Capsule Stage Reviews: Annie, Christmas Tree-O, A Fertle Holiday, Sister's Christmas Catechism, The Twelve Ways of Christmas

Annie This wonderfully tuneful throwback to '50s Broadway hit the jackpot when it opened in 1977 and has been a moneymaking classic ever since. It's based oh-so-loosely upon Harold Gray's classic comic strip about the spunky orphan and her incredibly wealthy adopted Daddy Warbucks, a ruthless industrialist who's been softened into cream cheese in this family-friendly musical from Charles Strouse (music), Martin Charnin (lyrics) and Thomas Meehan (book). Gray's original darkness and rugged capitalistic individualism is glossed into cartoon musical comedy, but the Tony Award-winning revision — good-natured, peppy and full of eternal optimism — never stops moving forward. All you need is to believe that bums in their Hooverville shacks, as well as President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his cabinet, sing and dance. Although Playhouse 1960's production is ruggedly uneven (the amplification has a mind of its own, many of the performers have forgotten the rudiments of make-believe and the radio station scene falls utterly flat because of a dearth of singers), it's blessed by the powerhouse performance of pint-size Lillian Buonocore as ultimate survivor Annie (Buonocore alternates in this plum role with Madeline Dennison) and a showstopping comic turn-and-a-half by Shannon Martin as Annie's nemesis, the hard-drinking, little girl-hating Miss Hannigan, the Dickensian owner of the orphanage who keeps her young wards in virtual enslavement. These two talents animate this musical cartoon into showbiz life. Through December 16. 6814 Gant Rd., 281-587-8243. — DLG

Christmas Tree-O In a world that seems overwhelmed by ever-encroaching secular progressiveness, it's refreshing to find Christ plopped firmly back into Christmas at A.D. Players, now showing a triptych of one-act comedies by Jeannette Cliff George, who knows how to preach without being preachy. "The Littleboro Valley Story" is a bit too homespun in its telling — four actors enact all the persnickety caricatures in the very small town. They want to do away with Christmas for this year because of various personal reasons (too much food since Thanksgiving, the economy's bad, etc.), but are reminded of the true reason we celebrate Christmas. "A Christmas of Many Parts" shows an amateur touring group with limited company members putting on the Nativity story and having to improvise the performance. The farce has some very funny moments that are standard-issue for anyone who's ever been onstage, but a surprisingly moving finale. The least religious-oriented of the three works, "En Dash," is also the best, a wacky goof of an office comedy in the best of farce tradition. The six actors in these shorts are finely accomplished, with veteran company members Lee Walker and Patty Tuel Bailey as standouts for subtlety and multifaceted characterizations. Through December 31. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

A Fertle Holiday It's hard to believe, but this wild-and-wacky Houston holiday treat, written by comedy genius Steve Farrell and performed to perfection by Radio Music Theatre's trio of zanies (Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills, who portray all the characters), is celebrating its 23rd anniversary. To say it's fresher than any fruitcake would be a colossal understatement. Holiday is the first installment in Farrell's 15-play series on this most American of dysfunctional families and their equally dysfunctional friends and neighbors in Dumpster, Texas. The Fertle loons, led by bickering dad Ned and mom Mildred, gather to celebrate Christmas, and you've never seen a more neurotic set of mismatched tree ornaments: Menopausal daughter Justicena, her pinched, hen-pecked husband Pete and their hellion spawn Damien drive from Bangor, Maine, purloining towels, soap and the Gideon Bible from Motel 6 to give as presents; daughter Carol, now rich, flies in by charter plane, causing no end of resentment to loser brother Lou, who's stuck in Dumpster but too incompetent to figure out how to leave. Then there's brother Earl, the "slow" but sweet Fertle, still living at home, who stands in for the TV antenna when not sleeping by the cold stove; downer Uncle Al, mourning his wife and planning her funeral for Christmas day; and Doc Moore, whose showstopping gibberish diagnoses food poisoning, although no one can understand him. The silliness is inspired and the comedy nonstop. This perfect Christmas show, as the song says, will have you "laughing all the way." Through January 19. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG



Sister's Christmas Catechism Sunday school is a whole lot of fun in Sister's Christmas Catechism. The one-woman show, now running at Stages Repertory Theatre, takes the audience through a catechism class unlike any other — we learn the story behind Santa Claus, the first Nativity and a grilled cheese sandwich that held the image of Mother Mary and sold on eBay for $29,000. There's a whole lot of laughter stirred in to make the lesson go down easy — Sister (Amanda Hebert) is amusingly stern as she calls on members of the audience, who eagerly raise their hands. Good answers earn such lovely delights as a box of Christmas Peeps. The entire second act is devoted to a live Nativity scene enacted by chosen audience members. Sister dresses each one up in a clever costume contrived of bed sheets and toilet covers, then tries to figure out what happened to the wise man's gift of gold. She assumes it was stolen, since nobody seems to have gotten very rich off all those fabulous first Christmas gifts. Every one left in the audience watches and hoots with laughter. Created by a team of writers that includes Maripat Donovan, the woman who wrote Late Nite Catechism, which ran at Stages throughout the summer and fall, this new incarnation follows that same strategy of audience participation and offers an amusing entry into the Christmas spirit. Hebert is warm and inviting. And it's surprisingly funny to watch middle-aged men dress up like donkeys. Through December 30. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — LW

The Twelve Ways of Christmas There's no dancing sugar plum, not even a Scrooge, in this family-friendly musical/Christmas celebration at Ensemble Theatre, but you won't miss these holiday icons — the joy and rambunctious high spirits on stage are too shiny and bright. Writer/composer Carlton Leake and director/choreographer Patdro Harris fill the stage with so much Christmas cheer, you'll think the punch bowl has been overly spiked. The season's divided into 12 segments (Family, Financial, Romantic, Military, et al.) with songs and skits. There's nothing new to be discovered inside each clever scene, given polish and pizzazz by James Thomas (set design), Tiffany Turner (costumes) and Kelly Babb (lighting), but everyone's having such a grand time, who cares? Leake's gifts are surprisingly versatile, and many of his tuneful numbers could become seasonal standards if heard often enough, especially "Meet Me under the Mistletoe" and "Christmas Comes from Within." What keeps the spirits on high, of course, is the septet of ultra-talented performers (and the trio of musicians) whose unflagging enthusiasm, good will and sheer joy embody the essence of the holiday. Any one of them — Keeona Gabriel, Raena White, Teacake Ferguson, Andrew Jackson, Anthony Glover, Scarlett Barnes or Vincent James — could be wrapped up and placed under the tree. Through December 30. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — DLG


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