Capsule Stage Reviews: It's a Wonderful Life, The Santaland Diaries, The Snow Queen, Sylvia

It's a Wonderful Life Old-time radio drama gets a nostalgic analog tune-up under Texas Repertory Theatre's shrewd adaptation of Frank Capra's Christmas-friendly movie (1946). In Joe Landry's stage version, we're the 1940s audience during a live radio broadcast of NYC station WBFR's "Playhouse of the Air," like something out of Lux Radio Theatre, renowned for its movie adaptations. We watch the actors take on multiple roles as the drama unfolds, see and hear the sound effects in action, and listen to the humorous commercials for hair pomade, tooth powder and toilet soap. There's even an Applause sign that lights up when appropriate to prompt our responses. All that's missing is the live orchestra. Radio drama's magic depended upon resonant, evocative voices, and director Scott Carr has assembled a talented aural quintet to portray all the many characters of Bedford Falls, New York, a microcosm of American small-town life between the wars. Steve Fenley, with his booming bass, is announcer, God, evil Mr. Potter, ineffectual Uncle Billy and smartass Ernie the cab driver. Matching Fenley's delicious ham, Alan Hall plays Clarence, the guardian angel who's sent to earth to teach George Bailey the moral of the story ("No man is a failure who has friends") and earn his wings after 200 years. Dave Maldonado's lively baritone overlays the story's hero, George, with an everyman tone that becomes increasingly more desperate with what he perceives as his useless, unfulfilled life. Lauren Dolk's calm and soothing alto becomes Mary, George's abiding wife, whose bedrock core of decency and strength is George's pillar; and Lendsey Kersey, looking lovely in sequined jacket and Rita Hayworth hair — Macy Perrone's costumes are spot-on — plays town sexpot Violet and Mom Bailey with equal appeal. But why Violet sports a lowdown accent as if she'd just stepped off the D Train from Grand Concourse is a mystery. Fictional Bedford Falls is placed in upstate New York, not the Bronx. Trey Otis's Art Deco-inspired set doesn't resemble any antique radio station's functional auditorium, but it's visually pleasing. The big fault in Landry's adaptation is having the actors create the sound effects. No vocal talent ever performed the footfalls, water sloshing or door slamming, or shook the metal sheet to replicate thunder. All that was carefully controlled by backstage effects pros. Actors at the mikes wouldn't be clopping around the studio anyway, since their own footsteps would've been broadcast across the country. Close your eyes at Texas Rep and relish the sounds. The five sonorous voices create all manner of pictures that dance in your head. Through December 23. Texas Repertory Theatre Co., 14243 Stuebner Airline. 281-583-7573. — DLG

The Santaland Diaries He's back! That 39-year-old gay schlub, down on his luck and aching for TV soap stardom, finds his calling over the holidays in a temp job from hell as an elf at Macy's Santaland, the place where Christmas spirit goes to die. In David Sedaris's profane, hilarious and politically incorrect dissection of rampant consumerism, based on his own exploits, "Crumpet the Elf" explains it all for you. With Alley Theatre pro Todd Waite in star mode (spelled in some performances by Alley vet Paul Hope), the monologue, adapted by Joe Montello, zooms by with crackling wicked fun. Christmas just isn't Christmas without this jaundiced poke in the eye. Hand casually placed on hip à la Jean Harlow, our unnamed protagonist needs a job badly, and, really, how hard is it to be an elf? Harder than you think. First, there's that Elfin Guide to follow without question — the Macy's Bible of model behavior for all elves toiling in Santaland. You must exude relentless good cheer at all times — even when the little darlings waiting to see Santa vomit from excitement or pee on the floor. You must tolerate psychotic co-workers — spitting Santas and warranted sexual advances from fellow elf Snowball. And then there's that demeaning green velvet costume with its candy cane-striped leggings and goofy medieval hat. (Costumer Blaire Gulledge knows how to design tacky.) As the shopping days count down, the crowds of exasperated parents with shell-shocked tots get more frantic, as does our Crumpet. In ever impressionistic scenes, we're regaled with opinions, dish and wry observations. His "grinding enthusiasm" has a very short, funny fuse. Waite has a field day in this role, a characterization he's honed razor-sharp after four years of donning those tights. He plays him like an elastic band, ad-libbing with the audience and swishing through the routines with incomparable timing. Put upon and sometimes as wonderstruck by the pandemonium of holiday cheer as the wayward adults and frightened kids, he's immensely likable. Guided with gleeful mischief by director David Cromer, his Crumpet glistens with bitchy radiance and wide-eyed bemusement. The Alley is putting Crumpet back in the attic after this year, so if you've never experienced his elfin exploits, now is the time to go and laugh yourself silly. If this show has become your holiday tradition of choice, Santaland Diaries, naughty and nice, requires a final farewell ho-ho-ho. Through December 30. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. 713-220-5700. — DLG

