It's Time for Christmas to Hit the Stage in Houston
The holiday theater season roars to life in December. The big perennials in town, the Alley's A Christmas Carol (Dickens with an annoying case of ADD), Houston Ballet's Nutcracker (a Victorian sampler) and the Houston Symphony's Messiah (is there a more resonant musical message than Handel's?), are must-sees, but there are other shows that ring in the season with unexpected jollity and sweet memories of Christmas past. Some are world premieres, some regional premieres and some ring in the season by clanging you over the head. In no particular order, here are some choices to celebrate the holidays. (Keep in mind two productions that will open after we go to press: The White Christmas Album, a sparkling revue from Music Box Theater, and Tom Dudzick's angels vs. atheists comedy, Greetings, from Texas Repertory Theatre.)
The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical
This show should come with a warning label. The signature number in this sad-sack production is the Act I closer, where the blue-collar characters sing about how to deal with their failed lives. The song is called "Fuck It, It's Christmas." Need I say more?
This show is so low-rent, it should be free. Trashy and tasteless, it's devoid of imagination — except for the silly Dream Ballet sequence, which is genuinely funny. Spawned from its lame firstborn, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, this world premiere is absolutely critic-proof, it's run nearly sold out. There's no stopping this juggernaut. Among its dubious charms, the set and actors stand out as if in bas relief.
Miles of lights, garish tinsel, a treetop star made out of a truck mudflap and enough plastic flamingos to start a nature conservancy are just some of the visual stuffing on display through, over, around and above Jodi Bobrovsky's brassy design for Armadillo Acres, the Florida trailer park of the title. The set's a witty eyeful. Contemplate the mailboxes, the garden gnome, the tangle of wires, the corrugated siding, the perfect screen door. It's a wonderland of sleaze.
The actors plow through this mire with fierce determination and unstoppable gusto, but they're on a sinking ship and must bail furiously to keep this ratty tub afloat. They're pros through and through, and their comic instincts and unfailing sense of the absurd manage to bring a sparkle — no matter how faint — to the cartoons they play. Ivy Castle, Carolyn Johnson and Susan Koozin, reprising their characters from TGATPM, throw themselves into their skin-deep characters. They literally preen as they revel in the script's inanity, tossing out knowing winks to the audience. They turn trailer trash into gloriously goofy art. Now that's acting.
Gold, Frankincense, Christmas Tree Ornaments and Myrrh
For those who want a more traditional take on the meaning of Christmas, A.D. Players is the place to be. However, be warned, Thomas Ohlson's bipolar play is an unholy alliance of the profane and the sacred.
Gold has an intriguing premise, ripe for warm comedy. There is a fourth Wise Man (Craig Griffin) who follows the star. Materialistic and willing to make a buck off of the birth of the child whose prophesy foretells a mighty king, this wizard sees opportunity and fortune, maybe trees decorated with shiny geegaws, and ornaments as souvenirs. Our wizard misses the birth through stubbornness and snobbery, mistaking Mary and Joseph (Leslie Lenert and Kurt Bilanoski) for inconsequential rubes. After the invention of a car and a bit of time travel, we're thrown 12 years ahead, where a young Christ (a convincing Michael Eaton) questions what his extraordinary future holds. Playing Jesus at any age is a tough assignment, but Eaton ably carries the weight on his young shoulders with both lightness and gravity.
As the only play around town with a significant religious theme, Ohlson's is slight drama and slighter comedy. Underneath the anachronistic silliness, there's serious stuff going on to remind us why we buy presents for the ones we love, and who originally inspired the buying in the first place.
A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration
It's very earnest down by the banks of the Potomac on Christmas Eve, 1864, in this musical from Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive) and Daryl Waters, who arranged the numerous period carols, war anthems and pop tunes of the era. Sixteen most capable actors portray dozens of characters (Abraham Lincoln; wife Mary Todd; generals Sherman, Grant and Lee; assassin John Wilkes Booth; dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley; escaped slaves; free blacks; a comic horse). Great, near-great and nobodies intersect and collide in Vogel's epic, heart-on-its-sleeve panorama.
There is genuine pathos in Civil War and moments of real emotion: Shofner's Mrs. Lincoln, perilously close to a nervous breakdown whether shopping for that new holiday custom from Bavaria, the Christmas tree, or reliving her beloved child Willie's death by typhoid; Rachel Dickson's noble and nobly suffering Keckley, whose constant refrain is "put your hands to use"; and Shawn Hamilton's powerhouse, majestically elemental Decatur Bronson. These vivid portraits enlarge and enhance Vogel's pop-up picture-book storytelling.
