Family Tradition

Clara (Laura Richards, center, with Jessica Collado and, Cleopatra Williams) visits the Land of Snow.
Jim Caldwell

The sweetest of holiday traditions, Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker is once again leaping its way across the stage at the Wortham Center's opulent Brown Theater. And audiences young and old are donning their velvet skirts, patent-leather shoes and stiff wool suits to parade down the carpeted aisle for a chance to feast their eyes on the sugar plums and nutcrackers that come around only once a year.

The dreamy little story is a good part of what makes this gorgeous production such a favorite among families. It features a gamine girl named Clara (Laura Richards on opening night) who toe-walks through the Land of Nod one Christmas Eve. And like every year, opening night was full of children sitting on the edges of their fancy theater seats, enthralled at little Clara's dream-induced adventures as she meets the Snow Queen, the Sugar Plum Fairy and, of course, the Nutcracker Prince (Jaquel Andrews, Amy Fote and Zdenek Konvalina, respectively, on opening night).

It's the grown-ups in the audience who adore the depth of the dancing offered by Houston Ballet. Peter Tchaikovsky's unforgettable score and Ben Stevenson's stunning choreography send beautiful ballerinas into swoon-worthy spins. And this year the adults in the opening-night crowd erupted in "Bravos!" and long crescendos of applause as each lovely soloist took glorious flight. Especially haunting were Barbara Bears and Carl Coomer in the Arabian Dance and Ilya Kozadayev and Shingo Yoshimoto in the Chinese Dance.


The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker: Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787.

A Christmas Carol: The Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

The Nutcracker: Through December 26. $17-$125.

A Christmas Carol: Through December 28. $38-$51.

The story, music and dancing all come together on Desmond Heeley's breathtaking set, featuring a sparkling dream sled and glittering snow that drifts down as the dancers leap through it. And Heeley's costumes are the stuff of pure fantasy. The whimsical tapestry of creamy whites, crimson reds, gossamer silks and layers of lace create the perfect Christmas dream. Traditions such as this one are worth repeating again and again.

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Since 1988, the Alley Theatre has brought the Victorian world of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol to Houston and reminded us all what lies at the heart of this most traditional of holidays. This season the Alley has cobbled together a new version of the old story, and it is darkly funny and sweetly tender. Adapted by Michael Wilson, the production features the same script the Alley used five years ago, but Tony Straiges's set is brand-new, as are many other elements of this surprisingly moving production.

After a long hiatus, James Black returns to the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. And he brings a warm complexity and depth to the gray-haired grump. Black's Scrooge starts off his story as cold as they come. The miser cares not a whit for anyone. "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" he bellows when asked to help care for the poor at Christmas. Even his own nephew (played with charming good cheer by Philip Lehl) is banished from Scrooge's sight. But as the old geezer moves through the dreamscape of his Christmas Eve nightmare, he changes into a man of genuine warmth -- and Black makes this evolution utterly believable.

Part of the power of this production comes from the ghosts who lead Scrooge through his spiritual awakening. The Spirit of Christmas Past is played with rich, grandmotherly grace by Bettye Fitzpatrick. She tenderly reminds Scrooge of all his past mistakes. David Rainey plays the Spirit of Christmas Present with great booming generosity. His arms open wide, and he fills up the theater with the charismatic, grinning charm that the season deserves. Together, Fitzpatrick and Rainey conjure a seasonal sorcery that would make anyone want to change his bad behavior.

Wilson, also the director of this production, makes the most of the smaller characters, too. Jeffrey Bean doubles as a saucy Mrs. Dilber (Scrooge's housekeeper) and a spooky Jacob Marley. Elizabeth Bunch makes a heartwarming Belle, Scrooge's ex-fiancée. And Paul Hope is an especially cheerful Mr. Fezziwig.

This new incarnation of Dickens's old tale might not be quite as funny as the one by Stephen Rayne the Alley has put on in recent years, but in many ways it's truer to Dickens's wonderfully traditional story about the joys of generosity, gratitude and grace at this time of year.

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