Cinderella The Ensemble Theatre's take on Cinderella gives the fairy tale a lively, rollicking treatment. There are moments of poignant beauty in this production, but broad humor and even broader acting take center stage. Cinderella is portrayed by Teacake, reprising the role she played a year ago, and she brings a dazzling smile and a solid stage presence to the part. The stepsisters (Tamara Harper and Roenia Thompson) are suitably evil and cruel, and the stepmother (Rachel Hemphill Dickson) is equally cruel but also vivacious and wonderful. Alex Kennedy plays Prince Charming, but lacks the expected fire, as the script requires him to be sullen and hostile. Act I ends with a wallop as the chariot and six white "mice" arrive. Act II has some imaginative staging, and the excellent ensemble adds humor with entertaining choreography. The ball has a handsome set and interesting costumes that make the fairy tale come to vibrant life. Of enormous help are Ron Johnson in a skillful performance as the Duke, Kendrick Brown as a Page and Vincent James as a Lord, and the latter two dance up a storm. Rennette Brown is excellent as an exuberant Fairy Godmother. There is a driving force to the song "Chores, Chores, Chores," and there is a powerful song near the end, "I'm Going On," in which Cinderella tells off her cruel stepsisters. This interpretation was developed by San Francisco's African-American Shakespeare Company, the music and lyrics and musical direction are by Carlton Leake, and it is directed and choreographed by Patdro Harris. This non-Disney interpretation has vitality, strength and a vivid, contemporary flavor. Strong performances and broad humor coalesce to achieve an evening of fun-filled entertainment, in a contemporary musical retelling of the familiar fairy tale. Through December 30. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — JJT

Fruitcakes The Music Box Theater, Houston's newest cabaret troupe, presents a "very special holiday special." The show more than lives up to its billing. You expect something a little different, a little off-kilter, from MBT's ultra-talented quintet (Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Cay Taylor, Luke Wrobel and Colton Berry), and they deliver the goods with sass, delicious harmonies, some hammy comedy and their patented flair for performing. The holidays never sounded so good as when these five wrap their voices around carols known and Christmas songs unknown. Leave it to them to mix Annie Lennox's "Precious," Louis Armstrong 's "Cool Yule" and Ingrid Michaelson's "Snowfall" with the Carpenters' "Merry Christmas, Darling" and Charlie Brown and Gene Redd's "Bells Will Be Ringing." This musical hodgepodge hums along as successfully as Santa's workshop because the five are such prodigious Broadway babies. No musical genre is beyond their reach, and they can make fun of themselves and each other with genuine affection. Their theater personae are set by this third production, and they play off their creations to wise effect. Rebekah's the leader and mother hen; husband Brad is good-natured and naive; Luke is the misanthrope; Cay the sexy vegetarian; and Colton the downtown gay. They use the masks in the comedy skits to advantage but also to help select the songs and keep the sparks sharp and hot. When Cay and Luke sing "Do You Hear What I Hear" because Cay says it's her favorite Christmas song, Luke interrupts the fantastic lyrics ("said the little lamb to the shepherd boy...") with droll running commentary. But as the song progresses, he gets into it, and his luscious baritone — that's the only word for his distinctive voice — turns the childlike tune into something akin to an aria from Handel. (Huzzahs to whoever is responsible for the vocal arrangements. And huzzahs to the bopping band: Glenn Sharp, Mark McCain, Long Le and Donald Payne.) You won't hear a more heartfelt, genuine rendition of "O Holy Night" than Scarborough's; Frank Loesser's wistful 1947 beauty "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" is shrouded in velvet by Wrobel; while Berry wails a finely etched "I'll Be Home for Christmas." For a unique holiday show that showcases the best of Houston voices and wraps us up in warm, Christmassy feelings — and introduces us to composers a little out of left field — Fruitcakes is the best vocal present you'll receive this year. Through January 8. Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

Irving Berlin's White Christmas As its seasonal show, Theatre Under the Stars brings back to the Hobby Center its pale, out-of-focus adaptation of the 1954 Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye movie musical. With an entire score built from Irving Berlin standards, the film was the first ever released in VistaVision, Paramount's wide-screen answer to Fox's Cinemascope. The process, which used a larger negative, had incredible depth, clarity and definition. Once you saw Rosemary Clooney shimmy through "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me," you knew what shimmy meant. This adaptation takes all the fun out of the movie, and all of just about everything else, too. Though lavish in staging, it's flat and never picks up steam. Two successful song-and-dance men find their old WW II general failing as an innkeeper in Vermont. To help him out, they stage a show in the old barn. There are romantic complications, of course, but you can't stay down low for long in a Berlin show, even one made up out of disparate parts that span the musical ages — Berlin ragtime ("I Love a Piano"), Berlin from the '20s ("Blue Skies"), the '30s ("Let Yourself Go"), the '40s ("Happy Holidays" and "White Christmas") and the '50s ("Sisters"). The adaptation by David Ives and Paul Blake is rote and mechanical, which puts everyone on autopilot. The lack of heat's the same whether Bob and Betty (John Scherer and Michelle DeJean) are falling in love or out of it, while the subplot with Phil and Judy (Matt Loehr and Danette Holden) is coarsened with two burlesque chorines (although their appearance as Oxydol boxes is rather nifty). Scenes fall by the wayside in quick, cheap shots that don't build or pay off. Even the tap choreography by Mary Jane Houdina is undazzling. Only Loehr has that Broadway Baby glitter that's irrepressible, while DeJean with her distinctive voice is highlighted only with Clooney's above-mentioned torch number. True to showbiz tradition, this pastiche of a show of a show leaves us wanting more. Through December 18. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — DLG

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