Man of La Mancha
N.C. Theatre
Through Oct. 14

Sure, we like to think of the theater as a place of continuous innovation. But sometimes, to quote an old Holiday Inn tagline, the best surprise is no surprise at all. That’s the case in this season-closing production, one which could be called a marriage of known commodities.

Over the 10 years since Raleigh became a regular stop for second-tier touring versions of Broadway shows, N.C. Theatre had to step up its game in the staging of archive-level productions of American musical theater classics. One of its strategies of late: hiring big-name, nationally knownif similarly second-tierperformers to anchor them in the lead roles. Around here, theater names don’t get much bigger than Ira David Wood’s. Unsurprisingly, he pulls off the dual roles of Cervantes and Don Quixote with vigor and taste under Sam Viverito’s direction.

Among names less well-known to locals, Mary Gutzi’s earthy performance distinguishes the role of the barmaid Aldonza whom Quixote transforms into his Dulcinea, while Sam Reni fades into the background as second-banana Sancho Panza. Paul Malamphy (Governor), Stuart Marland (Doctor) and Jeffery Maggs (Barber) give savor to supporting roles.

But Jonathan Parke’s sound design just might be the real news here. Its digital delay and other effects gave David Andrews Rogers’ 17-piece orchestra and the vocalists onstage an enviable richness, clarity and sheennot the easiest thing to achieve in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium.

The one drawback? Ironically, the score, whose fourth iteration of “The Impossible Dream” is clearly two too many to modern ears.Byron Woods

The Battle of Shallowford
Raleigh Little Theatre
Through Oct. 21

The Battle of Shallowford is the story of the small town of Shallowford (which, we’re invited to believe, is based on Lewisville, N.C.) and its simple way of life. The results are predictable, but nevertheless endearing: Everyone knows everyone; petty rivalries sheath the town’s one-big-family mentality; young folks want to leave; and gossiping is a cherished downtime activity.

The play, written by Tar Heel playwright Ed Simpson, is best thought of as a two-hour-long sitcom. Well-defined relationships between the characters are used formulaically to heighten the comic effects, as with the relentless jabbing old-timer Roy Sprinkle (Shawn Smith) gives the opinionated Clunette Campbell (Timothy Cherry). There is a mixture of small-town types: young dreamer Ruthie Mock (Kirsten Ehlert), slow-speaking “Doodad” Jarvis (David Corlette), his quiet, though comically intuitive dad Newsome Jarvis (Phil Lewis), and the town misfit Fred Martin (Don Smith), a gay ex city-dweller who is described as “not having all the right hormones.”

In a vaudeville climax, the residents of Shallowford prepare to defend their country against the aliens of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast, which they believe to be real. Since the audience is all too aware of the characters’ foolishness here, it’s fortunate that both the battle and the characters’ ignorance last a relatively short time. However, the ending reveals itself as the weakest link in this thin, but otherwise enjoyable, outing as the play reverts to sitcom form with a Full House-style ending, in which the characters reveal what they have learned and how it made them better people.

While the predictable situations detract from the play, they also provide reassurance thatas with sitcoms and small townsthings won’t change. Ultimately, The Battle of Shallowford and its cozy aura (thanks to RLT’s set design and the actors’ successful adoption of country attributes, complete with N.C. drawl) should be enjoyed on an easygoing evening, when one might find appealing the idea of a lengthy (and commercial-free) episode of Full House. Megan Stein

The Miss Firecracker Contest
Ghost & Spice Productions
Common Ground Theatre
Through Oct. 20

As a Southerner born and bred in Jackson, Miss., the Pulitzer-winning Beth Henley writes about what she knows best: Folksy talk of beauty queens and the sweltering weather serve as cover for the undercurrents of a society that was overly concerned with outer appearances.

