GO AMERICAN KLEZMER Aided by composer Ilya Levinson’s lively tunes and lyricist Owen Kalt’s engaging lyrics, this entertaining musical, set in 1910, builds its plot around a Jewish woman named Leah (Teressa Byrne) who longs to be a singer. Defying family and tradition, she departs her small Russian village for America, where she struggles to support herself and her pregnant, divorced sister (Makinna Ridgway) until finally agreeing to marry a wealthy man she doesn’t love. Conventionally directed by Herb Issacs, the book by Joanne Koch and Sarah Blacher Cohen offers few surprises, but Byrne creates a wonderfully appealing heroine, and the live klezmer band showcases the best of this musical tradition. Especially notable among the supporting ensemble is Jennie Fahn as a garrulous gal whose husbands die weird, untimely deaths. Ridgway as Leah’s more traditional sibling and Peter Finlayson as her eccentric would-be father-in-law enrich the story, which could nonetheless use some pruning. Zale Morris’ period costumes compensate well for the minimal set. West Coast Jewish Theater at the Egyptian Arena Theater, 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 19. (323) 860-6620. (Deborah Klugman)

BANNED PLAYS The 10 scenes culled from once-censored plays would raise nary an eyebrow today. Still, someone found them controversial in their time, and though the performances lean mostly to the pedestrian, a few reach the profound, under Michael Donovan’s understated direction. In Edouard Bourdet’s 1926 The Captive, the first play to portray lesbianism on the American stage, Jacques (David Goryl) confronts his wife Irene (Jennifer Lamar) and her dalliance with another woman, a relationship that causes Irene to quake with torturous desire and Jacques to rumble with intense jealousy. Jerry Weil as a Depression-era cab driver and Kelly Ann Ford as his long-suffering wife bring a convincing poignancy to Clifford Odet’s 1935 Waiting for Lefty, a paean to working-class and leftist pro-union politics. And Caroline Westheimer’s hilarious turn as the pious and hypocritical nun in Christopher Durang’s 1979 Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You is nothing short of brilliant. Perhaps selections outside of American or European shores, where playwrights’ words could bring torture and/or death, may have raised the dramatic stakes the show strives for but never quite reaches. GuerriLA Theater at Area 101, 1051 Cole Ave., Stage B, Hlywd.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 7:30 p.m.; thru March 4. (323) 850-3240. Note: Part of the proceeds benefits PEN USA Freedom to Write Committee. (Martín Hernández)

BARK Directed by Kay Cole, this unusually popular musical (it opened here 16 months ago and has received other productions around the country) by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard and Robert Schrock (with additional lyrics by Jonathan Heath, Danny Lukic, Mark Winkler) explores the highs and lows of six canines who are all passing time at the Doggie Daycare Center. Known as “the Pack” (Katy Blake, Kristi Holden, Ginny McMath, Jamey Schrick, Blake Pullen, Joe Souza), the canines appear onstage (not in doggie costumes) and skillfully mimic the habits and manners of man’s best friend. That’s really the show’s cutesy, facile essence. There is no plot, but each dog has a distinguishable personality. The show’s most compelling elements are David Troy Francis’ songs, ranging from the sublimely reflective to the hilarious. In “Mutt Rap,” the studs engage in a rap dittie that catalogs just about every breed known to man, while heralding the virtues of being a dog. The vocal highlight is Kristi Holden’s stunning “Il Cane Dell ‘Opera,’” about a poodle and her mistress. Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd.; W. Hlywd; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat. 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru April 2. (800) 595-4849 (Lovell Estell III)

GO CITY OF ANGELS As Reprise! moves toward its 10th anniversary, the company continues to jubilantly celebrate the American musical with semi-staged, semi-concert versions that emphasize songs overmis en scène. The concept is especially pleasurable in this show because composer Cy Coleman writes such juicy, belty numbers, in this case matched by David Zippel’s clever, corny lyrics. Coleman’s music is a perfect fit for playwright Larry Gelbart’s breezy film noir parody that intersects the fictional life of Detective Stone (Burke Moses) with that of his creator, novelist and would-be screenwriter Stine (Stephen Bogardus). Director Joe Leonardo and choreographer Kay Cole infuse the production with such light energy, the evening flies by. It’s also fun to see musical director Gerald Sternbach and his onstage orchestra interact with the performers. Most of the singing and character work is excellent, the only drawback being a few small roles undone by jarringly bad acting. Reprise! at UCLA, Freud Playhouse, Wstwd.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Feb. 5. (310) 825-2101. (Tom Provenzano)

