CHICAGO Though the original 1975 production didn't fare as well as its Tony Award–winning 1996 revival (which is still running on Broadway), the popularity of this story of female criminals in Prohibition-era Chicago is a testament to Bob Fosse's original choreography, and musical-theater stalwarts composer Jon Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb. Roxie (Michelle T. Williams, formerly of Destiny's Child) and Velma (Terra C. MacLeod) are arrested for murder and sent to Cook County Jail, where Matron "Mama" Morton (Carol Woods) not only shows them how to survive but also serves as promoter for Velma's vaudeville career. Velma, however, becomes jealous of Roxie when she is defended by slick-as-oil lawyer Billy Flynn (a charismatic Brent Barrett) and gains her own notoriety in the press, including through sympathetic tabloid columnist Mary Sunshine (R. Lowe). The real victim of all this attention-whoring (besides the dead bodies, of course) is Roxie's schlubby but lovable husband, Amos (Tom Riis Farrell). Director Scott Faris and choreographer Gary Chryst re-create the 1996 revival, but in terms of energy and pizzazz, this iteration doesn't quite duplicate the work of their Tony Award–winning predecessors. The show is nonetheless entertaining, with highlights that include the vocal acrobatics of Woods and Lowe; the impressive feather dance in "All I Care About"; the ventriloquist act in "We Both Reached for the Gun," which also showcases Barrett's voice; and Farrell's undeniable charm and understated humor throughout. MacLeod shines as Velma, bold in her moves, mannerisms and sultry sensuality. Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun. 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru May 9. (800) 982-2787, broadwayla.org. A Nederlander Production (Mayank Keshaviah)
GO COPENHAGEN Though playwright Michael Frayn's virtues as a historian have been hotly debated in the decade since his speculative historical whodunit played on Broadway, no one can deny his instincts as a crack storyteller. After all, dramatic stakes don't come higher than moral responsibility for the development of the atomic bomb. Frayn's thesis is that the Allies' mistaken belief that the Nazis were actively engaged in a bomb program — a conviction that culminated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki — can be traced to a fateful 1941 meeting in occupied Copenhagen between German physicist Werner Heisenberg (Skip Pipo), author of the uncertainty principle and head of the Nazi uranium program, and his former mentor, Dutch theoretical physicist Niels Bohr (David Ross Paterson), the father of quantum mechanics and contributor to the Manhattan Project. The circumstances of that meeting, and the conflicting memories of exactly what was said or was understood by the two principals, are argued and reenacted from the perspective of some otherworldly realm. Bohr's wife, Margrethe (Sarah Lilly), who was present but out of earshot of the disputed conversation, serves as a kind of prosecuting catalyst to the action. The good news is that the intimacy of director August Viverito's pared parlor staging (Viverito is also credited for production design) does away with the ostentatious redundancy of the Broadway production's grand tribunal set; this allows the play's human dimensions — and riveting, nuanced performances by a terrific ensemble — to take center stage. Chandler Studio, 12443 Chandler Blvd., Valley Village; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through May 29. (818) 786-1045. A Production Company production (Bill Raden)
GO LANGSTON AND NICOLAS It was 1930 When Langston Hughes met Cuba's Poet Laureate–to–be Nicolas Guillen, and the two young writers — both born with the turn of that century — were burning with ambition and the awareness that their mulatto skin was their fuel. Though Harlem's darling and a martyr's son shared the same color and considered themselves soul mates, over the next 37 years, different pressures splintered their brotherhood during the Spanish Revolution and proved an unbridgeable gulf during the '60s, when Hughes was persecuted in McCarthy's courtroom and Guillen was celebrated in Castro's revolution. At stake is the power of poetry — and the duty of the poet to back up his words. Bernardo Solano and Nancy Cheryll Davis' lyrical, decades-spanning play is one-part plot, one-part playtime, with frequent dips into dance, music and recitation. The enthusiastic 17-person ensemble fills the stage, as charismatic leads Justin Alston and Chris Rivas, and later the stately Brian Evert Chandler and Armando Ortega, hit the big points on the time line. Though it's plenty smart, the political charge is dissipated by intimations that the artists were more then friends — or at least hoped to be. It's a pointless distraction, albeit one that comes with Ana Maria Lagasca and Maggie Palomo's charming turns as Guillen's jealous wife. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through May 2. (323) 465-4446. (Amy Nicholson)
