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Best Virtual Bets: Jane Austen, Josephine Baker and Karen Carpenter

Houston Ballet First Soloist Allison Miller.
Houston Ballet First Soloist Allison Miller. Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy of Houston Ballet.
Hope you’re in a festive mood, because the holidays are in full swing across the virtual stages of Houston. Read on for holiday traditions moved online and reimagined, and new works, both seasonal and not.

Can you guess the most checked-out book of all time at the New York Public Library? If you guessed Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day, you’re right. It’s been checked out more than 485,583 times since its 1962 publication. The book, about a young boy venturing out on a snowy New York City day, is known not just for its relatability and simple elegance, but because it was “the first book featuring an African American child to win the Caldecott Medal for excellence in children’s picture books.The Snowy Day is also the inspiration behind Houston Grand Opera’s latest world premiere production, set to be their 70th, from composer Joel Thompson and librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney. Though delayed due to COVID, opera lovers can get a sneak peek during The Making of The Snowy Day: An Opera for All this Thursday, December 10, at 7:30 p.m. We interviewed the documentarian who pulled together the documentary which will be available to stream here through January 9.

In 1944, a smitten 18-year-old penned a "yuletide love song" that languished in limbo until the author, Frank Pooler, found himself choir teacher to Richard and Karen Carpenter more than 20 years later. Cut to 1970, when The Carpenters’ reworked version shoots to the top of Billboard‘s Christmas charts and quickly cements its place as an underrated holiday classic. This Thursday, December 10, A.D. Players in partnership with Artists Lounge Live will open their Christmas concert, Merry Christmas Darling: Heidi Kettenring Sings Karen Carpenter. Though the company has turned The George Theater parking lot into an open-air venue, you can still enjoy the titular tune and Carpenters hits like "Close To You" virtually from the comforts of your own home on Friday, December 11 and 18, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, December 12 and 19, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available here for $35.

You won't want to "bah humbug" Classical Theatre Company's production of A Christmas Carol, now a radio play, when it opens this Friday, December 11, with the premiere of the first of three episodes. The original cast, along with director Philip Hays, from CTC’s 2014 “respectful, observant, and utterly right” mounting of the Dickens’ classic, return to once again “capture the very essence of mystery, compassion, overwhelming poverty, comedy, and salvation that is so critical for the story's evergreen success.” Six years ago, the Houston Press considered the show “perhaps the most Dickensian of all theatrical treatments to be seen in Houston this season, if not any season.” Following the premiere of Episode 1 on December 11, Episode 2 will follow on December 18 and Episode 3 on December 23 on CTC's YouTube channel.

click to enlarge Tyshawn Sorey and Julia Bullock performing Perle Noire. - PHOTO BY BEN DOYLE, COURTESY OF DACAMERA
Tyshawn Sorey and Julia Bullock performing Perle Noire.
Photo by Ben Doyle, Courtesy of DACAMERA
On Friday, December 11, at 7 p.m. DACAMERA will debut another of their archival concerts, Tyshawn Sorey’s Perle Noire from June 2016, a “tribute to the first black international superstar and a defining figure of the Jazz Age,” Josephine Baker. Sorey provided the music and arrangements for the International Contemporary Ensemble and poet Claudia Rankine contributed the text performed by soprano Julia Bullock. The New York Times called the “darkly captivating show” a “haunting investigation into the psychological shadows and public constructions that shaped the career of a woman who was ‘no more primal than Princess Grace,’ as Ms. Bullock says in the piece, but for whom the most direct route to entertainment royalty and a chateau in the Périgord meant donning a banana skirt.” The premiere broadcast is free but registration is required.

