Houston's Theater Scene a Very Stuffed Stocking
Once you've had your fill of Sugar Plums, Messiahs and Scrooges, there's always room for more presents, so...
Panto Mother Goose
The latest installment of Stages Repertory Theatre's annual Christmas "pantomimes" has a nimble score by David Nehls, but top-heavy book (though far nimbler lyrics) by Stages' artistic director, Kenn McLaughlin.
With tongues firmly planted, the actors gleefully chew the scenery — a Necco wafer storybook set by Jody Bobrovsky. The actors have a lot to chew, since the show runs two and a half hours with intermission. Even with first-class staging and first-rate performances, tiny tots begin to nod off. So do their larger chaperones.
Director Ryan Schabach, who gives this Panto its fleet-footedness, returns as audience favorite Buttons. He supervises the marriage of Mother Goose (Genevieve Allenbury) to Old King Cole (Jimmy Phillips). By getting married, Goose will retire as rhyme queen, so she creates a poetry competition to determine the next ruler of childhood verse.
Reporter for the Goose Island Gander, Little Tommy Tucker (Mark Ivey) aches to be a Broadway gypsy. Jack (Mitchell Greco), noted for his water fetching, is the likable hero but has a terrible stutter, so he's not a contender. Jack loves Jill (Teresa Zimmerman), no surprise, but she wants to be independent and liberated. The trio of Hickory, Dickory and Doc (Hunter Frederick, Cameron Davis and Danny Dyer) work for arch-villain Baron Von Nastypants (an amazingly adroit Andrew Ingalls), whose schemes to usurp the kingdom drive the show with wry audience ad-libs and a beguiling stage presence. Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary (a fine, blustery Joshua Estrada) is the shrew married to Nastypants; the head henchman is Wee Willie Winkie (Kyle Curry, equally amazing), a bumbling comic foil "in his nightgown" with borscht belt pedigree.
With numerous morals and sketchy sex jokes, the panto lumbers, but if you keep nudging the kids, they'll have a fine time yelling at the villains and cheering the heroes.
The White Christmas Album: A Beatles Holiday
Hmmm, the Beatles and Christmas together? Sounds a little loony. Rest easy, everything's fine. This musical potpourri is stirred, not shaken, and served on a silver platter by Music Box Theater. The holiday season is in terrific hands — all ten of them (Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Cay Taylor, Kristina Sullivan and Luke Wrobel); 12 when you count the special guest appearance by John Gremillion, and 20 when you add the jazzy quartet led by Glenn Sharp.
Five-part harmony never sounded so beautiful. Each Broadway Babe gets to shine solo; sometimes they sing together a cappella, giving the band a rest, and sometimes they act in a screwy comedy routine. The concept works surprisingly well, deftly so. Think about it: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" segues into "With a Little Help From My Friends." "All You Need Is Love" smoothly blends with "Ring Christmas Bells." The idea is some sort of brilliant.
Scarborough's supremely smooth account of the classic "Christmas Song" has to be the finest rendition I've ever heard. Taylor's rendition of "I Will" is simple joy made into music. Sullivan's hymn-like "There's Still My Joy" haunts with exquisite phrasing. Dahl rocks triumphantly through, over and around "Let It Be." Wrobel's burnished baritone wraps "Sleigh Ride" in glowing warmth. And when all five harmonize in an ethereal version of "Because," the song floats like mist. When these Fab 5 sing those Fab 4, it's a gift of Christmas cheer.
A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens loved the theater. As the richest, most famous author in Victorian England, as well as that era's most beloved and admired writer, he couldn't get enough of the stage. When he embarked on hundreds of "public reading" tours of his work, his passion for the stage found its most exquisite fulfillment. He loved to perform and made a fortune. His most popular reading was always A Christmas Carol (1843), his "ghostly little book," an immediate universal phenomenon upon publication. So, it's in the grand tradition of "monopolylogue" ("one actor, many characters") that John Stevens has adapted and stars at Country Playhouse in his own one-man version of Dickens's most famous tale. The show's a pip.
Stevens's setting is minimal: a plump chair stage-right where he can "read" to us; an accountant's high desk to represent Scrooge's counting house; a bed near a tiled fireplace (like Dickens describes) for the miser's cramped and dingy room; a battered table and chair for the bedraggled Cratchits; and, later, a forlorn headstone stage-left upon which will be projected the fateful occupant's name. All else is elegantly conjured through Dickens's ripe Victorian prose, rich as goose gravy, and Stevens's immaculate impersonations.
His Scrooge is pinched and stooped; Christmas Present a magnanimous outpouring of Scottish burr; Marley a wail of torment; fiancée Belle is pale resignation; and Fezziwig is all ancient cheer and rosy cheek. It's a magnificent cast of characters, expertly depicted. When Scrooge, at last redeemed, flings open the bedroom window to see if it's really morning, Stevens takes in a deep breathe, as if Scrooge has finally been cleansed. It's a lovely moment that passes in a blink, but it's as lasting as that new, innocent twinkle in his eye.
During the telling, Stevens roams the stage, cavorts up the aisles, lectures the audience from down front or sinks into the armchair to read verbatim from a large gilt-edged tome, as if relating a cozy bedtime story. Wherever he is, he brings us smack inside the story and shakes us alive.
While there's much to recommend in the Alley Theatre production with its stage wizardry and large cast, there's always room for an unadulterated version of Dickens's magnificent classic. John Stevens's adaptation at Country Playhouse, directed smartly by Bonnie Hewett and abetted by atmospheric sound design by Rod Harty, is like opening the smallest present under the tree and finding, within, the entire world. That makes for a very merry Christmas.
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