Girl With a Pearl Necklace: An Act of Love -- It doesn't take long to fall in love with Varla Jean Merman, the inestimable drag performer with stevedore arms and angelic face who trots out 70 minutes of nonstop jokes, ad libs and songs, as well as her patented gag-me-with-Cheez Whiz bit. Demurely gowned, Merman starts the show by singing "Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places," accompanied by video clips showing her standing hopefully at inopportune locations, including Bush-Cheney election headquarters. From there, the loosely organized material ranges from brief, pun-filled anecdotes ("I was recently performing in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the whole place was teeming with seamen!") to her video-assisted songs, sung in a pleasing voice somewhere between alto and falsetto. Speaking in a chirpy lisp and throwing away many of her gag lines in sotto voce asides, Merman amusingly tweaks various audience members and her keyboard accompanist, Ricky Ritzel. While some of the material is a bit derivative, she sells it with such bubbly good humor that it's hard to resist. As for the Cheez Whiz stunt -- don't try this at home, kids. Through November 6 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727. -- Howey
The Phantom of the Opera -- While it's tempting to poke fun at this Broadway warhorse and its glitzy pretension, this touring production at the Allen Theatre displays none of the tired disinterest or mechanical line readings that can plague casts in such oh-so-familiar shows. The story's the same: A Paris opera house is haunted by a tuneful ghost, who demands his own box at every performance and a generous monthly stipend to boot. He falls for Christine, the lovely understudy who vaults to stardom thanks to the Phantom's ethereal leverage and a flood of notes he keeps sending to the opera's hapless managers. Meanwhile, the company's nominal stars huff and puff their way through performances that are vexed by unseen voices and the occasional dead man hanging. Scary stuff aside, every Phantom must rely on strong performances in key roles to carry the day. Fortunately, Gary Mauer and Rebecca Pitcher musically anchor this rendition as the Phantom and haunted Christine. For those who love these quasi-operatic show tunes, this production stands more than a ghost of a chance of pleasing. Through November 7 at the Allen Theatre, 1519 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000. -- Howey
Summer of '42 -- Yep, it's a musical version of the movie, and it's a good thing Kalliope decided to do it, since it requires adolescent boys to sing and act. Thankfully, this company's dedication to splendid voices and evocative presentations has landed it some very talented local high schoolers, who perform like seasoned troupers. Hermie falls for an older woman (of say, 30) named Dorothy, acted and sung to perfection by Jodi Brinkman. The original music by David Kirschenbaum ranges from average to excellent, with the high points being a hysterical double-date song sketching the awkward moves boys make on girls in "The Movies" and a tender ballad titled "Promise of the Morning." Through November 7 at Kalliope Stage, 2134 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts., 216-321-0870. -- Howey
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