- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 27, 2001

OPENING Hambone The Studio Theatre. Bitter feuds quietly simmer among generations of families in a small South Carolina town. Opens Wednesday. 202/332-3300.
Picnic American Century Theater. A drifter stirs up romantic tensions among a group of single women in a small Midwestern town. Opens Wednesday at Theater-on-the-Run. 703/553-8782.

Blues in the Night Arena Stage ***This Sheldon Epps creation directed by Kenny Leon is a solid two hours of music that combines a little bit of plot with a whole lot of singing and gets a fantastic mix. This is not a staid, studied revival show, but an exuberant eruption of riotous music, drawing on blues songs from the era between the world wars. The production centers on a run-down hotel in 1930s Chicago, where three women commiserate about their difficulties in life: men, work, men, money, men. The women Bernardine Mitchell, Cynthia Hardy and Chandra Currelley are in great voice. Susan E. Mickey's costumes are a gaudy array of pinks and oranges and gloriously flamboyant and trashy. Vicki R. Davis' set design is a similar hodgepodge of clutter. The band supports the singers with inspired tunesmanship and grace. A warning to those thinking about bringing younger spectators: The play contains quite a bit of bawdy humor nothing obscene, but a good dose of innuendo, invariably played for laughs. Through Feb. 3. 202/488-4377. Reviewed by Eric M. Johnson.
Dirty Blonde Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater ****. Deftly directed by James Lapine, Claudia Shear's play is both a tribute to the legendary siren Mae West and a heart-tugging love story about two lonely fans who meet by chance at Miss West's grave. Miss Shear is magnetic in her va-va-voluptuous portrayal of the original peroxide blond material girl and puts even such goddesses as Madonna and Marilyn Monroe to shame. She is equally intriguing as Jo, an actress and a temporary worker inspired by Miss West who falls in love with Charlie (Tom Riis Farrell), a shy film scholar at the public library who has been a fan of Miss West's since childhood. Miss Shear is magnificent as Miss West in her prime. Mr. Farrell and Bob Stillman (who plays, among other roles, Miss West's old friend Joe, a cigar-chomping railbird) are terrific in their multiple roles, playing everything from Miss West's musclemen to various husbands and lovers. "Dirty Blonde" gives sex and tough gals a good name. Through Jan. 6. 202/467-4600. Reviewed by Jayne M. Blanchard.
Hamlet The Shakespeare Theatre **1/2. Call it "Hamlet for Dummies." The Shakespeare Theatre's production telegraphs everything just in case you never have heard of the Melancholy Dane. The staging is about as subtle as a cudgel. Some death scenes are accompanied by "eee-eee-eee-eee" sounds straight out of "Psycho." Many of the actors shout their lines, perhaps to stir up energy, but they give the impression of a kingdomwide hearing problem. Luckily, the hurly-burly dies down during Hamlet's soliloquies, when Wallace Acton, delivering the famous speeches with a divine naturalness, uses nothing but his supple voice and gestures to reveal to us the quicksilver states of the prince's mind. Sybil Lines gives us a Gertrude of dignity and nuance. Also, led by Edward Gero as the ghost of Hamlet's father, the Players a traveling acting troupe hired by Hamlet to put on a play about the murder reach a magic and eloquence using greasepaint and worn props that the rest of the show never achieves. Through Jan. 6. 202/547-1122. Reviewed by Jayne M. Blanchard.
A New Brain Studio Theatre ****. This ebullient production of William Finn's cerebral, stirring musical about getting a second chance at life is a show about living, about feeling grateful, about starting over. Post-September 11, the semiautobiographical musical, which stems from Mr. Finn's brush with mortality in the early 1990s, has an exhilarating message that Mr. Finn could not have figured on when he wrote it in 1997. The half-fantasy, half-reality structure offers up a real grab bag of melodies and moods, but Mr. Finn's consistent quirkiness and odd rhythms and rhymes somehow work. The Studio's production wisely underplays the profundity of the message, with director Serge Seiden delivering a show that is fun, dizzying and a bit impudent and naughty. Through Sunday. 202/332-3300. Reviewed by Jayne M. Blanchard.
Shear Madness Kennedy Center Theater Lab **. This corny, hokey tourist trap now in its second decade is doubly maddening because the Kennedy Center displays it as art to the cultural center's unsuspecting pilgrims. The audience-participation murder-mystery farce (set in a Georgetown hair salon) is well-played, though, when the actors refrain from mugging and cracking up one another. The audience rambunctiously analyzes evidence and chooses the murderer in this campy, shtick-filled goof. Continues indefinitely. 202/467-4600. Reviewed by Nelson Pressley.
She Loves Me Olney Theatre Center ***. No need for candy canes. This production provides all the sweetness required for the holiday season. The combination of a fetching score, excellent voices, swirly staging and period-perfect costumes would make the Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical a delight in any season, but it's a special treat this time of year. Adapted for Broadway in 1963 from Hungarian writer Miklos Laszlo's 1937 story, the show is set during the Christmas rush at Maraczek's Parfumerie in 1930s Budapest. It tells the tale of two people who fall in love through anonymous letters they have written to "Dear Friend," and the anonymity gives them unparalleled insight into their hearts and souls. "She Loves Me" takes us back to a sweeter time perfumed with promise. It's an ideal show for this year especially. Through Sunday. 301/924-3400. Reviewed by Jayne M. Blanchard.
Spain Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company ***1/2. Do you find yourself afraid to fly lately? You still can savor the sunny romanticism of Madrid and Andalusia with this winning production of Jim Knable's play. The show, directed with oddball joie de vivre by Tom Prewitt, tells of a wife whose strange and entrancing dream help her cope after her husband leaves her for a breast-augmented younger woman. Barbara (Emily Townley), the spurned wife, sits in her pink robe and ponders life without John (Andrew Ross Wynn), her spouse of five years. The marriage has had its bumps, which Barbara has suppressed with fantasies about sunny Spain. Suddenly, a Spanish conquistador (Christopher Lane) appears in her living room with the light glinting off his helmet and armor. El Tigre props his metal boots on the coffee table and regales Barbara with stories of what it is like to be a new man in the New World. Taking her destiny and his sword into her own hands, Barbara embarks on an after-midnight tour of Spain that is way beyond what you see in travel brochures. Through Jan. 6. 202/467-4600. Reviewed by Jayne M. Blanchard. MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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