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Capsule Stage Reviews: A Christmas Carol, Christmas Tree-O, The Nutcracker, Sister's Christmas Catechism, The Twelve Ways of Christmas

 A Christmas Carol Among the charms of December in Houston is the Alley Theatre's annual production of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens's amusing, sweet tale about an old man who finds his heart one cold Christmas Eve. This year's production, directed by James Black, is full of laughs and good fun; it's perfect for children, who often perch on the knees in their theater seats, decked out in yards of velvet or starched cotton, looking like tiny throwbacks to the Victorian world they're watching with saucer eyes. Onstage, bustling 19th-century London hurries across Tony Straiges's lean set. Scrooge (whom Black double-cast with himself and David Rainey) bah humbugs at center stage, bent over his slender, unadorned writing desk, perpetually counting his money. And so begins the old man's chain-rattling story of redemption. Lessons of empathy and kindness are at the heart of all Scrooge's ghostly travels this night, and the audience feels its heart grow right alongside his. Through December 29. 615 Texas, 713-228-9341. — LW

Christmas Tree-O In a world that seems overwhelmed by ever-encroaching secular progressiveness, it's refreshing to find Christ plopped firmly back into Christmas at A.D. Players, now showing a triptych of one-act comedies by Jeannette Cliff George, who knows how to preach without being preachy. "The Littleboro Valley Story" is a bit too homespun in its telling — four actors enact all the persnickety caricatures in the very small town. They want to do away with Christmas for this year because of various personal reasons (too much food since Thanksgiving, the economy's bad, etc.), but are reminded of the true reason we celebrate Christmas. "A Christmas of Many Parts" shows an amateur touring group with limited company members putting on the Nativity story and having to improvise the performance. The farce has some very funny moments that are standard-issue for anyone who's ever been onstage, but a surprisingly moving finale. The least religious-oriented of the three works, "En Dash," is also the best, a wacky goof of an office comedy in the best of farce tradition. The six actors in these shorts are finely accomplished, with veteran company members Lee Walker and Patty Tuel Bailey as standouts for subtlety and multifaceted characterizations. Through December 31. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

The Nutcracker As a follow-up to the wildly successful Sleeping Beauty by choreographer Marius Petipa and composer P.I. Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker wasn't an immediate success; in fact, it was rather rudely panned at its Russian premiere in 1892. But it has become a cash cow for ballet companies — Houston Ballet's 32 performances generate $2.7 million in revenue, about 17 percent of the annual budget. The Houston version is a magical night of dress-up and spectacular eye candy, with Desmond Heeley's fantasy sets and lush costumes, exploding canons, mechanical rats, a Christmas tree that grows to 40 feet tall, life-size toys, 200 pounds of falling "snow" and flying cooks. And its Herculean run allows for an enormous cast, letting dance fans see up-and-coming talent in lead roles. There are eight different casts in all, with 100 students from the Houston Ballet Academy participating. With so many dancers performing, it's fun to play spot-the-next-star, but the sheer insanity of the pacing and number of dancers onstage at any one time often overwhelms even the most astute eye. Best to let The Nutcracker roll over you like a wave of Christmas cheer. Just enjoy the spectacle and revel in the energy of the dancers. Through December 29. Wortham Theater Center, Brown Theater, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. — MG

Sister's Christmas Catechism Sunday school is a whole lot of fun in Sister's Christmas Catechism. The one-woman show, now running at Stages Repertory Theatre, takes the audience through a catechism class unlike any other — we learn the story behind Santa Claus, the first Nativity and a grilled cheese sandwich that held the image of Mother Mary and sold on eBay for $29,000. There's a whole lot of laughter stirred in to make the lesson go down easy — Sister (Amanda Hebert) is amusingly stern as she calls on members of the audience, who eagerly raise their hands. Good answers earn such lovely delights as a box of Christmas Peeps. The entire second act is devoted to a live Nativity scene enacted by chosen audience members. Sister dresses each one up in a clever costume contrived of bed sheets and toilet covers, then tries to figure out what happened to the wise man's gift of gold. She assumes it was stolen, since nobody seems to have gotten very rich off all those fabulous first Christmas gifts. Every one left in the audience watches and hoots with laughter. Created by a team of writers that includes Maripat Donovan, the woman who wrote Late Nite Catechism, which ran at Stages throughout the summer and fall, this new incarnation follows that same strategy of audience participation and offers an amusing entry into the Christmas spirit. Hebert is warm and inviting. And it's surprisingly funny to watch middle-aged men dress up like donkeys. Through December 30. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — LW

The Twelve Ways of Christmas There's no dancing sugar plum, not even a Scrooge, in this family-friendly musical/Christmas celebration at Ensemble Theatre, but you won't miss these holiday icons — the joy and rambunctious high spirits on stage are too shiny and bright. Writer/composer Carlton Leake and director/choreographer Patdro Harris fill the stage with so much Christmas cheer, you'll think the punch bowl has been overly spiked. The season's divided into 12 segments (Family, Financial, Romantic, Military, et al.) with songs and skits. There's nothing new to be discovered inside each clever scene, given polish and pizzazz by James Thomas (set design), Tiffany Turner (costumes) and Kelly Babb (lighting), but everyone's having such a grand time, who cares? Leake's gifts are surprisingly versatile, and many of his tuneful numbers could become seasonal standards if heard often enough, especially "Meet Me under the Mistletoe" and "Christmas Comes from Within." What keeps the spirits on high, of course, is the septet of ultra-talented performers (and the trio of musicians) whose unflagging enthusiasm, good will and sheer joy embody the essence of the holiday. Any one of them — Keeona Gabriel, Raena White, Teacake Ferguson, Andrew Jackson, Anthony Glover, Scarlett Barnes or Vincent James — could be wrapped up and placed under the tree. Through December 30. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — DLG

 
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