Houston Theaters Go All Christmas — and Not — for This Year's Holiday Productions

Our Houston theaters celebrate the holiday season as if everyone expects a foot of snow. There are religious-themed plays, secular put-downs, lots of Dickens, snow-encrusted musicals, and then there are shows that have nothing whatever to do with Santa, elves or fruitcake, just plain old entertainment for the shopping weary. If you want a taste of the season, as the saying goes, there's something for everyone. But like a few of the presents under the tree, there are some best left in the box. Here at the Houston Press, we're in a giving mood this time of year, full of good cheer and warm feelings toward our fellow man, but, really, an ugly Christmas sweater is still an ugly sweater. In no particular order other than alphabetical are some of the holiday treats that have recently opened. Unwrap at your peril.

A Christmas Carol
As the august Alley Theatre's annual holiday cash cow for 29 years, this macabre adaptation by original director Michael Wilson of Dickens's immortal Christmas story is partially faithful to the master and partially faithful to what theatrical traditions ruled in the '80s. Three ghosts aren't enough; now there's a dancing introduction of what old Scrooge dreams before he even realizes what torments him: a panoply of apparitions through the centuries, including Mary Tudor with an ax in her neck. It's a bit much, what with the booming thunder and lightning, and clangy effects as if a castle drawbridge has crashed on your head. It dilutes Scrooge's personal reclamation by many degrees. Even the present avatars of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who all now have backstories and owe Scrooge money, are much too neat and tidy a solution. Poor Marley, who predicts the hauntings to follow, is terribly upstaged, even though he rises spectacularly from a belching fiery hell, when in fact he should merely walk through the bedchamber door, dragging his chains behind him. Nothing in this version is simple or very imaginative, we have to be hit over the head. There is visual economy and a nice feeling of smoggy dread in Tony Straiges' timber and brick setting, like the Victorian factory background from Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, and Alejo Vieti's rich costumes conjure the period with velvet, lace, and tweed pants. The most effective passages are the quietest: the destitute Cratchits, the childhood phantom of sister Fanny, fiancee Belle renouncing young Ebenezer; yet the dazzling snowy Ghost of Christmas Past on her sleigh (Melissa Pritchett), dispensing memories like pixie dust, or the hearty Ghost of Christmas Present (David Rainey), bestowing good cheer from his cup of human kindness is Dickens come to life. Jeffrey Bean tailors a full suit out of Scrooge, and his transformation from miserly oyster to beneficent patron is one of the stage glories of this holiday period.

Go Yell It on the Mountain

Perhaps the most unexpected surprise under the tree is this world premiere musical from Obsidian Theater. Previously, this intimate theater company wowed us with its slash and burn American Idiot (Houston Theater Award for Best Musical), a searing and scorching How I Learned to Drive (Houston Theater Awards for Best Actor and Supporting Actor), the divinely campy Ruthless, and a blistering production of Lynn Nottage's Ruined (Houston Theater Award for Best Actress), but something's gone wrong, horribly wrong. This cutting edge, mordant theater company has turned completely soft and gooey. Where once there were cocaine lines, rape, incest, insane drag, and child abuse, now there's uplifting Christianity and a heartening message of faith and hope. Holy Goth, what rainbow have we tripped over? Where the hell are we? With book by Rozie Curtis and Gregory McGregor, the Second New Greater Lesser Mt. Zion Bethel Church is in the throes of being sold to the mega church down the block and therefore turned into a bowling alley. It's supposed to be a comedy, I think, but it's so improvisational (or is that lack of rehearsal?) and downright clunky that it's difficult to tell what the message is. Huge blocks of exposition, like a pharaoh's pyramid, are hauled into place with strain and sweaty labor, while the glimmers of humor are crushed underfoot, like Yochabel in DeMille's The Ten Commandments. What's going on here? There are some good performers somewhere under the stone: leather-lunged Tamara Siler and daft comedian Andrea Sorrell knock the spiritual “Mary Had a Baby” into another dimension, and the entire cast finally gets it completely together on the finale, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” But in between are painful swathes of bad comedy timing, labored writing, and, sorry, not-ready-for-prime-time performances. What were they thinking? Next time, more drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll!

