Capsule Reviews

Barbra's Wedding Anyone who's seen Home Alone will recognize Daniel Stern, who's best known as an actor. But now the thin, curly-haired Stern has ventured into scriptwriting, and his first play is a lot like the comedies he's known for. The mildly amusing Barbra's Wedding imagines what it must have been like for a pair of Barbra Streisand's uninvited neighbors on the afternoon she married James Brolin in Malibu. For Jerry (Josh Morrison) and his wife Molly (Lisa Thomas Morrison), the noisy afternoon is a disaster of life-changing proportions. Jerry is a washed-up actor who's angry he wasn't invited. His wife is trying to make the best of things. All Jerry can think of is his lousy career. Molly, reasonably enough, gets fed up with his self-involved whining. The conflict comes to a head when Robert Redford shows up and gives Jerry "the signal," or at least that's what the pathetic man imagines when he catches "Bob" waving in the direction of the house. Jerry thinks Redford has invited him to the wedding. As in all lightweight comedies, everything ends well. But the show is too long for the story. Director Susan Koozin and her bright cast work hard to make a mountain out of a molehill of material. Jerry and Molly's bickering gets old quickly. It all begins to feel like the fights of most married people -- something that ought to happen in private. Through December 9. Theater LaB Houston, 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.

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.

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 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.

Sadomasochistic Xmas For many, the title Sadomasochistic Xmas might seem a bit redundant. But this dos chicas theater commune production company is bringing real S&M to the stage. While a holiday play that deals with frayed family ties and unmet expectations is pretty much par for the course, Sadomasochistic Xmas cuts out the in-laws, the bad presents, the screaming children and the silly desserts, going straight to the heart of the matter -- the bedroom. Each Christmas, Steve and Susan give to "charity" by humiliating and torturing a repressed couple into sexual communication and openness. This year, their special brand of shock therapy extends not only to their friends, Beth and Bill, but to the audience as well. Like a holiday party with spiked eggnog, the play devolves into more debauchery as the scenes roll on, but in a good way. It's fun to see these vaguely familiar characters get drugged, tied up and beaten with a dildo, all to the tune of "Holly Jolly Christmas." Detailed descriptions of sexual acts, from characters' victimized pasts to their current favorite stunts, definitely reserve this play for older audiences. The craziest ideas here are somehow the sanest ones -- an uncomfortable joke on the audience, which is forced to choose between two extreme life philosophies: total openness and deviance or total closure and repression. This play is mostly for fun. But if Sadomasochistic Xmas were to teach anything, it would be to question what we don't know, but should, about those closest to us. Through December 16. Freneticore Theatre, 5102 Navigation, 832-283-0858.

A Year with Frog and Toad Just a few adjectives to describe Main Street Youth Theater's production of Robert and Willie Reale's Tony Award-nominated musical: bright, snappy, breezy, adorable, clever, tuneful, heartfelt, childlike, witty. It's no surprise that, after a word-of-mouth blitzkrieg, the New York premiere show was sold out -- or that the majority of audiences were not children but young adults. This innocent show about the joys of friendship is the perfect way to show your date what a sensitive soul you are, that you still possess a child's wonder. Freely adapted from the beloved children's series by Arnold Lobel, the simple musical has no great character conflict, no driving sturm und drang to its dramaturgy, no world-shaking moral core. This is about two amphibians, don't forget, not Hamlet. But what this uncomplicated show has is heart -- heart for days, with a lilting, sunny personality that any Muppet would be proud to have. Eternal friends Frog and Toad (Ilich Guardiola and Kregg Alan Dailey, who are so perfect it's scary) spend a year with each other baking cookies, waiting for mail, swimming at the swamp, tobogganing in the winter before hibernation, or just hanging out drinking tea. They're joined now and then by squirrels in berets who speak French, a snail mailman with a backpack that doubles as his shell, a 1940s radio trio of harmonizing birds, and glasses-wearing moles (Kyle Greer, Katherine Randolph, Laura Kaldis). Nothing much happens as little life lessons about sharing, commitment and responsibility flit into view and waft away on the lightest of breezes. And that's just how you'll feel after you see this -- buoyed and contented. Why let kids have all the fun? Through December 16. 4617 Montrose, 713-524-6706.

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