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The Holiday Season On Stage

Christmas treats this season come in all shapes and sizes, some full of wonder when unwrapped and some sooty around the edges. To be fair, like Santa, the sampling is in alphabetical order.

In past productions, Patdro Harris (director/choreographer) and Carlton Leake (composer) have always brought unparalleled sass to Ensemble Theatre's musicals -- until now. Credited to San Francisco's African-American Shakespeare Company, the book for Cinderella is surprisingly flat and without magic. The cast flounders, except for the phenomenal Teacake Ferguson, the most charming Cinderella with a blow-you-away voice. Roc Living, as Prince Charming, has a granite presence but not a twinge of chemistry with Cinderella. The wicked stepsisters, Roenia Thompson and Tamara Harper, are deliciously over-the-top, but everyone else strains. Leake's lackluster score is redeemed by a Dreamgirls-esque ballad, "I'm Going On," that Ferguson hits out of the park. Through December 26. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.

Although the Alley's holiday extravaganza is tinged more Halloween than Christmas -- those dancing ghosts are awful -- there's plenty of Charles Dickens to go around in A Christmas Carol. Michael Wilson's adaptation is Victorian bleak, played against a scaffold-and-brick design that screams Sweeney Todd. Christmas Past and Christmas Present resemble John Leech's original 1843 etchings, while the ominous Christmas Yet to Come peddles a fantastic, steam gothic tricycle and the cross-dressing housekeeper (not a good idea) pawns Scrooge's bed clothes in one of Dickens's most creepy scenes. As miser Scrooge, Alley pro Jeffrey Bean is as definitive as they come. Through December 27. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

In the mood for a big wedge of Mildred's butter pie? A Fertle Holiday is Radio Music Theatre's penultimate show before its final farewell begins January. If you've never tasted this talented trio of inspired lunatics, it's time. Holiday never stales. It's the epitome of Christmas spirit, since it's all about dysfunctional families, and no family's more messed up -- and hilarious -- than the Fertles of Dumpster, Texas. Author Steve Farrell keeps his universe craftily insane. Farrell, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills play all the characters, and always astonish and amuse. Through January 15. Radio Music Theatre, 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

Dependent upon four guys singing close '50s harmony, this wispy little musical by Stuart Ross, Plaid Tidings, works best if you haven't seen Forever Plaid, his first jukebox musical with four guys singing close '50s harmony. This sequel is pretty much the same show. The boys, having been killed on their way to their first gig, are brought back to earth -- on behalf of Rosemary Clooney, a nice touch -- to perform the holiday show they never got to do. The quartet is grounded by Joshua Estrada, a true Broadway baby, with Justin Michael Finch, Mitchell Greco and Brad Goertz. When they knock themselves out with "Christmas Calypso" or the hip-hop "Twuz the Nite B4," you want to pinch their rosy cheeks. Through December 23. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Road, 281-583-7573.

In Queer Carol, Joe Godfrey (Bed and Breakfast and a raft of other gay-themed plays) tweaks Dickens with a gay goose. Despised Ben (a.k.a. Scrooge) is a famous interior designer. Jake (Jacob Marley) was his business partner and lover. Robert (Bob Cratchit) is Ben's overworked, underinsured assistant, whose boyfriend Tim (Tiny Tim) has AIDS. Visited by Marilyn Monroe (Christmas Past) and a drag queen (Christmas Present), Scrooge must relive his past to redeem his future. This Unhinged Productions show, under Joe Angel Babb's slipshod direction, is plagued by some wildly inconsistent acting. The only ones who get it right are Eva Laporte as none-too-innocent Marilyn, Will Gough as the snap-happy Ghost of Christmas Present, and Zach Lewis as harried Robert. No one else seems to know what they're doing or why. Through December 20. Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation Blvd., 832-250-7786.

In Reckless, an early, dreamy work by Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, Light in the Piazza), identity is fluid. Deliriously happy Rachel (Kim Tobin) adores Christmas, but her husband (Zach Bruton) suddenly blurts out that he's taken a contract out on her life. She runs away, and her new life begins. In short, hallucinogenic scenes we meet her saving angel, Lloyd (Kregg Dailey), his deaf wife Pooty (Susan Draper), and six doctors who wish to cure her (Candice Meade plays all of them). Under the adroit direction by Philip Lehl, this production glows, as does Kevin Holden's sophisticated set design and Clint Allen's projections (highways or snowy static). More glowing is Tobin's Rachel, giddy as PeeWee Herman, who never loses that spark of grace that ultimately redeems her. Through December 19. Brave Dog Theatre Company, 1703D-1 Post Oak Blvd., 832-866-6514.

Nothing is sacred to monologist/essayist David Sedaris as he gives Christmas a solid kick in the ass, memorializing his temp days as Crumpet the Elf at Macy's department store in Santaland Diaries. Toyland is hell, parents are worse, and children should be killed. Nothing is as funny as Todd Waite in his degrading, ersatz velvet costume, unless it's Paul Hope in his. (Hope takes over this weekend's performances, on December 9, 10 and 11.) To be peed on by rotten little monsters is humiliating, but to be chewed up and spit out by rampant consumerism in the name of Christ while wearing pointed shoes is downright hilarious. Through December 31. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

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