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It's Time for Christmas to Hit the Stage in Houston

There's lots of alternatives to the same old same old this year.

The holiday theater season roars to life in December. The big perennials in town, the Alley's A Christmas Carol (Dickens with an annoying case of ADD), Houston Ballet's Nutcracker (a Victorian sampler) and the Houston Symphony's Messiah (is there a more resonant musical message than Handel's?), are must-sees, but there are other shows that ring in the season with unexpected jollity and sweet memories of Christmas past. Some are world premieres, some regional premieres and some ring in the season by clanging you over the head. In no particular order, here are some choices to celebrate the holidays. (Keep in mind two productions that will open after we go to press: The White Christmas Album, a sparkling revue from Music Box Theater, and Tom Dudzick's angels vs. atheists comedy, Greetings, from Texas Repertory Theatre.)

The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical

This show should come with a warning label. The signature number in this sad-sack ­production is the Act I closer, where the blue-collar characters sing about how to deal with their failed lives. The song is called "Fuck It, It's Christmas." Need I say more?

Who needs reindeer when you're a modern-day Santa in Elf ?
Mark Kitaoka
Who needs reindeer when you're a modern-day Santa in Elf ?

Details

The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical

Through December 29. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. 713-527-0123. $31-$89.

Gold, Frankincense, Christmas Tree Ornaments and Myrrh

Through December 29. A.D. Players, 2710 West Alabama. 713-526-2721. $34-$43.

A Civil War Christmas, anAmericanMusical Celebration

Through December 22. Main Street Theater, Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose. 713-524-6706. $20-$39.

Djembe and the Forest of Christmas Forgotten

Through December 22. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. 713-520-0055. $28-$44.

Elf

Through December 22. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. 713-558-TUTS. $24-$121.

Panto Goldilocks

Through January 5. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. 713-527-0123. $21-$49.

The Santaland Diaries

Through December 31. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. 713-220-5700. $36-$51.

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This show is so low-rent, it should be free. Trashy and tasteless, it's devoid of imagination — except for the silly Dream Ballet sequence, which is genuinely funny. Spawned from its lame firstborn, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, this world premiere is absolutely critic-proof, it's run nearly sold out. There's no stopping this juggernaut. Among its dubious charms, the set and actors stand out as if in bas relief.

Miles of lights, garish tinsel, a treetop star made out of a truck mudflap and enough plastic flamingos to start a nature conservancy are just some of the visual stuffing on display through, over, around and above Jodi Bobrovsky's brassy design for Armadillo Acres, the Florida trailer park of the title. The set's a witty eyeful. Contemplate the mailboxes, the garden gnome, the tangle of wires, the corrugated siding, the perfect screen door. It's a wonderland of sleaze.

The actors plow through this mire with fierce determination and unstoppable gusto, but they're on a sinking ship and must bail furiously to keep this ratty tub afloat. They're pros through and through, and their comic instincts and unfailing sense of the absurd manage to bring a sparkle — no matter how faint — to the cartoons they play. Ivy Castle, Carolyn Johnson and Susan Koozin, reprising their characters from TGATPM, throw themselves into their skin-deep characters. They literally preen as they revel in the script's inanity, tossing out knowing winks to the audience. They turn trailer trash into gloriously goofy art. Now that's acting.

Gold, Frankincense, Christmas Tree Ornaments and Myrrh

For those who want a more traditional take on the meaning of Christmas, A.D. Players is the place to be. However, be warned, Thomas Ohlson's bipolar play is an unholy alliance of the profane and the sacred.

Gold has an intriguing premise, ripe for warm comedy. There is a fourth Wise Man (Craig Griffin) who follows the star. Materialistic and willing to make a buck off of the birth of the child whose prophesy foretells a mighty king, this wizard sees opportunity and fortune, maybe trees decorated with shiny geegaws, and ornaments as souvenirs. Our wizard misses the birth through stubbornness and snobbery, mistaking Mary and Joseph (Leslie Lenert and Kurt Bilanoski) for inconsequential rubes. After the invention of a car and a bit of time travel, we're thrown 12 years ahead, where a young Christ (a convincing Michael Eaton) questions what his extraordinary future holds. Playing Jesus at any age is a tough assignment, but Eaton ably carries the weight on his young shoulders with both lightness and gravity.

As the only play around town with a significant religious theme, Ohlson's is slight drama and slighter comedy. Underneath the anachronistic silliness, there's serious stuff going on to remind us why we buy presents for the ones we love, and who originally inspired the buying in the first place.

A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration

It's very earnest down by the banks of the Potomac on Christmas Eve, 1864, in this musical from Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive) and Daryl Waters, who arranged the numerous period carols, war anthems and pop tunes of the era. Sixteen most capable actors portray dozens of characters (Abraham Lincoln; wife Mary Todd; generals Sherman, Grant and Lee; assassin John Wilkes Booth; dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley; escaped slaves; free blacks; a comic horse). Great, near-great and nobodies intersect and collide in Vogel's epic, heart-on-its-sleeve panorama.

There is genuine pathos in Civil War and moments of real emotion: Shofner's Mrs. Lincoln, perilously close to a nervous breakdown whether shopping for that new holiday custom from Bavaria, the Christmas tree, or reliving her beloved child Willie's death by typhoid; Rachel Dickson's noble and nobly suffering Keckley, whose constant refrain is "put your hands to use"; and Shawn Hamilton's powerhouse, majestically elemental Decatur Bronson. These vivid portraits enlarge and enhance Vogel's pop-up picture-book storytelling.

Shofner's "Silent Night," sung to a dying Jewish soldier, is accompanied by the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead; Hamilton's defiant "Yellow Rose of Texas" morphs into a heartfelt ballad; Dickson's soft yet resilient "There Is a Balm in Gilead" is both plea and prayer; and the final chorus, "I Heard the Bells," expresses Vogel's intentions with more urgency and awe than all her cluttered waxworks.

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