinning with arms outstretched, crying out as he whirls. Jahncke is "Thersites," the blind, foul-mouthed Greek soldier who in "The Iliad" criticizes Agamemnon and in turn gets beaten by Odysseus with Agamemnon's scepter. "Thersites" is the first offering of a trilogy Scena calls "The Classics Made Easy." The idea's an interesting one, but those with a firm grasp of Greek myth will get more out of this production than will neophytes.
-- Tricia Olszewski