Where to Find More Holiday Spirit on Houston Stages

I don’t know if it’s the eggnog, the martinis or the constant stream of Christmas productions, but I’m feeling a trifle woozy…but in a good way, still full of good cheer. Amply expressing the holiday season, the following shows augment last week’s compendium. Does any city sprout as many Christmas pageants so diverse in execution, meaning and sincere reflection? I think not! Add the following to the list and revel in the continuing Houston holiday spirit. Martinis are optional.

A Christmas Carol
What version of Dickens’s evergreen classic do you like? The Cecil B. DeMille treatment with a cast of hundreds, substantial sets, and yards of Victorian taffeta and velvet (that would be the Alley Theatre’s venerable version), or a bare-bones, one-man show that harkens and pays homage to Dickens’s own history of performing his most cherished work (that would be John Stevens at Queensbury Theatre)? There’s a comfortable middle ground to be found — and reveled in at Classical Theatre.

This adaptation by Classical’s artistic director, John Johnston, and Matthew Keenan is lavish in theatrical imagination, faithful in context. As directed by Philip Hays, there’s a sharp whiff of smoggy London swirling through it, a dank and chilly atmosphere, and a loving and respectful embrace of the great author. No other version in town is as faithful to his ghostly little book, adding pungent passages usually left unstaged.

Not as pinched as Stevens nor as rosy as Jeffrey Bean at the Alley, James Belcher, formerly of the Alley troupe, possesses wily intelligence and the requisite meanness as Scrooge. That covetous old oyster didn’t get rich being a fool. When Belcher’s reclamation occurs, he’s cleansed to his very soul. He knows why, and his journey’s most affecting.

Five other actors play everyone else in this rich Victorian world. Brittny Bush is an expansive Christmas Present; Greg Cote a sympathetic nephew Fred; Chip Simmons a tormented Marley; and Lisa Villegas a resigned, wounded Belle. Especially good is Thomas Prior as Dickensian Narrator, who also doubles as Bob Cratchit. A most enjoyable host, Prior makes Dickens’s thick lively prose as relevant and understandable as a Twitter post. He takes us by the hand while he comforts, cajoles, quietly mocks and always securely guides us along.

Other than the expert adaptation, what works so well is Hays’s impressionistic staging, its own visual cornucopia to mirror the intricate text. Marley’s face punches through Scrooge’s front door like a pin-art relief, eerie and mysterious. Mannequins are cleverly used as citizens of London, dancing partners at Fezziwig’s ball or, most apt, as Tiny Tim. Much more empathetic than any annoying kid actor in the role, we react to the mute shape as the others react to him. Since they treat him with utmost kindness and familial love, we do too. That little dummy breaks our heart. Dustin Tannahill’s atmospheric lighting keeps Dickens’s tale appropriately dusky. Like Scrooge, we peer at dark shapes through shadows. Creepy and atmospheric.

Premiered last season, Classical’s resonant Carol already has the hallmark of a classic.

Through December 24. Classical Theatre Company, 4617 Montrose. For information, call 713-963-9665 or visit $30.

A Christmas Story The Musical
If you’re not an ardent admirer of the 1983 cult movie, or know practically nothing about the film that starred crusty TV vet Darren McGavin as The Old Man, Melinda Dillon (a few years after Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind) as Mom, and kid actor Peter Billingsley as iconic Ralphie, whose only Christmas wish is a Red Ryder BB gun, you might find this 2012 Tony Award-nominee musical adaptation a pleasant, harmless diversion, maybe even warmly nostalgic. If you are an ardent admirer of the movie that is shown on cable in a never-ending loop Christmas Eve, you’ll find yourself fidgeting and tapping your foot, impatient for the songs to finish so the beloved iconic story can continue.

This is a musical made of filler, overstuffed like Ralphie’s brother in his ’40s snowsuit. And like every cinema character and situation meticulously reconstructed for the stage, the show is sweet, nontoxic and desperate to please. The movie used original author Jean Shepherd as snarky voice-over, one of those “I remember” narrations, and he’s here, too, in the flesh this time as portrayed by actor Kevin Cooney, who sets the scenes with his constant, irritating, irony-laced comments. He’s not nearly as comforting a presence as he thinks he is.

For the film purists, all the highlights are depicted in song, or depicted and then sung. As soon as someone sings, you forget the song, and wait inevitably for the next one. There’ll always be a next one. Higbee’s department store gets its own anthem, as do the store’s elves. One would be enough. The family’s car trip downtown gets its own number, and so does that iconic leg lamp that Dad wins in his crossword puzzle contest; and there’s a misty song for Mom about the unappreciated joys of momhood, “What a Mother Does.” These numbers go by without having any effect on us whatever. They are just there, filling time until the next favorite film sequence — let’s hurry this up so we can see Flick get his tongue stuck to the frozen flagpole. Only Ralphie’s cowboy-inspired, yippee-ki-yay “Ralphie to the Rescue” enlivens the first act, and fortunately returns for a reprise in the second, but everything else is okay yet not great, certifiably unmemorable. There’s no flavor, no ’40s swing, not much of anything in co-composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music except B-grade Broadway.

