Houston Christmas Theater, Part IV: Snowy Day, Little Mermaid, Reindeer Monologues and Panto Little Mermaid

Raven McMillon as Peter in The Snowy Day.
Raven McMillon as Peter in The Snowy Day. Photo by Lynn Lane

The Snowy Day (Padded Like a Snow Suit)

Any enterprising first-grader who has mastered the Dick and Jane reading primers ("See Dick Run. See Jane Run.") can race through Ezra Jack Keats' children's classic The Snowy Day in less than three minutes. Four, at most, if you pause to peruse Keats' folksy paper-cutout illustrations. If it takes any longer, you're not graduating to second grade.

There's not much to the book, which is devoid of conflict and character. The most dramatic action occurs when little Peter, out in his neighborhood on his own after the first snowfall, pokes a branch laden with snow and the clump falls on his head. Exciting stuff this. He longs to join the older boys having a snowball fight, but is shooed away for being too little. He glides down a hill. He makes snow angels. He admires his tracks in the snow. He saves a snowball in his pocket to play with next day. That doesn't end well. In his bath he tells his mother about the wonderful day he had. When he wakes up, there's been more snow during the night. We assume he puts on his hooded snow suit and goes out again for more adventures. End of short little book.

What set Keats' kiddie book apart from all others at the time (1962) was its sense of place – a big city – and the fact that Peter was Black – the first Black protagonist in kid lit. There's no social redeeming quality to this, nothing is made of it, no political points scored, no judgment rendered. He's just a little kid out on his own in the big city after a grand snowfall. It is ecumenical in its theme of wonder. It's this naturalistic, simple quality that struck everyone at the time. And this short unpretentious little book became an overnight sensation, winning the prestigious Caldecott Medal and becoming the most checked out book in the history of the New York Public Library.

Turning this wisp of a tale into the stuff of opera, which thrives on drama and conflict writ large, is daunting to say the least, if well-nigh impossible. For its 71st world premiere, Houston Grand Opera, attempts yet again to create a perennial Christmas opera to rival theater's A Christmas Carol or ballet's Nutcracker. HGO succeeds, but with qualifiers.

Composer Joel Thompson and librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney proceed to puff up the story until it resembles the Hindenburg. Characters are added, including a father for Peter; the bully boys have their own extended sequence; a new friend, Amy, is invented; Peter has a nightmare after his snowball has melted in his pocket; and everybody gets an aria. None of this adds to the basic intrinsic small wonder of Keats' story. It's just padding.

Thompson's music doesn't go anywhere either. It's well crafted and orchestrated, but it noodles about for measures at a time then suddenly noodles in another direction. There's jazzy Bernstein during the snowball slam; a lovely waltz when Peter and Amy watch the clouds; a big aria that's lilting and impressive for watchful mother, “Mama's Eyes;” and even a vocal quintet to end the show. But there's no cohesion to it, it's background music. There is a tinkling “forever theme” that meanders through the work, but this too loses its wonder under the overblown libretto, which has Peter rhapsodizing on “morning promise rising.” No little boy speaks like this. In the slim book, there is an omniscient narrator, no one says a word. In the opera, nobody shuts up.

But there's wonder on the stage in the clever sets which mimic Keats' bright illustrations, with pillowy mounds of snow made from sheets, rich costumes, a funhouse sled ride, and those marvelous snowballs. Whoever devised these deserves some sort of award. They are the most impressive props. They look like origami, with multi-facets, which when landing break into puffs of paper. It's the best thing in the opera, because these are filled with actual wonder and amazement. HGO should sell these in the lobby. They'd make a fortune.

The singers are all perfectly good, with standouts being Raven McMillon's impish Peter, wide-eyed and a bit gawky in his snowsuit; Elena Villalon's impetuous Amy; and Karen Black's loving if imperious Mama.

Are kids going to like this? Like the adults, I think they'll find it rather dull, even if they live in a town where any snowfall is as rare as wool mittens.. Except for glancing moments, the music – and its highfalutin libretto – doesn't transport nor stay with us. It's character-less. Like Peter's snowball, it melts away while you hear it.

The Snowy Day continues through December 19 at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, December 19 at Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas Avenue. Masks required. For more information, call 713-228-6737 or visit $30-$107.

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Christina Wells as evil Ursula.
Photo by Erick Velazquez

Disney's The Little Mermaid

What a splendid production for the little ones this holiday season. Theatre Under the Stars' spirited rendition rivals any Broadway house.

First there was the fabulously successful Disney cartoon (1989) which later spawned the Broadway show. The movie was Disney's first animated feature since Sleeping Beauty (1959) and the last to use hand-painted cels. Its Academy Award-winning score by Alan Menken (music), Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater (lyrics), ushered in the distinct Broadway sound that transformed these cartoons of the Disney renaissance (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin) into legitimate musicals, ready to be transferred to the Great White Way.

