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Christmas Casts

Houston productions give Yule a varied look

Charles Dickens's crotchety old Scrooge is the quintessential capitalist. He works hard, saves his money and gets very, very rich. But everyone hates him for it. It takes Ebenezer years of loneliness and one very scary sleepless night to figure this out. But once he does, he becomes the best Santa in town. Of course, if Scrooge hadn't done all that moneygrubbing in the first place, he wouldn't have much to give. Think of the grumpy old grouch as a walking paradox.

He's so mean that he gets rich enough to give the town a very merry Christmas, indeed, and save Tiny Tim in the process. He's a sort of Victorian Bill Gates who's just come up with $100 million to vaccinate Third World kids.

Maybe that's why A Christmas Carol is a perennial favorite no matter how old it gets. Scrooge -- in all his many manifestations, from cartoon Grinch to Victorian miser -- is the perfect articulation of the psychic fracture in our Christmas culture: soul-crushing capitalism versus beneficent giving.

Whatever the reason, there are many Christmas plays to see this year, from the Alley's very traditional rendition complete with British accents to the Ensemble's wickedly irreverent Christmas Is Comin' Uptown, in which Scrooge is the meanest slumlord in Harlem.

The Alley has been promising a new Christmas production all year but decided to stick with Michael Wilson's proven adaptation of A Christmas Carol. And why not? Wilson's production is still terrifically inventive.

Jay Jagim's set is a fantastic maze of Victorian-looking wooden sidewalks that curl high in the air then back down to the front of the stage. They come so close to the audience that the mischievous boys sitting in the front row on opening night were able to reach out their open palms to touch the falling snow (yes, snow really does fall). Clanging, loud and ominous sound effects scare the bejesus out of the littlest patrons.

The misty, dream-filled night shimmers with a chorus of Day-Glo-painted goblins that haunt Scrooge in his sleep. Christmas Past (Trish Hawkins) descends dramatically on a swing from the rafters. Irascible Scrooge (James Black) is very funny and sweetly lovable. Big-boned Mrs. Dilber (John Fletch), Bob Cratchit (Kevin Waldron) and especially Mr. Fezziwig (James Blecher) are smaller roles -- but they bring a lot of energy.

The Alley's very traditional A Christmas Carol is as fine a version of this play as you'll see anywhere.

Some playgoers have probably had it with the figgy pudding and are wishing for something a wee bit different. A charming, if not very polished, alternative is on stage at The Ensemble. Christmas Is Comin' Uptown by Peter Udell, Garry Sherman and Philip Rose happens a long, long way from Queen Victoria's England.

Filled with song and dance and a new-day Scrooge (Henry Edwards) who's been transfigured into a low-down dog of a Harlem slumlord, this production is as funny as it is feel-good. And while Kirk Dautrive's direction is admittedly clunky, and the cast doesn't always seem 100 percent sure of the lines, everyone on stage is having so much fun that nothing else really matters.

Edwards is a big, brash, over-the-top sort of cartoon Scrooge who throws out the local minister and his flock because they can't keep up with his rent hikes. The Cratchits are no longer the forlorn little family who long for better days. They fight and bicker till Mrs. Cratchit (Willie Mae Sharpe) threatens the kids with a rolling pin. And dear, sweet Martha Cratchit (who in Dickens's version comes home for Christmas after a hard workweek at the seamstress shop) comes home Christmas Day after a night spent catting around with yet another boyfriend.

The hilariously hammy little Donald Simmons as Tiny Tim steals the show every time he walks on stage. This is a Tiny Tim with so much spunk that it's hard to imagine that anything could undo this kid's energy. The music has elements of gospel, soul and funk. And the entire production cooks along (and over a few rough spots) with the help of a smoky all-girl backup group called the Ghoulies (Tisha Dorn, Angela Rice, Aisha Ussery).

Don't go expecting clean, flawless performances, but do expect to laugh -- out loud -- a lot.

Main Street and Stages have two Christmas children's productions on the boards. A Little House Christmas at Plum Creek features the Ingalls girls in all their pioneer glory. Most little kids fall in love with Wilder's rough-and-ready but sweet girl heroes. And this season the kids and their ma have a lot on their minds, what with an approaching blizzard and Pa not even home yet.

It's a story about loss and redemption and, most of all, faith.

Stages has put together a glossy production of The Toys Take Over Christmas. In it, a terrible toy maker builds beautiful toys (the tin soldier costumes are glorious) then brings them to life with his special magic dust. But he hides their hearts in a secret bag. One day, when the toys are alone, they find those hearts, and the toy maker is, as you may have guessed, never the same. Best of all, after the show the kids are invited out into the lobby to meet the toys and Santa, who is in the show.

A Christmas Carol plays through December 27 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 228-8421. $34-$46.

Christmas Is Comin' Uptown plays through December 27 at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main Street, 520-0055. $15-$25.

A Little House Christmas at Plum Creek runs through December 20 at Main Street Theater, 4617 Montrose, 524-6706. $6-$8.

The Toys Take Over Christmas plays through December 26 at Stages Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 527-0220. $5-$7.

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