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Fruitcakes an Awesome Gift from Music Box Theater

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The setup:

The Music Box Theater, Houston's newest cabaret troupe, presents a "very special holiday special." The show lives up to its billing -- and then some.

The execution:

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 song's 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.

Throughout the show the five constantly surprise, not only with their gregarious style but with the constant pleasure the blend of their voices gives us. (Huzzahs to whoever is responsible for their vocal arrangements.) 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."

The musicians are just as top-notch: musical director Glenn Sharp on keyboard, Mark McCain on lead guitar, Long Le on bass, and Donald Payne, percussion. These four keep the place hopping. And then there's stalwart John Gremillion (another Masquerade Theatre veteran) as dry, Scrooge-like narrator in the video, who reads us his bedtime Christmas poems about the lame "goobers" at Music Box and his mock surprise that the audience is still here watching the show. He adds the whiskey to the Music Box eggnog. In a surreal touch straight out of Ernie Kovacs, Colton gets sucked into the video and can't get out, knocking on the screen in gigantic close-up. It's inspired silliness like this that makes Music Box a special place.

The verdict:

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.

The Christmas songfest continues through January 8 at their theater at 2623 Colquitt. For reservations visit www.themusicboxtheater.com or call 713-522-7722.

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