But Not Goodbye Main Street Theater's But Not Goodbye has nothing to do with Christmas except its family spirit and joy of giving, but George Seaton's fantasy comedy is exceptionally well wrapped. Sam dies before he can rectify the muddle he has made of family finances, but when his father comes to escort him to heaven, Sam stays to make things right. Wistful and gentle, the comedy unfolds as if we're watching it from a comfy recliner. The twists are smooth, the complications not too difficult to knit back together, and the ensemble cast, under Steve Garfinkel's smooth direction, is exemplary, especially David Wald as cantankerous Benjamin, as feisty a dead leprechaun as ever was. Through December 28. 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — 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 Gifts of Christmas In A.D. Players' The Gifts of Christmas, two one-acters pair the profane (O. Henry's Gift of the Magi) with the sacred (The Foster Father) to remind us what the spirit of Christmas really means. O. Henry's classic story of poor newlyweds whose unselfish love is proved by their sacrifice can be read in less than five minutes, so Brainerd Duffield's theater adaptation is terribly overstuffed. Although tenement grit is absent in the production design, O. Henry's patented charm is amplified by Craig Griffin and Debra Duderstadt, who might have stepped right off the page as Jim and Della. They also shine in Foster Father, David Benedict's heartwarming comedy about Joseph's struggle to believe his virginal betrothed Mary is pregnant — by God, no less. Duderstadt imbues Mary with freshness and awe, while Griffin's real-guy intensity meshes with doubting Joseph. Marty Blair's witty Gabriel, who announces the mystery, would stop the show if the audience were less polite. Through December 31. 2710 Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG
But Not Goodbye
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
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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
Spirits to Enforce Ever the contrarians, the folks at The Catastrophic Theatre are running Mickle Maher's Spirits to Enforce, a show that has absolutely nothing to do with the holidays other than the true joy it will bring to all lovers of the avant-garde. Maher imagines a world in which superheroes with names like The Intoxicator (Mikelle Johnson) and Memory Lass (Charlesanne Rabensburg) decide to abandon their duties as the Fathom Town Enforcers and put on a show. We watch as they spend the entire one-act sitting at a phone bank trying to raise money for, or sell tickets to, what promises to be a disastrous production of The Tempest. The smart conceit of having the characters talk into phones allows Maher to bead together a series of poetic monologues that focus on the anxieties of making theater. Everything from creating art with zero dollars to working with a difficult group of actors (one is off looking for a cat when the show actually opens) gets examined. Director Jason Nodler creates an extraordinary energy that starts out high and manages to get almost frenetic before a sort of postmodern epiphany (does such a thing exist?) occurs when a character named Ariel (Walt Zipprian) talks about all the mistakes he made. The ensemble is terrific, but the standouts are Tek Wilson, with her ethereal aqua eyes and porcelain skin, as The Page, along with Zipprian and Johnson (who's hysterical in her big shades and gray hoodie). This production is a savory treat in a season awash in sugar. Through December 20. Barnevelder Movement/Arts, 2201 Preston, 713-880-5216. — LW
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