NIGHTMARE ALLEY So this guy walks into a Carny show. Everyone there is a kind of depressed because it's, well, the Depression — not just any Depression but the Great one. And the performers have landed here after a long slide down from Vaudeville. And the guy says, hey, you fellas are doing this all wrong. He spruces things up, has a little fling with little redheaded number whose act is to electrocute herself for paying customers, and before you know it, the freak-and-geek show is making money. Therein lies the premise, and promise, of Jonathan Brielle's new musical. At the Steve Allen Theater in 2008, a burly guy named Aye Jay told stories of tricks and cons from that very world in a show called Carny Trash; those cons were actually more riveting, because of the specificity of the deceptions: The ticket booth was so much higher than the customers stood, so they could see how much cash was is in the patron's wallet in order tag suckers for pickpocketing. The den of thieves. But Brielle won't leave it there. His interloper, Stan (James Barbour), abandons the carny show with his redhead, Molly (Sarah Glendening), to start a new racket as a faith healer. This way, he can fool old ladies into giving up their homes to his "church." Here, Molly has an ethics crisis (where none existed before), and the musical spirals into dramatic and thematic ambiguity. There's an early scene in which the card reader's husband (Larry Cedar — wonderful in three roles) dies from alcohol poisoning, a death for which Stan may or may not have been responsible. It was an "accident," he pleads to flummoxed Mary. Barbour is so big and earnest, with sentimental love songs such as "I Surrender" (utter nonsense, since the larger point is that he doesn't), I don't know if this is a study of his heart of darkness, or what. The fascinating themes of the divide between faith and church are handled so generically as to be stupendously uninvolving. John Arnone's intriguing set of platforms and curtains places little twinkly lights throughout the theater, and there are allusions to chicken heads being bitten off backstage. There's promise in that, at least. Carny Trash's Jay had a joke about interviewing a geek for that assignment, "You bite off seven chicken heads a week for all the wine you can handle." The applicant thought about it for a moment before replying, "So what's the catch?" That's the kind of edge this musical needs. That, and a clearer purpose. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through April 30. (310) 208-5454. (Steven Leigh Morris)
THE PHILADELPHIA STORY Actors Co-op dusts off the still-kicky Philip Barry script, on which the famous 1940 Katharine Hepburn/Cary Grant/Jimmy Stewart film vehicle was based, to close its "American Classic" series. Feisty socialite Tracy Lord (the stunning Tara Battani) is set on a second marriage, to the newly monied George Kittredge (Daniel J. Roberts), but the nuptials are threatened by both the reappearance of her old-monied, ex-husband (Marcos Esteves) and the arrival of a no-monied tabloid reporter (Stephen Van Dorn). There are heaps of good performances here under Douglas Clayton's direction; and Alison Freeman does double duty as Dinah Lord, Tracy's tomboy of a little sister, while also serving as the production's dialect coach. Nice details here: Gary Clemmer's (Sandy Lord) blasé inflections are even funnier when fueled by coffee; Esteves' droll flippancy is as carefree as a trust-fund baby's spending habit. Yet this is the sparkling Battani's show, and she runs away with it. Considering Barry wrote the play specifically for Hepburn, that's no small task. Battani snaps and crackles and pops even when the show's pace gets soggy: There's a tendency to act between the lines instead of on the lines, which just doesn't sit well with the play's crackerjack dialogue. But with a few more performances to grease its engine, this production could clip along jauntily. Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; through May 30. (323) 462-8460, ext. 300 (Rebecca Haithcoat)
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GO TEMPODYSSEY Dan Dietz's absurdist comedy attempts to be both a coming-of-age story and a zany satire. The two intentions don't always mesh, but the piece is clever, provocative and great fun to watch. In rural Georgia, young Genny (Devin Sidell) is recruited to work as a chicken choker in her family's poultry business. The job preys on her mind, particularly when she discovers that all those she likes/loves come to grief. Convinced that she is a danger to anyone close to her, she flees to Seattle, where she becomes an office temp because it offers safe isolation. She goes to work for the bizarre Ithaca TechnoSolutions, a bomb manufacturer, and a company so impersonal that all temps are called either Jane or Jim. She's befriended by the current Jim (Liam Springthorp), who believes that only temping — and a stolen executive key card — offer real freedom and independence. He introduces her to the Jane's Revenge, a lethal bomb he's stolen from the lab and secreted in the subterranean file room. The loony tale is enlivened by Emily Weisberg's slick direction, and wonderfully engaging performances by Sidell and Springthorp, with solid support from Melli Vytlacil, John Schumacher as Genny's father, and Ted Jonas as a mad scientist. Art/Works Theatre, 6567 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 5 p.m., through May 23. Produced by NeedTheater. (323) 795-2215, needtheater.org (Neal Weaver)
