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Sweet boy they called a ‘Lizard’

The folks over at Open at the Top Productions are an intrepid lot whose mission is to nurture Broadway-caliber new works. Based on a novel by Dennis Covington, “Lizard,” a world premiere musical at the NoHo Arts Center, is an impressive realization of the group’s artistic mandate.

Director James J. Mellon, who also wrote the book and co-wrote the music and lyrics with Scott DeTurk, has assembled a wonderful cast that tackles this tuneful, often moving show with indisputable talent and infectious excitement.

Set in the late 1970s, the story concerns Lucius “Lizard” Simms (David Eldon), a facially deformed teen whose resemblance to a lizard has made him a pariah in his small Louisiana town. Wrongfully relegated to a home for retarded boys, Lizard is dazzled when itinerant actors Callahan (James Barbour) and Sally (Laura Philbin Coyle) perform at the facility. He winds up joining the duo for a series of madcap escapades throughout the rural South, culminating in a misbegotten production of “The Tempest” in Birmingham. Of course, the boozy, cynical Callahan, who has a secret motive for mentoring Lizard, will be forever changed by his sweet charge.

Or will he? The chief deficit of Mellon’s very busy book, which doesn’t adequately synthesize its wildly desultory source material, is that Callahan learns so little from his pure-hearted companion, save for his meager realization that he’s a rotten actor. Regardless of the way the novel ended, the musical cries out for an emotionally cleansing revelation from Callahan in the final scene.

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That’s a minor failing in this production, which features Craig Siebels’ superb set, Luke Moyer’s excellent lighting, Shon LeBlanc’s witty period costumes, and a beautifully balanced sound design by Jonathan Zenz and DeTurk. Musical director Robbie Gillman, who also helms the excellent offstage orchestra, burnishes the show’s terrific music to a high gloss. Eldon and Barbour are standouts among this notable assemblage, as is the matter-of-factly terrific Coyle, and Bob Morrisey as a kindly museum head with a Zen perspective on troubled times.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

“Lizard,” NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 3. $30 and $35. (818) 508-7101. www.thenohoartscenter.com. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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Stranded hearts, outside of Austin

Texas, 1944. Heading west to meet up with her closeted actress girlfriend, hard-boiled New York journalist Helen (Leslie Cohen) has car trouble outside of Austin. She finds herself a wary guest at the Bluebonnet Court, a tidy motel hiding plenty of heartbreak: owner Lila Jean (Jamey Hood), all teeth and chat, tends to her troubled veteran husband (Jonathan Nail) with the help of a restless African American maid (the lovely Dalila Ali Rajah). Everyone feels trapped, no one’s getting any sex. Is there a plot twist in the house?

Presented by Bluebonnet Productions at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre, “Bluebonnet Court” is a lesbian love story caught between nostalgia and revisionism. On Joel Daavid’s nicely rambling, kitchen-sink set, director Kelly Ann Ford moves the action back and forth between staged “period” radio and film sequences and the main story, ostensibly illustrating the gap between Hollywood fantasy and the tougher reality of both the battlefields of North Africa and of home, where segregation and anti-Semitism are as American as buying war bonds. But while the play goes a ways to correct the straight world’s, er, rosy view of the Greatest Generation, “Bluebonnet” is ultimately content to sample the tropes of ‘40s melodramas without ever transcending them.

Yet even if Zsa Zsa Gershick’s story feels too schematic (girl meets girl, and there’s never the slightest question of how things will end up), the play offers real wit and a disarming sensuality. Its strongest pleasures are small but vivid: iced tea sipped from mason jars, the sudden intimacy of a shared cigarette, the Easter parade of outfits worn by the town’s “slut” (a vibrant Michelle Merring), courtesy of costume designer Shon LeBlanc. With a winning cast and sweet summer romance, “Bluebonnet Court” is a mighty cozy place to spend the night.

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-- Charlotte Stoudt

“Bluebonnet Court” Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 27. $25 Contact: (323) 960-7721. Running time: 2 hours.

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Simplicity rules this ‘King Lear’

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“King Lear” is the Tour de France of Shakespeare. With its torture scenes, suicide attempts, murderous sibling rivalry and high body count, it is drama as extreme endurance sport. So if Shakespeare Santa Monica and Powerhouse Theatre Company’s co-production of this titanic tragedy doesn’t quite deserve the yellow jersey, it still finishes the race with dignity. Directed in the round by Louis Scheeder, this lean, scenery-free production in black-and-white modern dress has the virtue of simplicity but lacks a strong point of view.

