- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 26, 2002

OPENING
Runaway Home The Studio Theatre. A single black mother in the Deep South must choose between her familial responsibility and her independence. Opens Wednesday. 202/332-3300.
Santa Claus is Coming Out Warehouse Theater. Theatrical mockumentary about the "secret life" of Santa Claus. Opens tomorrow. 202/783-3933.
NOW PLAYING
Bat Boy, The Musical Studio Theatre Secondstage ***. This swift-moving sendup of musical conventions and B-movies is a zinger-laden pastiche of Broadway musicals ranging from "My Fair Lady," "The Lion King" and "Rent" to "Little Shop of Horrors," "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," and a splash of "Urinetown" thrown in. The show centers on the discovery of a half-boy, half-bat in a cave in a West Virginia town devastated by the collapse of the coal mining industry. Residents are looking for a scapegoat and Bat Boy seems to fit the bill. How will Bat Boy survive in a society both fascinated and repulsed by such a creature? It is all more than faintly ridiculous and high camp, but the cast plays everything with a cheeky earnestness, and the lyrics by Lawrence O'Keefe are wickedly clever. Dress warmly and bring along a cushioned seat; Studio Theatre has chosen to present "Bat Boy" in an as-yet unconverted studio space with wooden bleachers. Through Sunday. 202/332-3300. Reviewed by Jayne M. Blanchard.
The Christmas Carol Rag Signature Theatre ***. Director Eric Schaeffer and writer Noman Allen serve up 90 minutes of Charles Dickens' old faithful, set in early 20th-century New York with a new plot twist, plenty of singing and a fabulous stage design. In this rendition the old curmudgeons-turned-generous-souls are women; Donna Migliaccio as Scrooge and Dana Krueger as Marley are delightful in the roles. The musical arrangements by Howard Breitbart feature old ragtime tunes from the first half of the 20th century set to new lyrics that reflect the Dickens story line. The singing is uneven, but overall this is an excellent choice for holiday entertainment. Through Sunday. 703/218-6500. Reviewed by Gabriella Boston.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Arena Stage ***1/2. This production, directed with deep musicality by Tazewell Thompson, may be the most satisfying and affecting rendition to date of August Wilson's play about a 1920s black blues singer and a middle-of-the-night recording session. Everything works on all cylinders, like a top-notch jazz group playing as if the musicians' fingers and lips were on fire. The ensemble cast gives and takes, indulging in solos and improvisations from time to time, operating like virtuoso musicians more intent on sending the piece into the heavens than standing out individually. What is so thrilling about this production is how all the musicality of Mr. Wilson's words is mined so utterly. You feel as if the medium has been transcended and that what is being performed is not just words and notes, but something that sounds and feels like angel wings beating against your chest. Through Sunday. 202/488-3300. Reviewed by Jayne M. Blanchard.
Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare Theatre ***1/2. Energetic and funny, with fantastic acting and a set design that transports the audience back to the fun-filled Roaring '20s and to F. Scott Fitzgerald land. What better time in which to set this, one of Shakespeare's lightest comedies? Under Mark Lamos' direction, the performances are fast-paced and witty. As Beatrice, the radiant Karen Ziemba is commanding, showing an amazing range. As Benedick, funnyman Dan Snook is a master of body language, and he shows the kind of stage confidence his role as a womanizer and jester demands. This excellent production is not to be missed. Through Jan. 5. 202/547-1122. Reviewed by Gabriella Boston.
The Secret Garden Olney Theatre Center **1/2. The musical version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic novel is all grown up and angst-riddled in this psychologically tormented, operatic production. The story centers on two children, in a gloomy manor house on the English moors, who are spiritually and physically revived when they coax back to life a long-neglected private garden. But in this staging the dour, depressed children are secondary to the anguish and teeth-gnashing among the grown-ups. The music by Lucy Simon, with lyrics by Marsha Norman, who won the Pulitzer for "'Night, Mother," has its bleakly transcendent moments. Mostly, however, there are a lot of ghosts, clanking around in chains. Lushly sung and operatic, this "Secret Garden" may only be for the children whose idea of storybook time involves the collected works of Schopenhauer. Others adults as well as children are likely to feel burdened. Through Sunday. 301/924-3400. Reviewed by Jayne M. Blanchard.
The Shape of Things Studio Theatre ****. Neil LaBute's modern take on the Pygmalion parable gives us Evelyn (Amy Redford) as a sexy, punked-out graduate student who picks up Adam (Scott Barrow), a geeky college security guard. Adam flourishes so in Evelyn's company he transforms himself into a hottie whom people notice, finally, and even want a piece of. And thereby hangs the tale of how contemporary society esteems beauty above all. This play of ideas is brought home through wonderfully deep, searching performances and direction by Will Pomerantz that keeps things moving at a dazzling clip but still leaves time for the truths to sink in. In the second act, Mr. LaBute lets loose a zinger of a plot twist that is so savage you just sit there in stunned silence and watch the horror unfold. It makes "Shape" a cruel wonder, a beautifully made and streamlined morality play with modern sensibilities and age-old questions about art and beauty that will no doubt reshape your thinking about how far we should go for love and acceptance. Through Sunday. 202/332-3300. Reviewed by Jayne M. Blanchard.
South Pacific Arena Stage ***. So many songs from this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic have been burned into the collective memory that Arena Stage has to warn the audience before the performance not to sing along. That's OK, since you won't want to miss the fine voices and ebullient energy exuded by this production. Artistic Director Molly Smith's staging is fluid and fetching. Baayork Lee contributes lissome choreography. Richard White's stage-filling turn as Emile de Becque shows off an imposing physique and a gorgeous matinee-idol singing voice. Kate Baldwin as Nellie Forbush proves a delightful foil, though her vocal inflections could be better. The production is not so exuberantly on fire as it might be, but it's hard not to like an R&H; musical. Through Feb. 2. 202/488-3300. 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. Continues indefinitely. 202/467-4600. File review by Nelson Pressley.MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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