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Capsule Stage Reviews: A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration, Gold, Frankincense, Christmas Tree Ornaments and Myrrh, The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical, The Santaland Diaries, The White Christmas Album 2, The Sequel

 A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration It's very earnest down by the banks of the Potomac on Christmas Eve, 1864. Extremely earnest. 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, 16 capable actors portray dozens of characters, but they're all suffering from personal loss and trying to find their way back to normal. No one is happy in the District of Columbia. Why this musical from 2008 (much revised until and after its Broadway mounting in 2010) should be subtitled a "celebration" when everyone is sick to death over war, personal demons and how cold it is on this particular night is known only to the authors. The war rages on during this blustery December night in 1864, but the tide has finally turned for the North. Savannah has fallen. In a jubilant dispatch, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman (Andrew Hager) presents the city to President Lincoln (Joe Kirkendall) as a Christmas gift. That's the last time we see Sherman. We quickly glimpse Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant at the musical's beginning, but they pass like a figment, or a casting director's nightmare. People come and go so quickly here. An entire panoply of Civil War lives, some real, some fictitious, crisscross and intersect in Vogel's epic. While the troops on both sides hunker down in the freeze, escaped slave Hanna (Crystal Rae) trudges north with her young daughter (Leila Moon and Liliane Moon alternate in the role); mortally wounded Jewish infantryman Moses Levy (Zack Varela) is comforted by Mary Todd Lincoln (Susan Shofner); nurse Clara Barton (Susan Draper) barks orders and instantly disappears; poet and hospital orderly Walt Whitman (Kirkendall in the worst fake beard this side of prehistoric cinema) soothes the sick; Southern sympathizer and, months later, assassin John Wilkes Booth (Jon L. Egging) plans a Christmas Eve abduction of Lincoln; the president's cabinet members preen; Mrs. Lincoln's black dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley (Rachel Dickson) is haunted by her dead son (Brandon Balque); stalwart free black Decatur Bronson (Shawn Hamilton) pines for his lost wife, vowing to shoot every Confederate, even clueless teen Raz (Brittany Halen); and Quaker pacifist Chester (Jonathan Teverbaugh) miraculously survives numerous Confederate raids and has serious mother issues. Vogel adds a horse and a mule for comic effect, the only real laughs in this solemn telling. 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; Dickson's noble and nobly suffering Keckley, whose constant refrain is "put your hands to use"; and Hamilton's powerhouse, majestically elemental Decatur — these vivid portraits enlarge and enhance Vogel's overly plotted, cluttered waxworks. Although the orchestration is threadbare, the musical breathes during its songs. Shofner's "Silent Night," sung to the dying Levy, 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 plea and prayer. "The hope of peace is sweeter than peace itself" is the play's mantra. A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration is all empty mantra. It's the antique music and fine performers who put the celebration into it. Extended through December 29. Main Street Theater, Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose. 713-524-6706. — DLG

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 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 the 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. Through December 29. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

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? 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, its 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. Pros through and through, 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. Through December 29. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — DLG

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