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A Christmas Night's Dream

Old Ebenezer shakes his chains again at the Alley Theatre

Christmas is here again -- the lights are up, the Galleria's choked with traffic, and the Theater District is trotting out our Christmas favorites. At the Alley, Charles Dickens is busy shaking his perennial chains with yet another revival of A Christmas Carol. The production, adapted and directed by Stephen Rayne for the Alley several years ago, is a deeply traditional one.

Set in 19th-century London, the show is all somber grays and browns, with Victorian ruffles and cherubic children flouncing about to capture the mood. Twinkly old Christmas carols float under the narration as men in tall hats tell Scrooge's morality tale beneath Rui Rita's ghostly lighting, which casts an otherworldly glow that would scare the beejeebers out of anyone. It's no wonder that mean old Ebenezer learns his lessons about the power of giving so well.

The miser, who won't share a shilling with a soul, is visited by three ghosts one Christmas night. Each gives him a good stiff kick in the Christmas pants, and by the end of his nightmare, he's a changed guy. He wakes up tossing coins from his purse to the neediest in town.

Miser to wiser: James Belcher gets the audience 
laughing as Scrooge.
Joel Johnson
Miser to wiser: James Belcher gets the audience laughing as Scrooge.

There's a dark magic in this production. Somehow, the old story manages to be deeply moving even as James Belcher's cranky, thin-lipped, pot-bellied Scrooge makes us laugh. The cast, full of Alley favorites, has surprising depth. Philip Lehl's Bob Cratchit achieves the exact measure of sweetness as Scrooge's sad sack of a clerk. He hefts Tiny Tim on his shoulder and puts on a crooked smile in the worst of times. Jeffrey Bean's Marley, the ghost who warns Scrooge that he's in for a bad night, is freakishly scary with his chalky face and wrinkled coat. And David Rainey's baritone-voiced Ghost of Christmas Present could bring any sinner to his knees. He shouts down to Scrooge with all the moral authority of John Calvin himself.

The show might actually scare very young children a little more than parents anticipate. But for those of us in need of a little refresher on what the holidays are supposed to be about, this Christmas Carol might be just the sort of nightmare we need.

Through December 26 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. $37-$54.

Yummy Yuletide

At the Wortham Theater Center, Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker is yet again making sugar plum fairies dance in little girls' heads. Created by Ben Stevenson, this gorgeous production hasn't changed since it was first produced here in 1987, and for good reason. The show conjures a land of crimson silk, gilded ceilings and flying chariots, set to Tchaikovsky's glimmering score -- music for little girls to dream on.

A Freudian dreamscape if ever there was one, the story follows a child named Clara as she travels through the land of Nod one Christmas night. Accompanied by her beautiful prince, she wanders through a fantasia of snowflakes and candy. There she bears witness to such magical beings as the Snow Queen, the Sugar Plum Fairy and a whole phantasmagoria of exotic dancers.

The first act features a long scene of a pantomimed Christmas party where children misbehave and old folks dotter along. Once Clara goes to bed, however, the nutcracker she's been given comes to life and turns into a handsome prince, and the dancing begins.

Desmond Heeley's set and costumes are reason enough to see this show. The story opens in Clara's living room, a shining hall of greatness with vaulted ceilings and beautifully stylized rocking chairs and fireplaces that are big enough to get lost in. When we move into Clara's dreams, the world glitters in fluttering snow and light. Heeley's costumes range from the beautifully lyrical (even Clara's sweet nightdress floats over the stage) to the wonderfully funny.

The much-ballyhooed guest artist Marcelo Gomes appeared as the prince in the December 11 evening performance, and once he leaped onto the stage, he took complete command. Besides being beautiful and stunningly powerful to watch, Gomes exudes the sort of warmth and tender sensuality that really does make him the man of every girl's dreams. Also charming was Melody Herrera as a lovely and lithe Clara. And Bridgett Zehr and James Gotesky made a breathtaking pair as the Arabian dancers who perform for Clara.

The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol remind us that the holidays have always been a time for dreams, and with productions as yummy as these, sleeping never seemed so sweet.

Through December 26 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. $19-$150.

 
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