Christmas Comes to Houston Theater, Part I

Blake Weir and Skyler Sinclair in The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley.
Photo by Pin Lim / Forest Photography
Blake Weir and Skyler Sinclair in The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley.

The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley
You may have noticed that for the last few years Main Street Theater has had a little cottage industry humming away for the holiday season. It alternates Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon's two Christmas plays that feature the happily married Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy at their estate at Pemberley. Need I remind you that Lizzie and Mr. Darcy are the protagonists of Jane Austen's masterwork Pride and Prejudice (1813), one of the first novels to espouse feminist ideas in an era that did not espouse them.

Austen's classic is a social satire of the highest order that documents with wit and excessive charm the plight of those women of a certain class, unmarried and often of lower order, to find a suitable husband to prevent their imminent poverty. P & P is the embodiment of the Regency period flayed with piercing accuracy and wicked observation. It was a huge success upon publication and in subsequent printings, although Austen's name wasn't on it. Being a “lady writer,” it was deemed highly inappropriate to state so on the title page. Instead, the cover page meekly said, “By the author of Sense and Sensibility.”

Gunderson and Melcon have mined the Austen cache like California '49ers. Their two works, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley and The Wickams: Christmas at Pemberley, move the beloved original story forward by a few years and supply a not-so-discreet feminist slant for a modern update. It works fairly well, witness the huge success the plays have achieved. They are the most produced theater pieces in the country, especially at Christmas time, where Dickens and The Nutcracker have held sway for decades.

This year's reprise at Main Street is The Wickhams, and it's just as lovely as ever, like a warm glass of brandy, the swish of an empire-waist gown or the black-booted riding boots (the costumes by Donna Southern Schmidt are inspired), the copper pot-lined kitchen (setting by Ryan McGettigan), and lighting as if by candlelight or lantern (Carrie D. Cavins). We are downstairs in this edition, in the great kitchen overseen by Mrs., Mrs., Mrs. Potts...ahh, Mrs. Reynolds (Claire Hart-Palumbo), the stern but soft-hearted overseer who seems to run the entire estate on her broad shoulders. She also makes a mean orange-bit biscuit that everyone devours whenever they enter her domain.

The Bennet family, en masse, is expected for Christmas, so naturally the house in in a perpetual tizzy, what with the hiring of new parlor maid Cassie (Alexandra Szeto-Joe, impetuous and head-strong); the arrival of a freshly-hewn fir tree to be set up in the parlor to the consternation of all; the butler Brian (Jonathan Bynum) making goo-goo eyes at Cassie and exasperating Mrs. Reynolds with his new-fangled kitchen gadgets to save precious time; flighty sister Lydia (Skylar Sinclair) arriving without husband and many excuses for it; and the usual pomp and circumstance of the masters upstairs.

Gunderson and Melcom don't do much with Elizabeth and Darcy, keeping them mostly offstage and only using them when appropriate to the building drama. They wring their hands over the troubles, then declare their love and look for a quiet nook to canoodle. There is no quiet nook to canoodle, certainly not anywhere near this kitchen. They should know that.

Just when the Regency flounces start to weary, who blows in with the force of an English gale on the Cornish coast but George Wickham (Blake Weir), Lydia's wayward husband, intending to abscond with her to Paris, perhaps, or any other place that's not England. He arrives bloodied and bruised from a bar fight, and we immediately realize he's got dark secrets. He's a charmer and a blackguard. Lydia's enthralled with him, lies about him, and can't tell her heart not to care. Weir electrifies the play, reeking toxic masculinity. The play comes alive. Once boyhood friends, Darcy has declared Wickham persona non grata in the most dignified way a gentleman can, and so he must be kept out of sight downstairs, even from his wife.

Like a good facsimile of an English comedy of manners, complications ensue, hidden letters are exposed to light, Elizabeth dashes off to London to investigate, Darcy is flustered, Cassie and Brian spar like Tracy and Hepburn, and Wickham keeps agitating everybody. Under Robin Robinson's silky direction, all comes right in the end. Peace reigns at Pemberley, and we go home sated with good will, witty dialogue, some pungent observations about dreams deferred or realized, and an obsession to bake Mrs. Reynolds' orange-bit biscuits.

The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley. Through December 18. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard. Call 713-524-6706 or visit $39 – $59.

click to enlarge
Alli Maeve as the title actor in Cinderella at Main Street Theater at the MATCH.
Photo by by Ricornel Productions

Main Street Theater's other cash cow for the holidays are its Theater for Youth productions at the always bustling Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston (MATCH). This year's entry is a very fine rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (1957). Their only collaboration especially for television, the titans wrote the title role expressly for Julie Andrews, who was still wowing on Broadway in My Fair Lady. The live broadcast was, at the time, the most-watched program in television's young history. Various incarnations would follow on television, most notably Leslie Ann Warren's (1965), until a Broadway production was finally mounted in 2013.

