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

The Santaland Diaries Christmas wishes do come true, especially at the Alley, where grumpy protesters stomped their feet and demanded that Crumpet the Elf (Todd Waite) be resurrected. Lo, it has come to pass. All is calm, the box office is bright and the halls are decked with laughter and plenty of attitude. Unnamed and unemployed, our hero of this one-man show, a 43-year-old gay schlub, has arrived in New York City seeking fame and fortune, preferably on the daytime soap classic One Life to Live. He answers a newspaper ad for the next best thing: the glamor of being an elf at Macy's Santaland. Remember, Santa is an anagram for Satan. In Joe Montello's deliciously jaundiced adaptation of David Sedaris's radio essay about rampant Christmas consumerism, Crumpet makes an infidel's progress through this most American of holiday traditions. He's required to don a demeaning winter wonderland velvet costume with candy cane-striped leggings, pixie-toed shoes and a daffy hat out of which his ears stick. (Costumer Blaire Gulledge knows how to design tacky.) He explains the autocratic Elfin Guide; we meet his chain-smoking, thoroughly grumpy floor manager and various psychotic coworkers; his teetering patience is tried by harried parents and sweet little kiddies, who vomit from excitement or pee in the artificial snow. Swishing with incomparable technique, Waite has a field day with this character he's honed to perfection after years of wearing those tights. His ad-libs to the audience are finger-snap perfect. Haloed in a pin spot, enveloped in cigarette smoke, his Billie Holiday rendition of "Away in the Manger" is some form of camp classic. As the days count down to Christmas Eve, events spiral out of control, yet Waite keeps up the manic pace with masterful spin, abetted by taut direction from David Cromer. By all means scamper to the Alley and give yourself the best Christmas present ever. Laughter's always better than another tie. Through December 31. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — DLG

The White Christmas Album 2, The Sequel Whoever at Music Box Theater came up with the idea of pairing Christmas songs with the Beatles catalog is some sort of genius. On paper, this melange sounds totally weird, if not wildly inappropriate, but in this joyous revue from our favorite singing theater babes, the music of the Fab Four blends effortlessly with the holiday spirit, making for a rousing, toasty cabaret, full of glad tidings. Although Cay Taylor isn't on hand to add her piquant spice to the seasonal nog, the show heralds the return of powerhouse Rebekah Dahl after maternity leave (a bouncy, healthy baby boy, I'm happy to announce). As usual, she is joined in this very merry celebration by husband Brad Scarborough, Kristina Sullivan and Luke Wrobel. As an added present, these MBT fab four are assisted in their musical antics by John Gremillion, whose impeccable comic impressions are delightfully off the wall. Spirits are high indeed on Colquitt. Who'd ever think you'd hear "Ring Christmas Bells" and "Hey, Jude" sung together? It's the opener, and they swing it with incomparable Vegas style, adding another rich layer to this tasty holiday offering. Throughout the show, the jazzy orchestrations bring out the best in the songs, played with vigorous snap by Glenn Sharp on keyboard, Mark McCain on lead guitar, Long Le on bass guitar and Donald Payne on percussion. I swear I heard a cello and accordion somewhere in the mix. Keep that synthesizer. When not blending their voices in the best four-part harmony this side of The Music Man or mixing it up in rollicking bebop duets like "I've Just Seen a Face" (Wrobel and Scarborough) or a hymnlike "O Holy Night" (Dahl and Scarborough), preceded by a wrenching "Golden Slumbers" (Sullivan), they each get to shine individually. Scarborough's lyric tenor soars in "Michelle"; Sullivan's crystalline soprano breaks your heart in the haunting "Eleanor Rigby," accompanied in the background by "We Three Kings"; Wrobel's stirring baritone warmly wraps "I'll Be Home for Christmas" in melancholic longing; and Dahl rocks a lowdown "Come Together." Between the numbers, Gremillion sparkles in a host of caricatures: Johnny Carson, Bill Cosby, Tom Brokaw and an unrepentant Frenchman named René Marceau Jean Val Jean. And in a reprise from last year's Album, Wrobel, in his own Jimmy Stewart interpretation, parses the lyrics to "Come Together" in a surreal riff about Santa. You'll never hear "Here come old flattop...He got juju eyeball...He got hair down to his knee, Got to be a joker he just do what he please" without a little cringe. You'll never sit on the fat man's lap, either. This idiosyncratic Christmas revue passes by in a tinselly flash. The singing is incomparable, with each number a solidly crafted cameo. These artists know how to put on a show, and, more important, how to put across a song. If you haven't made their acquaintance, what are you waiting for? You want Christmas cheer with a bit of an edge? Here's a gift you won't return. Through December 28. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG


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