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Capsule Stage Reviews: Burn the Floor, A Christmas Carol, Cinderella, A Fertle Holiday, The Nutcracker, Plaid Tidings, Santaland Diaries

Burn the Floor Their chests glisten, their hair whips around and sticks to sweaty foreheads, their legs scissor across the stage in blurring beats, they exude sex — and that's just the guys. The gals are pretty much the same, except their chests are covered and they wear spangled skirts and incredibly high heels. In the direct overhead light, the men's pectorals gleam like Greek statues, and the women in the audience scream in girlish delight whenever the guys wiggle their hips, twitch their butts, or cast off their shirts. Frenetic and terribly dramatic, Jason Gilkison's choreography resembles the routines created by Peter Gennaro for NBC's Kraft Music Hall, only lacking the real excitement of Juliet Prowse or Chita Rivera in the foreground. The cast works overtime, no question about it, but to what effect? It's all the same, no matter what "dance" they're doing: The rumba looks just like the samba, which looks like the cha cha, which resembles the swing, which isn't much different from the jive. The women toss their thick manes to and fro with the same heady inflection as when they move their nimble feet. There's no real theme to the show, it's basically a series of routines (using the five standard dances and the five Latin dances that comprise the repertoire of international ballroom competition) set to a recorded score with live percussion and a male and female singer (I presume they're singing live, but who can tell, it's all so amplified). The titular star of the touring show is Mark Ballas, who you may remember partnered Bristol Palin last month on Dancing with the Stars. His pecs look great in the overhead lighting, and he's a sizzling performer and snazzy dancer, but since everybody's doing the same steps, he doesn't really stand out. Nobody gets to shine, which may be the point — everyone's a star on the ballroom floor — but the show comes alive in the quietest moments, when the waltz is featured and nobody's forcibly sexed up. The couples hold each other in tender embrace. As they smoothly glide across the stage, the women's gowns fan out in lazy spirals and the men, impeccably dressed, lead their partners with timeless aplomb. Immediately, it's Fred and Ginger time, and magic happens. But the mood of wonder is short-lived. Everybody rushes back on stage, gyrating, lifting their legs in ear-hitting extensions, awash with faux eroticism. Sex gets the hard sell and looks awfully tiring and not worth the effort. — DLG

A Christmas Carol Although the Alley's holiday extravaganza is tinged more Halloween than Christmas — those dancing ghosts are awful — there's plenty of Charles Dickens to go around in A Christmas Carol. Michael Wilson's adaptation is Victorian bleak, played against a scaffold-and-brick design that screams Sweeney Todd. Christmas Past and Christmas Present resemble John Leech's original 1843 etchings, while the ominous Christmas Yet to Come peddles a fantastic gothic tricycle and the cross-dressing housekeeper (not a good idea) pawns Scrooge's bedclothes in one of Dickens's most creepy scenes. As miser Scrooge, Alley pro Jeffrey Bean is as definitive as they come. Through December 27. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. — DLG

Cinderella In past productions, Patdro Harris (director/choreographer) and Carlton Leake (composer) have always brought unparalleled sass to Ensemble Theatre's musicals — until now. Credited to San Francisco's African-American Shakespeare Company, the book for Cinderella is surprisingly flat and without magic. The cast flounders, except for the phenomenal Teacake Ferguson, the most charming Cinderella with a blow-you-away voice. Roc Living, as Prince Charming, has a granite presence but not a twinge of chemistry with Cinderella. The wicked stepsisters, Roenia Thompson and Tamara Harper, are deliciously over-the-top, but everyone else strains. Leake's lackluster score is redeemed by a Dreamgirls-esque ballad, "I'm Going On," that Ferguson hits out of the park. Through December 26. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — DLG

A Fertle Holiday In the mood for a big wedge of Mildred's butter pie? A Fertle Holiday is Radio Music Theatre's penultimate show before its final farewell begins in January. If you've never tasted this talented trio of inspired lunatics, it's time. Holiday never stales. It's the epitome of Christmas spirit, since it's all about dysfunctional families, and no family's more messed up — and hilarious — than the Fertles of Dumpster, Texas. Author Steve Farrell keeps his universe craftily insane. Farrell, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills play all the characters, and always astonish and amuse. Through January 15. Radio Music Theatre, 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

The Nutcracker It just wouldn't be the holiday season without Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker, now would it? Once again the company has begun its mega-run of this Christmas classic created by HB Artistic Director Emeritus Ben Stevenson in 1987. And both the charming, family-style choreography and Desmond Heeley's sets and costumes still look as fresh and as filling as chestnuts roasting on an open fire. (Feel free to sing along.) Part of the beauty of this ballet is the joy Houston Ballet Orchestra brings to Tchaikovsky's incredibly danceable score, and the rest lies in the fantasy elements: Toys come alive, the Christmas tree grows to dizzying heights, mice attack, snow falls onstage, pastry chefs fly. It's just magical. And the little ones in the audience — dressed in their holiday finest with their eyes all aglow — just love it. Dancing? Oh yes, there's plenty of that as well. Because there are so many roles and so many, many performances, the cast rotates, which means you might see stars and stars-in-the-making. The corps de ballet performs solos, and even the assistant conductors take a turn with the baton. You might get to see new principal Jun Shuang Huang dancing his first Nutcracker Prince (there is no Christmas celebration, let alone Nutcracker, in China) or see corps member Jordan Reed in her first Arabian solo. Last Sunday, demi soloist Jessica Collado turned in a pristine Snow Queen performance partnered by Linnar Looris as the Prince, but it was corps member Elise Judson who truly charmed as Clara. Still, this ballet is less about who's dancing what and more about the entire ensemble performing a Houston holiday classic. From the mimed overture to the coda where all the sweets and the Sugar Plum Fairy dance with joy, you'll feel the holiday spirit move you. Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker is the best holiday stress reliever. It's doubtful even the Grinch could watch this ballet without feeling all warm and tingly. Through December 26. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. — MG

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