Capsule Stage Reviews: Anna Bella Eema, A Christmas Carol, Cinderella, Fruitcakes, Irving Berlin's White Christmas, The Nutcracker

Anna Bella Eema The world of the surreal and the real is fashioned into bold theatrical relief by playwright Lisa D'Amour, composer Chris Sidorfsky, a trio of superlative actors and the backstage wizards of sound effects, lighting and creepy set design. Under the watchful, all-knowing eye of director Jason Nodler, Catastrophic Theatre delivers the goods and creates a miniature pendant that gleams with tantalizing brilliance, old-fashioned, white-hot '60s feminist rhetoric, and symbolism too heavy at times to bear its own weight. Sparkly, it's a jewel too big for its setting, but a jewel nonetheless. D'Amour's 2003 play is a little of Alice — both Toklas and Wonderland — swirled with Beckett and the Brothers Grimm, overlaid with a love of lush language that's practically jungle-humid. The fog is thick and fragrant. Three women are already seated at their TV trays in the black crumpled void, making sounds and rhythms with all manner of kitchen utensils, rifling book pages or tinkling pixie-like with something metallic swirling inside a glass jar. It's Mom (Elissa Levitt), wild daughter Anna Bella (Ivy Castle) and Anna's creation, a mud girl (Jessica Janes), who live in the decrepit trailer park, a trailer park of the mind. It's weird and familiar. Solid as an oak, Mom remains in place, except when she flies in her dreams. Nature and instinct are stronger than the social worker, the policeman and the construction crew waiting in their backhoes to demolish the trailer park for an interstate. This startling piece of theater, although much too long and rather obvious, flies largely through Sidorfsky's magical music, which caws in animal cries, caresses with swooning lullabies or holds us captive with glittering, otherworldly harmonies. Married to the sound effects, the play's an aural delight — a bird's flight is conjured with two playing cards flapped together, and then let loose in a pack sprung open to cascade through the air. It's the most creative musical in town. The three women sing as well as they act, which has got to be a prerequisite for this most musical of plays. Levitt triumphs as magisterial, witchy Mom, a Medea who will later become Bertha the owl, holding wooden spoons to her eyes, or the sly old fox leading Anna on another journey of self-discovery. Castle is wild and wild-eyed as exploratory young Anna, who learns most from her mother when least willing to be taught. And Janes, who plays other subsidiary roles, is quite magical in her own way as Mud Girl, whose laughter both comforts and seduces. Who hasn't wanted to go down that rabbit hole, or at least under the floorboards of the trailer, to test our fortitude and see what treasures lie beneath? Through December 23. DiverseWorks, 1117 East Fwy., 713-522-2723. — DLG

A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens's evergreen tale of misanthropic Scrooge and his ultimate redemption on Christmas Day is given a splendid retelling in Country Playhouse's one-man show performed and written by John Stevens. Dickens made a fortune performing dramatic readings of this novel, along with other works, but Stevens goes it one better by acting out most of it, capturing the very essence of mystery, compassion, poverty, comedy and salvation that is so critical to the story's success. He is aided immensely by Rod Harty's atmospheric sound effects, which weave children playing, midnight chimes, clanking chains — for Marley, of course — and festive carols into the background to add another tasty layer to Dickens's so-sumptuous feast. The setting is simple, yet effective: a bed and fireplace (edged in tile just like Dickens asks for) for Scrooge's decrepit house; a worn kitchen table and chairs for the Cratchit home; a scrivener's desk for Scrooge's business at the counting house; and a tombstone off to the side for the fateful visit of the last ghost. The lighting, also by Harty, conveys damp and fog, mist and midnight, gaslamp and ghostly specter with deft color and dramatic timing. It's all of a piece, and acquits Mr. Dickens's timeless tale with honor and dignity. Playing the entire gambit of Dickens's Victorian world of 1843 is a tour de force, and Stevens is downright magnificent, whether as miserly Scrooge with a slight crook in his back and pinched expression; the unimpassioned, yet droll, Ghost of Christmas Past, like a butler who doesn't know his place; tearful Belle, bidding her young fiancé Ebenezer goodbye, losing him to his true love, money; the gregarious, laughing Ghost of Christmas Present with rolling Scottish burr and outsize love of life; or bedraggled Cratchit and his entire clan, with Tiny Tim, to cheer on the holidays when all seems lost. Everyone's brought to heady life through Stevens's unbridled imagination and flawless technique. During the telling, Stevens roams the stage, cavorts up and down the aisles, lectures the audience from down front or sinks into an armchair, as if relating a cozy bedtime story. Wherever he is, he brings us smack inside the story, shakes us alive and makes us see it, just like Dickens's magnificent prose. Within his sincere and genuine performance, he reveals the very nature of Christmas and Dickens's abiding message. Through December 18. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