TROG AND CLAY Michael Vukadinovich's droll comedy is based on intrinsically fascinating subject matter — the first execution in the 19th century of a murderer by electric chair, and the fracas surrounding it. Much of the tale is told through transcripts of the trial of wife-murdering thug William Kemmler (Ariel Goldberg), a leering, tongue-wagglingly unregenerate brute who ultimately becomes guinea pig for the road test of the "chair that zaps a thousand volts." However, the testimony also includes attempts by electric-chair proponent Thomas Edison (a nicely oily Matt Weedman) to get the device powered by the alternating current invented by his archrival George Westinghouse (Mike Kindle), part of a Machiavellian scheme to have Westinghouse's type of electricity "branded" with death and executions. If only the play relied purely upon history, it would pack a huge jolt. However, even though the often-surreal comic text Vukadinovich shoehorns between the courtroom sequences is smartly arch and intelligent, full of cerebral puns and philosophical repartee, it lacks the connecting wires needed to jump from the page to the stage. Worse, director Gary Gardner's fast-paced but otherwise workmanlike production zips but doesn't zap, relying on cartoonish characters and random, sometimes disconnected incidents, which craft an experience that's more clever than involving, while also unintentionally approaching campiness. In the ensemble, the performers impose impressively strong personalities on their internally disjointed characters, such as Goldberg's turn as the dim brute Kemmler and Paige White's scene-stealing performance as Westinghouse's treacherous and shallow wife. Powerhouse Theater, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through May 15. latensemble.com Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble (Paul Birchall)
THE UNSERIOUS CHEKHOV Frustrated by a nasty review and a tardy director, a troupe of actors gathered for rehearsal decides to pass the time by performing five of Chekhov's lesser-known dramas, translated by George Malko. So begins this quirky outing from Theatre Unleashed, which renders equal servings of vexation, entertainment and befuddlement. The spontaneous-workshop conceit that frames the show is initially humorous but turns distinctly sloppy as the show progresses. "Dirty Tragedians and Leprous Playwrights," directed by Gregory Crafts, follows a playwright sitting on a volcano, while seeking inspiration. Staged with an overabundance of theatrical shenanigans, tumbledown props and costumes, it's oddly charming, mainly because of the cast's wild antics. Andrew Moore directs "On the Main Road," a tale of class conflicts, drunken men and villainy, which takes place in a tavern. Donald Agnelli is stellar as an axe-wielding criminal in this the evening's most interesting piece, and is also very funny. Carlos Martinez and Kim Shannon play the sun and moon in conversation in "Before the Eclipse," directed by Erin Scott. "The Bear," directed by Pamela Moore, takes place in a cabin in Russia, where Darren Mangler portrays a boorish creditor who calls on a widower (Courtney Bell), to collect. The business visit, however, turns into a comical tale of love and lust. Scott also directs "The Night Before the Trial," with Ben Atkinson as a convict awaiting the sentence of the court. The Sherry Theatre, 11052 Magnolia Blvd., N.Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through May 8. (818) 849-4039, theatreunleashed.com (Lovell Estell III)
GO THE WOMEN OF BREWSTER PLACE In its many incarnations, Gloria Naylor's episodic novel about struggle and triumph among a disparate group of African-American women in a dilapidated urban project anywhere in the country, circa 1975, offers moving, character-driven drama, comedy and social commentary. Tim Acito's musical adaptation captures much of Naylor's storytelling brilliance through his series of mostly solo songs. These explore the women's individual lives in a structure that resembles Studs Terkel's musical, Working. The stories ultimately meet, as the women turn to one another both in anger and for support. Acito eschews the temptation to pigeonhole the music into 1975 black genres, instead allowing such rhythms to infuse his more classical 20th-century musical-theater styles. The result is a stirring hybrid of emotionally charged and simply fun songs that give the extraordinary cast of singer-actors exciting material to perform. Musical director Gregory Nabours works expertly with the strong cast, as he does with his skilled musicians, to create a production of immense scale in this tiny venue. Scenic designer Kurt Boetcher offers just enough set to suggest the slum conditions but stays out of the way of the actorsm and it's all nicely supported by Naila Aladdin Sanders' delightful costume design. Celebration Theater, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., W.Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 6. (323) 957-1884. (Tom Provenzano)