Miss Firecracker, then, is Henley’s full-blown discourse in Southern Gothic theatricality where beauty is more than skin deep and desire is palpable. Set in the humidity of a Mississippi summer, the play revolves around Carnelle (Tracey Coppedge), a former town slut who dreams of winning the annual Fourth of July beauty pageant, The Miss Firecracker Contest. But her bad reputation (she’s known by locals as “Miss Hot Tamale”) and her so-so looks cause her family to doubt her ability to win.

Of course, when the rest of the family gets involved, other problems blossom from the woodwork. Bored with playing the role of the rich housewife, Carnelle’s cousin Elaine has left her husband and two small sons to seek out some fun of her own, while cousin Delmount has just been released from prisonbut not from the psychotic dreams that plague him nightly. Add a blossoming romance between Delmount and geeky seamstress Popeye (Melissa Lozoff) to the mix and a funhouse of illicit secrets, unspoken desires and rushes of emotion literally erupt in tiny explosions of laughter, tears and fist fights.

It’s in these bursts of pure emotion that the cast of Miss Firecracker excels. While minute details are often left out of the play and many questions go unanswered, half the joy in a production like Miss Firecracker is the ability to simply ask these questions and experience their weight on stage. Credit is due to the rich performances: Lozoff tackles Popeye with an endearingly dopey, wide-eyed sincerity; Coppedge puts in a fiery performance full of vigor; and Alguire is utterly charming with his honeyed Southern speech and muddled movements. Still, while the play takes the blue ribbon for emotional gratification, the undercooked plottoo many loose ends are left over for the audience to receive any sort of true payoffearns this production a solid second place. Kathy Justice

Manbites Dog Theater
Through Oct. 13

Once again, director Natalie Sowell presents our culture with a mirror of its racial beliefs and practicesone reflected in a razor’s edge. In a British mental institution, two white doctorsa senior consulting psychiatrist who refers to himself as “the Authority” and a brash young post-docgrapple over the diagnosis of a black patient. The younger one, Bruce (Allen Maule), is convinced his patient, Christopher, may be incurably schizophrenic and in need of institutionalizing.

The problem presented in Joe Penhall’s play: We’re not as certain Christopher (notably played by Trevor J. Johnson) should be released. And Bruce is so squirrelly himself (a social discomfort which Maule effectively radiates from the stage), that we can’t trust the diagnosis.

Maule’s, Honeycutt’s and Johnson’s acting is top-rate, but Penhall’s script ultimately stumbles and falls during the second act, permanently jumping the shark in the knockdown debates Bruce and Robert indulge in, first in private, and then openly in front of their patient. We can’t begin to believe a psychiatric fellow would address a sponsor and mentor upon whose goodwill he was entirely dependent in this manner. Their middle and final brawls take what seemed a serious grilling of racial assumptions and expectations into the realm of cheap burlesquequite a comedown from where the playwright began. Byron Woods

Romeo and Juliet
Playmakers Rep
Through Oct. 14

“Who set this ancient quarrel new abroach?” Davis McCallum is the man, come to wield his art among the Playmakers, and so to spill fresh light on the gleaming surfaces of old words. Playmakers Repertory Company, with McCallum as guest director, has opened its main stage season in the Paul Green Theatre with Romeo and Juliet, one of the great love stories of all time and certainly Shakespeare’s best-known play.

McCallum can hardly ignore the love story, but he has fractured the carapace of convention to subtly emphasize the political elementthe longstanding and ever-widening gap between two factionsin a way that resonates with the here and now. He doesn’t belabor them, but we cannot miss the parallels with the gang fights at home or the tragedies of war abroad. He is greatly aided in this by his Mercutio (Justin Adams) and his Tybalt (David McClutchey).

As the teenage lovers, Janie Brookshire and Matt Dickson bring vitality to their characters, with a freshness of phrasing and natural, contemporary gestures and actions. They are very pretty together but need a little more heat between them. The exception to this is in Act III, Scenes 2 and 3, for which McCallum has devised a brilliant staging: a theatrical version of a cinematic split screen. Kate Dobbs Ariail