Capsule Stage Reviews: Beauty and the Beast, A Fertle Holiday, The Nutcracker, Sunshine Boys

Beauty and the Beast Disney's blockbuster stage adaptation of its sensationally successful animated movie (1991) was the company's first foray into live stage shows, and they turned the clever musical cartoon, with its feisty, smart heroine Belle, into a literal retelling with loads of special lighting effects and intricate character costumes. It was an immense hit, spawning Disney to examine its vaults and reinvent The Lion King, Tarzan, Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins and the soon-to-open Shrek. For all its overt simplicity, Beauty nonetheless dotes upon fantasy and imagination. Playhouse 1960 forgoes all that extraneous stuff and plows right through the magic with little stagecraft and not much poetry. Surprisingly, the big numbers choreographed by Jenny Cortina — "Be Our Guest," "Human Again" and "Gaston" — connect and only prove that showbiz chutzpah never fails. Unduly muffled behind his wolfman mask, James Murdock, making his stage debut as the Beast, was sedate when he should have been feral, and when his body mike failed, the unfortunate Murdock carried on without much noise at all. Natalie Pawelek made an appealing Belle with her clarion soprano and youthful presence, but the supporting players, as candlesticks, clocks and teapots, stole the show. Marco Camacho, the best of the bunch, exuded naughty charm as Gallic candelabra Lumiere; Joel Cortina sprightly bounced off walls as henchman LeFou; Nora Hahn as Mrs. Potts created a soothing spell with the theme song ballad "Beauty and the Beast" (an Academy Award winner); and Cody Wylie had the voice and moves for muscle-head Gaston. No matter what obstacles are placed in its path, this Disney musical behemoth keeps marching, thanks to its gloriously old-fashioned score, lovingly played under maestro Ana Guirola. Through December 7 at Berry Center, 8877 Barker Cypress, 281-894-3900. — DLG

A Fertle Holiday It just wouldn't be Christmas in Houston if the loony singing Fertle family and their equally crazy neighbors didn't sit down for their Christmas eve dinner of chicken in a bucket, heaping helpings of daughter-in-law Bridgette's creamed corn — slightly green around the edges — lime Jell-O squares and a big ol' slab of mom Mildred's butter pie, slathered with gobs of nondairy whipped topping. Hungry? You bet! You'll ache from laughing out loud at this most dysfunctional family, which strangely resembles almost any family you know, including your own. Daughter Justicena completes her holiday shopping when she and whipped hubby Pete and spawn-from-hell son Damien stop overnight at Motel 6, where she purloins the towels, hand soap, postcards and Gideon Bible to wrap up as gifts. Mildred and Ned's other daughter, Carol, accompanied by rich husband Roger and nelly son Curtis, flies in from San Diego on a private plane, causing no end of jealousy on the part of her loser brother Lou, who manages to get his big foot stuck in his mouth constantly. Balancing on one foot with his arms extended just so, slow brother Earl, who's recently hit his head again, makes the perfect TV rabbit ears, and nobody's in the mood to decorate Ned's scrawny, pathetic twig of a tree — "All the sequoias were gone," he whines in defense. Then there's Uncle Al, whose wife Orabella has suddenly died, attempting to play Santa for the kids. He just doesn't have it in him to be merry, getting out one lone "ho" before bursting into sobs. The inspired clowns responsible for the merriment, and who play every character, are Steve Farrell (who writes the satiric material), Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills. No matter what mood you're in, you'll be in a better one after seeing this one-and-only comedy troupe. Merry Christmas, indeed. Through January 10. Radio Music Theater, 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

The Nutcracker It ain't Christmas till the Sugar Plum dances, and dance she does in Houston Ballet's annual production of The Nutcracker. Her grand pas de deux is one of the choreographic delights of this century-old ballet. Houstonians have been ogling this piece of holiday eye candy for 21 years now, yet the magic never seems to die. The production, with sets and costumes designed by Desmond Heeley, has gotten a little sprucing up this year, as many of the costumes were re-created or refreshed — with all the extra bling on the snowflake tutus, the "Snow" scene should be renamed "Diamonds in the Snow." Besides the new costumes, the ballet always offers the chance to spot up-and-coming talent, from corps kids getting solo roles to tykes from the Chance to Dance program getting their first taste of dancing onstage. The lovely, long-legged Mireille Hassenboehler was celestial as the Sugar Plum Fairy opening night, but Houston Ballet fans will want to catch 17-year-veteran Tyann Clement in the role as her finale performance before she retires. (Casting in the 32-performance run rotates; visit for the cast list.) There's plenty for non-dance fans to ooh and aah over, too, like the stage tricks from the growing Christmas tree, the 200 pounds of falling "snow" and the flying cooks. And music lovers will delight in the Houston Ballet Orchestra's splendid rendition of Tchaikovsky's famous score. Through December 28. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. — MG

Sunshine Boys Neil Simon's tribute to bygone vaudeville and the troupers who gave it life is heartfelt and hilarious — one of his best. The laughs ring true and arise from genuine affection; the jokes aren't appliquéd but woven into the fabric. Lewis and Clark (James Huggins and Carl Masterson), formerly a comedy duo, haven't spoken in years — as a matter of fact, they hate each other — but are thrown together for a TV reunion special worked out by Clark's exasperated agent, who just happens to be his nephew (L. Robert Westeen). Unlike Simon's later work, which can be downright brittle and nasty, this lovely valentine from 1972 exudes warmth. Masterson and Huggins, fabulous pros, revel in the funny stuff as if basking in the sun, while Westeen plays the rumpled, annoyed nephew like a sheepdog left out in the rain. Marlo Blue, as Willie's registered nurse, is straight from Broadway central casting and about as perfect as can be. All in all, this comedy of grouchy manners is one of the most pleasant evenings in Houston theater this fall. Simon says, Go. Through December 13. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — 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
Marene Gustin