The Season Brings a Mixed Bag of Christmas Shows

Todd Waite makes an ideal elf in Santaland Diaries.
Jann Whaley

Filled with specters and overlaid with deafening thunder and seas of fog, the Alley's A Christmas Carol reeks of Halloween, not Yuletide. There's enough aroma of Charles Dickens, but it takes writer Michael Wilson a mighty long time to get to the meat of it. The dancing ghosts, housekeeper in drag and fiery pits from which Marley emerges are so un-­Dickensian, they're unrecognizable. Tasty, though, are the Victorian spirits of Christmas Past (Bettye Fitzpatrick) and Christmas Present (David Rainey), who radiate nostalgia and good cheer, then sobering truth. Fresh from his Cyrano triumph, Jeffrey Bean is an utter delight as skinflint Scrooge, as miserly with his affections as he was worldly in the French romancer.

In A.D. Players' The Gifts of Christmas, two one-acters pair the profane (O. Henry's Gift of the Magi) with the sacred (The Foster Father) to remind us what the spirit of Christmas really means. O. Henry's classic story of poor newlyweds whose unselfish love is proved by their sacrifice can be read in less than five minutes, so Brainerd Duffield's theater adaptation is terribly overstuffed. Although tenement grit is absent in the production design, O. Henry's patented charm is amplified by Craig Griffin and Debra Duderstadt, who might have stepped right off the page as Jim and Della. They also shine in Foster Father, David Benedict's heartwarming comedy about Joseph's struggle to believe his virginal betrothed Mary is pregnant — by God, no less. Duderstadt imbues Mary with freshness and awe, while Griffin's real-guy intensity meshes with doubting Joseph. Marty Blair's witty Gabriel, who announces the mystery, would stop the show if the audience were less polite.

Carlton Leake's old-fashioned, ­family-friendly musical revue Twelve Ways of Christmas at the Ensemble Theatre is gorgeously packaged with sassy choreography by Patdro Harris, music by the best orchestra in town, inventive stage design, startling costumes in vivid candy hues and a cast of seven exceptional musical talents. Familiar aspects of the holiday season — squabbling tots, shopping, separated military families — are depicted in skit and song. Some segments work better than others, but you can't beat the musical's infectious zip, or the actors' sheer will to entertain, especially Andrew Jackson and Melanie Finley.

Ah, hell, pass the joint, Crumpet the elf might say about the Alley's Santaland Diaries. This tweak-your-nose one-elf show by humorist David Sedaris re-creates his excruciating job as one of Santa's gay little helpers at Macy's in NYC, complete with retching children, pissed-off Santas and the sight of actor Todd Waite in full elf regalia — thank you, designer Blair Gulledge. Waite is befuddled, exasperated, bitchy and ideal. Who knew an elf had to take a drug test? The lively monologue lasts only as long as Houston snow, but the laughs are constant and Christmas doesn't get more joyous.

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Town Center Theatre's co-artistic directors Joseph Milillo and Chris Tennison have adapted the Frank Capra movie classic It's a Wonderful Life into a radio play from 1947. The cast of Merry Christmas, George Bailey reads scripts into microphones while a sound-effects man adds the requisite noise. It's a neat idea, but old-timey sound-effects men never sat down on the job, and actors never clomped to the mike, because their footsteps would have been broadcast throughout America. Inaccuracies aside, the adaptation is mighty faithful to the film, as dispirited George sees what life would have been like had he never been born. Lanky, with a hint of James Stewart in demeanor and voice, Santry Rush is quite amazing as gosh-golly George, a regular fellow who finds life overwhelming. Ivy Rush, Travis Bryant, Ben Warner and Andrew Ruthven add verisimilitude to the radio fiction.

Theatre Under the Stars' Irving Berlin's White Christmas should be retitled How Not to Adapt a Beloved Movie. This plodding mechanical gizmo is charmless and anemic, with but one saving grace: It showcases one of America's greatest composer/lyricists, adding more tunes than in the original film. The leads have so little chemistry that their falling in love is no more involving than their falling out of it. Characters have been added without purpose, new "jokes" fall flat and the whole artificial enterprise has no heart. Even "White Christmas" goes by without affecting us. Only Beverly Ward's torch song "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me" (a frame-by-frame reproduction from the movie — angular choreography, et al.) has the intended punch. The most uplifting moment is the curtain call. Bah, humbug.

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