At DTC, Many Reasons to See pretty; DSM's Xanadu Exudes Strange Magic; Theatre Arlington's Spelling Bee, a Winner

The pretty girl gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop in reasons to be pretty, the third and last installment in Dallas Theater Center's ongoing trilogy of Neil LaBute's Beauty Plays. In the first two—The Shape of Things and Fat Pig—the good-lookers have all the power. But in pretty, directed by Joel Ferrell in the Wyly Theatre's small studio space, hotness is no match for intelligence and common sense.This play starts in the middle of a deafening blow-up between Steph and Greg, a working-class couple together for four years. A little thing has set off this set-to: Greg has described Steph to his friend Kent as looking "regular." Not ugly, just average. Greg sees nothing insulting about the innocuous remark. He's a man, so he wouldn't. Steph makes it a deal-breaker. She's a woman, so she would. It hurts Steph even more that "regular" has come in comparison to her own best friend, Carly, the pretty one.The value men place on the physical appearance of females, says LaBute throughout these plays, is often at odds with the value women place on loyalty and respect from their significant others. Gorgeous or butterface, every woman wants to believe her man thinks she's all that. Finding out she's only shrug-worthy in his eyes blights the romantic illusion and takes a big bite out of self-esteem. Can you love someone who doesn't think you're beautiful?In the first two plays, LaBute makes the un-pretty ones the victims. Shape's nebbishy college boy is given a drastic makeover by the dishy girl he thinks is doing it for love (she has more nefarious reasons). The relationship in Fat Pig between a confident, chubby woman and a cute, thin guy is undermined by revolting comments about her from his friends.With reasons to be pretty, LaBute ratchets down his cynicism to give the ones with flat stomachs and good noses some comeuppance. He's gone unexpectedly squishy-nice with this play, as if he'd grown up and learned lessons about snap judgments of books and their covers. (LaBute has had his own problems taking weight off and putting it back on, so you have to wonder.)This play's couples are a little dumber and a lot less sophisticated than their counterparts in the trilogy's other plays (each has just four characters). Steph (played by Christie Vela, who's also the lead in Fat Pig) has the most going for her as a mall hairdresser with her eye on moving up to management. Greg (Lee Trull) shuffles through third-shift warehouse work, but reads Poe and Hawthorne in the lunchroom. His sexy-scruffy pal Kent (Regan Adair) is more the crotch-scratching, swaggering type, the star of the company softball team who also plays the field among the company's women. Kent marries ponytailed security guard Carly (Abbey Siegworth), then cheats on her, using as an excuse that old line about how for every beautiful woman, there's a man tired of sleeping with her. (And as he says that, the name of a famous horndog golfer appears in a collective thought bubble over the audience.)LaBute writes good fight scenes and there are some doozies here, verbal and physical. Steph's profanity-laced takedown speech, listing all of Greg's negative qualities, including his shortcomings in personal hygiene and penis size, is the best moment of all three plays. Christie Vela, standing over a cowering Lee Trull, delivers it with a megaton of sass—as if reclaiming the power sucked out of her other character in Fat Pig. She's terrific. They all are, making expert use of the "whatevers" and "whatnots" LaBute peppers through his dialogue.Go ahead and stick around for the brief "Dr Pepper/Snapple talkback" session in the lobby afterward (which inexplicably does not include free beverages). The actors come out and informally toss provocative questions to the crowd about what LaBute's up to in his Beauty Plays. It makes for lively crosstalk among theatergoers. The wrong answer from your mate could determine the tone of conversation on the way home.--

There are no gender issues, no intellectual dilemmas to ponder in Xanadu, the national tour playing one more weekend for Dallas Summer Musicals at Fair Park. This show is musical comedy marshmallow fluff. And it's a blast.Only 90 minutes long, Xanadu makes blistering fun of how bad its material is. As one character says, it's "children's theater for 40-year-old gay people."Based on a terrible 1980 movie starring a post-Grease Olivia Newton-John and what looked like a posthumous Gene Kelly, Xanadu mixes Greek mythology's Muses with '80s roller disco, a fad that faded faster than Newton-John's movie career.The stage version, a surprise Broadway hit three years ago, uses the movie's soft-rock score by ELO in a fairytale about a Muse named Kira (played on tour by twinkly Anika Larsen) who comes to Earth to help a hunky but dimwitted mural painter named Sonny (Max Von Essen) achieve his dream of owning a roller-disco palace. Affecting Newton-John's Aussie lilt, Kira coos breathily through "Strange Magic" and "Have You Never Been Mellow," songs that are, like Kira's leg warmers, reminders that nostalgia for the music and fashion of the Xanadu era is so, so wrong.Besides spoofing its own "Oh, my, Khayyam" storyline, the show takes witty swipes at Scientology, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Clash of the Titans. The snazzo cast includes Annie Golden, a fixture of the real 1980s downtown music scene in New York City and now a Carol Kane-esque character actress.A combination of airy tunes and the spinning of 50 mirrored disco balls above the Music Hall stage help to conjure some strange magic in this silly show. Not ashamed to admit it: Xanadu left me happily hyp-mo-tized.---For its version of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Theatre Arlington has done what Theatre Three didn't do last fall: Cast it right. B.J. Cleveland, Megan Kelly Bates and Darius Robinson are the only overlaps for both productions. Bates once again plays Logainne, the grammar school activist in tight pigtails; Robinson repeats his role as Mitch Mahoney, the bee's militant "comfort counselor." Cleveland, however, gets the part he should have had before. In wrinkled khaki shorts and saddle oxfords, he is William Barfee, the sad adenoidal spelling whiz who works out words with his "magic foot."Around those three old pros revolves a young cast perfectly picked for this likable musical's odd gimmick of having adults play six awkward adolescents. Erica Harte is a little heartbreaker as Olive, the smart tulip in pink overalls whose parents were too busy to show for her big moment. Her voice on "The I Love You Song" is so sweet you'll want to hug her and make her a sandwich.Jared Johnson displays the right space-cadet charm as hippie-kid Leaf Coneybear, who goes into a funny trance to spell the names of South American rodents. Mary Jerome turns cartwheels as serious contender Marcy Park, who speaks six languages but is tired of competition. As Chip, the Eagle Scout (and previous bee champ) whose unfortunate burst of manly desire causes public humiliation, Jason Kennedy works a mean unibrow.Todd Hart and Jenny Thurman are the real grown-ups. He's a stitch playing the deadpan vice principal who'd rather not have to repeat and define "boanthropy" and "vug." She's the chirpy bee sponsor who utters hilarious descriptors for each speller as they approach the microphone (and that includes four civilian spellers plucked from the audience each night, so be prepared to be embarrassed).

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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