As Lear, Apollo Dukakis’ moments of self-aware regret convince more than his rages and madness, and he has a couple of terrific scenes with his Fool (Vincent Cardinale). The younger cast members are uneven, and one set of Lear’s exasperated daughters Goneril and Reagan (most of the parts are double cast), Dawn Davis and Doria Bramante, come off as aloof salesgirls from Fred Segal rather than princesses involved in a royal land grab.

It is artistic director John Farmanesh-Bocca, a last-minute replacement in the role of Lear’s loyal servant Kent, who shows the audience, and one hopes his young cast mates, how to inhabit a verse-world like “Lear” with physical grace, vocal ease and clarity of intention.

For those who need a no-frills introduction to the play or who just want to hear “Lear’s” heartbreaking poetry again, Shakespeare Santa Monica’s free summer performances offer a chance, as Gloucester would say, to “see it feelingly.”

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-- C.S.

“King Lear” Miles Memorial Playhouse at Reed Park, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. 7:30 tonight, 2 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. Free. Contact: (310) 396-3680. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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Ever in search of greener grass

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In “Greensward,” a self-sustaining grass that never needs watering or mowing results in geopolitical meltdown. A similar schism snarls the roots of R. Hamilton Wright’s hybrid comedy, presented by Circus Theatricals at the Hayworth Theatre.

Certainly, some kicky topical patches sprout up. “Greensward” follows Dr. Timothy Hay (Adam Paul) and his super turf, dubbed “PT-109" for the same absurdist reasons that Copland dominates the sound design by Jeannine Stehlin, Will Richter and Dan Lessner. Timothy, whose lawn mowing memories punctuate “Greensward” as regularly as designer Derrick McDaniels’ lights change, becomes a celebrity through the efforts of media consultant April (Jennifer Lee Taylor). Personal upheaval and corporate fallout over the botanical breakthrough ensues.

At times, “Greensward” carries the black-box madness of a vintage Firesign Theatre fracas, well tended by director Richard Ziman, designer Kitty Rose’s decor and a fertile cast.

Paul is suitably guileless as Timothy, while Taylor’s culture vulture does what she can with a scantly drawn character.

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Their colleagues play everyone else with fervent comic energy. Standouts include Francesca Ferrara’s vapid starlet, Dylan Kussman’s French ambassador and Barbara Lee Bragg’s renowned eco-feminist. John Ross Clark and Jerry Lloyd make their mark as shadowy thugs, and Eric Pierpoint twice rocks the house, first as a somnolent Senate committee chair, then as a Texas industrialist with grass on the brain, assisted by wig designer Rick Stratton.

However, the darker turns and Timothy’s musings in Christopher Durang mode do not mesh with the cartoon attitude, and the structure is too shallow for anarchy, let alone the sentimental fade-out. “Greensward” has promise, but the seeds of two plays scatter across one under-tilled premise.

-- David C. Nichols

“Greensward,” Circus Theatricals at the Hayworth, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Plays in repertory with “Complexity,” go to www.CircusTheatricals.com for schedule. Ends Aug. 12. $20. (323) 960-1054. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

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Lingering issues tackled in ‘Stages’

Note to aspiring young playwrights: Wallowing in sentiment is a hazardous business unless you are tethered to a strong limb of plot. “Stages,” Abigail Rose Solomon’s miry melodrama, which initially ran at the Hudson Mainstage but reportedly has been recast and significantly altered for this extended run at the Matrix, is a bog of pure sentimentality that swamps deeper meaning.

In an irritatingly twitchy turn, Solomon also stars as Rebecca Golden, an up-and-coming actress who is struggling to come to terms with the death of her best friend, Priscilla (Sarah Sido). That was five years ago, but Rebecca shows no signs of letting go and moving on.

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But then, Rebecca appears to be a past master at exploiting her own histrionic emotions to maximum dramatic effect. Rebecca also carries a mother lode of angst over her parents’ painful breakup some years back. Her workaholic roommate, Sarah (Jocelyn Jackson), also has lingering issues surrounding her parents’ breakup, as does Rebecca’s volatile new boyfriend, Michael (Christian S. Anderson).

Into the proceedings, like an angel with leaden wings, drops none other than the departed spirit of Priscilla herself, who -- you guessed it -- had painful earthly issues over her parents’ split.

Aside from that bafflingly reiterative theme, the device of having a main character interact with the spirit of her dear departed was overworked 20 years ago. In the context of this thin-to-nonexistent story, it seems simply hackneyed.

The dialogue, which veers from the prosaic to the self-consciously poetical, could be the first-draft musings of someone talking to themselves in a bathroom mirror. No director is credited for the Matrix run -- a telling indication of why excess prevails.

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-- F.K.F.

“Stages,” Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 20. $20. (323) 960-7782. www.Plays411.com/stages. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.


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