It's a Wonderful Life

In line with “what were they thinking,” what's up at Houston Grand Opera? Did they really think a Jake Heggie world premiere would be the perfect tonic for their family-friendly Holiday Opera Series? Didn't anyone learn their lesson after last year's disastrously dreary A Christmas Carol? Wunderkind Heggie is perhaps contemporary opera's most acclaimed composer. His work is jagged and taut, prickly and expressive. It's never been accessible to children in any form. HGO has championed it (Dead Man Walking, The End of the Affair, Three Decembers), but did no one say, I don't think kids'll like this very much? Somebody at HGO must have signed the contract before listening to this depressing story and astringent score. Who would bring their children to such a show? Scrooge? Based on the Frank Capra film (1946) and the Philip Van Doran Stern short story that inspired it, the tale has become a holiday classic of sorts, although its showings on TV have been curtailed and its impact diminished on the millennials and the young 'uns who've followed. There were but a handful of tots at the Sunday matinee; the remainder were the age of their grandparents. Faithful somewhat to the film, the opera prods the angel's story to the forefront, not George Bailey's (tenor William Burden). Oh, his litany of troubles are there, but so is Clara (soprano Talise Trevigne) and her annoying four accomplice angels, forever hovering in the background, wings aflutter. Themes repeat and overlap, or go on too long. Really, two numbers about the Polynesian dance craze, the Makee Makee? Do you think a kid's going to be enrapt during two and a half hours of this? The most fragrant part is the opening with its high strings and flute, depicting a Bernard Herrmann film score heaven. The lyrical passages between George and love Mary Hatch (a gorgeously phrased and sounding Andrea Carroll) are exceptionally scored and sung, but get muddied in the incessantly rhyming libretto (by longtime Heggie collaborator Gene Scheer). The story's padded and puffed up, while Robert Brill's minimalist décor of a multitude of mylar doors ringed with light and a host of suspended light bulbs to look like stars reads like so many tombstones floating in the ether. It's all bleak and not very happy at all. Merry Christmas? Bah!

Much Ado About Nothing

4th Wall Theatre Company, née Stark Naked, decided to eschew Christmas altogether this season, so it's Shakespearean comedy instead. Who needs another boring tie when Shakespeare is available? With Beatrice and Benedick sniping at each other, you could imagine yourself in the housewares department at Macy's listening to a dysfunctional couple argue over linens, except nobody at Macy's would possibly say, as does Benedick, “What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?” To be replied to by Beatrice, “Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?” Ah, Macy's, would that it sounded so sublime. Inspired by the company's association with NY's Bedlam Theatre Company (last season's sparkling Saint Joan was a joint production), five actors play all the characters, doubling, tripling their roles. It's certainly one way to present the parade that Shakespeare so proudly flaunts in Ado, but when so adroitly presented by the 4th Wall players, it works like a charm. Philip Lehl (Benedick) may then become old Leonato, talking to himself after twirling around and spryly dancing passed the walker that Leonato uses. Philip Hays, as Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, introduces himself as his brother Don John, an early Iago, out for mischief for no good reason, just by twisting himself into semi-hunchback. It takes no time at all to get what these fine actors are doing and, through Shakespeare's radiant language, all is clear and concisely done. It's as much fun to watch the contortions as listen to the rich speech and sprightly mise-en-scene. A bench is trundled in, soon to become a bower or a window seat; actors gambol all over the set, popping up in back of the audience or sitting right next to you. Shakespeare darkens everything considerably in Act III when the virginal Hero (Susan Draper) is accused of being a whore, whereupon her betrothed Claudio (Herman Gambhir, of the fine physique), Don Pedro, and her father believe such lies to be true. That they base this calumny upon the false word of evil Don John is the wise Bard showing the world what fools men are. Naturally, all ends happily, as quarreling Beatrice and Benedick, who have forsworn love and marriage throughout, finally marry, as do the bland Claudio and Hero. 4th Wall is never bland, however, and their warm, loving performance of this masterpiece is well-nigh a perfect holiday treat.