But if you want to see kids strut their stuff, working harder than any bus-and-truck tour of Annie or Matilda, then see this. However, be warned, there’s no low-rent Miss Hannigan or muscular Miss Trunchbull to whip them into shape or bring a smile to our face. No, the kids are on their own, singing and dancing as if every agent is watching. Such high spirits are depressing. As Ralphie, little Estus Stephens belts like a Lilliputian Merman and knows exactly where the spotlight is at all times, but it’s Sean Graul, as little brother Randy, who will steal your heart with his simple, unadorned performance. The cast is certainly fine if basically unused, with Houston musical theater vet Susan Koozin a warm Mom and John Scherer a lively song-and-dance man as harried Dad outrunning the neighborhood dogs and cussing a faux blue streak.

I’m not sure who’s the intended audience for this endeavor, since it pleases no one. But if you like the feeling of being pelted by red-and-green marshmallows, this is the Christmas show for you.

Through December 20. Theatre Under The Stars. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit $37.75-$124.50.

Inspecting Carol
As a goofy riff on Gogol’s pinprick satire The Inspector General (1836), wherein hapless bureaucrats and pompous smallshots are bamboozled by an impostor who everyone assumes is the dreaded government “efficiency expert,” Daniel Sullivan’s backstage satire is without pinpricks, or much satire.

A hapless community theater is broke, losing its subscription base and falling out of favor in funding. Its NEA grant has been revoked, but might be restated if the inspector, due to arrive at any moment, bestows a favorable review on the company. When an out-of-work actor appears for an audition in the group’s annual A Christmas Carol production, everyone mistakenly assumes he’s from the NEA. Hilarity ensues. Not.

The premise has possibilities — just ask Gogol, or Danny Kaye, who starred in the 1949 slapstick musical version, which didn’t nod toward the Russian masterpiece so much as poke it in the eye and squirt it with seltzer — but mistaken identity has been a staple of surefire satire for eons.

Sullivan doesn’t have an ear for any of this. The comedy’s so lame, wildly inappropriate and downright dull it loses focus from the first scene. It’s impossible not to think of Frayn’s truly uproarious farce Noises Off for a primer on how to make fun of incompetent theater companies.

I’m sorry to be a Grinch, but not everybody’s on the same page, so to speak. The cast is surprisingly uneven, with some pros (Steve Fenley, David Wald, Brandon Balque) sort of getting into the antic spirit, but the others are adrift in tone, performance and presence. On the other hand, it’s hard to blame any of them for the script’s untidiness of form, structure or its complete lack of wit or sense of humor. So everybody yells and screams; the timing’s completely off; and the heavy-handedness of it all comes at a price.

There are a few verbal bright spots, clumsy as they are, while the penultimate scene, in which the rickety old theater proscenium collapses during final dress rehearsal, is a totally unsuspecting surprise. If only the rest of the show had this unforced, wacky sense of physical comedy.

Designer Trey Otis’s rundown theater interior is the play’s high point, but when one leaves humming the set, something’s definitely not right.

Not every present is a keeper. Hmm, to whom shall we re-gift this moldy fruitcake? Even jolly old Santa doesn’t want it back.

Through December 22. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline. For information, call 281-583-7573 or visit $43.

The White Christmas Album 4
Truly, you want warm and toasty for the holidays? How about cool? As in swanky, as in Vegas hip, as in Broadway sass. For that, my rat pack wannabes, power up that Mustang — or pink Cadillac — and motor over to The Music Box Theater, where the hippest cats in town are swingin’ on a Christmas star.

Abetted by John Gremillion as a drunk and getting drunker Charles Dickens (as well as wickedly dead-on impersonations of all four Beatles), the spectacular regulars at Music Box roll out the Christmas carpet and then use it as their own magic carpet ride to whisk us into the season. The great ones would be Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Kristina Sullivan, Cay Taylor and Luke Wrobel. (Sullivan and Taylor spell each other on alternate weekends.) Using Beatles songs as inspiration — not as nutty an idea as you might imagine — these singing actors (the best in town) wrap us in cheer, good will, wintry nostalgia and goofy comedy, all while singing their hearts out. Per person onstage, the entertainment quotient is enough to populate any Ziegfeld show, three or more Andy Williams variety hours or a double-CD K-Tel reissue. Talent is on display, merrily so.

Who’d ever think up — or sync up — “Hey Jude” with “Carol of the Bells”? Or “Eleanor Rigby” with “We Three Kings”? Somebody at Music Box did, and it works in aching, brilliant counterpoint. The jazzy orchestrations bring out the best in the songs, played with vigorous snap by Glenn Sharp on keyboard, Mark McCain on lead guitar, Long Le on bass guitar and Donald Payne on percussion.

When not blending their voices in the best four-part harmony this side of The Music Man or mixing it up in rollicking bebop duets like Wrobel and Scarborough in “I’ve Just Seen a Face” or Dahl and Scarborough’s hymn-like “O Holy Night;” they each get to shine individually. Scarborough’s sky-high tenor soars in “Please Come Home for Christmas,” Taylor’s sexy soprano melts the ice in “The River,” Wrobel’s stirring baritone warmly wraps “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” in melancholic longing, and Dahl rocks a searing “Come Together.” And in a reprise bit from last year’s Album, Wrobel, as a loopy Jimmy Stewart, parses the lyrics to “Come Together” in a surreal riff about Santa. You’ll never hear “Here come old flattop…He got juju eyeball…He got hair down to his knee…” without a little cringe. You’ll never sit on old flattop’s lap, either.

This idiosyncratic holiday revue passes by in a tinsel flash. Wrapped in incomparable musicality and beribboned in solid craftsmanship, this Fab 4/Fab 5 show is a gift you won’t return.

Through December 27. The Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt. For information, call 713-522-7722 or visit $27-$37.
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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