Capsule Reviews

A Christmas Carol At the Alley Theatre, Charles Dickens is busy shaking his perennial chains with yet another revival of A Christmas Carol. The production, adapted and directed by Stephen Rayne for the Alley several years ago, tells the traditional story of the miser who won't share a shilling with a soul. Scrooge is visited by three ghosts one Christmas night, and each gives him a good stiff kick in the Christmas pants. By the end of his nightmare, he's a changed guy. There's a dark magic in the Alley's production. Somehow the old story manages to be deeply moving even as James Belcher's cranky, thin-lipped Scrooge makes us laugh. The cast, full of Alley favorites, has surprising depth. Philip Lehl's Bob Cratchit achieves the exact measure of sweetness as Scrooge's sad sack of a clerk. He hefts Tiny Tim on his shoulder and puts on a crooked smile in the worst of times. Jeffrey Bean's Marley, the ghost who warns Scrooge that he's in for a bad night, is freakishly scary in his chalky face and wrinkled coat. And David Rainey's baritone-voiced Ghost of Christmas Present could bring any sinner to his knees. He shouts down to Scrooge with all the moral authority of John Calvin himself. The show might scare very young children a little more than parents anticipate. But for those of us in need of a little refresher on what the holidays are supposed to be about, this Christmas Carol might be just the sort of nightmare we need. Through December 26. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

The Nutcracker At the Wortham Theater Center, Houston Ballet's Nutcracker is yet again making Sugar Plum Fairies dance in little girls' heads. Created by Ben Stevenson, this gorgeous production hasn't changed since it was first produced here in 1987, and for good reason. This is a land of crimson silk, gilded ceilings, flying chariots and Tchaikovsky's glimmering score. A Freudian dreamscape if ever there was one, the story follows a child named Clara as she travels through the land of Nod one Christmas night. Accompanied by her beautiful prince, she wanders through a fantasia of snowflakes and candy. There, she bears witness to such magical beings as the Snow Queen, the Sugar Plum Fairy and a whole phantasmagoria of exotic dancers. Desmond Heeley's set and costumes are reason enough to see the show. The story opens in Clara's living room, a shining hall of greatness with vaulted ceilings that fly up to the heavens. The costumes range from the beautifully lyrical to the wonderfully funny. The first act features a long scene of a pantomimed Christmas party where children misbehave and old folks dotter along. Once Clara goes to bed, however, the nutcracker she's been given comes to life and turns into a handsome prince, and the dancing begins. The rotating cast of dancers, many familiar to ballet lovers, is beautiful and powerful to watch. The Nutcracker reminds us that the holidays have always been a time for dreams, and with a production as yummy as this one, sleeping never seemed so sweet. Through December 26. 501 Texas, 713-227-2787.

A Pure Gospel Christmas Most Christmas shows have all the holiday spirit of a month-old fruitcake. But A Pure Gospel Christmas, now running at the Ensemble Theatre, is as fresh and spicy as a bubbling-hot apple pie. The story about a church choir trying to get in the mood for their Christmas show isn't what makes this production so fabulous. The real excitement comes from the Ensemble's fine cast of singers, who lift up their voices in happy, fulsome praise of the season. Headed up in grand style by Anthony Boggess-Glover, who plays the choir leader, the cast is by turns funny, sweet and exuberant -- in other words, a joy to behold. Conceived and directed by Leslie Dockery and David A. Tobin, the show works a little bit like a television special. The characters are all types: There are the young folks who want to jazz up the Christmas pageant, and the old-biddy dowagers who want to keep it all clean. And never mind the sometimes cheesy arrangements of songs like "Holy Night" and "Joy to the World" -- all the music is delivered with such conviction that the audience can't help but break into hand-clapping praise of the good energy emanating from the stage. Even the band, directed by Lydia Alston in a bright red hat, is fun to watch. Unabashedly religious, the show gets to the heart of what Christmas is all about, celebrating what should be a wonderfully joyful day. Through December 31. 3535 Main, 713-807-4300.

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Lee Williams