Joan Marcus

Whistle Down the Wind

5th Avenue Theatre

Through Dec 2.

Imagine a musical about a small town in Louisiana in 1959—depressed farmers, sweet kids, ill-treated African Americans, a restless boy with a pompadour and a motorcycle, sinister evangelicals, and so on. Now imagine that musical written by Jim Steinman, the man who wrote and produced Bat out of Hell for Meat Loaf, and a past-his-prime Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Whistle Down the Wind is precisely what you're imagining—technically accomplished but as overwrought, nostalgic, and cloying as the scribbles in a high-school yearbook. The band is dominated by a synth drum kit and four synthesizers, one of which, at intermission, was set to "timp/tbns/tbns & trpts." Which is what Whistle Down the Wind sounds like: tbns and trpts. (The singers are better. Eric Kunze and Andrea Ross—as the fugitive and the oldest sister—have strong, dulcet voices.)

Based on a 1961 movie that was based on a 1958 novel, Whistle Down the Wind concerns three motherless children who find a wounded fugitive hiding in a barn. They think he's Jesus; and he, looking for help wherever he can get it, doesn't disabuse them of their fantasy. The kids in town come flocking to the tattooed Christ, the adults in town are looking for the fugitive, and everybody learns a little something about love and redemption and stuff.

Apparently, Whistle Down the Wind has been a hit in England in the last few years, where the Oxford Mail called it "a cracking feel-good family show" and the Wolverhampton AdNews ominously wrote, "No matter what they tell you, go and see this Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman musical." In 1998, one of its songs was recorded by an Irish quintet called Boyzone and went platinum. Some kinds of success are more damning than failure. BRENDAN KILEY

Five Women Wearing the Same Dress

Work-It Productions at Odd Fellows Hall

Through Dec 1.

It's not that I don't like theater (good theater), it's that sometimes I just can't remember what theater is for. So many productions take the medium for granted—like, yeah, you've got some words there, and some outfits, and that weird theatrical intonation that you guys use—and then... what? What's the point? Why am I not just watching TV right now?

Middle-of-the-road okay-fests like Five Women Wearing the Same Dress don't help. This play is not terrible. It's not pretentious. It's not even boring. In fact, are you a woman? You might really like it. Written in 1993 by screenwriter Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under), it's about five ladies—the bridal party of a bride no one can stand—in a room, having, you know, lady talk. The dress in question is a gaudy, forlorn disaster: embroidery, sparkles, gauze, shiny lavender cape, and terrible tiny hat. One bridesmaid is slutty, one is depressed, one smokes pot, one is Christian, and one is a lesbian. How can five people who are so different ever find common ground? God, how 1993 is that question?

Five Women Wearing the Same Dress is intermittently interesting and competently acted. Jennifer Fredette gets genuine laughs as Mindy, the oddball lesbian and child pageant contestant: "And I played 'Crimson and Clover' on my bassoon for the talent competition. AND I WON." But the play's 1993 vintage glares through the cracks: in the dialogue (pithy!), in the subject matter (AIDS), in the references (Leona Helmsley). There are a few laughs, some yelling, the Macarena (at intermission), and a lot of misty gazing into the middle distance.

Five bridesmaids picked to sit in a room and have their lives sympathetically observed? Seriously, sounds like a TV show to me. A TV show I've already seen. LINDY WEST

The Cook

Seattle Repertory Theatre

Through Dec 1.

The worst thing about The Cook is that there's no place nearby to get a good tamale. The set, by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, is a big, working kitchen in a Havana mansion—after watching and smelling the characters cook and eat for three hours, one wants nothing more than a hot bite of pork and cornmeal.

That disappointment aside, The Cook is entirely satisfying. On the eve of the Cuban revolution, a devoted cook named Gladys swears to her employers that she will occupy and protect their mansion from Castro. She does. Years pass, her pigheaded communist husband sleeps around, her gay cousin is persecuted, and Gladys keeps cooking and washing, unmoved by the political forces eddying around her.

The play, by gay Cuban émigré Eduardo Machado, has an ironic symmetry: It begins and ends with capitalists hounding her for food. In 1959, it's Batista cronies at a New Year's party. In 1997, it's American tourists coming to her in-house restaurant. Gladys feeds them all with equanimity. She cares little for Castro's revolution—her politics are personal, and she is loyal only to her vow and herself. (In the second act, the pigheaded communist husband announces his mistress is pregnant, and threatens to send her gay cousin to an internment camp if Gladys doesn't let her move in. "I guess it was you who wasn't fertile," the husband sneers. "Maybe she cheated on you," Gladys replies coolly. Off her cousin goes.)

The supporting actors are all good, particularly Al Espinosa as the husband, who delicately walks the line between charming and repulsive—we know he's a bastard, and we also know why Gladys loves him. But the triumph belongs to Zabryna Guevara, who originated the role of Gladys in the 2003 production in New York. She fills the part effortlessly. No word is hesitant, no gesture superfluous. It's difficult to imagine The Cook without her. BRENDAN KILEY