Capsule Stage Reviews: The Last Night of Ballyhoo, The Nerd,The Nutcracker, Panto Sleeping Beauty, The Story of My Life

The Last Night of Ballyhoo Remember the cameo brooch? Alfred Uhry's family comedy is much like that piece of jewelry — old-fashioned, lovingly detailed, expertly crafted and just a tad musty. Coming from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of hit Driving Miss Daisy and the ultra-serious musical drama Parade, Uhry lets down his hair while he skims over the surface of bigotry and assimilation. That the bigotry comes from the Jewish families of Atlanta is an eye-opener in many ways — they restrict and disdain "their own kind" if they don't hail from Western Europe — but Uhry decides to touch this thorny subject with kid gloves, keeping it background material while highlighting instead the familiar, familial comedy. Shallow daughter Lala (Liz Cascio) wants a date for the Jewish social event of the season, Ballyhoo. She sets her sights on salt-of-the-earth Joe (Jamie Geiger), recently arrived from Brooklyn to work for Lala's uncle Adolph (Jim Salners). But Joe falls for Lala's non-Jewish-looking cousin Sunny (Bethany McCade). Sunny's mom Reba (the always amazing Luisa Amaral-Smith) is clueless, but Lala's Jewish mother hen Boo (Rebecca Greene Udden) has propriety on her side and a lifetime of disappointment, too. So one way or the other, Lala's getting her date. The comedy is affecting, beautifully played by all and sharply directed by Steve Garfinkel, but the "conversion" ending is unbelievable and out of place, especially in the Levy/Freitag family home, where a Christmas tree is holiday decoration — without the Christian star, of course. When Joe brings up "Passover," the others look at him as if he's speaking Martian, or God forbid, Hebrew. Through December 12. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — DLG

The Nerd Actor L. Robert Westeen was born at least 40 years too late. In another life he would have had steady employment at RKO, MGM or Paramount Pictures. As befuddled and exasperated Willum Cubbert in Larry Shue's 1987 sitcom The Nerd, Westeen does frustration like the best of the old pros. In the play, Willum has agreed to meet the former soldier who saved his life many years ago. The trouble is, Rick Steadman (David Barron) is a real pain in the butt, annoying and whiny. He pushes his way into Willum's professional and personal life with a big, bad thud. Willum's much too nice and guilty to throw him out, until Rick's shenanigans — which include airborne cottage cheese — cost him his job. That's when Willum's sometime fiancée (Ruth McCleskey) and best friend (John Wind) conspire to drive Rick permanently away. Shue's comedy is a low-rent Man Who Came to Dinner without that beloved 1939 classic's caustic wit and acidic charm. There are plenty of laughs, however, thanks to Barron's maddening single-mindedness and Wind's snarky line readings, which recall another old movie pro, George Sanders. But it's Westeen who supplies this clunky comedy with the smoothness of a Ferrari playing his everyman driven to distraction and thoughts of crossbows. His double takes are perfection, and his slow burn should be patented. As he has displayed in his other Company OnStage roles, he is a hidden gem among Houston actors. Through December 19. 536 Westbury Square,713-726-1219. — DLG

The Nutcracker It wouldn't be the holiday season without Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker. Once again, HB trots out Ben Stevenson's 1987 version of Clara's Christmas dream of a place where toys come to life and battle those pink rats, canons boom, cooks fly and the Kingdom of the Sweets sparkles. For curmudgeony critics, the ballet can be a bit of a bore: The plot is sugar-wafer-thin, there's more British pantomime than dancing in the first act and, well, we've seen this same version for two decades. But the magic of The Nutcracker lies not in its being a great ballet but rather a great tradition. Maybe Artistic Director Stanton Welch is wise in not tinkering with his predecessor's version. This Nut is like mac 'n' cheese: comforting, familiar and filling. Even that annoying fat family in the party scene is a tradition, like your own annoying relatives come for the holidays. It helps that Desmond Heeley's sets and costumes still look dazzling, and that the Houston Ballet Orchestra can still raise goosebumps with Tchaikovsky's iconic score. There's also the thrill of seeing young dancers in their first solos — multiple casts ensure you'll see someone new doing something lovely. So suspend your inner Scrooge and enjoy. When the flakes fall gently on the dancers in the snow scene, it will melt the most cynical of hearts. Through December 27. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. — MG


The Last Night of Ballyhoo

Panto Sleeping Beauty Fun family outings to the theater are as rare as snow in Houston. Most shows billed for the entire clan are as hackneyed as a TV rerun — how much Dickens can a body take in a lifetime? Happily, Stages Repertory Theatre's Panto Sleeping Beauty is that special "family musical" that really is a delicious holiday confection everyone can enjoy — spicy enough for grownups and sweet enough for little ones. The tale about good conquering evil starts in the library of the "Skystonian," with Mrs. Makeitup (Genevieve Allenbury) and Buttons the Bellboy (Ryan Schabach) ready to rewrite Sleeping Beauty. Button's newfangled version includes a girl named Nadia (Nyseli Vega) and her adoring friend Peter (Garret Storms). Written, directed and choreographed by Stages Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin, with music by David Nehls, this Sleeping Beauty is a long way from anything the Brothers Grimm ever wrote. This is a big, messy show stuffed full of weird ideas that somehow work together even though they shouldn't. For example, squirrels named Chip (Kendrick Mitchell) and Dale (Kregg Dailey) leap into a couple of scenes, doing a surprisingly sexy striptease. Sexual innuendo runs throughout the musical, but it stays far enough below the radar so that the kiddos don't catch on. Still, Panto Sleeping Beauty has a couple of weaknesses. Most of the songs are simply not as good as the rest of the show. Also, it clocks in at close to three hours. While all of it is funny, there's a lot that isn't essential to the story line and could be cut. Still, three hours fly by quickly when you are having as much fun as this Panto inspires. Even the tiniest kids were still awake when the actors came out for their curtain call. Through January 3. 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — LW

The Story of My Life Is it possible that composer/lyricist Neil Bartram has never heard a note of music by Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim? Is it possible that he dreamed up this Sondheim homage without realizing it sounds just like Sondheim, but without the tart, tasty lyrics for which he's justly famous? This two-man show, which only played five performances on Broadway, tells the tale of two best friends from first grade and how they grew apart, and the terrible consequences of not...of not...we don't know from what. Alvin, the weird, childlike one (John Dunn), winds up dead on Christmas Eve, like a funhouse-mirror version of It's A Wonderful Life, which is his all-time favorite movie and doesn't have anything at all to do with anything, except that his mother died a long time ago and he carries a torch for her the size of the Statue of Liberty's. His friend Thomas (Stephen Myers) is now a world-famous, stuck-up author who has taken all the stories of their friendship and made a fortune from them but forgotten little Alvin, who still lives back home and never went anywhere. Thomas is about to marry his fiancée, but thoughts of Alvin get in the way. Is it just me, or are these guys two of the biggest closet cases you've ever seen? Alvin's too wimpy to make a move, Thomas much too uptight. Good lord, just kiss each other and be done with it already. Through December 6. Theatre LaB, 1706 Alamo St., 713-868-7516. — DLG


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