Capsule Reviews

Hansel and Gretel Speaking of tasty treats, there's a 15-foot-tall drag queen now on parade at Houston Grand Opera, and you've never seen anything like her before. She is the magnificent witch in HGO's imaginative, puppet-infused production of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. She makes a "star turn" entrance, too, bursting out of her sumptuous candyland house, an immense vision in billowy red satin, ripe and ready to fatten up little Hansel and bake him into a cookie. She's the one, though, you want to eat up. Her demise -- into a tiny fireplace instead of a Sweeney Todd-size bake oven -- is a bit anti-climactic, owing to conductor Kathleen Kelly chamber-music reduction of Humperdinck's Wagnerian 1893 orchestration, which removes much of the tone and color (and shimmer) from the orchestra. The 1893 opera's celebrated interludes sound downright puny and underserved here, although in quieter moments, Kelly's octet does Humperdinck proud. As for the libretto, the awkwardly rhyming English translation of the German is lumpy and shoehorned onto Humperdinck's pseudo-folk melodies so as to kick all of the timeless universality right in the pants. The singers, all young artists under HGO's training, are exceptionally good, but not even Orpheus could compete with the wizardry of master puppeteer Basil Twist's eye-popping, Technicolor production. Through December 23. Cullen Theater, Wortham Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-OPERA.

Hide Town Apocalyptic, strange and wonderfully entertaining, Lisa D'Amour's Hide Town, created with company members from Infernal Bridegroom Productions, is everything experimental theater should be. Thoughtful and funny, the one-act speeds across a futuristic landscape covered in snow and darkness. No matter that this is Hide Town, Texas -- all the sweltering heat and bright sunshine the Lone Star State is so famous for seem to have vanished. Memories and a lonely, rough-hewn bar in the middle of nowhere are all that appear to be left of that mythical world. The characters, including Olive (Charlesanne Rabensburg) and Swimming Otter (Troy Schulze), are lost souls who spend their time in the dim lights of the bar rehashing what once was: a town full of camels, a reality television show featuring Hide Town, some sort of alien invasion, the end of America. On paper, all of this might sound like a silly mishmash of oddities that have been thrown together just for the sake of weirdness, but on stage, in the hands of IBP actors, an odd logic begins to emerge out of these disparate elements. This script plays to the company's strengths and brings out everything Houstonians have grown to love about IBP. Energetic, smart and supremely quirky, the production is first and foremost fascinating. It adds up to an unusual, unpredictable story that manages to reveal its secrets even as it stays supremely strange. Through December 16 at The Axiom, 2524 McKinney, 713-522-8443.

The Nutcracker Despite competition this year from the fabled Rockettes, The Nutcracker is continuing to draw theatergoers this season. With its promise of sugary dancing treats, lavish Victorian-era sets, rich costumes by Desmond Heeley and a sparkling score that's one of Tchaikovsky's most recognizable, it's an annual holiday tradition. Opening night, there was not only a packed house of little ones in velvet suits and princess dresses, but also a flurry of balletomanes who had come to say goodbye to a local legend and hello to what may be Houston Ballet's future. The 41-year Lauren Anderson is ending her 24-year career in Houston performing as the Sugar Plum Fairy. (There are eight different casts, so check with the box office if you specifically want to see Anderson or another dancer.) Opening night, she was greeted with heavy applause when she appeared on stage, before she even took a step. But she didn't disappoint; she was the light and sparkling fairy whose classical steps -- delicate and sharp as Christmas bells -- enthralled her onstage court and Clara, as well as the audience. She is partnered in this run by 24-year-old Rolando Sarabia, who defected from Cuba last year and is making his debut as a principal dancer with HB in The Nutcracker. It's tempting to say that Sarabia might be the second coming of Carlos "Air" Acosta -- Anderson's legendary partner from the 1990s who was also Cuban-trained -- but that might be an understatement. It's hard to tell from the choreography for the Nutcracker Prince, which is not the most demanding in classical ballet, but Sarabia just might be the best male dancer HB has ever put on stage. Through December 27. Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas, 713-227-2787.

Oliver! It's a hard enough job to stage-manage a phalanx of adorable child performers, but to turn them into hardened Broadway babies who are supposed to be amoral Dickensian urchins is well-nigh impossible (unless, of course, you are on Broadway, where they're common and unstoppable). Playhouse 1960 is content to show off the tykes to their adoring parents and relatives, in a production that bears no resemblance to the Victorian underworld. Lionel Bart's English music hall rendition of Charles Dickens's immortal serial, wherein woebegone orphan Oliver Twist undergoes adventures with petty thief Fagin, evil Bill Sykes, maternal if slatternly Nancy and boy-pickpocket Artful Dodger, is rendered with perfunctory sameness, as if there wasn't enough time for heavy-duty rehearsals. An oily Royce Scott gives a nice portrayal of Fagin; nimble Jackson Grabois plays the Dodger; Jennifer Miscovich competently belts out Nancy's showstopper "As Long As He Needs Me"; and sympathetic Colton Croft is Oliver. But it's Dave Carter, as Bill Sykes, who bursts open the show with a blast of menacing testosterone. If the others in the cast had but a helping of his passion and conviction, this would be an Oliver! to remember. At one point, the upstage area is revealed as Fagin's lair, and the stage seems to be as deep as Radio City Music Hall, but too many scenes are played back there, miles away from us. And all atmosphere is quashed by the blindingly bright front light, which removes all depth and shows all warts. Except for recognizing Sykes, poor Dickens wouldn't know where he was. Through December 17. 6814 Gant, 281-587-8243.

Poor Richard Poor Richard, everyone says in Jean Kerr's romantic comedy -- so talented, such a waste. The characters are talking about the best-selling poet Richard Ford (Kent Johnson), whose slim volume The Girl with a Velvet Ribbon has made Richard a very rich, famous writer. Unfortunately, the girl in question, his beautiful socialite wife, has died, leaving him bereft and guilt-ridden, finding solace in any liquor bottle at hand. Richard revels in being drunk as much as he does in being a wicked wit. He also suffers from monumental writer's block, much to the annoyance of publisher/editor Sydney (George Brock), who wants another literary cash cow as soon as possible. To facilitate Richard's output and keep him sober, Sydney sends in his ace assistant -- and fiance -- Catherine (Shannon Emerick) to be his secretary. The three main characters are extremely well-drawn, involving and likable. Richard's raffish, loveable rogue is hard to beat, and Johnson wears his world-weary attitude as if it's Armani. He almost twinkles when he savors Kerr's numerous witticisms. Emerick gives no-nonsense Catherine a freshness that pairs beautifully with Richard's edges. She dilutes his alcohol with dew. Brock transforms publisher Sydney's ordinariness into virtue. But the heartbreak within Kerr's comedy is deep and affecting, too, especially when Meghan Hakes, as Richard's fashionable sister-in-law, reveals the cracks in his personal foundation, infusing her brief scene with chilling propriety. Through December 23. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover
Marene Gustin
Lee Williams