GO BARNUM “Barnum’s my name and miracles are my game,” announces James J. Mellon as he embarks upon his portrayal of the showman in this revival of the 1980 Broadway hit musical. Mellon’s statement is not inaccurate, as he and the company dazzle the audience with juggling, acrobatics, illusion and balancing acts, all while singing their hearts out. Through Cy Coleman’s music and Michael Stewart’s lyrics, we are presented with Phineas Taylor Barnum’s life from his first sideshows in the 1830s to his partnership with competitor James A. Bailey (Robert Mammana) that created the world’s most famous circus. Mellon gives a performance that is reminiscent of the cheeky, childlike enthusiasm of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, with a wardrobe to match. Director-choreographer Josh Prince creates theatrical magic on Craig Siebels’ set of boisterous primary colors by employing many circusy devices and techniques. Emily Kosloski demonstrates her considerable acting and singing talents as Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, while Yvette Lawrence as Barnum’s wife, Chairy, and the versatile Mammana, portraying at least seven different characters, give notable performances as well. Open At The Top at the NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru March 26. (818) 508-7101, Ext. 5. (Mayank Keshaviah)
GO ECLIPSED In Ireland, accounts of the so-called Magdalen Laundries (operated by the Catholic Church from the 1840s to the 1970s) were as shocking as the more recent reports of child abuse by the clergy. “Fallen women” (unwed mothers) were involuntarily committed to laundry cages where barred windows separated them from their children and the society outside. They were a captive work force employed by the church to wash the nation’s laundry, presumably along with their sins. Patricia Burke Brogan’s 1991 play, set in 1963, concentrates on the Killmacha laundry, under the aegis of Mother Victoria (Rebecca Wackler), a doctrinaire, authoritarian nun who can make a benediction sound like a curse. She’s assisted by the sensitive, eventually rebellious Sister Virginia (Lisa Dobbyn). Their charges include Mandy (Leslie Baldwin), who dreams of Elvis; bitter Brigit (Josie DiVincenzo); long-suffering Nellie Nora (Rebecca Marcotte); and asthmatic Cathy (Melissa Jones), whose life-threatening condition Mother Victoria refuses to take seriously. There’s humor and gallantry in the efforts of the inmates to keep their spirits up with jokes, pop music and minor rebellions. Director Sean Branney marshals a fine cast with skill, balancing comedy with social criticism. Theater Banshee at Gene Bua Theater, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 18. (818) 628-0688. (Neal Weaver)
FAREWELL, MISS COTTON Keith Josef Adkins’ comedy drama about a black neighborhood being steamrolled by gentrification makes some astute social observations. Unfortunately, the plot, which involves an old man (the always impressive Hugh Dane) longing for the return of a derelict nightclub’s heyday, grows blurry in Act 2 before completely unraveling. Black Dahlia Theater, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru March 26. (866) 468-3399. (Steven Mikulan) See Stage feature next week.
L.A. REAL First presented in 1992, this 60-minute collaboration between writer-director Theresa Chavez and solo performer Rose Portillo spins a hare-footed overview of California history around one woman’s quest for her roots. Portillo relays Chavez’s perspective of a seventh-generation Californio, whose search for her family homestead spotlights the transformation of the land from a pastoral vista to a concrete jungle. The piece also pays homage to the strength and beauty of mestiza women, with whom the narrator comes to identify. Despite its lyric elements, however, what might have played effectively as a heartfelt personal testament comes cluttered with a barrage of music, videography and paintings that weigh down the narrative rather than complement it. Perhaps because it’s intended as an educational vehicle for younger audiences, Portillo seasons her telling with an outsize physicality that additionally undermines the effort. About Productions at [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 5. (323) 461-3673. (Deborah Klugman)
ONE STEP OVER Kelley Carlisle (Peter Haskell) lost his family, job, money, freedom and broker’s license when the Securities and Exchange Commission sent him to prison for illegal stock dealings. Now he has regained his license and works in a downscale trading firm, where he likes to play wise counselor to his younger colleagues. You have to have the guts to step over the line, he tells his protégés, if you want to become a player. One young man, Martin (Walter Novak), a hedonistic rich man’s son, lures Kelley into a “sure-fire” shady deal. The other, Jerry (George Svoronos), a coke head with a daughter in desperate need of chemotherapy, uses his newfound ruthlessness to hoist Kelley on his own petard. By the time the story ends, there’s kidnapping, attempted murder and a shootout. Though D.B. Levin’s play is clever, tough and dripping with ironies, it seems abstract and chilly, perhaps because we never learn the exact nature of the shady dealings. Director Alan Naggar leads a fine cast in a sharply honed production, on Joel Daavid’s elegantly stylized sets; we’ve seen these bottom feeders in any number of plays by David Mamet so that it’s become hard to care about them. Skin of Our Teeth Productions and Theater East at The Lex, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru March 19. (323) 960-7774. (Neal Weaver)
