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The Nutcracker Even if you've seen The Nutcracker 100 times, you've probably never seen it like this. This is the choreography of Ben Stevenson, former dancer with the Royal Ballet and artistic director of the Houston Ballet from 1976 until 2003. The choreography is noticeably different from Marius Petipa's original version, and it's lovely. Arabian is danced as a pas de deux, not a contortionistic solo. Using two dancers allows for an even more beautiful, serpentine variation. The Russian variation, usually danced in a trio, is turned into a solo. The effect is astonishing. Jim Nowakowski commands the high-energy piece, literally kicking his face four times during his jumps. Anyone else in this variation would have been irrelevant, since it was impossible to ignore Nowakowski. Kids gasped. Nutcracker is, after all, about children. It should be presented as magically as possible. Houston Ballet agreed; this was the most kid-friendly production we've ever seen. The sets and costumes, created by Tony Award-winning designer Desmond Heeley, were lush and elaborate, from the expandable Christmas tree to the heavenly Kingdom of Sweets. Pastry chefs suspended by wires flew across the stage comically in the second act, and kids in the audience roared. The giant mice too were out in full form, wearing shaggy brown rat suits as repulsive and squeal-worthy as they were realistic. But what truly sets this Nutcracker apart is the dancing. The Nutcracker Prince, played by Jun Shuang Huang when we saw the show, executed perfect double tours with landings as soft as the snow falling from the rafters. Katharine Precourt as the Snow Queen was breathtaking, and Sugar Plum Fairy Amy Fote glowed onstage. There seems to be no weak link in the Houston Ballet. Even Waltz of the Flowers, at which point the young audience usually gets restless, demanded rapt attention. The flower corps did work worthy of soloists, whipping off triple turns effortlessly. If seeing The Nutcracker is a tradition, don't plan on quitting this year. And for first-timers, go — but you might not see a Nutcracker this good after the Houston Ballet's. Through December 27. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. — MO

The Santaland Diaries The Joe Mantello adaptation of David Sedaris's recounting of his stint as Crumpet the Elf, a holiday job at Macy's in New York City, returns to amuse us with the underside of the Christmas Spirit. The set is a square, anchored at one corner by a giant red Christmas ornament and at another by several life-size penguins, and another by a chair into which an exhausted Crumpet crumples at times, only to spring alert as he returns to the demanding duties of Santaland. Todd Waite is the sole inhabitant of the stage, and must be the tallest elf in Elfdom, but that matters little as he is a master at the fixed stare of consternation and adept at the double take of disbelief at the horrors beneath the white cotton snow. His expressive face lets us see in no uncertain terms what is going on, and what may be lost in nuance is gained by the explicitness of his delivery. His unflagging energy well serves this play of about an hour, and he delivers in spades the growing sense of panic as the shopping season crests like a tsunami. The humor is rich, and there is a lot of it, and the discovery that Santa is an anagram for Satan leads to some original and amusing insights. It is directed by David Cromer, who keeps the pace dynamic and the humor flowing. No Christmas is complete without an Elf, and Todd Waite fills the gap admirably as he captures the dark and highly original humor of The Santaland Diaries. Through December 31. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — JJT

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