Capsule Reviews

A Christmas Carol This season, the Alley Theatre has cobbled together a new version of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, and it is as darkly funny and as sweetly tender as Dickens can be. The production features the same script, which was adapted by Michael Wilson, that the Alley used five years ago, but Tony Straiges's set is brand-new, as are many other elements of this surprisingly moving production. After a long hiatus, James Black returns to the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. And he brings a warm complexity and depth to the gray-haired grump. A lot of the power of this production comes from the ghosts who lead Scrooge through his spiritual awakening. The Spirit of Christmas Past is played with rich, grandmotherly grace by Bettye Fitzpatrick. And David Rainey plays the Spirit of Christmas Present with great booming generosity. Wilson, who also directs, makes the most of this new incarnation of Dickens's old tale. It might not be quite as funny as the one the Alley has put on in recent years, but in many ways it's truer to the wonderfully traditional story about the joys of generosity, gratitude and grace at this time of year. Through December 28. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

Full Circle Charles Mee's Full Circle is a wild, rangy ride of a play stuffed full of smart ideas and strange images. Of course, strange and smart is what the folks at Infernal Bridegroom Productions do so well -- and when that strangeness involves the politics of capitalism along with women baring their breasts, the show that results is as wonderfully bizarre as it gets. The story takes place during the chaos of 1989 East Berlin, just as the Wall is falling. The characters include a wealthy Western socialite named Pamela Dalrymple (Tek Wilson); the dreaded communist who ruled East Berlin from 1971 to 1989, Erich Honecker (Walt Zipprian); and an East German student named Dulle Griet (AJ Ware). Their tale slides easily between political rant and Stooge-like comedy. Stolen baby in tow, Pamela and Dulle Griet find themselves running from two clownish German guards (played with hilarious silliness by Noel Bowers and Cary Winscott) as they make their way through a country frothed up into a frenzy of change. Directed by Anthony Barilla with gleeful fun, the show integrates music, dance, political rants and a killer set (by Kirk Markley) to create a show about big ideas that makes thinking hard look like a whole lot of fun. Through December 17 at the Axiom, 2524 McKinney, 713-522-8443.

The Nutcracker The sweetest of holiday traditions, Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker is once again leaping its way across the stage of Wortham Center's opulent Brown Theater. The dreamy little story is a good part of what makes this gorgeous production such a favorite among families. It features a gamine girl named Clara (Laura Richards on opening night) who toe-walks through the Land of Nod one Christmas Eve. And this year, like every year, opening night was full of children sitting on the edges of their fancy theater seats, enthralled with little Clara's dream-induced adventures as she meets the Snow Queen, the Sugar Plum Fairy and, of course, the Nutcracker Prince (Jaquel Andrews, Amy Fote and Zdenek Konvalina, respectively, on opening night). Peter Tchaikovsky's unforgettable score and Ben Stevenson's stunning choreography send beautiful ballerinas into swoon-worthy spins across the stage. It's the grown-ups in the audience who adore the depth of the dancing. They erupt into "Bravos!" or long crescendos of applause as each soloist takes a glorious flight across the stage. All these elements come together on Desmond Heeley's breathtaking set, which features a sparkling dream sled and glittering snow drifting down as the dancers leap through it. And Heeley's costumes are the stuff of pure fantasy. The whimsical tapestry of colors and textures really is the stuff of beautiful Christmas dreams. Through December 26. 501 Texas, 713- 227-2787.

A Pure Gospel Christmas: Coming Home Now running at the Ensemble Theatre, A Pure Gospel Christmas: Coming Home is a frenetic burst of energetic song celebrating the holiday season. Conceived and directed by David A. Tobin and Leslie Dockery, the show is built around a thin little story (written by Tobin) about a choir full of cartoonlike characters who fuss and fight as they learn to appreciate how important they are to one another. The denizens of this world include an old woman who cooks sky-high pineapple upside-down cakes, an old man who pulls out his flask at inappropriate times, and a hip-hop-loving youngster who spouts off to his elders whenever he can get away with it. There is absolutely nothing new here. And at times, one can't help wishing the creators would just do away with the story, as it's really nothing more than a lame excuse to get to the music. Happily, when the performers (led by a terrifically appealing Anthony "Boggess" Glover) are busy singing and dancing, the frenzy of energy that spins across the stage keeps the two-and-a-half-hour production moving quickly. And by the show's end, when everyone in the audience is clapping and nodding along with the singers, only a Scrooge wouldn't find himself in good cheer. Through December 31. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.

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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
Lee Williams