Cinderella The Ensemble Theatre's take on Cinderella gives the fairy tale a lively, rollicking treatment. There are moments of poignant beauty in this production, but broad humor and even broader acting take center stage. Cinderella is portrayed by Teacake, reprising the role she played a year ago, and she brings a dazzling smile and a solid stage presence to the part. The stepsisters (Tamara Harper and Roenia Thompson) are suitably evil and cruel, and the stepmother (Rachel Hemphill Dickson) is equally cruel but also vivacious and wonderful. Alex Kennedy plays Prince Charming, but lacks the expected fire, as the script requires him to be sullen and hostile. Act I ends with a wallop as the chariot and six white "mice" arrive. Act II has some imaginative staging, and the excellent ensemble adds humor with entertaining choreography. The ball has a handsome set and interesting costumes that make the fairy tale come to vibrant life. Of enormous help are Ron Johnson in a skillful performance as the Duke, Kendrick Brown as a Page and Vincent James as a Lord, and the latter two dance up a storm. Rennette Brown is excellent as an exuberant Fairy Godmother. There is a driving force to the song "Chores, Chores, Chores," and there is a powerful song near the end, "I'm Going On," in which Cinderella tells off her cruel stepsisters. This interpretation was developed by San Francisco's African-American Shakespeare Company, the music and lyrics and musical direction are by Carlton Leake, and it is directed and choreographed by Patdro Harris. This non-Disney interpretation has vitality, strength and a vivid, contemporary flavor. Strong performances and broad humor coalesce to achieve an evening of fun-filled entertainment, in a contemporary musical retelling of the familiar fairy tale. Through December 30. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — JJT

Fruitcakes The Music Box Theater, Houston's newest cabaret troupe, presents a "very special holiday special." The show more than lives up to its billing. You expect something a little different, a little off-kilter, from MBT's ultra-talented quintet (Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Cay Taylor, Luke Wrobel and Colton Berry), and they deliver the goods with sass, delicious harmonies, some hammy comedy and their patented flair for performing. The holidays never sounded so good as when these five wrap their voices around carols known and Christmas songs unknown. Leave it to them to mix Annie Lennox's "Precious," Louis Armstrong 's "Cool Yule" and Ingrid Michaelson's "Snowfall" with the Carpenters' "Merry Christmas, Darling" and Charlie Brown and Gene Redd's "Bells Will Be Ringing." This musical hodgepodge hums along as successfully as Santa's workshop because the five are such prodigious Broadway babies. No musical genre is beyond their reach, and they can make fun of themselves and each other with genuine affection. Their theater personae are set by this third production, and they play off their creations to wise effect. Rebekah's the leader and mother hen; husband Brad is good-natured and naive; Luke is the misanthrope; Cay the sexy vegetarian; and Colton the downtown gay. They use the masks in the comedy skits to advantage but also to help select the songs and keep the sparks sharp and hot. When Cay and Luke sing "Do You Hear What I Hear" because Cay says it's her favorite Christmas song, Luke interrupts the fantastic lyrics ("said the little lamb to the shepherd boy...") with droll running commentary. But as the song progresses, he gets into it, and his luscious baritone — that's the only word for his distinctive voice — turns the childlike tune into something akin to an aria from Handel. (Huzzahs to whoever is responsible for the vocal arrangements. And huzzahs to the bopping band: Glenn Sharp, Mark McCain, Long Le and Donald Payne.) You won't hear a more heartfelt, genuine rendition of "O Holy Night" than Scarborough's; Frank Loesser's wistful 1947 beauty "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" is shrouded in velvet by Wrobel; while Berry wails a finely etched "I'll Be Home for Christmas." For a unique holiday show that showcases the best of Houston voices and wraps us up in warm, Christmassy feelings — and introduces us to composers a little out of left field — Fruitcakes is the best vocal present you'll receive this year. Through January 8. Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

