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Capsule Stage Reviews: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, A Christmas Story — A Ghost Story of Christmas, Fruitcakes, The Nutcracker, The Santaland Diaries

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever A substitute pageant director has (gasp!) to cast six unruly children to tell the story of The Manger. The Herdsman family is financially challenged, and its six children are boisterous and rebellious and a great deal of fun, even if they have never read the Bible. The aggressive Virgin Mary (Kristin Rice) smokes cigars in the ladies' room, and the delightful Herald Angel (Abigail Richardson) is convinced she is an Avenging Angel, swooping to destroy. Trying to salvage rehearsal problems is Grace Bradley (Katharine Hatcher), aided by her husband Bill (Jason Hatcher) — they are married in real life as well and both are excellent in their roles, with Jason playing multiple. Young Anna Yost plays their daughter and serves as narrator, and she's quite good. This unusual slant on the birth of Christ freshens the retelling with a seemingly irreverent approach, while remaining true to the spirit of the event. The children onstage — and hurtling down the aisles as well — are having as much fun as the audience, and the presentation is simple enough for them, with enough vitality and humor to keep an adult interested. The play is written by Barbara Robinson and directed with spirit by Ric Hodgin. This traditional story is retold with gentle humor and lively children in a highly entertaining fashion. Through December 31. A. D. Players at Grace Theatre, 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — JJT

A Christmas Story — A Ghost Story of Christmas The Alley Theatre adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol returns in all its theatrical splendor for the 16th time. This adaptation, by Michael Wilson, premiered at the Alley in 1990 and has become a popular annual event elsewhere as well. While the Dickensian grasp of human nature would probably work in a grass hut, it is definitely enhanced by opulent costumes, wonderful changing sets, a touch of London fog and a glimpse of the fires of Hell. The result is spectacular, but superb acting ensures that it never loses the thread of Dickens's compassion and heart. As Ebenezer Scrooge, Jeffrey Bean even makes stinginess interesting, and his expressive voice and rich body language turn a stereotype into an authentic and fascinating human. And Bean is equally adept at the language of comedy, after Scrooge's redemption. (If I'm giving the plot away, where have you been?) James Belcher is strong — and amusing — as a vendor of cider, and also as the Spirit of Christmas Present. John Johnston brings enthusiasm and agility to make the minor role of a clock-seller stand out. The cast is huge, and graced with charming children with professional skills and charm, especially the two on the cider cart. The current production is ably directed by James Black, and the result is to freshen a familiar story, adding excitement and visual delight, anchored in truth by skilled actors. Special effects enhance a splendid production, rich in humor, and a wonderful characterization by Jeffrey Bean as Ebenezer Scrooge makes for exciting theatre. Through December 27. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — 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

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