Capsule Stage Reviews: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Cinderella, Fruitcakes, The Santaland Diaries

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever A substitute pageant director has (gasp!) to cast six unruly children to tell the story of The Manger. The Herdsman family is financially challenged, and its six children are boisterous and rebellious and a great deal of fun, even if they have never read the Bible. The aggressive Virgin Mary (Kristin Rice) smokes cigars in the ladies' room, and the delightful Herald Angel (Abigail Richardson) is convinced she is an Avenging Angel, swooping to destroy. Trying to salvage rehearsal problems is Grace Bradley (Katharine Hatcher), aided by her husband Bill (Jason Hatcher) — they are married in real life as well and both are excellent in their roles, with Jason playing multiple. Young Anna Yost plays their daughter and serves as narrator, and she's quite good. This unusual slant on the birth of Christ freshens the retelling with a seemingly irreverent approach, while remaining true to the spirit of the event. The children onstage — and hurtling down the aisles as well — are having as much fun as the audience, and the presentation is simple enough for them, with enough vitality and humor to keep an adult interested. The play is written by Barbara Robinson and directed with spirit by Ric Hodgin. This traditional story is retold with gentle humor and lively children in a highly entertaining fashion. Through December 31. A. D. Players at Grace Theatre, 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — JJT

Cinderella The Ensemble Theatre's take on Cinderella gives the fairy tale a lively, rollicking treatment. There are moments of poignant beauty in this production, but broad humor and even broader acting take center stage. Cinderella is portrayed by Teacake, reprising the role she played a year ago, and she brings a dazzling smile and a solid stage presence to the part. The stepsisters (Tamara Harper and Roenia Thompson) are suitably evil and cruel, and the stepmother (Rachel Hemphill Dickson) is equally cruel but also vivacious and wonderful. Alex Kennedy plays Prince Charming, but lacks the expected fire, as the script requires him to be sullen and hostile. Act I ends with a wallop as the chariot and six white "mice" arrive. Act II has some imaginative staging, and the excellent ensemble adds humor with entertaining choreography. The ball has a handsome set and interesting costumes that make the fairy tale come to vibrant life. Of enormous help are Ron Johnson in a skillful performance as the Duke, Kendrick Brown as a Page and Vincent James as a Lord, and the latter two dance up a storm. Rennette Brown is excellent as an exuberant Fairy Godmother. There is a driving force to the song "Chores, Chores, Chores," and there is a powerful song near the end, "I'm Going On," in which Cinderella tells off her cruel stepsisters. This interpretation was developed by San Francisco's African-American Shakespeare Company, the music and lyrics and musical direction are by Carlton Leake, and it is directed and choreographed by Patdro Harris. This non-Disney interpretation has vitality, strength and a vivid, contemporary flavor. Strong performances and broad humor coalesce to achieve an evening of fun-filled entertainment, in a contemporary musical retelling of the familiar fairy tale. Through December 30. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — JJT

Fruitcakes The Music Box Theater, Houston's newest cabaret troupe, presents a "very special holiday special." The show more than lives up to its billing. You expect something a little different, a little off-kilter, from MBT's ultra-talented quintet (Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Cay Taylor, Luke Wrobel and Colton Berry), and they deliver the goods with sass, delicious harmonies, some hammy comedy and their patented flair for performing. The holidays never sounded so good as when these five wrap their voices around carols known and Christmas songs unknown. Leave it to them to mix Annie Lennox's "Precious," Louis Armstrong 's "Cool Yule" and Ingrid Michaelson's "Snowfall" with the Carpenters' "Merry Christmas, Darling" and Charlie Brown and Gene Redd's "Bells Will Be Ringing." This musical hodgepodge hums along as successfully as Santa's workshop because the five are such prodigious Broadway babies. No musical genre is beyond their reach, and they can make fun of themselves and each other with genuine affection. Their theater personae are set by this third production, and they play off their creations to wise effect. Rebekah's the leader and mother hen; husband Brad is good-natured and naive; Luke is the misanthrope; Cay the sexy vegetarian; and Colton the downtown gay. They use the masks in the comedy skits to advantage but also to help select the songs and keep the sparks sharp and hot. When Cay and Luke sing "Do You Hear What I Hear" because Cay says it's her favorite Christmas song, Luke interrupts the fantastic lyrics ("said the little lamb to the shepherd boy...") with droll running commentary. But as the song progresses, he gets into it, and his luscious baritone — that's the only word for his distinctive voice — turns the childlike tune into something akin to an aria from Handel. (Huzzahs to whoever is responsible for the vocal arrangements. And huzzahs to the bopping band: Glenn Sharp, Mark McCain, Long Le and Donald Payne.) You won't hear a more heartfelt, genuine rendition of "O Holy Night" than Scarborough's; Frank Loesser's wistful 1947 beauty "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" is shrouded in velvet by Wrobel; while Berry wails a finely etched "I'll Be Home for Christmas." For a unique holiday show that showcases the best of Houston voices and wraps us up in warm, Christmassy feelings — and introduces us to composers a little out of left field — Fruitcakes is the best vocal present you'll receive this year. Through January 8. Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

The Santaland Diaries The Joe Mantello adaptation of David Sedaris's recounting of his stint as Crumpet the Elf, a holiday job at Macy's in New York City, returns to amuse us with the underside of the Christmas Spirit. The set is a square, anchored at one corner by a giant red Christmas ornament and at another by several life-size penguins, and another by a chair into which an exhausted Crumpet crumples at times, only to spring alert as he returns to the demanding duties of Santaland. Todd Waite is the sole inhabitant of the stage, and must be the tallest elf in Elfdom, but that matters little as he is a master at the fixed stare of consternation and adept at the double take of disbelief at the horrors beneath the white cotton snow. His expressive face lets us see in no uncertain terms what is going on, and what may be lost in nuance is gained by the explicitness of his delivery. His unflagging energy well serves this play of about an hour, and he delivers in spades the growing sense of panic as the shopping season crests like a tsunami. The humor is rich, and there is a lot of it, and the discovery that Santa is an anagram for Satan leads to some original and amusing insights. It is directed by David Cromer, who keeps the pace dynamic and the humor flowing. No Christmas is complete without an Elf, and Todd Waite fills the gap admirably as he captures the dark and highly original humor of The Santaland Diaries. Through December 31. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — JJT

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