I've been Scrooged! A lot.
Dickens' miserly oyster prowls center stage, as usual, this Bayou Christmas season. He, along with fellow traveler The Nutcracker, are theater cash cows, invoking cheer and good will as well as a much needed boost to a company's bottom line.
Naturally, this season brings a return of A Christmas Carol to the Alley Theatre. It's a defining production for the company, a splashy effects-laden tribute to Dickens and to all the modern theater conventions when it was created back in 1990 by Michael Wilson. It gets the feeling of Victorian London just right in its scaffold-and-brickwork set and piquant costuming, but poor Charles Dickens is woefully upstaged by a treatment more suited for Halloween.
Clangy sound effects, tumultuous thunder, and a sextet of skeletal ghosts greet us in grisly gavotte. One has an ax through its neck, one hangs from a rope, one has a tarantula on its breast. Whatever this opening is supposed to conjure, it's all wrong for Dickens' little book of redemption and reclamation. The creators have taken the subtitle, “A ghost story of Christmas,” quite literally and run it into the ground.
While the dialogue is often lifted verbatim from the novel, other changes aren't nearly as faithful. Scrooge's three apparitions, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, have been shoehorned with backstories that seem more padding than revelation. While Christmas Past is nowhere near the wizened little old man depicted in the classic story, the production's rosy-cheeked spirit with sparkly laughter is a visual delight as she tosses glittery Christmas cheer with innocent abandon. She's made of snowflakes.
And Christmas Present is an exact dupe from the tale: a hearty fellow bedecked in velvet with a crown of lighted antlers. But Christmas Future is a dud of a cartoon, some faceless creature on a Victorian velocipede, which holds no terror whatever. And then there is housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber, who's played in drag for no other reason, it seems, than for cheap laughs when her voice darkens into baritone. It's these small choices that push Carol into the ordinary, where it should never go.
This year, everybody runs on autopilot, as if they want to get out of the theater as soon as possible with the least amount of work. James Black is back as Scrooge, a role he played for a decade before taking over the director's chair, and he brings considerable depth to the wheedling old miser as he is slowly transformed into the sympathetic man he once was so long ago. But he's surrounded by some very perfunctory actors, especially the children, who are left out to dry, without amplification, sense of purpose, or instruction.
But the intimate scenes are handled the best, as they've always been – the Cratchit's measly little supper, Belle's renunciation of young Ebenezer, the merry Fezziwigs' holiday bash. There's still enough of Dickens' abiding spirit to brighten any theatergoer.
Scrooge reappears as a heartless Harlem landlord in Ensemble Theatre's sassy Christmas is Comin' Uptown. On Manhattan’s 125th Street, mean ol' Scrooge is out for all the bucks he can get. “Expendable green,” he sings lasciviously, taking loose change from children and robbing the charity bucket. At home, alone, he worships his cash box. “Bless the profits that I make,” he croons, “let heaven be no welfare state.” That’s when Marley’s ghost (Shon Sims II), weighed down by his chains, issues his dire warning: learn to “boogie right and get a new routine,” or end up like him, a one-man chain gang.
All the familiar Dickens’ touches are here, zapped with brassy street talk, routine Broadway melodies, and brassier performances from the multi-talented cast. The ghosts arrive with suitable backup trio, adding impudence and gusto to the musical numbers. Written by Phillip Rose and Peter Udell, with music and lyrics by Garry Sherman and Peter Udell, the musical owes much of its charm to the wizardry of choreographer Patdro Harris, who never wants for spirited footwork from a bevy of backup dancers/singers. Off the boards for a few seasons, Ensemble brings the musical back but has forgotten to bring the tang.
It's not packing quite the punch it did and looks a tad threadbare, except for the sizzling performance by Anthony Boggess-Glover as Scrooge, who's full of his own special showbiz pizzazz. He's big, bold, and wonderful, as he dropkicks Dickens with attitude to spare.
Christmas Past (André Neal) is a nimble high-strung boxer with a big ego á la Ali, smacking Scrooge down with images from his past. I miss his ginormous Afro from years past. Christmas Present (An'gelle Sylvester) won’t brook backtalk from someone who’s never done a simple kind thing in his life, but what happened to that bad-ass Rastafarian? Christmas Future (Aaron Phillips), no longer a sexy rapper in shades and black leather greatcoat, is your standard Satan with scythe, who at least rises behind the bed in the form of a gigantic puppet. He raises the roof in the showstopper “One Way Ticket to Hell,” his prediction of what’s in store if Ebenezer doesn’t change – and fast.
Changes have come into this production, and maybe its Broadway run has had something to do with it, but its mojo has definitely been tamped. Scrooge is, as he always must be, transformed. And even in this watered-down version, you will be, too, thanks to the rip-roarin’ performance from Boggess-Glover that would have Dickens purring. He knew something about eating up the spotlight, too.
