Ho Ho Houston: Where to Find the Holidays on Stage in Houston

I’m fairly confident we’ll see no snow on the bayou this festive season, but there’s plenty of holiday cheer, good will and spiritual enlightenment to take its place. Does any other city celebrate a theatrical Christmas with more variety and spice than here? We may lack an exterior winter wonderland, but inside our theaters it’s toasty and warm. Almost every company in town puts on a special show for the holidays. Some have been around so long they’ve become indelibly branded to their particular institution (Alley Theatre’s A Christmas Carol; Houston Ballet’s The Nutcracker; the various Pantos from Stages Repertory), but there are some fresh faces peeking out from under the tree that might find their way toward iconic status, and rest assured there’s always a fruitcake or horrible sweater in the bunch to be re-gifted and sent packing. But this is a time of good will toward men, so I feel particularly charitable. What follows is a brief encapsulation of Houston theaters’ holiday offerings — trust me, there are lots of them — in no order other than alphabetical of those shows that have opened early enough to be included by our publication date. If you want to celebrate Christmas by going to a show, almost any one of the following will light up your holidays.

A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens loved actors (just ask Ellen Ternan), but loved acting even more. When the public clamored to hear his beloved works and Dickens realized the immense profit to be made by such “readings,” he and the stage became one. He was a rock star, mobbed and fought over on both sides of the Atlantic. His most popular reading was always A Christmas Carol (1843), his “ghostly little book,” an immediate universal phenomenon upon publication. In the grand tradition of “monopolylogue” that Dickens popularized (one actor, many characters), actor John Stevens has adapted and stars at the new Queensbury Theatre (the former Country Playhouse) in his own one-man version of Dickens’s most famous tale. Like Dickens’s 19th-century version, this production is both a dramatic reading and a re-enactment. The show’s a pip.

Dickens’s ripe Victorian prose, rich as goose gravy, has been wondrously pared by Stevens. All the famous bits, characters and lines of dialogue are aglow in Stevens’s immaculate impersonations — Marley’s forlorn ghost, the three spirits, the Cratchits and Tiny Tim, fiancée Belle, old Fezziwig, rag-picker Joe.

Stevens is one of a handful of old-time Houston artists who conjure the joy of acting just by showing up. Like one of those indelible character actors from Hollywood’s golden age, he loves to perform and radiates effortless command as he elicits Dickens’s host of Victorian tintypes. Scrooge, indeed, is pinched and stooped, right to his eyebrows; Christmas Present is a magnanimous outpouring of Scottish burr and worldly warmth; Marley a wail of torment; fiancée Belle pale resignation; Fezziwig all ancient cheer and rosy cheek. It’s a magnificent cast of characters, expertly depicted. When Scrooge, at last redeemed, flings open the bedroom window to see if it’s really morning, Stevens takes in a deep breath, as if Scrooge has finally been cleansed. A lovely moment that passes in a blink, but it’s as lasting as that innocent, beneficent twinkle in his eye.

The brand-new Queensbury main stage is a large space for any monologue, but Stevens and his expert director, Bonnie Hewitt, fill it up without a problem. During the telling, Stevens roams the stage, cavorts up the aisles, lectures the audience from down front or sinks into the armchair to read verbatim from a large gilt-edged tome, as if relating a cozy bedtime story. Wherever he is, he brings us smack inside the story and shakes us. Only a few pieces of furniture are set about to delineate place — a plump chair where he can “read” to us; an accountant’s high desk to represent Scrooge’s counting house; a bed near a tiled fireplace (like Dickens describes) for the miser’s cramped and dingy room; a battered table and chair for the bedraggled Cratchits; and a worn headstone to our right upon which will be projected the fateful occupant’s name. All else is elegantly conjured through atmospheric sound effects by Alex Worthington and Mike Thompson. The bright neon lighting that washes over the backwall cyclorama does no one any good, though. Perhaps a few old-timey lithographs of sooty London or snow-swept countryside might be projected to augment the mood so aptly captured by Stevens.

Upon Scrooge’s reclamation, you’ll find yourself wondering that all this richness has been accomplished by Stevens in nothing more than black turtleneck and slacks. You mean Scrooge wasn’t dressed in his nightshirt all along? Some theater magic is utterly simple — and unstoppable. Dickens would surely recognize this version as one that’s as close as possible to his own. He would bestow on Stevens a most appreciative pat on the back, if not a Victorian bear hug.
Through December 23. Queensbury Theatre, 12777 Queensbury Lane. For information, call 713?467-4497 or visit $10.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
This is the mother of them all: the august Alley Theatre’s holiday cash cow, produced with lavish stage wizardry and technical perfection that befits our Tony-winning theater company. Unlike Stevens’s much more minimal take, the Alley goes for broke in Michael Wilson’s 1990 adaptation, often faithful to a fault, often faulty to the faithful.

