Capsule Reviews

A Fertle Holiday If you've been Sugar Plummed, Scrooged and Messiahed enough for the holidays, then Radio Music Theatre's A Fertle Holiday is the perfect season's greetings for you: a family Christmas show featuring the funniest damned family on earth, or at least within a 25-mile radius of Houston. The loonies at RMT have been entertaining us with their 14-play Fertle series for 20 years. In this first of the series, the singing Fertle clan gathers from far and wide for Christmas. Retired Baptist preacher Ned (Steve Farrell) and wife Mildred (Vicki Farrell) bicker over the scrawny tree with a three-legged stand Ned brings home. Daughter Justicena (Rich Mills) and husband Pete de Pugh (Steve Farrell) drive to Dumpster in their Chevy Nova with little hellion Damien (Vicki Farrell), who keeps zapping his parents with his Captain Proton stun gun. The other daughter, Carol (Vicki Farrell), and her well-off husband, Roger (Mills), fly in on their private plane with spoiled brat Curtis (Steve Farrell). They plan to stay one night. Back in Dumpster, Uncle Al (Mills) plans his beloved wife Orabella's funeral for Christmas Eve. In his Santa hat, he tries to spread holiday cheer, but he can't get out more than a single "ho" before bursting into tears. Then there's Earl, Ned and Mildred's grown son (Mills), who's been "not quite right" ever since he banged his head. Ned and Mildred use him as a TV antenna for better reception. The other son, loser Lou (Steve Farrell), and his sexpot wife, Bridgette (Vicki Farrell), live nearby. The characters in A Fertle Holiday are a dysfunctional lot, but you can't help rooting for them anyway. There's a warm heart at the satire's center that gives this series its enduring power. For all their faults -- and, boy, do they have them -- we care for these cartoon underdogs. Fertle family values are admirable qualities for any season. Through January 15. 2326 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

The Spitfire Grill Stages Repertory Theatre's production of The Spitfire Grill could be fine holiday fare. James Valcq and Fred Alley's folksy melodrama may be a little morose at the beginning, but it ends up as sappy and sweet as a sugar plum. Based on Lee David Zlotoff's film, the story features an ex-con who rides into Gilead, Wisconsin, one wintry night and proceeds to redeem herself and everyone around her. As the town's secrets unravel, your heart is supposed to swell. But somehow the embers in this Grill never catch fire. And this show, which is so rich with potential heat, ends up going down like a cup of tepid tea. The biggest problem is that the cast never fully embraces the grieving emotional lives of the characters. And as directed by Brad Dalton, there's a tentative, hand-wringing reserve to the production that undermines the emotional extravagance of the story and music. Especially bland is Holland Vavra as Percy, the ex-con who comes to town. With her tough-girl jeans and deliberately mousy hair, Vavra certainly looks the part. But this young actor never ignites enough passion or rage on the stage to make us believe that Percy has suffered as much as she has. And when we get to Act II, when the ex-con reveals why she was sent to prison and what motivates her angry outbursts, the scene fails to develop the emotional depth needed to ground this tremulous tale. Most theaters break out the sappy productions during the holidays. But in this show, the gooey stuff never gets a chance to flow. Through January 9. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

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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