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The Nutcracker It wouldn't be the holiday season without Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker. Once again, HB trots out Ben Stevenson's 1987 version of Clara's Christmas dream of a place where toys come to life and battle those pink rats, cannons boom, cooks fly, and the Kingdom of the Sweets sparkles. For curmudgeony critics, the ballet can be a bit of a bore: The plot is sugar-wafer-thin, there's more British pantomime than dancing in the first act, and, well, we've seen this same version for two decades. But the magic of The Nutcracker lies not in it being a great ballet but in it being a great tradition. Maybe Artistic Director Stanton Welch is wise in not tinkering with his predecessor's version. This Nut is like mac 'n' cheese: comforting, familiar and filling. Even that annoying fat family in the party scene is a tradition, like your own annoying relatives come for the holidays. It helps that Desmond Heeley's sets and costumes still look dazzling, and that the Houston Ballet Orchestra can still raise goosebumps with Tchaikovsky's iconic score. There's also the thrill of seeing young dancers in their first solos — multiple casts ensure you'll see someone new doing something lovely. So suspend your inner Scrooge and enjoy. When the flakes fall gently on the dancers in the snow scene, it will melt the most cynical of hearts. Through December 27. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. — MG

O Little Town of Bagels, Teacakes, and Hamburger Bun Despite its awkward title, Jeannette Clift George's comedy on the true meaning of Christmas — and its play on the word Bethlehem, which means "town of bread" — is warm, fresh and nourishing. A bakery cafe next to the railroad depot hotel serves as a Christmas Eve rendezvous spot for her assortment of characters, all of whom are lost in some way. Friendly owner Bob (Orlando Arriaga) is an unfulfilled artist; Pastor Mervyn (Kevin Dean, comically assaying a host of supporting roles) keeps his emotions detached; Mr. Bartlett (Marion Arthur Kirby) relives his half-century love affair with his wife Rhonda (Patty Tuel Bailey); Hepburn (Christy Watkins) waits in vain for a married lover; Inez (Jennifer Dean) grieves for her dead husband by assuring everyone that he's sitting next to her; and brittle Velma (Laurie Arriaga), Inez' sister, arrives determined to shatter her illusions. The comedy is heartfelt and sincere, as are the sentiments, and, this being the A.D. Players, the meaning is suffused with God's love; and, hey, isn't that what Christmas is truly all about? George's graceful, witty play is blessed with a vivid physical production (sets by Mark Lewis, costumes by Donna Southern Schmidt) and, ultimately, with the very best ensemble acting from any troupe in Houston this season. Under Lee Walker's astute direction, this ultra-fine stable of thoroughbreds runs with the play and effortlessly, artfully, catching every nuance and then adding some of their own. That's a wonderful gift for any season. Through December 31. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

Panto Sleeping Beauty Fun family outings to the theater are as rare as snow in Houston. Most shows billed for the entire clan are as hackneyed as a TV rerun — how much Dickens can a body take in a lifetime? Happily, Stages Repertory Theatre's Panto Sleeping Beauty is that special "family musical" that really is a delicious holiday confection everyone can enjoy — spicy enough for grownups and sweet enough for little ones. The tale about good conquering evil starts in the library of the "Skystonian," with Mrs. Makeitup (Genevieve Allenbury) and Buttons the bellboy (Ryan Schabach) ready to rewrite Sleeping Beauty. Buttons's newfangled version includes a girl named Nadia (Nyseli Vega) and her adoring friend Peter (Garret Storms). Written, directed and choreographed by Stages Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin, with music by David Nehls, this Sleeping Beauty is a long way from anything the Brothers Grimm ever wrote. This is a big, messy show stuffed full of weird ideas that somehow work together even though they shouldn't. For example, squirrels named Chip (Kendrick Mitchell) and Dale (Kregg Dailey) leap into a couple of scenes, doing a surprisingly sexy striptease. Sexual innuendo runs throughout the musical, but it stays far enough below the radar so that the kiddos don't catch on. Still, Panto Sleeping Beauty has a couple of weaknesses. Most of the songs are simply not as good as the rest of the show. Also, it clocks in at close to three hours. While all of it is funny, there's a lot that isn't essential to the story line and could be cut. Still, three hours fly by quickly when you are having as much fun as this Panto inspires. Even the tiniest kids were still awake when the actors came out for their curtain call. Through January 3. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — LW

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