Capsule Reviews

A Fertle Holiday One of the best ways to spend an evening this holiday is with the Fertles, the oddball family that resides at the Radio Music Theatre. Yes, it's time yet again for A Fertle Holiday. The laugh-out-loud show is full of the small-town characters that Rich Mills and Steve and Vicki Farrell have made famous. Everything takes place in Dumpster, Texas, and the cast of characters sound like a long clich. But the performers at Radio Music Theatre have turned The Singing Fertle Family into a lovable bunch of wackos that audiences fall into absolute love with -- many shows sell out during the holidays. The story finds all the Fertles coming home, including a wealthy sister who lives in California and who charters a plane to get to Dumpster. Her fancy family includes a teenage son who likes the drama club and student council more than sports, something the other Fertles don't really understand. There are the continual struggles between in-laws and the bad-for-you Southern cooking that features huge helpings of butter pie. Most of all, there's the extraordinary talents of Mills and the Farrells to delight us all for yet another holiday season. Give yourself a terrific gift this year -- take yourself, your family and even the in-laws to one of the best holiday treats on any stage this season. Through January 13. Radio Music Theatre, 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

Five Course Love The holidays may bring out the best in human beings, but most theaters don't fare so well. Most December shows are as bland as a plate full of sugar cookies. Case in point: Stages Repertory Theatre's production of Five Course Love, a sketch comedy set to music by Gregg Coffin. In the silly show, five couples (plus a sidekick), all played by the same actors, look for love in all the wrong places. There is nothing particularly inventive or fresh in this story, and it's hard to stay engaged in this material all the way through two acts. To make matters worse, some of the music is downright goofy. Tunes like "I Loved You When I Thought Your Name Was Ken" and "Risk Love," sung in part by a man dressed in leather lederhosen, take up an awful lot of time considering their tissue-paper weight. There are some good things about this production, and those include the three performers, who sing their hearts out trying to make this evening worth the price of a ticket. Haley Dyes (a newcomer who deserves a much better debut at Stages), Thomas Prior and John M. Whalin all sing beautifully. But taken all together, these five courses won't do much to fill anyone up. Through December 31. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical This frothy bubble of silliness now running at Stages Repertory Theatre requires absolutely zero brain power to get through. Cobbled together out of stereotypes and a sitcom-like plot, the featherweight bit of camp by David Nehls and Betsy Kelso celebrates white-trash ladies and the men they love in a funky little tale about a phobic housewife and her lonely-heart man. Setting the stage and guiding us through the story is a chorus of three women: Betty (Susan O. Koozin), a sturdy mother hen with a heart of gold who runs the whole shebang; Pickles (Mikah Horn), a young dumb-as-dirt, sweet-as-sugar blond who shows all the signs of suffering from a hysterical pregnancy; and Lin (Carolyn Johnson), strutting around with her cleavage out to there and worrying all the while about her man on death row. This cartoon strip of a story focuses on Norbert and Jeannie Garstecki, a long-married couple who love each other despite the fact that Jeannie (Melodie Smith) suffers from agoraphobia and hasn't set foot outside her little trailer home in years. Nothing in the story is surprising, but the music is entertaining, and Stages has put together a cast of solid singers who capture their characters in bold, broad and colorful strokes. Through December 31. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

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.

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.

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