Obsidian's A Drag Christmas Carol comes with an inspired pedigree: Regina Blake-Dubois, Miss Gay Texas America, 2018. Ms. Dubois is a Houston icon with flawless makeup and a killer smile. Lithe as a stalk of papyrus, she looks radiant in her red spandex with black knee-high platform boots, a wig that flows down Broadway, and legs for days. Her lips carry their own Klieg light. She is quite the picture. Unfortunately, in this world premiere by Rhett Martinez, she has nothing to do. Nobody has anything to do; or if they do, you'd never know it.
The other unfortunate thing is that nobody seems to care. The run is sold out, so the production is impervious to criticism. Which is maybe just what they wanted.
I could carp about the obvious lack of rehearsal, the awkward pauses, the clunky dramaturgy, the wayward pacing, the indifferent acting, but to what avail? The audience arrives, rowdy and raucous, and Obsidian gives them exactly what they want. It's all very slap-dash and silly, but not in a good way.
Since this is the season for giving and good will, we will be charitable. As this is Ms. Dubois' first acting appearance, as quasi-narrator and emcee for Drag Christmas Carol, she accomplishes what she always does best – flashing her unquestionable charms, dropping risqué bon mots, sassing the audience, and gleaming profusely. Her stage presence is unassailable, just listen to those deafening wolf whistles.
In the past, Obsidian has given us splendid productions that truly resonated (Passing Strange, The Mystery of Edmund Drood, Hedwig and the Angry Inch), and we at the Houston Press have awarded them our highest accolades, so it's a letdown when they palm off something like this at Christmas. What an ugly sweater this is.
Stages Rep has three shows running for the season! (Who's Holiday, a leave-the-kids-at-home one-woman show starring Cindy Who, who details her dubious R-rated life after the Grinch stole Christmas, opens next week and will be reviewed later.) The other two are family entertainment in the nicest way: The Ultimate Christmas Show (abridged) and Stages' new Christmas panto Panto Star Force. Either one is pleasant, neither is stellar.
Ultimate is that old chestnut where the scheduled performers don't arrive so the amateurs (the nuns at church, the doofuses backstage, etc.) must put on the show. There is much jockeying for position, pretending embarrassment, and general mayhem, like running into the set and inadvertent humping of a Christmas tree (don't ask). The three pros (Ronnie Blaine, Joseph “Joe P.” Palmore, and Gabriel Regojo) try their best to keep our spirits high despite some dubious material and the show's epic length, but their winning ways have a force of nature that's hard to resist, even while we groan at the overly forced comedy.
Since this multicultural interfaith holiday variety show and Christmas pageant is performed at Saint Everybody's Non-Denominational Universalist Church, there's plenty of harmless non-PC to go round, like the Confederate Christmas Carolers who substitute white power slogans into traditional carols; or the Kwanzaa Concert Caravan, or the Muslim-American Ramadancers. One truly inspired bit of lunacy is the Act I closer, The Billy Barty Ballet Company's rendition of The Nutcracker. Taking a page or two from the classic film musical The Band Wagon, the guys become three puppets who jeté, plié, and pirouette around the cramped stage. I have to admit it's pretty brilliant and worth the price of admission. The rest of the show I've mercifully forgotten.
Oh, and don't forget the popcorn and the Santa Smash cocktails in the lobby. Every little thing helps during Star Force, Stages' '80s-homage panto which is – do I really need to tell you? – a parody of all things Star Wars. Surprisingly, this show is one of Stages' better kid-friendly holiday delights, but once again it is about two hours too long. Where are the editors?
Like previous pantos, the musical numbers are super hits from the bygone past, like “When Doves Cry,” “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Flashdance,” etc., updated with lyrics to fit into the Lucas theme. The baddie is Dark Tater (Genevieve Allenbury, veteran panto writer and performer); Princess Glaiza (Madi Grossman) has doughnuts for hair braids; and Hand Some (Blake Jackson, a far cry from Obsidian's Hedwig) spars with Glaiza constantly. Others in the cast include newcomer Gavin Calais, a go-getting dancer; Houston theater regular Kara Greenberg; choreographer Kristen Warren; and our favorite Buttons, Ryan Schabach, who co-wrote this world premiere with A.M. Keel. He completely and deliciously devours all scenery as Emperor Snorkelfish.
If you're going to devour the set, what more amazing design to chew on than Liz Freese's light saber-fantastic confection, She has recreated every sci-fi captain's bridge from Forbidden Planet to Star Trek. Countless video monitors surround the theater, and there's enough neon tubing to light the Las Vegas strip. It's quite a feat in design and light years away from the little play. As loud and silly a show as you're likely to see this season, the set's the star.
Now, if you want literate and adult viewing of the Masterpiece Theatre kind, there's Main Street's Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon's cozy sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. We're two years down the road from Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage, and the sisters are gathering for Christmas cheer at the plummy estate, Pemberley.
