The holidays have brought a cornucopia of theatrical splendors to Houston, and the choice is rich indeed. Humor reigns supreme, and gifted playwrights meet talented actors to create the magic of live performance across the city.
At the Alley Theatre through December 27, the ever-popular A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, here adapted and subtitled A Ghost Story of Christmas, returns for the 16th time in this special version by Michael Wilson. It makes stinginess fascinating, aided by an exciting and very human Ebenezer Scrooge (the great Jeffrey Bean), sparkling and fluid sets, handsome costumes and enough special effects to light a fire and, yes, the Alley provides that, too. It is richly enjoyable and belongs under any tree — and watch for some amusing, charming characterizations from James Belcher.
The Ensemble Theatre brings back Cinderella (through December 30) in a handsome, elaborate, broadly humorous musical production that substitutes hipness for subtlety in a refreshing change of pace from the conventional approach. Energetic adults deliver humor and some great dancing, and gifted children provide the magic. The role of Prince Charming needs work, but hey, this production could become an annual event, so we may yet get to see a Prince who is actually charming — and please keep the dazzling chariot/coach and six white "mice."
Simpler productions deliver as well, and A.D. Players' The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (through December 31) surprises and delights with a wildly humorous and apparently irreverent approach that most effectively gets at the true meaning of the birth of Christ. Hordes of children (some most entertainingly rebellious) cascade up and down the aisles of Grace Theatre, but the indomitable pageant managers, the most excellent real-life couple Katharine and Jason Hatcher, are more than a match for them. Anna Yost as the young daughter/narrator holds the stage well — and watch for young Abigail Richardson, who is convinced the Herald Angel is an avenging one and swoops to destroy.
It's a Wonderful Life — a live radio play, at Texas Repertory Theatre through December 23, gives us strong drama and adroit humor, and even the set is beautiful and art deco. Artistic Director Steven Fenley steps from behind the scenes to star as radio announcer Freddie Fillmore, and is brilliant and charming in 14 roles, while the equally talented Alan Hall excels in a mere 13. Matt Tramel plays George Bailey, the Jimmy Stewart role in the enduring Frank Capra movie, and provides a powerful interpretation that makes us believe in the misguided desperation of a man who has lost his way. The strong sentiment of the Capra theme remains intact, while watching the actors shift voices and body language (and even manage sound effects) is surprisingly amusing and delightful. Put it high on the theater shopping list.
Winter Wonderettes at Stages (through December 24) is another jukebox musical — and it brings back the Marvelous Wonderettes. This time the plot is thin as tinsel, but the four gifted singers deliver 25 familiar Christmas songs with enough vivacity and style to raise the Titanic, and the audience kicks back and truly savors the wholehearted nostalgic experience.
Company OnStage takes us back to the twelfth century with the witty and trenchant The Lion in Winter (through December 17). Eleanor of Aquitaine (Lisa Schofield) joins estranged husband King Henry II (Carl Masterson) for the Christmas holidays — she is temporarily reprieved from imprisonment — and the plotting and machinations begin with rare relish as they mutually savage, admire and love each other.
Santaland Diaries (through December 31) is the offering from the Alley on its smaller stage, a comic recounting of playwright David Sedaris's real-life stint as an elf in Santaland at Macy's in New York City. It began as a radio tale on National Public Radio in 1993, was transferred to the stage in a one-act adaptation by Joe Mantello and has since become a holiday perennial. This is a one-man show; Todd Waite appears as "Crumpet the Elf," and he captures the, well, elfin humor, as the darker side of Santa is explored with hilarity, pathos and glee. It's amusing and original, but recommended for mature audiences — see "darker side" above.
Stages Theatre enriches the season through December 31 with a second production, this one the world premiere of Panto Red Riding Hood, written by Genevieve Allenbury and directed by Stages Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin. It is an impressive production, with 17 very talented actors playing 31 roles. The story is not as familiar as you might think, as this time the Wolf Corporation is determined to turn Grandma's cottage into a disco, but don't worry about that cottage, as inventive writing, deft direction and strong acting rush in to save the day. This new panto is exciting, colorful and filled with fun. The acting captivates, and this one is suitable for the young 'uns.
More shows around town.
• Fruitcakes! (a very special holiday special) at The Music Box Theater, through January 15.
• A Christmas Carol at Stage Door, Inc., Pasadena, through December 18.
• The Little Town of Christmas at Pasadena Little Theatre, through December 18.
• Winter Wonderland at the Red Door Theatre Company, through December 18.
• White Christmas at Theatre Under the Stars, through December 18.
• Celebration: the Spirit, the Songs, the Story at First Baptist Church, through December 11.
• A Christmas Carol, a one-man show, at Country Playhouse, through December 18.
• The Best Christmas Pageant Ever at Island, ETC. in Galveston, through December 17.
• A Christmas Story from Stage Right at the Crighton Theatre in Conroe, through December 18.
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