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Lyric Stage’s Road To Qatar leads a Caravan of Small New Musicals on Local Stages

The troupe at Lyric Stage follows in the footsteps of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
James Jamison

For the creators of The Road to Qatar, the giddy little musical getting its world premiere at Irving's Lyric Stage, a real-life deal to write a made-to-order spectacular for a Middle Eastern emir turned out not to be such a big break. Instead, it was more of a sheik-down.

So librettist Stephen Cole and composer David Krane took their awful showbiz safari experience from 2005 and turned it into this five-actor, 17-song caravan of musical comedy. Their silly-but-true saga follows the two struggling, unknown New York composers, called Michael and Jeffrey in the show, as they are hired to pen a lavish Disney-in-the-desert-style opening event for the world's largest indoor soccer stadium.

Problem One: The writers had never met before being hired via e-mail. Two: The stadium was in a tiny Arab emirate. Three: The producer was a shady Egyptian who gave the pair six weeks to finish script, score and orchestral arrangements, with the promise of a big-money payoff at the end. (Guess whose check is still in the mail?)

If that sounds like the set-up of an old Hope and Crosby road picture, that's exactly how Cole and Krane's alter egos onstage play it out. Actors Brian Gonzales and Lee Zarrett lock elbows and sing and clown up a storm as Michael and Jeffrey, the "two short Jews" dragged by the oily Egyptian (Bill Nolte) to Dubai, London, Bratislava and Qatar before the curtain finally rises on their ridiculously complicated show-within-the-show.

At Lyric there are hints of these locations on the spacious but simple unit set designed by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case (they also did the costumes). The glitz comes from the performances by the high-voltage quintet of seasoned pros, all with credits on Broadway and in national tours. Gonzales and Zarrett (both veterans of the recent Broadway production of Putnam County Spelling Bee) have the most work to do in selling the show's up-tempo tunes and broad jokes with punch lines like "don't ask, don't Tel Aviv." They're terrific, particularly Gonzales, who has snazzmatazz comic timing and gets to show off his talent for mimicking celebs such as Sean Connery and William Shatner.

Nolte makes a nifty comic villain as the shifty producer. Jill Abramowitz plays all the women's roles, from a sexy flight attendant to a starstruck assistant who develops the hots for one of the American guys (the gay one, unfortunately for her). Bruce Warren dives in and out of costumes to play the pageant's swishy Italian director and its star, an Arab movie idol who keeps trying to rewrite the script.

There's an old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley bounce to Krane's melodies throughout. Even the song titles—"Good Things Come in Threes," "Give 'Em What They Want," "Oh, What a Show!"—sound like standards from Broadway standbys of the 1950s. That's all dandy stuff. It's only in the last third of this 105-minute musical where things start to get bumpy with a few too many gags about terrorists. But even with some rough spots, The Road to Qatar offers miles of smiles.

Over at The Dallas Hub Theater, Evil Dead: The Musical features a chorus of tap-dancing zombies and gushers of fake blood drenching the "splatter zone" in the front rows. In a low-lower-lowest-budget production directed by Billy Fountain for his company Level Ground Arts, the horror flick is adapted for the stage with doo-wop-inspired songs and dorky-funny choreography by Brittany Levraea that pays the expected homage to Thriller.

Five college students in a cabin in the woods? What could go wrong there? Zac Ramsey, a curly-haired facsimile of Entourage's Adrien Grenier, plays Ash, leader of the pack of horny kids who spend a scary night amid an army of the undead. Ash and best friend Scotty (Tyler Wilson) tango to the tune "What the Fuck Was That?" and they all take turns singing "Look Who's Evil Now" as one by one they're zombified.

The visual jokes are killers. Ash's sister, Cheryl (Stephanie Felton), keeps up a barrage of terrible puns from her lair behind a "basement" door that opens and shuts like a cuckoo clock. And when Ash chainsaws off his own hand, the thing refuses to die. For the rest of the show, the appendage pops up around the set, offering its own one-fingered review of the goings-on.

Fog machines cue the appearance of the "deadites," who step lively in production numbers. Even the onstage band, led by M. Shane Hurst, wears the tell-tale smudges of zombiedom (makeup design by Melody Jones).

The actors are better at getting laughs than hitting high notes, but in a show like this, vocal polish isn't required. Shane Strawbridge is the funniest of the bunch as Jake, a hillbilly who says things like "I got no time for common sense!"

This crazy-kooky fun is attracting a whole different crowd to this Deep Ellum venue. The opening weekend performance reviewed was sold out, with patrons begging to buy standing room at the back of the house (where you're likely to be grabbed by rogue zombies, by the way). Sit up close if you don't mind being splattered or if you need a clear view of the zombie offering sign interpretation for the hearing impaired (no, really).

As a theater space, The Hub has always felt like its own little corner of hell. At last, there's a show that's made for it.

In a week of new small musicals, breathe, a regional premiere at Uptown Players, is the wispy one. Creators Dan Martin and Michael Biello string together seven brief vignettes about gay life, punctuated in director Bruce Coleman's production by swirly dancers in gauze pajamas doing swirly things to the swirly strains of musical director Scott Eckert's string quartet.

It's a pretty, gauzy affair built around clichés: the conflicted priest, lesbians in love and looking for a sperm donor, a same-sex marriage (with candles!), a young man's death, old gays meeting in a park like long-lost pigeons. Moods switch like cable channels among comedy, tragedy, fantasy and romance. Everyone wears shades of beige.

The cast plays it straight—pardon the expression—as if their lines actually were better than gooey greeting card homilies. Brandi Andrade, Gregory Lush, Thomas Renner, Michael Tuck and Stephanie Hall have the speaking-singing roles in the sketches. The "rituals" between scenes are danced effectively by Souk Burrows, Sergio Antonio Garcia, Katharine Gentsch, Carlos Gomez and Summer Kenny. Eckert's ensemble of keyboard and strings is lovely.

If only it weren't so relentlessly, breathlessly over the rainbow. Kind of reminds me of that show they're always doing at Theatre Three, the one where the couples sing about the stages of courtship, marriage and widowhood. breathe is like that, but without the sarcastic edge: I Love You, We're Homo, Don't Change.


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