So Many Christmas Shows, So Little Time

Never share the stage with a child or an animal, or so the saying goes. This bit of theatrical wisdom is especially true if the kid is as full of freckle-faced charm as Alison Luff and the canine is as cute as Callie. Luff and the pup, who was adopted from the Humane Society, are both currently stealing the stage in the Masquerade Theatre's revival of the 1977 Martin Charnin and Thomas Meehan hit, Annie.

As the eternally optimistic redheaded orphan who wins Daddy Warbucks's heart, Miss Luff is indeed a mighty, though pint-sized, force to be reckoned with. The seventh-grader's sweet voice rings like a bell through the signature tunes from the musical, including the relentlessly sunny "Tomorrow." Better still are the songs she belts out with the chorus of ragamuffin orphan girls. This group sings with surprising power, and their goofy, grinning faces are impossible to resist. Their rendition of "Hard-Knock Life," in which they shake their fists as they sing about their miserable lives, is delightfully joyful despite the sentiments of their words.

Even the grown-ups in this scrappy little show are fun to watch. One of the best numbers, "Thank You, Herbert Hoover," features most of the adult cast as used-to- be-millionaires, all railing in song against the president whose bad judgment ruined them. And Kayleen Clements's mean orphanage warden, Miss Hannigan, is perfectly evil as she swills bootlegged whiskey, flirts with a beat cop and croons about how she hates "Little Girls."

It's true that director Phillip Duggins's production is as low-budget as it gets, but the canned music and cardboard cutout sets are part of the schmaltzy fun. In fact, the overall success of Masquerade's Annie is due in large part to Duggins's broad, lively direction and Joshua Ryan's simple, succinct choreography. The show is full of hand-clapping, foot-stomping energy that makes it a great choice for a night out with the kids. Annie runs through December 22 at the Masquerade Theatre, 1537 North Shepherd, 713-861-7045. $25.

The Alley Theatre presents a much more somber and traditional Christmas outing with its most recent production of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Adapted and directed by Stephen Rayne, it's filled with the sort of puritanical darkness that ought to scare the bah-humbug out of anyone.

The shadowy show opens with the poetic image of a solitary boy standing in a single spot of light singing an ancient carol. Striking for its contemplative beauty, this visually arresting moment establishes the ponderous tone of Rayne's entire production.

There are lovely moments of subtle lyricism throughout the play: When Scrooge (James Belcher) recalls his childhood, brightly colored puppets dance out of the dark nether reaches of the old curmudgeon's memory. There are comedic moments as well: Scrooge snarls to his nephew that anyone who keeps Christmas ought to be "boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart." But the humor in this production is often undone by the pristine, almost still-life darkness. This stingy yarn comes off as too static and too serious as it slowly plows through the old man's unconscious, laboriously unearthing the good heart he's been hiding all these years.

The performers also seem less energetic in this production than in years past. Belcher's Scrooge is amusing as he shows off his pre-Christmas heart that is as hard and cold as the stove he refuses to light. Unfortunately, his ghostly visits aren't powerful enough to inspire much Christmas warmth in him or in the audience. One exception is David Rainey's Ghost of Christmas Present, who is wonderfully compelling as he bellows out his thunderous warnings to the stubborn Scrooge. And John Tyson's lowly Bob Cratchit is as lovable as ever.

For all its faults, the Alley's Christmas Carol is beautiful to look at. And it certainly teaches a good long lesson, whether you need it or not. A Christmas Carol runs through December 30 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 713-228-8421. $37-$54.

The most laid-back and unlikely yuletide evening is had at the Great Caruso Dinner Theater. The kitschy, Victorian-style establishment serves up old-fashioned dinner theater along with glasses of Christmas cheer. The Holiday Show consists of show tunes and Christmas carols cobbled together into a sort of cheesy lounge act that goes on while dinner is served.

Dressed in velvet gowns and dark tuxedos, local performers wander through the masticating audience, singing "White Christmas" and "Feliz Navidad" and stopping occasionally to pull a particularly rambunctious reveler out of his or her seat. On a recent evening, this faux-Las Vegas familiarity elicited embarrassed giggles from one grandmotherly fan, while a much younger woman dressed in aqua spangles happily grabbed the microphone to sing a few lines all on her own. Either way, it's a hoot to watch the interaction between the performers and the audience.

And there's no better way to listen to Christmas carols than over dinner and a thousand glasses of wine.

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Lee Williams