SORDID LIVES Writer-director Del Shores’ Southern comedies have substance underneath their country-fried breading. Mostly, as was the case in 2003’s lovely, honest The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, Shores’ affection and respect for his characters shine through his easy digs at characters guided by Dr. Phil and Tammy Wynette. In this earlier piece, a noisy, hickish clan wrestles with the reality that two of their menfolk prefer kissing menfolk, and that their matriarch has met a sordid end. What clashes is that in this most heavy-handed and mildly dated comedy about loving thine kooks, Shores’ condescension for his characters is untempered and counterproductive. (A Texan myself, I know that even in deepest Biblevania therapists have fairly abandoned the notion that homosexuality can be cured by doin’ a chick.) Still, nobody writes camp better than Shores, and few actors play it better than Leslie Jordan, whose Loretta Lynn–centric drag queen struts in cocksure he’s going to blow off the roof. The night I attended, the packed house mouthed along to Shores’ acerbic one-liners and laughed before them anticipatorily, signifying their readiness to add him to the cult-classic canon. Zephyr Theater, 7456 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd.; Tues. & Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru April 23. (800) 595-4849. (Amy Nicholson)
GO STONE HEART Lewis and Clark are back in Diane Glancy’s play, both portrayed by Tim Glenn. Joining them, or him, are Clark’s slave York (Jed Reynolds) and their Shoshone translator, Sacajawea (Thirza Defoe). Sacajawea was kidnapped as a child by a hostile tribe, and there’s a certain majesty to the idea of this lone teenage woman (in a traveling band of some 30 offstage men) returning to her long-lost home early in the journey. She’ll be back — again — after she’s seen the Pacific and translated for the Americans en route, infant in tow. So while Sacajawea’s on an extended and arduous journey home, the benign and charming Americans pave a road of genocidal conquest. The play is an epic poem, almost entirely narrated (to the accompaniment of three musicians) in quite wonderful performances, under Randy Reinholz’s direction. Glancy’s play is a conjuring of voices, smart and sensitive, but the presence of three actors cries for some dialogue and the enactment of conflict, rather than the mere telling of it. Also conspicuously missing is any mention of sex or sexual protocol, which played a huge role in cross-cultural understandings and misunderstandings. Still, this work in progress commands respect for bringing history to life in a tone that’s neither glib nor overly earnest. Native Voices at the Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 12. (866) 468-3399. (Steven Leigh Morris)
GO THAT MAY WELL BE TRUE Playwright Jay Reiss’ intense comedy drama crackles with snappy dialogue, rich emotional undercurrents and vivid characters. Critically acclaimed author Peter (Markus Flanagan) is on the brink of literary superstardom — but his career could go down like the Lusitania after his long-estranged childhood pal Russell (Robert Gantzos) unexpectedly sues him for plagiarism. Russell claims that Peter based his best book on Russell’s life of freewheeling drug use and self-exploring excess — and he has a dog-eared screenplay, written before the book, to prove that Peter stole the ideas. Peter stops by Russell’s Westchester, New York, apartment to plead with his buddy to drop the suit, but the two instead brawl about how Peter has “digested” Russell’s life. Though its themes echo Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories, this play’s unusual attention to the complexities of human nature elevates it above a cerebral debate on intellectual theft. Director Paul Linke’s energetic, intimate staging navigates the characters’ emotional eddies: Flanagan’s tightly wound, insincere sincerity is nicely balanced by Gantzos’ seemingly damaged, rageful Russell. Kristina Lear offers a luminous turn as Russell’s sexy-as-hell, hilariously New Age roomie. Ruskin Group Theater, 3000 Airport Dr., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru April 1. (310) 397-3244. (Paul Birchall)
GO TRUE LOUNGE Phil Johnson’s one-man show is a comedic, affectionate tribute to the Sin City lounge acts of the ’60s and ’70s, when the Rat Pack crooners, and their likes, enthralled audiences in small, folksy venues. With Ron Snyder’s precise piano accompaniment, Johnson mugs, sings, jokes and works the crowd like, well, a veteran of the lounge circuit. Some of the now esoteric selections include “Charade,” “Scotch & Soda,” “Midnight Sun” and “It Had Better Be Tonight.” Midway through the show, Holiday Hadley joins Johnson for the duets “I’ve Got Your Number” and “Blue Moon.” Hadley also spins off a couple of her own tunes in fine style. Ethan Feerst’s subtle, directorial touches invoke the perfect atmosphere. And for you Sinatra fans, Johnson throws in a rollicking, show-closing medley of the Chairman’s greatest hits. Masquers Cabaret & Dinner Theater, 8334 W. Third St., W. Hlywd.; Sat., 7:30 p.m.; thru March 11. (323) 653-4848. (Lovell Estell III)
A VAST WRECK Combining the narrative of Peer Gynt with the storytelling tics of Our Town may, on paper, promise a double dose of satirical angst, but in reality the results are as effective as a transfusion produced from two different blood types. Everything in Richard Caliban’s play is over the top, all the characters are cartoons, and the lessons of an amoral man’s misspent life are delivered with bludgeoning force. Theater of Note, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru March 18. (323) 856-8611. (Steven Mikulan) See Stage feature next week.
A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE Oscar Wilde’s first commercial and critical success is as politically charged as it is packed with the author’s trademark razor wit. And in light of the sheer frivolity of The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde’s attacks on English social decorum and stuffy, old-school rhetoric here feel far more satisfying in the present day than the conniving, ironic shenanigans of his better-known works. Director John Alan Simon gives us a straightforward, compelling production that hits all of Wilde’s big points well. However, the subtle thematic undercurrents and truly hilarious punch lines are often lost to bland blocking and a general lack of cast cohesion. Strongest is Colin Evans as the young, idealistic Gerald Arbuthnot, who is provided a fantastic career opportunity only to find that it lands him in a unique moral predicament. Also noteworthy are Denise Tarr as a sinfully progressive wife and Alexander Wells as an oily aristocrat with a secret. Classical Theater Lab, 1200 N. Vista St., W. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 7 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru March 5. (323) 960-5691. (Luis Reyes)