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Playing the Season

Houston's theaters welcome Christmas with an array of dramatic gifts

Courtesy of the Houston theater scene, I received my Christmas presents early this year. And, I'm pleased to report, my stocking didn't contain one lump of coal. Sure, a couple of the shows I saw were, like a gift of underwear, more practical than desirable, and, yes, a couple of others reminded me of the squid dinner an old girlfriend's family served instead of turkey or ham in that, although tasty, since they weren't apropos of anything Christmasy, they didn't fit into the holiday tradition. But, after all was said and done, I had no desire to rush to the counter to return any of the shows I "got" this year.

To be honest, though, I did somewhat dread going to a few of the performances. Making the rounds to A Christmas Carol at the Alley and Peter Pan at Theatre Under the Stars, for instance, felt like the sort of obligation I couldn't get out of when my parents would cart little me over to my grandparents' house on Christmas Eve. Wasting my time might be too harsh a way of putting it, but I decidedly did not want to spend an evening merely going through the motions of holiday cheer, even if the intentions were time-honored and I was expected to -- because even as a child I knew that sometimes things celebratory ended up mustily ritualistic.

But I had a terrific time. At my family holiday gatherings I'd usually rediscover that among my relatives were a couple of characters distinctive enough to get me into the flow of things (my crazy cousin Gloria one year thought she was a tree and, signing herself out of the mental institution, showed up at Christmas dinner all aglow). Similarly, at Carol, I met Scrooge as if for the first time, and at Pan I, like the Lost Boys, didn't want to grow up.

James Black, the Alley's perennial Scrooge, does more than play the old miser as crotchety; he adds an impatient, sly intelligence that makes the recognizable symbol fresh and immediate. Supplying Scrooge with an active mind enlivens the developments; it imbues the familiar plot with a psychological frisson, an energizing appeal. What Black does is portray Scrooge as sharp enough to be superior but keen enough to recognize his mistakes, so that he's the true catalyst of his transformation, not, as many productions have it, simply the foil of the ghosts who visit him. His transformation from troubled to joyous becomes even more transcendent in large part because Black, with gaping mouth and trembling hands, really responds to what's going on around him. Black breathes life into a play that's often as flat as paint-by-numbers.

Similarly, Michael Wilson, who adapted Dickens' script, Wendy Beaton, who staged it, and Jay Michael Jagim, who designed the sets, found a way to make something old new again. Gray-masked spirits do a grotesque dance with fluorescent umbrellas before and after the thunderstorm of a night. The Ghost of Christmas Future is an eerie, faceless, steam-powered giant with a clock in its stomach. These and other effects, along with a wildly impressionistic, almost gothic set of winding, black, planked stairways and haunted windows, create a thrillingly macabre evening.

As for Peter Pan, it's no wonder that Cathy Rigby has twice received Tony nominations for being the leader of the Lost Boys. Peter is her signature role, and over the years she's learned to sing it as well as she flies through the air, which she does effortlessly, twirling and spinning and picking up speed with the confidence that only a former Olympic gymnast could have. But beyond the precision and abandon of the stunts, Rigby inflects Peter with an emotional neediness that makes him quite appealing, especially during the holiday season. If we take our eyes off Rigby, it's to look at the terrific sets, all polished wood and Mother-Goosey wallpaper for the English nursery, mossy rocks and cartooned foliage for Neverland. Though I wasn't around when Mary Martin originated the role, I did catch the second famous incarnation, Sandy Duncan, who emphasized the rapscallion in Peter, creating a sort of Tom Sawyer who could fly. While this type of wisecracking was fun, Duncan downplayed what Rigby, with an endearing little-boy drawl, stresses: that Peter is hero who desperately wants a mother to tuck him in at night.

What connection Peter Pan's story has to the holiday season, I'm sure I don't know. The only possible thing the musical has to do with Santa and Jesus and company is that when Peter tells Wendy, John and Michael Darling that, for them to fly, they must "think lovely thoughts," tyke Michael is the first to ascend because, while his older siblings think of fishing and candy and the like, he cries out, "Christmas!" That one reference aside, the show, though picturesque, has as much Yuletide to it as Captain Hook does two hands. "Family entertainment" is not a synonym for "holiday season." But since the production entertains, I'll agree to, like those hands that clap Tinkerbell back to life, believe.

The Ensemble Theatre, with its production of Langston Hughes' Tambourines to Glory, and the A.D. Players, with its The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, have chosen their Christmas productions with an eye toward advancing each theater's stated purpose. (Admirably, and unlike most Houston theater companies, they at least have a stated purpose.) But for different reasons, neither move works as well as it should. The Ensemble aims to revive and keep alive black theater, and Glory -- a gospel-rich, folksy morality musical in which the Devil tries to the lure the good into his lair -- does that well enough. It's a vital text to mount because it helps remind us of an important black writer. But it's also a vital text that might have been better mounted at another time of the year, given that The Ensemble could both have remained true to its credo and recognized the season with Christmas Is Comin' Uptown, a worthy African-American work that's been in its repertoire for years. This is the first time in recent memory that Uptown hasn't been performed, and I missed it. Interesting as Tambourines to Glory is, there was simply no reason to forsake Uptown.

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