Slyly adapted from Hans Christian Andersen's much darker fairy tale, the young mermaid Ariel longs to be human but is forbidden to go above water. When she saves Prince Eric from drowning, her resolve grows rebellious. She signs a pact with sea witch Ursula in which she forfeits her voice for a pair of legs. Mute but now human, she and her prince fall in love, the spell is broken, and all forgiven. In Andersen's grimmer story, she must kill the prince to regain her soul. She refuses and casts herself into the sea where she turns into foam.

Disney, of course, will have none of this. There must be a happy ending. All princesses must find their prince. It was Ashman (Little Shop of Horrors, later Beauty and Aladdin) who turned Mermaid into a Caribbean tunefest with steel drum, marimba, and a tropical dance beat. Its a wondrous score, with “Under the Sea” winning the Oscar as Best Song, as well as “Kiss the Girl” as another nominee.

TUTS pulls out all the stops: imaginative projections (Caite Hevner); super costumes (Vincent Seassellati, Kenneth Burrell, Colleen Grady); aquatic sets (Kenneth Foy); watery choreography (Harrison Guy); fluid lighting (Charlie Morrison and John Burkland); and liquid direction from TUTS' artistic director Dan Knechtges. They work marvels.

The cast couldn't be better. Delphi Borich (TUTS' Belle from 2018), all feisty innocence as Ariel with voice to match; Noah J. Ricketts as handsome, pop-star voiced Eric; Carla Woods, sassy and impulsive as Sebastian the Crab; Lia Zitvar as comedy foil Flounder; Derrick Davis as fathoms-deep voiced King Triton, with an impressive set of pecs; veteran Alley pro Paul Hope as aide-de-camp Grimsby. But the ones who stop the show are truly impressive: Christina Wells as imperially evil Ursula and Mark Ivy as Chef Louis.

Ivy has only one number, “Les Poissons,” but it's a star turn to end all star turns. He prepares the wedding feast for Ariel and Eric, as he fillets, guts, and debones all manner of fish. With chef's cleaver, he whacks off the heads and throws them into the pot. “With the cleaver I hack them in two. I pull out what's inside and I serve it up fried. God, I love little fishes, don't you?” It's a patter song worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan, or even Sondheim, and Ivy attacks the role with all the gusto and stage presence he so easily commands. He stops the show with one number. Brilliant.

Wells stops the show whenever she appears. It's like we're watching Sophie Tucker return to the stage. She belts, she swaggers, she cajoles her minions Flotsam and Jetsam (Logan Keslar and Blair Medina), she finagles, she purrs – the perfect Disney villain. Her big numbers, “Daddy's Little Angel” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” are reprised, and here that's a good thing. We're fortunate to watch her sing anything, even two repeats. A semifinalist on America's Got Talent, she certainly has that.

Take the tykes. You'll be just as astonished.

Disney's The Little Mermaid continues through December 24 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Theatre Under the Stars at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Masks required as well as proof of a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination for all guests 12 and older. For more information, call 713-558-8887 or visit $40-$136.

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The Eight: Reindeer Monologues is an adults-onlyu adventure on stage.
Photo by Gary Griffin
The Eight: Reindeer Monologues

Unless you want to be charged with child abuse, don't take the kids to Dirt Dogs Theatre's The Eight: Reindeer Monologues. They will never forgive you. They will also never forget. You won't either. Jeff Goode's adults-only tale of reindeer and elf abuse on an epic scale will give you nightmares. As David Sedaris wisely said in Santaland Diaries, Santa is an anagram for Satan.

Santa is no saint in this increasingly dark inky tale. It starts out as an inquest of sorts, a bit jolly as the reindeer prance into the wood-paneled employees room with its coffee urn, plate of cookies, and schedule chalked on the blackboard: Elf zumba, Reindeer yoga, Reindeer Support Group: Be Herd. This is gonna be fun. No, it's going to be frightful and dystopian, disturbing and disquieting. This is Christmas with a vengeance. The Furies are here and they're about to testify.

Their antlers festooned, some plumed with feathers, one reindeer wears a ballerina's chiffon skirt and soft slippers (that must be Dancer, Holly Voigt Wilkinson), one's macho in a flight suit with a big Number 1 on his sleeve (Dasher, Jeff Featherston), one's in punk mufti with wild hair and leather pants (Blitzen, Malinda L. Beckham); one minces in long johns and red leatherman's harness (Cupid, Curtis Barber); one's in a short revealing clingy skirt (Vixen, Katrina Ellsworth); one's a shlub who slouches disheveled in his chair, apparently not wanting to be here (Donner, Travis Ammons); that one is classic GQ in skinny suit with flashy sunglasses and smartphone (Prancer, a.k.a. Hollywood, Todd Thigpen); one looks like he works at an Amazon warehouse (Comet, Jimmy Vollman). What the hell is going on?

The reindeer have had enough; they calling a strike on Christmas Eve. They can't take it anymore with Mrs. Claus perpetually drunk and physically harming the elves (apparently she tosses them about the toy shop for fun). But it's the Fat Boy himself who's the worst offender. Jolly, my ass. He's accused of raping Vixen, and the eight – like a caribou Rashomon – disclose in individual monologues what they know about life in far northern hell.

