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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

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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