A Christmas Carol Filled with specters and overlaid with deafening thunder and seas of fog, the Alley's A Christmas Carol reeks of Halloween, not Yuletide. There's enough aroma of Charles Dickens, but it takes writer Michael Wilson a mighty long time to get to the meat of it. The dancing ghosts, housekeeper in drag and fiery pits from which Marley emerges are so un-Dickensian, they're unrecognizable. Tasty, though, are the Victorian spirits of Christmas Past (Bettye Fitzpatrick) and Christmas Present (David Rainey), who radiate nostalgia and good cheer, then sobering truth. Fresh from his Cyrano triumph, Jeffrey Bean is an utter delight as skinflint Scrooge, as miserly with his affections as he was worldly in the French romancer. Through December 28. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — DLG
A Fertle Holiday It just wouldn't be Christmas in Houston if the loony singing Fertle family and their equally crazy neighbors didn't sit down for their Christmas eve dinner of chicken in a bucket, heaping helpings of daughter-in-law Bridgette's creamed corn — slightly green around the edges — lime Jell-O squares and a big ol' slab of mom Mildred's butter pie, slathered with gobs of nondairy whipped topping. Hungry? You bet! You'll ache from laughing out loud at this most dysfunctional family, which strangely resembles almost any family you know, including your own. Daughter Justicena completes her holiday shopping when she and whipped hubby Pete and spawn-from-hell son Damien stop overnight at Motel 6, where she purloins the towels, hand soap, postcards and Gideon Bible to wrap up as gifts. Mildred and Ned's other daughter, Carol, accompanied by rich husband Roger and nelly son Curtis, flies in from San Diego on a private plane, causing no end of jealousy on the part of her loser brother Lou, who manages to get his big foot stuck in his mouth constantly. Balancing on one foot with his arms extended just so, slow brother Earl, who's recently hit his head again, makes the perfect TV rabbit ears, and nobody's in the mood to decorate Ned's scrawny, pathetic twig of a tree — "All the sequoias were gone," he whines in defense. Then there's Uncle Al, whose wife Orabella has suddenly died, attempting to play Santa for the kids. He just doesn't have it in him to be merry, getting out one lone "ho" before bursting into sobs. The inspired clowns responsible for the merriment, and who play every character, are Steve Farrell (who writes the satiric material), Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills. No matter what mood you're in, you'll be in a better one after seeing this one-and-only comedy troupe. Merry Christmas, indeed. Through January 10. Radio Music Theater, 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG
The Nutcracker It ain't Christmas till the Sugar Plum dances, and dance she does in Houston Ballet's annual production of The Nutcracker. Her grand pas de deux is one of the choreographic delights of this century-old ballet. Houstonians have been ogling this piece of holiday eye candy for 21 years now, yet the magic never seems to die. The production, with sets and costumes designed by Desmond Heeley, has gotten a little sprucing up this year, as many of the costumes were re-created or refreshed — with all the extra bling on the snowflake tutus, the "Snow" scene should be renamed "Diamonds in the Snow." Besides the new costumes, the ballet always offers the chance to spot up-and-coming talent, from corps kids getting solo roles to tykes from the Chance to Dance program getting their first taste of dancing onstage. The lovely, long-legged Mireille Hassenboehler was celestial as the Sugar Plum Fairy opening night, but Houston Ballet fans will want to catch 17-year-veteran Tyann Clement in the role as her finale performance before she retires. (Casting in the 32-performance run rotates; visit www.houstonballet.org for the cast list.) There's plenty for non-dance fans to ooh and aah over, too, like the stage tricks from the growing Christmas tree, the 200 pounds of falling "snow" and the flying cooks. And music lovers will delight in the Houston Ballet Orchestra's splendid rendition of Tchaikovsky's famous score. Through December 28. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. — MG
A Christmas Carol
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Panto Cinderella Though it runs three hours long, all the children at the opening of Stages Repertory Theatre's charming production of Panto Cinderella were enthralled up until the very end. That's because this retelling of the Cinderella story by Kate Hawley and Gregg Coffin is chock-full of the sort of shenanigans that kids adore (the grownups were laughing too). As directed by Kenn McLaughlin, the fun never really stops. Talking back to the characters onstage is encouraged by the actors. The ugly stepsisters are a scream as played by Dwight Clark and Rutherford Cravens, and, yes, they are truly ugly with their wild hair and outrageous costumes by Tiffani Fuller. As the evil stepmother, Carolyn Johnson steals every scene she's in. Patrick Marley is perfect as Cinderella's much-abused father. And both Cinderella (Chelsea R. McCurdy) and Prince Charming (Chris Zelko) are sweet and lovely to look at. The singing isn't so fabulous, but that hardly seems to matter. The point of this show isn't perfection, but rather rowdy good fun for children and grownups alike. Through December 28. 3201 Allen Pkwy.,713-527-0123. — LW
Santaland Diaries Ah, hell, pass the joint, Crumpet the elf might say about the Alley's Santaland Diaries. This tweak-your-nose one-elf show by humorist David Sedaris re-creates his excruciating job as one of Santa's gay little helpers at Macy's in New York City, complete with retching children, pissed-off Santas and the sight of actor Todd Waite in full elf regalia — thank you, designer Blair Gulledge. Waite is befuddled, exasperated, bitchy and ideal. Who knew an elf had to take a drug test? The lively monologue lasts only as long as Houston snow, but the laughs are constant and Christmas doesn't get more joyous. Through December 28. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — DLG
Twelve Ways of Christmas Carlton Leake's old-fashioned, family-friendly musical revue Twelve Ways of Christmas at the Ensemble Theatre is gorgeously packaged with sassy choreography by Patdro Harris, music by the best orchestra in town, inventive stage design, startling costumes in vivid candy hues and a cast of seven exceptional musical talents. Familiar aspects of the holiday season — squabbling tots, shopping, separated military families — are depicted in skit and song. Some segments work better than others, but you can't beat the musical's infectious zip or the actors' sheer will to entertain, especially Andrew Jackson and Melanie Finley. Through December 28. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — DLG
Capsule reviews by D.L.Groover, Marene Gustin and Lee Williams