Capsule Stage Reviews: A Christmas Carol, the Musical, Miracle on 34th Street, The Nerd, The Story of My Life

A Christmas Carol, the Musical You'd be quite a Scrooge if you didn't warm to this new musical version of Dickens's classic little ghost story from Masquerade Theatre. Since its premiere in 1994, this tuneful adaptation has played on Broadway during the holiday season, and it was filmed in 2004 as a Hallmark TV special. If parts of it sound somewhat familiar, that's because the composer is excellent Disney tunesmith Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, Pocahontas), whose distinct style greatly adds to the Victorian tale; the lovely, lively musical pastiche doesn't condescend or simplify. Miserly, curmudgeonly Scrooge is visited on Christmas Eve by three spirits — Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come —who terrify him into mending his ways and becoming a better man. The musical is all of a piece, expertly adapted by Mike Ockrent and lyricist Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime, Seussical), with just enough Dickens to capture the right tone. The masterful Masquerade Theatre snuggles right into the enlivening spirit, buoying up the material with high-kicking routines by choreographers Laura Gray, Michelle Macicek and William Martin, and all the company members blend their superb voices during the anthems and feel-good moments. "Fezziwig's Annual Charity Ball" and "Abundance and Charity," led by a sassy Ghost of Christmas Present (Martin), are two highlights in a show of twinkling highlights. The main voice, of course, in any fine Carol is the Scrooge, and veteran Masquerader Luke Wrobel is devilishly delicious, thundering out his characteristic "Bah, Humbug" or squeaking a droll burp of surprise when menaced by the pesky ghosts. Masquerade is ushering in the season with a warm heart and loads of gaiety. All other companies in town will have to play catch-up. Through November 29. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-315-2525. — DLG

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


A Christmas Carol, the Musical

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 Story of My Life Is it possible that composer/lyricist Neil Bartram has never heard a note of music by Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim? Is it possible that he dreamed up this Sondheim homage without realizing it sounds just like Sondheim, but without the tart, tasty lyrics for which he's justly famous? This two-man show, which only played five performances on Broadway, tells the tale of two best friends from first grade and how they grew apart, and the terrible consequences of not...of not...we don't know from what. Alvin, the weird, childlike one (John Dunn), winds up dead on Christmas Eve, like a funhouse-mirror version of It's A Wonderful Life, which is his all-time favorite movie and doesn't have anything at all to do with anything, except that his mother died a long time ago and he carries a torch for her the size of the Statue of Liberty's. His friend Thomas (Stephen Myers) is now a world-famous, stuck-up author who has taken all the stories of their friendship and made a fortune from them but forgotten little Alvin, who still lives back home and never went anywhere. Thomas is about to marry his fiancée, but thoughts of Alvin get in the way. Is it just me, or are these guys two of the biggest closet cases you've ever seen? Alvin's too wimpy to make a move, Thomas much too uptight. Good lord, just kiss each other and be done with it already. Through December 6. Theatre LaB, 1706 Alamo St., 713-868-7516. — DLG


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