Capsule Stage Reviews: A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, The Nerd, The Nutcracker, O Little Town of Bagels, Teacakes, and Hamburger Bun, Panto Sleeping Beauty

A Christmas Carol Since 1988, the Alley Theatre has gently reminded Houstonians of the true meaning of Christmas with a lovely rendition of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. This year's dark and moving production, adapted and originally put together years ago by Michael Wilson, stars Jeffrey Bean as the meanest dude in Christmas history — old Ebenezer Scrooge. He's cheap, grouchy and stuck with the name Ebenezer, but that doesn't stop him from making us laugh with his wicked old ways or, eventually, breaking our hearts with his sad childhood and lonely old life. Directed with tender care by James Black (who also plays housekeeper Mrs. Dilber and scary, chain-rattling ghost Jacob Marley), the production has managed to stay amazingly fresh over the decades. Tony Straiges's artfully minimalist set frames the stage with two winding, wooden staircases hooked together by a long, wobbly bridge. On this dynamic apparatus, Black is able to make us feel the incredible journey Scrooge makes across time and space as he travels from his cold counting house to Bob Cratchit's sad little kitchen, from the miser's boyhood school to his dark and lonely grave. The spirits of Christmas Past (Julia Krohn) and Present (David Rainey) both charmed and spooked the youngest members of a recent matinee audience, some of whom climbed into their mothers' laps over the course of the story. Both Krohn and Rainey have built larger-than-life characters that fill up the theater with musical speaking voices as they pass out sage wisdom on keeping a generous spirit. Elizabeth Bunch is especially memorable as both the funny, big-fannied Mrs. Fezziwig and as the angry Mrs. Cratchit. Paul Hope is also great fun as Mr. Fezziwig. Chris Hutchison makes a sympathetic Cratchit, and Charles Swan is memorable as Mr. Topper, an oddball Christmas party guest. Of course, none of this would mean anything without Scrooge, and Bean makes a richly conceived miser. Through December 27. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — LW

Miracle on 34th Street Unfortunately, the Texas Repertory Theatre Co.'s production of Miracle on 34th Street is not the sort of Christmas miracle anybody dreams of. The story, about a man named Kris Kringle (Steven Fenley) who believes he really is Santa Claus, has been adapted from a charming screenplay by George Seaton. Most of us have seen the 1947 film starring a cherubic Natalie Wood as Susan Walker, the too-wise child who doesn't believe in Santa. Texas Repertory has its very own lovely cherub in the form of Alana Johnson. But the good things about this show stop with her. Everything else simply doesn't work as a theatrical piece. In the first place, the adaptation is too dependent on a narrator, Fred Gailey (Matt Wade), who must drag the story forward in between scenes explaining all that's been left out. Then there are the multiple set changes. Designer Jesse Dreikosen has worked hard to make them as minimal as possible, but that doesn't stop time from slowing to a crawl every time an actor has to literally drag a set piece across the stage — this is even worse when the actor is a child and we must watch her bending her little body forward with exertion. Even weirder are all the anachronistic moments. The characters talk on cell phones and work on computers, but the "shrink" in the office who tries to get Kris put away would be laughed out of any 21st-century courtroom. And when the characters talk about ending a feud between Macy's Department Store and Gimbels (a store that closed its doors in the '80s), the conversation is just odd. Finally, the story simply feels old — and not in a good way, but a tired way. I was surprised to look at my watch at the end and discover that the whole thing took only two hours. Through December 23.14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573. — LW

The Nerd Actor L. Robert Westeen was born at least 40 years too late. In another life he would have had steady employment at RKO, MGM or Paramount Pictures. As befuddled and exasperated Willum Cubbert in Larry Shue's 1987 sitcom The Nerd, Westeen does frustration like the best of the old pros. In the play, Willum has agreed to meet the former soldier who saved his life many years ago. The trouble is, Rick Steadman (David Barron) is a real pain in the butt, annoying and whiny. He pushes his way into Willum's professional and personal life with a big, bad thud. Willum's much too nice and guilty to throw him out, until Rick's shenanigans — which include airborne cottage cheese — cost him his job. That's when Willum's sometime fiancée (Ruth McCleskey) and best friend (John Wind) conspire to drive Rick permanently away. Shue's comedy is a low-rent Man Who Came to Dinner without that beloved 1939 classic's caustic wit and acidic charm. There are plenty of laughs, however, thanks to Barron's maddening single-mindedness and Wind's snarky line readings, which recall another old movie pro, George Sanders. But it's Westeen who supplies this clunky comedy with the smoothness of a Ferrari playing his everyman driven to distraction and thoughts of crossbows. His double takes are perfection, and his slow burn should be patented. As he has displayed in his other Company OnStage roles, he is a hidden gem among Houston actors. Through December 19. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG

The Nutcracker It wouldn't be the holiday season without Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker. Once again, HB trots out Ben Stevenson's 1987 version of Clara's Christmas dream of a place where toys come to life and battle those pink rats, cannons boom, cooks fly, and the Kingdom of the Sweets sparkles. For curmudgeony critics, the ballet can be a bit of a bore: The plot is sugar-wafer-thin, there's more British pantomime than dancing in the first act, and, well, we've seen this same version for two decades. But the magic of The Nutcracker lies not in it being a great ballet but in it being a great tradition. Maybe Artistic Director Stanton Welch is wise in not tinkering with his predecessor's version. This Nut is like mac 'n' cheese: comforting, familiar and filling. Even that annoying fat family in the party scene is a tradition, like your own annoying relatives come for the holidays. It helps that Desmond Heeley's sets and costumes still look dazzling, and that the Houston Ballet Orchestra can still raise goosebumps with Tchaikovsky's iconic score. There's also the thrill of seeing young dancers in their first solos — multiple casts ensure you'll see someone new doing something lovely. So suspend your inner Scrooge and enjoy. When the flakes fall gently on the dancers in the snow scene, it will melt the most cynical of hearts. Through December 27. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. — MG

O Little Town of Bagels, Teacakes, and Hamburger Bun Despite its awkward title, Jeannette Clift George's comedy on the true meaning of Christmas — and its play on the word Bethlehem, which means "town of bread" — is warm, fresh and nourishing. A bakery cafe next to the railroad depot hotel serves as a Christmas Eve rendezvous spot for her assortment of characters, all of whom are lost in some way. Friendly owner Bob (Orlando Arriaga) is an unfulfilled artist; Pastor Mervyn (Kevin Dean, comically assaying a host of supporting roles) keeps his emotions detached; Mr. Bartlett (Marion Arthur Kirby) relives his half-century love affair with his wife Rhonda (Patty Tuel Bailey); Hepburn (Christy Watkins) waits in vain for a married lover; Inez (Jennifer Dean) grieves for her dead husband by assuring everyone that he's sitting next to her; and brittle Velma (Laurie Arriaga), Inez' sister, arrives determined to shatter her illusions. The comedy is heartfelt and sincere, as are the sentiments, and, this being the A.D. Players, the meaning is suffused with God's love; and, hey, isn't that what Christmas is truly all about? George's graceful, witty play is blessed with a vivid physical production (sets by Mark Lewis, costumes by Donna Southern Schmidt) and, ultimately, with the very best ensemble acting from any troupe in Houston this season. Under Lee Walker's astute direction, this ultra-fine stable of thoroughbreds runs with the play and effortlessly, artfully, catching every nuance and then adding some of their own. That's a wonderful gift for any season. Through December 31. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

Panto Sleeping Beauty Fun family outings to the theater are as rare as snow in Houston. Most shows billed for the entire clan are as hackneyed as a TV rerun — how much Dickens can a body take in a lifetime? Happily, Stages Repertory Theatre's Panto Sleeping Beauty is that special "family musical" that really is a delicious holiday confection everyone can enjoy — spicy enough for grownups and sweet enough for little ones. The tale about good conquering evil starts in the library of the "Skystonian," with Mrs. Makeitup (Genevieve Allenbury) and Buttons the bellboy (Ryan Schabach) ready to rewrite Sleeping Beauty. Buttons's newfangled version includes a girl named Nadia (Nyseli Vega) and her adoring friend Peter (Garret Storms). Written, directed and choreographed by Stages Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin, with music by David Nehls, this Sleeping Beauty is a long way from anything the Brothers Grimm ever wrote. This is a big, messy show stuffed full of weird ideas that somehow work together even though they shouldn't. For example, squirrels named Chip (Kendrick Mitchell) and Dale (Kregg Dailey) leap into a couple of scenes, doing a surprisingly sexy striptease. Sexual innuendo runs throughout the musical, but it stays far enough below the radar so that the kiddos don't catch on. Still, Panto Sleeping Beauty has a couple of weaknesses. Most of the songs are simply not as good as the rest of the show. Also, it clocks in at close to three hours. While all of it is funny, there's a lot that isn't essential to the story line and could be cut. Still, three hours fly by quickly when you are having as much fun as this Panto inspires. Even the tiniest kids were still awake when the actors came out for their curtain call. Through January 3. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — LW


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