Irving Berlin's White Christmas As its seasonal show, Theatre Under the Stars brings back to the Hobby Center its pale, out-of-focus adaptation of the 1954 Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye movie musical. With an entire score built from Irving Berlin standards, the film was the first ever released in VistaVision, Paramount's wide-screen answer to Fox's Cinemascope. The process, which used a larger negative, had incredible depth, clarity and definition. Once you saw Rosemary Clooney shimmy through "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me," you knew what shimmy meant. This adaptation takes all the fun out of the movie, and all of just about everything else, too. Though lavish in staging, it's flat and never picks up steam. Two successful song-and-dance men find their old WW II general failing as an innkeeper in Vermont. To help him out, they stage a show in the old barn. There are romantic complications, of course, but you can't stay down low for long in a Berlin show, even one made up out of disparate parts that span the musical ages — Berlin ragtime ("I Love a Piano"), Berlin from the '20s ("Blue Skies"), the '30s ("Let Yourself Go"), the '40s ("Happy Holidays" and "White Christmas") and the '50s ("Sisters"). The adaptation by David Ives and Paul Blake is rote and mechanical, which puts everyone on autopilot. The lack of heat's the same whether Bob and Betty (John Scherer and Michelle DeJean) are falling in love or out of it, while the subplot with Phil and Judy (Matt Loehr and Danette Holden) is coarsened with two burlesque chorines (although their appearance as Oxydol boxes is rather nifty). Scenes fall by the wayside in quick, cheap shots that don't build or pay off. Even the tap choreography by Mary Jane Houdina is undazzling. Only Loehr has that Broadway Baby glitter that's irrepressible, while DeJean with her distinctive voice is highlighted only with Clooney's above-mentioned torch number. True to showbiz tradition, this pastiche of a show of a show leaves us wanting more. Through December 18. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — DLG

The Nutcracker Even if you've seen The Nutcracker 100 times, you've probably never seen it like this. This is the choreography of Ben Stevenson, former dancer with the Royal Ballet and artistic director of the Houston Ballet from 1976 until 2003. The choreography is noticeably different from Marius Petipa's original version, and it's lovely. Arabian is danced as a pas de deux, not a contortionistic solo. Using two dancers allows for an even more beautiful, serpentine variation. The Russian variation, usually danced in a trio, is turned into a solo. The effect is astonishing. Jim Nowakowski commands the high-energy piece, literally kicking his face four times during his jumps. Anyone else in this variation would have been irrelevant, since it was impossible to ignore Nowakowski. Kids gasped. Nutcracker is, after all, about children. It should be presented as magically as possible. Houston Ballet agreed; this was the most kid-friendly production we've ever seen. The sets and costumes, created by Tony Award-winning designer Desmond Heeley, were lush and elaborate, from the expandable Christmas tree to the heavenly Kingdom of Sweets. Pastry chefs suspended by wires flew across the stage comically in the second act, and kids in the audience roared. The giant mice too were out in full form, wearing shaggy brown rat suits as repulsive and squeal-worthy as they were realistic. But what truly sets this Nutcracker apart is the dancing. The Nutcracker Prince, played by Jun Shuang Huang when we saw the show, executed perfect double tours with landings as soft as the snow falling from the rafters. Katharine Precourt as the Snow Queen was breathtaking, and Sugar Plum Fairy Amy Fote glowed onstage. There seems to be no weak link in the Houston Ballet. Even Waltz of the Flowers, at which point the young audience usually gets restless, demanded rapt attention. The flower corps did work worthy of soloists, whipping off triple turns effortlessly. If seeing The Nutcracker is a tradition, don't plan on quitting this year. And for first-timers, go — but you might not see a Nutcracker this good after the Houston Ballet's. Through December 27. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. — MO

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