- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

OPENING

• The Blue Room — Signature Theatre. An ultra-modern take on the classic “La Ronde,” with humor, romance, sex, isolation and hypocrisy at center stage. Opens Tuesday. 703/218-6500.

• Grease — Warner Theatre. One of Broadway’s longest-running musicals shows what high school was like in the 1950s. Opens Tuesday, runs through June 6. 202/783-4000.

• The World Goes Round — Round House Theatre. A musical revue featuring the songs of one of the American musical theater’s greatest writing duos, John Kander and Fred Ebb. Opens Wednesday. 240/644-1100.

NOW PLAYING

• Cats — Toby’s Dinner Theatre — ***. Toby’s is one of the first theaters to try to re-create the kittenish allure of this Andrew Lloyd Webber musical warhorse, which premiered on Broadway in 1982. The intimacy of the space makes the show less of an empty spectacle and aligns it more closely with its source material, T.S. Eliot’s book “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” The keyboard-heavy 10-piece orchestra strives not to sound rinky-dink. But matters are helped by the emphasis on full-out choral singing. Costumes and makeup are captivating, and the actors give fetching portrayals of the show’s 26 cats. Through Aug. 8. 410/730-8311. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Children of Eden — Ford’s Theatre — **1/2. Based on a book by Tony winner John Caird, with music and lyrics by Tony nominee Stephen Schwartz, this accessible miniextravaganza is family fun loaded with colorful, familiar characters and visually arresting dance numbers. Its take on Judeo-Christian theology, however, is decidedly nonstandard. Its two acts remanufacture the decline and fall of Adam and Eve and the tempest-tossed voyage of Noah’s ark. The basic stories remain intact. However, the concepts of good and evil are largely peeled away. The youthful cast rocks with infectious enthusiasm, and the time flies if you just want to have fun. Through June 6. 202/347-4833. Reviewed by T.L. Ponick.

• Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train — Round House Theatre Silver Spring — ***. This production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ stark and funny examination of the judicial system could have been just another evocation of life behind bars. Yet it is about faith, about whether redemption is possible, and the urgency of prayer. It tackles these issues with compassion, bottomless humor and a pugilistic energy. The torrent of profanity, the depiction of the grim realities of prison life, and the intensity of the imagery, make it a difficult ride. Its rewards lie in the searing performances and the robust fire of Mr. Guirgis’ language. Through Sunday. 240/644-1100. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Mamma Mia — Hippodrome Theatre — ***. This marshmallow fluff of a musical combines 22 golden oldies from the Swedish pop group ABBA with a love story set on a sunny Greek island. Two years ago, it played the National Theatre and proved a shrill, derivative affair. But what a difference a cast makes. In Baltimore this time around, it’s frisky and infectious, due mainly to some key casting changes. The overamped, overproduced sound is shriekingly, painfully loud, but its day-glo visual pow and its exuberant performances make it worth the trip. Through Sunday at 12 N. Eutaw St., Baltimore. 800/551-7328. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• The Master and Margarita — Synetic Theater — ***. Synetic Theater is known for its nontraditional, movement-based productions, a natural fit for the black magic and black humor of Mikhail Bulgakov’s dizzyingly experimental novel, “The Master and Margarita.” The novel was secretly written in the 1930s during the Stalin regime and not published until 1967. The author caged his anti-Stalinist message in a refracted allegory of good and evil where the devil is the main character and Jesus and Pontius Pilate make cameo appearances. The acting ranges from the inspired to the hammy, but when the play comes into focus in its second half, the strange majesty of Mr. Bulgakov’s novel, and its epic battle between cynicism and spirituality, blazes into life. Through June 20 at the Rosslyn Spectrum. 202/462-5364. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Passing the Love of Women — Theatre J — **1/2. Can an observant Jewish man love the Torah and another man? That is the question posed in this precautionary fable about mixing sex and religion in the shtetl of 19th-century Poland, based on the short story “Two” by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Two brilliant Talmudic scholars, under pressure to obey Jewish laws and marry, yet disgusted by the thought, take off to another town and live as man and wife. Enter all the cliches of situation comedy, so that the play swiftly becomes not an exploration of forbidden love at odds with deep spiritual beliefs but a quasi-farce that dilutes the emotional nub of the play. Yet the production is visually impressive, and the direction is strong. Through June 6 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center. 800/494-8497. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Picnic — Center Stage — ***1/2. William Inge’s 1953 play about the passions stirred up in a small, conformist Kansas town when a brawny outsider saunters into town during its Labor Day picnic is receiving a punchy, imaginative staging at Baltimore’s Center Stage under the guidance of director Irene Lewis. The characters are formulaic, but the sharply drawn acting and Miss Lewis’ extraordinary ability to let us in on the characters’ inner lives take us beyond the pastel-colored peppiness of the era into something rich in shadow and light. This is a revival in the best sense. Through June 20. 410/332-0033. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• A Streetcar Named Desire — Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater — ***1/2. Patricia Clarkson, guided by Irish director Garry Hynes, proves a luminescent Blanche in this new production of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play. Miss Clarkson finds the poetry and comedy in Mr. Williams’ words in a way no other actress in recent memory has done. Amy Ryan’s Stella is every bit as strong, and Adam Rothenberg gives a jocular, superbly physical portrayal of Stanley Kowalski. “Streetcar” is drenched in sex, and Miss Hynes’ staging emphasizes the sexual as a force that can thrill and destroy in equal measure. The sultriness of the production briefly turns to torpor in the second act, but the performances are searing. Through Sunday . 202/467-4600. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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