R&H's show is sweet and savory, and hearing the music you could immediately guess that Richard Rodgers composed it. There are hints of Carousel's chromatic diapason, lilting love ballads (“Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful”), charmers like “In My Own Little Corner” (which could have stepped out of Oklahoma), a lush waltz, the Fairy Godmother's ditty “Impossible,” and the grand anthem, “There's Music in You.” The songs, still better than most, are not as praise-worthy of the duo's greatest hits, but they're certainly better than serviceable. The book by Tom Briggs, adapted from Hammerstein and Robert L. Freedman's teleplay, is graceful, while the storybook setting and costumes (Liz Freese and Amber Stepanik) serve the fairy tale ambiance with distinction.

This is, after all, theater for children, but nothing looks cheap or jerry-rigged. The tiny princesses and princes in the audience were mostly enrapt, especially by the rat and cat puppets by Afsaneh Aayani, masterfully and comically manipulated by Chad Fontenot, Matt Hurt, and Jessy Martin, who then double in the ensemble cast. This is pared-down Broadway, and the stage at times felt a bit sparsely populated – 13 do not make a King's ball – but the kids seemed delighted, even if some of Hammerstein's wordplay went over their little heads. It delighted me.

Aili Maeve was sweet-voiced and the picture of clarity as Cinderella. If you closed your eyes, her crystalline voice almost parodied Julie's. Her Prince, Daniel Lopez, who can croon with the best of them, was a trifle wooden, but since his part is mostly singing anyway, he did just fine. Kaitlin Kennedy as feisty Godmother Marie was sassy and warm; while Diana Alcaraz Villa and Megan Jankovic as the Stepsisters were appealingly gauche, touched by that just-right attitude of clueless. They were ugly on the inside. Joyce Anastasia Murray blustered her way through the Stepmother, though, blowing her lines and shouting to the balcony. The ensemble, especially clarion-toned Seth Daniel Cunningham as Lionel the Prime Minister, were nimble in the dances choreographed and directed by Houston theater vet Jimmie Philips, under taped musical direction by another musical theater pro Steven Jones.

If you have any young ones visiting over the holidays or have your own underfoot, Cinderella is the perfect place to park them. You can't beat dancing rats and a bouncing cat cavorting to Richard Rodgers. And watch for that truly magical transformation into Cinderella's ball gown. Wondrous.

Cinderella. 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays, December 3, 10, 17; 1:30 p.m. December 21; 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. December 22 and 23. MATCH, 3400 Main. For more information, call 713-524-6706 or visit $20-$35.

click to enlarge
Dequina Moore sparkles once again, this time with Houston for the Holidays at Stages.
Photo by Melissa Taylor

Houston for the Holidays
If you marveled at Dequina Moore's superlative avatar of former Houston Ballet prima ballerina Lauren Anderson in Stages' recent Plumsugah, or you relished her strung-out and depleted Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill (produced last season at Stages) you can get even more up-close and personal to this multi-talented and spirited Houston-native singer/actress in her one-woman romp through her life in her own cabaret-style revue Houston for the Holidays, co-written with Shawanna Renee Rivon (You Are Cordially Invited to Sit-In, also produced last season at Stages).

Moore has unquenchable fervor, an irrepressible savvy and easy rapport with the audience, and an abiding faith in God and family. She also loves show business. It shows.

Accompanied by a hot jazz trio (Derrick James, drums; Ronnie King Mason, Jr., piano; and Arthur Moyler, bass), Moore breezes through her life and times growing up in Houston, being stage-struck, making it on Broadway, set upon by a producer twice who didn't remember he had accosted her before (“He's big, you'd know him”), surviving catty attacks by a rival diva, going through a divorce, finding the right man, losing a child, and keeping faith through it all. Family and love of God gives her strength. Of course, she is blessed with a clarion voice that can belt and holler and croon like none other. She's wise and sassy, with a breathy purr that summons Eartha Kitt, the contagious enchantment of Dolly Parton, and the wide-eyed wonder of the girl next door. She's quite a package.

Between songs, she talks to us and calls us her family, too. We believe it. And when she sings, the portals open. She caresses each song as if written for her, be it “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “The Christmas Song,” “Ain't Too Proud to Beg,” or “Be a Lion” from The Wiz. Each choice fits snugly into her story, illuminating or expanding her lively patter.