Shofner's "Silent Night," sung to a dying Jewish soldier, is accompanied by the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead; Hamilton's defiant "Yellow Rose of Texas" morphs into a heartfelt ballad; Dickson's soft yet resilient "There Is a Balm in Gilead" is both plea and prayer; and the final chorus, "I Heard the Bells," expresses Vogel's intentions with more urgency and awe than all her cluttered waxworks.
"The hope of peace is sweeter than peace itself" is the play's mantra, but it's the antique music and fine performers who put the celebration into it.
Djembe and the Forest of Christmas Forgotten
If there hadn't been a little show on Broadway called The Lion King, this world premiere musical fairy tale from Carlton Leake (book, music, lyrics), scrumptiously realized onstage by director and choreographer Patdro Harris, would probably seem a lot better than it is. Comparisons, however unfair, are unavoidable. Colorful, always lively, Djembe still comes across as a poor relation. Needlessly convoluted and padded, the musical contains two young girls with magical powers as protagonists, along with two mothers who also have magical powers, plus a forest watchman who talks to spirits, and, of course, an evil sorceress, the king's sister, who usurps the throne and makes everybody's life miserable. Is there anyone in this kingdom who doesn't possess magic powers?
The animals that peek out of the foliage are absolutely adorable (the brightly plumed tropical bird has a tail of straw; the giraffe rises high above the side of the stage). But these wonderful veldt creatures, like their human counterparts, are filler. They appear, make some noise and go back into the jungle. Think what riches Elton John mined out of a warthog and hyena.
Young Lauren Chanel Bogany and younger Taylor Nelson, the girls with magic powers, are real troopers and showstoppers. They hold their own against some of Ensemble's most nimble players. Christina Alfred, a strikingly handsome stage presence, can put across a power ballad with an effortless appeal that resembles that of Lena Horne. Chiseled and regal, Timothy Eric draws appreciative whoops from the audience as king of mythical Abahu. And Detria Ward, one of Houston theater's treasures, snappily delivers as evil Kalisha with that saucy Mae West "Beulah, peel me a grape" attitude.
Looking like a storybook come to life, Djembe just doesn't come together. One little girl with special powers, and one mother with special powers, is more than enough for any musical.
Buoyed by an old-fashioned, tuneful Broadway score by composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin, this adaptation of the Will Ferrell blockbuster comedy has been scrubbed clean for the kiddies. Don't look for the movie's anarchic humor, the raccoon, the "angry" elf, the shower crooning, the revolving door or the Park Rangers. What's left in the book by Broadway pros Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin (Annie, The Producers, The Drowsy Chaperone) is tons of sentiment and not much character.
Everything else is fairly rote: minimal sets that veer close to cheesy, good costumes from David Woolard, unmemorable production numbers from choreographer Michelle Gaudette, and busy, frantic direction from Bruce Lumpkin, TUTS's artistic director. No one has anything to do in this show. It's all filler and quick reversal, then a song and dance routine. Rinse, lather, repeat. Obviously, you don't go to a musical that has a hero who's grown up at the North Pole thinking he's an elf as if it were Sondheim, but let's give the characters some pretense of motivation and development. That much hasn't gone stale since Rodgers and Hammerstein. Adding contempo references, like Ipads, Al Gore and PETA, just stalls for time. (Okay, I admit it, that joke about the reindeer was kind of funny.)
While not as manically cheery (and a tad creepy) as was Ferrell, Tommy J. Dose, as Buddy the Elf, has sweet innocence down to a science. He's bigger than Ferrell, a lot bigger than Santa Claus (William Hartery, whose wise-ass Santa almost steals the show, but who's almost anemic-looking next to Dose's robust Buddy), but hoofs it like a veteran and sings sweetly. The best of the lot are teen McKenna Marmolejo, as Buddy's stepsister, who is a delectable Broadway Baby, already holding the spotlight; Jessica Rush, as astringent Jovie, who melts under Buddy's relentless cheerfulness and has a melting singing voice to match; and Julia Krohn, in the thankless role of office manager Deb, who has nothing to do in the show but does it with utter charm and know-how.
