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Holiday Theater in Houston: Amazing in Variety but Not Always in Form

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Who can deny the eternal appropriateness of Tchaikovsky's snowy score for The Nutcracker, the spiritual depths of Handel's splendid Messiah, or Dickens's immortal tale of redemption and charity, A Christmas Carol? In its own particular (and sometimes peculiar) way, every theater company celebrates the season in its own fashion. Three of the following shows are world premieres. Are any of them worthy of becoming holiday classics? Probably not, but you can't be sure of anything in the theater.

Jubilant is the word for Ensemble Theatre's musical revue A Soulful Christmas. 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 musicals, director/choreographer Patdro Harris and musical director Carlton Leake. The team is Ensemble's combo of Ballanchine and Flo Ziegfeld, responsible for Ensemble's blockbusters Cinderella, Djembe, The Twelve Ways of Christmas and non-holiday Dreamgirls. There is so much dancing and singing of such high caliber, this team could probably stage the Yellow Pages. All the theatrics in the world won't help, of course, if the cast isn't pitch-perfect. Ensemble's cast is thoroughly on key and an absolute delight.

The slight plot: Two grandkids (Jannah Bryant 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 through various musical styles until they arrive back home in their beds, safe and sound for Christmas morning. The flimsy plot's only 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) boogy in your seat. There's a shoutout to Cab Calloway, Mahalia Jackson, Eartha Kitt, the Jackson 5, even the girl rap group TLC. Whether you know the source doesn't really matter, because the joy and bounce the cast puts into the performances are the reasons for this show. Listen to Asia Craft's crisp rendition of "Go Tell It on the Mountain," with every syllable delineated, clear; Ron Johnson's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," a rollicking paean to Chubby Chucker; the Temptations tribute "Silent Night"; or a slinky LaKeisha Randle channeling Diana Ross in "Baby Please Come Home."

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 preadolescent Michael Jackson, does a bang-up job imitating the Inimitable One in "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," while Bryant raps like an MTV pro in "Christmas in Hollis." Both bring down the house. Throughout, the vibe of the show is uptown toasty, catching the spirit of the season with snappy sass and respect.

There ain't no respect in Panto Rapunzel (and Zombies) at Stages Repertory. Nor any sass. Nor much of a vibe. Perhaps it's time to retire the Panto idea completely and give it back to the Victorians. This seventh incarnation is the lamest of all. Playwrights Jodi Bobrovsky and Joseph Blanchard, who do superlative work behind the scenes for Stages as scenic designer and master carpenter, struggle horribly in this kiddie show and show no flair at all in the art of putting on a show.

The unfortunate actors are at a loss what to do with their tissue-paper roles except ham it up unmercifully, hoping perhaps that no one will notice their discomfort. Kids under four might not notice, but the tykes around me yawned during the musical pastiches, loved the crocodiles, applauded the irrepressible Ryan Schabach as Buttons (who wouldn't -- he's adorable, though he's overburdened with an evil-twin role) and laughed at the silly drag of Rutherford Cravens as Yura Biggenbottom. That's about it for the show's wit and charm. Even the comic antics of the great Carolyn Johnson go to waste in the thankless villain role of Texas Governor Dirk Berry, while the vocal chops of Kathryn Porterfield, which are sizable, are ill-served by her girl-power Rapunzel, locked in a corporate tower, a slave accountant. Like everyone around her, her character has nothing to do except act frantic, sing a pop song with additional, unfunny lyrics, and flee the zombies. Don't ask!

The script's attempts at parody are feeble, and I will not bore you with details, except for a funny throwaway line uttered by Buttons to scare Beaufort the Possum (Joseph Redd): "Obama Care." Beaufort falls down in a swoon. That's it for laughs.

Tiffani Fuller supplies some cleverly tacky costumes, while Courtney D. Jones supplies the needed high kicks to the sprightly choreography, the show's real highlight. This musical has no style, no consistency, no oomph. It'll run for a year.

After seeing Radio City Christmas Spectacular, I felt like I'd been stomped on by 36 very shapely legs. 1-2-3-kick. You will like this show. 1-2-3-kick. You will be entertained. There is no stopping the relentless pursuit of their happiness, their joy. We will pummel you until you concede and have a merry Christmas. Even if we have to go all the way back to the '50s and take you with us, screaming in terror at the Day-Glo colors, those plaid red-and-green ensembles of the relentlessly cheery Radio City Singers, the 576 white teeth a-gleaming of those nonstop Rockettes, the robotic choreography, the prerecorded soundtrack, the faux religiosity of that Living Nativity, those awful "new" holiday pop songs, the persistent self-promotion.

You can't stop this juggernaut. It fills the cavernous Hobby Center three times a day! The show's a mechanized marvel. One has to honor its automated efficiency, its state-of-the-art precision. Come to think of it, is there anyone alive onstage? Those phoney smiles are computer generated, if not prerecorded.

As a throwback to another age -- TV's Eisenhower era -- Radio City doesn't offend, it's too blithely concerned for your own well-being to be bothered. We're here to show you a good time, damn it, and you're gonna have one! Merry Christmas. Oww, they kicked me again.

When did the powers-that-be at Houston Grand Opera first hear A Christmas Carol, commissioned from composer Iain Bell and librettist Simon Callow to create a family holiday entertainment? They must still be in shock. Although miraculously performed by rising Wagnerian tenor Jay Hunter Morris, this one-man monologue, minimally staged, is no one's ideal Dickens. It's no one's ideal opera. And it's certainly no one's family opera, either. Maybe the Addams Family's.

Known for his art songs, young Englishman Bell has given Dickens an astringent overlay that bites and gnaws, but doesn't comfort or redeem. There's plenty of London smog, but very little heart. Under his musical telling, there's no difference between grief, avarice or a piece of plum pudding. They all sound alike in this chamber opera: strident, cold, analytical. So unless your little child has an unquenchable passion for whiny postmodern expressionism, this is hardly the warm and cozy place to celebrate the season.

As a tour de force for tenor, it's quite an accomplishment just to get through it -- an hour and a half of unmoored vocal line, straight narration lifted verbatim from Dickens's great story, a ton of "he said" declarations -- and Morris seemed plenty relieved during his curtain call to have made it through. With what Bell's given him, Morris does the best he can, which is saying a lot, but even Olivier would be hard-pressed to differentiate the characters when they sound so alike in tone and phrasing. Morris bends over and squeezes his face a bit for "pinched" Scrooge, and lightens his voice when singing young Cratchit, his overworked drudge, but at times it was difficult to tell who was who.

The minimal production designed by Laura Hopkins and lit by Mark McCullough is abstracted down to a movable staircase, a door frame, a window, some chairs and Scrooge's curtained bed. This black-box approach doesn't free our imagination so much as hem it in. We want more than a strobe effect for the expansive appearance of Christmas Present. Since this is all filtered through the thickly embroidered language of Charles Dickens, perhaps the most visual of all novelists, we know what we're missing. This is not one of those dramatic readings, on which Dickens made a considerable fortune; this is an opera -- a visual as well as an aural art.

HGO is stuck with this gloomy white elephant. I fear A Christmas Carol will stay under the tree, unloved and never played with again.

A Soulful Christmas Through December 21. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055, ensemble.houston.com.

Panto Rapunzel (With Zombies) Through January 4. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123, stagestheatre.com.

Radio City Christmas Spectacular Through December 28. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 800-982-2787 or 713-558-8887, BroadwayAtTheHobbyCenter.com or TUTS.com.

A Christmas Carol December 14m, 16, 17 (with Kevin Ray), 19, 20 (with Kevin Ray), 21m. Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737, houstongrandopera.org.

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