January and February are hard on Broadway shows because of a lack of tourists, but these months provide infinite possibilities for productions Off- and Off-Off-Broadway. During this frigid time, tried-and-true local theatergoers keep buying tickets; their search for excellence continues regardless of the temperature. Smart producers understand that waiting until March or April to open their shows will leave them in the backwash of the big Broadway productions that get lots of publicity as they barrel in for Tony consideration. Here are a couple of quality, low budget shows that have appeared on the radar screen precisely because they've opened at what is normally considered a terrible time:

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Lynn Manning
Lynn Manning
Sight Unseen

Shot in the eye in a barroom brawl and blinded at the age of 23, a young black male with nothing going for him except an inner fire to express himself finds his salvation in the theater. If you love the theater, this story has got to speak to you. When the show is written by and starring the blind man who still has that bullet lodged in his cranium, you've only got one hope: Please let the show be good! And, thankfully, it is.

The only obscure thing about the show is its title, Weights. We're not sure why writer/star Lynn Manning gave it that title, unless it's meant as a reference to the multitude of obstacles that weighed against his chances for success. Regardless, Manning's lightly poetic, visually resonant writing is the strongest element in this clear and direct autobiographical tale. Manning does an adequate job performing the piece, changing his voice to represent a galaxy of different characters; but there's something studied about his acting, whereas his writing is fluid and elegant. On the other hand, the very fact that he's playing himself gives the work a high level of authenticity.

A production of the Theater by the Blind at Urban Stages, Weights is at its most compelling when Manning reaches the point in his story when he must deal with his new affliction. Learning the technique for walking with a stick, dealing with people who treat him like an invalid, and finally winning the small battles that give him the tools to become an artist -- these scenes are extremely powerful. Robert Egan directs the show thoughtfully, and there's imaginative musical direction and sound design by Gary Bergman. This Theater By the Blind production is definitely worth seeing.

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Saul Reichlinas Sholom Aleichem(Photo © Lone Star Theatre)
Saul Reichlin
as Sholom Aleichem
(Photo © Lone Star Theatre)
A Fine Shalom

The next wave of the Broadway theater season will be anchored by the revival of Fiddler on the Roof. In anticipation of that event, Saul Reichlin has arrived on our shores in Sholom Aleichem -- Now You're Talking!, a one-man dramatization of some of the great Yiddish writer's short stories. The most intriguing tale, "Tevye Wins a Fortune," might be viewed as a prequel to the collection of stories that served as the basis for the world-famous musical.

Reichlin is a skilled and colorful performer. He's also a smart adapter. The first story he performs has a traditional surprise ending; but Reichlin, having quickly won us over, gently warms us that this is not Sholom Aleichem's usual way of telling a tale. He then explains the writer's unique style, including his tendency to have his characters refer to him by name. The humanity of Aleichem's work is reflected in Reichlin's warm stage persona. There's nothing fancy here; the content of each tale dictates how it will be told. If only there were music to go along with these stories...!

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Ute Lemper(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Ute Lemper
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Ute's Voyage: Downtown to Uptown

Few downtown artists can successfully play to an uptown crowd without modifying their image, but Ute Lemper is one of the few. When we last saw her, she was tearing up the joint at Joe's Pub -- stealing money from patrons' wallets, toying with concepts of gender, and adding a rock sensibility to her theatrical roots. It was a volatile mix of musicality and personality.

Now she has taken her most recent act, Voyage, to the more sedate Upper East Side, and the folks who frequent the Café Carlyle are getting a lot more than they bargained for. Though Lemper's act isn't nearly as raucous uptown as it was downtown, she delivers a dark, penetrating, and challenging hour of song. Lo and behold, it would appear that the Carlyle crowd is eating it up even as Lemper devours her audience in one lusty bite after another.

Lemper sings songs from all over the world (hence, the title of the show). She performs in German, French, and other foreign tongues -- not to mention English. And she relishes every opportunity for high theatricality. Never pandering to the well-heeled audience, she instead demands that they follow her on her musical journey -- and they do, if they know what's good for them! Ute Lemper continues at the Café Carlyle through next week in a show that shouldn't be missed.

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Lorinda Lisitza and Michael Vaccaro
Lorinda Lisitza and Michael Vaccaro
Park it Here

Sophomoric humor is tough to pull off. But Michael Vaccaro and Lorinda Lisitza, with considerable help from guest star Mark McCombs and musical director Tracy Stark, elicit lots of dumb laughs in their deliciously stupid cabaret show Too Many Johnsons. Set in the lunatic fringe of the country-western market, the show presents Vaccaro and Lisitza as a pair of sweet dunces who try their luck at playing the parking lot circuit.

For the most part, the songs are convincingly terrible and, therefore, funny. The best of them by far is a number written and performed by McCombs, in which he describes his villainous character in hilariously dark terms. At the piano, Tracy Stark is done up in a way that would make Minnie Pearl proud, and she is so amusingly dismissive of her cronies that she's a show within the show.

Too Many Johnsons is performed with so much good-humored gusto by Vaccaro, Lizitsa, McCombs, and Stark that it's easy to get swept along in the silliness. The show isn't going to be to everyone's taste but there is something very bold about the full-throttled commitment of the actors. Vaccaro's good-natured shnookiness is winning, and Lisitza's turnabout from last year's sophisticated interpreter of Kurt Weill to this year's endearingly ditzy airhead is amazing. Look for more performances of Too Many Johnsons at Don't Tell Mama in the months ahead.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegelentertainment@msn.com.]