Playing the Season

Courtesy of the Houston theater scene, I received my Christmas presents early this year. And, I'm pleased to report, my stocking didn't contain one lump of coal. Sure, a couple of the shows I saw were, like a gift of underwear, more practical than desirable, and, yes, a couple of others reminded me of the squid dinner an old girlfriend's family served instead of turkey or ham in that, although tasty, since they weren't apropos of anything Christmasy, they didn't fit into the holiday tradition. But, after all was said and done, I had no desire to rush to the counter to return any of the shows I "got" this year.

To be honest, though, I did somewhat dread going to a few of the performances. Making the rounds to A Christmas Carol at the Alley and Peter Pan at Theatre Under the Stars, for instance, felt like the sort of obligation I couldn't get out of when my parents would cart little me over to my grandparents' house on Christmas Eve. Wasting my time might be too harsh a way of putting it, but I decidedly did not want to spend an evening merely going through the motions of holiday cheer, even if the intentions were time-honored and I was expected to -- because even as a child I knew that sometimes things celebratory ended up mustily ritualistic.

But I had a terrific time. At my family holiday gatherings I'd usually rediscover that among my relatives were a couple of characters distinctive enough to get me into the flow of things (my crazy cousin Gloria one year thought she was a tree and, signing herself out of the mental institution, showed up at Christmas dinner all aglow). Similarly, at Carol, I met Scrooge as if for the first time, and at Pan I, like the Lost Boys, didn't want to grow up.

James Black, the Alley's perennial Scrooge, does more than play the old miser as crotchety; he adds an impatient, sly intelligence that makes the recognizable symbol fresh and immediate. Supplying Scrooge with an active mind enlivens the developments; it imbues the familiar plot with a psychological frisson, an energizing appeal. What Black does is portray Scrooge as sharp enough to be superior but keen enough to recognize his mistakes, so that he's the true catalyst of his transformation, not, as many productions have it, simply the foil of the ghosts who visit him. His transformation from troubled to joyous becomes even more transcendent in large part because Black, with gaping mouth and trembling hands, really responds to what's going on around him. Black breathes life into a play that's often as flat as paint-by-numbers.

Similarly, Michael Wilson, who adapted Dickens' script, Wendy Beaton, who staged it, and Jay Michael Jagim, who designed the sets, found a way to make something old new again. Gray-masked spirits do a grotesque dance with fluorescent umbrellas before and after the thunderstorm of a night. The Ghost of Christmas Future is an eerie, faceless, steam-powered giant with a clock in its stomach. These and other effects, along with a wildly impressionistic, almost gothic set of winding, black, planked stairways and haunted windows, create a thrillingly macabre evening.

As for Peter Pan, it's no wonder that Cathy Rigby has twice received Tony nominations for being the leader of the Lost Boys. Peter is her signature role, and over the years she's learned to sing it as well as she flies through the air, which she does effortlessly, twirling and spinning and picking up speed with the confidence that only a former Olympic gymnast could have. But beyond the precision and abandon of the stunts, Rigby inflects Peter with an emotional neediness that makes him quite appealing, especially during the holiday season. If we take our eyes off Rigby, it's to look at the terrific sets, all polished wood and Mother-Goosey wallpaper for the English nursery, mossy rocks and cartooned foliage for Neverland. Though I wasn't around when Mary Martin originated the role, I did catch the second famous incarnation, Sandy Duncan, who emphasized the rapscallion in Peter, creating a sort of Tom Sawyer who could fly. While this type of wisecracking was fun, Duncan downplayed what Rigby, with an endearing little-boy drawl, stresses: that Peter is hero who desperately wants a mother to tuck him in at night.

What connection Peter Pan's story has to the holiday season, I'm sure I don't know. The only possible thing the musical has to do with Santa and Jesus and company is that when Peter tells Wendy, John and Michael Darling that, for them to fly, they must "think lovely thoughts," tyke Michael is the first to ascend because, while his older siblings think of fishing and candy and the like, he cries out, "Christmas!" That one reference aside, the show, though picturesque, has as much Yuletide to it as Captain Hook does two hands. "Family entertainment" is not a synonym for "holiday season." But since the production entertains, I'll agree to, like those hands that clap Tinkerbell back to life, believe.  

The Ensemble Theatre, with its production of Langston Hughes' Tambourines to Glory, and the A.D. Players, with its The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, have chosen their Christmas productions with an eye toward advancing each theater's stated purpose. (Admirably, and unlike most Houston theater companies, they at least have a stated purpose.) But for different reasons, neither move works as well as it should. The Ensemble aims to revive and keep alive black theater, and Glory -- a gospel-rich, folksy morality musical in which the Devil tries to the lure the good into his lair -- does that well enough. It's a vital text to mount because it helps remind us of an important black writer. But it's also a vital text that might have been better mounted at another time of the year, given that The Ensemble could both have remained true to its credo and recognized the season with Christmas Is Comin' Uptown, a worthy African-American work that's been in its repertoire for years. This is the first time in recent memory that Uptown hasn't been performed, and I missed it. Interesting as Tambourines to Glory is, there was simply no reason to forsake Uptown.