In its remodeled theater, the company’s old chestnut looks exactly as it’s looked since its premiere: same Victorian ironwork bridge upstage, same brick side walls, same overbearing sound effects, same fires of hell for Marley’s entrance. For some reason, Alejo Vietti’s costumes positively gleam this year; have they been refurbished and cleaned, or entirely remade? They look great. There are yards of satin, lace and velvet that catch the light.

Expanding on the slim novel’s subtitle, “a ghost story of Christmas,” Wilson adds Halloween into the season. Ghastly apparitions appear right at the start, gyrating and dancing a spectral gavotte of death to beastly clangs and ominous thunderclaps, which is an eyeful for sure, but turns the tale mega-creepy much too soon. Scrooge sees Marley’s face in his doorknocker, not a parade of murdered ancestors. This sets the wrong tone right away, and the little tale never quite recovers from the slasher-movie jolt. Other than the hoary old sight gag of a burly man in a dress, what’s the purpose of Scrooge’s housekeeper played in drag? Little pinpricks like these keep the show reeling: a bit of English panto, a bit of Dickens verisimilitude, a bit of showy stagecraft.

Turning the three spirits into people Scrooge knows in his daily life doesn’t add enlightenment so much as obfuscation, but David Rainey’s munificent, overflowing Spirit of Christmas Present at least looks like what Dickens describes: a jolly giant, swathed in green velvet, with a cornucopia of good wishes and a holly crown of candles. Now this is the spirit of Dickens incarnate.

Alley vet Jeffrey Bean assays the principal role with his own type of patented showbiz know-how, mean and prickly at the beginning, but never too far from redemption. As befits this myopic production that teeters all over the place, he’s a nice Scrooge, just misunderstood: Dickens’s Mr. Magoo.
Through December 28. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit $20-$95.

A Soulful Christmas
Jubilant and street-smart are the words for Ensemble Theatre’s musical revue. Barely written by TV vet Stepp Stewart, this musical concert is brought to joyous life by the Ensemble’s go-to guys for most of its shiny seasonal blockbusters, director/choreographer Patdro Harris and musical director Carlton Leake (Cinderella, Djembe, The Twelve Ways of Christmas and non-holiday Dreamgirls.) This A-grade team is Ensemble’s combo of Balanchine and Flo Ziegfeld. There’s so much high-caliber dancing and singing, this duo could probably stage the Yellow Pages.

The slight plot: Two grandkids (Jayla McDonald and Trenton J. Sutton) use Grandpa’s antique watch to travel back in time to when Grandpa met Grandma. Stuck in the past, they work their way forward from the ’40s Cotton Club through the decades until they arrive back home in their beds, safe and sound for Christmas morning. The flimsy plot’s an excuse for the concert. But what a concert! I doubt if the Ensemble would mind if the audience danced in the aisles as long as it wouldn’t interfere with the staging, but the show’s so catchy and so much fun, it’s hard not to let loose and (at least) boogie in your seat. There’s a shout-out to Cab Calloway, Mahalia Jackson, Eartha Kitt, the Jackson 5, even the distaff rap group TLC. It doesn’t really matter if you know the musical knockoffs or not, because the joy and bounce of the performances are the reasons for this show’s fun. Listen to Jo Anne Davis-Jones’s crisp rendition of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” with every syllable delineated and clear-cut like crystal; Ron Johnson’s rollicking paean to Chubby Checker in “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree;” the Temptations tribute in “Silent Night;” or a slinky Jamie Sabbagh-Barrett channeling Kitt in “Santa Baby.”

Every number comes with its own special staging, a mini show in itself, whether a Mylar curtain drops in or a backup group doo-wops upstage. And the two kids are standouts, giving the musical vets a run for their money. Young Sutton, gyrating as pre-adolescent Michael Jackson, does a bang-up job imitating the Inimitable One in “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”
Through December 30. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For information, call 713?520?0055 or visit $36-$50.
Ho Ho Humbug 2.0
The neatest present under the tree, perhaps this season’s miracle, is the change wrought at Stark Naked Theatre Company in its re-edit of Scott Burkell’s shaggy Santa story, which had its world premiere last year. What a transformation. While its provenance can be directly traced to David Sedaris’s bitchfest Santaland Diaries (making another yearly stopover at the Alley, with the incomparably sarcastic Todd Waite as Crumpet), playwright/actor Burkell has the slight advantage: more characters to showcase and a big. gooey chocolate heart at its core. The theme is nearly identical: sad-sack, out-of-work schlub gets a temp job at Macy’s SantaLand, where he learns the true meaning of holiday spirit.