This is no vision of sugar plums, sweet memories, or warm cocoa. Oh, the horror. Some of them defend the boss, some of them want him dead. His toxic masculinity is boundless, and he knows the seductive power of his whip. What kind of pervert knows when you're sleeping, knows when you're awake, and knows how to get into your house at the stroke of midnight under the cloak of darkness? He's the universal symbol of kindness and goodness, but what evil lurks under all that fur and flushed rosy cheek?

Goode's comedy teeters on tragedy, and the satire quickly curdles into unbidden territory. The shaky laughter suddenly subsides. Is this the Santa we all know and love? How perverse, how shocking. Can it be true? Blithely, forcefully directed by Trevor Cone, the truth shall set you free.

Vixen is the victim, but it's Donner who's most warped. In Ammons' amazing performance, he's riddled with guilt so deep he can hardly speak. He willingly gave his son Rudolph – yes, that Rudolph – into the libidinous hands of Santa, and he's never forgiven himself. The guilt has eaten him alive. Ammons turns the improbable into the starkly real. You see his pain in his downcast eyes and halting gestures. His confession cuts deep. He makes us believe. Magnificently delivered, his monologue touches us where we shouldn't be touched. Fantasy isn't so fantastical any more. The pain is right here, right now. Ammons confronts us, slaps us awake and makes us witness. We peer into the abyss.

This is where Goode's play strikes the universal – the abuse of the powerful against the powerless, the sleazy charm masquerading as good times, the juggernaut of P.R. If you still believe in Santa Claus, The Eight will shake you. Be warned: Don't bring the kiddies.

The Eight: Reindeer Monologues continues through December 18 at 7:30 p.m. Monday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Studio 233, 1824 Spring Street. For more information call 713-561-5113 or visit $25.

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Macy Herrera as Harielle in Stage's production of Panto Little Mermaid.
Photo by Tyler Rand
Panto Little Mermaid

This is probably Stages best panto in seasons. I'm not sure that's high praise, for I find these pseudo-English vaudevilles terribly trying, or usually trying too hard. But this one goes down easy.

As usual, it takes a while to get the show into gear, and a little of Genevieve Allenbury's twee emoting is more than enough for a dozen pantos, but there's always Ryan Schabach's irrepressible “Buttons” to see us through with a wide smile. Here he doubles as Buttons the Seagull, then Scampi, the three-headed shrimp, evil Pursula's henchman, denizen of polluted Enron Flats off the coast of Galveston.

This Little Mermaid knock-off is all about environmental consciousness. It's a public service announcement masquerading as musical. The water's brown, plastic swirls everywhere, and our heroine, mermaid Hairielle (Macy Herrera), has had enough. She's written a twelve-step plan to save the oceans and must get it to the humans before it's too late.

The plot, as it is, follows the most basic points of the iconic cartoon, using some of the Alan Menken melodies with new lyrics by David Nehls. For example: “Save the World” is sung to “Kiss the Girl;” or “Be Good Scampi” instead of “Under the Sea.” I know, it doesn't scan, it's clunky beyond reproach. OK, this isn't Cole Porter. Be kind.

But the cast works their little hearts out to entertain us, and some of the talent is quite impressive. Schabach, of course, is always fun to watch; and Holland Vavra (a Stages regular), as Pursula and clueless Dr. Wade, searching for the songs of the whales, knows all the tricks in how to define a character while she sings like a diva. She and Schabach are complete packages. Macy Herrera, as Hairielle, and Jordi Viscarri, as Hairic, play the young lovers, and their voices blend nicely, but it's Stephanie Jones, as Hairielle's sister Finn, who sings the hell out of her songs. She blows the roof off the Gordy in “Whale Rock.”

Stages' pantos always have the whiff of college revues – somewhat there, but not quite close enough. This year's book is sketchy (ShaWanna Renee Rivon and Elizabeth A.M. Keel), the music's not quite up to par, but the singing is good, and the production design is better than the material. Liz Freese's set is all iridescent aquamarine and turquoise; Javier Moreno's lighting is watery; Kristina Hanssen's costumes work well except for Sea Bass John (Jeremy Gee) and Hippo (Joe Serpa Daniels) who are supposed to be a sea bass and a seahorse. You'd never know it.

But what's a panto without drag? In this outlandish revue, shouldn't Pursula be played by a guy? Don't get me wrong, I adore Holland Vavra and wouldn't want her out of a job, but this evil sea hag cries out for bad drag.

But these cavils are minor when you hear the kids' reactions to these shenanigans. They whoop and boo and applaud like theater pros. They get it, and in the long run isn't that what really matters?

Panto Little Mermaid continues through December 31. has closed due to COVID-19 exposures and a bereavement in the cast . Th announcement was made December 29, 2021. 7 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays at Stages at The Gordy, 800 Rosine. For more information, call 713-527-0220 or visit $25-$79.
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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