In the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's production of Damn Yankees, the characters you might find yourself adoring the most aren't the devilish Applegate, or the seductress Lola, or newfound baseball star Joe Hardy, despite the considerable talents of those playing them. They're Joe and Meg Boyd, whose story sets the plot in motion, and who - as portrayed by Rob Engelson and Nicole Horton - provide the show with more cumulative emotional impact than you might be expecting. Horton isn't on stage as often as some of her co-stars, and Engelson appears even less frequently, but their spirits hover over the whole production, and it's not until the last scene that you realize just how much of Damn Yankees' success rests on how much you like Joe and Meg.

By the time the amateur male strippers perform their exuberant, baring-it-all finale in the Timber Lake Playhouse's The Full Monty, it might take all your will to not leap from your seat and join them. The high spirits generated by this show are a little overwhelming; with the possible exception of the Clinton Area Showboat's current production of Ruthless, The Full Monty is the best time I've had at the theatre in two months. It's joyous, technically dexterous, thrillingly performed, and, best of all, absolutely fearless. (You're aware of this by the end of the overture, when a bare-assed stripper, hounded by female groupies, races across the stage.)

Black comedy is tough to pull off, and camp is even tougher, so it's no small praise to say that the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's production of Ruthless is a huge success. This savvy, ballsy musical about a mother-daughter duo who will literally kill to succeed in show biz is so mean and bitchy that it's sure to piss off or offend all the right people, and it's a credit to the comic subversion of the theatre's artistic director, Jay Berkow, that he chose Ruthless as the theatre's Sound of Music follow-up. The show is vicious and borderline inhuman ... and I could barely see my notepad through my tears of laughter.

I hate The Sound of Music, but on some level, doesn't everyone? The sugar-coated sensibility, the repetitive songs we know far too well, the Julie Andrews wannabes trilling with relentless cheeriness, the use of Nazis as a pesky, simplistic plot device ... . I know that the show is an assured cash cow for producers, but many of us would be happy for the book and score to disappear until the show's hundredth anniversary in 2059. (I'll be dead by then, right?)

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