Capsule Reviews

Align The holidays usually bring frothy good fun to the theater. But A.D. Players, Houston's Christian theater group, have a whole new take on the season. Their Christmas production of Jeannette Clift George's Align is a dour little show about a family of sad sacks who learn to be thankful when Mary of Magdala comes calling one Christmas Eve. The story starts out with a group of siblings coming home to an empty family home (the parents are dead now). When a strange woman (Andrea Lynn), dressed in full biblical garb, taps on their French doors, they have to let her in. After all, it's crazy cold outside. The woman then proceeds to identify herself as the same Mary who sat at Christ's tomb. And she's come from heaven to teach this morose group of siblings a thing or two about finding the meaning of life in God's plan. Many Christians might appreciate this stern Sunday school lesson. But this sour production, directed with plodding earnestness by Sissy Pulley, is anything but a happy celebration of the season. Through December 31, at the Grace Theater, 2710 W. Alabama, 712-526-2721.

Doo Wop II the Sequel According to Big Mama in the Great Caruso's latest musical revue, doo wop was an incantatory musical potion created from "gospel, jazz and four-part harmony." Of course, as Big Mama (a smooth Samantha Coombs) adds, the biggest influence was the blues. Happily, all those head-bopping musical styles come together to make a surprisingly potent revue, Doo Wop II the Sequel. The first Doo Wop revue ran successfully for several months in 2002. The second is every bit as snappy. The show manages to stretch far and wide across the musical eras of the Œ50s and Œ60s and includes tunes as diverse as Debbie Reynolds's "Tammy," the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" (sung with fabulous attitude by Cynthia Williams) and Ray Charles's "Georgia." Little Richard makes a fiery and funny appearance (featuring Eric Mota all done up in a towering wig), as does Elvis (Charles Swan). Coombs oversees the whole affair, acting as a sort of narrator who explains some of the history behind the music. For example, there's a whole collage of tunes the program calls "Doo Wop Dances," including "Harlem Shuffle" and "Peppermint Twist." John Cornelius II's arrangements are often both informative and entertaining. We get to hear the original slowed-down and sexy "Hound Dog" before we listen to the well-known Elvis version. Directed by Michael Tapley, the show is an entertaining diversion, a jump back to a time when music only wanted to move our hearts -- and make us move our hips. Through November 25. Great Caruso Dinner Theater, 10001 Westheimer, 713-780-4900.

Envy the Cockroach If you just can't get enough of "chicks behind bars" exploitation dramas -- like those cheesy Roger Corman movies Caged Heat and The Big Doll House -- then Bob Morgan's Envy the Cockroach, presented by dos chicas theater commune, should satisfy every lustful desire. The work starts out in documentary mode, with facts and figures from the Department of Justice detailing the alarmingly high percentages of physical, emotional and substance abuse that have led women to the big house. But it doesn't take long for Morgan's thoughtful, sympathetic study to switch gears and drive smack into his unique, patented S&M view of the world. His well-thought-out drama about three incarcerated women takes a nosedive in Act II as the outrages pile up -- and the more gruesome the better, it seems. Morgan tars his characters in 3D, surround sound and smell-o-rama. He doesn't know when to stop. The lives of Kaitlyn (Elizabeth Seabolt), Zoe (Jennifer Decker) and Jolene (Anne Zimmerman) have enough drama for three plays, yet at the conclusion, we don't understand them with any deeper insight than if we'd read about them in some dry psychological dissertation. Morgan shows us the salacious perversity of these women's lives in almost novelistic detail but only sketches in their hearts. The center is missing. He can clothe his problem play with missionary zeal, but in the end, Morgan would rather shock than reform. Through December 10. Free Range Studios, 1719 Live Oak, 832-283-0858.

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