Capsule Stage Reviews: A Christmas Carol, Christmas Tree-O, Mr. Pim Passes By, Sister's Christmas Catechism, The Twelve Ways of Christmas, A Wonderful Life

A Christmas Carol Among the charms of December in Houston is the Alley Theatre's annual production of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens's amusing, sweet tale about an old man who finds his heart one cold Christmas Eve. This year's production, directed by James Black, is full of laughs and good fun; it's perfect for children, who often perch on the knees in their theater seats, decked out in yards of velvet or starched cotton, looking like tiny throwbacks to the Victorian world they're watching with saucer eyes. Onstage, bustling 19th-century London hurries across Tony Straiges's lean set. Scrooge (whom Black double-cast with himself and David Rainey) bah humbugs at center stage, bent over his slender, unadorned writing desk, perpetually counting his money. And so begins the old man's chain-rattling story of redemption. Lessons of empathy and kindness are at the heart of all Scrooge's ghostly travels this night, and the audience feels its heart grow right alongside his. Through December 29. 615 Texas, 713-228-9341. — LW

Christmas Tree-O In a world that seems overwhelmed by ever-encroaching secular progressiveness, it's refreshing to find Christ plopped firmly back into Christmas at A.D. Players, now showing a triptych of one-act comedies by Jeannette Cliff George, who knows how to preach without being preachy. "The Littleboro Valley Story" is a bit too homespun in its telling — four actors enact all the persnickety caricatures in the very small town. They want to do away with Christmas for this year because of various personal reasons (too much food since Thanksgiving, the economy's bad, etc.), but are reminded of the true reason we celebrate Christmas. "A Christmas of Many Parts" shows an amateur touring group with limited company members putting on the Nativity story and having to improvise the performance. The farce has some very funny moments that are standard-issue for anyone who's ever been onstage, but a surprisingly moving finale. The least religious-oriented of the three works, "En Dash," is also the best, a wacky goof of an office comedy in the best of farce tradition. The six actors in these shorts are finely accomplished, with veteran company members Lee Walker and Patty Tuel Bailey as standouts for subtlety and multifaceted characterizations. Through December 31. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

Mr. Pim Passes By Winnie the Pooh's dapper creator A. A. Milne wrote for grown-ups, too. His 1919 featherweight farce Mr. Pim Passes By is now skipping lightly over the boards at Main Street Theater. Love, marriage and the rules we live by all get a moment of amusing contemplation in this charming production, which starts when a pasty-faced, proper fellow named Carraway Pim (Fritz Dickmann) drops in on the Mardens' country house with a letter of introduction one lovely English day. Mr. Pim is a perfectly innocuous fellow — one who still manages, eventually, to cause plenty of trouble. George Marden (Rutherford Cravens) doesn't want his pretty young ward, his niece Dinah (Morgan McCarthy), to marry the young Brian Strange (Andrew Ruthven). The couple's only hope is to appeal to Olivia Marden (Carolyn Johnson), George's reasonable, handsome wife – a woman everyone, including George, adores. The real joy of this production happens when this married couple is together. There's a lovely, old-fashioned chemistry between Craven's George and Johnson's Olivia, and the two look terrific together. Mr. Pim delivers the news that Olivia's ex-husband, the one everyone thought had died in Australia many years ago, is very much alive. Of course, if that's true, Olivia is actually a bigamist and George is living in sin. By-the-book George is horrified. Ah, but this is a farce, and things have a way of turning out so unexpectedly in a farce. With three acts and two intermissions, one would think the show would drag, but Milne has somehow made his turn-of-the-century world feel as refreshing as a walk through Hundred Acre Wood. Through December 23. 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — LW

Sister's Christmas Catechism Sunday school is a whole lot of fun in Sister's Christmas Catechism. The one-woman show, now running at Stages Repertory Theatre, takes the audience through a catechism class unlike any other — we learn the story behind Santa Claus, the first nativity and a grilled cheese sandwich that held the image of Mother Mary and sold on eBay for $29,000. There's a whole lot of laughter stirred in to make the lesson go down easy — Sister (Amanda Hebert) is amusingly stern as she calls on members of the audience, who eagerly raise their hands. Good answers earn such lovely delights as a box of Christmas Peeps. The entire second act is devoted to a live nativity scene enacted by chosen audience members. Sister dresses each one up in a clever costume contrived of bed sheets and toilet covers, then tries to figure out what happened to the wise man's gift of gold. She assumes it was stolen, since nobody seems to have gotten very rich off all those fabulous first Christmas gifts. Every one left in the audience watches and hoots with laughter. Created by a team of writers that includes Maripat Donovan, the woman who wrote Late Nite Catechism, which ran at Stages throughout the summer and fall, this new incarnation follows that same strategy of audience participation and offers an amusing entry into the Christmas spirit. Hebert is warm and inviting. And it's surprisingly funny to watch middle-aged men dress up like donkeys. Through December 30. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — LW

The Twelve Ways of Christmas There's no dancing sugar plum, not even a Scrooge, in this family-friendly musical/Christmas celebration at Ensemble Theatre, but you won't miss these holiday icons — the joy and rambunctious high spirits on stage are too shiny and bright. Writer/composer Carlton Leake and director/choreographer Patdro Harris fill the stage with so much Christmas cheer, you'll think the punch bowl has been overly spiked. The season's divided into 12 segments (Family, Financial, Romantic, Military, et al.) with songs and skits. There's nothing new to be discovered inside each clever scene, given polish and pizzazz by James Thomas (set design), Tiffany Turner (costumes) and Kelly Babb (lighting), but everyone's having such a grand time, who cares? Leake's gifts are surprisingly versatile, and many of his tuneful numbers could become seasonal standards if heard often enough, especially "Meet Me under the Mistletoe" and "Christmas Comes from Within." What keeps the spirits on high, of course, is the septet of ultra-talented performers (and the trio of musicians) whose unflagging enthusiasm, good will and sheer joy embody the essence of the holiday. Any one of them — Keeona Gabriel, Raena White, Teacake Ferguson, Andrew Jackson, Anthony Glover, Scarlett Barnes or Vincent James — could be wrapped up and placed under the tree. Through December 30. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — DLG

A Wonderful Life Who would imagine that a musical adaptation of master filmmaker Frank Capra's now-beloved 1946 Christmas fantasy It's a Wonderful Life would be so ponderous? Especially when the guiding force behind it is Broadway vet Sheldon Harnick, a lyricist for such classic musicals as Fiorello!, Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me. Harnick has tinkered with this show since its premiere in 1987; even after composer Joe Raposo, best known for his Sesame Street songs, died in 1989, Harnick kept on fiddling with Life, adding his own melodies. It's been a futile effort at best. At worst, the show stops completely when someone sings, because the songs don't tell us anything new. The music is so unremarkable, you wait impatiently for the numbers to be over so the story can continue. Most of Harnick's book is word for word from Capra's screenplay, but with all the cinematic life and whimsical charm utterly drained out of it — noble, self-sacrificing George decides to commit suicide but is shown what life would have been like without him by angel-in-training Clarence. There's no pacing, no excitement, no surprises. There's no reason to re-create the film literally when theater can't do close-ups, pans or tracking shots — the very rhythmic grammar of the movies that makes them "move." Theater involves a different magic, but there's no evidence of that in sight. The perfunctory cast acts as if they all realize they're in a dud show. The whole enterprise is dead as a doornail – it's dispirited, toneless, everything that Capra's dark and redeeming holiday movie is not. Through December 23. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — DLG

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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