The Snow Queen Hans Christian Anderson's fable has delighted children and adults since its publication in 1845, and has appeared in many forms: films, plays, musicals, operas and dance. A boy, Cei, and a girl, Gerda, living in adjacent buildings fall in love. The boy becomes infected with a sliver of an evil mirror, which compels him to see people and things as ugly rather than beautiful. He is lured to the palace of the Snow Queen and imprisoned there, while Gerda encounters a series of adventures as she seeks to find him. Jacob Perkel plays Cei, and is excellent in capturing the vitality and charm of youth, even when insolent — unfortunately, he soon is imprisoned, to disappear for most of the performance. Paige Wharton plays Gerda, the largest role, and is attractive but fails to convey the depth of the love for Cei that drives her to a dangerous odyssey. The Snow Queen is portrayed by Sarah Ornelas as a villainess without grace or charm, rather than with the expected allure. The scenes are episodic, with many characters — most successful here is an engaging reindeer with an amusing accent. As a robber girl, Ronden Perrin finds the vitality to compel interest, as does Celestina Billington as the robber mother. There is a dance-off between the mother and Gerda, with Gerda being a cannibal's lunch if she loses, but excitement is missing even here. The set by Denton Davies functions successfully but never rises to magic. An ageless and much-loved fable has some exciting characterizations and amusing moments, but lacks the driving pace to make it thoroughly enjoyable for adults as well as children. School performance on December 7 at 10 a.m. and a general performance on December 8 at 2 p.m., from the University of Houston, Wortham Theatre, 133 Wortham, 713-743- 2929. — JJT

Sylvia "You never say the things to me you say to her, like...'You're beautiful'...or 'I love you.'" The "you" is harried husband Greg (Wayne White), going through midlife crises. The accusing "me" is neglected wife Kate (Ruth S. McCleskey), who knows a rival to her affections when she sees one. The other woman, the "her," is a real bitch, Greg's new dog Sylvia (Renata Smith). She's come into the household and upset everything, including making a mess on the living-room floor. Greg has found his new spark in life. A.R. Gurney's bouncy little bauble of a comedy is an authentic shaggy dog story. If you have a pet, this play will be your chew toy. (I'd say catnip, but Sylvia might bite.) If you're going through marital troubles, however, watch out; Gurney will rub your face in it. He writes about people of a certain social status who find themselves in the throes of comic crisis better than any other living playwright (Mrs. Farnsworth, The Cocktail Hour). Warm and cuddly as a favorite blankie, what sets this far above the ordinary is that Gurney writes Sylvia as a young, attractive girl, which gives the dog a lively temperament as both temptress and perky puppy. It's terribly clever and a lot of fun. No wonder Kate feels threatened by this nubile female plopped down in her house who so easily reroutes her husband's affection. Ms. Smith deserves a heaping bowl of Kibbles for her lovely performance. We first meet her fresh from rescue as a grunge teenager, with torn jeans and wayward sweatshirt, two ponytails draped on each side of her head like beagle ears. She scratches and sniffs, jumps on and off the couch, and circles around before she plops down, happy as can be. By the end of the play, she's outfitted in glamour mode with little black dress, black patent pumps and her hair up. As Greg would say, she's gorgeous. The other kooky aspect in the comedy is the triple role of Tom, Phyllis and Leslie, all played by the same actor (Jim Allman). Tom is Greg's dog-run buddy, all macho bluster, who knows the answers, except when he doesn't. Phyllis is Kate's waspy school chum who can't find the charm in a dog who jumps up and humps her leg. Sylvia triggers all sorts of hilarious confessions from Phyllis about her husband's obsession with his pet — a goldfish. Perfectly costumed and bewigged, Allman stops the show with obtuse Phyllis. In the last act, Leslie is Greg and Kate's marriage counselor whose gender identity problems have a couch life of their own. Throw everyone a bone. Four paws for Company OnStage. Through December 15. 536 Westbury Square. 713-726-1219. — DLG


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