Capsule reviews of current area theater presentations.

On Stage
Burn This -- There are times when performers are called upon to surmount extraordinary obstacles, as happened to the Charenton group when their opening-night playing space was yanked out from under them by city functionaries. Undaunted, they transplanted this remarkable show to a different location in a couple of hours and turned in an astonishing and compelling effort. Written by Lanford Wilson, the play is an exploration of the distances between -- and inside -- people who fear connection. Robbie, a young gay dancer, has died in a boating accident, and his roommates, fellow hoofer Anna (Liz Conway) and fey Larry (Dan Kilbane), have just returned from the funeral. They are soon joined by wealthy screenwriter pal Burton (Andrew Narten), who cares for Anna, and Robbie's coke-wired brother Pale, who soon uses his slithery charm to bed Anna. Jason Markouc is as oily as the straight black hair he keeps flipping behind his ears, prowling the loft where the brother he never really knew has now left a permanent hole. Grasping each other like drowning people reaching for the last life preserver, these four players, under the direction of Christopher Johnston, turn in a tender and witty ode to urban loneliness. Presented by Charenton Theater Company through October 28 at 324 Gallery, 1301 E. 9th St., 216-469-9160, -- Christine Howey

Gospel! Gospel! Gospel! -- This Karamu show is the theatrical version of an empty-headed PowerPoint presentation. Billed as "a history lesson for the entire family," it's actually a bloodless chronological march through the history of gospel music that turns the avatars of this compelling musical idiom (Thomas Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, et al.) into ciphers on a timeline. And it's a shame, because gospel music deserves a much more thoughtful and compelling tribute. Clearly, all those involved have their hearts in the right place. Writer-director Otis Sallid wants to honor those who wrote and performed gospel music over the years, but by trying to encompass so much calendar time, he runs out of performance time -- cutting many songs down to 30-second snippets that don't allow the music to grab hold. Also, there's virtually no insight into any of the personalities who have made gospel the transcendent spiritual force that it is. The uneven 10-person cast does hit some high points and gets the audience shouting their responses. But the effect created by much of the music feels oddly muted, either by flaccid arrangements or awkward performances. Through November 5 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 98th St., 216-795-7077. -- Howey

Hamlet -- Some shows sound just about perfect on paper: When Beck Center envisioned a production of perhaps the best play ever written, directed by the supremely talented David Hansen and featuring a stellar cast highlighted by the chiseled and powerful Sarah Morton as the melancholy Dane, it must have seemed a sure winner. Alas, even the cross-gender casting of the Prince doesn't succeed in lifting this soporific effort above the merely competent. Perhaps it's the monochromatic off-white set, which unintentionally echoes the deliberate, one-gear pacing of this excursion into madness and tragedy. Or perhaps it's the fact that Morton, a splendid performer when delivering her own scripts, seems unable to harness this iconic role. The challenge is always to retain Shakespeare's musical lilt while making the dialogue expressive and understandable. Morton, however, either dismantles Will's melodies and delivers her lines naturalistically -- "Alas . . . [sigh, beat] . . . poor Yorick . . . [shrug, sigh, beat] . . . I knew him well" -- or she stiffly goes with the poetic flow and loses meaning in the process. She is supported gamely by fine actors (George Roth, Nicholas Koesters, Anne McEvoy), and there are a couple of electric moments -- especially when Hamlet confronts his (her?) mother Gertrude. But overall, this Hamlet is as colorless as its pasty surroundings. Through October 22 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540. -- Howey

Love¹s Labour¹s Lost -- This oddball romantic comedy is a feast of wordplay, and the crew at the Great Lakes Theater Festival leaves not one chuckle, chortle, or titter untickled. The King of Navarre and his three lords have committed themselves to pursuits of the mind and decided to forgo pleasures of the flesh, drinking, feasting, and so forth. But they've barely broken the spine on their dusty tomes before the sultry Princess of France and her hot trio of ladies-in-waiting hit town. Then it's cue the hormones and duck for cover. Meanwhile, a crazy Spaniard named Armado is incensed that a local doofus named Costard has been diddling a milkmaid he's been eyeing. To get in Armado's good graces, Costard agrees to deliver the Spaniard's love letter to the dairy queen, at the same time one of the lords tells him to deliver a mash note from him to one of the princess' ladies. Of course, the notes are switched, and the romp is in full gallop. This production -- from its cast (including Andrew May and Jeffrey C. Hawkins) to its set (Russell Metheny) to its direction (Drew Barr) -- oozes wit and charm. Produced by the Great Lakes Theater Festival through October 21 at the Ohio Theatre, 1519 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000. -- Howey

Urinetown -- Artistic director Sean Cercone is to be commended for his courage: Given songs titled "Privilege to Pee" and "Snuff That Girl," it couldn't have been easy deciding to mount this edgy and hilarious show in the frequently placid confines of Carousel Dinner Theatre. In this piece about a desperate water shortage and restrictions on free peeing, director Jennifer Cody keeps the dialogue pace very slow -- consider it the "large-print" version -- presumably to make sure that no one in the sprawling, well-fed audience loses track of the proceedings. But fine performances abound, particularly from tiny Karen Katz, who brings a feisty vibe to Little Sally. Al Bundonis handles Officer Lockstock's meta-narration ("Welcome to Urinetown . . . not the town, the musical!") with slick precision. And Robert Stoeckle is a cloyingly venal presence as Caldwell B. Cladwell. Although Michele Ragusa is a bit too petite for restroom-diva Penelope Pennywise, she works her powerful voice to maximum effect. Thanks to excellent singing voices from top to bottom, some dazzling dance numbers choreographed by Brian Loeffler, and taut execution from a talented chorus, this Urinetown is a golden shower of pleasant surprises. Through November 4 at Carousel Dinner Theatre, 1275 E. Waterloo Rd., Akron, 800-362-4100. -- Howey

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