THE ELEPHANT MAN For all the many accolades it won when it first premiered in 1979, Bernard Pomerance’s drama, a mix of ponderous dialogue and limp sentimentality, has not aged well — and director June Chandler’s stiff production compounds the piece’s innate fustiness. The play tells the story of the hideously deformed John Merrick (Derrick Han), who’s hobbled by a genetic condition that covers his body with monstrous bumps and pouches. Rescued from a London sideshow by altruistic London doctor Frederick Treves (George Ferra), Merrick quickly morphs into an English Gentleman, albeit one with a really long trunk. Before long, the Elephant Man, Esq., becomes a society darling, complete with visits from royalty and an unexpected romantic dalliance with kind-hearted British actress Mrs. Kendal (Tracy Lynn Jensen). Some of the production’s clunkiness can be blamed on designer Randy Kone’s actor-unfriendly set, which is masked by a murky brown scrim that succeeds only in blocking sightlines. Meanwhile, Chandler’s staging floats across the surface of the text. Although Han and Jensen are briefly able to elevate the tedium during their surprisingly passionate courtship scene, many of the other performers display discomfort on stage, lurching about the platforms as though they, not Merrick, are the misfits. Victory Theater Center, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Feb. 26. (818) 841-5421. (Paul Birchall)

GO HEROTIQUE-AAHH Equally motivational cabaret and sensual sermon, the troupe called 3 Blaque Chix vamps and gyrates like Marlene Dietrich as a preacher speaking in tongues — not about the Holy Spirit, but about masturbation, stimulation and sex after 40. Split into three archetypes, the dominatrix (Lola Love), the grounded goddess (Iona Morris) and the randy Donna Reed (hammy, hilarious Mariann Aalda), the ladies keep their minds in the gutter with the loftiest intentions. Their jumble of overlapping paeans, poems and rhapsodies about female pleasure has a body- and sex-positive empowerment. Love, Morris and Aalda’s commitment to the turned-on material makes the scattershot show purr, and director James Reynolds keeps them looking fun, comfortable and in control — much to the bedevilment of their two male backing musicians. Still, around the one-hour mark, the digressions about pubic hair, whips, toilet seats and salad tossing has the show burning at so many ends that I found myself wishing one of them would light a cigarette already. Fremont Center Theater, 1000 Fremont Ave., S. Pasadena; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; thru Feb. 26. (626) 441-5977. (Amy Nicholson)

{mosimage}THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST Who could possibly argue with Oscar Wilde and lines such as, “If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life”? There’s not a sincere line in the play, which, in a work about double lives and social deceptions, is part of its brilliance. You wouldn’t know from Peter Hall’s production that Wilde was tortured in prison for his homosexuality, and that his irreverence and humanity paved the way for Joe Orton. You wouldn’t know this because no trouble has been taken in Kevin Rigdon and Trish Rigdon’s production design to get beyond some stock country-house arches and a rose garden. And no trouble has been taken by Hall to do much beyond fulfill expectations of what Earnest has always looked and sounded like. Lynn Redgrave’s Lady Bracknell displays contagious glee in the way she contorts her lips around Wilde’s lovely epigrams, and spits them out. The problem with this, however, as with the ensemble, is a kind of over-articulated stiffness, particularly by James Waterston’s Jack Worthing. Robert Petkoff’s Algernon fares better, as do Bianca Amato as Gwendolen and the particularly wry and rueful Charlotte Parry as Cecily. When Miriam Margolyes’ rotund Miss Prism shows up, we’re suddenly in Nicholas Nickleby: With the physical humor amped up, other actors’ eyes start bulging in reaction, as though they, and we, have been poked in the ribs. At least it’s refreshing, even if it’s part of a different production. How can a play originally so subversive look so insulated and antique? Wilde deserves better, and so do we. Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7:30 p.m. (no eve perfs Feb. 5, 19 & March 5; added 2 p.m. perfs Feb. 16 & March 2); thru March 5. (213) 628-2772. (Steven Leigh Morris)

OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS Joe Dipietro’s rumination on a pivotal moment in the life of a young, successful man draws out the laughs, tugs on the heartstrings and plumbs microscopic depths. Nicholas (Daniel Tatar) continues to see all four of his Italian grandparents (Annie Abbott, John Capodice, S. Marc Jordan and Marie Lillo) every Sunday, taking the train from NYC to Jersey, years after his parents and his sister have fled to far corners of the country. However, this Sunday is different. This Sunday he has to tell them that he got a job promotion that will relocate him to Seattle. This spurs the elderly quartet to employ an arsenal of meddling tactics that only grandparents can get away with. Joel Bishoff directs a fine cast, and Neil Peter Jampolis’ set is beautiful and unimposing. And if one doesn’t mind the overly expository — and unnecessary — addresses to the audience by nearly every character, and a seemingly interminable epilogue to the action, this is a pleasant, unchallenging night of theater. La Mirada Theater, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada; Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7 p.m. (no mat perf Jan. 28; no eve perf Jan. 29.); thru Feb. 12. (562) 944-9801. (Luis Reyes)

GO ROCK OF AGES In this flashy jukebox musical, the Rock of Ages is a rock club on the Sunset Strip run by Dennis (Kyle Gass), and his sound man/MC Lonny (Dan Finnerty), where pretty waitress Sherrie (Laura Bell Bundy) longs for an acting career. Busboy/janitor Drew (James Snyder) wants to be a rock star, when he isn’t longing for Sherrie. But Sherrie’s seduced by singer Stacee Jaxx (Chris Hardwick) and lured into becoming a stripper by Venus Club manager Justice Charlier (Michele Mais). Meanwhile, evil German capitalist Hertz Klinemann (David Holladay) wants to buy up the messy Strip and turn it into neat strip malls. Klinemann’s son Franz (Tom Lenk) takes up with Regina (Patty Wortham), leader of the insurgents fighting Klinemann’s evil takeover. Though the plot doesn’t make much sense, even to the characters, it’s gussied up with a huge singing and dancing ensemble who constantly bump, grind and perform acts of simulated fornication in scanty costumes. If you like the Golden Oldies of ’80s rock, and rib-cage rattling decibel levels, this may be your cup of tea. It isn’t mine, but director Kristin Hanggi and the attractive, talented cast eventually won me over. Prospect Pictures at Vanguard Hollywood, 6021 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs., 8 p.m.; Fri., 6 p.m.; Sat., 7 p.m.; thru Feb. 18. (800) 595-4849. (Neal Weaver)

{mosimage}THE SHELTER There’re no two ways about it — either you’ll think Valery Belyakovich’s stylized reworking of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depthsis a work of mad genius or you’re going to feel bludgeoned by three hours of hyper-mannered movement, hoarse declamations and intrusive music. I happen to fall into the latter demographic, although I do recognize the dedication and physical endurance of 19 actors who are nearly always twirling behind whichever characters are speaking at the moment. Set in a contemporary flophouse, the story is a collection of the biographies of various “types” whose lives have been ruined by alcohol. These include a lawyer, an actor, a whore, a cardsharp — even a deli owner. They’ve lost everything and are reduced to living in a filthy room crammed with bunk beds, tyrannized by the flophouse’s owners (Franklyn Ajaye and Nicole Ansari Cox) and a crooked cop (Timothy V. Murphy). A messianic figure named the Wanderer (Donald Lacy) arrives to spread hope as the play’s one real plot unfolds — a love triangle between the owner’s wife, her sister (Stasha Surdyke) and the resident thief (Pasha D. Lychnikoff, who, with co-producer Lee Hubbard, adapted this work for English). The overuse of a fog machine is one tip-off that we’re in for an evening of atmosphere masquerading as philosophy; another is the recurring use of calliope music to underscore reminiscences, and Wojciech Kilar’s theme from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to suggest menace. Black Square Productions at the Odyssey Theater, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru March 5. (310) 477-2055. (Steven Mikulan)

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