Surrounded by Liz Freese's sparkling light-dripped background and Janessa Harris' cabaret-like intimate lighting, Moore greets us with open arms and wrapped in a form-fitting red sequined gown with matching glitter pumps. She's a downtown diva who you could imagine inviting home for dinner. A veteran of Broadway (Legally Blonde, Little Shop of Horrors), national tours (The Bodyguard, Flashdance), Tyler Perry movies (Madea's Big Happy Family), numerous appearances on TV, and singing the national anthem at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, she's done it all. Well, probably not. She's not leaving the stage any time soon.

At one point she sings “The Lord's Prayer” in a plaintive duet with her mother projected upstage. Lovely. She introduces her dog Nala, a slobbering bull dog who looks just like Churchill, and belts out “Tomorrow” from Annie, and at the precise moment when she sings “Stick out my chin and say...” doesn't the dog lift up his head and stick out its tongue. The improv broke up both the audience and caught her momentarily off guard. Lovely, too. Then there was that beatific interpretation of Amy Grant's “Breath of Heaven” using all of Moore's exquisite tone and vocal control. More than lovely, incandescent.

A performer who puts on a one-woman show about herself can often lead to self-parody or immolation or saccharine self-love, but Moore nimbly sidesteps these quagmires. She doesn't have it in her. She's too grounded. And that voice wouldn't let her, either.

Houston for the Holidays. Through December 24. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Stages, 800 Rosine. For more information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stageshouston,com. $30-$84.

click to enlarge
The cast of A Motown Christmas showing at The Ensemble Theatre.
Photo by Stephanie R. Brown
A Motown Christmas
Holy Santa. Do you want a holiday pick-me-up with more kick than a punch bowl of whiskey sours? More pizzazz than a phalanx of Macy's Thanksgiving parade balloons? More spirit than all of Dickens' ghostly apparitions? Then high step to Ensemble where the season's best entertainment quotient so far is on radiant display in A Motown Christmas. This joyous, rafter-raising, rousing revue packs its own mighty punch. Shiny and bright, what a glorious present under the tree.

The story is minimal – friends gather for a holiday party on Christmas eve – and then entertain us with the best singing and dance moves imaginable. There's a trifling little bit about proposing marriage, and handing out presents, and someone getting too drunk, but these are minor and fade away as soon as they happen. What the show is really about is ten ultra-talented performers putting on a display of true holiday cheer and goodwill. You will leave elated and ready to celebrate.

The cast is the best present of all. Under a bopping backstage band (Phillip Hall, musical director and piano; Urica Fernandez, bass; Earnest Prince, bass; Willie C. Smith III, drums; and Starlic Williams, drums – they tear up the stage and dance up a storm. They are: Devin Barnes, Jaylon Bolden, Troi Coleman, Wykesha King, Danielle Lee, Aaron Phillips, Kory Pullam, Kimberley Stewart, An'Gelle Sylvester, and Talbert Williams. Their distinct voices – deep and rich, falsetto, pure velvet, or tinged with silver – blend with precision or shine in solos.

The first part of the party is a Motown slam, sort of a Who's Who of Motown artists who get their homage in wondrously sung and rambunctious dance numbers in their own particular style. So there's the Supreme's “Stop in the Name of Love,” The Temptations' “My Girl,” Martha and the Vandellas' “Heat Wave,” Stevie Wonder's “Yester Me, Yester You, Yesterday.” You get the idea. It has nothing to do with Christmas, but who cares? Whether in solos, trios, quintets, or all singing and dancing together with such infectious glee, it's perfection and so much fun it feels like Christmas.

It's a true ensemble cast; everybody shines; no one is out of sync. As they warn us at the beginning, once midnight strikes, then it's Jesus' turn to shine, and out come the carols and pop tunes like “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Little Bright Star,” “Silent Night,” “Bless this House,” and two utterly shattering renditions: “O Holy Night” from Stewart, and an a cappella “Mary Did You Know” sung by everyone that leaves you breathless and in tears. “Mary” was interrupted twice by applause from the emotion the song garnered in this flawless version. That song and the simple way it's staged is reason enough to see this show.

Kudos to director Aisha Ussery for bringing such joy to Houston; to projection designer Adrian Washington, lighting designer Kris Phelps, and costumer Melissa Greggs for the spirit of this production, and to the ten beaming and exuberant ensemble members who are a gift worth receiving. Excellence all around by all. A Motown Christmas is a tremendous time in the theater – uplifting, heartfelt, joyous – a definite must-see. It imbues the very essence of why we celebrate this special season.

A Motown Christmas. Through December 24. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For more information, call 713-520-0055 or visit $44-$53.