Panto Wonderful Wizard
For seasons Stages Repertory Theatre's “panto” productions have been nearly unwatchable, exercises in tedium, bad puns, and faux hilarity. The actors were always having more fun then we were. But something wonderful has happened this year. Could it be Rutherford Cravens' bouncy script and lyrics, director Carolyn Johnson's clever eye for detail, Kristin Warren's toe-tapping choreography, Maryann Williams' Broadway belt as Dorothy, or the incredible sight of Kyle Sturdivant as Dolinda, all bosomy perfection, surrounded by bubbles as he/she galumphs down the stairs, lighting up each step as he treads? There is no uglier Christmas sweater than Sturdivant in full drag, but we'd have no other. The show, a silly knockoff of MGM's Oz, certainly drags – a full 20 minutes could be cut without anyone being the wiser – and the spiky references to Trump, Johnny Manziel, Houston vs. Dallas rivalry, or the Monkees (!), meant to keep the adults entertained, fly straight over the tots' heads. But contained within the inanity is a pretty good show. The kids love the pre-show chalk doodling on the wall; they boo enthusiastically at the Wicked Witch (Kay Allmand, with that dead-accurate Margaret Hamilton cackle); and seem generally interested in Kristin Warren's exuberant dance numbers, which in fact are bouncy and lovingly performed (even if the kids haven't a clue to the jukebox songs' origins.) “It's Raining Men” (now, “It's Raining Again”), “These Boots Were Made for Walkin'” (now, “These Boots Were Made for Rulin'”), “Take a Chance With Me” (now, “Take a Chance With Tea” – don't ask); “Devil With the Blue Dress On” (now, “Witchy With the Blue Dress On”), you get the idea. Meanwhile, the little patrons have been sugar-highed and popcorn-smeared, while their doting parents have been buzzed on blueberry punch and pomegranate martinis – which is pretty tasty, by the way. Everybody's high and noisy when the show begins, and once Dorothy and her three intrepid adventurers (Joe Serpa Daniels, Leo the lion; Jeremy Gee, semi-Tin Man; Cameron Khalil Stokes, substitute Strawman) sally forth, the high maintains itself. The only qualm, and it's been a long one running, is that irrepressible Ryan Schabach has so little to do as Buttons. He starts as narrator, but then gets forgotten as he's shoehorned into the plot without finesse. If anyone bubbles on stage, without a machine of course, it's Schabach. But we'll console ourselves this outing with Sturdivant, a parade float not even Busby Berkeley could have imagined. Oh the colors, the colors!

Santaland Diaries

Get your holiday bitch on with Crumpet the Elf (Todd Waite, in full camp mode) in David Sedaris's delightfully jaundiced one-man view of Christmas consumerism. If you've never experienced this rush of a play – 80 minutes – now a holiday tradition at the Alley, much like A Christmas Carol – then go and prepare for a non-PC slap in the face. It's most refreshing. In a breathless monologue, intrepid Crumpet decks the halls with plenty of attitude. This temp job from Hell is the gayest show in town, and also the funniest. “A person needs a skill,” our unnamed protagonist says early on, hand poised on hip like some broad from a 1930s Warner Brothers picture. He needs a job, and, really, how hard is it to be an elf? Ha, harder than you think. There’s that Elfin Guide to follow without question, the Macy’s Bible of model behavior for all elves toiling in Santaland. You must exude relentless good cheer at all times, even when your little charges vomit from excitement or pee on the floor. You must tolerate psychotic co-workers, spitting Santas, outraged parents and sexual advances, however warranted, from fellow elf Snowball. And there’s that demeaning green velvet costume with candy cane-striped leggings and goofy hat. (Costumer Blaire Gulledge knows how to design tacky.) Swishing with incomparable technique, Waite knows how to perform tacky. He has a field day with this characterization he's honed to razor perfection after years of wearing those tights. His ad-libs to the audience are finger-snap perfect. Haloed in a pin spot, enveloped in cigarette smoke, his Billie Holiday rendition of “Away in the Manger” is a classic of some type. In impressionistic, ever shorter scenes as the days count down to Christmas Eve, the crowds of exasperated parents and shell-shocked tots go into overdrive, as does Crumpet. Waite keeps up the manic pace with masterful spin, abetted by taut direction from David Cromer. There's a lovely patch of sentiment near the end as a new, unknown Santa relays the true meaning of Christmas to a father and his daughter, but the politically incorrect antics pick up soon enough to end on merry high spirits. In ever impressionistic scenes, we’re regaled with opinions, dish and wry observations as his “grinding enthusiasm” sputters on a very short, funny fuse. Nothing is sacred inside Macy's, and the shocking revelations of this 1996 play are as right and true as Santa on the roof. Remember, Santa is an anagram for Satan.

A Christmas Carol. Continuing 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays December 21, 23, 26-27 and 29; 7:30 p.m.  and December  8-9, 15-16, 20, 22 and 28. Through December 29. 615 Texas. For information call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $30-$70.

Go Yell It on the Mountain.
8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. December 18. Through December 23. Obsidian Theater, 3522 White Oak. For information, call 832-889-7837 or visit obsidiantheater.org. $15 to $30.

It's a Wonderful Life. 2 p.m. December 6, 8, 9, 13, 15 and 17; 2:30 p.m. December 11. Wortham Theater Center, 501Texas. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $48 to $127.

Much Ado About Nothing.
7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and December 19 (pay what you can); 3 p.m. Sundays. Through December 24. Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring. For information, call 832-786-1849 or visit 4thwalltheatreco.com. $15 to $49.

Santaland Diaries.
2:30 and 7:30 p.m. December 10 and 17; 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and December 18, 20 and 27; 2:30 p.m. December  11, 24 and 31. Through December 31. 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $30 to $50.

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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