The Botox tightening has worked wonders, giving the comedy a slick gloss, speed and a freshly minted appearance. Last year’s dismally unattractive non-set has been jettisoned for a bright holiday palette from Ryan McGettigan, with plaid ribbons criss-crossing the stage and atomic starlights popping up all over. (The upside-down ’50s Coke ad with Santa guzzling pop is strange indeed — what’s this doing near SantaLand and what does it mean?) The characters seem more believable than when last seen, and the intermissionless 90-minute update glides as if on ice skates. Believe it or not, the sweet comedy could still be pruned — all that “memory play” stuff is so much tangled tinsel — but Burkell is a nifty wayward Santa. When he dons mustache and beard and looks up at us, the audience spontaneously applauds his transmutation. He lifts our hearts. The others in the cast (Kristen Warren as butch Joy; Susan Draper as clueless Sparkle; Philip Lehl as gung-ho company man Doofus; and Jesse Merrill as swishy Bobby, among others) nimbly join in the fun and turn what used to be rather joyless into merriment and lovely sentiment. Humbug 2.1 will be back.
Through December 23. Stark Naked Theatre, 1824 Spring Street. For information, call 832-866?6514 or visit $15-$29.

The Little Prince
A Houston Grand Opera world premiere (2003), revived in 2004, Academy Award-winning Rachel Portman’s first opera is brought out again for this year’s Christmas production. Good luck luring the children. Last year’s astringent, icy A Christmas Carol was a dismal disappointment, more likely to scare any young ’uns from ever going to the opera again. The Little Prince won’t scare them, it’ll bore them to death.

Although this Francesca Zambello production is visually kid-friendly — Maria Björnson’s storybook sets and costumes are a dream knockoff of Maurice Sendak — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s children’s classic has been turned into a musically repetitive, soporific tale. Exactly what is the message in librettist Nicholas Wright’s annoying, rhyming book? Trust your heart? Look to the stars? Don’t trust snakes? I haven’t a clue what this work is saying — to adults or children. Strange characters come and go (mischievous baobab trees, the Prince’s beloved rose, a water well, a lamplighter, flying cranes, a preoccupied businessman), each with a distinctive aria, but we’re left with nothing. Everybody sounds the same. Everything that happens sounds the same. Suddenly at the end, the pilot (a robust Joshua Hopkins) finds redemption and connection with the alien Prince (a delightful Andy Jones), when he couldn’t be bothered with him before? The drama is choppy. So’s the music.

Pleasant enough, sort of New Agey and very much of a type of nebulous cinema score that has plagued Hollywood for at least two decades, Portman’s music is broken and fractured when it should sing and affect. Just when you think the opera’s going somewhere, Portman snaps the phrase into awkward, disjointed segments. The Stars (a.k.a. HGO’s children’s chorus) have the best tunes, heavenly orchestrated with celesta and harp, but overall the music doesn’t stick in the ear. A phrase or two resonates, but the jagged melodies quickly dissipate into the ether. Like the eponymous hero, this opera flits away, never staying too long in one place.

If HGO wants to corner the family Christmas market, why not Engelbert Humperdinck’s expansive Hansel and Gretel? Or, better yet, Gian Carlo Menotti’s sublime Amahl and the Night Visitors? Next to those, Portman’s Little Prince sounds pretty puny.
Through December 20. Houston Grand Opera at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit $28-$121.

For more presents under the tree, please consider:
A Christmas Carol. Classical Theatre Company. 4617 Montrose. 713-963-9665.
A Christmas of Many Parts. A.D. Players. 2710 West Alabama. 713-526-2721.
Inspecting Carol. Texas Repertory Theatre. 14243 Stuebner Airline. 281-583-7573.
The Nutcracker. Houston Ballet. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. 713-227-2787.
Panto Snow Queen: Unfrozen. Stages Repertory Theatre. 3201 Allen Parkway. 713-527-0123.
Santaland Diaries. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. 713-220-5700.
The White Christmas Album. Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt. 713-522-7722.
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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