The score is a classic example of a type that has gone out of style. How we've missed it. The arrangements swing, like '60s Sinatra or the best of Burt Bacharach. They have clever hooks to them, changing direction and shifting keys in surprisingly adept ways. The lyrics are brass and sassy, like prime Frank Loesser. When mom and daughter write a letter to Santa, they list what they don't want — nice and clever. A ballad goes bluesy, but not too much. Rock, metal and grunge have no place here; we're definitely in old Broadway land. It's so nice to hear. Are there better musicals? Sure. Is there a better Christmas one? No. Will Elf do? Sort of.
Overstuffed like the fattest goose on the table, Stages's world premiere "panto" is too sophisticated in its '60s references for the kiddies, but not quite clever enough for the adults. Genevieve Allenbury, who's previously penned some of these vaudevilles, supplies plenty of British silliness but doesn't know when to stop. It's twee with a vengeance.
Goldilocks (a delectable Holland Vavra) is a lethal Soviet spy who uses asparagus spears as deadly weapons. Her mission is to steal the Factor Max, a beauty potion concocted by the west. The world's greatest spy, Shame'es Blond (Dayne Lathrop, with loads of heartthrob vanity) is sent by British intelligence to stop her.
Every character is a critter of some kind: the evil Commie warlord is a blowfish (James Cichocki), but he drops out of sight after his blustery intro; there's a comic donkey, Don Key Oatcake (John Ryan Del Bosque), who's the security guard for the good guys, but dreams of being a unicorn (?); a beetle (Cameron William Davis) who looks amazingly like John Lennon and speaks only in Beatle lyrics, a clever touch; Three Bears who have invented the potion: Simon, Britney and Demi (Tyce Green, Teresa Zimmermann, Sarah Myers), who sing catchy hip-hop harmony; a conceited Persian cat and horny English bulldog, who have nothing whatever to do with anything; a rabbit, Miss Hunny-bunny (Adrienne Whitaker), who's the secret service secretary making goo-goo eyes at Blond; and a flamingo, Ian Flamingo (Nathan Wilson), who's just the latest character to be introduced who has no place in the story.
As a parody of James Bond, the snarky sexual innuendos fly over the tykes' heads, and what's left are musical parodies, however nicely staged by choreographer Krissy Richmond, that vamp for time. It takes forever for Act I to get rolling, saddled with redundant exposition and too many unfunny bits.
I never thought I'd say this, but I miss Buttons (Ryan Schabach), who anchored the previous pantos with a beguiling innocence that spoke directly to the kid in all of us. When minor character Don Key is more eagerly applauded than the principals, there's trouble in pantoland.
The Santaland Diaries
Christmas wishes do come true, especially at the Alley, where grumpy protesters stomped their feet and demanded that Crumpet the Elf (Todd Waite) be resurrected. Lo, it has come to pass. All is calm, the box office is bright, and the halls are decked with laughter and plenty of attitude.
Unnamed and unemployed, our hero of this one-man show, a 43-year-old gay schlub, has arrived in New York City seeking fame and fortune, preferably on the daytime soap classic One Life to Live. He answers a newspaper ad for the next best thing: the glamor of being an elf at Macy's Santaland. Remember, Santa is an anagram for Satan.
In Joe Montello's deliciously jaundiced adaptation of David Sedaris's radio essay about rampant Christmas consumerism, Crumpet makes an infidel's progress through this most American of holiday traditions. He's required to don a demeaning winter wonderland velvet costume with candy cane-striped leggings, pixie-toed shoes and a daffy hat out of which his ears stick. (Costumer Blaire Gulledge knows how to design tacky.) He explains the autocratic Elfin Guide; we meet his chain-smoking, thoroughly grumpy floor manager and various psychotic coworkers; his teetering patience is tried by harried parents and sweet little kiddies, who vomit from excitement or pee in the artificial snow.
Swishing with incomparable technique, Waite has a field day with this character he's honed to perfection after years of wearing those tights. His ad-libs to the audience are finger-snap perfect. Haloed in a pin spot, enveloped in cigarette smoke, his Billie Holiday rendition of "Away in the Manger" is some form of camp classic. As the days count down to Christmas Eve, events spiral out of control, yet Waite keeps up the manic pace with masterful spin, abetted by taut direction from David Cromer.
By all means scamper to the Alley and give yourself the best Christmas present ever. Laughter's always better than another tie.
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