click to enlarge Laura Kaldis and Spencer Plachy reprise their roles as Elizabeth Darcy and Fitzwilliam Darcy in Main Street's readings of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. - PHOTO BY PIN LIM, FOREST PHOTOGRAPHY
Laura Kaldis and Spencer Plachy reprise their roles as Elizabeth Darcy and Fitzwilliam Darcy in Main Street's readings of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.
Photo by Pin Lim, Forest Photography
Christmas Jane Austen-style returns for those looking for “literate and adult viewing of the Masterpiece Theatre kind” when Main Street Theater opens their live, Zoom-based virtual reading run of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon's Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley on Friday, December 11, at 7:30 p.m. The Pride and Prejudice sequel picks up two years after the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy as the sisters reunite for the holidays at Pemberley, but this time it’s sister Mary who’s our heroine in a show the Houston Press said “warms you with Regency charm, literate wit, and a high gloss of the socioeconomic predicament of unmarried ladies of no certain means.” Performances will continue through the weekend with shows on Saturday, December 12, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, December 13, at 3 p.m. Tickets are free (though donations are appreciated) and registration is required.

Very Merry POPS, which the Houston Chronicle dubbed “the antidote to ho-hum holiday music,” returns to Jones Hall this weekend along with Michael Krajewski, former Principal POPS conductor. Krajewski will lead the Symphony in a program full of fun arrangements and holiday favorites, including “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Houston’s own (and HSPVA alum) Chelsea Cymone will lend her voice to the festivities, and we’re hoping that the big guy himself, Santa Claus, will also make his usual appearance. Very Merry POPS will enjoy a two-weekend run at Jones Hall (December 11 to 13 and December 18 to 20), with two livestreamed performances on Saturday, December 12, and Saturday, December 19, at 8 p.m. Tickets to the livestream can be purchased for $20 here.

Imaginary dragons, Wild West shows, and graduation parties – the works of the seven high school playwrights chosen by a panel of judges that included playwrights Lauren Gunderson and David Henry Hwang for #ENOUGH: Plays to End Gun Violence, a national short play competition, are varied but united with a common thread: gun violence. Chosen from 184 submissions, the plays will be read and available to watch on Monday, December 14, at 7 p.m. with our own Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company participating in the nationwide readings. And if the date seems familiar, it is: December 14 marks the eighth remembrance of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. You can view the readings on the Mildred’s Umbrella Facebook page here. Free, through any donations received will go to Texas Gun Sense.

Buttons is back at Stages this holiday season for Buttons’ Sleeping Beauty: A One-Man Outrageous Unbelievable COVID Lockdown Panto, which begins its on-demand run on Tuesday, December 15, at 7:30 p.m. Stages revived the 10-year-old production, penned by Stages Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin with music by David Nehls, for the times with Ryan Schabach, who “lives and breathes gags and bits” according to playwright Elizabeth A.M. Keel, back as the titular Buttons. But in a new twist to the family friendly production the heroine is a scientist battling evil in the form of a pandemic. In a recent interview, McLaughlin told the Houston Press, "I think when I look at [Buttons' Sleeping Beauty] I don’t know that I’ve ever made anything with more love in my heart and with more of a desire to offer love to the world.” Tickets can be purchased here for $25 and the show will be available through December 27.

click to enlarge Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s The Nutcracker. - PHOTO BY AMITAVA SARKAR, COURTESY OF HOUSTON BALLET
Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s The Nutcracker.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
Sighs of relief all around that we won’t go through a holiday season without Houston Ballet, as the Company will open a digital run of Nutcracker Sweets on Tuesday, December 15. The program includes new works filmed one dancer at a time and set to music like Barbara Streisand’s “Jingle Bells” and Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby,” a number from the Houston Ballet Academy, and an abbreviated version of The Nutcracker. The Nutcracker footage is from the 2018 run of Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch’s take on the holiday staple, also the Company’s return to the Wortham Theater Center post-Harvey, and will include Clara’s trip to the Kingdom of Sweets and some of the fan-favorite divertissements. Tickets for the on-demand digital program can be purchased here for $35, and they will be available through the last day of the run, January 8.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.