At the A.D. Players -- an avowedly Christian theater, but one committed to having its productions appeal to a secular audience as well -- the problem lay not in the selection, but in the presentation. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson's theatrical adaptation of her heartwarmingly funny story of how "the six worst kids in the whole history of the world" arrived unannounced to a Christmas pageant, is a good work to reach out with. But the problem here is that while the text isn't particularly proselytizing, the production is. It's a little too full of good will and intentions; it comes off as more missionary than festive, not an ideal situation at Christmas. Though I did have a somewhat merry time, I mainly learned lessons -- felt pushed to be uplifted in a Christian way. Those not tuned to the conversion impulse may feel the evening lacked the proper spirit.

While The Ensemble doesn't go far enough and the A.D. Players goes a bit too far, I forgive them these oversights not in the least because most local theater companies don't even have a philosophy to be judged against -- or else they try to fob one off on the public that's too generic. This is what I want from Santa next year: theater companies with express statements of purpose, either a principle upon which they base their continued existence or purpose that's abided to for a year and then, in the spirit of experimentation, is changed when another area of investigation is deemed worthy of pursuit.

I can also forgive The Ensemble and A.D. Players because both companies employ terrifically imaginative sets, with The Ensemble unfolding a beautiful Harlem storefront church and the A.D. Players making the stage into a vibrant pop-up book. And though the preview performance of Glory that I saw dragged a bit in the telling, the yellow-robed choir sang up a toe-tapping storm when they weren't testifying like there was no tomorrow. Catherine Kemp, in her professional debut, is a major find as a rock of goodness trying to keep people on the right path. The A.D. Players, as usual, conveys a confidence that helps its atmosphere enormously.

Scrooge might believe that confident theater companies produce seasonal shows for no other reason than to rake in the bucks. Last year's ticket sales for Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker, for instance, accounted for 18.7 percent of its annual budget. But you have to spend money to make money, and artistic director Ben Stevenson deserves kudos for teaming up with Tony award-winning designer Desmond Heeley. The sets -- which are what the eyes feast on most in this evening of many visual splendors -- are simply spectacular. The house in which the Christmas party takes place is wrapped just like a gigantic present and is stuffed with all sorts of goodies; it's like an ornate picture book. The magical Christmas tree grows to such a size that it makes the one at New York's Rockefeller Center look puny. And the Kingdom of Sweets is all swirls and curls of white and sparkles and all things delectable.

This year marks the 23rd annual Houston Ballet production of Tchaikovsky's holiday classic, and the eight annual production of the Stevenson-Heeley version, which premiered in 1987. Since that premiere, more than half a million people have journeyed to the Brown Theater to see Clara's adventures. There are 41 performances this year featuring 56 dancers subdivided into nine casts. The Houston Ballet Orchestra performs ably, and what I most noticed about the dancing was how the troupe became as pristine as the lovely winter wonderland tableau. I also noticed how eccentric Stevenson could be with his choreography; at one point in the Kingdom of Sweets, child cooks fly through the air in a way that Peter Pan would appreciate. My one criticism: the show was too self-congratulatory. There were curtain calls after seemingly every pas de deux, which threatened to dispel the enchantment.  

There weren't that many curtain calls in A Tuna Christmas, but, still, the most telling thing about the show was how the clearly enchanted audience was moved to applaud Joe Sears and Jaston Williams -- the two master comedians who each perform 11 types of Texans you see every day whether you want to or not -- at every turn. Taking many of the characters they created in the popular Greater Tuna and adding a few new ones, Sears and Williams apply their singular humor to the holiday season. Though Williams is a wickedly dead-on mimic, Sears is even better because he gets inside the vulnerabilities of the characters he portrays, making them poignantly human. I got the sense that Christmas is just an excuse for them to carry on with their creations, but they're so good that I simply didn't care. If anything, I was sad that the evening had to end, but hopeful that come Easter, come Halloween, come any holiday, that they'll do it all over again. Though I saw them before Thanksgiving, they were my best Christmas present.

A Christmas Carol, through December 30, Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421. Peter Pan, through December 18, Theatre Under the Stars, Music Hall, 800 Bagby, (800) 766-6048. Tambourines to Glory, through January 1, The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 520-0055.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, through December 31, A.D. Players, 2710 West Alabama, 526-2721.

The Nutcracker, through December 30, Houston Ballet, Wortham Center, Texas at Smith, 227-ARTS.

A Tuna Christmas, January 10-15, The Grand 1894 Opera House, 2020 Postoffice Street, Galveston, (800) 821-1894.

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