Erudite and full of feminist shadows, the play goes down as smooth as a glass of brandy. It warms you with Regency charm, supple wit, and a high gloss of the predicament of unmarried ladies of no certain means. It carries its simple message as if embroidered on a sampler, albeit a handsome piece of needlework.
In merrie olde England unmarried women had no recourse, “no choice” as Mary Bennet (Chaney Moore) says with indefatigable ardor when it comes to inheritance and property rights. Only male heirs got the goods, and daughters had to fend for themselves. From grand estates to humble cottages, only sons profited. If there were no male offspring, then the inheritance passed to the next male relative, be he cousin, nephew or uncle. If you remember your Austen, Mrs. Bennet is hellbent on finding suitable husbands for her five daughters because the house is entailed to Mr. Bennet's second cousin.
Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage is an equal one, once Lizzie (Laura Kaldis) shed her prejudice and Darcy (Alan Brincks) his pride. They are blissfully happy. Jane (Heidi Hinkel) and husband Charles Bingley (Blake Weir) arrive with Jane expecting, a handsome healthy couple indeed. Married daughter Lydia (Skyler Sinclair), always tart-tongued, shows up without husband Wickham, which sets the sisters gossiping.
Mary, as usual, comes alone. The middle child of the Bennets, she is the intellectual one, the nerd, the geek, “under-spiced.” With glasses perpetually perched on her nose, she is however the curious one, the one most perceptive to her fate. She loves books, science, music, the wonders of the world. She's come a long way from Pride and Prejudice where her pianoforte skills were minimal at best. Now she can maneuver through Beethoven's feverish “Moonlight” Sonata without batting an eye. “You're upset,” says a family member. “I'm not upset,” Mary retorts in fury, “Beethoven's upset!” She knows more than any of them what lies in wait for the brainy wallflower in this male dominated society.
Mary is content to follow her own drummer until Darcy's cousin Arthur de Bourgh (Brock Hatton) appears. Arthur might as well enter with a neon arrow pointing to him as her soulmate. We know instinctively that these two misfits – socially awkward, in love with knowledge – are the missing pieces in their own personal puzzle. Once they've introduced them, Gunderson and Metcom have no where else to go with the plot. We've seen the happy ending occur in the middle of Act I.
The authors throw roadblocks in the couple's way, but they're only meringue. Thank goodness for the tempestuous entrance of Anne de Bourgh (Lindsay Ehrhardt), whose haughty demeanor and condescension are utterly glorious. Ehrhardt drop kicks this play into overdrive. She announces with papal authority that she and Arthur are engaged and everyone better get out of her way. Now it's Arthur who must man up. I won't spoil the denouement, but I fear you're one or two paces ahead of me.
That's the problem with this witty production. There are no surprises. Once Arthur correctly identifies the Christmas tree as spruce not fir, as did Mary at first glance, we know everything will work out. How could it not? Mary's too smart, too sweet, too knowing to be overthrown by bitchy, controlling Anne. Arthur, naturally, only needs the slightest nudge from Darcy and Bingley to set things right.
Other than Arthur, the men have nothing to do except flick up their decorative tailcoats when they sit down. “We're gentlemen,” says Darcy to Bingley, “we sit and wait for excitement to come to us.” And their characters do exactly that. But so do Mary's sisters. Who'd have thought that Elizabeth, so feisty, so controlled, so wise in P & P, would be so mute here? Everyone's on the periphery, beautiful window dressing not withstanding, but all dramatic complications are preordained.
The production, directed by Claire Hart-Palumbo, as in many a Main Street presentation, is stylish and sumptuous with minimum effort. The Beau Brummel-era costumes by Deborah L. Anderson are confections of empire-waist dresses, hunting boots, cutaway waistcoats and ascots; while the setting from Ryan McGettigan includes that ubiquitous Madame Récamier divan á la David, a pianoforte, French windows, and John Constable-esque landscapes on the library wall. Whether the Darcys would have had a decorated indoor Christmas tree in 1815 is highly questionable – Queen Victoria made the German custom fashionable in England after 1846 – but why quibble, it's Christmas.
Under the tutelage of Gunderson and Melcon, abetted by the loving hands at Main Street Theater, it's all quite pleasant at Pemberley during the holidays. One glass of sherry won't do. I'll have a triple.
A Christmas Carol. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; also 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. December 19 and 26. Through December 30. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For more information call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org, $37 to $85.
Christmas is Comin' Uptown. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Through December 29. Ensemble Theatre, 3500 Main Street. For information call 713-720-0055 ior visit ensemblehouston.org. $30-$50.
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A Drag Christmas Carol. 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Monday, December 10. Through December 15. Obsidian Theater, 3522 White Oak. For information call 832-889-7837 or visit obsidiantheater.org. $23-$33.
The Ultimate Christmas Show (abridged). 7 p,.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through December 23. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527—0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $20-$59.
Panto Star Force. 7 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through December 23. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Through December 23. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard. For information call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $42-$48.